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May 2015 -
Direct flight from Tianjin to Singapore.....here we come!
Here are just a few photos (okay, maybe more than a few!) from our recent quick adventure to Singapore.
We'd heard lots of great things about this city/country before checking it out for ourselves. We also had heard that Singapore is *very* expensive. Boy, they weren't kidding! But MAN oh MAN was it WORTH IT!!!
I think this bridge is called the Helix Bridge...it's right next to our hotel:
See that thing that looks like a ship on giant stilts? That's our HOTEL. Yes, it's a hotel. And on the top floor? That where the pool is located. Pretty awesome, right? Our room is on the 19th floor overlooking the harbor. Nice!!!
What we DID check out were the GARDENS! Right next to the hotel was the stunning Gardens by the Bay. Now, I've seen photos of these "trees" before but it's something else getting to see them up close. They're giant metal structures with plants "growing" up them (more likely carefully placed and maintained). Lots of bromeliads and "air" plants (like the Staghorn fern).
I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this giant conservatory! It was a giant man-made hill with a waterfall and walkways. The entire hill was covered with plants- begonias, orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and lots more plants...just gorgeous!
So...you might have seen this pool in photos on the Internet or in magazines. As you can see, the view is amazing! Two things -first, being on the 57th floor it's quite cool (and not quite warm for swimming). Second, what is up with everyone in the world taking selfies???? Ack! I've never in my life seen so many narcissistic people!
We spent hours and hours walking around the multiple gardens - my favorite were the orchid garden and the ginger garden. We ate lunch at fantastic little restaurant which featured all things made of ginger in the gardens.
The zoo was unique in that part of it was open...the orangutans could swing around on the tree tops overhead.
One last look around...this is from the tippy top of the hotel looking out over the Gardens by the Bay. See those domes? Those are the cloud forest and flower domes we visited on the first day.
Last dinner of pizza, nachos, and chocolate lava cakes with this lovely raspberry concoction.
There were so many things about Singapore that we found just a treat: it was CLEAN - and I mean very clean. People were out enjoying the public spaces but not abusing them. We saw lots of people exercising and jogging. The air was clean. The taxi drivers were friendly and helpful. It was easy to get around using English ...BUT we heard lots of Chinese spoken. And the Chinese they did speak was honestly easy to understand. (none of that northern, Beijing accent that is so difficult to understand). All of the food was yummy and tasty (but staggeringly expensive). And the service? WOW! Nothing compares to the service we experienced in the hotel and the restaurants.
What to do on a Sunday when Dad is away on a business trip?
Bake cookies? Check.
Watch a movie? Check.
How about....create a miniature fairy garden terrarium???
I found all the materials I needed at our local plant market: the glass jar containers, the colorful activated charcoal (or at least, I *think* that's what it is!), bag of nice looking potting soil, and tiny, miniature-size plants. To be honest, I have absolutely NO idea if the plants I selected will stay small or grow into huge monster plants. My Chinese language skills don't include asking questions about plants and growing conditions. ;-)
Easter 2015 -
When somebody says "Easter Sunday" what images do you conjure up? Sitting in a church listening to a sermon? Coloring Easter eggs? Searching for chocolate bunnies and colorful Easter baskets that darn clever Easter Bunny has hidden? Or maybe getting together with family for a fine feast of cold cut ham, hard boiled eggs, and freshly grated horseradish on thick slices of gorgeous, fluffy challah bread. Mmmmmm....
That's not the way we spent our Easter this year!
Instead we spent our Easter Sunday waiting in frustratingly loooooooooooong lines trying to get to the top of Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie...trying not to pull our hair out.
And actually, frustrating as that might seem, I appreciate the time we got to spend together as a family. Even if it seemed like we were all going to melt down and start either crying or laughing in hysteria at our amusing situation. (It's bad enough to wait in a slow-moving line for 2 hours but it's another thing to feel like you're part of the amusement...I know that many of you can't/don't understand this but we are really sick and tired of having people take photos of us as if we're some kind of freak show. We're just normal people...our hair, skin and eye colors may be different but we're really the same. And we'd really appreciate being treated as humans. Okay, rant over and out.)
getting back to Easter!
The Easter Bunny was quite clever and left small little gifts on the girls' beds. The girls discovered them shortly after we arrived home in the weeeeeee hours of Monday morning. Sadly, I missed my opportunity to take a photo of them giggling with glee at the gifts. The Easter Bunny left them Nerf dart guns!!!!
Mark teaches an informal English class at his work that is open to all employees. Sometimes we try to help him do something fun for our special holidays so this year the girls and I helped him set up an Easter egg coloring event the week BEFORE our Zhangjiajie trip. I hard-boiled about 60 eggs, baked a batch of iced sugar cookies in bunny shapes, and gathered together various art supplies, food dye, vinegar, cups, markers, and anything else I could think of for this party. (oh, PAPER TOWELS!)
I had so much fun watching all of Mark's coworkers really get into coloring the eggs! I wish, wish, wish I had photos of all of their eggs - they really got quite creative! Annika, Ava, and I also tried our hand at coloring a few eggs. I tried a new method of coloring the eggs with Sharpie markers and then dropping rubbing alcohol on the eggs to create a watercolor effect. Didn't exactly work the way I thought it should. Annika had fun with the Sharpie markers as well.
My "watercolor" egg attempt:
I tried using my tiny bit of Chinese to explain about the food dye and why we use white vinegar and boiling water to color the eggs. I think I actually succeeded too! (wow!)
Thank you to Mark's English class to allow us to come in and share this fun experience! We really enjoyed it!!!!
The trees and shrubs our blooming!!!!
Our family's Easter eggs. This year I used the German powdered egg dye along with the liquid food dye (that's what we used in the English class). I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the German dyes! That blue is really TRUE blue.
This year we had a series of fortunate and happy (for us!) coincidences that really made this Easter extra special for us. My friend Rachel, who used to live in China but has since returned back to Dubuque, creates and sells beautiful candy bouquets. MY good fortune (sadly, not hers as I'm sure you'll understand) is that her husband was traveling to China over Easter and had room in his suitcase to haul these two lovely baskets filled with goodies for the girls. All I had to do was assemble them:
Thank you Rachel for all your help! We all really, really appreciated your efforts!
More spring time blossoms! The city looks like there have been explosions of pink and white...the trees are absolutely COVERED with these beauties!
5 April 2015 -
It's been raining allllllll night long. I mean, I do love listening to the rain and thunder BUT in this one instance I'd appreciate if it would STOP! Today is our last day in ZJJ and then it's back to the Big City for us.
Looks like we're going to attempt seeing Tianmen Mountain today. I've seen photos of it.
Before we check out this hotel I'd like to show you this amusing window in our room. This window is closed....but do you see the gaps of light coming in on the side? I know it might be difficult to see in the photo but the window panel is considerably smaller than the actual opening. It's so much smaller that it creates quite a draft. Other than that it's a very nice room. ;-)
Chris said that the line to get on the cable car (to head up to Tianmen Mountain) would be a 30 minute wait....or wait, maybe a 1-hour wait....or ...maybe a nearly TWO HOUR wait. Egads. I think all four of us nearly lost it while waiting for that cable car ride. And to make matters worse...people kept trying to take photos of us and touch Ava. AAAARRRRGH!!!! She IS NOT A DOLL!
This mountain is set up in a weird way - there is a half-way point on the cable-car ride where you can get off, get on a bus, ride on this winding road (the understatement of the year!!!!), get a little sea-sick along the way, and head to the giant hole in the rock that they call Tianmen Mountain. *I really, really hope to see this giant hole in the rock!*
We skipped the half-way point and we got off at the top.
There's this walkway made of glass that you can pay a few RMB, put on special booties, and WAIT IN ANOTHER FREAKING LINE to walk on this walkway. Ummm...we are so NOT INTERESTED in waiting in another stinking line. Plus, you can't see anything anyway because of the deep fog. So we kept walking. Then we bumped into this short walkway that looks like a finger sticking out from the cliff. No waiting. And it's made of glass too. How cool is that?!?
Truer words have never been uttered: "Never pick up wild fruits to avoid poisoning". Uh...yeah, right. I think perhaps it would have made a little more sense to mention NOT eating those "wild fruits". Generally speaking you don't get poisoning from PICKING them. ;-)
We're waiting in line....again.
We scurried along the rest of the trail and completed the loop as quickly as we could. I was really glad we brought our hats with us. I even brought my gloves with me. It was cold enough on the mountain top to warrant wearing them!
We're trying to decide if we should stop half-way at attempt seeing the hole in the rock or head back down the mountain.
While we're waiting check out this sign, "He who fails to climb on Huangshizai need not have come to Zhangjiajie." Uh, whaaaat???? That's not exactly a heartwarming, endearing advertisement. I can't even guess what they're trying to say. Thanks....but I think it's time to get out here and leave!
We decided that we'd had enough of waiting in lines. Chris said we'd have to wait in line waiting for the bus, and more waiting for the cable car to head back down the mountain. Mind you, I was looking forward to walking up the 999 steps to get up to the hole. (didn't I mention that? oops.) Or, you probably can stand in another long line and take the escalator up to the top to see the hole in the rock. Yes, I said ESCALATOR. Can you believe that??? What has this world come to that they have escalators on mountains????? They're even working on building another escalator that will connect the top of the mountain (where we were) directly to the hole on the rock!!!! TWO ESCALATORS. Somehow that just seems like a sin against nature. I know, I know, I know...it does allow people who would perhaps otherwise not be able to due to health reasons to enjoy these views but aren't people just getting too darn lazy?????
We spent the remaining hours while waiting for our 9:50pm flight comfortably (and warmly, I might add) in a nearby hotel. Not as much fun as hiking but we're okay with our decision.
Check out this funky, weird, bizarre twist of the Apple logo on the bus transporting us from the airport terminal to our airplane:
Guess what? I'm sure you won't be surprised but our flight was delayed. And delayed. That's okay. However, it doesn't look like the girls will be going to school on Monday.
On the flight to Beijing I got to sit next to a very interesting and energetic young lady who teaches English at a university in Dalian (she's American). She and her friend also were on Tianmen mountain and they heard from a friend that there was ZERO visibility at the hole on the rock. I'm glad we didn't bother heading there!
April 4, 2015 -
Good morning! Mark and I just had our cup of Starbucks coffee. Like I've said before, thank goodness for those VIA packets! They're really life savers!
Before we head to breakfast and figure out where and what we'll be doing today I wanted to show you something in our room:
That glass room is our bathroom...the toilet and shower. Soooo....can you guess what it sounds like if someone has an upset tummy in the middle of the night? Yikes. Sound proof walls are an excellent thing. ;-)
Today we're first going to start with what Chris called the "10-Mile Natural Gallery". And we'll see where we go from there. Chris and I are checking out a map of the park:
Annika is taking photos with her iPod so that she draw/sketch/paint these beautiful landscapes:
"Please PLUSH the toilet with your hand". I dare you to "plush" the toilet. HA! (this was in the men's restroom):We decided to take the silly train back to the starting point (since we'd have to walk back the same route we'd already walked)
There was a stall making lattes. Yay! We decided to take the funny, short train ride back to the start.
Chris suggested another hike for us to go on (since that the clouds weren't letting up any time soon). The hike would start at the end of our previous day's hike (the same location where we caught the bus to take us to Bailong Elevator). We'll walk back part of the Golden Whip Stream walk (from yesterday) and then head off to the right on a different hike....one that is away from everyone.
On the walk up the mountain, we walked past many stone playing cards...one a few meters after another. Mark, Ava, and Annika tried to guess what the next card would be. It was an amusing game, some times they got it right...most times, no.
At the top of the mountain, Chris had explained that there used to be a "village" at the top but because this trail doesn't receive a lot of traffic (mostly Europeans that use it, which means very few people actually use it). This means that there isn't a shop up here selling food or everyone a toilet! There is an abandoned wood shed that looks...or SMELLS...that it's been used as a toilet. Yuck!
Annika is writing in her journal:
Mark learned that coworkers from his office would be in ZJJ we asked them if they could meet us for dinner. We met at a "famous" restaurant close to their hotel (they were staying at the Pullman Hotel). We got to the restaurant before they did and fortunately there were a bunch of fun-loving, interesting, and interested local kids for us to play with.
So...the meal in the restaurant was oh-kay but nothing special. And it was expensive! We got two things that I *really* loved...one was a tofu dish and another was a glutinous rice patty filled with herbs...that's the best description I can give you. I ate way too much of the tofu and the patties. I think those patties might have been called "baba" (or something like that).
The girls decided they were too tired to go out so Mark and I decided to "go out on the town"...which meant going for a short walk in the tourist area around our hotel. This shop had all kind of dried goods...our best guess - for medicinal purposes:
Mark and I found a bar to get a drink in. Mark asked for a gin and tonic at the bar (which was decorated with photos of famous American musicians and actresses). Do you think they understood what a gin and tonic drink was? Or a jinnantonic? LOL...according to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" every culture has a version of gin and tonic drink. Mark went to the bar and showed them how to make it but sadly they didn't have tonic water so the drink was made with Sprite and gin (well, maybe it had gin...but it didn't taste like there was a drop of gin in the drinks). For only 100RMB (about $15) for only TWO drinks. Yikes. After we finished our drinks there was a bon fire lit outside with loud music playing:
There was a small show with music, dance and costumes next to the bonfire. I especially loved listening to the drums!
After watching the small show at the square, Mark and I continued to walk around and check out all the shops. Most of the items for sale were items that we've seen for sale in Lijiang or Tianjin but it was still fun to check them all out. There were, however, some new-to-us, unique alcohol shops. One shop that looked like it was actively distilling outside its shop, Mark went into and sampled several different distilled alcohols. He was expecting baijiu (which he really doesn't like) but instead he found something more-than-drinkable. After several,different samplings he selected a glutinous rice drink to bring home:
*One thing I'd like to mention is something we've witnessed here and other places in China....and that is how Chinese people seem to enjoy the "wilds" of China. Many of the tourists we've seen are wearing the most inappropriate clothing- high heel shoes, business suits, and other completely inappropriate clothing. I guess on the one hand I applaud them for enjoying the Great Outdoors even though they don't have the appropriate clothing (and hopefully they don't break an ankle or an arm while walking with their ridiculous clothing!). However, in a completely first-world, sort-of-way I'm surprised that people don't own a pair of walking shoes. Why? *
April 3, 2015 -
Time for breakfast (they don't start serving breakfast at the hotel until 8am...doesn't that seem late to you? It seems late to me.)
Chris is coming at 8:30am to pick us up....
Our room is on the third floor. This hotel reminds me of the one we stayed at in Chengdu.
Chinese breakfast which consists of hard-boiled eggs, a mildly spicy cabbage dish, a mildly spicy cauliflower dish, fried rice, several kinds of tasty baozi (steamed dumplings), sweet cakes, oranges, and fresh hot soy milk (with a little sugar...so yummy!). Ah, and since we're waiguoren (foreigners) they brought us four glasses of sweet instant coffee (which tastes more like hot chocolate than coffee...but I'm happy to have it!) By the way, we've learned to bring the Starbucks VIA coffee packets wherever we travel. In most places in China the hotel rooms are equipped with electric tea kettles and mugs/cups. I really needed that cup of coffee! (Mark and I enjoyed our cups of "real" instant coffee in our room before heading down to breakfast.)
Hey, if you haven't already figured out...this post is loaded to the brim with photos. I hope you are able to easily load this page and view it (if not, can you please let me know? Thanks in advance!)
April 2, 2015 -
Have you heard of this place?
I wouldn't be surprised if you've never heard of it. Have you ever watched the movie "Avatar"? It was, in my brutally honest opinion, a barely tolerable sci-fi movie. Ava and Annika claim it's now their "favorite" movie. (Did you just see my eyes rolling?) The acting, the plot, the dialogues were barely tolerable...the only forgiving part about the movie is the scenery.
BUT (and here's the big but) ...apparently the mountains in Zhangjiajie were the inspiration used for creating the scenery in the movie. The movie is all computer-generated (CG) and the mountains have been altered but still recognizable.
The girls had a week off from school for spring break so we decided to duck down to southern China for a long weekend trip to Zhangjiajie (ZJJ).
Are you ready for four days of breathing fresh air, hearing the birds and frogs sing, and hiking in the mountains? Sure hope so!
I hired a guide for our four day trip to ZJJ. Chris picked us up from the airport and off we went! He said that due to weather we would take a pass on seeing Tianmen Mountain (or "Sky Gate"...some place I've been really wanting to check out but oh well). Instead we're heading to Yellow Dragon Cave. It's about a 30-minute drive from the airport. On the way there Chris talked non-stop about the area. He told us about CCTV filming a show in the area (we've never watched CCTV so these stories went right over our heads). He also told us that the area was known for wizards and fairies. !!! Wizards and fairies??? I want to hear more about that!
The stories go that the wizards were able to raise the dead ... well, not bring them back to life per say but make them able to "walk home". Now, I'd love to hear more about this!!!
Chris also mentioned that the wizards were male but they could also be female. They're typically elderly. And he said that villagers made sure to keep their dogs tied up at night so as to not scare the wizard "walking" the dead back to their homes. I wish, wish, wish I could have a) actually understood what Chris said (his English was a notch better than my Chinese) and b) found out more about these wizards. I mean, do they still exist? How does one become a wizard? How do these wizards actually raise the dead? I've got dozens more questions.
Enough about CCTV this and CCTV that....
We're at the cave! (thank goodness...hearing about CCTV got a wee bit tedious and boring since we don't even watch TV, especially Chinese TV!)
We waited around for a few minutes while Chris bought our tickets.
Interesting wooden water wheel display.
It's hard to get a good perspective on size when looking at a photo like this one but those stalactites, stalagmites, and columns are HUGE. This cave is absolutely CAVERNOUS!!! It's VAST! This is part of the cave system is called The Dragon's Palace. Can you spot the one that's called The Rocket???
One thing that seemed in our favor is that foreigners get to go in the "VIP" line. I didn't quite figure out what that fully meant but it seemed that we were able to go on different paths from the Chinese tourists (I'm sure they could have also gone on these paths too but most of them followed a Chinese guide).
Chris mentioned over and over and over again naming the different formations...it seems like everything looks like an eagle, a monk, a monkey, dragons, pinecones...after a while the names blurred together.
We did a little side tour...through a maze. Well, thank Heavens it's not a real maze but it was a neat little visit. Chris mentioned that it's difficult to tell sometimes if the formations are nature-made or man-made. Yes, they actually try to pass off a few things in here as being nature-made when they are, in fact, man-made. !!! However, I do think that most of the formations are indeed nature-made. (I'm no cave expert though!)
I couldn't fully understand what Chris was saying (again, that troublesome language barrier) but I think he was telling us that either CCTV or some Chinese studio was paying an arm and a leg to rent space inside the cave to act as a recording studio. I think that's why a small part of it was off-limits to guests. I'm not sure if this is weird or cool or true.
Heading to Baofeng Lake...short walk up from the parking lot:
So, we went on a boat ride...it only lasted thirty minutes. Chris told us that on the lake were ladies that would come out and sing to you. If you want to propose marriage to one of them you'd need to sing back to them and answer several questions. And if you fail to answer the questions properly you're supposed to live in the area and work for 9 years. Apparently the gentleman singing was just in that position (a failed proposal). It was all highly amusing. We did get to listen to one lady singing and the gentleman singing.
We paid 3RMB for fish food...Ava had fun carefully and slowly metering out the food (that is until I got a wee bit tired of waiting and asked her to kindly dump out the remaining food). It looks like one fish here is leaping for joy trying to get at the food!:
So here's another thing we learned in ZJJ. This area is known for its wild Giant Salamanders. We were told that since there were plenty of Giant Salamanders in the ZJJ park area that they could be hunted and eaten. Now, this photo doesn't provide a good perspective but this salamander is about 1m long (roughly 1 yard). That's big for a salamander! (for me anyway...I'm sure they grow bigger and longer). The biggest one I've seen previously was maybe 10cm long (or smaller). BIG difference! I don't know if I could eat one of these...there was an incident recently in the news here about a business meeting in a bigger Chinese city that involved eating a rare Giant Salamander. Maybe they're not rare in ZJJ but I still wouldn't feel right about eating one. Oh, and something else that Chris mentioned: he said he wouldn't want to go swimming in a lake or river where these guys called home. Why??? Apparently they bite! I don't know if it's true but it makes a good story. Here's one in captivity:
Dinner! We asked Chris for suggestion for a restaurant serving local food. This one looked like a hole-in-the-wall kind of place and it served up some EXCELLENT dishes! Since we didn't have lunch and we only had a small meal that was served as breakfast on our flight from Beijing to ZJJ we were STARVING. We devoured everything! I think my favorite might have been the tofu dish that looked like it was covered in angry looking hot peppers. There was also a meat dish that tasted very similar to taco meat. All served with a giant bowl of rice that we didn't have to beg and plead for! (Oh, and did I mention that we got up at 4:30am to catch a 6:30am flight? Ugh! So, not only were we starving we were also down right TIRED!!!!)
We checked into our hotel...a nice place called Guanshanyue Honeymoon Mansion. It was located close to several park entrances (not walking distance but still very close). They're developing the area surrounding the hotel into a touristy walking area with shops and restaurants. As I understand it, this entire area is new. It's also located alongside the river...so it's got a pretty view. However, it's clear that they're not quite finished. We passed by many empty buildings- some being "innovated" (I think Chris really meant "renovated"). One building had been clearly burned (fire damage was very visible). There were a couple of bars, a few open squares (one which had a small nightly show which Mark and I got to watch on our last full night in ZJJ), and a handful of shops.
And guess what...we're not going to be much fun tonight. After walking up at 4:30am and going, going, going hard all day long it's time to head to bed EARLY. We'll figure out we're doing tomorrow...that'll depend on the weather!
16 March 2015-
Waiting for Freedom:
Annika is currently enrolled in the most awesome after-school activity: singer/song-writer class (with...Ava's teacher!).
Please listen to this song. Annika wrote the lyrics and sang the song while her teacher, Mr. K played the guitar.
I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Thank you, Mr. K. for emailing me this song!
--One Proud Mom!
16 March 2015
What's been happening in our house?
Here are some random thoughts on life right now...in no particular order.
My sweet little Ava at TJMex (Mexican restaurant in AoCheng, Tianjin). Ava *always* gets guacamole and chips. It's her favorite!
Well, I'm in the middle of my first online course in the Master's in Project Management degree. It's going oh-kay. I definitely struggle a little bit more with it being strictly online and in a completely different time zone. Asking questions and waiting to get the answers takes longer than expected. I hope I'm doing the right thing. The good thing is I feel like my brain is back in business.
For that matter, I'm stalling - I have homework I need to be doing right now. I'll get it done, I promise! (after I drink another cup of coffee and go for a jog on the treadmill....yes, after that is completed I PROMISE I'll be a good girl and get my homework completed)
The girls have a new favorite movie : Big Hero 6. Annika also loves the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Avatar. Ava claims she loves the Pirates movies as well. (Me? Not so much.)
Me? I'm feeling nostalgic. I go through this feeling of nostalgia every year...right now I'm watching "Murder, She Wrote". Yep. Guilty pleasures! Mark and I area also enjoying watching "Psych". It's really funny!
We're listening to a Scottish band called Chvrches. It's pronounced "churches". I'm also constantly listening to nature sounds. Yes, I have an entire, very long, album that is full of nature sounds - I especially love listening to thunderstorms and birds twittering away.
Mark is busy building Still 2.0. It looks like a Dalek from Doctor Who! All I know is that it's got a gorgeous, shiny copper look. I love the copper!
Annika and Mark also busy with the forge - Annika is working on creating a handle for a dagger that Mark created and Mark is working on a new kitchen knife.
I'm working on sewing quilts - one for Ava and the other for Annika. Piece-by-piece they're slowly coming together. I've had to abandon the Ikea sewing machine (it failed too many times) in favor of returning to my old Singer sewing machine that requires a power converter.
I'm busy working on two upcoming trips. Both will be short, extended-weekend, trips. We'll be heading to Zhangjiajie to hopefully see some gorgeous mountains and to Singapore. And I'll get to check off two places on my must-see-in-Asia bucket list! Woo Hoo!!!!
A few recent photos:
"Shut up and take my money"...HUH??? Rather a bizarre billboard:
Spring is definitely in the air! It's warming up and it's lighter out later and later.
Enough stalling....time to get back to my homework!