China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Baby South of the Clouds—Taking Our Little One to Yunnan

July 3rd, 2015

I started to think of the photos as a series: “Nora Nurses in Famous Places.” It happened every time. We’d arrive at a famous tourist attraction—a viewing spot for the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, the lotus leaf-covered lake at Puzhehei, the Confucius Temple in Jianshui—Nora would decide she was hungry, and I’d have to find a bench or a stoop to sit and nurse on before we could enjoy the sights. Josh would snap a picture.

Fortunately, everyone we ran into seemed to find this charming. It’s not every day that a blond, blue-eyed six-month-old appears in Yunnan’s towns and villages. Everywhere we went, grandmothers leaned in to hold her hand and little kids wanted to play. Many people just wanted to tell us how pretty and well-behaved she was. But, of course, lots of people also wanted to give us advice. “That position isn’t good for her legs!” was a common refrain when they saw her strapped to me in her carrier.”She would be happier if you took her out of the car seat!” was another. But the most popular pronouncement was one that we would have gotten anywhere in the world: “We would never travel with a baby this small!”

Taking the baby to the market in Sheng Cun, near the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

Taking the baby to the market in Sheng Cun, near the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces

Taking our baby to Yunnan had always been part of our plans. We are travelers, and China is a part of the world that has become important to us, both professionally and personally. It never occurred to us that we would have to abandon either of these things to have a baby. I will admit that when the time came, and I was actually planning to bundle up my tiny little girl and take her to the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world, I wondered if I’d gone a little crazy. Fortunately, I’ve met plenty of other families traveling with little ones over the years, including friends who moved to Kunming with a three-month-old, and their successful trips helped me keep perspective. I also reminded myself of the advice that Naomi Duguid, cookbook author and expert traveler, gave me years ago: if you start traveling with your kids early, they’ll never know a life without travel, and it will seem normal to them. (Naomi recently repeated this advice, and more, here.)

More nursing in famous places

More nursing in famous places

This is not to say that we didn’t do a lot of extra planning before Nora’s first trip to Yunnan. First, we considered her age. We decided that her first trip to China would come when she was exactly six months old. This way, we reasoned, she would be old enough to have most vaccinations but young enough that I could avoid starting her on solid foods until after we got back to the U.S. Chinese food safety issues and Yunnan’s legendary stomach bugs are probably the things that worry me the most about taking kids there, and I figured that if I was still breastfeeding exclusively, my body would filter out anything that might make Nora sick. There were other upsides to traveling when she was little, like the fact that I could have her in a carrier on my chest all day and not have to worry about having her crawling around and that we could use a small foldable bassinet instead of having to travel with a crib or pack-n-play.

There were, however, a lot of accommodations that we did have to make to feel safe traveling with the baby. First and foremost, we knew that we wanted to have her in a carseat whenever we were on the road, and this meant that we had to hire cars and drivers for each leg of the trip instead of hopping into buses and taxis. (In other parts of the world we would have just rented a car, but in China even tourists have to pass a license exam before taking to the road, and even after you get your Chinese driver’s license, renting a car requires an enormous cash deposit.) Hiring drivers also meant that we had to plan much of our trip before we arrived instead of just sketching out a vague itinerary.

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Happy traveler

The biggest accommodation, however, was that I couldn’t travel without another adult. Dragging suitcases and negotiating airports is hard enough while carrying a baby, but interviewing cooks, talking my way into busy restaurant kitchens, and taking notes and photos would have been impossible if I couldn’t hand the baby to someone else for at least a few minutes. Josh planned to come with us for two weeks of the trip, but after that, he had to get back to the U.S. for work. And unfortunately two weeks was not going to give me enough time to do the work that I needed to do.

Fortunately, my good friend Sita, a single mom with a 20-month-old daughter of her own, had expressed interest in taking a trip to northern Yunnan with me. Her daughter’s father’s family is from the area around Shangri-la (known as Gyalthang in Tibetan), and Sita wanted to learn about the Tibetan areas of Yunnan so that she could introduce her daughter to the region.

Isa in Yunnan

Isa in Yunnan

So for the last half of the trip, I hired a driver/guide from a tour company that had a lot of experience traveling around the less-traveled parts of northern Yunnan, we installed a couple of carseats in the company’s rugged SUV, and we set off into the unknown to see if we could weather teething, sleep schedules, and tantrums on the road.

To my surprise, the week Sita and I spent traveling with two babies in tow turned out to be the best leg of the trip. The first benefit of having two kids together was that despite their age differences, they were fascinated with each other. Every morning Sita’s daughter, Isa, would wake up and whisper, “Nora! Nora! Nora!” Every day Nora would watch Isa intently as she ran around restaurants, carried her toys in her own little backpack, and helped put on her own clothes. And at night both girls would pop their heads up from their beds to see if the other one was still awake.

The second benefit was that traveling with another mom helped me stick to a schedule. Both girls needed to be in bed by 7pm, both needed to nap in the late morning, and both needed some time to play in the afternoons, so our days settled into an easy, comfortable routine despite the fact that we were staying in a new town or village every night. And the third, and most unexpected benefit, was that with two kids in tow, I couldn’t try to over-plan my time. Instead of trying to do everything myself, I put our little group into the hands of a professional guide and just enjoyed the journey without worrying too much about whether I had really visited every possible market and restaurant at every stop we made. I was able to work, and the trip ended up being productive, but I didn’t feel as crazed as I sometimes can when I’m trying to make the most out of every hour of every day.

Two moms and two babies on the steps of Hongpo Monastery

Two moms and two babies on the steps of Hongpo Monastery

In the end, the trip was successful, but it was also completely different from every other trip I’ve ever taken in Yunnan. Having a car and driver meant that I could cover far more ground than usual, but having a baby on my chest definitely limited the amount of time and energy I could devote to each place we stopped.

This trip was, of course, just the first of many that we will take with Nora. I would like to think that the lessons I learned will help on future trips, but the truth is that our little one changes so much every few weeks that by the time we get her back on a plane to Yunnan we will have a whole new set of things to worry about and adventures to enjoy. Which, I guess, is really the whole point of travel anyway.

Photos: Josh Wand (3), Sita Raiter (2), Tsebho