I’ve always thought there were two types of international travelers in this world: those who go with organized tour groups and those who don’t. Carol and I would vehemently classify ourselves as the latter. Following a predetermined timetable or sticking to a daily schedule was not a way we typically chose to explore a new destination. Furthermore, the idea of adhering to a fixed agenda discouraged us from tours in the past.
As we prepared to tackle planning for China and other areas of Asia, however, we realized that we couldn’t just wing it, especially with two small boys in tow. For many, having flexibility is exactly what offers up the thrill of traveling in the first place, but in our case, we decided to shelve the negative associations we had with tours in favor of the security they’d give us in handling the language barrier, transportation needs, and logistics of traveling in this country as a family. So we splurged and went with an operation I know well, National Geographic Expeditions, to give us a more in-depth and inside look at China.
The night before we were to meet the other members of our group and tour guides, I warned the boys that there would be no other kids to play with on this segment of our trip and that mom and dad would likely be among the younger people in the group. This was to be a more "academically" focused excursion and I wouldn’t say it was exactly tailored for an average eight- and 11-year-old. This was indeed the case, but as we would quickly realize, there were some wonderful personalities accompanying us. As it turned out, we were very fortunate that most of our fellow travelers found Tyler and Stefan an added bonus to the trip, not a hindrance. (This was a much welcomed relief since we were not on one of the dedicated family trips that are offered specifically during the summer months, and I was fairly obsessed with having the kids behave and not spoil anyone else’s experience.)
So how did everyone involved, kids and all, manage to have an enjoyable and enriching experience? First, it helped that our boys are relatively adventurous eaters. With the exception of the Western style breakfasts and the occasional hotel menu that offered pizzas and sandwiches, it was pretty much Chinese food around the clock for two weeks. One benefit of being in a group of 24 is that almost every meal was served banquet-style – complete with a lazy Susan for sharing the wide variety of numerous dishes that came out without anyone having to order. This was perfect for children since no one seemed to notice what they did or didn’t eat, and if they did make a bit of a mess, no problem, as even adults dropped food from their chopsticks from time to time.
Then, of course, there’s the country itself. Although there probably isn’t any one attraction that would be classified as "made for kids," it’s not difficult to see how many of them can really capture a child’s imagination. Our visit to the terra-cotta warriors outside Xi’an was a case in point. These real-life relics from China’s first emperor enchanted the boys and had them fully engrossed for the entire three hours we were there (they became the subject of their playtime for days to come). And the insights the guides provided made it all the more interesting. A fact that Tyler is sure to remember is that this burial site and tomb is actually larger than any other ever unearthed...even the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
In Xi’an itself, there is a foreboding wall that surrounds the old city, perfect for a nine-mile family bike ride around the perimeter. The Great Wall of China didn’t disappoint either. As the adults marveled at its size and ancient history, the kids climbed around it like a giant sandcastle. And who doesn’t love pandas? One benefit of taking a tour with National Geographic is the special access it afforded our group. Besides getting onto the actual floor with the terra-cotta soldiers, which was the highlight of the two weeks for many of us, they actually had zookeepers at the Chongching Zoo bring out a 14 month-old baby panda especially for us. Priceless.
Another big advantage of taking a tour was the fact that it didn’t seem to have enough downtime for the kids to even think about getting bored. Although Carol and I could have spent four days touring the Forbidden City, our dedicated four hours there was just fine for the boys, enough time to hold their interest. Our excursions to Buddhist temples in Beijing and Shanghai actually fascinated the boys and although the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River may not have captivated them, being on a boat for three days did, especially when they got a chance to fly Chinese kites from the deck.
So overall, the kids will now remember China for much more than the Paralympics and delicious dumplings. It is a country filled with interesting cultural differences and cool history stories. But perhaps something that I will remember more than anything else about our time there, besides how drastically the country is transitioning from traditional to modern, might actually be the wonderful people we spent it with. And like with any great travel experience, I learned something I didn’t expect -- that taking an organized tour as a family isn’t such a terrible idea after all.
Photo: Rainer Jenss