China, perhaps, doesn’t strike families as the ideal vacation destination. China isn’t family-friendly, as we in the West define that term, with our insistence on high chairs or children’s menus. Rather, it’s literally friendly to families; those traveling with children are welcomed and treated with extraordinary and humbling graciousness.
Our week-long sojourn took us to Shanghai and Beijing. We were told that we would have much difficulty getting around given the language barrier. Despite living in Singapore, where the lingua franca is English but where a large percentage of the population speak Mandarin, the extent of our Mandarin is “hello”, “good-bye”, and “thank you”. But we really needed not much more vocabulary than a genuine smile and a “ni hao” (especially one uttered by A and accompanied by her sweet smile) to get around. We had our serviced apartments’ concierges jot down our destinations on index cards and flashed those to taxi drivers and ticket agents.
We were not prepared for all the special favors and loving attention that A received while in China. We were scooted to the front of all sorts of interminably long queues–from the immigration desk at Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the ticket counter for Gate of Heavenly Peace at Tiananmen Square, among others.
In both cities, teenagers waved at her and aunties and uncles pinched her cheeks. Our smiling visages are on many a smart phone in China. A dear friend explained that China, and especially urban China, doesn’t have many babies (due to the country’s one-child family planning policy). “The Chinese think children are good luck,” she said. “Hence, all the touching and photographs. They want a little ‘baby dust’.”
Sample Shanghai’s most beloved slurpable snacks: xiaolongbao (steamed pork dumplings) and shengjianbao (pan-fried pork dumplings). Find xiaolongbao at JiaJia Soup Dumplings (90 Huanghe Rd.) and shengjianbao at Yang’s Fry Dumplings (90 Huanghe Rd.), both on Haunghe Road, one of Shanghai’s many “food streets,” near People’s Park.
Take a long, leisurely walk around the Bund, the tourist center of Shanghai and the city’s most famous mile. Begin in leafy People’s Park, a quiet refuge amid the city’s frenetic energy, and watch koi dart across its many ponds.
Then, stroll along East Nanjing Road, where the first department stores in Chine were opened in the 1920s, and let your toddler be enchanted by its many street performers: ballroom dancers, flautists, and martial artists. East Nanjing Road is largely pedestrian and we let A happily romp from one end to the other, but do watch for errant bicyclists!
Arrive at the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront, at dusk. The views of Pudong and the city’s futuristic skyline from here are spectacular. Contrast the Bund’s grand, illuminated art deco and neoclassical buildings with Pudong’s electric, geometric structures.
Wander through a Tianzifang’s warren of longtang (alleyways), a community of art studios, cafes, and boutiques. Stop by Woo for a one-of-a-kind scarf or shawl for mom and Chouchou Chic (162-8 South Shaanxi Rd.) for French- and Chinese-inspired togs for babe.
Once again, we opted to stay in a serviced apartment. Serviced apartments don’t have the amenities of hotels–pools, baby-sitters, breakfast buffets; However, they allow us to pack light (we can do our own laundry) and save money (we can cook our own simple meals). Shanghai’s Marriott Executive Apartments Tomorrow Square (399 Nanjing West Rd.) are perfectly located; we were just a hop-skip-jump away from People’s Square Station, the city’s largest subway interchange.
Devour the city’s signature dish, roast duck (or Peking duck), at Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant (11 Beixiangfeng Hutong). Or, for more variety, wander through Beijing’s many markets (Donghuamen Night Market, Donghuamen Yeshi, for smelly doufu [tofu], Inner Mongolian Cheese, and offal) and food streets (Ghost Street, Gui Jie, for hot pot and spicy seafood).
Don’t shy away from the Forbidden City (Zijen Cheng), a complex of ancient buildings ringed by a moat in the very heart of Beijing, because of the crowds. Squeeze through the colossal u-shaped Meridian Gate (Wu Men) and venture either east or west. (The busloads of tourists who travel to Beijing from near and far tend not to wander far from the ceremonial buildings along the grounds’ north-south axis.) Here, we found ramps to run up and down and ancient copper and brass water vats to peer into. Conclude your visit to Forbidden City in its Imperial Garden. Explore this classically Chinese garden’s walkways, pavilions, and cypress trees
The Great Wall of China is breathtakingly beautiful, I must say. The Mutianyu stretch of the Wall, a restored section just 90 kilometers north of Beijing, is well-suited for families. Here, one can scale the Wall on foot or via a chair lift or a cable car. (One can also scoot back down via toboggan, perfect for older, adventurous children!) While one can reach Mutianyu by bus, we opted to hire a private car with driver and English-speaking guide from Great Wall Hiking (http://www.greatwalladventure.com/), as we wanted some flexibility with an unpredictable toddler in tow.
A Beijing-based friend (http://QriousLife.Wordpress.com/) urged us to explore the city’s hutong (narrow alleyways). These charming lanes criss-cross chunks of Beijing within the Second Ring Road. On Qi’s recommendation, we began our hutong wanderings on Wudaoying Hutong, one of Beijing’s oldest hutongs, near Lama Temple. The hutong is home to a bevy of shops selling Beijing hipster staples, from thick frame glasses to old school Feiyue sneakers. We spent our time here chasing feral cats and admiring the traditional Chinese courtyard homes that line the hutong.
In Beijing, too, we stayed in a serviced apartment. The Imperial Mansion Beijing Marriott Executive Apartments (North Gate, 3 Xiagongfu St.) are walking distance from Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Subway Line 1, and The Malls at Oriental Plaza.
Pooja Makhijani is a writer, editor, teacher, and New Yorker living in Singapore. She blogs about arts and culture in Singapore at notabilia.wordpress.com.