Off the beaten track, this adventure in the Guangxi Province will be the most memorable experience of your family’s travels in China.
China is more than the Great Wall and it’s record-breaking 13,170 miles. The country is more than imperial palaces where emperors ruled for centuries. And it’s certainly more than the endless sea of skyscrapers that now fill its horizon. To find the soul of China, you need to venture of the beaten track, and to do that, you may need a little help.
WildChina was founded by Yunnan native and Harvard MBA, Mei Zhang. Since its founding in 2000, the company and its guides have helped thousands of intrepid travelers, including many families, discover the hard-to-reach corners of this vast country. A few years ago, my family and our friends, who were living in Shanghai at the time, set out to explore the Guangxi Province in southern China with help from WildChina. Between us, we had four boys, ranging from age 5 to 8. We all decided that we wanted an unsanitized, authentic experience. We called it, “going deep.”
We were able to work closely with our tour provider to create an itinerary that was truly tailored to our family’s interests. Our ideal trip may not be the same as yours, but I want to inspire you to think differently about family travel.
We began our journey in Guilin along the Li River. The city has long attracted poets and artists because of it’s dramatic karst scenery. Karst is a special kind of landscape formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone and dolomite. It’s characterized by sharply sloped mountains and underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. With our guide, Mo, we visited Reed Flute Caves. It wasn’t the most natural caving experience that my family has ever had, but it was uniquely Chinese. Colorful lights illuminated the stalagmites and stalactites as well as a large reflecting pool, giving it a Disney-like quality. At one point, there was even a bubble machine! Women sat in cave rooms with enormous tortoises, who were said to be more than 1000 years old. For a few dollars, you could buy a lucky charm blessed by an old turtle. Of course, we were highly suspect. And a little worried by the lack of authenticity at our first stop.
After an overnight stay in Guilin, we boarded a bus and headed to the Longsheng Rice Terraces and a small village called Ping’an. Mo warned us that we’d be hiking from the lower village uphill for about a half mile to Li’an Lodge. Being on a two-week trip to China, we had two large suitcases, each weighing 60 pounds, plus several carry-on bags. No worries, Mo said. Sherpas would be meeting us. What he didn't tell us? The sherpas were women much older than me with superhuman strength! At first, we were reluctant to burden them with our heavy bags, but then we realized that they wouldn’t get paid if they didn’t carry. We quickly distributed all our bags, forming a fairly impressive caravan. The women hoisted the suitcases on top of baskets and then onto their backs and quickly passed us on the steep hill. I’ve never seen anything like it! To this day, the kids and I still talk about those women.
Given our remote location and the fact that anything that came up to this lodge had to come up that steep hill, I wasn’t sure what to expect at the top. To our utter delight, Li’an Lodge is one of the most unique and beautifully-appointed places that we’ve ever stayed. Each room was based on a theme, like music or calligraphy, and displayed art pieces and handicrafts to reflect that motif. And the view! For the first time, we got a bird’s eye view of the curvature of the terraced rice fields below. It was mesmerizing; even the boys were in awe.
On this day, Mo would lead us on a hike through the terraced rice paddies from Ping’an to Tiantou. When we first booked with WildChina, the hike was listed as five miles. After it was booked, it became seven miles. But according to Mo, it was actually ten miles long and took us nearly seven hours to complete. It was most difficult for my 5-year old son. With his short legs, he had to work twice as hard. On many of the uphill sections, I carried him. But when it was flat, he did a good job of keeping up with the older boys. And his sense of accomplishment at the end of the hike - well, that was priceless!
Despite the drizzly and overcast day, the scenery was breathtaking. It was hard to believe that human hands had carved out each and every terrace. It really felt like we had stepped back in time, where people were living and working just as their ancestors had done thousands of years earlier.
On our hike, we were accompanied by a group of Yao women. The Yao are one of 56 recognized minority groups in China. Specifically, these women were Hong (red) Yao who always wear bright pink or red clothing. They were very proud of their beautifully embroidered frocks and their long hair. When the women cut their hair, they save it. They demonstrated how they then reattach it to form strands several feet long.
These Yao women lived in the village of Tiantou. Their homes were wood structures built on stilts that clung to the side of the mountain. Even though they had electricity, the Yao didn’t use it during the day because of the expense. Hence, the homes were dark and damp inside.
One of the women invited us into her home to meet her children, who clearly hadn’t encountered many Westerns, let alone Western children. Our host insisted on preparing tea for us over an open fire. It was no ordinary tea; it was a mixture of tea, crispy rice, and sautéed peanuts. It was actually quite good! We shared the tea huddled around the roaring fire. In return, we gave the children the only thing that we had in our bags - Oreos. I think that we got the better end of the deal.
Our visit to the ancient town of Fuli was specially arranged at our request. We wanted our kids to have the opportunity to interact with children of the same age, so we visited an elementary school. Despite having no heat and only the bare essentials, the children here were happy and friendly. They smiled easily and enjoyed making the “peace” sign for photos. We brought scarves made my son’s second grade classmates for the second graders here, along with a photo of those American children who made the gifts. We wished that we would have had enough for everyone, but our luggage was filled to capacity. We also passed our reed flutes purchased at Reed Flute Cave to the kindergarteners. And we gave supplies to the school: paper, colored pencils, paints, markers, and play dough, all purchased in Guilin. The administrators were so appreciative that they gave us bowls of oranges. Upon our return home, we shared the photos of those children in their new red and yellow scarves with the children back in Oregon.
It was time for recess. We sat with the children in a circle for a game of duck-duck-goose and ring-around-the-rosy. Then came my favorite moment of the entire journey - an impromptu game of tag between my youngest son and the boys of Fuli. He didn’t speak Mandarin; they didn't speak English. It didn’t matter. Fun is universal. The expression on my son’s face was one of true joy. The day proved to be the highlight of our two weeks in China.
In the town of Yangshuo, our guide arranged a bike ride through the picturesque countryside. The older boys rode their own bikes; the younger boys were paired with the dads on tandems. I’ll admit, while biking is common in China, I was a bit unnerved as we pedaled through downtown Yangshuo, trying to avoid being hit by passing cars, motorcycles, and other bikes. My heart! But the ride soon turned onto a dusty country road that paralleled the Li River, and serenity took over.
After about an hour, we hopped off our bikes and carefully jumped onto bamboo rafts. The rafts were just large enough for pairs of us to sit in wooden chairs with an oarsman in the back. Down the river we went, floating between rounded mountain peaks. Our adventure was coming to a close.
Where to eat?
One of the advantages of being guided by a local on a private tour is that you eat at some truly unique places. No hotel restaurant dinners for us. Again, it was an example of “going deep.” We had one such meal in Guilin. It was a traditional restaurant with round tables and a spinning tray in the middle to facilitate sharing. The meal was a very good, and we ate heartily. As we walked into the establishment, we’d noticed a kind of sidewalk zoo outside. We stopped briefly to look at the animals in the various cages and even took a photo with the kids. On our way out of the restaurant after we’d eaten, it hit us. A cook was walking from the “zoo” into the restaurant with a bag containing not one, but several squirming animals. Ah, dinner.
KidTripster Tip: Even if you’re not normally a vegetarian, going vegetarian while traveling in China isn’t a bad idea!
The beauty of a private tour is the operator, in this case WildChina, makes all the arrangements, including guides, transportation, lodging, meals, and attractions. For a five-day tour similar to this one, you can expect to pay about $1,800/person with a discount for kids. WildChina also offers three-day excursions.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels with her husband and two sons. After her trip to China, she’s never been able to look at a petting zoo in quite the same way.