Telegraph journalist Christopher Middleton and his family experienced the wonders and variety of our "Chinese Crackers" tour - read more about their exciting journey below:
There's sun, there's sand and there are lots of boys and girls running round playing hide-and-seek in the dunes. Sounds like a traditional British beach holiday, except that this isn't Great Yarmouth, but the Gobi Desert, which means the lack of sea is due not so much to the tide being out as to the fact that the nearest ocean is 600 miles away.
We have come here as part of a 14-day China adventure tour, which begins in Beijing, ends in Hong Kong and is designed specifically to appeal to families. In other words, as well as going on grown-up visits to see Taoist temples and terracotta warriors, we also do more frivolous, child-friendly things, such as this overnight camel trek into Inner Mongolia.
Not that it's been a picnic, by any means. We may all have given our camels cuddly Christian names (Hermione, Shaggy, Caroline, Wispy and Chester), but three long, hard, rump-bumping hours aboard these ships of the desert has left us adults walking in a very John Wayne way by sundown.
By contrast, the experience has made less of an impression on the children, who are spending the last hours of daylight not bathing their rear ends in soothing warm sand (like their parents), but engaging in a vigorous game of pursuit and evasion that involves trying to get from A to B without being spotted by our tour leader Candace Lafleur.
One can't really over-emphasise the importance of the tour leader on a trip like this, and in Canadian-born Candace we have struck lucky. She's only 25, but she speaks fluent Mandarin and has been living in China for four years. And as well as being able to do all the rough stuff, such as dealing with obstructive airline officials and uppity hotel clerks (we are regularly accused of pinching the towels), she has also developed a Mary Poppins-like way of sugaring China's less palatable aspects.
With public loos, for example, she has invented a "panda rating", whereby we award not stars but pandas on grounds of cleanliness. "At the top end, you've got a five-panda convenience," she explains. "At the bottom end it's possible to go as low as a minus-five-bejillion-panda loo. Believe me, they're out there."
As it happens, the worst WC we encounter is a minus-four (roadside garage near Zhongwei, won't go into it), and the panda-rating game removes the horror, if not the odour. In similar fashion, Candace is able to defuse the other potentially bothersome aspect of the trip, which is the surprisingly large stir that the sight of Westerners still causes among Chinese people.
"What you guys have to realise is that out here you are superstars," she announces, as we step out onto the prairie-like expanses of Tian'anmen Square. "People will want to look at you, people will want to touch you, they may never have seen someone like you before."
And in order to elevate us from being mere passive recipients of prodding and gaping, she urges the children (ages six to 16) to indulge in a vigorous campaign of "photo-hopping". This involves seeking out Chinese families who are having their photograph taken, then leaping into the background at the last minute, making cheery, rabbit-ear signs with their fingers. Cue squeals of delight from both hoppers and hopped.
Childish? Well, yes, that's the point. After all, the under-12s in the party haven't exactly begged to be taken somewhere strange and distant for two weeks, so it's essential that the holiday has something to offer them, too. And there's only so much explanation of the Confucian belief system that a nine-year-old can take.
So in return for trailing round Buddhist shrines, and for hiking 10 miles along a crumbling stretch of Great Wall, the children get to do things such bike-riding, kung fu, calligraphy - and sand tobogganing.
Yes, poised a heart-stopping 330 feet above the Yellow River, we find ourselves staring down an almost vertical cliff of sand, clutching rickety wooden tea trays on which we are meant to slide down.
We're at the extraordinary Shapotou desert theme park, which is on the southern fringes of the Gobi, and staffed by a small army of Chinese ladies wearing bright yellow, Lady Guinevere-type wimples. At first sight, what they are inviting us to do seems suicidal, but after watching a couple of dozen locals reach the bottom without mishap we take the downward plunge, albeit with hands clamped tightly to the brakes.
And as if one strange experience wasn't enough for one morning, the next is to get on a raft made buoyant by rows of inflated sheep carcases (legs still pointing stiffly outwards), on which we are paddled downriver by a wizened Mongolian boatman.
Mind you, the whole fortnight has been a whirl of different sensations. We have been on two overnight sleeper trains and three internal flights; we have cycled through the paddy fields of Southern China and around the imperial city walls of Xian.
We have visited four enormous cities of more than six million people (Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Hong Kong) and we have been to a Sichuan panda sanctuary and seen a one-day-old panda (think pork chop with chipolata legs).
We have also seen three shows that have been spectacular in completely different ways: astonishing child acrobats and jugglers in Beijing, face-changing Sichuan fire-breathers in Chengdu and a night-time, cast-of-thousands outdoor epic, set against the limestone tower-mountains of Yangshuo and created by the film director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers), the man who is in charge (along with Steven Spielberg) of the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Speaking of which, the capital's taxi-drivers really do need to get a bit more foreigner-friendly. As well as being uncertain on directions, hopeless with maps and severely challenged in the charm department, they clearly take the view that picking up Westerners is more trouble than it's worth (on average, two out of every three drivers refuse to take us anywhere).
As for the city itself, it has become a somewhat hellish combination of wide, smoggy roads that are clogged with traffic and soaring glass skyscrapers eerily empty of people. So vast has the metropolis become that its single ring road has grown into five.
There again, the other cities we visit aren't exactly things of beauty, either. The nice (ie, old) bits tend to be dotted a long taxi ride apart from each other, through a mainly concrete-and-shiny-glass jungle. No surprise, then, that everyone's favourite place is Yangshuo, a pretty little resort town near Guilin, with pointy hills, a pretty river and a population of thousands rather than millions.
It's here that we attend the atmospherically rundown Lijiang Academy, for gentle 90-minute sessions in which we learn to do black-and-white paintings of bamboo trees, write our names in bold Chinese characters and pick up the basic moves of t'ai chi and kung fu. Not to mention a morning session at the local cookery school.
En route there are a few dodgy tummies (half of us have a day or so off food), the occasional sibling spat (no names), and the odd dozy mishap (I fall and sprain my ankle on an off-piste section of our Great Wall trek). Plus everyone, from ages six to 52, gets a bit run down by the sheer relentlessness of the schedule; on a previous trip with the same company (Imaginative Traveller) to Vietnam, all our hotels had swimming pools and time set aside for splashing, but alas the Chinese just aren't keen on recreational bathing.
Was the trip worth doing? Absolutely. Was it non-stop fun? No, but it was never boring. Numbers-wise, perhaps 18 was a bit unwieldy (five taxis per outing), but the fact that there were 10 children meant they could all play cards and giggle at the back of the bus while we grown-ups gazed enraptured at the passing cultural sights (ie. fell asleep).
Sometimes at the end of a family holiday, I have asked our children if they've enjoyed themselves, and the answer has been a little, strangled cough and a politely high-pitched "Of course we did, Daddy". This time, I asked the same question and the reply was an instant "We loved it!"
Ask the family:
Julia Middleton (16)
"I really enjoyed the fact there were lots of other children on this tour. On our last one, there was only one other family, with one son. Not enough! For me, the best day of the holiday was when we went bike-riding in the countryside round Yangshuo; it was great to be out of the cities at last. I also liked all the shopping in Hong Kong, especially the jewellery."
Eleanor Middleton (14)
"The camel trek into the desert wasn't comfortable, particularly sharing a tent with my mother, but it was a great experience, probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I also really enjoyed the lessons we did, particularly the painting. It made a welcome change from all that walking and climbing over things."
Charles Middleton (11)
"I liked the Great Wall trek, because you could see the wall stretching out for miles, up and down these mountains. I thought it was great riding my camel through the desert, too, and then playing games in the dunes when we got to our camp. The pandas were good, too. They were sweet and such fun."
Reprinted from the Daily Telegraph
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