By Urmila Ramakrishnan
Traveling isn’t cheap, but what happens when you do it with your parents?
Let me start by saying that I am not a trust-fund baby. I do love to travel, and I know it’s not cheap. So when my parents asked me to go to China, I didn’t hesitate to say hell yes! There are perks and downfalls to traveling with your family internationally. For one, you don’t have to worry about hotel, dining or travel guides. It’s all taken care of. For the other you don’t have to worry about hotel, dining or travel guides. It’s all taken care of. Yes, I repeated that twice purposely. It’s a plus and a downfall because, as a twenty-something, my interests are quite different from my parents’.
For one I act like a 40-year-old man and would love to spend the entire day at a museum, take a nap and then explore the night life of the city like a crazy wolf howling at the moon (figuratively, of course). I also suffer from chronic indecisiveness and a need to stay on my feet. But my parents, bless their hearts, get tuckered out quickly. They’d rather go to a pearl factory and see a few ancient artifacts before calling it a day. They are adventurous, no doubt, just on a slower pace than I’d like.
I am also a photograph-aholic. I’d like to think it comes with the trade of writing and telling a story, but it doesn’t take too long to irritate someone when you’re taking ten pictures of them hand-pressing pomegranate juice. But anyways, I digress.
My trip started in Minneapolis, and after an 18-hour flight I landed in Beijing in the dead of night. I flew with my aunt, and a tour guide named Lily greeted us after we walked through customs.
She warned us how unsafe the subways and taxis were and suggested we not leave the hotel until our tour started in two days—when my parents would join us. She did suggest that we visit some sort of cultural garden if we decided to trek it on our own.
So naturally, the rebel in both of us hailed a cab at the concierge and headed to the Olympic Village. We were warned that the cabbies would try to scam us if they didn’t have a meter. So after being terrified and using all of the Mandarin in my artillery, we reached safely with a reasonable price.
We toured the water cube (i.e., remembered and pined over images of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte gliding through the water in the 2008 Olympics, as I gazed at the color-changing 3-D square), watched toddlers skate 50 times better than me, and took photos of a man selling kites as a little girl tried to play with them.
From there, we spotted a McDonald’s with Chinese lettering, and of course did the best touristy thing we could: take a picture.
After being hassled by vendors, trying to make a profit off knick knacks, my aunt and I went on a search to find this cultural garden our guide was so fond of. After an hour, and asking several non-English speakers where this place was we reached the Beijing Chinese Ethnic Culture Park.
We spent the rest of our day in a jet-lagged coma, walking through the regions of China—from Tibet to Qian—without ever leaving the city.
The next day, my parents joined us, and we spent two days pacing through the attractions that one would in Beijing: the Great Wall, Peking duck Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Everything in Beijing is immaculate and over-the-top, from the mirrors of the emperor’s mistresses to the process of cooking Peking duck. And before long, we were whisked away to a jade factory.
For the Chinese, jade is better than diamonds. Though you’ll be harangued into buying this precious stone it’s worth visiting a factory to see the precision and the prize (and price) they put on it.
The next morning, it was off to Xi’an. Another tour guide, Jerry, met us with a dopey smile. Xi’an, a.k.a the “western peace” city, was possibly the highlight of my trip, filled with adventure that both parents and daughter appreciated.
As a history buff, the terra cotta warriors enamored me. Known as the eighth man-made wonder of the world, the life-size statues were uncovered by farmers in the ‘70s. It was just our luck that one of the men who discovered the warriors, was doing a book signing for the museum. Thanks to my dad’s knowledge of my geekdom, we got a signed copy.
The warriors are something that are indescribable. You see the pictures and watch the documentaries, but nothing really tells you how vast and numerous they are. There is so much detail and meticulous craft dedicated to a belief in life after death. The first emperor of China built these warriors in preparation for his death, so that in his after life, he would have protection—much like Egyptian pharaohs. As the first emperor of China, he unified each of the regions and created one language. But, when he died, peasants started an uprising and burnt and buried the soldiers. It wasn’t until recent years that they were found again, and many of them remain underground until better technology can preserve their color and integrity.
Did you know that each city in China has a food specialty? In Xi’an, it’s noodles. We watched two chefs create “chopped” and “pulled” noodles from scratch.
I’d also recommend visiting the Muslim Quarter at night. Not many tourists get to see the wonders and the hustle-and-bustle. But it’s a place unlike any other in the country. I witnessed a man in his eighties make pomegranate juice with one of those old fashioned juicers, sampled Middle Eastern-inspired persimmon cookies, stared at two men pounding candy flat with giant mallets and soaked in the culture of the unique blend of Chinese and Islamic culture.
Sure enough, after some negotiations, and a few sharp lefts and rights, our driver stops at an empty storefront. Jerry swears this is the location. He dials a number and starts speaking swiftly in Mandarin.
Yep, this is it. We walk across the storefront to a semi-concealed staircase. Jerry asks the four of us to climb up the steps. Open the door, and there is a plethora (or should I say pleather-a-) of Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier, Prada, Rolex and more. My eyes roll back in my head as I touch a real (leather) Louis. Starting price $400. I spot a “Cartier” watch that my heart fell in love with. Thanks to my mom’s bargaining power, we got a sweet deal on four items. Want to know if these are legit fakes?
I spotted the exact same watch in the Cartier shop window at our next stop in Shanghai. Their price: $1,000. Mine? About $50.
Don’t go looking for these in Shanghai unless you’re into having the door deadbolt behind you stay locked until you buy something. It was an adventure that we all laughed about, but it was terrifying at the same time. Don’t be afraid to hop into an unmetered taxicab as long as you have a map and negotiate price before you close the door. Learn how to say your hotel’s name in Mandarin too. Other than that, Shanghai is like any other city in the U.S. By day eight, our last day in China, my thumbs were itching to text and Facebook, but it was blocked.
All-in-all, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without my parents. Would I have done different activities with friends? You bet, but there’s something about traveling with your family that makes the vacation worthwhile. They learned to follow my lead on the Muslim Quarter, and I learned to appreciate the fine craft of silk in Shanghai.
After spending eight days in three cities, we were all ready to come back to the land of the free, and the home of the brave. China itself is an interesting conundrum. As our guide Jerry put it, it’s like a turtle: the hard shell of communism with the soft body and belly of capitalism.
I reached home, filled to my eyelids in dim sum and bok choy, and filled to the seam with souvenirs and treasures.[divider] [/divider]
Urmila Ramakrishnan bleeds Minnesota nice. Residing from the suburbs of the Minneapple (aka Minneapolis), she’s a true Midwesterner, with a hint of spice. The Indian-American caught the travel bug as a baby and has been feeding it since. In her 23 years, she’s been to more then 23 countries. And that’s not her only hobby. Like most twenty-somethings, she has way too many interests and wants to do them all at the same time. In trying to find that one full-time job as a journalist, she started her own food blog and YouTube channel. The unconventional foodie loves to nosh on everything from sushi and laksa to grilled cheese and pizza. Between applying for jobs, attempting food adventures on a budget and managing her social media, Urmila harbors a secret love for kickboxing and mixed martial arts. She started training after a women’s self-defense class, and it’s the one thing that keeps her body as active as her mind (not to mention totally legit). Her one piece of advice is to do what you love. It’s that philosophy that got her into writing, and she loves every adventure that’s come with it.
All photos are also shot by Urmila.[divider] [/divider]