Back in June I took my 11-year-old on a tour to China, through China Spree tours. This is our story.
Our 16 hour flight landed at 6am. After a shifty, dull, restless flight, we were ready to be alive again by the time we touched down in Beijing. The first thing I noted was how normal it felt – to be surrounded by the steel and glass airport full of the same grime and escalators our are prone to. Then we hit the humid air and I saw the grass and flower covered parking deck. Wow.
It was a tour, so our hotel was one of those swanky five stars with all the surcharges I usually avoid. We settled in per our usual style – Jade claimed the best bed and began unpacking while I fussed at her to leave her things in the bag, reminding her that Beijing was only a 2 day stop. I’d thought we would sleep, but instead we got our first breakfast, finding that eggs, mango flavored yogurt, and cheese were the only gluten free options. Then we hit the streets of Beijing. We’d already targeted a few shopping places we wanted to visit and, as the air quality wasn’t unbearable, Jade wanted to walk. Unfortunately Google and China aren’t speaking right now, and neither was our cell carrier, so we had to wing it. After walking the same stretch three times we finally found our way into a beautiful park next to a tall gray stone wall and discovered the road we were looking for thanks to a bus map. Later, we discovered that the wall was the last remaining part of the old Beijing City Wall. We wandered the shopping malls for about an hour until the child was almost out of cash, which led to her discovering how to barter and she got a few items for a quarter of the original price. Exhausted, already having traversed about 5 miles of mall and lost streets, we headed back to the hotel, stopping only for some lychee ice cream from haagen daaz. Almost there, we experienced our first downpour in China. Soaked in minutes, we laughed, not quite taking in the truth that this would not be our last cold, wet walk.
Our tour started in earnest the following day, which happened in late July – a particularly rainy season for this region of China. We’d already spoken to our in-country guide the night before so we woke bright and early, got our routine breakfast and returned to our room to find a confused young lady trying to wake us up. We were part of a happy group of eighteen Americans, all of whom had met when they arrived the night prior. We jetted off on one of the nicest buses I’ve ever toured on and disembarked in the drizzle at a closed Tiananmen square. We tromped over to the Forbidden City while some diplomatic bigwig enjoyed the square all on their lonesome. I found the Forbidden City to be crowded – it wasn’t just the sheer volume of people, but the space itself. While I live in one of the larger cities in the USA, my city is one full of green spaces and multiple suburbs that have been swallowed by expansion. It never feels closed in. The Forbidden City, with its many courtyards of brick and multiple palaces segmented by towering walls, felt hemmed in to me. We quickly lost our group in the crowds and, after I calmed my daughter, spent our time snapping photos devoid of historical context but full of ancient structural beauty until we came to the gardens. Those we explored with some enthusiasm, marveling at the limestone rock ornamentation, the intricate pattern work of pebbles depicting scenic stories and flowers while looking for the Temple of Floating Jade. At the start of our tour, the guide had kindly informed us which exit we would eventually take and Jade and I arrived there, alone, happy with our discoveries and the time to shop, and hopeful that we hadn’t missed our guide. Thanks to the wireless ear buds she’d given us before the tour, we could hear her as she came by, frantically looking for us, and were reunited in time to move on to the next stop.
Our lunch took place in the home of a local family, nestled in a Hotong just a few blocks from a lovely river front area. The family did not dine with us, as we filled their living space until bursting. We ate and laughed and were happy, then rode our pedicabs out of the right night city suburb. It was still drizzling by the time we reached the summer palace, and a light breeze made mist of the rain, lending a beach-like feel to the glorious scenery.
I could have spent days there, drinking in the beauty of the landscaping and enormous man made lake. Of all the temples and palaces we visited, this was to be my favorite. We rode a dragon boat across the lake, then toured the world’s longest corridor before seeing the palace where the dragon lady interred her last nephew-emperor after he attempted to dethrone her. Pink lotus blossoms popped from beds of gigantic lily pads and tangled limestones dotted the landscape. By the time we reached our hotel, we were exhausted and it was a dreamless sleep.
We woke to a downpour and left for the great Wall of China hoping the rain would taper off as it pelted our rain coats. It was a long journey, out into the lush countryside paired with rural farms and we were glad to disembark in the downpour at the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. The rain kept most of the tourists away and, after buying Jade an umbrella sporting a character from Happy Goat and Big Big Wolf (one of her favorite Chinese cartoons) we foolishly felt over prepared for the park-like stroll. The Way was a simple yet elegant tree-lined path running between rows of stone guardians of the Ming Emperors. Most were animals, half at rest, half on guard. The rest were in human form, sternly watching as we passed through and interspersed between in all were racks of red wooden plaques which Jade said were gifts for luck. The end of the Way was bound by water and brush making curving swoops along both sides of the path until we reached the gate. I could feel the weight of history and faith upping me as we walked under those faces and stepped through the gate and climbed back on our tour bus. By lunch time we had arrived at a government-owned Jade factory, learning about the different qualities and types of Jade before a tasty lunch with some specially cooked chicken and veggies that were gluten free. This was our first meal where the restaurant tried to cater for our dietary issues specifically. As we wound farther out into the countryside towards the Wall, I fell in love with the Chinese countryside. We drove through flooded streets in towns awash with greenery until we arrived at the foot of a mountain. Our tour was set to take a gondola up the mountain to the foot of the Great Wall but the wind and the rain made that impossible, so up we climbed. My daughter rushed ahead, but I went more slowly for several reasons and arrived at the top after about 20 minutes of climbing. My first sight of the wall, standing at its feet, was exhilarating. I have never seen a wall as magnificent. There, the wind and rain whipped in all directions and the distant slopes were draped in a gray mist. Although the wall is no longer the connected expanse it once was, this section stretched as far as my eye could see, which was about half a mile in either direction. My daughter was nowhere to be found and no one in our group could recall where they had last seen her. Tired of the wind and rain, they each headed down a sort of uncomfortable apology in their eyes as they left myself and the teen accompanying me behind. The children of the last family to leave had seen her, and we reunited at what she called her magic place, which was a small segment of wall that ended in a guard house. We explored until dust was threatening and I feared waiting any longer would make the decent impossible. On the way down the girls cut loose, telling stories and marveling at the waterfalls created by the run of water down the steps. We were soaked to the bone by the time we stepped back on the bus and the long rode home was sorely unpleasant but the wonder of the day made it all worthwhile.
Getting going the following morning was rough, my daughter exhausted and unwilling to move forward. We visited the Temple of Heaven, and by this time the ancient architecture had lost some of its wonder. Jade found excitement playing a version of hacky sack with a feather puck that resembled a badminton birdie, shopping – a thing she is always up for – and sliding down the narrow runs that make up the stairs to the Temple of Heaven. We departed to the 2008 Olympic site where I paid in ice cream for a picture of her in front of a distant Bird’s Nest (the Olympic pool turned water park). She did more shopping and I held my breath for a smooth flight to Xian that afternoon. The flight was anything but smooth, with an hour and a half delay on the tarmac due to rain and Jade growing increasingly irritated by the constriction of the truly generous seating. When she finally fell asleep I was relieved, only to fall into a sort of hell half an hour later when I had to wake her and her over tired mind could not cope. My fellow passengers and tour family graciously ignored us as we muddled through until we could fall into our beds at the incredibly well appointed Sheraton Xian.
Morning came too early, and we gathered up the few overcooked hard boiled eggs we could eat while lamenting the lack of breakfast meats. Loading on the bus we took the long rode out, through more lavish countryside, to the Terracotta Warriors. The day was hot and the buildings were crowded so that one could get barely more than a moment’s glance at the dig sites and relics. It was well worth the trip, and engaged even my reluctant historian in the work of archaeology as the sites have been intentionally left in a variety of stages of the archaeological process. We were tired when we left, and when we stopped briefly to investigate a local cliff dwelling, the whole group departed the bus slowly only to find themselves awed at the coolness of the hand dug cave home. The kids debated how long they thought they could, or would, live in a place like that while the parents hung back, to intensely aware that – despite the welcome of the family – we were invading someone’s home. Xian traffic turned out to be worse than Beijing, and it was a long while to our next stop at the old city wall. The battlements were festooned with red lanterns on the city’s ancient wall. It appeared as functional today as when it was built hundreds of years ago, with moat and drawbridge intact. We wandered, sometimes into places we were not supposed to, for a short while before returning to our hotel to freshen up for the night’s adventure- a dumpling banquet we could not eat, followed by a traditional dance show. As my daughter’s Mandarin Immersion School does annual festivals which includes traditional Chinese dance segments, I went into dinner with my expectations set pretty low and when they separated us from the group to make it easier to serve us something without gluten, they fell a little lower. And then the gluten free bell peppers and beef arrived we became overjoyed. After fighting over the last savory scrap of beef, a couple of young boys ran over to Jade, shouting hello in English before running away giggling. I could tell from watching the table that the parents were trying to coax the boys to use their English and so I prompted Jade to go over and say hello. She spent the remaining portion of dinner time talking with the family, a crowd growing around her, until I sensed the show would start soon and forced her to come sit down. The dancing was beautiful, but as I suspected, not much different than that which we’d seen at her school events, which goes a long way to say how lucky we were with such an engaged Chinese community. Our favorite show was a young man playing horns and making duck noises with his mouth. The whole audience was laughing by the end.
We were to leave Xian the following day and I foolishly led myself to believe that I would pack us up in the morning and so our last day in Xian started stressful as I crammed to reorganize and get us out of the hotel on time. We careened through traffic to the Wild Goose Pagoda, an active Buddhist temple. Jade was wound up, almost uncharacteristically at home in this sacred space, running and climbing until I had to pull her back into check. As we entered a group of volunteers pulled us aside so we could fill out a heart shaped gold paper with a wish and they would take it to a temple in Nepal for the priests to pray them up to heaven. I found the place to be peaceful, visitors and priests working quietly at their faith despite the buzzing of tourists. Our stay there was short and we quickly moved on to the Grand Mosque, which looked surprisingly like a typical Chinese structure tucked in a hidden nook behind a vibrant market. Despite the quiet serenity of the Mosque or the bustle of the marketplace, Jade was past done with exploration and we went straight back to the bus to await departure for the airport. Our departure was rough, with some of our items not making it through their inspection and my daughter crying weary tears but by the time our short flight landed in Chengdu she was bright and sunny and excited having finally connected with one of the other kids her age. Somehow we ended up with an executive suite, and our stay at Softel Chengdu was far more resplendent than the last two luxurious hotels. Dinner was on our own, which meant the group Fractured on the lines of local food or Pizza Hut. We chose the pizza Hut crowd in hopes of finding something with meat we could eat. Chengdu at night was alive and filled with neon lights. Our dinner at Pizza Hut was sufficient, but the real highlight of the walk was finding someone’s tiny pet kitten outside their shop, which Jade was allowed to pet.
Morning came far too early, our trip to the Chengdu Panda Research Center in danger due to a political convention being held in the city. We got to the center as they wheeled open the doors. After a short golf cart ride, we arrived at the first stop – the panda kindergarten. There were no pandas present, and we found out shortly that they wouldn’t be out due to the politicians, but our early arrival put us at the verve just in time to see the infant pandas in their incubators. They were adorable, sleepy lumps of pink fuzz or white glossed patches of black and white. We moved on to the giant pandas, who were doing what pandas do best – eating bamboo and rolling around. We found one using the restroom, and moved on to the red pandas after. They were adorable, looking like the offspring of a raccoon who got too friendly with a fox. Jittery compared to their giant panda cousins, they jumped at every loud sound and ran away when their human caretakers came to feed them, only to rush back once the melon slices hit the ground. We wrapped up our tour just as it started to rain and we were grateful for our early wake up due to the long lines waiting to get into the panda reserve in the rain. We ran so early in schedule that they reorganized our lunch to a place tucked into the top floor of an outdoor market, and we were able to eat shezuan chicken prepared gluten free for us and then pick up more toys and trinkets that my daughter was looking for before returning to relax in the hotel pool. We discovered that swim caps, the one item I hadn’t brought, were required. They had some available and so we were able to swim in the cold water for a bit before returning to a snack dinner from our own food stash. Opting out of the night’s performance, we watched a bad American movie we’d already seen before packing up and calling it an early night.
Our morning started at 4:30am due to the only flight to Guilin being a 7am flight. We barely felt rested but got through the boarding routine without issues. Once on-board, the kiddo passed out and I followed into a restless sleep shortly after, and so we were moderately rested for our first day in Guilin. The sun was beating down on us when we left the airport, a pleasant change from the wet weather. We wound through Guilin, admiring the quaint buildings wrapping around the base of deep green pillars of tree covered mountains. Our destination was on the far side of the city – a tea plantation and research center. The narrow roads and sparse housing of the countryside engendered an old world feel and when we arrived at the plantation it looked like a monastery surrounded by rows of deep green bushes. We disembarked from the bus to be greeted by a smiling man in a red silk jacket named Jack. He doled out the conical woven hats of the tea pickers, and led us over to the bushes. While we were admiring the vistas and laughing at our struggle to keep the hats balanced, Jack announced that we would be picking our own tea. He showed us what to pick and, after reassuring us that there were no snakes, shooed us out into the heat. We parked ourselves at the tightly spaced, chest-high green bushes, flipped our hats on top to make a basket and began to carefully pick the few parts that contained one soft bud and two young leaves. By the end of our 10 minutes we were sweaty and had marginally enough to make a single cup of tea. Jack collected all of our varied pickings into one large pile in the cone of his hat and then led us to the processing demonstration. Jack spent a lot of time teaching us the difference between the teas- which leaves made what tea, if they were fermented or not, and how much caffeine they had as he demonstrated how they sorted, dried, and prepared the tea. Jade helped cook the leaves in a large metal bowl, pressing the leaves and rolling them across the 110° surface. She did an excellent job, attending his directions, and afterwards we all went to drink tea – although not the leaves we picked as it would have taken days to properly finish their organic processing. The tea ceremony took place at the top of a two story building, with the group seated on wooden stools that looked like tree stumps around three log tables. As Jack and his assistant made and poured the tea in tiny clay tasting cups, he told us more about tea culture – what kind of teas go in what pots and how to say thank you when your tea is poured by using the proper hand gestures. As someone who prefers not to drink tea I found it interesting and the four flavors we sampled just enough to be drunk quickly without masking me miserable. We visited the local shop after, then headed to our hotel to check in. Our local guide was kind enough to take us on a walking tour around Guilin waterfront park after check in and we enjoyed the beauty despite being drenched in sweat. On the return home Jade and I separated from the group to purchase a shirt and skirt she’d fallen in love with. We wandered down the outdoor market streets, eyeing wares and getting to see a local crafter at work – weaving a thick mauve thread into a heavy shawl. Jade became hungry so we tried our luck at the Chinese owned Irish pub and, to our joy, they had rice noodles and were willing to substitute them for traditional American pasta. It was wonderfully satisfying and we returned to the hotel to an early bed.
Feeling well rested for the first time in a week, we awoke early to eat breakfast and head out to see a mountainous Zhuang and Yao farming town. It was a long, windy ride, and I began to wish I had thought to bring dramamine despite the amazing scenery. We took two buses, one to the foot of the mountain and another to the base of the town, then traversed the narrow, winding stairs through the widely spread village and up to the top of a peak of the dragon spine mountains. There, we could see the rice terraces layered out around us. It was a beautiful sight, followed by a delicious lunch and shopping. The local ladies barely spoke enough English or Mandarin to make bartering and buying possible and Jade and I picked up several wonderful handcrafted items, including a local traditional dress for Jade to wear to her friend’s Mandarin Immersion school functions. After another dinner of plain rice and veggies, Jade and I treated ourselves to banana boat sundaes at our Irish Pub, where she got mango ice cream and I enjoyed strawberry. Jade was invigorated by the ice cream and jovial atmosphere of the evening bazaar, but after returning to the hotel to retrieve her wallet she decided she’d rather stay in. She played video games while I did some much needed washing and packing for our morning departure.
Our bags were loaded on the bus bright and early the next morning but we set off to cruise the Li River, which winds through some of the most beautiful scenery in China. The river was a jade green and, where it was shallow enough, you could see the pebbles that line the river bed. The boat tour wound it’s way through the tree covered limestone spires for almost four hours, and we marveled at the beauty, snapping countless shots of the ever-changing mountain landscape, waterfalls, and even little houses built into limestone caves. When the boat finally docked we explored another small town bazaar where Jade found shoes to match the local outfit she’d bought. We got a sundae from a KFC and wandered through the hot town at the foot of limestone mountains to our bus. The town was bustling yet quaint, with three story buildings lining narrow roads but the heat made us glad to be back on the bus. We disembarked twice on our two hour return drive, the first time being at a local farmer’s house. The house was over 300 years old and a glorious, tall wooden complex. The kids took turns cranking the mill from which soy milk flowed, pumping the water from the cast iron pump, and playing with the family kitten woke the adults learned skit the history of the house and soaked in the cultural and industrialization differences. The last stop was along the river to see the local swimming hole and river rafting on bamboo log rafts. Many of the locals had brought water sprayers and one woman in particular reveled in soaking us as we stood on the bridge watching their play. My clothing was spotted with river water when we boarded the bus and left for the airport. The evening flight from Guilin was a trial. We ate at the airport, a skimpy meal of white rice and some French fries for Jade as the restaurant could not make us anything gluten free to eat. Then there was a delay and the longest pre-flight safety check in history so by 10:30pm when we took off we were truly exhausted. When we fell into the rooms at the Intercontinental in Shanghai we barely had time to marvel at the opulence of the rooms before passing out.
Our first day in Shanghai was scheduled to be a lot of American-style tourism – admiring various architectural structures and visiting museums – which I new Jade would not enjoy as much so I was pleased with how well she coped. We left at 10am, getting only about 6 hours of sleep the night before. As we drove to our first stop our local guide chattered about the short history of Shanghai and pointing out various buildings. The one we were headed towards was, until recently, the tallest building in Shanghai with 88 floors. We took an elevator to the top, which took only about 1 minute, our ears popping as we rose, and then we could see a vast expanse of the city. Our favorite view was of a building that looked like a retro styled rocket ship with silver and ruby red ball-shaped compartments shining in the sun and capped with a tall spire. Another treat was the inner portion of the building we were in was open down to the 55th floor, with a glass observation window. Leaning over to peer down hgave a sense of falling that made my head spin and Jade peered down those flights many times. After a short while there we left for the Bund, which for someone used to the European-styled buildings of the south east and Washington DC, was a stereotypical riverfront area. Our lunch was at a marvelous restaurant that looked like it was right out of a movie set in 1930s China. While we could not vouch for the food as white rice was becoming nausea inducing at this point and there was little else gluten free that they could offer us, the setting was well worth it. It began to pour as we got on our bus and I was surprised to realize that, unlike the other cities in China, there were no streets vendors to hock umbrellas to those of us who’d forgotten them. Fortunately, we were able to return to the hotel for the forgotten items before we stood in line at the Shanghai Museum. Entertaining Jade at the museum was difficult as she is not generally inclined to care about artifacts she can’t interact with but we managed to get through the hour or so we had, looking at jade, indigenous clothing, carved wooden furniture, classy pottery and paintings. A good quarter of our time was spent at the various gift kiosks and shops. The former French Concession area was our next stop and it was quite a pretty shopping area that visually looked like a cleaner version of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The streets were narrow at points and cobbled, with two story brick buildings that merged one into the next only punctuated by the occasional brick arch or side street. Trees lined the outer perimeter and dotted the wider plazas within and many of the building lofted second story balconies, either built into the brickwork or crafted with beautifully carved wood. Jade and I spent a good sum of yuen on four delicious Godiva truffles there as she was disinterested in the historical information, and so became the envy of much of our group. After a dinner where I hogged a dish of spicy pepper steak that had been prepared without soy, we went to see an acrobatic show. The show was, of course, visually splendid and the kids were all hoping, balancing and shouting when we left. We had been lucky to see the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats in Galveston just last year and I felt this show was almost comparable in terms of splendor and entertainment value and considered how fortunate we are to live in such a culturally vibrant city as Houston.
Our last tour day started out with some bitter disappointment – the Starbucks at the hotel did not open until the time we were scheduled to depart. The bus ride was pleasant enough and our first stop was the private gardens of the Master of Nets in Suzhou. Despite the heat, both Jade and I enjoyed the gardens with their carefully arranged limestone rocks, koi ponds, and plants – especially the pink crepe myrtle tree. It was no wonder this garden is listed as a world heritage site with UNESCO. Our garden trip was followed by a visit to a silk mill, where we learned how silkworms are raised and how the silk threads are harvested from the cocoons. As someone with a long history of sewing I found it vastly engaging and Jade, too, seemed enamored with the process. The final product interested her less, and she turned down both silk fabric and clothing, stating that it was too ‘sticky’ and fragile. She was disappointed when our bus carried us to an off-site restaurant where we had yet another meal of sticky white rice and steamed broccoli instead of the silkworm larvae the guide jestingly promised we could try. It poured, while we were eating, and we lounged there a while in hopes that the rain would let off and we could move on to our next destination – gondola rides in Tongli. I was fearful this part, which I’d been greatly looking forward to would be cancelled due to the weather, but our guide promised that we’d at least go to Tongli, even if we couldn’t take the gondolas. Fortunately, the lightning and rain let up and we set out to the small, walled-off city. Tongli was different from other locations in that the town itself was enclosed by a wall that gave it a wealthy suburban feel. We went on foot into the town and wandered wide cobbled streets that wove through the white walls until we came to the river. The waterways laced through the town, taking up as much space as the narrowed streets themselves. The kids and I raced towards the boats, a little over excited about this part of the adventure, then waited impatiently at the short run of stairs that led down to the small platform to which the boat would dock. The boat women carefully blocked our path until tickets were properly handed off and families were sorted into groups of six, then down we went, to crawl under the canopies of these wooden fishing boats. Jade freaked as the boat rocked when she walked, ignoring my calls to balance it out by spreading her stance until just steps before she was seated. The gondola creaked as it pulled away, and the boat woman pulled a thick rope to maneuver the single paddle back and forth with minimal effort as we made our way through the canals. Many of the canals were lined with shops and restaurants, decorated with bright flowering plants or festooned with red lanterns. As we floated, Jade noted a boat on which many thick billed, black, birds roosted and asked me what they were. I thought, with no particular knowledge on the subject, that they might be cormorants and encouraged her to ask the boat woman to verify. After a short exchange Jade told me the woman said they were fisher birds who helped the fisherman, but that was all. When our boat docked, we crept off, careful of the sudden dip of the boat as we lept to the small stone pad that counted as shore. While we waited for the whole group to disembark, a stuffed animal in one of the shops caught Jade’s eye so in we went. She debated the purchase for a few minutes but was in love with the hand-made paisley print Lucky Cat so she bartered and paid as quickly as she could . Still, we found a mildly disgruntled regional guide awaiting us when we left, as the rest of the group was farther on – in a local museum taking in artifacts from daily life or local wedding customs. We hurried to join them, and – although Jade was vastly bored – I chucked at some of the puns that the guide disclosed to us in the wedding gifts. The one that stuck out the most was the chopsticks, which would sit in the wedding chamber, a gift from the parents. Chopsticks, due to the sound they make, were to indicate the desire for the couple to “chop-chop” or hurry up with providing grandchildren, according to our local guide. After, we flitted through another lovely garden and during our free time got some of the most expensive ice cream I’ve ever bought.
We returned to Shanghai, excited about tomorrow’s adventure as we planned to spend our free day at the newly opened Shanghai Disney resort. I’d already secured our tickets online, surprised to find that there was no fast-pass option and that it was, as of yet, only one single park. I’d also determined that taxi was our best bet to get there with ease, despite the cost (about $35 USD one way) so we were sure we’d have a great time despite the obvious misgivings of our guides who warned us about the length of lines and the forecasted heat. We arrived at Disney after an overly-quiet taxi ride and were dropped off on the far side of downtown Disney. We walked about half a mile to the first sign of shops and another quarter to the que for the actual park. While we enjoyed the sprawling water fountains on the way in, I was already grateful that I’d brought both an umbrella to give some shade and a fan to cool us down. The entry line was intense, with the concept of line being a living thing that never quite held still and whose flow was frequently interrupted by the appearance of umbrella vendors or security guards chasing them off. Families were carrying bags of fruit and drinks and Jade and I kept looking at each other in disbelief. Needless to say, while multiple families were held back to empty out their pre-purchased food stores, Jade and I were quickly whisked through the security lines. The Mickey Mouse head picked out on a hill in foliage, the ticketing lines, these things were all as expected, and rather quickly we found ourselves in the wide plaza inside. Shops, largely unopened at not quite 9am, ran down either side of the Micky Town, and in the near distance, the castle rose. It loomed over large gardens and there was nothing in the park to rival its height, lending to its regal appearance. We headed towards it immediately, as Jade was most excited about the Alice in Wonderland gardens, which we found after wandering through the belly of the castle and marveling at it’s mosaic paintings of some of the most recent beloved princesses like Merida, Tiana, Rapunzel and more. Getting to the gardens took some navigation as the bulk of the exhibit and the entrance were on different sides of a curving bridge, but we found it and Jade raced ahead through one of three wooden doors that stood at the mouth of a maze. She ran like a delighted child, past the story pictures and the lovely metal statuettes until we came to a great door adorned with the Bandersnatch’s head as a sort of door knocker. The door began to rattle and shake and Jade, who is a little afraid of dogs, screamed and jumped back. Realizing that the motion-activated cycle would soon die down I coaxed her into petting it and, sure enough, it magically calmed which made her feel both special and brave – like Alice. She forged ahead, into a tunnel made to look as if it was carved from root and earth and the Chesire cat made his mystical appearance only to vanish and reappear further down the path. She shrieked, she squealed, and ‘oohed with delight. When she finally left the tunnel we were face to face with a giant statue of the head of Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Jade discovered another door – this one activated by jiggling the door handle – which screamed at her, then we were off into the maze. On the other side awaited a giant statue of the tea party table, complete with an empty chair to pose in and hats waiting for heads to try them on. We stayed there for a few, just playing around, and then wandered off already thirsty and over hot. Finding water turned out to be more difficult than one would think as the park is greatly spread out with only small pockets devoted to food, most of which opens later in the day. There were free water fountains at the bathrooms so we found ourselves lingering there for a while. We played with the Sword in the Stone at a park, took an indoor ride through Neverland, then wandered over to Tomorrowland to gape at the one huge ride (Tron) which Jade refused to touch, hug Stitch, and take some jealousy-inducing Star Wars photos for Dad. She liked flipping all the switches on the Millennium Falcon, but little else there held her so we were off, again, in search of candy she’d spied on our way in. Jade ended up with a candy coated, caramel and chocolate dipped apple, which I simultaneously regretted both not buying one for myself and buying for her. She refused to do the self-paddle canoeing, but we waited almost an hour to go on the ropes course, which turned out to be well and terrifying. It, fortunately, had a few places for chickens like myself to go around because otherwise I’d still be standing in front of the waterfall cavern looking down at the twelve foot drop and the five inches of wet rock ledge saying “no. no way.” We saw The Black Pearl and laughed at a drunken-sounding Jack Sparrow’s picture as it came alive and spouted something at us in Chinese, then we rode an amazing indoor water ride full of vibrant undersea images and animatronic Jack Sparrows. We got wet and, if it had not been for the long wait, she would have willingly rode again. Instead, we got lunch – a lovely pork rib that we could barely finish – before going through Wonderland again. This time, we were the attraction, with Jade getting asked to pose with families more often than we took photos ourselves. We were hot, and tired from walking almost 6 miles at this point, and so we took our final spin – a ride on Pooh Bear’s Honey Pots before going home. We got a little lost getting to the taxi pick up, but it was well laid out for foreigners, with a man checking off the taxis in an orderly line. Our driver didn’t know where our hotel was, but we had a card from the hotel with a map and he called his office and we got there safely, even if he seemed unsure right up until he dropped us off. We fell into our beds and, a little later, I reluctantly packed us while the kiddo watched TV.
Leaving Shanghai came too early in the morning and, for all our excitement to go home and see Dad and cats and friends, we dragged ourselves onto the bus with our tour group and headed to the airport. The lines were already long and we were to check our bags through to Houston, despite a 5 hour layover in Beijing. All went smoothly until they were unable to open up my ticket. We waived down our regional guide and went back and forth between desks for about half an hour, trying to get my ticket resolved and, failing that, to get a ticket where Jade and I could sit together on the flight from Shanghai to Beijing. I was grateful that the airlines gave Jade a free extra piece of luggage so both our bags could be check through on her ticket instead of me having to pick up my baggage before our next flight. Our guide would not be in Beijing with us, so she carefully explained the process, but that did not stop me from worrying, especially after it became apparent on the plane that they had some difficulty determining who the gluten free meals we’d prearranged were for. Once in Beijing we weren’t able to go through the transfer gate but instead had to exit and go through boarding once again. Our guide’s instructions were great, as people spoke little to no English and Jade’s Chinese wasn’t up to this kind of task, and in the end my ticket got printed out the way it should have and we were able to hit both a Starbucks for some much-needed coffee and a McDonald’s for lunch before our flight. We also discovered that the airport gift shop near our departure gate had a host of inexpensive items we’d been eyeballing but not yet bought, so we were able to use up most of the last of our yuan before the long flight home giving Jade a new pencil set, a stuffy, and some chocolates to make the 16 hours more bearable. Air China’s economy seats were ample enough, with built in movie screens that we enjoyed all the way home and when we arrived in Houston we were too wired from our adventures to notice that we were exhausted and had failed to sleep more than a few hours on our flight home.