Travel: Trip of a lifetime


Anni Grimwade, a Melbourne mother who spent two months with her family travelling around China, says it’s a trip they’d do all over again. She spoke to Sophie Loras.

It is a night Melbourne mother Anni Grimwade will never forget – watching her three children, Hannah, 14, Archie, 11, and Hamish 8, being bundled into a van and then disappearing into the night after an outing to Le Shan in China’s western Sichuan province.

“I imagined ringing the embassy and saying that I’d lost my children,” says Anni. “I didn’t know who they were in the van with, I didn’t know where we were and I didn’t know where they were going!”

As it turned out, all was well and the children arrived back at the hotel in Emei at the same time as their parents who were following in the van behind. It would be just one of many adventures in China the family can laugh about now but which didn’t seem quite so funny at the time.


There was the time Archie and his friend Oscar bought a chook at a market in Beijing, cut off its head and legs, pulled out the entrails, and then cooked and ate it – leaving Archie violently ill for 24 hours.

And then the altitude sickness, numb feet, lurid dreams, headaches and at one point husband roberts_family_tashkurgen_yurts_webTim who stopped breathing at night during the family’s trip to China’s far western border post, Tashkurgan, at the gateway to the Karakoram highway into Pakistan (pictured right). They carried oxygen in the van, had to go to the toilet in the open next to the road and ate food consisting of dry bread and salty tea.

Then there was the not-so-spiritual experience of traipsing through the natural wonders of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan province, in tow of hundreds of Chinese tourists as they visited the area’s pristine, Swiss-like mountains and lakes (pictured above left).

But for Anni, a self-employed consultant, and Tim Roberts, a sales manager for MMG, who have spent years living as expats in Hong Kong and Jakarta, holidaying with their kids “off the beaten track” in China was the trip of a lifetime and one they would do all over again.

“The kids say ‘why can’t we have a normal holiday?’– normal meaning either Noosa or Port Douglas!” says Anni. “And we say ‘that’s too boring!’

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The idea for the China trip started taking shape when Australian friends in Beijing suggested the Roberts family join them for a black tie dinner on the Great Wall.

“We thought that sounded like fun and then thought we might really shake things up and stay for a month. A bit later we thought that a month probably wouldn’t be long enough to really get into China, so we decided to go for two,” says Anni.

It was made easier when MMG agreed to let Tim work in the company’s Beijing office for a month during the middle of the family’s trip.

As it turned out, the plans for the trip took on a life of their own and Anni and Tim never made it to the dinner on the Great Wall. They did however spend nine weeks during April and May travelling from China’s eastern seaboard cities to its most western provinces.

The family spent time in Shanghai, Nanjing (where the children attended local Chinese schools), remote parts of Sichuan province, Beijing for four weeks “pretending to be expats again” and attending the AustCham Beijing Masquerade Ball. They also visited Huludao followed by an adventure to the far flung corners of Xinjiang province to Kashgar and Tashkurgan. They finished the trip with some R&R in Macau and Hong Kong.


The itinerary was very loose at the start – with flights booked for Melbourne-Hong Kong-Shanghai return and then organising everything else as they went along. 

roberts_family_hamish_tim_hannah_archie_on_the_xian_wall_webFor internal flights and hotels the family used Ctrip and at other times were taken to places with Chinese acquaintances such as Le Shan and Emei Shan in Sichuan. Some places were planned at the last minute, including the visit to Jiuzhaigou.

Through their Chinese friend Miss Piao in Melbourne, the Roberts family also visited Miss Piao’s Chinese family in Huludao, north of Beijing.

* Bike ride on the Xi’an wall – Hamish, Tim, Hannah and Archie Roberts. (Courtesy the Roberts Family)

It was not a complete holiday for the kids who attended school on several occasions throughout the trip.

Archie and Hamish, who are in Years 6 and 3 at Malvern Primary School, attended the Nanjing West Youfu Street Primary School – their Melbourne school’s sister school.
Hannah, a Year Nine student at St Catherine’s School in Melbourne, attended the Nanjing No. 3 Middle School.

“Hamish lasted 15 minutes in the class before we had to take him out,” says Anni of the experience, “he was quite distressed.”
Archie however stayed the full two days and loved it. 

All classes except English were in Chinese. Other challenges included the long school days (7:30am to 6:30pm), the food and students being expected to clean the classrooms at the end of the day.

There was no sport at lunchtime or recess with no running allowed in the playground – a problem for Archie who likes running around a lot during break times. 

Hannah meanwhile was having issues of her own down the road at Nanjing No. 3 Middle School.

“I think she [Hannah] was a bit of an oddity – everyone couldn’t believe that she was there,” says Anni. “She has long blond hair which people insisted on stroking!”

Hannah had to deal with a lack of privacy and was faced with a fan club every time she went to the loo – open cubicles with an open drain.
On one occasion, Hannah told her mother she had had seven girls crowded around the entrance to her cubicle.
“She got performance anxiety and had to hold on for hours!”

The highlight of the trip was the family’s adventure to Tashkurgan in Xinjiang province.

“Having lived in Hong Kong we felt quite comfortable with Chinese culture, but going out to Xinjiang – I think we had no idea that China could be like that,” says Anni.

roberts_family_sipping_tea_xinjiang_web“I didn’t know much about the Uighurs and Muslim communities, the desert – it was so unlike what you think of as China. We went out west and it was like another world.”
The family flew to Kashgar via Urumqi and then hired a local guide and car through Abdul Wahab at tour guide company Six Brothers on the Silk Road – a recommendation they had found in the Lonely Planet. “He was just brilliant,” says Anni, as was their guide Rapkat.

* Sipping tea inside a yurt – from left: Hamish, Tim, Archie, Anni and Hannah Roberts. (Xinjiang province).

The decision to take the children to places like Tashkurgan and Jiuzhaigou was to ensure the family really felt like they were doing something different.

“The children can always come back to China and see things like the Forbidden City,” says Anni. “We wanted to go off the beaten track.”

Tashkurgan was a highlight, but there were many others.

“There were all the lovely Chinese friends helping us with everything to the point of interference,” says Anni.

“Every time we went out with Chinese friends (26 meals out in 64 days) the kids were fed anything they wanted, including litres of ‘Shui Bi’ (Sprite) and masses of other junk.

“We kept trying to explain that the kids really liked rice and noodles and could we please have them now rather than at the end, after all the abalone and sea cucumber.”

While the kids downed Sprite at the many banquets, Tim had to cope with the Gan Beis (bottoms up) of Bai Jiu (Chinese rice wine).

“He surreptitiously tried to top it up with water but they were wise to it,” says Anni. “He was terribly ill and we’re not even at the stage of being able to laugh about that night yet!”

It’s a trip Anni would definitely recommend to other families and says travelling with kids in China is ‘easy peasy’.

“Our kids are quite au fait with Chinese culture after living in Hong Kong and hanging out with Chinese people here so there was no real culture shock. The kids are also at the age where they can pack and unpack their bags and be responsible for their own stuff, and occasionally remember to have a shower!” she says. 

They were also old enough to not (always) say what they really thought and to be quite tolerant with lack of sleep and exhausting sightseeing. 

“They would interact happily with the adults and children we met – willing toroberts_family_hannah_tashkurgan_camel_web play games and get involved in whatever they wanted us to do such as having our photos taken with strangers, kicking the shuttlecock and learning little songs in Chinese. I can imagine that younger kids or shyer kids might find it all very stressful – the kids were always on display and people were always wanting things from them – a chat, a game, a photo.”

Anni says there is nothing she would do differently if planning the holiday again.
“It was as near perfect as we could imagine!”

* Hannah Roberts, Tashkurgan, Xinjiang province. (Courtesy the Roberts Family)


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