We recently visited China for a month as a family. As homeschoolers we intentionally take advantage of long field trips to be students of the world. Travel is an education in and of itself and the world is a fantastic teacher.
The places we visit, steeped in history, the languages we encounter, and the people we have to communicate with and depend on all combine to create a learning atmosphere beyond anything we could learn within the walls of a classroom. Adventure is just the cherry on top.
As I was planning our itinerary, with suggestions from my sister, who lived in Beijing for 4 years, I ran across a photo of Lalongtou, also called Old Dragon’s Head. It’s where the Great Wall disappears into the ocean, near the port city of Qinhuangdao, on the Eastern side of China.
And it looks extraordinary.
I added it to our itinerary as a brief side trip from Beijing.
This side trip came at the end of a month-long trip to China, when half of the family had already departed, leaving me to navigate China by myself, with just my four youngest. I knew they wouldn’t be much help when it came to communicating with taxi drivers and finding hotels and not getting scammed.
Having previously visited China ten years ago, I knew it would be difficult. Traveling in China is very different from traveling in the United States or Europe. But I felt up to the challenge. It seems like the greatest growth always follows the biggest challenges, so I welcome them.
So we said goodbye to the rest of the family in Beijing and the five of us boarded a train to Qinhuangdao China.
5 Amazing Things to do in Qinhuangdao China:
1. Laolongtou (Old Dragon’s Head)
Laolongtou is the Easternmost portion of the Great Wall, where it disappears into the Bohai Sea. As you can see, at low tide it does nothing to prevent invaders from walking around it’s tip. But it must have made the Chinese feel more secure.
The tower near the end, with the lower portion of the wall beyond it, makes it look like a giant sleeping dragon with an outstretched head. Thus the name.
There is a beautiful park surrounding Laolongtou, with historic military buildings, temples, gardens and statuary. To the north of Laolongtou is a busy port, but to the south the beach is clean and beautiful. A boardwalk with restaurants and shops lines one side.
Laolongtou itself was used as a prison because troops were garrisoned in the vicinity. You can tour the training grounds, the command posts, a few old cannons, and see how the Great Wall was used as a fortress for protection.
You can only access the beach via the park, so that visitors have to pay admission. When we were there in late April, swimming was not allowed due to stinging jellyfish in the water. I don’t know if that’s always the case, though. We did swim in the water In Beidaihe (less than an hour south) with no problems.
2. Beidaihe Beach
We stayed at the Beidaihe Sea View Hotel. I could see that it was pretty far from where I wanted to be in Qinhuangdao, but I didn’t know just how far. I was just searching for a hotel on the beach, with a pool, that would sleep 5, which is a tall order for China, where hotels typically only sleep 3.
By the time I found it, I had almost stopped caring how far it was from Qinhuangdao. In the end, I’m really glad, because it was worth every ounce of inconvenience.
The train from Beijing stops at Beidaihe before it gets to Qinhuangdao, so really the only inconvenience was that we paid a small fortune for taxis to go back and forth between Beidaihe and Qinhuangdao China.
The sand is the texture of brown sugar and the beach was shockingly clean. I say shockingly because China has previously trained me to have low expectations. But Beidaihe Beach was pristine!
The amenities at the beach resort were better than what I’ve encountered at many beaches in the United States. They have clean, modern restrooms with showers, a brand new boardwalk lined with beautiful seafood restaurants, and the air was clean.
And you could see the sun and breathe clean air! It was like night and day compared to the air quality in Beijing.
3. The Great Wall
Since the Great Wall stretches hundreds of thousands of miles across the border of Northern China, you can see it in every setting imaginable. We’d walked the wall twice previously during this trip to China, so we only visited this section near Qinhuangdao because we had a morning to kill before we caught our train back to Beijing.
I have a Google Pixel and the Chinese government and Google are sworn enemies, so my phone was wonky throughout our trip. Even with a VPN, my internet rarely worked, and I could rarely get my translator app (which I downloaded, so it wouldn’t require internet) to work. It was beastly.
So my communications with our taxi drivers (who all mistakenly thought I was Russian) left much to be desired. I thought I asked this one to take us to Jioshan Great Wall. And while we were there, I thought we were at Jioshan Great Wall.
But looking back on my photos and the other photos of Jioshan, I do not think we were at the same place. Anyway, it was amazing, and I’m glad we went. I wish I could tell you exactly where we went. It was about an hour west of Qinhuangdao by taxi, up in the mountains, up a very scary road (as many are in China).
Most of the signs were only in Russian and Chinese, so I can’t tell you what the rest of them said. But the sign at this particular tower had English. It said that this tower was used as a major thoroughfare through the mountains by the Huns as they attacked the Chinese.
So this tower had these arch-shaped entrances in the bottom, through which the Huns would enter, but not be able to exit, and then the Chinese would pour boiling oil and shoot flaming arrows from above. Understandably, this section became my 11-year-old son’s favorite. So it was worth the trip!
The views were pretty amazing, too! The mountains in this area are very steep, so you’ll encounter stairs of varying heights, but most of them are really tall, making the climb a little difficult. A few of the towers require climbing a ladder.
4. Shanhaiguan Pass (Zhendong Gate)
Shanhaiguan Pass was a fortress built during the Ming Dynasty to defend against the intrusion of the Mongolian tribes, aka the Huns. It’s also known as the “First Pass under Heaven”, because it is the first pass along the Great Wall of China from the East, in a strategic location that is easy to hold but hard to attack.
The eastern wall, where Zhendong Tower is located, was the major defense line of the pass. There are small windows all along the wall for soldiers to shoot arrows from.
The ancient town surrounding the fortifications is just as interesting as the fortifications themselves. The old buildings and cobbled streets seem to have been restored for tourists, but we still thoroughly enjoyed walking through them. There is also an old military museum with military artifacts and several ancient temples located within the pass.
Shanhaiguan Pass is right in the center of Qinhaungdao, China and easy to find by bus.
5. Sea World
I totally got scammed here. We jumped into a taxi not too far from our hotel in Beidaihe and asked to go to the Safari Park.
At least I think that’s what I said. The translator app on my phone was wonky, (I have a Google Pixel phone — don’t use a Google phone in a country of Googlephobes) so I asked the taxi driver for his phone, and I used his. It was set to Russian rather than English (Beidaihe gets mainly Russian tourists) so I changed it to English, or at least I’m pretty sure I did. It’s hard when all of the buttons are in Chinese.
I thought he understood.
But then he turned the wrong direction. I knew the Safari Park was only a few miles from our hotel, and I knew the direction we should be taking, and I already felt wary, so I got upset. He pulled over and we had a sign language chat, and I thought he was trying to explain that the Safari Park had closed.
I had purchased tickets online that morning, so I was pretty sure it hadn’t closed, but websites in China frequently don’t work or are outright wrong, so I couldn’t be 100% sure. But I was still upset. Then the taxi driver stopped at a store that seemed to be selling tour packages.
None of them spoke English, and they tried to use their translator apps, all of which were set to Russian, and nobody understood me, and my kids were in the car in the carpark. But I understood that all of these folks thought I ought to go to Sea World rather than the Safari Park. So I agreed. Under extreme duress.
I had never heard of the Sea World and I couldn’t find it online, and I didn’t even know where it was. But the poster and pamphlet looked fun. So in a strange city in China, I agreed to be taken there. How bad could Sea World be, you know?
Off we went, the taxi driver completely in command, and we passengers completely at his mercy. It was unnerving.
It grew more and more worrisome the farther we drove from Beidaihe. I had no idea where we were or where we were headed. The kids were as silent and watchful as I was. I think we were all remembering the story of Hansel and Gretel.
Two hours later, we arrived at Sea World.
At least I has asked the taxi driver to use the fare box, so I knew what to pay him. The taxi driver tried to tell us something else and we shrugged, heading for the ticket booth. He followed us and made me understand that he would help us buy tickets.
That was helpful, since ticket booths are always beastly. So I gave him the amount he said our tickets would cost. Then he led us to the turnstiles, placed a fraction of what he had collected from me in the attendants hand, and they ushered us through.
I figured the whole scam out at that point. But what could I do?
I didn’t let the experience stop us from having fun. Sea World in some random city two hours south of Beidaihe is like a 30-year-old Kia compared to a Rolls Royce when compared to Sea World San Diego. So we just didn’t compare the two.
We rode rusty, spinning cups and creaky carousels and exclaimed over styrofoam whale skeletons and the single shark in the miniscule, shallow pool. We laughed over sea lion antics in a tiny, dirty room and applauded the dolphins in the same, tiny room. I was so cheerful, my kids may not have even noticed how laughable the entire place was.
And then we had a doozy of a time getting back to our hotel, since we were practically the only people at this attraction and it was off the beaten path, where no taxis ventured.
So, if you can’t tell, I’m not really recommending Sea World. I’m just recommending an experience like it to prove to yourself that you can do hard things. If you can get dropped off at some random place in a foreign country that doesn’t even use the alphabet and find your way back to your hotel, you’ve got moxie.
How memorable would a trip be, and how much would you learn, if everything went perfectly? And that’s why China is the best place to visit if you’re looking for an educational and growth experience.
How to Get to Qinhuangdao, China
We took a bullet train from Beijing. It was only about two hours. Because I booked our tickets only a week prior, we all ended up in different carriages. I was mainly worried about my two youngest girls, because you only have a few minutes to exit the train at interim stops, and I wasn’t sure they would pay attention to the announcements and know where and when to get off.
Luckily, they each had very kind, attentive seatmates who helped them. I’m sure they were astounded to see a child traveling alone, because Chinese children travel with an entourage of parents and grandparents, if they travel at all. You rarely see children traveling.
Oh, well. It worked. We made it. And my kiddos have newfound confidence in their abilities to travel independently. If you’re headed to China, there are a few things you should know about traveling by train.
Pin these tips for visiting Qinhuangdao, China!
I’d love to hear about your funny travel stories in the comments below! Also, if anyone recognizes that section of the Great Wall, I’d love to be clued in!