5 Surprising Discoveries While Traveling in China with Kids

I just got back — literally! — from a transformative experience in China with a boutique, luxury private guided tour operator called Mandarin Journeys. You will hear much more about them in the upcoming weeks and months as I share the details of my trip to Shanghai and the surrounding provinces with another mom and two boys, ages 10 and 12.

I last traveled through China for three weeks in 2001 and, although I found the country and culture fascinating, I didn’t fall in love with the experience of traveling there. In part this was due to the time of our travels, immediately following the unspeakable events of September 11th; in part this was due to what we saw. Our ambivalence was also definitely affected by guides who could have been much better.

While discussing our trip goals, I challenged Mandarin Journeys to show me a new side of China … one that I would love and rave about. They rose to the occasion and opened my eyes to what traveling families can experience today in this ancient country. We had countless “aha” moments and surprises during our nine-day journey. Here are the five discoveries that surprised us the most:

Yu Gardens in Shanghai. Photo by Flytographer

Five Surprising Discoveries in China with Kids

Phenomenal Food

We had one phenomenal meal after another in China. Our boys embraced chopsticks and the cuisine with relish and opted for Chinese food for breakfast instead of eggs. My memory of our last trip was that we spent most of our time avoiding bizarre animal parts. This trip, in contrast, had palatable variety from which to choose and we sampled incredible vegetables.

The heavy and salty Chinese food that you frequently get today in the U.S. didn’t make it on our plates. We ate at simple, local restaurants, as well as at chain cult favorites. Mandarin Journeys introduced us to a chef who could easily open up the next hottest restaurant in New York, the presentation and the quality of his creations were so high. In short, the food on our trip was a highlight instead of a lowlight.

Celebrity status on West Lake in Hangzhou

Few Non-Chinese Tourists

Maybe it was the time of year — although our trip was during a prime spring break week — but we literally saw only a few non-Chinese tourists for seven days in the countryside. The experience of total immersion and zero English for all of us was surreal and wonderful, particularly for the boys. Talk about a life-changing experience where kids see firsthand the extreme version of the world as a big, diverse place …

To that end, the boys were celebrities for the week and were stopped everywhere we went for photos with other children and adults alike. Were were all amused and entertained by the attention.

A nine-day family travel extravaganza in China

A great kid-friendly itinerary in China by Mandarin Journeys

Warm and Friendly People

There was not much English spoken outside of Shanghai (or even in Shanghai for that matter). However, those who could communicate with us were warm, friendly, and interested in us and where we came from. People went out of their way to say hello and smile at us at many different times during the trip.

Do tourists feel the same way traveling through, say, San Francisco? I think not … Granted, we were in a very small corner of a very large country. Is it this way everywhere? I doubt it, but it was certainly this way in the places we visited.

Gardens in bloom in Hangzhou

Jaw-Dropping Nature

Clearly, experiencing natural beauty is a matter of being in the right place. Our itinerary included Hangzhou, a place of insane natural beauty with a picturesque lake, lush gardens, and spectacular bamboo forests. We rode bikes down a path through fresh spring foliage. Heaven!

Of course, there’s extreme pollution in China and development that is not easy on the eyes or soul, but it was heartening to know and understand that this level of beauty exists and is appreciated by all.

Signs of Prosperity

The signs of the new wealth that we’ve been reading about in the news are everywhere. I’m sure this is relative to where you are in the country, and there are things tourists see and things tourists don’t see, but the signs of prosperity are unmistakable. From Range Rovers to fine wine drinking to more massive designer shops in Shanghai than I’ve seen in any single city, there’s money being made (and spent), and it’s not just foreign money.

The China I experienced on this trip is radically different than the China I experienced 14 years ago. Based on the rate of change and the amount of development, I can only imagine what it will be like in another five years. In the meantime, China is one for the family travel bucket list. It has all the makings of a life-changing family vacation: education, cultural enrichment, fun, and a true opportunity to foster pint-size global citizens, on both sides of the Pacific!

Relevant Links:

China with kids tips and advice on Ciao Bambino

A nine-day family family travel extravaganza in China

Editor’s Note: Mandarin Journeys provided a media trip for us to experience their version of China with kids. As always, all thoughts and opinions expressed here are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy except where noted. 

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