China With Kids – Best 2 Week Trip Guide
Thinking of Doing China With Kids? Read on for our overview of the 15 day trip (self-organised as ever) and for top tips …
For your kids – they can read a kids’ version by clicking here.
There is only one way to understand the sheer scale of China and that is to travel around. We only did two weeks. You could do two years – two decades even – and not cover this vast, vast nation.
‘The Regime’ and Average Day-to-Day Life
Travelling around China with kids might seem daunting, not least for this reason. Now I’m sure as a journalist you’d see a lot more of the regime and political control. Journalists have to have an official ambassador accompany them and tell them what you can and cannot film. Contrarily, as a tourist – you simply don’t see it. Nor are there even many patriotic things like flags around that you’d expect in what has been a brutal communist regime. Frankly, we’ve experienced a lot more control and strictness with westerners in Turkey, Egypt, Dubai and Israel. So it’s not to be feared in China!
Does It Ever Feel Oppressive?
Outside Beijing, the only police you see are traffic police and we saw not a single soldier anywhere else. Beijing, however, can feel pretty oppressive and I’m very glad we went there last. I would advise anyone else to do the same, because by this time you are used to the culture. To see the real exuberance of the Chinese people’s spirits, you need to look elsewhere.
Of course there are things that still go on which prove that the brutality is alive and kicking. Yet day-to-day life in China for the very vast majority of Chinese is mercifully normal. Other than in Beijing, which is the exception, it is unmistakably westernised in the cities. This is where 55% of China’s 1.4Billion citizens live and the government expect this to rise to 70% within ten years. Yet at the same time, they are desperately trying to persuade farmers to stay in their location. They need the profession to support the agricultural economy which is so crucial to the stability of the country.
We were told that all Chinese young adults learn English at school. Rather, the reality is that very few people indeed speak any Western language, let alone English. You MUST make sure you get an app that will translate English into Chinese for you. Preferably one that works in an offline mode. See also mobile phone coverage!
Getting Around (This is a long but crucial one)
Getting around on city days is relatively easy, as are all Metros (they all have apps in English if you search on the App Store). But also make sure you book English speaking guides to accompany you to places farther afield as it’s nigh-on impossible otherwise. They change bus routes and bus stop locations at a second’s notice. In my research before we travelled, I found forums littered with disaster stories of people who’d tried to get to places by bus.
TripAdvisor’s app is excellent for giving addresses to Taxi drivers in China and in fact anywhere in the world. You simply press a button on the app and it translates the place you are wanting to go into the local language.
Lots of Long Journeys
I can’t sugar coat this one – be prepared for long days. Early mornings and late nights. Unless you’re a rich tycoon, you’ll almost certainly have limited time, so you’re going to naturally try and cram it all in. In China, a vast country, that means travelling *a lot*. An average of a flight or train every three or four days to get to new destinations. Also, an average of two and a half hours in the car every day to get where you want to go. It worked out well for us as we napped in the car and gave Miss GMT#2 a Stugeron tablet every day for travel sickness.
English Speaking Drivers ARE Worth The Extra
Always try to get an English speaking driver for airport or train station to hotel transfers. It might seem irrelevant or unimportant but these can be long and hot journeys and simple things like asking for air con are a real challenge. Plus it’s much nicer to be greeted by your guide than just any old driver.
And it’s usually not much more expensive either – £30 more. Very well worth the price as you learn so much more about the place you’ve just landed in. Most of our journeys were like this, but the odd one or two where we had Chinese-only drivers were a lot less interesting … and very hot!
Driving? O.M.G. Just DO NOT try and drive yourself. For one, you’ll get very tired. Secondly, if you want to drive in China you have to take a one day course and test at the municipal department of transport at the location where you first enter the country. We thought that was nuts and we didn’t want to waste time with that. Thank God. Right decision.
We’ve now seen why they make you do this test. Everyone drives batsh*t crazy and that’s from me, an aggressive and fast driver who has a penchant for rallying! This, however, is another dimension of crazy.
Can It Really Be That Bad?
Decide for yourself:
- Overtaking round a blind bend on a mountain road with no barriers? Normal. Just beep your horn, should be fine.
- Getting past a lorry that is already overtaking a lorry so you’re three wide in one direction on a normal single carriageway? Why not.
- Drive at oncoming traffic even though you can see them and expect them to pull over or even stop? Sure thing. Go for it.
- Junctions? Pah. Whatever for? Everyone just keep moving and play a game of chicken with your lethal petrol-fired metal killing machines.
It really is that mad. Madder than anywhere I have ever been. And as for the selection of vehicles on the road – your mind will be blown! Here are a couple of our favourites:
Flights are not ‘scheduled’ in any sense of the western meaning of the word. They’re just hopes and best guesses, they change all the time meaning you have to change your hotel arrangements and when the ‘schedule’ finally settles down, the flight won’t be anything like that time anyway.
A Warning About Air China
Air China are awful. Really. They were just terrible. You will almost certainly HAVE to use them for some legs (we used them on all legs) but use anyone else you can find because the service is appalling from start to finish. It all looks great when you book. Then about a week later the re-schedule email deluge will hit you and it doesn’t stop even when your flight is less than 12 hours away, forcing you to have to rethink on your feet from hotels with less than ideal wifi (dial-up would be quicker).
On-board they were rude and unhelpful and won’t let you touch your phone for the duration of the flight. Not even on airplane mode, that’s not good enough for Air China.
Using Old Laws
Chinese Aviation Law until 2016 prohibited the use of mobile phones even being in flight mode, in flight. The law was officially relaxed in 2016 but some airlines like crabby Air China still uphold this rule despite its relaxation. It’s bloody frustrating when you’ve got all of your books loaded on kindle for iPhone. Take a kindle – they are allowed on most Air China (but not all?! Go figure?) flights.
I don’t know what other airlines’ policies are on the relaxation of the rule. On two flights they even prevented Miss GMT#2 using her iPad. They truly couldn’t care less and their staff are tasked with walking the aisles every five minutes with military precision to check that you’re not misbehaving. Now THAT is what I expected from Police and Military. But no, they are perfectly lovely. Airline staff, not so.
So How Should You Travel Through China With Kids?
Our lesson – get bullet trains which are the exact opposite experience. Efficient, on time, airy, pleasant staff and a totally great experience with access to your luggage should you need it. Getting off the other end, there is no wait to disembark or wait for bags. Much easier. You’ll need to book through an agent, but when you go to collect your tickets at your first rail station in China, you’ll be issued with all of your tickets at this point.
We had a carriage to ourselves and if you choose to travel first class (a mere £10 a head more expensive) you will often find that this is the case. Most noteworthy is not to travel during Chinese holiday periods, but this accounts for all form of travel. You’re best off researching when these are for the year you travel and avoiding at all costs.
Generally delicious, try and choose restaurants who have a photo menu because there ain’t no way you’re reading Mandarin. To say nothing of the hundreds of local dialects – even less chance! Don’t go thinking that your pre-prepared flash card for chicken breast will mean much either. In some places they’ll look at you, smile a knowing wise smile and then happily serve you a raw chicken heart. Worse, they’ll wait whilst you eat it. If you have a guide with you, get them to order – we never once regretted it and had some outstanding food. Even in the most dubious looking places.
With Street food, undeniably – you need to be choosy. Chicken can mean virtually anything. It can mean chicken breast or thigh, but it can equally mean chicken’s toe nails. Because they eat any part of the animal that’s edible and then they start on the inedible parts as second course. As for the variety of animals and insects that they eat, take a look for yourself. The kids might want to look away, although ours were fascinated, if a little mortified by the turtle-or-tortoise-like creature in a bucket! I was assured that the quails are killed ‘humanely’ before they are deep-fried in that way although the expressions are somewhat gruesome. Needless to say, this sort of food was not for us, but a fascinating insight nonetheless.
In truth, even in international fast food chains, you won’t recognise much as breakfast fodder. Why not pack a separate food bag, like we did? It was indispensible. We used three bags for our clothing and general luggage and a bag for food such as croissants, brioche, breakfast bars, crisps, squash concentrate, ketchup sachets (blame Miss GMT#2) etc. A stellar idea that we had that also served us well was to take those UHT ‘Dairystix’ because milk was hard to come by in its pasteurised form. Available from eBay.
Payments: Cash & Cards
For the purpose of the trip, I’d gone with a fully loaded Revolut card. To this end, I was totally disheartened that it didn’t work either in any cash machine or at any pay point. Our normal bank cards worked perfectly, but consequently you get charged hugely by your bank for the pleasure of it. We went out with about half of the cash we needed and hence if I had my time again, I’d have taken double.
Most places are cash-only and even when they’re not, often it’s only UnionPay that is accepted – something Western bank cards (and Revolut) don’t cater for. I would estimate that 85% of our transactions, including our guides and drivers, were cash.
Don’t go to China in Winter! I’m sure it’s beautiful but all of our guides said that the cities get very badly polluted, far worse than the spring or summer, despite me thinking it would have been the opposite way around. Spring is definitely the best time to go. The only place it was very noticeable was Beijing – in the photos below you can just see a yellowy tinge to the images. Mr GMT and Miss GMT#1 also noticed it when we first landed in Shanghai, but within a day they were used to it.
Internet and Wifi
GAFA sites (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc) are fiercely monitored and don’t expect encrypted VPN’s previously trusted to give you a get-out card either. Facebook posts can take up to an hour to post as they go through the ‘Great Firewall’. If they don’t like what you’ve said, you can expect it to show the ‘taking a while to post’ screen ad infinitum. Change what you wrote and you’ll find it goes through easier. There don’t appear to be repercussions for tourists, but be sensible with what you write whilst you’re there. So you had a bad taxi experience? Tell it when you’re back home.
Our experience was that Vodafone’s link-up partner is brilliant and generally provides 3G and 4G everywhere. Although remember that we weren’t in Mongolia or the outer reaches.
O2 conversely was *dire*. Didn’t get 3G once in two weeks – not even in Shanghai. Only got Edge reception (E) once or twice. Appalling service.
PLEASE do not rely on being a purely O2 party, or you will find yourself marooned. The wifi is not great and you’ll be frustrated and possibly stuffed when you need to use the translation app.
I promise, they are not shouting at you although it feels like it! Everyone is loud. So loud it’s ridiculous. We thought the first conversation we heard was a joke. The second and third, we presumed were arguments – but no. A quiet night out and a chat over some tea between a group of friends is roughly tantamount in decibels to a riotous debate in the House of Commons between a hundred or so belligerent MP’s. Consequently, a group dinner is like being at a football ground.
Firstly let me assure you that the people are lovely and warm. Very welcoming indeed.
That aside however, if you have white children, especially with blonde hair, expect to get stopped every few minutes for a selfie with a local. As well as a rural habit, this even happens in cities like Shanghai where they see plenty of us. They are fascinated by white children and some see it as good luck. It’s a novelty at first and you agree and smile politely but soon becomes intrusive, so just say ‘no thank you’ and move on. Miss GMT#2 developed her own inimitable pose for people asking for selfies with her…
What is this? In short, it’s so not a thing here. Not even slightly. You might as well give up and invite the person standing up over you on the metro to sit on your lap. They’ll end up there anyway.
Haggle! Never pay more than 35% of what they ask (unless it’s a food market – fixed prices). To illustrate, if you were Chinese you’d pay no more than 20%. When they ask you your best price (because in markets, everyone speaks some English – they’re smart!) tell them and if they say no, walk straight out of the store and I guarantee they will follow you out and say ‘ok’. And if not, find it somewhere else. This is not ripping the locals off – they expect it and don’t forget that you are still paying them 100% more than western wholesale importers pay! So no guilt necessary.
Basically, these are almost always these are more expensive than the UK because the government taxes them very heavily (circa 60% VAT). As an example, a Hugo Boss Men’s T-shirt that’s £75 in the UK was £132 in Chengdu. So don’t go over with the expectation of filling (or indeed buying) your Jimmy Choo boots!
And Finally ….
If you’ve got kids who’d like to know what China is like from a kids’ perspective, read Miss GMT#2’s report here.
Last of all, click here to start reading our daily trip diaries. It will give you ideas on what to do when in China and shows photos of all of our adventures. Get in touch if you’d like to chat!