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An Essential Guide for Parents Traveling with Kids in China

Are you taking a trip to China with the whole family? CHI has created a useful guide, so you know what to lookout for!

 If you have kids and are planning a trip to China, it’s possible that you’re feeling a little nervous about the realities of getting around with little ones. By doing some research and planning, however, you will find that China is much more child-friendly than you may have previously thought.

First up, don’t stress. China is largely very developed with excellent public transportation. The roads may be hectic, and the traffic a little chaotic, but in major cities you will find good networks of subways, trains and buses, all running frequently. They are clean, efficient, cheap and generally very safe, if very busy. Cabs, however, are to be found just about everywhere, are very reasonable. They can be flagged down with a wave of the hand, or from a designated taxi area.

Your biggest issues will be negotiating crowds, working out timetables and reading signage, which may not have an English translation. This is the time to get to know your concierge or consult friends who can speak Mandarin. Getting directions to your destination/s written down in Chinese is a really good tip. Carrying the name card of your ‘home’ address, or having someone write it down for you to carry in your purse is essential. It’s one thing to be lost in a busy Chinese city; being lost with tired children in tow is no fun. Being able to slump in a cab at the end of a busy day and point to ‘home’, is invaluable.

If you’re feeling brave you can always try to speak a little Chinese, but be warned, after two years of living in Shanghai, I would still be met with blank stares occasionally, when getting into cabs and giving verbal directions. If my ‘tone’ was even slightly incorrect, we were going nowhere. Literally.

One of the really great things about China (which can also be one of the slightly wearisome things after a few days) is the attention your little ones will receive. I don’t mean the negative, judgmental type either; i.e. dagger looks if your little one screams, creates a bad smell or pulls the cutlery off the table. I mean attention of the rock star variety. Kids are not just tolerated in China; they are celebrated and adored in a way that you may find surprising. Counter assistants of all ages, and both sexes, will coo, as well as older folk will be wanting to make a fuss of your kids too. The best way to handle this is to smile and let it wash over you as best you can. It’s only really noticeable at major tourist spots, and many will even want to have their photo taken you, and particularly with your kids.

It’s natural to be interested in other cultures and races, but it can be a little disconcerting when it’s your kids, and counter-intuitive to everything we are taught growing up. You can politely refuse photographs with this phrase “Bu Yao” (pronounced ‘Boo Yow’) which means ‘I don’t want that’. Try to keep a sense of humour and smile. Explain to your kids that people are just interested and are not hostile. The intention is almost certainly never malevolent; nonetheless, you should always pay close attention to little ones, particularly as they can easily get lost in a crowd. Giving children a lanyard to wear around their necks with their name, your hotel and mobile number, in Chinese, is a good idea.

With or without this attention, at the very least, your children will be tolerated and welcomed in restaurants and public places far more enthusiastically than you may be used to ‘back home’. It’s actually very nice, when you think about it, and rarely will you meet a steely gaze or disapproving glance.

So, back to the crowds. It’s probably no surprise to learn that the world's most populous country can be a little taxing, logistically speaking. It’s best to avoid all but essential travel around Chinese New Year, and other major public holidays. You will be travelling with what feels like the entire world and his extended family. Getting seats on public transport can be difficult even outside of peak times, so it’s worth bearing this in mind if you are carrying youngsters, especially if you are hoping for a breather and to take the weight off your feet. It’s likely you’ll encounter some jostling along the way too (though never aggressive). It’s always wise to book seats in advance to guarantee your place. Paying a little more for a first class seat is often worth it with kids. Trains are excellent, and the ‘bullet train’ is must if you are visiting Shanghai.

Your twin bugaboo might be just the thing back home, but may start to look, and feel, like a Sherman tank in many Chinese cities. You could end up having to do an awful lot of lifting and lugging up, and over things. Furthermore, if you’re visiting somewhere in the countryside, the likelihood of encountering very uneven terrain and a bunch of steps at the most inopportune moment is pretty much a given. If your kids are very young, and you’re planning to do a lot of walking, it might be worth investing in quality front or back style carriers, or very lightweight travel strollers which fold easily.

Baby change facilities, whilst not in abundance, can usually be found in malls, hotels and good restaurants. Lavatories may, occasionally, be of the ‘squat’ variety, but if you check the end cubicle, it’s common for just one to have a western style sit-down lavatory. Almost every toilet facility has an attendant keeping the place clean and tidy, and the standards are generally pretty fair. You will need to carry your own toilet paper with you at all times, because this may not always be provided. It’s quite common to find one communal roll near the sinks, and you take what you need before you go in. It’s also common to forget, and realise when it’s too late. Smoking is often permitted and you may find yourself sharing a cubicle with a haze of smoke from the previous occupant.

If you’re venturing farther into the countryside, things can get a little more rustic. I have amusing memories of being seven months pregnant on a visit to the ‘Great Lake’ at Wuxi. The toilet facilities at one stop consisted of little more than open fronted cubicles over a single ‘trough’ that ran underneath. No doors, and a very long queue of ladies standing directly in front, waiting to avail themselves of the facilities. Being the only western woman for miles, and certainly the only heavily pregnant one, I was quite the tourist attraction for those few minutes. However, as any pregnant lady will tell you, when you’ve got to go, you’ve really got to go.

The fierce summer heat and high humidity levels can be a real drain on your energy, and particularly for children. Always remember to carry water (bottled only, the tap water isn’t really safe to drink if you aren’t used to it). It’s also a good idea to carry anti-bacterial hand wash and wet wipes at all times, but as an experienced parent, you already knew that. Thankfully, you will never be far from a 7-11, which are ubiquitous and found literally everywhere. You can stock up on wipes, water and snacks for the kids, and, crucially, chocolate for you. They make for a very welcome air-conditioned pit stop on a hot summer day.

Mosquitoes can be an issue and it’s mandatory to use repellent on the whole family. If you do get bitten, a dab of Tiger Balm is the best cure to stop the itching, as well as aid healing, and is available everywhere. Sunscreen should be applied too as the sun can be quite strong at times. Hats, sun visas and sun umbrellas are widely available because pale is far more interesting in China.

It’s pretty easy to feed even fussy eaters in China. Most kids will be happy with fried or plain rice. Perhaps dumplings, noodles and some fried chicken or pork. The beauty of sharing Chinese-style is that they may try foods they normally wouldn't eat at home. It’s probably best to seek out restaurants that have English menus, or simply have what your kids like to eat written in Chinese, and many places will be obliging. It’s less common to find fries and burgers at tourist spots further out in the country. However, if you’re in the city, you are never far from excellent restaurants serving western food, and of course, there’s always McDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC.

Jars of western baby food, and powdered milk formula are sold everywhere at 7-11’s, chemists, and supermarkets, though it may differ from the brand you use at home. It’s always best to try to bring enough formula to last, but don’t panic if you run out and simply can’t find your brand. As long as the brand you choose is a quality, recognized western brand, and is the right formulation for your child’s age, it’s highly unlikely your child will notice (I’ve done this many times whilst holidaying across Asia and my kids have never rejected the taste or got an upset tummy once). It’s always a good idea, at the beginning of your trip, to pay a visit to a large western supermarket, such as Carrefour, to stock up on everything you need.

It is essential that you check with your doctor as to which vaccinations you may need. You can find advice online by checking your own government’s travel and health advice website. It’s also advisable to carry anti-diarrhea medication, just in case of tummy bugs. They’re not a ‘given’, but there’s always a risk.

Lastly, take an open mind. China is a vast, varied country with incredible wealth, ingenuity and sophistication, unfortunately often accompanied by frustration and poverty. It can really be a shock to the senses in every respect, with an array of smells, sights and sounds that can seem overwhelming at first, particularly for children. Planning is key, keeping your wits about you, essential. But mostly, just relax, find the wonder in what you experience and your kids will take your lead. It will most likely be the trip of a lifetime and you’ll certainly never be short of holiday stories, hopefully just not lavatorial ones.