TRAVELLING China with your family? Are you mad?! Well, no.
Because what child wouldn’t want to scramble along the Great Wall? Get up close and personal with baby pandas? Hand-make traditional Chinese dumplings? See the Terracotta Warriors? Or whizz down an enormous ice slide through the illuminated ice palaces of Harbin?
While most don’t consider China a family-friendly destination, the country offers impressive theme parks, hilarious winter sports and wondrous waterslides — some of them actually in the world-famous Cube.
The country’s museums are often fantastic for children, too. In Shanghai, kids can ride through a giant model of the human digestive system, or play Go against a robot arm. In Chengdu, astronaut training machines offer almost as much fun as its famous pandas, while small boys will love the bullet train simulator at the Railway Museum in Beijing.
In winter, virtually every river and lake in northern China becomes a winter sports playground, with everything from ice bikes to ice slides and skating.
With flights from Australia to China growing increasingly affordable — JetStar, AirAsia, Tiger and China Eastern all fly China routes — a holiday in China with the family could easily make the perfect add-on to that next big trip home.
If navigating China unaccompanied seems a little daunting – and especially if you want to visit Tibet, which is only possible as part of an organised tour – a guided tour of China from Australia should make life a whole lot easier.
Hurdles and hoop-jumping
The language barrier means that China, frankly, isn’t the easiest destination. Outside the biggest tourist attractions and, of course, Hong Kong, it is rare to find an English speaker.
The sheer scale of China’s enormous cities can also make the place intimidating to folk used to the more intimate scale of say, Melbourne, Sydney, or London.
And arranging transportation, be it trains, taxis or a cruise through the Three Gorges, can be a real hassle if you don’t speak the language, particularly if you only have a couple of weeks in which to explore a country that’s 25% larger than Australia.
That said, having a child (or several) in tow will make navigating this nation of 1.6 billion people much, much easier. Because the Chinese adore children: blonde, blue-eyed children in particular.
Where a guided tour can really help with China, though, comes down to the little things.
One of the highlights of China is discovering real, authentic Chinese food, whether that be succulent Beijing duck, numbing Szechuan pepper or a traditional Chinese barbecue, but restaurants without an English language menu can be daunting — and the translations don’t necessarily help.
“Hejian belt leather donkey meat”, anyone? No? How about “slimy fungus”, “rotten-tasting fish”, “pock-marked bean curd” or that perennial favourite, “chicken claw”?
A good guide will not only find a great restaurant, but ensure you a great experience.
Potential pitfalls aside, exploring China independently can be a fantastic family adventure, with misunderstandings and surprises all part of the fun. I’ve done it, and I love it.
But if you’d like to discover one of the world’s oldest continuous civilisations on a tight timeframe and without too many surprises, then a guided tour really can be a Great Leap Forward.
Theodora Sutcliffe writing on behalf of Travel Indochina has travelled extensively in China with her son. She has written for the Guardian, Time Out and the Mirror among others, and blogs at EscapeArtistes.com.