Our family of four (Mom, Dad, Chinese daughters 13 ½ and 16) travelled back to China for the first time with the Winter 2012 Heritage Tour.  Other than family reunions and our adoption trips, it was our first experience with group travel.  We were in the Blue Group, with the teenagers and a few younger siblings.  Any prior concerns we may have had about travelling with people we did not know completely evaporated the first day.    By the second day, the kids were becoming fast friends, and took over the back of the bus. We thoroughly enjoyed everyone on the trip, and made friends with the adults quickly.  In addition, we realized just part-way through the journey what a great value the trip was—worth every penny we paid.  It is a hard decision to spend that much money on a vacation, and we felt that we more than got our money’s worth, in many ways.

Preparing for your trip, we might suggest some things that worked well for us.  Luggage weight is very limited within China.  We travelled in very cold weather, with not much chance to have laundry done on the trip.  Our coats, boots, hats, and gloves were with us on the plane.  We each had rolling carry-on- sized suitcases, which held our daypacks, medicines, water bottles, chargers, books, etc. for the trip.  Our bigger suitcases were checked.  Just to be safe, because we had so many flights on this trip, we all packed some of our clothes in each other’s suitcases, in case something was lost or delayed.  I made use of 2 gallon Ziploc bags to organize clothing into “outfits” for two or three days at a time.  Because we were dressing in layer upon layer, we could have a pair of pants, fleece leggings, a couple of shirts, a sweater, a few undies and pjs all flattened into a bag, and “live” out of the bag for a few days without having to unpack and repack our suitcases over and over.  This helped with the busy schedule we were on.  It also kept the “dirty” clothes separate from the clean ones.  If you go in the winter, don’t be embarrassed about wearing the same clothes over and over.  Everyone was in the same boat, having to bring enough layers to keep warm with limited luggage.  On our trip, laundry was available at the first stop, but we really didn’t have dirty clothes yet.  The other laundry opportunity was at the end of the trip, in Guilin.  Because we were continuing on for an orphanage visit, we took advantage of the very inexpensive laundry service here.

Other families have mentioned great items to take if you have room.  I might add, bring a collapsible water bottle for each person, one that can hold boiling water.  When you get into your hotel room, boil the water and fill your bottles.  They will be cooled and ready to take with you in the morning.  Hotels do provide bottled water, but we used this for teeth brushing (it’s hard to brush teeth with boiling water…).

Another helpful suggestion---toilet paper is usually not available in public restrooms in China.  Before our trip, whenever a toilet paper roll would get low in our house, I would replace it with a new roll, remove the cardboard tube from the small roll, and flatten the remaining paper.  Each family member carried a Ziploc bag with these small rolls of paper and some wet wipes in their day pack.

It may not be possible, but if you are adding on orphanage tours, consider visiting those places before the main heritage tour.  Our girls had such an amazing time on the group tour, and made such wonderful friends, that they were depressed and feeling a let-down when we left for the rest of our tour.  It took a bit of attitude-adjusting to switch to “just” a family trip.  Another thing would be to try to research your orphanage city if you can.  Although we had a great guide, he did not know the city at all, and expected us to tell him what we wanted to do and see.  Of course we hadn’t been there so we didn’t know.  We felt that we didn’t get as good a “feel” for the city as we wished for (and, the weather did not cooperate either).

The merits of this trip can hardly be emphasized enough.  We were amazed daily by the thought and care that CCCWA/BLAS and CCAI had put into the trip.  We expected to see fabulous touristy sights, and we did, and thoroughly enjoyed them.  But all of the more “local” cultural things that we were treated to left us with such fun, personal memories of interacting with the Chinese people.  The efforts put into our big Christmas party were so touching.  Every detail was thought of to help the kids celebrate an all-American Christmas, with gifts, Santa hats, music, traditional Christmas dinner foods, even having Santa visit each child personally.  Getting to ride in rickshaws to a local home for lunch, learning crafts at the CCCWA offices, learning to make a full meal at a local cooking school, riding bicycles around the city wall in Xian, visiting a monastery and having tea at a local park in Chengdu, bargaining with locals in the markets, and more…our experiences just couldn’t have been better.  My girls came home with such a great love for China and its people, that they experienced first-hand, not just from listening to what we’d always taught them.  From start to finish on this trip they felt so special, loved, and welcomed.  We, the parents, also were appreciated, and it was very moving to experience this welcome-back with our daughters.

A huge part of the success of this trip was the wonderful guides.  Amber, who was with us from beginning to end, was a delight.  She was funny, sweet, informative, patient, very organized, and never let us worry about a thing.  The local guides in the individual cities were such a great addition, with their local knowledge and lore.  Several of them presented the kids with special gifts from that province, as well as saying goodbye with songs, dances and poems that had the whole bus in tears.  We all felt so loved!  And it was beyond special to meet the director of CCCWA, to be able to say thank you for our children.

Our family has taken many vacations, both U.S. and Europe.  Our girls are excellent travelers, and welcome every new experience with open arms.   But this trip really felt different.  They were so relaxed and happy to be among faces that look like theirs, to see their homeland and experience how they might have lived, feeling very much that they belonged and were special.  As a family, we keep remembering all of the great things we did on our journey.  It was definitely the trip of a lifetime for us!