Seeing The Great Wall of China has always been high on my bucket list (along with seeing the other six modern wonders of the world). Well, I finally got the chance this past Veteran’s Day weekend.
On Friday, my family boarded a plane headed for Beijing. We booked our trip through a travel agency, and they arranged everything for us (driver, hotel, full itinerary, meals, tickets. etc.). When we arrived, our travel guide, Alice, was waiting for us and took us straight to Hotel Nikko New Century Bejing. Alice spoke English fairly well while our Chinese driver didn’t speak any. By the time we got to the hotel, it was already evening, so we got settled in to begin our full day of sightseeing the next morning.
China is an exciting country with its own unique culture. We never felt unsafe; although, we stayed very aware of our surroundings. We have travelled to big cities with kids before, but Beijing is on a different level, sometimes making us feel intimidated and overwhelmed. The Chinese people were actually very friendly, and loved our kids; however, there were so many people! 26 million in Beijing alone. Although we had a wonderful trip and saw lots of sights, if we were to go again, we would not take our small children.
Here is how we spent (a very busy) 48 hours in Beijing, China:
Living in Asia, I know the streets are crowded and everything is on a much smaller scale, so I decided early on that I was not brining my double stroller. I would simply wear my Ergo for our baby and put our toddler in an umbrella stroller. Tip: For the love, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT forget your baby carrier!
“Why didn’t you just run to buy one?” you might ask. Well, we weren’t really sure to what extent our tour guide and driver were at our disposal, so we figured we would check the local surroundings in and around the hotel first. We eventually asked Alice if there was a nearby store we could visit, but she basically told us no. There were more than a few awkward exchanges like that throughout the trip that we chalked up to language barrier. Jesse and I just agreed that the first carrier or umbrella stroller we saw, we would purchase. I mean, the city is huge. They would have to have some sort of store somewhere along our path, right???
Day 1: Alice picked us up in the hotel lobby at 9:00 am, and we headed to the Forbidden City. Our driver dropped us off at Tiananmen Square, and we began our walk towards the first of the three entrances into the Forbidden City. The square and entrances were huge and there were thousands of people everywhere, at times, crowded elbow to elbow. It didn’t take long to begin to feel overwhelmed. We had our baby in the stroller, a death grip on Max, and were surrounded by thousands of people. To make matters more exhausting, our tour guide was on her own program and would walk quickly, several feet in front of us. It was beginning to be a bit much for me, and it wasn’t even 10:00 am. We finally just had to tell our guide to stop to at least give us a minute to feed our baby.
The Forbidden City was built around the 15th century and was home to the Emperor and his household (including his 3,000 concubines!). No one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission, finally closing in 1912, at the end of the Qing Dynasty. It was opened to the public in 1920. The palace is so large that a person could spend the night there every single day for 27 years and never sleep in the same room twice! The roof is decorated with small animals, each representing one of the Emperor’s children. (With 3,000 concubines, he had quite a bit of offspring).
Although the Forbidden City was interesting, there were lots of stairs that we had to go up and down. Jesse had to constantly climb with the stroller (again, don’t forget your baby carrier), and we just had to hope our two year old wouldn’t need a nap until we were back in the car.
After leaving the Forbidden City, we headed to the Silk Factory. This was not on our itinerary from our travel agency, but we were excited to pack as much culture into the trip as possible. The tour included a presentation on the history of silk, the cultivation and extraction process, and the different types of silk products China produces. What started as an educational tour quickly turned into a tourist trap as we were escorted into a large shopping area with hundreds of sheets, scarves, clothing items, etc. all made of silk. Max wanted to touch everything but we weren’t interested in purchasing anything, so we politely declined, and declined again, and again, and we finally got our tour guide to show us the way out and headed to lunch.
At lunch, Jesse and I agreed that we had to slow down. We were missing things, and we just couldn’t go at such a fast pace with two little ones. Alice would just have to wait for us. After a leisurely Chinese lunch, we headed to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven is the sacred place where Emperors held their worship ceremonies. Built circular, but lying on a square base, the temple represents heaven, which they believed was in a circle, and the ground was earth (as a square). We began enjoying ourselves a bit more since we decided to approach this next spot at our pace. Unfortunately for Jesse, he had to climb three flights of stairs carrying the stroller….again. At least he got his arm workout in for the day.
Once we had time to walk around and take our fair share of pictures, we headed to our next destination, a “prayer” store, not on our itinerary. We just assumed that the next stop was related to the religious background on the Temple of Heaven. We arrived outside a building with a pretty empty parking lot and walked into a nice area with a large water tank. Similar to the silk factory, we were shown a demonstration of how China’s freshwater pearls are farmed and processed. Max got to participate in picking out an oyster shell, watching them open it, and given four little pearls to keep. I’ll admit, we were completely oblivious to what was happening until we were led into a large jewelry shop with hundreds of pearls on display. As we enter the store with all eyes on us, Jesse turns to me and whispers, “Pearl, not prayer.” We chuckle a little to ourselves at the honest miscommunication and browse for a bit before we politely declined and headed on our way.
Dinner was an authentic hot pot feast, and it was finally time to head back to the hotel. Completely exhausted, we put the boys down, and fell asleep ourselves.
Day 2: After breakfast at the hotel, our tour guide and driver picked us up, and we headed to the Summer Palace. Added to the UNESCO in 1998, The Summer Palace was the summer home of the Emperor. He was not able to bring all 3,000 of his concubines since the Summer Palace was not near as large as his palace in the Forbidden City, so he selected 2 or 3 of his favorites to bring along with him. The Palace is surrounded by a garden, which is said to be the best imperial garden in the entire world.
Half a day is the recommended time to spend at the Summer Palace, as there is so much to see. We were only given about an hour, so we missed quite a bit, but we were able to see the longevity hill. I climbed to the top to see the Buddhist temple that overlooked the entire area. Inside the temple were three Buddha statues-past, present, and future. Monk statues lined the walls, each with a different power to protect the Buddha. Pictures were not allowed inside the actual temple, and while inside, I noticed many Chinese praying to the Buddha. Once we left the Temple, we were on our way to the Great Wall, grabbing lunch on the way.
Another quick (non-itinerary listed) stop prior to our final destination of The Great Wall was a Jade factory. Jade is incredibly precious in the Chinese culture, representing five virtues (benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, bravery, and honesty). It is considered their most valuable material. I actually didn’t mind this stop as I have a personal love for the stone as well. We even purchased a Jade Puzzle Ball Sculpture. Made of only one piece of Jade, the outside layer has a dragon (male) and a phoenix (female) carved into it, protecting the inner circles, which represent multiple generations. After touring the jewelry counter for a minute, we loaded up and began heading to the much-anticipated Great Wall.
I have waited my entire life to see the Great Wall, and I couldn’t help but smile the moment I saw my first glimpse of it. Since the Wall spans several cities and is over 4,000 miles along, there are, needless to say, many entrances. Once we parked, we began our walk along the path. One thing I never realized was how many stairs the Great Wall has. Pictures I had seen made it seem as if much of it was just a hilly sidewalk. That was not the case, at least not where we were. Some of the stairs were very steep, and we needed to carry both children; I was pretty thankful for handrails. Had we not had our small children with us, we would have climbed much higher and gone further, but we were satisfied that we were able to mark off something we both had wanted to experience.
We were supposed to be back at a certain time, but since this is what we had really wanted to see, we ignored the time and just took it all in. (I mean, we were the ones that had paid to be here, right!?). When we finally got back, our guide said, “Ok, let’s go,” and I put my foot down, and said, “No, I have waited my whole life to be here. I am going to stay here a bit longer.” I think it took her by surprise, but she, of course, had to comply. Before leaving, I stepped into the souvenir shop. As cheesy as it may sound, I had to buy Max a “Great Wall of China” kid shirt.
After taking 3,248 pictures (ok, it was closer to 50), we got in the van and headed to what our guide said was “Chinese Tea.” This stop wasn’t on the itinerary, but Jesse and I both figured it couldn’t be like the Silk, Pearl, and Jade stops…. could it? When we arrived, Max decided to have a tantrum. Not that we enjoy his tantrums, because we definitely do not, but we had no interest in going into this tea house (honestly, we are coffee drinkers). We told our guide, thanks, but no thanks, and headed back to the van without waiting for an answer. We aren’t sure what was said in Chinese between the guide and the tea house workers, but we didn’t care. We made a pact then that for future trips, if we didn’t want to go somewhere, we would simply say, “No.”
After we left the tea house, we headed to a restaurant for some Peking duck, a popular dish in China. Jesse was looking forward to trying it. I, on the other hand, not so much. When they brought it out, Jesse simply smiled at me because he knew there was no way I was putting that fatty meat in my mouth. Animal crackers and Clif Bars for the win!
We finally headed back to the hotel, got the kids in bed, and packed up our belongings. We were being picked up at 5:00 am the next morning and heading home.
I enjoyed China. On the one hand, I don’t think we could have seen as much in such a short time without the tour guide and driver. Additionally, I don’t want to even think about how we would have navigated the city with two kids without our private vehicle. On the other hand, the lack of flexibility with our itinerary coupled with the frequent surprise, unsolicited tourist stops made us a bit annoyed during the trip. It wasn’t my favorite destination, but I’m glad I went and experienced it. I’m in talks with a group of girlfriends to go in May for the Great Wall marathon (ok, we would do the 5K, but still). I would love to have the opportunity to go back and see more of the wall! And if I ever have another tour guide, I will simply ignore their pace, and go at my own speed!
Finally, if you are traveling with small children, here are some tips (or just some things to be aware of) before going (and no, we never did see any baby carriers for sale):
Child Tip #1: If bringing children: Be prepared for them to be mini-celebrities. There was no shortage of them being videoed, photographed, etc. We were told many of the Chinese have never seen an American in person, especially ones with curly blond hair and blue eyes. They aren’t shy about it, either. One woman grabbed my stroller so she could get a selfie with our son while another time a man just sat down beside Jesse at the Great Wall and tried to put his arm around Max while we were taking family photos. We were never fearful, but we definitely didn’t take our eyes off of our children.
Child Tip #2: According to all the signs, the tap water in Beijing is not drinkable. Although it wasn’t too inconvenient for many things, it made washing bottles very difficult, so don’t forget to bring a bottle brush and some travel dish detergent. We had to do our best with just bottle water. We were also nervous about bathing the kids, since you can’t really ensure that they won’t drink the water.
Child Tip #3: The child ban was only lifted in 2016 to allow Chinese families to have two children. Most families desire boys to carry on the name, so walking around with two boys got quite the attention as well.
Child Tip #4: There are no driving laws. Ok, maybe there are, but as far as we could tell, there weren’t, including car seats. We no longer bring our car seats with us since most taxis have them or can arrange for a vehicle with them. Our van did not have them, so we held onto our children as we drove thorough one of the busiest cities in the world.
Child Tip #5: There are baby-changing rooms, but they are sometimes tough to find. Bathrooms are not conducive to changing children. At one stop, I had to put a bunch of paper towels on a disgusting bathroom floor to change my infant’s explosion. (Yes, I have a diaper mat too, but it wasn’t big enough).