We thought travelling to China with kids for two weeks would be a great family experience because it was one country that none of us had ever visited. In fact, we loved our China family tours so much last year, we were supposed to do it again this year. Our plans went slightly astray because Abercrombie & Kent told us that there were no foreign visas issued for Tibet in April because that is a Tibetan holy month. In fact, April is so holy that Tibetan monks ritually self-immolate in religious protest of the Chinese government. Of course, the Chinese government doesn’t want foreigners seeing any suicidal monks so it’s a no-go area.
In lieu of Tibet, we toured around China for a week and then went to Japan at the pleading of the children. It’s actually a very short flight from Shanghai to Osaka airport.
My kids absolutely love Japan but they think China is merely OK. I think if we had prepared our children better for what to expect when travelling to China with kids, they would have appreciated the country more. Live and learn (from our mistakes).
Lessons From The Night Train to Shanghai
When we asked them why they wanted to skip out on seeing more of China to go to Japan, they opened up and told us how China was just so very different no matter how great the family friendly trip to China was.
This conversation did not happen easily. We were stuck on a night train from Beijing to Shanghai which was a fairly hellish experience. First of all, they didn’t put us together.
Our Abercrombie & Kent guide had to beg some other passengers to move so that we could share one cabin together. Secondly, our suitcases were way too large for the space allocated (a problem we also found on Japanese trains).
So there we are in this tiny compartment with 4 suitcases, 4 carry ons and 4 people all jammed in uncomfortably for 8 or so hours. We had plenty of time for conversation. My son even came up with a song:
On the night train to Shanghai
I hit my head and cried
My sister said, shut up and die
Why Daddy why?
Could we not have gone to Dubai?
In the morning we had just nodded off into an exhausted sleep when we woke up to find a stranger in our cabin. Some man (one of the kind passengers who had moved to accommodate us the night before) was rooting through our suitcases. He had forgotten his shoes on the floor but it hadn’t occurred to him to knock on the door first.
My husband and I have travelled extensively through developing countries whereas our children have less experience with non-Westernised countries. Some of these tips they told us for people visiting China for the first time were surprising. For example, I have no idea why squatty potties are a big deal.
What To Know About Travelling to China
We have learned so much from our family holidays to China that we asked our kids what people should know about travelling to china with kids. This list of 25 things to be aware of for a family friendly trip to China was compiled by our children for those people visiting China for the first time.
An Island in a Throng of People
Unless you speak Chinese, it’s a strange feeling to be surrounded by hordes of people with whom you are unable to communicate.
- Everything is in Chinese so unlike other countries, you can’t even read basic information. There’s no sounding out words and/or guesswork in what the Chinese characters could mean. It’s completely and utterly different.
- In the vast majority of the country, most people don’t speak English, or French, or Spanish or anything remotely related to a language you may have learned at school. The younger Chinese have learned English at school but they do not have enough practice speaking it.
Prepare for Paparazzi style attention
When you are travelling to China with kids, prepare for some major curiosity from the Chinese about you and your family. The Chinese love children and they are naturally curious. Needless to say they are curious about foreign children.
- You get lots of attention from the Chinese such as them wanting to talk to you and/or wanting photos of you.
Not only were we travelling to China with kids, we caused much excitement because we had boy/girl twins. Any number of people told us how lucky we were to have one of each gender. The one child policy has been relaxed but many people feel they can’t afford to have more than one child.
- China is a crowded country and personal space doesn’t seem to exist as a cultural concept either.
For example, on an internal flight, my daughter was doing a puzzle on her iPad. The Chinese lady next to her decided to help her. She didn’t speak any English but she reached over the tray table and started doing the puzzle with my daughter. The stranger was smart and seemed perfectly nice but my daughter was a bit bewildered.
- The Chinese vendors seem to consider the word No as an opening gambit regardless of whether you really mean it. Maybe that is the way haggling works, but the pushy attitude confused our kids who just didn’t know what to make of it.
Visiting China for the first time is eye opening in terms of cultural differences of people’s behaviour.
- My eco-friendly children were a bit shocked when they saw people casually littering. The river in Shanghai was full of litter. My kids were also aghast that older Chinese people (especially men) would cough and spit everywhere. As far as they are concerned, random spitting is littering.
- Of course you have heard of the famous Beijing pollution, but it’s also everywhere else, just in slightly less ghastly quantities. It’s not just air pollution, there’s also noise pollution. Except for the countryside in Guilin, Chinese cities are noisy!
Beijing really was an eye-opener in terms of pollution. Locals wear masks to filter the air but even then, we experienced teary eyes and a burning throat.
- People don’t really seem to think that fakes and copies of big names are a big deal. We see it as an infringement of intellectual property rights but the Chinese just shrug their shoulders.
You can find fakes everywhere – even wide out in the open in malls. Most of the women you see are carrying fake designer handbags. It’s a bit disconcerting to realise that fakes are the norm and not the exception!
Your guide or hotel will know where the good quality merchandise is sold. For example, we were taken to a high end pearl shop because we wanted to get little pearl stud earrings for our daughter. We didn’t even dare venture into buying anything like antiques. The fakes are really just that good in China.
Food and Drink
- You need to be able to use chopsticks to eat easily.
- Don’t look at some of the food photos if you are squeamish. My wannabe vegetarian daughter had conniptions when she saw some of the meat being advertised.
- You can’t read most menus. Get used to pointing at something and hope you get what you want
- My kids greeted Family Mart and Lawson (convenience store chains from Japan that are also in China) like a long lost friend. Although some of the items were the same in both countries, many were not. Convenience stores are not as good as Japan generally but pretty good. You can get dumplings, sushi etc.
- You should always get bottled water with the seal on the cap. We paid extra for well-known brands because the last thing you want on a China family tour is one or more people having tummy issues. No… not the squatty potties again.
- The Chinese drink tea like there’s no tomorrow. You don’t get offered water at a restaurant, you get tea.
Where the Sun Don’t Shine
- You should bring your own tissue pack for public toilets.
- Squatty potties are everywhere. We found our kids had difficult adjusting to squatty to become accustomed to using squatty potties .My daughter seemed to have an irrational fear of falling in them. And, yes, for the squeamish they do smell a fair bit.
- Don’t expect there to be toilets in restaurants, even in a Starbucks. They will just refer you to the nearest public toilet.
Connecting to the World
- For free WiFi in a restaurant you need to put in a Chinese mobile numbers so it’s not actually that helpful.
- The WiFi is painfully slow even in a major city in a five star hotel.
As luck would have it, my son was reading the book Radio Boy by Christian O’Connell in the back seat of our car while we were stuck in Beijing traffic. He started giggling over the following passage. Our Chinese guide wanted to see what was so funny but then she got defensive over China having Wifi.
- It’s really beneficial to have a VPN in China to access the outside world. You can get one before you visit China.
- There’s no Instagram, YouTube, FaceBook etc. It takes forever to access the internet anyway, so just get used to a social media detox.
- There are lots of regional airplanes in China. You should expect delays because the airports are super busy.
- The food on regional airplanes and trains may be too different for kids.
- Trains have hot water for the making of tea, not a water fountain. And the water isn’t marked as hot so be careful. Our son almost scalded himself sticking his mouth under one of those taps.
- Crossing the road is an adventure as a pedestrian because you have cars, motorbikes and bicycles to contend with.
When you travel the world, you will come across so many different ways of living. That’s the whole point of travelling right? If you wanted to experience the same thing again and again, you should just stay at home. On the other hand, as a seasoned traveller you may easily overlook things. We are grateful to our kids for providing us with a fresh pair of eyes and perspective.
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