Remote China: Off the Beaten Path... with kids

So you've climbed the Great Wall, seen the Terracotta Army in Xi'an, eaten dumplings in Shanghai, cuddled with Pandas in Chengdu... and you know that's just the tip of this vast land. How about traveling to the more remote areas of China, the "off the beaten path" places away from the main tourist cities? Can this be done with children? Is it safe? Is it worth it?

We talked to Carolyn B. Heller, a contributing author of Lonely Planet's China guide who has traveled extensively throughout the Region, and has gotten off the beaten path all the way to Inner Mongolia with kids in tow.

Carolyn shares her experiences and advice for traveling through areas outside the main tourist cities with us and tells us about:

Enjoy Carolyn's answers and excellent insight into this less explored side of China, her impressions as well as her children's. Here it is!

An Interview with Carolyn B. Heller

Let me start by introducing myself and my family. I'm a travel and food writer, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I'm also the mother of 15-year-old twin girls.

I've been fortunate to have made several research trips to China as a contributing author of Lonely Planet's China guide. And I've been even more fortunate that my family was able to travel with me during two of my research trips.

Both of those trips were to relatively little-touristed regions of northeast China, when my daughters were 11 and 13 years old.

I've also just returned from six weeks in Sichuan province in China's Southwest.

Family-Friendly "Off-the-Beaten-Path" China Destinations

Carolyn, China is vast, based on the places you have been to, what would be your top picks to recommend to families wanting to experience something outside the main tourist cities. What do these areas offer? i.e. landscape, great hiking or other activities, cultural experience, etc.

Here are some top picks for “off-the-beaten-path” yet family-friendly China destinations:

Inner Mongolia

  • Horseback riding across wide-open grasslands
  • Learning about traditional musical instruments like the “horsehead fiddle”
  • Camping out in a yurt.
Those are just a few of activities my family enjoyed when we traveled to the province of Inner Mongolia.

Inner Mongolia borders the separate country of Mongolia and has a fairly large ethnic Mongolian population. And if you can get out onto the grasslands, you can get a taste of Mongolian culture.

The most accessible grasslands regions are around the city of Hohhot, which is a one-hour flight or overnight train ride from Beijing.

Everyone and his brother in Hohhot seems to offer grasslands tours, but my family had a good experience with a trip that we organized through the local CITS (China International Travel Service) office.

We arranged a two-day, one-night excursion to the Huitengxile Grasslands, about a two-hour drive from Hohhot, where we stayed in a family-run yurt camp.

Yurts on the grasslands in Inner Mongolia

Decorated with deep red traditional designs, our yurt was something like a platform tent, with canvas walls but a permanent floor, where we slept on mats piled high with puffy quilts.

The family proprietors cooked all our meals, serving both local lamb dishes as well as vegetarian options (since one of our girls is a vegetarian).

They also entertained us with music played on the horsehead fiddle, a two-stringed instrument that looks something like a large violin with a horse's head carved onto the top.

We went horseback riding across the grasslands (my girls' Number 1 pick!) and stopped for milk tea and cheese snacks at another yurt camp along the way.

In the evening, we went to a traditional music and dance show that was a little touristy, but the performers were quite talented, so it is still lots of fun.

Overall, our grasslands adventure was a fantastic experience! The Great Wall on the North Korean border, Liaoning Province Most people visit the Great Wall close to Beijing. It's a wonderful excursion for families, but the huge crowds and touristy atmosphere can be something of a turnoff.

My family had the chance to visit another section of the Great Wall, outside the city of Dandong, northeast of Beijing in Liaoning province.

Great Wall Tiger Mountain Dandong North Korea border

Not only has this section of the Wall – known as the Tiger Mountain Great Wall – been beautifully restored, it's far less crowded. In fact, on the day we visited, we saw maybe five other tourists.

Dandong has a large Korean population – signs are in both Chinese and Korean, and there are lots of Korean snack stalls and restaurants – but what made this trip especially memorable for us was Dandong's proximity to the North Korean border, just across the Yalu River.

In the city itself, the river is quite wide, so you can look across to North Korea (and even take a boat close to the North Korean shore), but there really isn't that much to see.

Just behind the Great Wall, though, the river narrows to a stream about ten feet wide – so close that you can almost reach out and touch the other side.

Great Wall China North Korea Border

While we were standing by the riverbank, in a spot known as Yibukua, or “One Step Across,” a North Korean solider came running toward us across the fields, a rifle bouncing on his shoulder. He ran right up to the edge of the stream, and as I stood there with my then-11-year-old daughters, I didn't know what to do. Then he called out to us, and it turned out all he wanted was a pack of cigarettes!

Mount Emei, Sichuan Province

One of China's popular family-friendly destinations is the city of Chengdu, where kids (of all ages) love to see the giant pandas. An easy side trip from Chengdu for families who enjoy hiking would be a visit to Mount Emei (Emei Shan in Chinese), one of China's four famous Buddhist mountains.

It's only about 2 ½ hours from Chengdu by bus or train, and it's a beautiful getaway. The lower half of the mountain is lush and green, while the upper half is often shrouded in surreal mist and fog.

You probably won't want to hike up the entire mountain with little ones in tow; even for fit adults, it's a three-day round-trip trek. But you can walk part way along the well-maintained paths and go part of the way by bus and/or cable car.

There are plenty of inns, as well as monastery guesthouses, where you can stay overnight en route.

Mount Emei is also home to a large population of monkeys, and kids love to watch these quick-moving creatures as they try to beg food from passing hikers. The monkeys can be quite aggressive, though, so don't get too close! They snatched a water bottle right out of my friend's backpack!

Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province

Another Chengdu side trip that offers great hiking and stunning scenery would be a visit to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve in northern Sichuan.

The whole region is filled with crystal-clear turquoise lakes, pine forests, snow-capped mountains, and rushing waterfalls, and as at Mount Emei, you can take the bus part way through the reserve and explore other sections on foot.

Jiushaigou in the Fall

Jiuzhaigou can be quite crowded – it's one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists – but out on the walking paths, you'll see few other people.

I was just there in October, when the leaves were turning red, yellow, and gold, which made a striking backdrop to the bluer-than-blue lakes.

Jiuzhaigou is in a region with a large Tibetan population, so outside the park, you can visit nearby Tibetan villages.

I went to the village of Zhongcha Gou, where you can go hiking or horseback riding, and you can also arrange to stay with local families, which would definitely be a kid-pleaser.

A recently renovated airport outside of Jiuzhaigou has made this area much more accessible; it's now a quick 45-minute flight from Chengdu.

Neighborhoods in the big cities

Even in major tourist cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you can easily get off the "tourist track" and into local neighborhoods. My daughters loved walking in the Beijing hutongs (lanes), peeking into homes and shops, wandering through the produce markets, and stopping in dumpling stalls and bakeries for snacks along the way.

We stayed in a hotel in one of the hutongs, so part of our daily routine was to walk around the neighborhood. You don't have to go far in China to immerse yourself in the local culture.

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Experiencing Minority Cultures

Can you suggest places where families can experience more of the local minority cultures. Your and your children‘s impressions on these cultural exchanges. How do you prepare children for such interactions so they learn to appreciate them?

Musician with Horsehead Fiddle Inner Mongolia

Our grasslands trip in Inner Mongolia was definitely a highlight for my family, and not only did the girls (who were 13 at the time) have fun, but I think they came away with a little more understanding of Mongolian culture and customs.

Before we set out for the grasslands, I talked to the girls about what to expect, both about the local culture and the logistics of our excursion.

I wanted them to know we'd be sleeping in a yurt (we'd seen a model of a yurt in a Hohhot museum) and that we'd try to arrange to go horseback riding.

When I didn't know particular details --for example, they wanted to know where the bathroom would be --I told them we'd be sure to find out (it turned out to be a little hut out in the fields!).

We took tons of pictures to help all of us remember the details of the experience, and when we returned to Hohhot, we bought a CD of traditional Mongolian music to bring back home.

In Sichuan province, there's a large Tibetan population, which would be another place to interact with a minority culture.

Young Tibetan Monks in Western Sichuan

I haven't had the chance to visit Yunnan Province in Southwest China, but my colleagues and other travelers have told me that it's another great region to experience minority cultures. It's home to at least 25 different ethnic minority groups, so pretty much anywhere you go outside the major cities, you can interact with these communities.

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Remote China: Health and Safety Concerns

When traveling with kids in China to some of the more remote areas, what are the main safety and health concerns parents need to be aware of and precautions that should be taken?


A main health issue anywhere in China is the tap water – don't drink it! And that means don't brush your teeth with it or rinse your mouth with it or fill your water bottle with it. Avoid ice, too, since it may have been made from tap water.

Even young children can be instructed not to drink the water; just be sure you watch them, as they may forget.

You can buy bottled water nearly everywhere, and most hotels and guesthouses provide either a kettle for you to boil water or a thermos filled with boiled drinking water.


You also need to watch what you eat. Try to make sure that your food is freshly prepared and served piping hot; even dishes from a buffet in a posh hotel can make you sick if they've been sitting around too long.

Avoid fresh fruits unless you can peel them yourself, and stay away from uncooked vegetables.

My rule of thumb is to eat in places that are really busy --with local customers-- which helps ensure that the food is fresh.

Our family found China a great place to eat with kids. You can get noodles, rice, and dumplings pretty much everywhere, easy-to-peel fruit like bananas and oranges are readily available, and if all else fails, you can always find packages of instant noodles!

Road safety

China, unfortunately, has an extremely high rate of road accidents, and pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way! Be extremely vigilant when you're out walking – hold tight to your kids and look every possible way before you step out into the street.

If you're taking cabs, try to find one with functioning rear seat belts, but keep in mind, too, that it may be a futile quest.

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What to Bring

What kind of things do you recomend to bring along that might be difficult to get and that might come in handy?

  • It's always a good idea to have a first aid kit containing the basics --bandages, antibiotic ointment, aspirin or tylenol, and any medications that you or your children usually take – as well as sunscreen and child-safe insect repellent.

  • We always travel with small flashlights --useful for reading in bed, finding your way to the bathroom, and during the occasional power outage.

  • We also bring three-ounce containers of camp soap for doing small amounts of laundry.

  • Remember: always carry toilet paper with you, since you won't find any in public restrooms. But there's no need to stuff your bag with Kleenex packs before you get to China; you can buy toilet paper and tissues wherever you go.

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Stretching The Dollar

Since this kind of trip is normally longer in nature, any tips you can offer on stretching those dollars!

Skip the Hyatt

Stay in hostels or Chinese-owned hotels rather than the big international chains. Many hostels have family or private rooms, so you won't be sharing a dorm with six other people. And if you can find a hostel or guesthouse owned by a family with kids, all the better.

In Chengdu, for example, I recently stayed at Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, which is owned by a couple with two young daughters. Some of their rooms are designed for families, and owners Sim and Maki are great resources for family-friendly things to do in the region.

In many Chinese cities, new local chains offer good-quality, budget-priced rooms. Look for names like Motel 168, Jinjiang Inn, Home Inn, and City Inn.

Families with more than one child should know that hotel rooms for four or more people can be harder to find than in North America, but sometimes (and assuming your kids are old enough) it can be cheaper to book two adjacent rooms in a Chinese-owned hotel than to stay in one room at an international chain. And a little privacy for mom and dad never hurts.

Take the train

One of my daughters' favorite experiences in China was taking an overnight train trip. Not only is it nearly always cheaper than flying (and you'll save a night's hotel costs), but it's a great adventure and an excellent way to meet people.

Book locally

If you're planning to fly within China, don't book your flights from overseas. Wait till you arrive in China before buying your tickets --it's almost always cheaper than purchasing them from outside the country. Check out websites like, a reliable online agency that sells discounted flights for Chinese internal flights.

Unless you're traveling at peak times, like the May or October national holidays, don't book all your accommodations in advance. You can usually get a better price walking into a hotel than by booking ahead, particularly if you're not shy about asking for a discount. Hotel prices are nearly always negotiable.

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On Closing...

What has been the most memorable experience you and your kids have shared so far in China?

Do I have to pick just one?

  • Horseback riding in Inner Mongolia...
  • Climbing Changbai Shan, a beautiful mountain in Jilin province, where the girls counted the number of steps to the top (more than 900!)
  • Shopping for souvenirs at Beijing's Panjiayuan market...
  • Having lunch with a local family near the town of Wudalian Chi in Heilongjiang province (the family had a girl my girls' age, who picked fresh vegetables from their garden for our lunch)
  • Going to the beach in Dalian...
  • Snacking our way through the Beijing hutongs...

I know it sounds like a cliché, but every day that our family spent in China was filled with memorable experiences!

Carolyn, we want to thank you for answering our questions and providing such helpful information for all of us. Now we all have a couple or more things to add to our ever growing "to do" list! We wish you and your family much success in all your endeavors and keep traveling the world!

Lonely Planet China

China Guide Book

Besides being a contributing author to the Lonely Planet China Guide, Carolyn B. Heller has contributed to nearly 50 travel and restaurant guides to destinations from Asia to New England to the Pacific Northwest.

She is an avid traveler and passionate food lover who has eaten on the streets, in fine restaurants, and everywhere in between in nearly 40 countries.

As a mother who travels frequently both with and without her children, Carolyn highly recommends that parents share their own love of adventure with their kids as early as possible. Even toddlers can pack their own backpacks!

Visit Carolyn at

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