Of trains and terracotta
The Travelers: Americans Jim and Sue Serstad, intermittent residents of Beijing for the past seven years, and their three children, Garrett (11), Jenna (10) and Ian (5). Jim is area director at the Regus Group and mom-cum-teacher Sue homeschools the kids. Joining the Serstads were family friends John and Carissa Lewis and their three children, Jonathan (12), Ellie (10) and Rachel (7).
The Destination: Xi’an, China.
The Plan: An exciting train journey (to thrill kids tired of flying) followed by a stay in an ancient destination (to satisfy young history buff Garrett).
The Reality: Securing train tickets proved somewhat problematic. Jim made several trips to Beijing West Train Station to book the outward train journey; first it was too soon to book tickets, then it was nearly too late. In the end, only top bunks were available, so the travellers had to divide themselves among different cabins and hope that their carriage companions would be of the non-snoring variety (which sadly did not turn out to be the case). Next time, Jim plans to book tickets in advance through a ticket agent such as China Trip Advisor or China Train Ticket.
Where to Stay: Jim and Sue highly recommend the four-star Bell Tower Hotel (RMB 448/night for a standard twin; (29) 8760 0000). Their room overlooked the Bell Tower – the exact geographical center of Xi’an – and a large square that came alive at night with people milling and playing games. Markets, shops, the fascinating Muslim quarter and the ancient city walls were all within walking distance.
Where to Play: 45km east of town, Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Warriors (RMB 90/adults, RMB 45/kids) lived up to expectations: line after line of terracotta soldiers, each one different, housed in huge hangars on spacious, stroller-friendly grounds. To save your energy, the family advises taking one of the motorized carts from the entrance to the first hangar. Afterwards, there’s plenty of fun to be had at the souvenir stall across the street, where you can pose as a modern-day warrior alongside less-than-ancient versions of your ancient army comrades.
Where to Learn: Back in town, the Forest of Steles (RMB 30; (29) 8721 0764), is worth a visit if you’re travelling with older kids. The museum contains more than 1,000 stone engravings from the Han dynasty all the way up to the Qing, including an early stone tablet that records how Christianity spread through China. To give their children a crash course in comparative religion, the Serstads combined the Forest of Steles with a visit to the Great Mosque (RMB 25), set in beautiful landscaped gardens northwest of the Drum Tower. (Ten-year-old Jenna put her thinking cap on right away, immediately asking her parents where all the women had gone.)
Where to Eat: Loud and bustling Huimin Jie in the Muslim quarter behind the Drum Tower is packed with restaurants and stalls serving local specialties such as lamb skewers. The Serstads were also grateful for child-friendly Western options, such as the ubiquitous McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Best Exercise: The kids voted the bike ride around the City Wall (RMB 40 entry fee; (29) 8208 2218 and takes about an hour, but it can get hot and dusty. Avoid the 500% mark-up on bottled water by packing your own! Choose a tandem bike or one with a kid seat, or if your kids are too little, rent a motorized cart instead.
Best Find: A chance encounter with tour guide Raphael Wang (130 0290 8084) made the Serstads’ trip. “He was very Western in his approach,” says Sue. “There was no pressure.” If you’re lucky, Raphael will combine a trip to the Cave Dwellings (RMB 500 for van rental) with a visit to his grandmother’s house. The kids had fun exploring the vegetable stores in the back of Granny’s home, but pack a flashlight as only the front room of the old house has electricity. It’s also customary to bring a small gift like some fruit (or socks!) when visiting someone’s home.
Best Splurge: On their return train trip, the standard soft sleepers were booked up, and the whole family was forced to upgrade to deluxe class (RMB 1,500/2 berth cabin). These extra-swanky soft sleepers are only available on the Z20 train, but if you can spring for one, do it. Sue raved about the spotless en suite Western-style toilet and washbasin, the comfortable easy chair and the adjustable climate and sound system. The wall mounted TVs (Chinese language only) were also a big hit with the children (and their tired parents). However, while the accommodation may have been first-class, the buffet car was packed and very smoky. Do like the Serstads and bring your own food (bread and peanut butter and plenty of fangbian mian!).