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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Heritage tour info (includes tips for traveling with children)

Agency for Tour: Agency and Included Costs: We used CCAI for our heritage tour, were extremely happy with them, and would recommend them to anyone without hesitation. CCAI heritage tours are cosponsored by CCCWA and BLAS. View their sample tour itinerary and cost here. The tour costs included 95% of in-country expenses (in-country flights, busses, guides, hotels, group meals, admissions, etc). Some meals were on your own, and tips ($1-3 per person per day for drivers, $3-5 per person per day for guides) and a couple of optional shows weren’t included. Adoptees: Adoptees don’t pay tour costs right now. Flights: We had to arrange for and pay for flights to and from China. CCAI can recommend travel agents, but the price was the same as booking ourselves so we booked directly with the airline. All in-country flight costs and arrangements were handled by CCAI/BLAS and covered by the tour costs. Guides: A guide will meet you at every airport, including the first one where you fly into Beijing, so you just have to get to China and then they'll take care of everything. Each bus/group was assigned a main guide – ours was Eric – and that person stayed with the group for the whole tour, through hotel checkins/checkouts, multiple cities, flights, bus rides, attractions visited, etc. Eric rocked, he was personable, organized, friendly, and very good with details. In addition, each bus was assigned a secondary city guide for Xi’an, Chengdu, and Guilin. Those guides would stay with us as long as we were in their city.

Ages of All Kids on the Tour: We had 104 people on this heritage tour, with 35 families. We were broken into three groups/busses the entire time, divided roughly by kids’ ages. Each group did the same activities but at staggered times. The red group/bus was primarily 7-8 year olds and their families (there were 20 adults and 14 kids on our bus), the green group/bus was primarily 9-12 year olds and their families, and the blue group/bus was primarily teenagers and their families. You stuck with your group for the entire tour, eating with them, visiting activities or sights with them, seeing shows with them, etc. So we got to know everyone in the red group really well, but didn’t get to talk very much with the folks on the two other busses. The kids on each bus had a wonderful time with each other and all seemed to bond. I kept peeking at the group of teenagers all hanging together and smiling. Siblings were welcome and easily joined in all group activities and bonding. If you have two kids of very different ages, you’ll need to decide which age group to all go with.

Age of Ro and Ree on the Tour: Ro and Ree were seven for this visit. We had always planned to wait until they were 10 to take them back to China, but to be honest they’ve wanted passionately to go since they were four and wore us down. Plus, the timing worked out perfectly with their school break, TubaDad’s business deals, and Bobby and Jane’s work schedule. Taking them at seven ended up being a really positive thing. Everything was simply fun and adventurous for them at this age. They saw everything they could, were excited about China, and want to go back someday to see more -- which is pretty much exactly what we and the Chinese government (who sponsored all adoptees) wanted. We’ll definitely take them back. If I could only take them once, I probably would have done it at 10 years old.

Bathrooms: The bathrooms in China haven’t changed since I was there in ‘06. There are very few Western toilets except in the hotels, and my new experience was that the ones they do have are locked. As soon as a bathroom attendant saw us fiddling with a western toilet door, she’d wave her hands and say “Out of order.” Well the 3rd or 4th time this happened in different places, we were pretty darn sure that wasn’t the case, and Ro and Ree (early squatty potty trauma) worked on the door until they spun the lock open, and lo and behold, there was a perfectly clean working Western toilet. Happy girls. So now we know to carry a coin with us to unlock toilets that really are working. Oh, and we always carried Kleenex (because they usually don’t have toilet paper) and hand sanitizer wipes (I like to actually rub things off hands).

Blogging in China: Several folks asked what equipment I brought so that I could blog in China, and the most important thing I brought was TubaDad. ;-) Seriously though, the Chinese firewalls were maddening and ever changing. Whole urls like Facebook, Blogger, and Google were blocked. It took us three days, VPN software (Panda P0w), and manymany tries to get everything working, and even then it was inconsistent and TubaDad had to troubleshoot things again and again. We eventually got things to work with Panda P0w and varied ports (one night we’d connect through San Francisco port 3 and the next night we’d find our way through Amsterdam port 1). My advice is to try out your VPN software before you go, download the lastest version the night before, and try different ports while you’re there. If all else fails, have someone back home as your backup blogger that you can email posts to. Also, as to timing, you simply won’t have much downtime for blogging. When you finally check in to a hotel, you are going to need food or sleep stat. The only easy time to blog was in hotel lobbies waiting for big groups to get moving, airport lobbies, and on planes. I wrote up all my posts in those areas (I use Windows Live Writer so I’m doing everything offline first), then would publish as soon as TubaDad got us up and running at the hotel. It was pretty much unlock door, brush teeth, unzip suitcase only as much needed to extract pajamas, moan and lie down on bed, push the publish button that TubaDad was pointing at, drift off to sleep.

CCCWA Visit: Our tour was sponsored by the CCCWA, CCAI, and BLAS, and they coordinated the CCCWA (China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption) visit, which was one of my favorite parts of the trip. In the first room the CCCWA employees reviewed dossiers, so each file on the shelf represented a family in review. In the second room (the magic room), the matching took place. Gave me goosebumps. The files on the shelf in that room were of babies waiting for families.

Electronics: We brought an iPad for each girl and my laptop for blogging and email. The iPads were in constant use during every wait by all of the kids (I’d look over and see 11 heads bent over our two iPads. And they were all happy.) There is a lot of waiting with a big group. Games that can be played by many tiny fingers at once were gold -- Secret Garden, HarborMaster, Diner Dash. We could charge the iPads in almost every hotel room in the 120 slots and didn’t need converters. My laptop had a three-prong cord, so that one needed an adaptor for plugging-in/charging. Every room had a hair dryer, by the way, so no need to pack one.

Emotional Issues: The visit to China and in particular the CCCWA didn’t bring up any new issues or cause any emotional distress with Ro and Ree. We talked about the entire visit in great length beforehand, and they definitely understand what the CCCWA does, but nothing new came up afterwards. Like I’ve always said before on this blog, I know these emotional issues will come, they just haven’t yet. In the meantime, we just keep talking.

Food: If your kids are picky, it would behoove you to pack a whole lotta snacks/food they will eat. Our girls don’t like spicy food, any food that’s looking back at them, food with lots of bones, or anything that’s too “wet” or whoknowswhat. Anyhow it’s annoying, but bearable when you can say “Fine, eat some rice and you’ll be set until we get back to the bus (where you have your stash of food.) We packed tons of granola bars, trail mix, crackers with cheese, fruit roll, etc. (And Peanut M&Ms for me!) We couldn’t find these things in China (except for one store in Beijing that sold granola bars). Once we ran out of snacks, we started bringing our small cooler bag down to breakfast each morning and packing it with a small ziploc bag of ice and a couple of bananas, slurpable yogurts, hard-boiled eggs, and pieces of bread. With these on hand, we were invincible! The home snacks take up a lot of room in the suitcase, but as you eat them they sure leave a nice little hole for packing souvenirs.

Foster Family/Orphanage Tour: We weren’t able to visit the girls’ orphanage/foster family on this trip because of our schedule. Tours sponsored by BLAS generally visit Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin. If you go on a summer heritage tour you can swap out the Guilin portion of the tour for an orphanage tour, but if you go on the winter tour the orphanages are closed for the holidays and you can only add the orphanage tour to the end (an extra 4 days). Having now seen Guilin, the Li River, and Yangshuo, I wouldn’t recommend skipping those amazing sights. They were unlike any other cities I’d seen in China and I’m so glad we saw them.

Health: It is a pretty strenuous tour, no doubt about it. You need to be able to get up and down stairs, move your own luggage (we brought light spinner 4-wheeled luggage that could be pushed along by the kids), sleep less than 6 hours a day while adjusting to jetlag, eat food you’re unfamiliar with at times you don’t normally eat, walk long distances, and sit for long periods of time in small airplane and bus seats. You also need to be able to “squat” (and most importantly to get back up) to use 99% of the toilets in China (where you’ll need to bring your own toilet paper and antibacterial hand wipes). Bring any meds you’ll need in your carry-on. Pain reliever, chewable Pepto Bismol, cold medicine, cough drops, and any prescriptions – you’d probably be able to find most of these in China, but won’t have time to look.

Packing Tips: Don’t bring a hairdryer, all hotels have them, but they are hidden in weird places. Bring a digital clock. There are no hotel clocks and I can’t stand waking up and not knowing if I’ve been asleep for 6 minutes or 6 hours. If you’re going in the winter, carry your winter jackets and gloves with you on the plane. If there’s a problem with the luggage, you’ll still be able to leave the airport and walk outside. You won’t have a lot of opportunities to do laundry – for us it was once at the first hotel (when we really didn’t need to do it) and once at the last hotel (when we were in the home stretch and could just tough it out). So we basically brought enough that we could wear things (except socks and underwear) multiple times and not need to do laundry. Pack electronics for the kids during wait times (see Electronics section for more details). Bring snacks (see Food section for more details).

Safety: I never felt unsafe in China. Crowded, yes, but never unsafe. We took basic precautions like we would during any travel: We had extra copies of our passports and visa pages that were stored in the safe each day. I wore my purse over my neck and shoulder so it was right in front of me. We each carried the day’s hotel business card so we could always get back if separated. The girls wore ID bracelets with TubaDad’s international phone number and they mostly walked between us or were holding hands with someone in the family.

Tour Group vs. Individual Travel: Plusses: You hang with a large group of adults and kids who share your story. There’s always someone fun around to talk to or play with. All details are planned for you – just get to China and they’ll do all the rest. Minuses: The tour moves FAST, so you are constantly flying here and there and checking in and out of hotels and then you’ll find yourself waiting, because it takes some doing to get a group of 35 people from Point A to Point B. Summary: Knowing what I know, I’d still choose the tour every single time for the girls’ first visit to China. There is no way we could have seen as much as we saw in 12 days left to our own devices, they opened doors that would not have been open to us (CCCWA for example), and all of the kids enjoyed the heck out of each other. You’re Still in Control of Parental Decisions: Just because you’re on a group tour doesn’t mean you don’t have any control. It’s easy to opt-out of activities if you need to. If the kids are running on empty and can no longer form coherent sentences, well shoot, skip that dark late 8pm-10pm show and get your kiddo in bed. We did it twice, and it saved our sanity and turned our girls back into their “normal” feisty selves. Length of Tour: Twelve days was just about perfect for the tour, in our opinion. It was fast-paced, but we saw a lot and we weren’t away from home for so long that the kids (or adults) permanently melted down.

Weather: We toured in record-breakingly cold temps (I think it was 12°F in Tian’an Men Square, yet I would still choose a tour in winter over summer in a heartbeat. I just can’t take temps of 105+ with 100% humidity. With cold, it’s as easy as pie to put on more clothes, with unbearable heat, you are out of luck. Besides, the kids thought it was fun. Spring would be nice weather-wise, but we don’t get a long enough break to be able to do it schedule-wise.

Water: Everyone knows you can’t drink the water in China. But it’s hard to break 40+ year old habits. So as soon as we got in a hotel room we draped a washcloth over the faucet to serve as a visual reminder “Hey genius, don’t use this.” We’d have the girls brush their teeth in a glass holding some bottled water or boiled water (if we got to the room early enough). And that’s all I ever drank, by the way, bottled water (with a cup of black tea in the morning). TubaDad drank bottled water and a little beer. Hardly anyone sold his beloved Diet Coke, so he just had to suffer through that one.

What Surprised Me: I expected that the Great Wall would be phenomenal again, and it was. I knew the pandas would delight. But I was surprised at how much we all enjoyed riding bikes on the Ancient Wall in Xi’an, strolling Jinli Street and Bamboo Park in Chengdu, doing the Guilin river cruise, and experiencing the neat city of Yangshuo.

What Would I Change: Hm, this is a tough one. We all really enjoyed the tour, the cities we saw, the sights, the other folks in our group, and our agency. Oh I know, if I could change anything, I would make more time at the Ancient Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an and skip the factory tour beforehand, and I would make more time at Bamboo Park in Chengdu and skip the silk factory afterwards. (IMHO, no one wanted to be at the factories, we wanted to have more time to explore the sights.) And I would make that last travel day home about half as long (pipe dream). Honestly though, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and if someone told me I could repeat it exactly – I’d sign right up.

Thanks for all the questions and interest, hope I’ve answered everything now, and hope some of you will have the chance to do heritage tours too!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Quicklinks to Our Grand China Adventure:
* Day 1 & 2: On our way to China!
* Day 3: Free day and Beijing Silk Market
* Day 4: Beijing Tian'an Men Square, Forbidden City, Hutong Tour
* Day 4: Beijing CCCWA visit
* Day 5: Beijing Great Wall
* Day 6 & 7: Xi'an Ancient Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors
* Day 8: Chengdu neighborhood and Jinli Street
* Day 9: Chengdu Panda Base
* Day 10: Guilin Li River cruise and the really cool town of Yangshuo
* Day 11: Yangshuo cooking school and death-defying biking
* Day 12 & 13: The long trek home, with a stop in Shanghai

30 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this post together, its so helpful. Also for others who like me have been following along for hints and tips I highly recommend the book From home to Homeland. http://www.amazon.com/From-Home-Homeland-Adoptive-Families/dp/159743003X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357494151&sr=8-1&keywords=homeland+adoption

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  2. THANK YOU! Exactly what I was hoping for....now to start planning and saving $$.
    ~Susan

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  3. Been following your blog for a long time, and love reading about the girls. How wonderful that you got twins, double the love!! We adopted our son Aug. 05 from Kazakhstan at the age of 26 months, we did our dossier for only one child and once we arrived in Kazakhstan we wished we would have done it for two children, but at that point they wouldn't let us change it to two. He is Russian, and now 9 years old. I really don't know if we will ever travel back to Kaz, we have had our translator come and stay with us three different times, and Bulgyn sends him Kaz items all the time. He is proud to be from Kaz and thinks it is cool to take his Kaz items to school, but he has never said anything about going to visit. We also have a 17 year old daughter. They are the light of our lives. We live in Fresno California.

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  4. ccai does rock-- we've used them for all 4 of our adoptions-- hands down best agency-- :)

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  5. Thanks for all the details! You must be over your jet lag to get all that together. :)

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    1. Not yet... I fell asleep again at 10am this morn after being awake for hours. Ugh.

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  6. also-- for VPN-- try Express VPN-- we used that this past summer in China- and never had an issue with Facebook or blogger also very inexpensive

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  7. Do you think your girls had any sense of being in China or was it just a cool trip like going to Disneyland? I guess what I'm really asking is if it was meaningful to them on any deeper level or just a really great trip?

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    1. Anonymous1/06/2013

      With the exception of Disneyland in Asia, I have never been to a Disneyland where 99% of the people were Chinese/Asian. So much of the trip is about what is in China that it seems like at some level the two girls would have realized this was not Disneyland, especially given all the discussion the girls apparently had with M3 and Tubadad. Just my opinion.

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    2. Hi Kristi! Hope you guys are having fun in AZ. The girls definitely knew they were in China and knew what that meant in terms of visiting the place where they were born and it being a big important trip rather than a vacation. But I don't think they processed things very deeply beyond that. It was fun, adventurous, and great to experience China, and they really enjoyed seeing everything, had a positive experience, and want to go back. Those were probably their main takeaways, which is just fine for this age.

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  8. Ummmm. Problems with your personal email account again. I sent you email about it.

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  9. Anonymous1/06/2013

    Thank you for the details! I had no idea adoptees were free. I wonder how long this will last...hopefully a few years until we can go. I have bookmarked CCAI and will use them when the time (and money) comes. The toilet issue surprised me, when we were there in 2007 I never had to use a squatty potty, got lucky I guess!
    Pam in Indiana

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  10. Anonymous1/06/2013

    Wow you are amazing! Recovering from your trip and you still have time to impart your wisdom on us - thank you!!! Do the tours for the adoptees at no charge include the flights in China? How would kids with food allergies do - do you think it would be safe for someone with nut allergies or gluten sensitivities? Thanks again for letting us "join" you an your amazing adventures! Do you plan to go again before the girls graduate high school?

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    1. I don't know about amazing, but I am insanely tired at all the wrong times... Tomorrow's alarm for school is going to hurt!

      All in country flights were included in our tour cost (unless you depart out of a different city than the last one they suggest - in that case you might have to pay the difference in getting to your city rather than theirs).

      I think kids with food allergies would do alright as long as you had guides with you, but you'd have to be the judge based on the severity of course. We had vegetarians and folks with gluten sensitivity and peanut allergies in our group and the guides were good about checking all the info before each group dinner.

      We definitely plan to go again when the girls are older.

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  11. Thanks so much for all these great tips! Hope CCAI are still doing these tours when it's time for Hannah and I to go on our heritage tour.

    So much great info here!!

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    1. I have a feeling these heritage tours will be around for a good long while.

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    2. Anonymous1/07/2013

      me too I think this is just the beginning!

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  12. Thank you so much for sharing all these tips! As soon as we got home with our 3.5 yo DD last year we started planning when we would go back for a heritage tour as she asks to go back all the time, good to hear that 7 years old isn't too young as that is when we were thinking we would try to go back.

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  13. Thanks for all that great info! So helpful. Maylin is starting to talk about going back. I am thinking that will be happening in 2-3 years. I will revisit this post!

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  14. Reading this list is great because while it will be years for our family doing a heritage tour, I did not knowyou could not drink the water. We will take our two oldest with us to china when we get our daughter, so it is good to know to take snacks with us. Thanks for sharing!

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  15. Thanks for the great info - we just put down a deposit for a December 2013 tour with another agency - for various reasons we have decided not to do the BLAS tour. Looking forward to our trip, and thanks for all the great tips.

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    1. Julie that is awesome news!! I'm so happy for you guys.

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  16. We will definitely be doing it at some point. Sunshine is still very young so we have a long wait but Jammer is probably withing 3-4 years of being ready for a heritage tour of Vietnam. I hope I can find as good a tour there as this one was for you. Thank you for all the great info. It will surely help when it is our turn.

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  17. Anonymous1/07/2013

    Hi M3 Love following your blog, was browsing pinterest just now and thought your girls would like these panda things! http://pinterest.com/pin/70439181641335974/

    Best Wishes Katie in England

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  18. I didn't realize it was the CCAI trip you were on! We got the emails about it but decided that, with our youngest being 4, this wasn't the time yet. Our oldest is 8. She was 5 on her brother's adoption trip, and because it was a family-changing trip, we insisted she go, but for a heritage trip, that would have definitely been too young. She did not leave China with happy memories. She thinks it's a boring string of hotel rooms and boring tourist attractions. But she was a pro at the squatty potty! It did not even faze her.

    This past summer we took her on a mission trip to Guatemala (at age 7), and everything went perfectly, so you're right, 7 might be the magic number.

    I would love to go on one of CCAI's trips in a few years, so I appreciate all of this info you've given us! Thanks!

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  19. Thanks for the helpful advice. We are going on CCAI's July 2013 tour with my 8 and 5 year old daughters.

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    1. Anonymous6/05/2013

      Hi I would love to know how your 5 yr old does. My kids have a seven year age gap, but I don't want to wait to long to take my oldest to China. My youngest would will be 5 next year and he is a busy, active kid so I don't know how he would handle the pace. Cristy in FL

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  20. As someone who lives in China, please don't mention the name of VPN providers on your blog...it is a surefire way to get them blocked. Thanks!

    glad you enjoyed your trip! we love living here!

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  21. thanks for such an insightful blog post!!! we are going this summer for my daughter's sweet 16! appreciate the tips and good advice.

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  22. We are ready to go next spring - checking with CCAI now. Wish we could travel with you all!

    Alyzabeth's Mommy

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