The greatest journey

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

From the pagodas of the Forbidden City to the tea fields of Hangzhou, China is a land of wonder for families to discover. Mary Lussiana takes her children on an epic adventure

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

From the pagodas of the Forbidden City to the tea fields of Hangzhou, China is a land of wonder for families to discover. Mary Lussiana takes her children on an epic adventure

The West Lake in Hangzhou
The West Lake in Hangzhou

My daughter is a teenager. I asked her to articulate where she would like to go on holiday and I got a toss of the hair and a grunt in reply. But China, when dangled, raised a gleam of interest, a question or two, a murmur of enthusiasm. It could have been because of the wonderful memories she has from her first trip there eight years ago, when we all went as a family and she, aged seven, was asked at every street corner if she would pose for a photograph (she is definitely a celebrity wannabe). It could be something to do with the Adeline Yen Mah books such as Falling Leaves that she read when she was smaller, or Jung Chang’s biography of Dowager Empress Cixi that I was impressed to see her take off my shelves last year. It could be the food, which she loves, or simply the lure of going somewhere a little different. For whatever reason, China was top of the list.

My 12-year-old son, conversely, didn’t remember much of China – flashes of the Great Wall and the pagoda roofs of the Forbidden City, the startling street food of dragonflies and sea horses, and the ducks all lined up in a row, bursting their golden skins in the famous Peking Duck Restaurant Da Dong. But he is game for anything, thirsty for knowledge and just the right side of that teenage cusp. And so it was agreed.

Beijing was our starting point, as it should be, for it is the beating cultural heart of China – and China is such a brilliant place for children, because wherever you go it is intriguingly different. Teenagers might sigh at the thought of a museum. But when they walk down a road and see salamanders or caterpillars being grilled on a skewer, or cross the park and come across anxious parents conferring at match-making corners, or elderly people gracefully practising Tai Chi, men sitting and playing Mah-Jong or – and this my children loved the most – taking their caged birds to meet other caged birds, how could they not be drawn in?

Beijing was our starting point, as it should be, for it is the beating cultural heart of China

Next we revisited the Great Wall. At the particularly impressive Jinshanling stretch, you have the magnificence much to yourself. Here, the wall snakes as far as the eye can see, clinging to the spine of the mountainous terrain. From the Great Wall, whose construction began in the 7th century BC, we reeled ourselves all the way back to 1420 AD – which was when the Forbidden City, in the very centre of Beijing, was completed. Here, symbols everywhere kept the children alert: golden roofs were embellished with water guardians, to protect the building from fire; red doors were embossed with brass studs, odd in number to represent yang, the masculine element associated with the emperor (and supposedly lucky if rubbed). At each doorway, the children needed to remember that boys have to put their left foot first over the evil spirit barrier, girls their right. From here, 24 emperors ruled for nearly 500 years until the last one, Puyi, abdicated in 1912, and while the “Son of Heaven” has long gone, the imperial splendour lives on.

Next up was the Summer Palace, where the adjoining Aman is a memorable place to lay your head. This patchwork of lakes, gardens and palaces was the playground of Empress Cixi, who used the funds intended to modernise the Imperial Navy to create, among other things, a marble boat that floats on the lake. The whole area is a graceful essay in arched bridges and whispering trees, pavilions and towers decorated with thousands of scenic paintings – that is, those that survived the ransacking by the Eight-Nation Alliance (which included Great Britain) in 1900.

Back to a location resonant in my lifetime, but not my children’s, we then visited Tiananmen Square. Under the huge portrait of Mao Zedong, marking the spot where he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, I explained about the student protests of 1989 and we talked about freedom of the press, the fact that they couldn’t use Instagram or Snapchat (but thank goodness, they could get WhatsApp) on their phones here, and why.

 Shanghai wowed us with its futuristic skyline, designer shops and skyscraper hotels

If it was the old that impressed in Beijing, it was the new that wowed in Shanghai, with its futuristic skyline, bright lights, designer shops and skyscraper hotels (right). My daughter loved the view from the bath at the Puli hotel, which meant that she could look down on the whole twinkling city from a serious height. My son loved the city’s famous xiaolongbao, as did we all. These melt-in-the-mouth pork-filled dumplings are addictive and called for many a stop as we wandered, each time reminding me of that Chinese saying, “Food is heaven”.

And heaven-bound we were, for our next destination took us, by way of a bullet train, just 40 minutes from Shanghai to Hangzhou, which Marco Polo called “the City of Heaven, the most magnificent in the entire world”. One of the seven ancient capitals of China, it is beautiful indeed, with its huge West Lake, lined with delicate willows and lotus blossoms and crossed with moon bridges.

Even better though was heading out to the surrounding hills to see the tea fields. Dragon Well or Longjing green tea is considered one of the country’s best teas, with an extraordinarily delicate flavour. We were given a lesson in how to make it at the Amanfayun, once a tea-pickers’ village, now housing a luxurious hotel. Rooms are in ancient wooden houses, with latticework screens and decorative calligraphy. Our Tea Master explained how to warm the pot and cups, how the water should not, for green tea, be boiling, and how 1-2 minutes is enough brewing time to achieve the perfect cup.

The children loved the tea and the lesson, so when we flew to Lijiang in Yunnan, our final stop, we went straight to Fu Xing Chang Tea House, a beautiful old courtyard house renowned as an excellent place for Pu’er tea. This is very different in taste but equally delicate, and we were fascinated by the packaging of the tea into hard round discs, a reminder that we were on the ancient Tea Horse Road, along which tea was transported to Tibet on the backs of horses.

The town of Lijiang is beautiful, with old cobbled streets lined with artisans at work. It’s home to the Naxi people, whose dress of upper blue garments to represent the night, lower white for the daylight, and circles recalling the stars, is eye-catching. But I think my son will remember them most for the tender yak meat we had in a Naxi restaurant in a little village called Baisha, some six miles north of Lijiang. And my daughter? She will never forget that in the Naxi language, nouns become superlative when the word female is added. It seems the more she explores this country, the more it suits her.


Call Scott Dunn on 020 8682 5030 to arrange your tailor-made holiday to China
Images: Getty Images, Corbis

The Shanghai skyline

Scott Dunn Suggests

China’s extraordinary cultural and historic sites make for an unforgettable family travel experience

Scott Dunn offers many ways to see China – ask us for a bespoke tour to the world’s second-largest country. A popular voyage is our Uncover Majestic China itinerary: a thrilling 10-day journey through 5,000 years of history and culture. Start with three nights at the Waldorf Astoria Beijing, see the Forbidden City, the city’s historic alleys or hutongs, and shop on Wangfujing Street. Then transfer to Xian, the old imperial capital and beginning of the ancient Silk Route in China’s north-west, stay for two nights at the Sofitel Xian, explore the city’s atmospheric Islamic Quarter, sample delicious dumplings, see the city’s extraordinary marriage market as well as the famous Terracotta Warriors. A night at the Shangri-La Chengdu will enable visitors to see the Jinjiang River and the panda centre, before flying to the city of Hangzhou for three nights’ relaxation at Amanfayun, a luxury rural retreat built in the style of a traditional Chinese village close to a cluster of ancient Buddhist temples. Ask about add-ons to this itinerary: we recommend UNESCO-listed historic towns Pingyao and Lijiang, and Shangri-La City, a town in the Tibetan Autonomous Zone named in 2001 after the city in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon.

Scott Dunn’s Majestic China itinerary starts from £4,950 per person, including flights, based on two people travelling together and sharing a room.
For more information visit www.scottdunn.com/china

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