I fell in love with China the first time I visited last winter. I just automatically thought Zachary would, too. As our summer departure date drew closer, though, I began to wonder if I hadn't assumed too much. Zach and I always took a father-and-son trip (sans Mom) every year, but never one like this. I, after all, had gone there in February to prepare for this issue. My agenda was very specific: to enlist writers, artists, photographers, and others who would provide the on-site insider information and access DEPARTURES is known for. I was moving in and out of airports, hotels, and restaurants just as I would in any major foreign city. Bing. Bang. Boom. Hong Kong. Beijing. Shanghai. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner.
But the journey I was arranging for Zach and me would be different. And not only because I had seen the country under the crisp blue skies of winter rather than the heavily polluted skies of summer, with its mid-June heat wave. This time around I wanted to go beyond the cities, to see rural China. We would visit Beijing (more interesting for a kid, I decided, than stylish Shanghai) and head into the countryside, forfeiting the sophisticated urbane comfort of Peninsula suites and fusion restaurants.
I planned for the two of us to pack as much into two weeks as possible. Too much? Maybe. For starters, I realized that I didn't know a lot about China. I didn't even know enough to fake it. Yes, we were traveling the first leg of our trip—Beijing, Hangzhou, and Xi'an—with Butterfield & Robinson, who would have first-rate English-speaking guides in each of these places. But I had so little cursory knowledge of the country that I couldn't even share a general overview of its history with Zach. That's why I hired a tutor, Kevin Lawrence, the assistant director of education at the China Institute in New York, to give us a few prep sessions. For four Thursday evenings before we left, the three of us would gather in my living room and Kevin would talk to us about Dao, Mao, Sun Yat-sen, and the last emperor. It was he who taught us "hello" and "goodbye" in Chinese and mentioned, offhandedly, the raising of the red flag at sunrise in Tiananmen Square. This was something no guidebook or guide had ever mentioned. It turned out to be an unforgettable moment. By the time Zach and I boarded Continental Flight 89, nonstop from Newark, New Jersey, to Beijing, China, he and I knew at least two words in Chinese and some history.
The best family trips, of course, are the ones that really reflect the family, not those jerry-rigged vacations in which the children tag along with their parents. They're a mix of sophisticated adult pleasures and serious kids' stuff—put simply, what I wanted and what Zach wanted. Face it: Authentic Sichuan cooking, Tang pottery, and the secret rooms of the Forbidden City aren't the stuff of most kids' dreams. So when B&R's Bespoke travel division called me from Toronto a month before our trip to ask what sorts of things Zach likes to do, they had already scheduled bicycling through Beijing's small streets and alleys lined with traditional courtyard houses and down from the Great Wall; trekking above the tea plantations outside Hangzhou; and special access for an up-close viewing of the terra-cotta warriors.
"Basketball," I answered without a second thought, never dreaming that a month later I would be sitting in a Xi'an high school gym—an hour from the spot where peasants unearthed the first remains of the famous warriors in 1974—watching my son doing drills and shooting with a team of very tall and very fast Chinese players, the red-and-gold flag of the People's Republic of China overhead.
B&R specializes in very particular and personalized trips for families. The company had chosen guides in each location based on their ability to relate to children as well as adults. B&R's Cari Gray and local guide Norman Chang planned restaurant choices with a teenager in mind and even produced a wonderful farewell banquet—in a Buddhist courtyard under the roof of an achingly beautiful pagoda—complete with a martial arts performance by a group of kids Zach's age.
Less successful, however, was the itinerary for the second part of our trip, called "Pandas and Sichuan Backcountry Rambling," arranged by another well-respected outfitter, WildChina. And ramble we did. Though the company offers a number of comfortable excursions, this particular "adventure" may appeal only to those who are single-minded in their pursuit of pandas despite dreary accommodations and the lack of anything deluxe.
Our trip involved flying to the city of Chengdu in central Sichuan to visit its Panda Breeding Research Center, then driving three hours northwest to the Wolong Nature Reserve. The pandas, I must say, were amazing, especially at the Wolong reserve, where they were not behind bars as they had been in Chengdu. Here the two of us had the run of the outdoor "nursery," where we played for half an hour with four-year-old cubs, even rolling a basketball back and forth with them. Was it worth the plane trip to Chengdu, the uncomfortable and uninteresting three-hour car ride to Wolong, and the hotel bed with no mattress? To be honest, it's not a trip I would recommend, despite the pandas' magic.
In fact, it was at Wolong Hotel that I realized the critical importance of a portable DVD player. Now, I'm the last parent on earth to encourage video games and repeat viewings of Dude, Where's My Car? But distances are vast in China and traveling requires a lot of time spent in the air and the car. While many hotels have television, the only programs to watch are the same 22 Chinese soap operas shown over and over. Believe me, when you've got six hours before bedtime and you're in a loveless, no-frills unair-conditioned hotel room the size of a pool table in the middle of nowhere, a DVD player is invaluable. Similarly, I discovered the pleasures of the BlackBerry. Not only was it a way for Zach to e-mail his mother, it was also perfect for recording his daily adventures—though, admittedly, not by hand and not in some Florentine tooled-leather diary.
Was it all worth it? By the time we returned home, Zach had written the following e-mail:
Yesterday really must have been one of the best days of my life. I got to play with the best high school basketball team in all of Xi'an. I was very nervous at first, trying not to embarrass myself in front of 20 five- to seven-foot-tall Chinese players. I noticed how different basketball is here in China than in the U.S. The Chinese use speed to their advantage and it was very hard—and annoying—guarding a speedy little five-foot-tall 16-year-old who kept getting away from me. Also, the coaches are much calmer. Afterward, we went out for a beautiful dinner with our guide. Hope everything is well.