Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! Living in China certainly has its challenges, but it also has its perks, among them being that my children get Chinese holidays off from school, allowing us extra time to travel and explore. This week my children were off from school as China welcomed in the year of the monkey.
As a family of four, we can’t always leave Beijing to travel somewhere far away and exotic, but we don’t really need to. Beijing is a huge and fascinating city with lots of family-friendly sights and activities. Our home is in the suburbs of Beijing, quite far from the city center—far enough that it makes getting downtown (to the real Beijing) a bit prohibitive when we are on our normal schedule. As any mother knows, even the weekends can be easily filled—soccer practices, Skype calls back home, church, and what-not makes the weekends seem even busier than the weekdays. Add that to Beijing traffic, where what should be a twenty-minute drive can easily become a two-hour commute, and we don’t usually choose to venture very far from home unless we have a lot of time.
With the extra week off from school, we were thrilled to do a staycation and use the time to go downtown and see the sights here. We stayed at a hotel for a couple of nights to allow us easy access to the city sights. While there, we discovered a few duds and a few gems. Here are the gems.
Chair skating at Houhai Lake
Houhai is one of three interconnected lakes. It’s a popular location to walk around and has a pleasant atmosphere all year round. In the summer, you can expect to see boats on the lake. In the winter you can go chair skating. There are plenty of chairs and ice poles, but the bikes are much more fun (you will probably have to look around and wait for one of those though).
It looks a lot easier than it is, I can assure you, but we had lots of smiles and giggles trying to figure it out. My five- and three-year old were too little to try it on their own, but they loved making a train or just riding behind Mommy and Daddy and cheering us on as we chased each other.
We paid 80 RMB per person (including the kids) to get on the lake. This is the holiday and weekend price. Weekdays are a bit less. We could spend as much time as we wanted there, but could not re-enter after leaving.
Wandering around the Hutongs
Hutong refers to the the narrow streets and alleys that are formed by the lines of the traditional courtyard-style houses. The Hutongs have been around for generations, but have changed throughout China’s history. Many hutongs have been demolished to make way for wider avenues and modern high-rise apartments, but others have held on. Though some hutongs are still under threat of the wrecking ball, it seems that Beijing has recognized the value of preserving this historical piece of Beijing, at least in certain areas.
Each Hutong has its own history and atmosphere, but my family spent some time exploring the Hutongs in the area around Houhai Lake. This is what I love—more than spectacular views or fancy hotels, I’d rather (discreetly) peek into a doorway that might allow me to glimpse someone else’s life. I spent a nice afternoon with my family wandering around the narrow alleys, getting a peek at the grassroots history of the city, and attaching an image to the history I read about in books.
Unfortunately, when money can be made, commercialization changes things. In this case, we saw others taking tours on rickshaws and plenty of other tourists wandering around the hutong like we were. Many of the old residences have been converted to bars or restaurants, but it didn’t steal away the value of visiting. In fact, I plan to go back in the spring when the leaves are on the trees.
Always looking for ways to make travel more family friendly, we decided to stay at the Kerry Hotel for the couple of nights that we stayed downtown. The club rooms include breakfast at a large, excellent buffet and also happy hour drinks and food in the smaller club lounge. With two meals included, it made for a convenient place to stay with kids.
The real attraction, however, in our choosing the Kerry Hotel was the Adventure Zone in the hotel’s sports center. The Adventure zone is a large, clean play zone for kids ranging in age from toddler to pre-teen. There is a zone for children under five that has a smaller climbing zone, houses for pretend play, and cars to ride in.
There is also a larger, three-story structure for older kids (though my three-year old didn’t have any trouble joining in the fun there with the big kids). The biggest attractions in the Adventure Zone are the large slides. My three year old liked the bumpy slide. I liked the red free-fall one—which is probably the best part about the Adventure Zone . . . parents are welcome to join in the fun.
As guests of the hotel, the price to enter was 100 RMB for each kid for two hours. Each child can have a parent enter with them free of charge.