The Land of our Ancestors: A Chinese Pilgrimage

Arrow Discover more

I first visited China in 2012, on a writer’s tour, with the British Council, and entered a fascinating alternate reality, like no other place on earth. Since then, my daughters have begged to go.

‘It’s the land of our ancestors,’

‘It’s the land of dumplings!’

This summer, the kids were in that golden travel window of 11 and nine, big enough to carry their own luggage, young enough to tolerate my wisdom.

After weeks of internet research, the most appealing option was a guided whistlestop tour of China’s highlights, designed specially for families, by trip specialist Exodus. In the spirit of seizing the moment, I asked my dad, Christopher, 77, if he’d join us.

‘We have to go in August, travelling with three other families, very possibly weird, herded by one of those dorky flags, it’s a lot of money and unless you pay a single supplement, you’ll be bunking with one of the kids.’

Snow, nine, Francesca, Grampa Christopher and Lola Choo, 11

‘I’d be delighted,’ he said, with a grace I wish he’d thought to pass on to me.

On 29 July, we flew into the marble fug of Beijing.

‘Does everyone like Peking duck?’

Our guide, Alan, Chinese name Bin, is ordering from an undecipherable menu in a private dining room near our central hotel.

Snow and Lola Choo take in the view at a tea plantation near Mount Xianggong

Pip, wife of Graeme, mother to teenagers Olly and Aime, asks if I understand Chinese.

‘Sadly, no. My mother was fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien, but we always spoke English at home.’

I add that this is a kind of cultural pilgrimage for the girls, who never got to meet their grandmother.

‘Mum said, sod the pension,’ Lola Choo chips in.

‘What a relief, everyone seems cool,’ I confide, uncoolly.

Graeme laughs.

‘We’ve been on a couple of Exodus trips before. It’s always been a good experience’,

He thinks for a bit, continues…

‘I suppose what we have in common is a wish to explore different cultures with our families.’

I look round around our banqueting table. I’m OK being a member of this club. For the next 16 days, these four kids, three teens, two grandfathers, three married couples and me will be travelling companions in an epic adventure across the Middle Kingdom.

The girls practise their kung fu at the Shaolin Temple on Song Mountain

We sip fragrant tea and crisp local beer while Alan talks us through the itinerary. Two days seeing the best that Beijing has to offer. Early on the third day, we travel north, to a more secluded, less polluted section of the Great Wall, before returning to take in the Summer Palace. Thence, we snake south, by overnight sleeper, plane, bullet train and private coach, via the Shaolin monks, Longyan Buddhas, Xi’an markets, Terracotta Army, Chengdu pandas, peaks of Yangshuo, towards our final destination, Hong Kong. Alan wants to show us not only the big attractions, but also the ‘real China’.

Getting to grips with mushy pea lollies

From the get-go, it is clear this is not going to be a relaxing holiday. It is also clear this is exactly what I had hoped for – we’re going on the trip of a lifetime and the girls are going to make incredible memories and share formative experience with their grandpa. I’m the best mum in the world.

Food arrives, garlicky gai lan, glistening dumplings, succulent duck, shredded at the table. The children attack each dish with an appetite worthy of Kung Fu Panda. Though they may not understand the menu, they know how to use their chopsticks.

For the next two weeks, each day is packed tight with wonder. Connections bloom like the chrysanthemums opening in the glasses of tea we drink by the People’s Lake in Chengdu, new sights and sounds flash past like the futuristic ads on the Beijing Metro.

It is tough choosing highlights – how to pick playing Marco Polo in the Olympic pool over gazing out at the rows of Terracotta warriors? Lola Choo squealing, ‘I never want to recover from this experience?’ at baby giant pandas playing in their natural habitat, or Alan in Tiananmen Square, earnestly translating the complexity of history and sharing his conflicting emotions. Which sound most evokes our experience, laughter as Alan races the kids up the steps of the Great Wall, the orchestra of crickets on the cycle ride to Moon Hill, or the tai chi master with a sword, dancing to mournful lute in the garden of The Temple of Heaven?

Visiting the panda sanctuary

I can easily choose a low-point. There was just the one disappointment. The martial arts display in the 1,500-year-old Shaolin temple on Song Mountain managed to snatch tacky from the jaws of awesome.

Rows of jade bamboo form an ethereal matrix around pathways as we walk away from the demonstration hall. Alan points out the one-armed yellow tunics worn by the monks. He also indicates, with a stoic grimace, the more modern accessories, Armani sunglasses and smartphones.

We approach the main Shaolin Temple through a dense crowd of domestic tourists. August is the only month most Chinese people can travel. One point three billion people in China, all keen to explore their brave new consumer-friendly world. The Pagoda Forest must be as exotic to a Beijing native as the Vatican is to me in south London.

We approach the gilded statues of Buddha through a bristling forest of selfie wands and, more appropriately, a haze of incense.

‘Where do we get joss sticks?’ the children clamour. A lady hands us three, I thank her ‘xie xie’. She beams, letting us through to light the incense sticks, which start to smoke.

‘What do we do now?’ my daughters ask. I’m suddenly in panic that I am about to commit some cultural faux pas. And then I remember my mother holding the sticks in prayer position.

A quiet moment overlooking an older section of The Great Wall of China

‘You make a wish for a loved one, or say thank you to your ancestors.’

I show them how to shake the sticks three times, then I burst into tears.

‘Are you OK?’ asks my dad as he puts an arm around my shoulders.

‘I’m just thinking about Mum’,

‘Would you like an ice-cream?’ asks Snow, patting my arm.

Am I OK? I’m standing in the birthplace of kung fu, sharing an epiphanic moment of love and connection with my three favourite people on the planet. Being offered an ice-cream. The Chinese tourists around us exude gentle kindness, in communal approval of this intergenerational display of family piety.

‘I’m so happy,’ I sob. That was the ‘worst’ day, and it managed to be magical.

On the last night of our trip, we stand outside the Aberdeen Harbour waterfront restaurant – amazing food, no expense spared, the celebratory meal of the trip, 10 quid a head. My father, as the oldest and most venerable member of our group, has just presented Alan with four envelopes of tips, not necessary, but Alan has been an exceptional guide, we’ll remember him with love for the world he has shown us.

We are taking a digestive break to watch the 8pm light show. All of the buildings along the harbour are dancing, the architecture illuminated and revealed by neon colours.

‘Why don’t they do this in every city?!’ I shout to my dad, who is standing beside me, holding his granddaughters’ hands.

‘I think the sightlines along the Hong Kong waterfront are unique’.

‘What’s been your favourite?’

‘I can’t choose!’

‘Perhaps the tea ceremony in the mountains.’

‘We saw 26 pandas!’

‘The ear massage was fun.’

‘The spice market in Xi’an?’

‘Dumpling banquet!’

‘I liked the cookery lesson,’ says Snow. ‘Can we go to Japan?’

‘What a good idea,’ says Grampa Christopher.

Francesca Beard is a poet who lives in London.

Snow’s Panda Poem

Nap Craver,

Tail Player,

Bamboo Luncher,

Apple Cruncher,

Soft Paw,

Sharp Claw,

Snooze Taker,

Happy Maker,

Veggie Eater,

Tummy Scratcher,

Little Cubs,

Tiny Loves.

The Lowdown: China

How to book

Exodus runs the family-oriented tours of China during the spring and summer school holidays. If you travel between June and August, it will be hot more or less everywhere, except in the mountains. Some rain must be expected, possibly heavy.

‘Pandas and Warriors’ tour is for ages 8 and up, and Exodus recommends you be of reasonable fitness for activities such as walking on the Great Wall and both city and countryside cycle rides. For a full day-by-day breakdown of the included activities, plus optional extras, please see the Exodus website

Hotels are comfortable, three-star and above, with air-con, wifi and en suite, and central locations as standard.

Transport includes private bus, bullet train, bicycle and 3 internal flights.

Prices start from £2,329 for adults and £2,100 for children, with flights included – please see the website for prices excluding flights. Exodus also offers an option to book private family tours.

You should allow about £15 per day for lunch and dinner.

What’s included:

All breakfasts, 1 dinner, all accommodation, all transport and listed activities (please see website)

Dedicated tour leader throughout

Flights from London (if booking incl. flights)

Arrival and departure transfers

What’s not included:

Travel insurance

Single accommodation (available on request)

Chinese visa

No vaccinations are required, but hep A and typhoid are recommended.

Get travel news and competitions sent to your inbox