My husband and I have only been to Shanghai (pre kids) and our parents have been on several trips to China in recent years. It is a huge country and definitely can’t be covered in one trip – unless you are there for several months I would think.
China is the birth place of my husband and I’s grandparents. They all left China around World War II (not exactly sure of timing) and moved to other parts of Asia and the Caribbean with their kids. It was only in the 1970s that the majority of them moved and settled in Canada. China is on our “to visit” list but being such a large country, we may have to visit many times to see and do it all.
Yesterday we had Nicola share some tips about exploring Hong Kong with kids and today we have Scott from Wen in China sharing some advice on how to tour China with children. Since China offers so much to see and do, we had to split up Scott’s tips into two parts!
1. When is the best time to visit China? Are there seasons or months we should avoid?
The best times to visit China are in the spring and fall seasons – March to May and September to November. Summertime can be overwhelmingly hot and humid all the way to the far north of the country, while midwinter in many areas is cold and damp. Summer and winter also tend to see weather systems “lock in” and trap pollution – as the dramatic pictures from Beijing in recent weeks attest. Sandstorms are also common in the northern areas during summer. The far south (Hong Kong to Hainan) tends to have better weather in winter, and in fact Hainan Island is China’s “Hawaii”. Also, Yunnan province in the far southwest often has lovely weather all through the year.
Summers and winters would not be quite so uncomfortable for travelers if building codes and materials were up to the standards we’re used to in the US and Canada, but indoor heat is “simply not done” south of the Yangtze, and central-air systems are an unused technology. Dress in layers and use moisture-wicking fabrics.
2. What are the best regions to visit and what do you recommend doing and seeing there?
Choosing good tourist destinations in the People’s Republic for a first trip is easy – the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, the Bund and Pudong in Shanghai, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, and the lazy river scenery in Guilin are all sights Westerners recognize. These are also places the Chinese themselves visit in great numbers, and even though they have the reputation as “tourist traps,” there is still an authenticity there worth seeing (just ignore all the shops, because you can get it cheaper somewhere else).
If I were to take people to somewhere just off the beaten path, however, I’d look at Suzhou and Hangzhou – both near Shanghai, steeped in history and scenery, and very comfortable with Westerners. I’ve also talked with many Chinese and Westerners who rave about Yunnan and its capital Kunming as a less-polluted, laid-back and exotic getaway. And I’d have to go to far southern Guangxi province and its capital Nanning, because that’s where we met our daughter for the first time (we were too busy with paperwork to get out to enjoy this city when we were there – but from what we did experience we call it a “hot Portland” for its food culture and ecological ethos.)
Of course a family can’t visit China without trying to eat local cuisine! Each region has its own specialty, about which many many books have been written. Your hotel’s dining options are probably the ones you do NOT want to use – walk across the street and follow your nose instead! “Night markets” are the most fun way to try a lot of different foods (and despite what you see on TV, they’re not about fried scorpions and centipedes-on-a-stick). And I’ll also recommend something counter intuitive – go out and try the fast-food places like KFC and Pizza Hut! You can learn a great deal about China’s culture by noticing how these businesses have adapted their menus to appeal to local tastes!
3. We are a family of foodies and love to try local foods and dishes when we travel. How do you encourage children to try new foods when traveling?
Encouraging kids to try new foods in China should be something that is started at home – even before you book your trip, try a variety of different Asian restaurants! Stay away from the “traditional” North American Chinese mainstays and instead pick something you’ve never had before that still sounds good. Traditional Chinese food isn’t expensive – it’s “home cooking” based on regional ingredients. It’s also about sharing – dishes are put in the middle of the table for everyone to pick and choose from, so no one has to feel put-upon to finish what they ordered!
Depending on where your trip takes you, spice may be an issue. Sichuan and Hunan provinces are famous for their very peppery cuisines; if you’re headed there you’ll want to build up your tolerance! But southern and coastal dishes tend to be less hot and more about freshness and even sweetness.
4. What are some of your family’s favorite dishes/foods in China?
Some of our favorites are the most common street-food or dim-sum fare: baozi (steamed buns with fillings), jiaozi (steamed or fried dumplings), and beef noodle soup. Kids are always happy with noodles and there are many varieties to try, and there’s always that universal “comfort food” bowl of congee.
5. Any advice for our readers considering visiting China with kids that guide books don’t tell you?
Guidebooks about travel in China really don’t cover the needs of the traveling family well – most of what’s out there has been written for the luxury / business market, or the “sleep with the yaks” backpacker / adventure segment. Yes, they hit the key pieces of history and describe the main sights well, so you should buy a couple for the places you’re interested in. But you’ll never find the word “diaper” in a Chinese guidebook (we looked!) And you’ll not be checking out the hottest bars in Beijing on this trip. Social media, blogs, and websites from fellow families are going to be your best and most-current sources of information.
Taking a Western family into China still requires some can-do spirit and a willingness to step outside usual comfort zones. But the payoff is well worth it – the Chinese people, once you start shopping alongside them and walk along the riverside with them and share laughter together, are some of the kindest and friendliest people you’ll know. They like grilled meat and beer; enjoy physical comedy and are sentimental about their grandparents; dream of a better life for their kids. You’ve got to get out of the hotel to meet them, though, and if that means stepping into a Starbucks, that’s what you need to do!
Scott started Wen in China in 2008 after he and his wife, Ann, completed the adoption of their daughter Wynn, from China, with the goal of helping other adoptive families “fill in the blanks” about their upcoming travel experiences that traditional guidebooks and adoption-agency briefings couldn’t cover. The scope of this effort has expanded as everyday families are becoming more interested in travel to China, Japan, and elsewhere in East Asia, and in learning about the culture of those lands. WenInChina.com shows families how to navigate key airports, deal with climate, and understand the food and culture they’ll see with over 80 articles, and growing.
In addition to the adoption trip in 2007, covering Beijing, Nanning, and Guangzhou, the Norris family has also returned to Asia in subsequent years with week-long trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong. They’ve also shown Wynn around North America from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, and taken her to Denmark as well. They live in Minneapolis / St. Paul, Minnesota, where Wynn is attending a Mandarin-immersion elementary school, and plan to keep traveling every year.