The 60-passenger bus was about half-full with Americans, Koreans, Chinese and people from a handful of other places. We shuffled our three youngster quickly to the back of the bus and set up a “kid zone” along with a single mom, her two kids and their two friends.
When the bus started to move, it was a very bumpy ride. Some of the streets in Tianjin are not that good and being in the back of the bus magnified the jostling effect.
"Don't worry," Brian said, "It will improve when we get out of town and onto the freeway."
We kept bumping through town for about a half an hour. I stayed busy staring out the window as we passed all kinds of slanty roofed Temples and crazy markets - the Chinese version of strip malls.
Food vendors stirred steaming kettles, huge buckets of fresh cut flowers sat near the curb, fruit and vegetable stands lined the roads, and there were people on foot, people on bikes and traffic everywhere. I also saw tire shops with popular brand names printed in English on the signs.
I am very surprised by the amount of English I saw in the city. Not just pinyin, the romanized version of Chinese characters, but actual English words are everywhere.
Even doors say “push” or “pull” under the Chinese characters. I was told that this sort of thing has been cropping up more and more in the past two years, perhaps partly in preparation for the Olympics.
After awhile, the city sights gave way to a huge green field of corn and then the real bumping and jostling began.
“Are we actually tearing through the cornfield? Did someone hook a harvester to the back of the bus?” I wondered.
We weren’t actually harvesting the corn, but we had basically taken the huge bus off-roading. Apparently, the freeway was closed due to construction and the detour ran along through the dirt that separated the cornfield from the freeway.
I cannot even describe the way that bus was rocking us from side to side while I held onto my 1-year-old for dear life.
Soon, however, Brian’s prediction came true and the bumping did subside. That is because once we passed by the construction and reached the actual freeway, we got caught in a major traffic jam.
It was almost like being in a parking lot for about an hour. I actually saw people getting out of their cars for a smoke.
Back in “the zone,” we just doled out all the food we had packed for the day and had a big picnic.
It wasn't so bad, but we lost a lot of time. It was suppose to take less than three hours to get to the Great Wall, but in reality it was noon before we arrived. To get us back on track, we were told to take a quick look and be back on the bus in 45 minutes.
It typically takes about 1 hour each way to climb the 800 or so very steep steps to the top of the wall and Brian was anxious to start snapping photos.
Luckily for us, the sight we were visiting, called Badaling, about 40 miles northwest of Beijing, is such a hot tourist spot, they have installed a gondola to take you to the top!
I’m pretty sure there were no “Lift China” or “smartgrowthbadaling.org” signs in people’s yards when this gondola was built. (Unlike my hometown of Ogden, Utah where the community is split over the issue of building a gondola up the mountainside).
We loaded Isaac, our one-year-old, into the baby backpack, grabbed Sophie and Ian, our 5 and 3-year-olds, by the hands and started booking it over to the ticket line.
That is when the shrieks began.
"I don't want to go on the gondola! It's too scary!" These cries were coming from Sophie, and Ian soon joined in.
"Kids, we are at THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA," Brian explained. "Lots of people go their whole lives without getting to see this. You are GOING ON THE GONDOLA."
The shrieks intensified. Our 45 minutes were ticking away.
We tried reasoning, bribing, coaxing, threatening. Then, in a moment of desperation, Brian scooped Sophie up in his arms and started marching toward the gondola with her kicking and screaming all the way.
The moment was classic. Here we were, visiting one of the wonders of the world and our kids would rather stay on the bus.
Obviously our kids weren't going to budge. We backed off. "Okay, we won't go," we told them, and we stood by in exasperation watching others board the gondola and head up.
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Things calmed down. We hoped this approach would allow them some time to change their minds. Of course, that wasn't going to happen.
Then, we had another idea. We remembered that some members in the group had seen the Great Wall before and were opting to not pay the fee to go to the top. We headed back to the tour bus and quickly made friends with Mrs. Wong, a grandmotherly Chinese woman who happened to love fair-haired kids!
Sophie and Ian happily boarded the bus and Brian and I ran to the gondola with Isaac in tow.
The portion of the wall we visited was in a gorgeous region of lush green mountains. The views from the top were amazing. It’s wonderful that the Great Wall, stretching over more than 4,000 miles of countryside has worked to China’s advantage as a modern day tourist attraction even if it wasn’t effective in keeping the Mongols out.
For our next adventure, we rejoined our kids on the bus and traveled a short distance to Longqing (pronounced Long Ching) Gorge, a beautiful ravine in a lush green mountain area about 56 miles northwest of Beijing.
The roads to the entrance of this attraction were lined with vendors behind tables of fresh fruits and vegetables for miles and miles with no breaks between the stands.
When we arrived, we found a huge dam holding back a river surrounded by tourist attractions.
Even though we visited in early September, it was quite chilly compared to the high-70 to mid-80 degree weather we were enjoying in Tianjin. We started out below the dam walking around and looking at shops.
Then, we came to a huge landing where people were feeding a few hundred pigeons. We bought some bird food and Sophie and Ian had four or five birds at a time eating right out of their hands!
Ironically, the kids weren't scared by those beady-eyed little guys pecking food with their sharp looking beaks right out of their unprotected bare hands. It was just fully enclosed safe and smooth gondola rides, that struck fear in their hearts.
We wound around past some more shops until we spotted a huge golden dragon snaking steeply up the mountainside.
As we followed the crowd toward the opening at the mouth, Ian, our three-year-old started repeating, "I don't want to go in the dragon," at least 50 times.
We slowly coaxed him along and once we were inside, to everyone’s delight we discovered – escalators! My kids LOVE escalators! It turns out the dragon was just a fancy way to house a series of ten or so moving stairways taking visitors to the top of the dam.
There were windows along the side of the dragon so we could peek out and see a beautiful massive waterfall spilling over the top of the dizzying tall dam.
Ian definitely had a change of heart about the dragon and for the rest of the day he told us over and over, "I want to go in the dragon and ride the escalators again!"
At the top of the dam, we took a peaceful boat ride on the water snaking between high cliffs.
It reminded me of winding through a canyon at Lake Powell, except for the coloring. The water was a deep green and the cliff walls were brown and covered with trees and other greenery. It was different, but really pretty and definitely a change from the big city sights.
At the end of the boat ride, we passed under a zip line a few hundred feet up where some thrill seekers were using harnesses to whiz through the air over the water.
A part of me wanted to give it a try. I just moved to China, so I was feeling a bit adventurous.
We exited the boat to look around at some Temples and buy souvenirs. Two girls from our group, both of them college students, purchased $6 tickets and took a ride on the zip line. I tried to watch them from the sidelines while Brian got up close to take pictures, but I was too afraid of losing one of my kids over the side of the cliff that was barely secured by one flimsy chain. It was more of a marker than a safety rail.
I didn’t get my chance to ride the zip line that day, but who knows what the future could hold.
Instead, we bought our kids some cheap souvenirs that would break before the end of the day and eventually made our way back to the parking lot via a long cave, and then by shuttles that looked like red and green dragons.
Back on the bus, we returned to the “kid zone” where the treats were less plentiful on the way back home.
We were saying things like, "Here kids, eat this mashed up PB&J that was forgotten at the bottom of the bag while we were munching all of those chips and cookies earlier. Oh, and here is one box of milk, can all seven of you share it?"
At 9:30 that night we returned to our apartment happy and exhausted with the kids too tired to even stand. It was a great adventure!
To view images of Longqing Gorge, visit www.bjlongqingxia.com.cn