Flight duration: 3.5 hours
Best months to visit: March to May and October to November
Recommended for: Ages 8+
Imagine limpid streams cutting through an ancient town full of cobblestone streets and stone bridges, high up in the mountains of northwestern Yunnan. The plaintive strains of a Chinese lute can be heard nearby as a Naxi woman wearing a turban, silver earrings, and a belted wide-sleeved tunic makes chewy baba flour pancakes in a narrow alleyway.
This is the Old Town of Lijiang, one of China’s most-visited tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 800 years of history. Encompassing the areas of Dayan, Baisha, and Shuge, Lijiang is colored by the culture of the Naxi people, who have a distinct language, musical heritage, and traditional dress.
Once a stop on the ancient tea horse road, Lijiang’s old town is renowned for its intricate network of canals and waterways. Take your time wandering through the streets, stopping at Old Market Square (四方街) to pick up tchotchkes and admire the view of the surrounding hills. Head to nearby Zhongyi Market (忠义市场, zhongyi shichang) to experience a cacophony of livestock, copperware, sacks bursting with tea, and colorful exotic fruits.
However, beware of fake monks, overpriced souvenirs, guesthouse touts, mislabeled minibuses, and unscrupulous restaurants that try to pass off beef as yak meat. Lijiang is overrun with tourists during the peak season, so go off season if you can. For a more laid-back experience, stay at a family-owned guesthouse in the village of Shuhe (属和) about 4km northwest of Lijiang Old Town. Shuhe’s location at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain also makes it a good base for trekking and horseback riding trips.
Side trips include Tiger Leaping Gorge, Lugu Lake, Jinsha River, Xishuangbanna, Tengchong, and Zhanglang Village. Hiking in and around Lijiang is generally not suitable for families with younger kids unless you’re willing to take them in a backpack carrier.
Lijiang cuisine is heavily influenced by the Naxi. Baba (粑粑) pancakes are ubiquitous, compact, and can be made sweet or savory with a variety of fillings. Local dishes tend to be meat-heavy, as exemplified by the salted pork (琵琶肉), blood and rice sausage (米灌肠), and pork liver (吹肝). If your family likes spicy food, try deep-fried Naxi grilled fish (纳西烤鱼) with peanuts and dry peppers. Blazing hot day? Slurp down a bowl of jidou liangfen (鸡豆凉粉) – cold, jelly-like soybean noodles designed to fight off the heat.
Air China operates two direct flights daily from Beijing to Lijiang Sanyi Airport, while Capital Airlines and China Eastern operate one direct flight each. You can also fly into Kunming and take a long-distance bus to Lijiang; the trip takes around 8 hours.
Flight duration: 3 hours
Best months to visit: April to October
Recommended for: Ages 10+
Located in the southern province of Guangxi, Guilin is the embodiment of Chinese shan shui (山水, lit. “mountain and water”) landscapes. Towering karst mountains dot the city, hugged by the serpentine Li River. Natural attractions are the main draw here, such as Elephant Trunk Hill, Seven-Star Cave, and Reed Flute Cave.
A trip to Guilin would be incomplete without a visit to the Longsheng Rice Terraces (龙胜梯田) or neighboring Longji Rice Terraces (龙脊梯田). Winding along the mountaintop like green and blue scales, the rice fields are said to resemble a dragon’s backbone. The Longji Rice Terraces are divided into two sections: Ping’an (平安) and Jinkeng (金坑), both comprising villages and hamlets with opportunities for light hiking. Trust us – it’s well worth the climb.
Also consider a visit to nearby Yangshuo (阳朔), home to the crescent-shaped Moon Hill (月亮山). Though geared towards backpackers, the town makes an ideal base for exploring the Guangxi countryside. Go on a guided cycling excursion alongside tranquil fields, quaint villages, and soaring mountains. If you decide to forego a guide, it’s worth paying a bit more for a nicer ride; in our group, three out of eight bikes broke down over the course of an afternoon. In the end, we had to hitch a ride back to town on the back of a villager’s truck – shoddy bikes and all.
Yangshuo itself offers plenty of cheap eats, souvenir shopping, and western comforts. Have fun eating the famously slippery Guilin mifen (桂林), thick rice noodles commonly eaten for breakfast.
Be careful – food poisoning is extremely common. If you feel a bout coming on, down some of the readily-available ginger tea (姜汤) to combat nausea and stomach pain. In addition, the well-publicized cormorant fishing show might upset younger children; our tour culminated in two birds fighting over a fish, sending scales and flecks of blood flying all over the beach.
Air China and China Southern operate direct flights between Beijing Capital International Airport and Guilin Airport. The high-speed train from Beijing West Station takes around 10h30 to reach Guilin. There are frequent minibuses and express buses from Guilin to Yangshuo; the trip takes about 90 minutes.
Flight duration: 2 hours
Best months to visit: April and May
Recommended for: All ages
Hangzhou is often cited for its natural beauty and tea plantations, but it is also a place of poetry and stories. One of the ancient capitals of China, the city can lay claim to having two literary figures among its former governors: Bai Juyi (白居易, 772-846 AD) and Su Shi (苏轼, 1037-1101 AD). Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, is said to have invented the famous dongpo pork dish(东坡肉) to thank the workers who built a causeway that still stands today – Sudi (苏堤).
West Lake (西湖) is Hangzhou’s dominant feature and main tourist attraction. Hire a private boat to admire lotuses up close, visit the islets in the middle of lake, and explore the various temples surrounding the lake. You might get a sense of déjà-vu upon glimpsing Three Pools Mirroring the Moon Island; that’s because it’s on the back of the RMB 1 note.
Families with older kids can make a day trip out of cycling to the longjing tea plantations just outside the city. Go during the harvest period from early March to early May to buy the best-quality tea and glimpse workers in the fields. While you’re there, take a spin through the well-curated China National Tea Museum (中国茶叶博物馆).
Check out Zhongshan Nanlu, a reconstructed tourist street with lots of little food stalls and restaurants. Famous local eats include longjing shrimp (龙井虾仁), fish in vinegar sauce (醋鱼), and beggar’s chicken (叫花鸡).
West Lake’s Louwailou (楼外楼) gets a perennial mention in guidebooks as Hangzhou’s most famous restaurant, but several locals told us it was highly overrated. “You’re only going there to chi mingqi” or literally “eat fame,” said one taxi driver. The food was indeed underwhelming – our longjing shrimp were, well, shrimpy and the vinegar fish was a congealed mess – but it was hard to beat our table on the second-floor balcony overlooking the lake.
Many airlines – including Air China and China Eastern – operate direct flights between Beijing Capital International Airport and Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport. You can also take the train from Beijing South Station, which takes around 6 hours on the high-speed rail.
Photos courtesy of Eviltomthai, Neknoir, Alexander Savin, Ray Devlin, Thisnomad(Flickr); Archer10, Bernst Rostad, Gigijin, Reevery, Gil_penney(Flickr);Pedronet(Flickr), Vladimir K Photography, Jorizdg, David Leo Veksler, Vivionitier(Flickr).
This article originally appeared on p58-61 of the beijingkids April 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com