To China, with children

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 22/09/2013
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FLYING THE FLAG: Kids are welcome at the Great Wall of China.

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My 12 year-old son has bounced a ball on the Great Wall of China, stood on the sacred centre stone at the Temple of Heaven to pray for a good Wellington Phoenix season, and watched his dad wriggle out of eating a charred scorpion on a skewer.

There are good reasons why the Gold Coast and the Pacific islands are top of the list for many Kiwis planning a stress-free holiday with the kids. But if yours is the kind of family that can keep its head when all around seem to be forming a queue you're not sure if you need to join too, then a Chinese holiday could be for you.

Shanghai boasts cloud-scraping wonders of modern architecture while Beijing's heart is still given over to the remnants of China's ancient civilisation - Buddhist temples, palaces and the Forbidden City's unfurling chain of courtyards lined with blue, red and gold pavilions.

But these are not cities that revolve around grown-ups. China's one-child policy has ensured kids are tops, and that an almost childish sense of fun pervades most attractions.

Tigers, as well as Mongolian raiders, used to prowl the perimeter of the recently restored Mutianyu section of the Great Wall outside Beijing. But today half the kick comes from taking a chairlift to the top of the wall and an exhilarating 1580-metre luge back down to the valley floor. The Mongols have now conquered the Great Wall incidentally, and have firmly installed themselves every 100m selling cold water and bottled beer.

The main sphere on the Pearl Tower - the foremost attraction on the glitzy mantelpiece of Shanghai that is Pudong - boasts a 700-square-metre glass floor, a dizzying 290m above the central city, to provide a child-safe thrill. The top sphere of the tower has been bizarrely space-themed in Stormtrooper white, with hostesses in metallic mini-dresses to usher guests in and out of the lifts.

The shenanigans continue at Shanghai's Science and Technology Museum, which has racked up 31 million visits since its opening in 2001. Here, kids can have their faces sketched by a robot and compete against them at archery.

The "must-do" in the city at night is also designed to appeal to all ages. That's to take in a show at Shanghai Circus World, to see contortionists fold themselves into origami shapes and acrobats risk their lives running on a giant wheel 20m off the ground.

Like their famous puzzles, a Chinese family holiday requires a bit of planning to fall into place. During the scorching summer months, and always in Beijing, a guide and driver is a sensible investment rather than an extravagance, to avoid parental meltdowns.

Catherine Lu Tours charges about $1400 for a three-day tour of Beijing for a family of five, including lunch, entry fees, driver and air-conditioned vehicle, but not dinner and accommodation.

As well as helping avoid ticket and entry queues, a guide should minimise the likelihood of a close encounter of the third kind with any grim Chinese toilets.

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The daytime populations of Shanghai and Beijing both bloat to more than 20 million and in Shanghai there seem to be a dozen tall cranes erecting new tower blocks in every vista.

So if a sizeable proportion of the locals decide to visit a big attraction at the same time, for example to view the mesmerising Pacific sea nettle and moon jellyfish tanks in the cool air-conditioning of Shanghai's Ocean Aquarium, or to shoot the tubes in Beijing's famous Olympic Water Cube swimming pool, then it can end up getting pretty cosy.

Family travel is best avoided altogether during the two "golden weeks" around the Chinese New Year in February and National Day in October. During the 40-day start of the lunar calendar, the biggest internal migration in human history takes place as the Chinese undertake 38 million domestic plane journeys and about 3.4 billion long distance bus and train trips.

It can come as a surprise, but probably shouldn't, that the vast majority of tourists in China are domestic. Fairly mindful of their own behaviour and certainly tolerant of the foibles of foreign visitors, it is always a benign throng.

Westerners are no longer any great novelty in the thriving cities of China's eastern seaboard, but every so often a Chinese family of sightseers will politely request to borrow your child for inclusion in their own holiday snap.

They will want to know your child is from "Xinxilan" (New Zealand) so their memento can be correctly labelled. It's fun to return home knowing your young one will be appearing in more than just your own photo album.

EATING OUT

You can be as adventurous as you want to be, or as your kids allow, eating out in China.

We are talking "starfish-on-a-stick" adventurous at the Donghuamen night market in Beijing. Or you can play it deliciously jam-donut and sandwich-safe at the likes of Baker & Spice and Element Fresh in Shanghai.

It is said there are now more Michelin-starred chefs in Shanghai than Hong Kong, but for an easy introduction to super-fresh Chinese food, with no stodgy sweet and sour pork in sight, try the enormous Lost Heaven restaurant in Shanghai.

A more traditional, chopsticks-only peking duck experience can be had at the Da Dong Restaurant in Beijing. Here, not only is all the food pictured in a menu the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is also flashed via a slideshow on to the restaurant wall for good measure.

A dessert variously labelled as a "chocolate bomb" on the menu and a "chocolate landmine" on the bill, captured the eye of my chopstick-challenged son.

It was brought to the table with a fuse and a fanfare, raising the question of whether it might actually explode. I wouldn't want to spoil anyone's surprise, so let's just say that China's 1000-year-old fixation with pyrotechnics has not been entirely wasted.

For street food, the must-have is a jian bing, an egg pancake containing many things sweet and spicy, cooked at the side of the road for 60 cents (but only until 10am). Best of all, in China, fresh watermelon juice takes its rightful place alongside OJ and Coke as a treat for kids and grown-ups.

Tom Pullar-Strecker travelled to Shanghai and Beijing as a guest of Air New Zealand.

- Sunday Star Times

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