Perfectly Planned China

Xi’an’s Great Mosque.
Xi’an’s Great Mosque. Photo by Lauryn Ishak
From the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors, an expertly executed, kid-friendly itinerary helps one family expand their horizons.

The goal of parenting, I once read, is to raise kids who are awesome, adventurous, and ready to change the world. I fell in love with that idealized approach the moment I saw it. Over the years, our family of four has taken a variety of vacations that have combined exploration, relaxation, and education.

My husband and I strive to create positive, authentic interactions with cultures different from our own for our two daughters, while sprinkling in age-appropriate challenges that can be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable – things like navigating complex subway systems, sampling mysterious market-stall fare, or dealing with bucket-and-ladle sanitation setups. All while having fun, of course.
Last fall, we set our sights on China. We carved time out of our work and school schedules and began to plan the type of trip we believed built better kids – or, in our case, less annoying teenagers.

After three evenings of Internet surfing, we cried uncle. The sheer volume of tour companies and travel advice was overwhelming, and we weren’t sure which Google search results to trust. We could get our family there; we just couldn’t decide on the details. And the details are often what makes (or breaks) a family vacation. When my husband suggested signing up for a group bus tour, I knew it was time to call in a professional. 

I prepped our wish list. Topping it were China’s big three: the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall outside Beijing, and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. In between, I wanted to see the kinds of hidden-gem restaurants, museums, and attractions that locals show off to their own out-of-town visitors. I wasn’t sure what those would be, but I envisioned something as charming as Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships and as random as the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas. We also needed to visit a cat café. OK, maybe that last one wasn’t imperative, but my younger daughter was obsessed with these animal shelter/restaurant combos, so onto the wish list it went.

Friendly faces at Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Friendly faces at Beijing’s Forbidden City. Photo by Lauryn Ishak

Actually Making Everyone Happy

A well-traveled friend referred me to Rachel Dicker, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Austin, Texas. We’d never met before, but that didn’t matter. Within the first few minutes of our initial phone call, she got us.

“It’s absolutely all about experience, not just seeing things,” says Dicker. “That’s why people go to a travel advisor – because they don’t want mere surface interaction; they want to experience the culture of a country in a more interactive way.”

Dicker books trips for clients around the world, but about half her business involves Asia. She’s traveled extensively through China on trips both personal and professional, and she and her family spent a decade living in Shanghai. As a mother of two, she also knows the importance of seemingly minor things, such as naptimes and knowing where to get a good burger.

She began by asking about our hobbies, what we liked to do together as a family, and what we’d enjoyed about previous trips. She parsed meaning from my stories of hiking Honolulu’s Diamond Head (and the Portuguese doughnuts we devoured afterward) and how we had our fortunes told through our fingers in Hong Kong. The itinerary she created as a result was rooted in what we loved, a perfect balance of “see” and “do.” That meant we spent a mom-pleasing morning at the National Museum of China, followed by a family-friendly lunch at a stretch-your-own-noodle restaurant. Later, we toured old hutong neighborhoods by rickshaw, with a stop for hot chocolate.

Dicker recommended an acrobatics show rather than the opera, saving us from a wave of teenage whining. She also saved us from a potential nightmare-on-the-tarmac scenario by suggesting we opt for the high-speed train over a domestic flight to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, thus avoiding sudden delays – wise advice that we hadn’t found online.

In addition to setting our course, she turned to one of Virtuoso’s in-country tour connections to make it all happen. WildChina, founded by Harvard-educated entrepreneur (and mom of three) Mei Zhang, specializes in tailor-made luxury travel. While some companies cater to tourists with a bucket list, Zhang aims to appeal specifically to those who want a deeper dive into the culture – to “experience China differently,” she says.

An increasing number of her clients are families with children 12 and older, she notes. Parents hope a visit to China will inspire their children to study the language, and they also want to convey how important China could be to their future careers, she says, adding that several young people who had traveled with WildChina decided years later to study diplomacy.

“Our mission is to create life-changing experiences,” Zhang declares. “It sounds so big and hollow, but that’s what happens when you go beyond the tourist sites and meet real people – that’s how you find the beauty, and that’s when the best comes out.”

Zhang and her team definitely made the best come out for us. Our guide in Beijing turned our visit to the Forbidden City into a game of “spot the architectural element,” which kept our kids engaged the entire time. He also brought the Summer Palace to life during our visit by regaling us with mostly true tales of royal intrigue and murder. When we mentioned how much we loved weird potato-chip flavors, he took us to a local grocery store where he and his family shopped so we could enjoy making our own selections.

A lunch of noodles and garlic shoots.
A lunch of noodles and garlic shoots. Photo by Lauryn Ishak

No Risk, All Reward 

Two situations in particular showed how vital Virtuoso travel advisors and their connections can be to a trip’s success. The first played out on the day we’d planned to visit the Great Wall. We woke up that morning to below-freezing temperatures and an unexpected snowfall that had paralyzed the city. Normally, this would have derailed our plans. But our guide simply made a series of quick calls, and in an instant he’d rearranged our entire itinerary. When we set out for the Great Wall the following day, we had clear roads and skies so blue that we imagined he’d made a call to arrange that too.

The second was our advisor’s recommendation to spend three days in Xi’an. We knew this provincial capital only as the home of the Terracotta Warriors and had originally thought of the excursion as a day trip. We took her council, and those three days ended up being a vacation highlight. We biked along an ancient city wall (one of the oldest and most complete in China), took a private calligraphy class with a master scribe, and even indulged in a traditional Chinese foot massage. 

Our guide in Xi’an spent hours taking us through the mazelike streets of the Muslim Quarter, an area that has bustled with activity since the days of the Silk Road, and introduced us to mouthwatering street food such as fried persimmon cakes, hard-boiled-egg kebabs, and peanut pancakes cooked between layers of tiny black stones. She also took us down a bumpy country back road to meet a family who lived – quite comfortably, in fact – inside a tricked-out cave.

And as for the cat café? We did end up finding one, but by that time, cats were out and crickets were in. Our guide had arranged for us to meet China’s premier fighting-cricket trainer, a true character named Cricket Liu, and we spent a morning sitting in the living room of his cozy hutong cottage holding the giant insects, petting grasshoppers, and giggling as an enormous lizard sashayed across my husband’s shoulders. Our daughters laughed until their cheeks hurt, took a million photos, and are still raving about it today. It turns out that raising awesome, adventurous, world-changing kids really does depend on the details – right down to the crickets.

The Essentials: Where to stay and how to take in Xi'an and Beijing.

Newly renovated, the 230-room Peninsula Beijing entertains kids with dumpling-making classes, calligraphy lessons, and other family-oriented activities. Start the day with the hotel’s decadent breakfast buffet, and hit the indoor pool when it’s time for a break from sightseeing and shopping. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are within walking distance, and the Chanel and Louis Vuitton boutiques are steps away. Includes breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.

Families will love Shangri-La Hotel, Xi’an’s indoor heated pool, three restaurants, and 393 rooms with sweeping views through floor-to-ceiling windows. Two shopping malls are within easy walking distance, and the hotel can connect guests with bicycle rental services for those interested in exploring this storied city on two wheels rather than two feet. Includes breakfast daily and a $100 hotel credit.

The art deco-inspired Sofitel Legend Peoples Grand Hotel Xian stands inside the ancient city walls, within walking distance of important landmarks. Swim in the 71-room hotel’s indoor pool, take daily tai chi classes, and enjoy a parents’ night out at the Louis XIII Bar, which serves rare cognacs through its partnership with Rémy Martin. Includes breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.

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