Safety tips for a family holiday to China
A holiday to China can be an exciting prospect – but a nagging question kept popping up in my mind when planning our holiday to Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland this year – is China really a safe country to take children to?
I first visited China 10 years ago, before I had my two children Samantha, 7.and Brooke, 9. So now, gone were the carefree fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants travel days – travelling with kids requires planning and security. You can’t just rock up to a strange town on the off-chance there will be decent accommodation, or hope there is a train going in the right direction when you have two young children depending on you! But the payoff for that loss of spontaneity is that is that you get all the fun and excitement of travel and discovery with your child – and that, my friends, is an amazing thing!
Terrorism and tourists
Even though I really wanted to plant my children’s feet on the Great Wall of China for one of those life-memorable experiences, I didn’t want to expose them to any risks in the process. News stories of China terrorist attacks, such as the massacre in Kunming, diseases…it was all a little unnerving for a parent. So, I did what any prospective parent-traveller should always do before booking a family holiday to a foreign country – online research!
First stop – the Australian government Smart Traveller website to check for any travel warnings – China was rated for normal caution in 2014 – so far, so good. I returned to this website later to register our trip in detail, which is always a good idea when you are headed off overseas – just in case! If there are any problem where you go and you have registered your movements (hotel, location, etc.), the Government know where you are and how to contact you.
Next I jumped onto Google. After a few keyword searches, I decided that the areas of major unrest in China were not tourist-related and thousands of kilometres away from the main touristy areas of Hong Kong, Beijing and Xian – this was reassuring. Plus previous trips to countries such as Egypt after the Hatshepsut massacre and Europe directly following 9/11 had taught me that travelling directly following a terrorist incident often heightened security and made conditions safer.
So, with the pros and cons weighed up, China seemed to be a safe destination as any, provided that we stuck to the tourist trails.
Disease-proof yourself – and the kids!
Tickets booked, the next issue to address was that of dangerous diseases – many overseas countries have a lot of them that we don’t have in Australia, and China certainly has their fair share. On my previous trip I hadn’t bothered – now, as a parent, that seemed fool-hardy. With children, immunisations against disease were a must.
It seemed that the logical thing to do was to work out the risks of the disease versus the possible side-effects of the vaccination. I did a quick web-search to check disease risks in the areas we were visiting (your Doctor may or may not be up to date on this) and two trips to the GP later (you’ll need two appointments – one to consult the GP and get the script to buy the vaccinations and then one for the GP to administer them) we sported very sore arms and protection from a couple of nasty diseases.
In the end, I decided that Typhoid (be warned – the kids are NOT going to like this one – it hurts briefly!) and Hep B were sensible bases to cover for our particular trip, but thought Cholera (which is usually administered as a drink over several days) should be okay to miss, given that we weren’t spending months in the Chinese countryside, on farmland, etc.
We also got normal flu shots, as several nasty flus are prevalent in China. Whilst flu probably won’t kill you, it can certainly ruin your holiday by laying you low – and when you are a single parent, that spells disaster. After all, you can’t hand the kids off to your partner to continue the holiday fun whilst you stay in the hotel room and pull the bed covers over your head, now can you?
Don’t forget that some immunisations do need to be administered weeks prior to leaving, so don’t leave everything to the last minute – and do make sure that you’re getting the most up-to-date flu shot possible.
Be prepared – don’t forget to factor-in vaccination costs – these can cost you hundreds of dollars, and are not claimable through Medicare or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS)
If possible, travel with a group tour or friends
There really is safety in numbers, someone to have your back, etc. Someone to know where you – and your kids are – and if you are missing from a tour, or schedule! Organised tours will also help you navigate the language and locals and act as a “buffer”, advising you of any local risks or danger.
ALWAYS hold your young child’s hand
If they think it’s uncool, you tell them, different country – different rules! Holidays are allowed to carry a different set of rules. You may want to discuss this even before you leave, but you can adjust the rules as you go, as necessary! Be firm – no hand, no move! Why? Tell them it’s so they don’t get lost, and it is – it’s good to know that you know exactly where they are (you don’t want to lose your child in a non-English speaking scenario where you may not even be able to read signs or call emergency services). But it is also so that they can’t be abducted. Kidnapped. Stolen. Extremely unlikely, sure! However when you are travelling it might just be that you are in an area of heightened risk and not even know it – it can’t hurt to be overly-careful when travelling.
Always be alert
Keep an eye on what is happening around you – China is full of people, and with such a large population, queues are common and can become very pushy or even crushing very quickly – really. Always look for and keep a constant eye out for emergency exits wherever you go. In particularly places such as railway stations where there are “bottleneck” hazards to board trains in a short space of time. It’s commonly accepted that you hustle and push in queues, which can be quite confronting for us orderly Aussies! No doubt if we had the same huge population as China we would be the same. I always look for a space where we can duck out of a queue if necessary, and I’ve used this escape method more than once over the years! If in doubt, don’t! Abandon the queue or crush, because there will always be another train, plane or automobile, and you and your children’s safety is paramount.
Only eat well-cooked food and DON’T drink the water anywhere in China
Let me say that again – DON’T drink the water anywhere in China! This includes your own hotel, no matter how many stars rating it has. Use bottled water to rinse when cleaning your teeth – wrap the tap with a towel or plastic bag to remind yourself. Don’t open your mouth in the shower, bath or hotel swimming pool!
In fast food joints, when ordering soft drinks, insist on no ice. Bottled water is plentiful and cheap, and good tour guides will carry supplies with the tour. (Ensure the seal “cracks” open – street sellers may refill old bottles!)
Don’t order salads (they are washed in water) – even in the good hotels – peel-able fruit should be fine, but again, we heard rumours of some food possibly being fertilised with human excrement on the mainland – so we always erred on the side of caution, rumour or not!
Whether by design or luck, whilst most of our travel companions got stomach bugs, myself and the children didn’t get one tummy-upset or sick at all during the entire trip
China is touchy-feely
People can be very hands-on with your kids. Non-Asian children are a novelty on the mainland, and everybody wants a photo with them, particularly country folk visiting the cities. There are also a lot of street-sellers, some quite pushy, especially in the high-tourism areas such as the Forbidden City and the Xian Warriors that may come up and get hold of the kids. It’s all mostly harmless, but still there were rumours of child-kidnapping in Macau and elsewhere that kept us open to chats and photos, but hyper-vigilant, all the same!
High levels of pollution
You’re going to be breathing in a lot of smog and cigarette smoke – there’s not a real lot you can do about this other than accept it as an unavoidable annoyance. you could try a face mask, however if it really bothers you, consider visiting a different country. Whilst mainland China struggles to find ways to minimise smog using schemes such as alternating car usage according to number plates, it’s just not working. The smog is everywhere, including thick pollution in the countryside surrounding Xian, away from the cities. Accept it as a temporary novelty – part of the spectacle that is travel – and you’ll be fine. My kids didn’t even notice it, and after you get home, it will all work its way out of your system eventually!
Smoking is big in China – if you don’t smoke, you’ll find that you involuntarily do there. Although there are smoke-free areas put aside all over, the smell of cigarettes still pervades everywhere – even in non-smoking hotels where it seems to emerge from the walls. Again, it’s a matter of embracing the differences of culture – even the annoying ones!
Airport hazards – Believe it or not, a child with a temperature can also be a bit of a hazard, so work at keeping everyone healthy if you possibly can, or dosed with Panadol where appropriate. Airport officials pick out random children (mine was one of them) and elderly, sick or weak-looking adults for spot-temperature checks as they enter China – including Macau . What happens if they have a temperature I’m not sure, but our tour guide told us that they would arrange for medical treatment – and that’s not what you want at the airport, or to be detoured elsewhere when you’re on holidays!
Don’t forget to take these essentials with you!
Hand sanitiser – and lots of it. You can buy small travel packs from the chemist before you leave – pack most of it in your checked baggage (liquids) and keep one small one with you at all times – apply it before and after meals, the toilet – and whenever else you remember. You can buy chemist products in China of course – Hong Kong is no problem, however mainland China can require effort to find a chemist – save yourself the bother and buy before you leave. This includes diarrhoea, headache and pain pills and any other medications you normally or may need – ensure that you leave any pills in their box, and for prescriptions have the doctors instructions still on the packet in case you are questioned by officials at the airport. (I even took a half-used pack of anti-biotics I had left over just in case!)
It may be worthwhile pre-warning the kids about in-ground – or “squat” toilets – we had gotten into the habit of using McDonalds as our fall-back for toilets, only to find that in the big city of Xian, there wasn’t a European toilet to be found – even at McDonalds. My six year old, who of course was desperate to go, flatly refused to consider using a hole in the floor, and we had to high-tail it several blocks back to our hotel – luckily, she held on!
Tissues – you’ll need these for toilet paper everywhere except your hotel room on the mainland, and in some places in Hong Kong. There is no toilet paper at all – or hand towels – so always keep a pack of tissues on you. Also, several of our friends kids got nose-bleeds more often than usual (due to the high pollution, perhaps?), so if you have a bleeder in the family, be prepared!
Deet (strong) mosquito propellant, particularly for the warmer months in the countryside (such as the Great Wall of China!) – we still got some mozzie bites in spring, and mosquitos can carry diseases such as Malaria in some areas of China. Don’t buy the wrist-bands that you can get in Chemists here in Australia – they’re just not strong enough.
All that said, don’t let me put you off from your holiday – China is well worth the little worries, and is an amazingly rewarding family holiday that will leave you and the kids rich with memories – and tales to tell for many years afterwards!