среда, 18 декабря 2013 г.

Family Holidays: Beijing, China

China is a mysterious country... I once had a chance to go to Beijing on a business trip while working with a Chinese bank. Unfortunately, most of the trip was spent working and I didn’t have much time for sightseeing, but I promised myself that I would definitely return to China and bring my whole family on vacation next time. I think a trip to China will be particularly interesting for my six year old daughter. 

China is a large country - there's a lot to see and you can even simply enjoy a beach holiday at the Yellow Sea. This review, however, will focus on Beijing. 

I have to give you this quick bit of advice first: in my opinion, it makes most sense for families to visit Beijing when your children are school-age, i.e. when your kids are getting interested in culture and people of different countries. For little kids the long trip can be too tiresome and arduous, unless you live in Asia of course. Nonetheless, I am sure you will find something to entertain your little ones in Beijing.
By Nggsc (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Before your trip, I highly recommend that you watch the Jackie Chan movie "The Karate Kid" as you’re sure to recognize places featured in the movie while visiting Beijing.

When is the best time to visit Beijing?
The most comfortable time to visit Beijing is usually in spring or autumn: it can be very cold and snowy in winter, while summer can be intensely hot. I was there in late June/early July and suffered from the terrible heat (+38°C or +100°F). This kind of heat means that it’s hard to do a lot of sightseeing…

You may also find it interesting to visit Beijing in January or February as this is when the Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year. The streets are spectacularly colorful during this time, with a lot of red Chinese lanterns, dragon processions, fireworks etc. However, as I mentioned above, the winter in Beijing can be very cold...
CobbleCC in English Wikipedia (English wikipedia), via Wikimedia Commons
Where to stay in Beijing.
Beijing is a very big place so it is advisable to stay in the central areas and/or close to the metro station for convenience. Although taxis in Beijing are cheap, please keep in mind that the taxi drivers speak little, if any, English. My advice: always have your destination address in both English and in Chinese characters to show the taxi driver. 
Yes, in Beijing there are often long lines of traffic; that's why the locals ride bicycles.  

Be prepared: from time to time there is smog.
Several hotels are kid-friendly, including:
Westin Beijing Financial Street (luxury hotel): located in the financial district of the city, close to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the popular shopping street (Wangfujing). The hotel has a kids’ club (Westin Kids’ Club) for children from 4 to 12 years of age. Do not miss the Sunday brunch! There is a swimming pool at the hotel and a nice garden (Zen Garden) where the kids can walk or play on the grass.

Hilton Beijing Wangfujing (luxury hotel): close to the shopping street Wangfujing, and within walking distance of the Forbidden City. The hotel offers a babysitting service (for an additional fee). There is a pool at the hotel and the Hilton offers a Sunday brunch on weekends with kids’ entertainment. Also, kids can sign up for cooking classes at the hotel (on Saturdays 3-5 p.m.); interested parents or guardians should email jason.chen@hilton.com.

Grand Hyatt Beijing (luxury hotel): in a great location close to Wangfujing Street and adjacent to a large shopping center where there are many shops and a food court. Upon arrival, the hotel gives every kid a little present - a toy panda. The hotel has a lovely pool. In the hotel restaurant I tried the most delicious traditional Chinese steam dumplings "Dim sum"!

Kerry Hotel Beijing (owned by Shangri-La): a newly renovated hotel which has received very good reviews on TripAdvisor. Recently, the hotel opened a special play area for children (Adventure Zone) where kids can go on slides, climb up ropes, etc.

Practical tips:
The subway in Beijing is decent and clean and a reasonable way to travel around the city, except in rush hour. As I already mentioned, it is not expensive to take taxis, and this is how I got around for the main part.
A word of caution: Be careful while crossing the road as drivers are not polite in Beijing...

By Scott Meltzer (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
It is highly advisable to take a special illustrated dictionary with you that includes photos of all of the items necessary for your trip - from a toothbrush to an iron. This will help you to communicate with the locals, because not everyone speaks English after all. An illustrated dictionary means that you can point to the relevant picture and communicate more easily. It certainly helped me during my trip to China.

No matter how clichéd it sounds – you have to try the famous Peking duck, although preferably not in the tourist areas. The chefs here spend years learning how to cook and serve this dish: It is an art. I recommend the restaurant "Xi He Ya Ju" (address: Ritan East Rd, Chaoyang, Beijing, metro station: "Jianguomen", tel. +86 10 8561 7643), which was recommended to me by my Chinese friend. You need to call in advance to order a duck and mine was excellent here! They serve it with thin pancakes and dark sauce. We also tried the duck broth. One particularly interesting thing to try is a crispy skin duck (the Chinese are adventurous cooks). Our friend explained that the Chinese eat the skin by dipping it into sugar and blueberry jam. I tried it and, well, it tastes interesting but certainly was not my favorite food...
The kids might like such local dishes as steam dumplings "Dim Sum" with meat and/or shrimp.

Families may find it preferable to take children to restaurants with European (international) cuisine. 

Globalization has, of course, altered Beijing: here you can find KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc.. It’s pretty cool that McDonalds offer, in addition to the standard menu, burgers adapted to the local palate - very spicy!

If you like exotic foodstuffs or are, rather, simply curious to see unusual things (you’d have to be very brave to try these) I recommend a visit to the night market at the shopping street Wangfujing. Also known as the "Street of Snacks", here you’ll find some adventurous menu items: fried scorpions, insects and worms (I decided not to experiment), amidst the more traditional Chinese food and sweets. 
What to do with kids in Beijing:
The Forbidden City should be included into your itinerary for sure. This is near to Tiananmen Square which impressed me simply due to its size, although there’s not actually much to see here.

There are mixed reviews about the Forbidden City: some believe this place is too touristy, but I would still recommend you visit it. There are reportedly 9,999 rooms in the Forbidden City, some of which are open for viewing. You cannot go inside the rooms but you can look from outside at the interior of the rooms and take photographs if you like. 

If you’re traveling with small children then please bear in mind that this is a big complex and you will have a lot of walking to do. It can be very tiring for little ones (and parents!). 
It is wise to book a guided tour in advance as this will save you time waiting in line to buy an entrance ticket. In the northern part of the Forbidden City there is a small, but very nice imperial garden.

When you exit the north gate of the Forbidden City you will come across Jingshan Park. Up on the hill there is a pagoda which affords a beautiful panorama over the city. Near the pagoda there’s the opportunity for you to dress in Chinese national costumes and have your photograph taken (for a fee). 

Within a 10 minute walk of Jingshan Park there is the wonderful Beihai Park. This park has a small pond and, at the top of the hill, you can find a temple (Myaoin - White Pagoda), which offers another beautiful view. 

Generally speaking, there are many beautiful parks in Beijing including those mentioned above. Do not just walk by, make sure to take a stroll in one of them and look out for groups of people doing Chinese Qigong as exercise. You can also visit the Temple of Heaven (metro: line number 5, Tiantandongmen). 
By Agarnier1 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
There is also a large park where you can join the local Chinese in outdoor gymnastics, or simply watch their graceful movements. I was lucky enough to participate in such outdoor activities but, according to my local friend, this tradition is, unfortunately, becoming less popular among young people.
By Rudolph.A.furtado (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
The Summer Palace (address: Haidian, Beijing, China, near the metro stations: line number 4 – Beigongmen station - enter through the Northern Palace Gate - or Yiheyuan/Xiyuan - enter through the East Palace Gate): certainly worth a visit, especially in warm weather. There’s a lake here and you can ride in a dragon-boat towards the arched bridge. It’s also nice simply to walk around the park and see the palace complex.  

By Jakub Hałun (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
One abiding memory of Beijing is the pedicab tour that I took of Hutong near the Forbidden City. This includes historic buildings from more recent times as well as architecture of ancient China. There are few such areas in Beijing, with this the longest Hutong, as well as the oldest and narrowest; not to everyone’s taste, but interesting for many.

After visiting the Forbidden City, Hutong will probably seem gray and faceless (in imperial times, only houses and palaces of emperors could be bright and colorful), but this is only at first glance. Look a little closer and you’ll see that it is very interesting, especially if you go inside the court. 

Just so you know, you can take a pedicab on the spot or book a tour in advance. You can walk along the streets of Hutong by yourself, or combine it with a boat ride on Lake Shichahai.

You will want to visit the Beijing Zoo (Metro “Beijing Zoo”) because of the pandas. You’ll find the aquarium near the zoo, and this has a maritime theater where dolphins and seals perform shows. There’s also an opportunity to see fish being fed here. You can buy a combined ticket to visit the zoo, panda home and aquarium. 

By Shizhao (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Incidentally, there is another Beijing Aquarium (Taipingyang Underwater World) with a transparent tunnel, cinema, penguins, etc. This is located under the TV tower (metro line number 1 Gongzhufen) which means that you can first visit the tower and admire the views from its observation deck and then go to the aquarium.

By Netopyr-e (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
The Planetarium (address: No .138 Xizhimenwai Street , Beijing 100044) is located opposite the Aquarium and is thought to be the biggest in the world. It is now possible to look at the starry sky here through a number of telescopes with different diameters. I also suggest that you visit the cinema (3D and 4D) while you’re here.

By Shizhao (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Your kids will most likely want to visit Happy Valley amusement park (XiaoWuji Beilu, Dongsihuan, District of Chaoyang, Beijing, China), also known as "Beijing’s Disneyland." The park is divided into zones: fjords, Atlantis, Maya temple, etc. There are many attractions here, including a large roller coaster, 4D theater, and many other spectacles. It is better to plan on visiting on a weekday as, otherwise, you’ll likely find it too crowded at the weekend and end up having to wait in long queues. It’s easiest to get to Happy Valley by taxi but you can also use public transport (metro and bus); the park is not in the city center.
You might want to go to the stadium "Bird's Nest" while in Beijing. The kids will be happy to splash around at the aqua park "Water Cube" (Address: No .11 Tianchen East Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China) where there are water slides, a "lazy" river and simulated wave pools. There are also cafes and restaurants here and the building itself has an unusual design, as if it were made ​​of bubbles. In the evening, it is beautifully illuminated.

By Alberto Alerigi, via Wikimedia Commons
If you are in Beijing, you simply must visit the Chinese circus. My only caveat is that the Chinese circus differs from most other circuses: there are no clowns, with the focus, instead, on awesome acrobatics... I am always amazed at how they perform such incredible stunts! To see the circus you can go to the theater Chaoyang (Address: No .36, North East Third Ring Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, station metro line number 10: Hujialou , output " C "). 

By Shizhao (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
I’m sure that many boys and girls will be interested in watching the Kung Fu show, which takes place in the Red Theatre (Address: No.44, Xing Fu Da Jie, Chongwen District, Beijing, subway station line number 5 "Tiantandongmen", exit B). The show is very colorful. 

By Usien (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
And, how can you avoid visiting the Great Wall of China! Located about 90km from Beijing, you’ll need to take a train or a bus or, and I think this is better with kids, order a driver or a guide with a car. You can visit different parts of the Wall, with the most visited site being Badalin. Don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes and warm clothes as it can be windy here.
You might like to combine your visit to the Wall with the Badaling wildlife park (safari park) which can be fun for kids (address: No.21 Exit of Badaling Changcheng Parking Lot, Yanqing County 102102, China). 

If you still have time and energy to spare after all these activities you can slip in a visit to "Peace Park" (address: 158 Dabaotai, Huaxiang Township, Fengtai). It’s preferable to take a taxi, but you can also take the subway part of the way (station at the line 4 “Gongyixiqiao”) and then take a taxi from the station to the park. At the park you can see many of the world’s most famous attractions in miniature: the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids, and even the Red Square.

If the weather is bad in Beijing consider visiting the indoor playground "Fundazzle" (for kids: 1-12 years). There are play areas for kids of different ages and many an enjoyable hour can be spent working off some of that energy by jumping on trampolines, climbing through a maze with obstacles, riding a roller coaster and swinging on ropes. The playground can be found by taking line 1 from the subway station Yonganli (address: Gongti Nan Lu, Chaoyang District).

Presents to bring back from Beijing:
Tea and silk! The tea, especially green tea, is gorgeous here! I was fascinated by the tea shops... By the way, in some of them you can take part in a tea ceremony (I was in the store Ten Fu's Tea on the street Wangfujing), where you are shown how to brew tea and have the opportunity to taste the selected varieties. Make sure to try different crackers for tea - they are not too sweet – as there are many with interesting additions, such as green tea.

By Kai Hendry (Flickr: Flowering tea), via Wikimedia Commons
For our daughter I bought gifts including a silk robe and silk pajamas of excellent quality. And, of course, a toy panda :).

Beijing made a huge impression on me - in this city the history is closely intertwined with modern living. Perhaps you’ll like it, and maybe you’ll find it different than you expected - certainly it will have an impact on you! I am sure that this city will also make a lasting impression on your child, prompting you to begin planning trips to other regions and cities in China… there’s definitely a lot to see there! 

 Bon voyage!
Looking forward to getting your feedback upon your return.

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