Ages of All Kids on the Tour: We were broken into three groups/busses the entire time, divided roughly by kids’ ages. Each group did the same activities but at staggered times. Our group/bus was primarily 7-8 year olds and their families (there were 20 adults and 14 kids on our bus), another group/bus was primarily 9-12 year olds and their families, and the last group/bus was primarily teenagers and their families. You stuck with your group for the entire tour, eating with them, visiting activities or sights with them, seeing shows with them, etc. So we got to know everyone in the red group really well, but didn’t get to talk very much with the folks on the two other busses. The kids on each bus had a wonderful time with each other and all seemed to bond. I kept peeking at the group of teenagers all hanging together and smiling. Siblings were welcome and easily joined in all group activities and bonding. If you have two kids of very different ages, you’ll need to decide which age group to all go with.
Age of our children on the Tour: Our children were seven for this visit. We had always planned to wait until they were 10 to take them back to China, but to be honest they’ve wanted passionately to go since they were four and wore us down. Plus, the timing worked out perfectly with their school break, my husband’s business deals, and our travel companions’ work schedule. Taking them at seven ended up being a really positive thing. Everything was simply fun and adventurous for them at this age. They saw everything they could, were excited about China, and want to go back someday to see more -- which is pretty much exactly what we and the Chinese government (who sponsored all adoptees) wanted. We’ll definitely take them back. If I could only take them once, I probably would have done it at 10 years old.
Bathrooms: The bathrooms in China haven’t changed since I was there in ‘06. There are very few Western toilets except in the hotels, and my new experience was that the ones they do have are locked. As soon as a bathroom attendant saw us fiddling with a western toilet door, she’d wave her hands and say “Out of order.” Well the 3rd or 4th time this happened in different places, we were pretty darn sure that wasn’t the case, and our girls (early squatty potty trauma) worked on the door until they spun the lock open, and lo and behold, there was a perfectly clean working Western toilet. Happy girls. So now we know to carry a coin with us to unlock toilets that really are working. Oh, and we always carried Kleenex (because they usually don’t have toilet paper) and hand sanitizer wipes (I like to actually rub things off hands).
Blogging in China: Several folks asked what equipment I brought so that I could blog in China, and the most important thing I brought was my husband. ;-) Seriously though, the Chinese firewalls were maddening and ever changing. Whole urls like Facebook, Blogger, and Google were blocked. It took us three days, VPN software (Panda Pow), and many, many tries to get everything working, and even then it was inconsistent and my husband had to troubleshoot things again and again. We eventually got things to work with Panda Pow and varied ports (one night we’d connect through San Francisco port 3 and the next night we’d find our way through Amsterdam port 1). My advice is to try out your VPN software before you go, download the latest version the night before, and try different ports while you’re there. If all else fails, have someone back home as your backup blogger that you can email posts to. Also, as to timing, you simply won’t have much downtime for blogging. When you finally check in to a hotel, you are going to need food or sleep stat. The only easy time to blog was in hotel lobbies waiting for big groups to get moving, airport lobbies, and on planes. I wrote up all my posts in those areas (I use Windows Live Writer so I’m doing everything offline first), then would publish as soon as my husband got us up and running at the hotel. It was pretty much unlock door, brush teeth, unzip suitcase only as much needed to extract pajamas, moan and lie down on bed, push the publish button that my husband was pointing at, drift off to sleep.
CCCWA Visit: Our tour was sponsored by the CCCWA, CCAI, and BLAS, and they coordinated the CCCWA (China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption) visit, which was one of my favorite parts of the trip. In the first room the CCCWA employees reviewed dossiers, so each file on the shelf represented a family in review. In the second room (the magic room), the matching took place. Gave me goosebumps. The files on the shelf in that room were of babies waiting for families.
Electronics: We brought an iPad for each girl and my laptop for blogging and email. The iPads were in constant use during every wait by all of the kids (I’d look over and see 11 heads bent over our two iPads. And they were all happy.) There is a lot of waiting with a big group. Games that can be played by many tiny fingers at once were gold -- Secret Garden, HarborMaster, Diner Dash. We could charge the iPads in almost every hotel room in the 120 slots and didn’t need converters. My laptop had a three-prong cord, so that one needed an adaptor for plugging-in/charging. Every room had a hair dryer, by the way, so no need to pack one.
Emotional Issues: The visit to China and in particular the CCCWA didn’t bring up any new issues or cause any emotional distress with our girls. We talked about the entire visit in great length beforehand, and they definitely understand what the CCCWA does, but nothing new came up afterwards. Like I’ve always said before to friends/family, I know these emotional issues will come, they just haven’t yet. In the meantime, we just keep talking.
Food: If your kids are picky, it would behoove you to pack a whole lotta snacks/food they will eat. Our girls don’t like spicy food, any food that’s looking back at them, food with lots of bones, or anything that’s too “wet” or whoknowswhat. Anyhow it’s annoying, but bearable when you can say “Fine, eat some rice and you’ll be set until we get back to the bus (where you have your stash of food.) We packed tons of granola bars, trail mix, crackers with cheese, fruit roll, etc. (And Peanut M&Ms for me!) We couldn’t find these things in China (except for one store in Beijing that sold granola bars). Once we ran out of snacks, we started bringing our small cooler bag down to breakfast each morning and packing it with a small ziploc bag of ice and a couple of bananas, slurpable yogurts, hard-boiled eggs, and pieces of bread. With these on hand, we were invincible! The home snacks take up a lot of room in the suitcase, but as you eat them they sure leave a nice little hole for packing souvenirs.
Foster Family/Orphanage Tour: We weren’t able to visit the girls’ orphanage/foster family on this trip because of our schedule. Tours sponsored by BLAS generally visit Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin. If you go on a summer heritage tour you can swap out the Guilin portion of the tour for an orphanage tour, but if you go on the winter tour the orphanages are closed for the holidays and you can only add the orphanage tour to the end (an extra 4 days). Having now seen Guilin, the Li River, and Yangshuo, I wouldn’t recommend skipping those amazing sights. They were unlike any other cities I’d seen in China and I’m so glad we saw them.
Health: It is a pretty strenuous tour, no doubt about it. You need to be able to get up and down stairs, move your own luggage (we brought light spinner 4-wheeled luggage that could be pushed along by the kids), sleep less than 6 hours a day while adjusting to jetlag, eat food you’re unfamiliar with at times you don’t normally eat, walk long distances, and sit for long periods of time in small airplane and bus seats. You also need to be able to “squat” (and most importantly to get back up) to use 99% of the toilets in China (where you’ll need to bring your own toilet paper and antibacterial hand wipes). Bring any meds you’ll need in your carry-on. Pain reliever, chewable Pepto Bismol, cold medicine, cough drops, and any prescriptions – you’d probably be able to find most of these in China, but won’t have time to look.
Packing Tips: Don’t bring a hairdryer, all hotels have them, but they are hidden in weird places. Bring a digital clock. There are no hotel clocks and I can’t stand waking up and not knowing if I’ve been asleep for 6 minutes or 6 hours. If you’re going in the winter, carry your winter jackets and gloves with you on the plane. If there’s a problem with the luggage, you’ll still be able to leave the airport and walk outside. You won’t have a lot of opportunities to do laundry – for us it was once at the first hotel (when we really didn’t need to do it) and once at the last hotel (when we were in the home stretch and could just tough it out). So we basically brought enough that we could wear things (except socks and underwear) multiple times and not need to do laundry. Pack electronics for the kids during wait times (see Electronics section for more details). Bring snacks (see Food section for more details).
Safety: I never felt unsafe in China. Crowded, yes, but never unsafe. We took basic precautions like we would during any travel: We had extra copies of our passports and visa pages that were stored in the safe each day. I wore my purse over my neck and shoulder so it was right in front of me. We each carried the day’s hotel business card so we could always get back if separated. The girls wore ID bracelets with my husband’s international phone number and they mostly walked between us or were holding hands with someone in the family.
Tour Group vs. Individual Travel: Plusses: You hang with a large group of adults and kids who share your story. There’s always someone fun around to talk to or play with. All details are planned for you – just get to China and they’ll do all the rest. Minuses: The tour moves FAST, so you are constantly flying here and there and checking in and out of hotels and then you’ll find yourself waiting, because it takes some doing to get a group of 35 people from Point A to Point B. Summary: Knowing what I know, I’d still choose the tour every single time for the girls’ first visit to China. There is no way we could have seen as much as we saw in 12 days left to our own devices, they opened doors that would not have been open to us (CCCWA for example), and all of the kids enjoyed the heck out of each other. You’re Still in Control of Parental Decisions: Just because you’re on a group tour doesn’t mean you don’t have any control. It’s easy to opt-out of activities if you need to. If the kids are running on empty and can no longer form coherent sentences, well shoot, skip that dark late 8pm-10pm show and get your kiddo in bed. We did it twice, and it saved our sanity and turned our girls back into their “normal” feisty selves. Length of Tour: Twelve days was just about perfect for the tour, in our opinion. It was fast-paced, but we saw a lot and we weren’t away from home for so long that the kids (or adults) permanently melted down.
Water: Everyone knows you can’t drink the water in China. But it’s hard to break 40+ year old habits. So as soon as we got in a hotel room we draped a washcloth over the faucet to serve as a visual reminder “Hey genius, don’t use this.” We’d have the girls brush their teeth in a glass holding some bottled water or boiled water (if we got to the room early enough). And that’s all I ever drank, by the way, bottled water (with a cup of black tea in the morning). My husband drank bottled water and a little beer. Hardly anyone sold his beloved Diet Coke, so he just had to suffer through that one.
What Surprised Me: I expected that the Great Wall would be phenomenal again, and it was. I knew the pandas would delight. But I was surprised at how much we all enjoyed riding bikes on the Ancient Wall in Xi’an, strolling Jinli Street and Bamboo Park in Chengdu, doing the Guilin river cruise, and experiencing the neat city of Yangshuo.
Honestly though, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and if someone told me I could repeat it exactly – I’d sign right up.