Reflections on Asia Part II – Why I was concerned about taking my kids to Beijing (and what I did about it)

I’m a decision-making dichotomy. Sometimes I over analyze a decision to death…think through every scenario, strategize every possible problem, weigh all of the pros and cons. Other times, especially when I’m really passionate about one of the options, I make a decision and just “make it work.”

Our trip to Beijing was the latter. I really wanted to go there. Once my family agreed in concept, I jumped on the opportunity and booked it. However, as the time grew closer, I started to panic a bit. I wanted everyone my family to really enjoy the trip, and I didn’t want it to feel like we were dragging my kids from site to site.  On a practical note, I was also concerned about what the heck my kids were going to eat!  As I’ve mentioned before, they are picky in North America. In China?  Forget it.  And finally, I was definitely worried about safety and just getting around the city.

By the time I got on the plane, I felt completely as ease, and we had an incredible trip. Here is a little insight into why I think it worked so well.

STEP 1 – HOTEL CHOICE

Normally, when I am without kids, I love to immerse myself in the local culture. But, traveling with kids is different…at least my kids. So, I decided to be a spoiled brat and choose a high-end, American hotel chain. My rationale was as follows: 1) They will understand any obnoxious touristy requests and not judge us for them (at least openly); 2) They will have familiar food that my kids will eat; 3) The environment will feel familiar and my family will be comfortable and less cranky (maybe a stretch). As a Starwood girl, I decided to go with the St. Regis. Shopping hotels in Asia in general, I learned that the maximum occupancy is three people, so a family of four needs two adjoining rooms. I was able to use Starwood hotel points for only one of the rooms (reservation policy) and had to purchase the second room. Much to my pleasant surprise, the room rate in Beijing was not nearly as spendy as in North America. So the deal was sealed!

I cannot express to you how much we loved the St. Regis Beijing. First of all, we had a butler…yes, a butler! Everything in the room was excellent…the robes, the slippers, the shampoos…even the amazing Japanese toilets. The indoor pool (connected to the gym we didn’t use) was the key to family happiness after a day on our feet. And the food was delicious. Room service…yum! The international breakfast buffet was a culinary extravaganza! The Chinese Restaurant in the hotel is still the best Chinese food we’ve ever had. Recently my daughter, after scoffing at some take-out friend rice, said, “I wish we could go eat at the St. Regis again.” Yes, dear, don’t we all! The hotel is located in the Embassy district of Beijing. We were in walking distance of a Subway, Starbucks and Haagen Dazs, to name a few familiar names. And, while we didn’t walk a lot around the neighborhood, it felt very safe. Overall, unless you want to be in a more central location (this was a bit out of the way), I highly recommend the St. Regis.

I still have my slippers!
I still have my slippers!

STEP 2 – THE RESEARCH

Once I secured a hotel, I dove into the research! I always start with Trip Advisor. This is not a plug, but just a fact. I find it’s the best place to get an overview of what is available and popular. Secondly, I read articles about Beijing and really focused on “Beijing with kids” as a search topic. Once I saw a sight mentioned over and over, it went on the short list for further specific research. After hours of hunting and reading, I had narrowed our visit down to the following…

The Great Wall (Mutianyu Gate)

The Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square

The Drum Tower

The Chaoyang Acrobatic Show

The Silk Market

Nanluoguxiang Hutong

So, the first three were obvious. How can you go to Beijing and not see them? For the Great Wall there are several entrances. I chose Mutianyu Gate because it’s easily accessible, and I assumed that would be a good choice for my kids (decent assumption). Also, you can ride up to the wall on ski lifts. Finally, as an aside, we learned upon arrival that there is a Subway and a 31 Flavors across from the ski lift entrance…a suburban kid’s saving grace!

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The Drum Tower and the Acrobatic Show were purely for my kids. Again, with the strategy that we needed to sprinkle in some kid-friendly destinations, I chose these two. Unfortunately, the Drum Tower ended up being closed (see below), but the acrobats were worth the visit! (as cheesy as it was) The choice to visit the Silk Market was also for my kids. I knew they would want to buy some trinkets and the Pearl Market and the Silk Market are two good locations for that purpose. We chose the Silk Market. Alternatively, if anyone wants a nice outside mall experience, we also ended up at Sanlitun Village before the Acrobat show.   It will give you a totally different vibe has the largest Adidas store in the world!

The last on my sites list was Nanluoguxiang Hutong and it was my choice. A Hutong is a neighborhood (actually a Mongolian word). This neighborhood in particular had a lot of history (some buildings dating back to the 1200’s) and had become an up-and-coming district and cute shopping/eating area. I loved wandering these streets and had wished we spent more time here. There were lots of snack places and the restaurants looked hip and delicious!

While I had been researching these sites, my daughter decided to start practicing Chinese with an app on her iPad. The app included games to practice pronunciation, specifically the tones. She scored pretty well in these games. I was terrible! I couldn’t hear the differences in the tones…and I couldn’t remember them. I don’t know if it’s my feeble brain or the fact that kids can just hear these things better than untrained adults (hence why kids learn languages more easily). Either way, reality came crashing down on me. Holy crap…how are we going to get to all of these places I want to visit in Beijing?

Now, as an aside, my husband and I have traveled a lot in our lives. Others have traveled more, but we have done our fair share. We dabble in multiple languages between us. I even traveled in the Soviet Union in the early 90’s, and after memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet, I was able to recognize signs and subway stops enough to get around. So, as a rule, my husband and I DO NOT go on tours. We take public transportation. We walk. We rent cars. The only exception is when we truly need a guide; but no busses and only in small groups. Ultimately, we like to do our own thing.

The last time I had gone to China was in 1997. I was by myself in Hong Kong (still British) and went to the Chinese consulate’s office to get an entry visa for China. No one spoke English. The man behind the counter just kept saying “tour.” Ultimately, I learned that the only way this white capitalist girl was allowed to enter the country was on a tour. So, I begrudgingly agreed and signed up.

I had told myself that things are different in China now. The Olympics were in Beijing so the city must be tourist-friendly.   However, when you travel with your kids, it’s different. Experiences that are considered adventurous as a 20-something can be very stressful to a child (and a parent). Also, we only had two days to see some major sites and didn’t have time to get lost in the subway.  Beijing is very spread out. It’s not a walking city. And the Great Wall is an hour outside of the city. So clearly, with one month to go, I had a major gap in my plan.

STEP 3 – THE SOLUTION I DIDN’T KNOW I NEEDED

In walks (well actually types) my savior. My high school friend Julie works for a travel/tour company called Distant Horizons. She reached out to me and told me she could help with my trip.  Hallelujah!  She knew what she was doing and set us up with a guide and a driver for our entire time in Beijing. She and I worked in advance to plan the daily itinerary with the sites I had chosen. She, fortunately, had access to information I did not. For example, the drum show at the Drum Tower was closed during the time of our visit and there had been nothing posted on any of the travel websites I had used. She also encouraged me to go to the Temple of Heaven, which hadn’t been on my list. She said that the park outside of the Temple was one of her favorites. I have to say, it was one of my favorite spots as well! See this week’s #TBT for a photo and explanation!

We prepaid much of our visit through Distant Horizons and our guide, named Carl, pre-purchased many our tickets. As a result, we weren’t standing in lines and messing with our own money. Upon arrival, Carl met us at the airport, got us loaded in the car and dropped us at the hotel. He had a cell phone so that we could coordinate meeting times when we were on wifi in the hotel. Because he had a phone, we were able to get away with not purchasing a cell plan. He was super flexible and even started early our first day because we work up at the crack of dawn. Having a separate guide and driver were key! The driver would drop us off and disappear into the sea of Beijing traffic. We never had to worry about parking, which I think gave us a major advantage and kept the stress low.

To say that Carl and the driver helped us logistically is a total understatement. However, being with him also gave my daughters an incredible sense of security. Beijing was the most different place they had ever been, and outside of the hotel, they were very out of their comfort zone. Case and point, one of the nights we didn’t have Carl and the driver with us, and we ventured out to a restaurant I had found in my research (which was a total flop!). We struggled to find a cab to get back. When we handed the cab driver the hotel card with directions, he looked at us totally puzzled. (“Just hand this to the cab driver, and they will know how to get here” the concierge had said.) Just to be clear, my husband and I were totally calm, and all of us are still alive, so the story has a happy ending. However, our kids were freaked out! They will still tell you the story if you let them.

In addition, Carl made sure that my kids ate! Both days he found us kid-friendly food and stopped to eat on our stomachs’ schedule. For that alone, he was our hero! Having familiar food helped my kids to enjoy their experiences and made everyone happier!

So, I will pat myself on the back for choosing the St. Regis as it was a total win. However, how can you ever lose with the St. Regis? So, I suppose I get the award for doing the obvious. In addition, advanced research helped to really narrow down our choices and ensure that our trip had something for everyone. However, I am so grateful to Julie and Distant Horizons for taking care of the details and connecting us with our guide and driver. That was truly the key to our successful Beijing trip!

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Reflections on Asia 2014: Part 1 – The Epilogue

We have a long-time friend who had been a long-time bachelor. He had been living in Asia for several years and had ultimately ended up in Hong Kong. We had toyed with the idea of visiting him, but we had come up with a million reasons why we THOUGHT it didn’t make sense to take our kids there (fast forward…we were wrong…Hong Kong is awesome for kids). But when he brought his girlfriend to meet us in the summer of 2013, we told him, “if you marry her, we will be there!”

We are so happy he married her. Most importantly, we are happy because we LOVE her. But, we must also admit that their wedding gave us a phenomenal excuse to make the trip of a lifetime! Traveling to Asia was our kids’ first international trip. It opened their eyes to so much and made them more sophisticated and tolerant travelers. They were 10 and 11 at the time, great ages for absorbing and appreciating experiences. I know they will remember it forever. We still talk about history they learned, cultural experiences they had, people they met, etc., and I can see how the trip impacted their world view.

I told my husband that it made zero sense to go “just” for the wedding, and that we needed to check some additional items off on our Aspiration List! (he hates it when I’m right)  We had always kept an Aspiration List for our traveling.  By the way, I don’t like to call it a “Bucket List” because I don’t want to think about kicking the bucket any time soon.  Anyway, on our List, we have indicated which destinations we think are best for our younger family, and which destinations we think are best for adults. Some of this evaluation is based on the food (my kids are such picky eaters), types of activities and entertainment, the history, how exotic the location, etc.   My husband had never been to Asia at all, and I had only been to Hong Kong and a small part of southern China, so we really had a lot to choose from.

The wedding was at the end of June. Given school and sports schedules, we figured that we had a few days to travel before Hong Kong and about a week to travel after. In between, for the wedding and just to enjoy the city, we would have about five days in Hong Kong itself. When I started exploring flights, I found that flight patterns could help me determine how to visit extra locations in an economic way. For example, if I wanted to see Tokyo, a trip to Hong Kong would most likely require me to connect through Tokyo. With that same logic, I found that Air China would fly us through Beijing on the way to Hong Kong. We could stay a few days in Beijing and the price remained the same. It was SO much more affordable to fly with Air China (I’ll give you the scoop) than all of the other airlines, and we got a bonus few days to see a different place on our List!

Why Beijing? I did my senior seminar in college on China, so I was already interested in experiencing the historical sites. We weren’t sure, though, if it would be an engaging place to take our kids. We think it’s important for the girls to be motivated to see the places we visit. Otherwise, we are dragging them to all the sights…and that is not fun for them or for us. However, after discussing it, they really expressed an interest in seeing the Great Wall of China. So, with the kids on board, we slotted Beijing as our first stop!

One of the many shots we took of the Great Wall!
One of the many shots we took of the Great Wall!

We usually try to balance our trips with some adventure, some education, and some relaxation. We figured that after buzzing through Beijing in three days (jet-lagged no less) and then partying in Hong Kong for 5 days, our last week would need to include some relaxation. We evaluated three different options:

Singapore (Sentosa Island)

Thailand (either Phuket or Ko Samui)

Bali

Thailand and Bali were part of our Aspiration List for sure. However, as there are so many different options in Thailand, I thought that it could be a trip all by itself (Bangkok, Chiang Mai in the North, beaches, etc.). Also, I love Thai food, and I knew that the culinary experience could be fabulous.  But, the amazing food would be totally lost on my picky eater children! They would just be eating plain noodles all trip!  Also, I had read that June was monsoon season in Thailand and that Phuket could be extra wet. So, for all those reasons, I lobbied to visit Thailand another time.

Singapore was an interesting option because it is so close to Hong Kong and our friend said that a lot of Hongkongers (I looked up the spelling) go there on holiday (as they say). Sentosa Island gets great reviews as well, and overall, Singapore looked like a fun, family-friendly city. However, I felt like it would be too much like Hong Kong, and I wanted to diversify our experience as much as possible.

Bali quickly became my front runner. First of all, Bali just sounds cool…doesn’t it? And Julia Roberts was in that movie, so didn’t we all want to go there? But, until I researched it, I didn’t realize what a family-friendly location Bali is. The reviews from the hoards of Aussies that go there (found on TripAdvisor) gave the Balinese people really high marks on friendliness and service. Travelers also said that the Balinese, as a culture, really liked kids. In addition, between beaches, elephants and monkeys, there seemed like a lot of options to keep my kiddos entertained.

And we did see A LOT of monkeys!
And we did see A LOT of monkeys!

So our trip was laid out as follows…

Fly June 21 to Beijing

June 22-25 in Beijing

June 25-June 30 in Hong Kong

June 30 – July 5 in Bali

July 5 – 6 take the long journey back (foreshadow…not so fun)

Check out my next posts about each city to learn about the visits and see if we made the right choices! We had a fabulous time and will give a lot of great tips. But, we also had a few “thumbs down” experiences we can share.