China is a country of total sensory overload and culture shock, add a serious language barrier to the mix and it can feel like the brain takes a hammering in the first few days you are there. This is particularly true of Beijing, the historic capital city. It’s a country of wonders but also frustrations and if you are travelling there for the first time with children you may find yourself overwhelmed and wondering what to do. We loved our time there but it was also some of the most intense travelling we’ve done. Below are some of my recommendations for things to do. You’ll notice that the usual trips to The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven are missing from my list; this is because I don’t think they are actually that suitable for young children. The Forbidden City will probably bore young ones, it is more of historical and political interest to adults. Temple of Heaven we found non-descript, and although ‘nice’ to see it wasn’t all that interesting. If you find yourself with a week in China’s capital city I would recommend the following as things to do that will keep little ones (and you engaged). Of course you may wish to visit The Forbidden City anyway, it’s on most people’s list after all; however just bear in mind it’s a trip for you and you may need to take the children to see something more interesting (in their eyes) afterwards.
1: The Great Wall of China 长城
You simply cannot visit Beijing or China without a visit to The Great Wall. This fabulous feat of human engineering and endurance is one of the most recognisable historic features of any country in the world. Conceived of by Emperor Qin Shi Huang with the actual building directed by General Meng Tian in 220BC, it stretched over 3000 miles and took thousands of soldiers, prisoners and labourers to build it. It has been added to, extended and restored ever since. The wall as you know it was built in the 14th and 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and became an infamous symbol of China’s power, history and strength from the 18th Century onwards. No trip to China is complete without stepping foot on this ancient construction.
When in Beijing you have several ways in which you can visit the Great Wall which I will split into age appropriate sections. All sections are between 2 and 3 hours away from the city centre. It is worth remembering that most things in China (including rail travel) are free for children under 1.2/ 1.5 metres tall so remember to negotiate the price with your hotel/hostel accordingly. If you are happy to travel with a child on your lap for the journey they may well waive the fee altogether.
Nearly all hotels and hostels will operate organised trips to various sections of the wall and you can book on for about 280RMB (£30) per person. This will generally cover your transport, possibly some lunch (although not always) and the entrance fee onto the wall. Alternatively you can book a private driver through most hotels/hostels for about 750RMB (£85) which will afford you a car and driver to do whatever you want with for a whole day (so you can incorporate another trip if you wish). If you wish to be adventurous then it is possible to get buses very cheaply to each of the sections and I’d recommend the information given in the lonely planet guide as a way forward with this route.
Children 3 years and under:
I would recommend the Mutianyu section of the wall on a day trip if you have small children. Although this will be a busier section I recommend it as there is a cable car running to the wall from the bottom and a toboggan or return cable car trip for the way down. If you do book a trip with your hotel/hostel they may well do a hike along but you would be free to let them go ahead if you don’t fancy joining them, explore a smaller section by yourselves and meet them when they come back. we visited this section in October when by all rights it should have been packed; however we arrived early enough and although the queue for the cable car down was long it wasn’t horrendous and we enjoyed the day.
An alternative section to visit is the Huanghuacheng Great Wall. Although suitable for children under 3 years old this would also keep older children occupied with plenty to see and do. This section is about 70km outside of Beijing and took us about 2-3 hours to reach. We booked a private car and shared the trip with someone else from our hostel to reduce cost. As you have a private car one of the things you do when you visit this section is visit the huge aviation museum on the way back. This is the largest aviation museum in the world and is worth a look, especially if you have a driver for the day.
The Huanghuacheng section of the wall is notable due to the fact it’s submerged in a lake and is the only section in Beijing where this occurs. The visit is fun for children as you take a short boat across the lake, surrounded by impressive scenery. Once across the other side there’s an ancient cedar grove to explore as well as the wall. You can walk as much or as little of the wall as you wish with the option to hike as far as Jiankou if you are able. With smaller children however you can just walk a small section, climb the steps, visit one of the lookout towers and run through the cedar grove, all whilst seeing the wall stretch across the hillsides. There was also a small children area when we were there with diggers, sand pit and other activities for them to do for a small extra cost. During chestnut season you can collect chestnuts and have them roasted and I believe the area is particularly beautiful if visited during winter when the snows have arrived. During the summer the entire village is brought to life with stunning yellow flowers making this one of the most picturesque section to visit. Before you take the boat it is also possible to take a walk along the side of the hill to see beautiful view across the lake.
As mentioned, if you do book a private driver I would recommend visiting the aviation museum on your way back. It is possible to book this as a private tour on Trip Advisor or to just arrange yourself through your hotel or hostel which is what we did.
One thing to remember is that both of the above sections are considered ‘restored’ which means they will actually look pretty new. The wall is divided into 3 classifications: restored, unrestored and wild. I personally could not tell the difference between restored and unrestored and to me the wall had lost its ancient charm in this process. For this reason we went on a second trip where we purposefully sought out the wild sections of the wall. Technically you are not meant to walk on these sections, but given that there are many organised hikes to these sections I believe it is a ‘rule’ that is rarely enforced.
Children age 4 years +:
Depending on the physical fitness level of the family and whether you think your child can do this, one thing to do is to take the hike from Jiankou to Mutianyu. This is a full on day where you hike 10km through some pretty rough terrain. Having said this though, I took my wild 4.5 year old on this trip and she absolutely loved climbing, scrambling and walking this section. She hiked the whole 10km only getting tired at the end when we reached the ‘boring’ Mutianyu section. We had our driver take us to the start at Jiankou, he walked us about 45 minutes up the hill to find the start and we then left to finish the hike on our own. There were some incredibly steep section that looked pretty scary but it was all achievable with a child. It will be ‘free’ to get on the wall apart from a small fee to some locals who manage the ladder to get on the wall and then you can pay to take the cable car to the bottom. Our driver drove round to meet us here at the carpark and take us back to our hostel.
I would recommend sturdy shoes, drinks, food, snacks and sun lotion as it’s pretty exposed for the majority of this trip although you will need a warm fleece as you will like have set off early and it takes a while to warm up. Don’t be deterred by the scarily steep looking sections, they look worse than they are and this was genuinely one of the best things I did with my daughter whilst in China.
Another option is to camp on the wall. Many people camp at the Jiankou section I believe then wake up in the morning, watch the sunrise and head off to hike to Mutianyu. My daughter would have loved this and if we ever go back I’ll definitely book this trip. It costs approximately 1000RMB (£112) per person but you will most likely have the privilege of having the wall to yourself in the night and in the morning. All of these trips are easily arranged once in China or in advance through sites such as trip advisor. As mentioned, every hotel or hostel will have their own trips you can book on or they will at least know where you can book. They will always add a small premium for arranging but the prices quoted will be roughly accurate or within a ball park of what you can expect to pay.
2: The Legend of Kung Fu Show, The Red Theatre 红剧场
I highly recommend seeing one of the many shows Beijing has to offer. Young children in particular will enjoy the Kung Fu show at The Red Theatre. Shows in China are inexpensive compared to UK/US prices and this one was full of action, cool set designs and was a really good night out. I booked all our tickets on Theatre Beijing before we left on our trip. We got good discounts, or better seats for the same money via this site and were given good directions. However, if you prefer you can book yourself direct or just turn up at The Red Theatre as there is a show on every night. I wouldn’t actually recommend booking this type of ticket through the hostels and hotels, the prices I saw were raised significantly and even though it included transport to the venue (not back) it wasn’t worth the premium added. All the theatres we attended were easy to reach by public transport or it’s very cheap to get there by booking a Didi (Chinese Uber).
There are other shows to go and see such as the Chinese acrobatics and the Kung Fu Panda. all details an be found through Theater Beijing where tickets can be booked in advance and generally paid for on arrival in cash. Given our experiences you can’t really go wrong and for not a lot of money you’ll have a really good night out.
How to get there: Take the subway on line 5, to Tiantan east stop exit C, then you can walking to east 500 meters (Tiyuguan Rd.)
Address: 44 Xingfu Street, Chongwen District, Beijing
Cost: 140 RMB – 600 RMB (£15-£65) depending on seating arrangement. We booked the yellow zone at the sides for 190 RMB each and we were seated right at the front with a great view.
3: Wangfujing Night Market 王府井
A must see on most tourists lists is Wangfujing night market, one of the most famous shopping streets in beijing. This is where you will find the infamous roasted scorpions on sticks alongside other dubious looking bugs to buy and eat. I’d been warned of food poisoning risks, so although we didn’t sample the wares it was still fun to visit (putting the animal ethics aside). My daughter was pretty fascinated by wiggling scorpions although we both agreed we felt pretty sorry for them too. We bought plenty of other fun snacks and sweets, then headed up to the main street to visit a huge toy store and wander through the shops which are open very late night. There are plenty of tourist shops if you want to purchase gifts for people back home including traditional sweets, carved wooden toys and trinkets, fine silks and material and anything else you can think of. Highly accessible by the subway stop of the same name it was a fun night out for us and a pretty iconic place for tourists.
How to get there: Line 1 on the subway Wangfujing exit North
4: Ditan Park (Temple of Earth) 地坛
One thing that surprised me about China was that outdoor play parks are simply not a ‘thing’. we never found anywhere with swings, slides or a fun outdoor area that could amuse my daughter for free. When I asked Chinese people they confirmed that it just wasn’t something they provided. Little play areas were found in kindergarten grounds but not outdoors for the general public.
The next best thing were the free outdoor gyms that were put in place by the Beijing Olympics Committee. These can be found scattered around the city in many locations, if you keep an eye out you’ll soon stumble across one. However there is a beautiful little hidden gem to be found at Ditan Park. This is a really large public park that cost about 2RMB to enter (20p). Inside we found one of the largest outdoor gyms I’ve seen that basically had every piece of equipment available. Not only that, there was a multitude of things going on and it didn’t seem to be popular with tourists. There were many locals singing in choirs, dancing, playing traditional instruments and a whole host of other activities. The park seemed to be a regular place for a meet and greet with elderly men playing board games, Tai Chi happening in quiet corners, martial arts practice occurring and just life as you would really expect (or want) to see it in Beijing happening at every turn.
The gym itself was pretty busy until 11am but after that my daughter had an amazing time swinging on the bars, racing around playing with other children. I had a great workout despite my ego taking a knock when I was getting out-manouvered by 80 year old men on the monkey bars! Once you’ve had some exercise you can visit the ancient sacrificial square and one of five royal altars found in Beijing (Ditan Park is The Altar for the Earth), ride around the park in little electric buggies and enjoy an ice cream. The Altar for the Earth costs a further 5RMB to enter and the electric buggies weren’t too much but you only got to hire them for half an hour for around 50RMB I think. A 100RMB deposit was also required.
The park is open year round for 24 hours a day but its particularly pretty in Autumn when the gingko trees are turning. There is also a festival called Chinese Spring Festival held annually, where stalls of food will be available and large crowds are drawn to the area. A big draw for the park is the grand pailou (traditional Chinese archway), beautiful gardens and just the general hubbub of life going on in the walls. If you want to escape the usual tourist traps and visit somewhere fun for the whole family I really recommend a visit to Ditan Park. Arrive early to get the most out of your visit (before 10am) and plan to spend the day, or at least until about 2pm anyway. Once you leave we also found a great little hotpot restaurant around the corner from the east entrance where you can enjoy a big meal for very little money.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Ditan Park is by taking the subway line 2 to lama temple and walking to the south gate. Get off at exit A and walk north for about 300m, crossing the large intersection and walking until you reach a road on the right that curves around the corner continuing north. There’s greenery on either side of this road. If you cross over and walk through this smaller park you will reach the south entrance to to Ditan Park. I did ask someone for directions so if you lose your bearings do ask people around you. You can also easily find this on the map in the lonely planet guide or on google maps of course which does continue to work in China despite the ban on the search engine.
Cost: 2RMB entry, 5RMB entry to further attractions, 50RMB to hire electric buggy (+100RMB deposit)
Address: Beijing, Dongcheng, An Ding Men Wai Da Jie, 安定门外大街
Phone: +86 10 6421 4657
5. Go to a Hotpot Restaurant 火锅
One of our favourite things to do was to go out and eat in one of the many hotpot restaurants of Beijing. They are inexpensive and you will find them on most streets either in specialised hotpot restaurants or a restaurant that serves other things but also has a hotpot on request. Some are more old fashioned with large metal urns with coals in the bottom comprising the hotpot on the table and others are more modern places with an electric table which a hotpot goes on. You will pay around 15-20RMB for the hotpot and then for each thing individually that you order. As with all food in China your bill will not be too much at the end despite what you order.
You can have all kinds of meats and vegetables, noodles, fish and then added cooked extras for side dishes as well. The general premise is that you cook these yourself in a boiling well of water. The water can have spice added to it for extra and in the modern restaurants you can have a divider in the hotpot and 2-4 different flavours to cook the food in. Usually spicy, hot and sour, a milky one and another type of spice. In the traditional hotpot you can also just have plain water.
My daughter loved cooking her food in these and was fascinated by the boiling water. We also ordered rice, savoury pancakes, plenty of fresh vegetables and mushrooms and then thin slices of beef and pork. I don’t have any specific recommendations for places as Beijing just has an abundance of great places to eat and these types of places are everywhere. We never got ill or had a bad meal so don’t worry and just pick one that looks good. We did tend to eat in busy places as it’s usually a good sign whatever country you are in.
Cost: Food in China and Beijing is very inexpensive. The hotpot itself costs 15-20 RMB and a family of 4 could probably eat extremely well for about 100 – 200 RMB so a total cost of about £22
6: Summer Palace 頤和園
Every Chinese person we spoke to in Beijing insisted that we must go to The Summer Palace, and when we did we were not disappointed. Situated on the beautiful Kunming Lake with stunning walks, different boat rides, gorgeous gardens and a fabulous bridge from which you can fly kites it really is a must see destination in Beijing. It’s easy walking with pathways suitable for prams and inexpensive to enter. The boats cost extra but not a huge amount and you can take a picnic or buy food inside. there were tourist traps such as jewellery shops selling what appeared to be jade however it was mostly definitely fake so don’t be fooled by this and instead make sure you go to reputable seller if you want to purchase some. If you can pick a blue sky day The Summer palace really is sunning but I suspect Autumn, Spring and Winter are equally beautiful times of the year to visit.
There were arduous walks available to do to get up to see the palace close up but it was definitely possible to enjoy the scenery without too much exertion and not feel like you were missing out. we walked up to the bridge that crossed over the lake, watched people flying all manner of kites and then took the boat to the other side.
How to get there: You can visit The Summer Palace easily by taking the subway line 4 to Beigongmen and exit from D before walking west for 3 minutes to the North Palace gate. There are other routes and many buses to take but this is one of the most straight forward ways to get there.
Cost: Between 20/30 RMB (£2/3) just to enter and there are other things to pay for separately such as the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the dancing hall or you can buy a combo ticket for 50/60 RMB (£5-6) depending on the season you visit. We just bought the single entrance ticket and didn’t see the other things and paid extra for the boat ride so it is possible to visit and have a great day on a very strict budget.
Address: 19 Xinjiangongmen Rd, Haidian Qu, China, 100000
Phone: +86 10 6288 1144
7: Nanluoguxiang Hutong Rickshaw Tour 南锣鼓巷
Beijing is famous for its winding backstreets otherwise known as hutongs. And probably one of the most famous hutong areas to visit is the Nanluoguxiang Hutong, this shopping street is surrounded by mainly residential outings and dates back to the 18th Century with certain streets such as the Yandai Byway dating back 800 years. The surrounding buildings also typify the ancient architecture of the Yuan Dynasty filled with secretive corners and beautiful courtyards making this a must see destination. Apparently the area will controversially come under construction and renovation over the next few years so best to visit whilst you can. If you take the walk we did then it will start at the beginning of the main shopping street, winding through the residential hutongs and you will eventually end up at the famous drum and bell towers which are impressive to view from the outside given their 67 meter height, if not a bit expensive to enter. I believe the charge was over 100RMB per person which is very expensive compared to most other things to do in Beijing.
The area comprises of one large street straight off the subway exit which is filled with shops selling things that are a tiny bit pricey but actually interesting and more original than they usual trinkets available. For example we found a gorgeous jewellery shop selling items made using broken pieces of Ming Dynasty ceramics. There are silk scarves, fashionable clothes, bag shops, Shanghai cosmetics made by a company dating back over 100 years and food places. I also had a tattoo done by a well known artist in the area whose work is of exceptional quality. With its cool bars, interesting hostels and secret hidden gems Nanluoguxiang Hutong is probably the closest thing Beijing has to a hipster area!
When we visited we decided to walk the whole tour instead of taking a rickshaw; however if you have small children there are many rickshaws waiting to take you on this historic tour. My only advice if you take a rickshaw is that you absolutely confirm the price with them and double check what they mean by writing it down and showing it to them. There are many rickshaw scams being run in Beijing, one of which is them telling you the price is ‘3’ which you may take to mean 3RMB, only to have them insist they meant 300RMB when you finish. Keep this in mind and agree a price before you leave.
We followed the Lonely Planet Guide self guided tour which is actually mapped out for you in the ‘China’ guide book. This was well worth it and the second we left the main shopping street we were in really pretty secluded alleys with almost nobody in sight. We followed winding alleys, down backstreets and discovered all manner of what felt like secret hideaways. I would recommend buying the lonely planet dude away if you visit China, its a large book and heavy to carry but in my opinion worth it.
When we left Nanluoguxiang subway stop on line 6, Exit E you will come out pretty much at the top of the main shopping street. We walked down the street but exited right down a residential hutong before we really hit the main drag. The self-guided tour took us down all the back streets, crossed back over the main shopping street and eventually ended up at the Bell & Drum Towers. One place to definitely head for is the Penghao Theatre, part of the Theatre Without Borders network. You can find this at 35 E Mianhua Hutong, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100007. There were inexpensive performances, Italian food and the only place we had seen french fries up to that point, a gorgeous roof top garden and an interesting library. Various arthouse performances and international contemporary theatre is shown here and tickets were not expensive. There is also Coffee Fix, 20 Banchang Hutong, Dongcheng run by a Chinese psychologist who now lives in Melbourne, they serve great coffee and I happened to meet the owner who gave me a lot of information on the area and also the government plans for the controversial renovations.
If you follow the walk further and cross back of Nanluoguxiang Hutong you will eventually find the Cats & Coffee Cafe on Mao’er Hutong before you reach Yu River. There’s tasty, although very expensive cakes (50 RMB a slice), cats and it’s a nice place to sit down at this point. Also down this same hutong you will find the world famous paper cutting artist Zhang Yonghong selling intricate pieces of folk art for extremely reasonable price given the level of artistry going into each piece. Zhang funds his daughters medical treatments with his art and is well worth a visit. You can find him by visiting 3 Qiangulouyuan, an alley off of Nanluoguxiang. If you struggle I found people in shops were really helpful and I suspect most people know where he is. His mobile number is +86 13683666793
Keep walking to the end of this street and you will soon find the Yu River, carry on further to the right and you will be taken back around up winding passes, past little shops and cafes until you reach the famous Drum and Bell Towers. These were very controversially ‘restored’ which often means knocked down and built again in China Ive been told. They were a bit expensive to enter (about £10-15 per person) so we just viewed from the outside before heading back to our hostel.
How to get there: Nanluoguxiang subway stop on line 6, Exit E
Cost: Free apart from the Drum and Bell Tower which cost between £10-15 per person to enter
8: Lao She Teahouse Folk Art Show 老舍茶馆
The Laoshe Tea House is a famous venue in Beijing with all manner of shows on every day and evening. If you want to watch a show in a stunning traditional tea house venue then this venue is a must see activity. We went to see the Folk Art show which showcases lots of different aspects of Chinese culture and arts. You’ll see a bit of everything with Peking Opera sketches, changing faces shows, diablo throwing and much more. This will keep your little ones entertained and give them a bite size piece of each hing Chinese arts culture has to offer. You’ll receive snacks and China tea as refreshment and the show lasted about 90 minutes. The teahouse itself is stunning and one of the most beautiful venues I’ve visited. We booked our tickets through Theatre Beijing again, someone met us at the theatre, gave us all the directions via text and we erected tickets at a slight discount. But they’re not expensive to buy direct from the venue either, if you buy from the teahouse maybe visit the day before you wish to go and reserve tickets then. You can also view all the other shows this way and see if there’s something else you want to see. One thing to know in advance is that they do pack the tables in to maximise profit with about 9 people all seated around a square table. We still enjoyed the show and it was very child friendly but if you can afford it, it might be worth getting a table further forward and having it to yourself. Once you have watched this show you could decide whether to go and see the Peking Opera separately. We did do this and my 4 year old loved it, she was transfixed by the different style of singing, the comedy and the drama that features in every show. It was easy to follow despite the language difference; however, it might not be for everyone and some children may be less engaged with something that’s so different from anything else they have seen. The beauty of the Folk Art show is that you’ll be able to at least introduce them to this cultural staple of China and it’s just a small part of a much bigger production.
How to get there: Located on the south west of Tiananmen Square, it’s inexpensive in a taxi especially if you use the DiDi (Uber) app (my first recommendation for getting a taxi anywhere in China). Or you can take Line 2 on the subway system, alighting at Quinmen and take exit C then walk West about 50 metres. The teahouse is easily spotted from outside and is a well known venue in Beijing.
Address: 3 Quianmen West Street, Xuanwu District, Beijing
In Chinese: 正阳市场3号楼 邮政编码
Cost: 180 RMB – 680 RMB per person (£20 – £76)
9: Happy Valley Theme Park 北京欢乐谷
We did not manage to visit Happy Valley unfortunately; however, if your children need a break from the cultural, historical days out then this will definitely keep them happy. For 260 RMB each you will have access to all the rides and a stage show called the Golden Mask Dynasty show that comes highly recommended on Trip Advisor. When we return to Beijing we will absolutely put this theme part to the top of our to do list.
How to get there: Take subway line 7 and alight at Happy Valley scenic area, leave through exits B or C and walk to the park in minutes.
Address: Xiaowujibei Road, Dongsihuan, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100023
Phone: +86 10 6738 3333
Cost: 260 RMB per person (£30)
10: Beijing Zoo 北京动物园
If you and your children are a fan of zoos then Beijing Zoo is a must see. It’s a large area and extremely good value to visit. I think it cost about 20 RMB entrance for an adult including a ticket to the panda house and as with anything in China children under 1.2m were free. So it cost approximately £2 for us both to enter. They have pandas, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, orang-utans and a large sea life centre to name just a few. Theres a boat trip to get around the complex, plenty of food options and an opportunity to buy souvenirs. The zoo is open from 7.30am – 6pm and the aquarium is open 9am to 5.30pm in peak season (Apr-Oct) and 7.30am to 5pm and 10am to 4.30pm the rest of the year.
How to get there: The zoo is easily accessible by taking line 4 on the subway and alighting at the specified Beijing Zoo stop and using exit B.
Address: 137 Xizhimen Outer St, DongWuYuan, Xicheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100037
Phone: +86 10 6839 0274
Cost: 15 RMB without panda house, 20 RMB with or 40 RMB including the boat trip. Children under 1.2 metres are free. (£1.70 – £4.50).
An extra tip:
One thing you must do is let your children sample the many unusual and unique cakes and pastries of Beijing. There are many sweets, cakes and pastries you simply won’t ever find anywhere else. I particularly loved a sweet custard cake wrapped in a savoury floss called meat floss. It sounds awful but I couldn’t get enough of them! There are cake shops on many sweets, these have an open front but no actual shop to enter. you’ll spot them at some point around beijing, definitely buy some products. The pastry shops are even more common, these you can enter and choose sweet red bean paste filled pastries and all kinds of others. My daughter’s favourite was one shaped like a pigs head filled with red bean paste.
DiDi app (english language version): The only way to get around Beijing/China in taxis, don’t get ripped off, don’t worry about language problems just input where you are and where you want to go in English. Worth its weight in gold for getting about.
If people were asked to conjure up an image of the most iconic train ride in the world, I suspect the Trans-Siberian would feature in a lot of their minds. This journey is truly epic, crossing thousands of miles of stunning landscapes, through 5 time zones and on certain routes through at least three different countries. However, when I mentioned to family and friends my desire to take this journey wth my then four year old daughter, many people tried to dissuade me. They raised what they considered to be legitimate concerns about safety for a single parent, sharing a cabin and what I consider to be a really big fear of the unknown. I was nearly put off as doubts started to creep into my mind. Luckily I did a bit of research and made some careful decisions based on our individual circumstances and we set off on this incredible journey across Russia in September of 2017. Even after four months of travelling I still believe it will be hard to top the beautiful and enriching experience we had on board the train. We travelled Moscow – Ulaanbaatar and then from Ulaanbaatar – Beijing. The first leg of our journey took five days and the second took 36 hours.
There are 3 main routes you can take if you wish to travel onboard the Trans-Siberian:
Moscow – Vladivostok
Moscow – Beijing via Mongolia
Moscow – Beijing via Harbin (good if you wish to save on the Mongolian visa cost and/or visit Harbin).
Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia is the most popular route and it’s the route we took.
Prices do vary depending on who you book with so these are approximate and it might be worth shopping around a bit off you see a price that is a lot more than this.
1st class: Approximately £850-900 each
2nd class: Approximately £500-600 each depending on whether you book upper or lower berth (with lower berth being more expensive).
3rd class: I’m unsure on whether 3rd class is available for the whole journey but you could take it in the Russian section of the journey for about £150 I think with added extra Mongolia to Beijing. The journey can be done for less anyway with a bit of research.
Sharing: It may be possible to share your bunk with a child under 5 and have them travel for free if you book yourself directly. I’ve not seen this offered by a travel agent yet but it’s worth asking around before you book. The berths are big enough especially if you travel top to toe and don’t mind being bit squashed but it wouldn’t be for everyone. I travelled this way on shorter journeys within China, it saved me a lot of money and was totally fine.
On top of the cost of the train you will have the cost of the visas. This is different for every country of course. My travel company sorted both the Mongolian and Chinese after iIfilled the forms in and did a free checking service. A friend of mine had a lot of difficulty with their Chinese visa so I would actually recommend using a validation service.
Visa Cost (normal processing times):
Russian: £70 + £38.40 processing fee
When you visit Russia you will also need to have official invites from everywhere you’re staying. Again this was sorted by my travel company which was another reason why I chose to pay extra at the start of our travels so all of these formalities were dealt with easily. You will also need to list every country you have visited in 10 years with exact dates of flying and declare social media accounts.
It’s worth noting that although the Mongolian visa was relatively cheap for UK nationals I do know that from New Zealand it was one of the most expensive visas to get costing well over $200 I believe. So it’s worth checking thesis costs and budgeting accordingly before you apply so you don’t have any nasty surprises.
Getting to the train station:
We caught the train at midnight from Yaroslavsky train station in Moscow. Although this sounds like an unsociable time it was actually quite convenient in the end. By the time we were settled, said hello to our neighbours and explored the train a little bit we were so tired we could have slept anywhere I think. My 4 year old slept through until 10am the next day and we were both completely rested.
We booked this part of the trip with a tour company. Although expensive it did mean that all my visas were processed by them, all transfers were done by them and all accommodation and tickets too. If you don’t go this route then I would recommend taking a taxi to the train station, it wont be expensive in Russia and if you are travelling with a child it will save you a lot of hassle. However there will probably be buses and also the subway will take you there too if you decide to go for budget options. There nearest subway station is Komsomolskaya.
In my experience if you decide to travel as a single parent, it is the transfers from one place to the next that are the most stressful so I now budget a bit more and pay for taxis to make this process more straightforward. If there happens to be a station nearby, step free access and a direct train then I will take it; however, when you are carrying all your luggage and a possibly sleepy child, it just didn’t seem worth it to save a few pounds in my opinion.
1st class: 2-berth cabin, possible private bathroom/sink, closing door, table, under bunk storage space, top shelf storage space, hot water thermos, blankets, sheets and a bean pillow
2nd class: 4-berth cabin, closing door, table, under bunk storage and top shelf storage space but all shared with 2 other people, blankets, sheets, bean pillow
3rd class: 4-berth cabin, possibility of no table, no door, blankets, sheets, bean pillow and all the same storage space as above.
I chose to go first class as I had no idea how it would be, I’ve never slept on a train before and didn’t know who I would be sharing with. I had planned a year long round the world trip and our journey on the Trans-Siberian started it all off. I think going first class was the right decision at the time as it calmed my nerves and we had somewhere to retreat on that first 5 day journey. I could leave our things in the cabin and they were safe. First class was also very quiet at the time we travelled and we only had one other couple in our carriage all the way to Irkutsk.
Now we have travelled over much of China on sleeper trains I would definitely feel more confident in a 4-berth cabin. We had wonderful experiences meeting people in our two months around China and I can really recommend it as a way to travel. Once we left Beijing we even shared a bed the whole time as it meant my daughter travelled for free. If you wish to travel the Trans-Siberian on a very tight budget you can; it was safe, everyone was friendly and there seems to be an innate sense of respect for people’s space and privacy that means it is definitely bearable even when travelling with children. Take earplugs (I’d recommend anyway to help take away the noise of the train) and eye masks and you’ll be fine.
Food and The Famous Trans-Siberian Restaurant Carriage:
It’s very easy to eat on a small budget, although you will probably get fed up of instant noodles, instant soup and hot drinks! This is because at the end of each carriage there is a free hot water berth for all passengers.
Tea and coffee. 2 in 1 or 3 in 1 sachets are very handy if you like milk or sugar in your coffee so you don’t need to take extra milk and sugar this way. Hot chocolate, malt drinks, herbal/fruit teas and anything else you can make with hot water.
There is no cold water available on the train so buy some extra large bottles of mineral water at the station before you board and stash them under your bunk.
Instant noodles, instant soup or any other variation on this that doesn’t require cooking. Snacks, snacks and more snacks! Whatever you can carry take and also do take some fruit that survives well out of the fridge (apples, bananas etc). We missed fruit after a couple of days and we could have easily stored some. Instant porridge is good for breakfast too.
In high season there are also hawkers on the platforms selling soft drinks, meat, local food and snacks. Don’t rely on the hawkers being there unless it’s summer when the train is very busy. We travelled at the beginning of September and there were only sellers at the first stop we went to. You can nip to a station shop if you’re feeling brave when the train stops for longer (I personally did not feel comfortable doing this, plenty of others did though!). There is also someone who comes down the train selling snacks, juice, water etc although at a slightly higher price than off the train of course. I found Russian prices were so much better than what I was used to on the train that it didn’t really matter where I bought the food though, it was still way cheaper than the UK.
The Restaurant Carriages:
The restaurant really is the centre of social activities on board the train. Head down to meet your fellow passengers, chat, and make friends. Despite taking a lot of our own food we also found it was nice to break the day up with a trip to the restaurant car. A variation in diet was also a welcome relief if I’m honest. The restaurant is provided by whatever country you are travelling from. Most of our journey was therefore the Russian restaurant which I found to be cheap and pretty good quality. I loved borscht (the famous Russian dish of beef and beetroot soup) which was about £3 a bowl and breakfast was food such as rice porridge (a sweet rice pudding, garlic toast, eggs, decent coffee and juice. They love pickled vegetables and if you wanted salmon and caviar it was on the menu for a high price. As with all travelling you just have to acclimatise to a different palate, but the food was good once we had done this.
Snacks, crisps, chocolate, biscuits etc were all inexpensive.
Take cash although they will take card payment if they can get a signal. It was quite fun waiting for the train to go through a small station to get 3G and the payment could finally go through and the man running the restaurant was never annoyed by it. He spoke good English and was very helpful. I would budget £10-£15 a day for food for one adult and one child having breakfast and lunch or breakfast or lunch and a snack. You could definitely spend less than this but we enjoyed going to the restaurant, hanging out, having drinks and chatting to people. Food does fill the time up a bit so maybe just enjoy and like we did, spend a bit more to relax and have fun. There’s not a huge amount to do on the train so my advice would be to just budget more for food accordingly.
If you wanted to just take snacks on the train and eat all meals in the restaurant I would recommend budgeting £20 per person, per day.
The Mongolian Restaurant Carriage:
The actual carriage is stunning and well worth a look when you leave Mongolia. Ornate carved wood adorns the walls, upholstery is done with sumptuous fabrics and it makes for an unusual dining experience. However the food is much more expensive as the only menu available is a set dining menu. This was priced in American dollars and they will accept either Mongolian cash or US dollars. Breakfast was $14.95, lunch $24.95 and dinner $29.95. There are no drinks available outside of this so prepare to cater for yourself or bring the appropriate cash. They wont accept a card payment under a certain amount on this section of the trip which I believe was $30 and I just wasn’t prepared to spend so much money at the time. By the time it was breakfast the next day which was more affordable we were in China and therefore the Chinese carriage had been attached.
The Chinese Restaurant Carriage:
This was not a beautiful carriage but the food was very cheap and tasty. However despite having a large menu there was only two things available to order – scrambled egg and tomato or pork and green pepper. We ordered both for about £4 total cost and it was well cooked.
Vegetarianism is definitely possible on board especially if you supplement with your own snacks and instant noodles. However you may find it slightly more difficult if you’re a vegan or if you have severe food intolerances to dairy etc. Definitely plan ahead and take your own food. Use the happy cow app or website in Moscow/St Petersburg and stock up on supplies before boarding the train. My daughter drinks soya milk and we found it difficult to source this until we arrived in China.
Mod-Cons Aboard the Trans-Siberian:
The train had heating, air conditioning, toilets, hot water, carpets down the corridors, bedding and flasks for hot water all provided. There wasn’t a shower on the Trans-Mongolian but there was when we went from Mongolia to Beijing (1st class only). The Mongolian staff kept the train extremely clean, always hoovering, polishing and generally keeping busy. This staff base was all female and were from Mongolia. They were very friendly and we had a great trip, in part because of them. Having spoken to others who travelled on different trains it is a varied experience, particularly in terms of service and the attitude of staff. Needless to say some were better than others.
Our own experience on the Chinese train from Ullaanbaatar to Beijing was that the train itself was very sumptuous with an armchair in the room, red velvet curtains and carpets and we had our own toilet and shower room. However it wasn’t kept clean at all, the carpets hadn’t been hoovered, the toilet hadn’t been cleaned and the staff were all males who spoke no english at all and they all smoked right next to our room. This marred the experience slightly but that final leg was so fast and we were so excited to get to Beijing that it’s really not something to worry about. If you happen to have a child with asthma or another breathing problem then simply look it up on google translate, show the staff and ask them to smoke elsewhere. As long as you stand your ground and look slightly severe they will follow your wishes as I’ve discovered. A lot of people smoke in China and it is permissible to smoke anywhere so if you plan on going you will have to get used to it.
One bonus to it all is if you are actually a smoker you will find plenty of opportunity to do this but please be considerate of fellow travellers and go in the in-between connecting carriages with the doors shut and a good airflow! Not many did this and it would have made a huge difference to our enjoyment of the trip.
Entertaining Children Onboard:
I found that between eating, chatting to other passengers, sleeping and napping there actually wasn’t that much time to fill. It feels like there will be endless awful hours where a child might go stir crazy but it simply wasn’t the case for us. Because everyone is in the situation I found people open to chatting away and most were really friendly. My daughter is very sociable with good manners and I’ve discovered she can charm anyone, even those who would probably loudly proclaim that they ‘hate’ children.
She spent a lot of time running up and down our corridor to let off steam which the staff always laughed about and I made sure she wasn’t shouting or shrieking so as not to disturb others. One thing I have discovered whilst travelling is that in the UK in comparison to where we have been so far, children are seen as an annoyance; adults don’t want to talk to them on public transport. If they run around laughing, giggling and shouting they would be frowned at or you as a parent would be given dirty looks or even spoken to to be told to get your child ‘under control’. This simply isn’t the case in places like Russia, Mongolia, China and Thailand etc. It took me a while to relax but in these countries it’s just seen as normal childhood behaviour. It makes people smile or they just totally ignore it with no annoyance at all. It even makes me sad to look back on how different things are in the UK now we’ve been away for a few months. So the bottom line is, don’t worry about your child running off steam on board the train! The staff just laughed about ‘spider-girl’ the whole time as she was charging about in spiderman pyjamas and they actively told me to leave her be when I was trying to get her to stop in my concern it would annoy them.
Other ideas for the train are the obvious things like colouring, travel games, card games, connect four, uno, or anything along these lines. We took our Lottie doll and all her clothes (similar to a barbie) and some mini toy cars too. We started a scrap book and had a pit stick for glueing all our little memories in. I also have an iPad which I save for towards the end of the day if I needed a nap and she wasn’t keen. She just put her headphone on and watched a cartoon or played games. in the bed next to me. I also had movies on my laptop and we would shut the door once a day and watch one together. By the time you have done all this, eaten and been to the restaurant it will be time for bed before you know it.
Security/Safety Onboard the Trans-Siberian:
A lot of people spoke to me about what they considered to be my dangerous choice in catching this train. I’m not sure why, but the overall view in the UK was it was so unheard of for a single mother to do, it simply had to be bad. All I can say is I’m glad I never paid heed as it has, to date, been the best thing we did together. The train is the way Russian mothers would travel within Russia, solo female travellers take the trip all the time and we did not see even one bit of dangerous or unsafe/suspicious behaviour.
When you have a child people leave you alone, I have not been hassled by guys at all (a welcome situation for me), and those that want to chat do so and those that don’t nod and smile and go on their way. Our cabin locked from the inside and the staff will lock it from the outside on request. But we just put our valuables and documents in the case and locked it. It’s not going anywhere on a journey that takes 5 days to arrive.
So when thinking about taking this trip please do not allow stories of unsafe practice or supposedly dangerous countries to put you off. Russia, Mongolia and China have been 3 of the safest countries I’ve been to and I have never felt unsafe, at risk or threatened in any way when visiting these areas.
Points of Interest on the way to Beijing:
I made the decision to catch the train in Moscow and remain on it until Ulaanbaatar and then to go direct to Beijing from there. This was because I thought it would be stressful to drag all our stuff off, to visit somewhere for a day or two and then get back on and settle again. In some ways I was right as it was easier this way; however, if I get the chance we’re going to take the train again and this time we’ll catch it in Saint Petersburg and spend a few days there, we’ll revisit Moscow when my daughter will get more from the museums and I will definitely disembark at Irkutsk and visit Lake Baikal. This area looked stunning from the train and it is well worth the stop according to other passengers. I would spend more than 2 days though as it is quite a long journey by car to get to the hotels and I’d say four days would be better. Another point of interest could also be the caves in northern China where there are 1500 year old buddhist carvings in the mountains. You would alight at Datong city, Shanxi Province then head on further to the Yungang Grottoes. Other grottoes exist and can be visited with further travel within China, see the links below for more details.
Border Crossings and the Changing of the Wheels:
There were various checks done at points on our journey, some at the borders of course and others just after we boarded the train in Russia. Passports and tickets were checked and at the borders the cabins were searched although our luggage never was. Sniffer dogs were brought onboard as we crossed from Russia into Mongolia and then it was all done again as we crossed formally into Mongolia. Customs forms need to be filled out and all the normal formalities were done. None of this is anything to be concerned about of course but occasionally it was done at inconvenient times. Although i did find that if my daughter was asleep they never asked me to wake her up they just had a look at her and checked that everything else was in order.
Mongolia has a closed currency meaning you will be unable to acquire it before entering or change it upon leaving. I was also advised cash points may not alway be working so best to exchange cash causally on entering or at your hotel. A lady boarded the train as we crossed into Mongolia and I changed some US dollars into the Mongolian Tugrik so I had some cash on arrival. Her rate wasn’t much different from what my currency converter app told me it should be. Everything in Mongolia is so cheap anyway money never really concerned me here. You can change money at banks and even at hotels in Mongolia although only Russian Rubles or US dollars, don’t expect english pounds to be easily exchanged!
The currency lady never boarded the train on leaving the country though so I ended up stuck with some money. I forgot to change it at Ulaanbaatar station when leaving so make sure you do this if you have time. If not, you will probably find travellers and backpackers in China who are doing the journey the other way. I ended up exchanging mine with an Australian lady who gave me Australian dollars as I was headed there soon. She was so grateful she gave me over the exchange rate as she hadn’t realised she would not be able to change Australian dollars easily or that the currency was closed. Either way I saw a lot of private deals going on in hostels so don’t worry if you find yourself in China with too much Mongolian cash on you!
Its worth noting that the US dollar is king internationally or the Euro is also more widely accepted than GBP for example. if you are not from the US it’s better to travel with dollars than pounds. I would do this always in the future now if going to Russia or Mongolia. Changing money in China is difficult. They wanted me to fill in s many forms it wasn’t worth the hassle. They were also asking me for citizen numbers and other documentation that I was unsure what it even was. Prepare to withdraw from cash points or take all the cash you expect to need.
Top Tips for Surviving the Journey:
- Ear plugs to help you get used to the noise of the train
- Eye mask as the lights to get put on and turned off by the staff at specific times (in 1st class I was able to request this to be changed).
- Drinking water (at least one 5L bottle)
- Cuttlery, noodle bowls with lids, camping mugs etc (just good camping utilities will make the journey better if you are taking your own food and snacks to prepare.
- Baby wipes / flannel / sponge to do a sink wash (it is possible to wash you hair with the water jug provided)
- Bathroom flip flops if you don’t want to wear those provided
- Extra toilet paper
- If you are a fussy sleeper or light sleep you may wish to take a pillow you simply discard at the other end as the bean pillow is a bit uncomfortable. I got used to it but some may not.
- Previously mentioned food and snacks
- Games, toys and electronics.
Lose the hour a day to cope with the time change, it’s much easier than doing a big 5 hour jump in Mongolia. Just put your clock forward an hour each morning when you get up or when you go to bed.
Russia Experience: The company I used to book my trip
This has been a hard post to write. Planning, worrying about and working towards this goal over the last few years has been arduous, testing and emotional. It’s also been the best decision I ever made. I think this kind of life change is going to be highly individual and personal so the advice in a generalised format will only go so far. You should take this advice and evolve it to fit you, your personality and your individual circumstances.
I’m generally a worrier, overthinker and a bit anxious. But I’m also brave (not fearless!), relentless, highly organised and motivated. This means I worry and think about everything, but I get stuff done and achieve whatever I set my mind to. Therefore, my strategies are based around dealing with my own thought processes and personality. I’m meticulous and take my time. If you prefer to throw caution to the wind and just head off into the unknown you’ll probably find my methods laborious!
Firstly, if you’re a single parent you’ll probably have felt that pressure put on you by society even more keenly than 2 parent families. I don’t think a lot of the time I have been judged or faced any kind of stigma or criticism on an individual level. My friends and family were supportive, my university department, mostly made up of men, were incredible and really understanding of the specific challenges I was facing having a baby halfway through my degree. However, I certainly felt stigmatised
at a wider level through media portrayals, statistical truths and a lot of internalised misogyny. I think these things occur for any parent but maybe just more sharply when you’re on your own. So, my first bit of advice if you want to travel as a single parent or parent is to let go of all that and tell yourself you can do this. You’ll be challenged almost daily by well-meaning strangers “oh, wow, but is it safe?”, “What about schooling”, “you’re on your own?” always asked with a raised eyebrow as if you won’t have thought of these things. You need to get used to either brushing people off and not engaging with it or to defend your choices politely. I did the latter, I always did love a good debate. I also changed A LOT of people’s minds by chatting to them about all the ideas, thoughts and beliefs I have that led me to take this trip with a 4-year-old. Or I’ve inspired them to do something big because they just convinced themselves they couldn’t do it any more due to their circumstances.
Things are a lot easier once you decide you can do it. A friend convinced me to travel with my daughter simply by asking ‘why not?’ when she was a baby, when I couldn’t think of a reply that didn’t have a solution it put me on the path towards backpacking and home schooling.
- Tell yourself you CAN go travelling
- Decide how long you want to go for. The answer to this has lots of consequences. For example, you could do a long holiday to start with for 1-2 months in the summer holidays and this wouldn’t affect many other aspects of your life. You could arrange work time off, no need to inform the school, no loss of NHS entitlement, no loss of tax credits (UK based advice). Over 2 months and you lose tax credits, over 6 months and you lose NHS entitlement and with either of those you’ll need to arrange to do home schooling and inform your local borough.
- Work out your budget (roughly). I allowed £100 a week for accommodation, £20-40 a day for food and entertainment, and I researched the cost of flights and internal transport. This will tell you roughly how much you need to save. This is for myself and 1 child < 5yrs
- Work out how long it will take you to save that by working out the monthly amount you can put aside now and start working out what changes you can enact to make extra savings. I took on extra work, pulled in favours and offers of help from friends to reduce nursery hours and cut out as much non-essential frivolous spending as I could. Because we’re leaving the UK and moving abroad at some point I also sold all our property gradually, including my car. After doing the maths I knew it would take me about 4 – 5 years to save up for a 12 month round the world trip, paying for some qualifications that I wanted to do and have money afterwards to settle somewhere for 8 weeks to give me a chance to start earning again properly.
- Once I knew this, it gave me a goal. It was AGES away, and didn’t seem real but I had exact amounts I needed to put aside each month and I knew I was going to do it. I put the date on my calendar and started slowly thinking about what else I would need to think about to make this life work. I realised through research and slowly attaining certain truths about myself, that I needed to be self-employed and that digital nomadic life was holding the biggest pull for me. I wanted the freedom that comes from earning remotely. I want my daughter to see the world and to grow up with a different perspective in life and I want to home school her anyway, especially in the early years period. Why that is, is a separate discussion but go have a watch of this clip if you want to see what started that thought process for me.
And for starters I think that’s enough. Unless your income is high, you no doubt have a long time to save. I had about 4 or 5 years until I’d have enough and that allowed me to digest what I was undertaking, convince everyone I wasn’t mad, get my degree and arm myself with an international tool box of skills, plan the actual trip, decide where I wanted to go and more importantly where was safe to go and attempt to earn a half decent income writing about it …. Easy right? Stick with me…. I’m 90% there after all!