Tag Archives: travel

Beautiful Guilin – Riverboat tour to Yangshuo

Up early as today was river cruise day!!  I think that everyone else staying in our hotel were also doing the river cruise as we had to wait for a breakfast table at 7.45 on a Sunday morning!!  Lily met us at 8.30 and we then did the 20 minute ride to join the 100’s of other people boarding the river cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo on the River Li.  Our boat held about 130 people but did not feel crowded.  All the boats were like this and they were leaving every 10-15 minutes.  It was a 4 hour leisurely ride to Yangshuo, but it went fast and was a lovely time through spectacular scenery – this really is the most beautiful place in China.

The River Cruise Route.  A 4-5 hour ride through spectacular scenery.

The River Cruise Route. A 4-5 hour ride through spectacular scenery.

The Government pay the fishermen to take trash out of the river so it is very clean as a result.  🙂

Follow the boats to Yangshuo......  Down the Yantze river.

Follow the boats to Yangshuo from Guilin…… Down the Li river.

All of the boats are very similar.  We spent quite a bit of time on the upper deck taking photos!  We saw some of the local tradespeople sailing up to the big boats selling fresh fruit, vegetables and fish.  Some of our lunch was sourced this way!

A local vendor selling his wares - boatside!

A local vendor selling his wares – boatside!

It all looks good!

It all looks good!

Despite the colour of the water, the Li River is one of the cleanest in China.  After stormy weather, the River turns this muddy colour.

Despite the colour of the water, the Li River is one of the cleanest in China. After stormy weather, the River turns this muddy colour.

The cruise of this section of the River Li is 83km long and is split into 3 rough sections.  The various attractions (villages, peaks, hills, rock formations) have interesting descriptive names, which calls for much of your imagination to see if the descriptions match the view!  The tour guide on each boat (as well as Lily) explain many of the legendary stories about these attractions  – most are mystical fairy and love stories.

In the second section, which is from Ox Gorge (near the Bamboo River Dock and the Millstone Dock) to Water-Dropping Village, we witnessed the most charming scenery of the cruise: Wangfu Rock (Yearning-for-Husband’s-Return Rock); Crown Cave – A crown-like crag earns the hill this name. What makes the hill a worthy stop for both river cruise tourists and those who arrive from Guilin City by bus tour, is its twelve kilometer long water-eroded cave. It is a wonderland of various stalactite, stone pillars and rock formations in the cave. Since it is open to tourists in 1995, illuminating lights, sound control tour guide system and escalators are equipped in the scenic area and sightseeing cars and boats enable visitors to tour inside the cave. The government plan to build this site as an all-round tourist area including cave visiting, country sightseeing and ethnic minority exploration. It is estimated to become an important excursion site along the the river.   Not very far from the Crown Cave on the western bank, a huge rock descends into the river and cuts off a footpath by the water edge. Villagers have to take a ferry to reach the other side and continue the way. So, this spot gets its name Half-Side Ferry (for usually ferry means to transport people by boat across a body of water and reach the opposite bank).

Down stream from Yangdi to Xingping, the river passes an endless procession of distinct peaks and bamboo groves and stunning landscape.  This part was the highlight of the cruise.  Pinnacled peaks pop up and surprise visitors at each bend of the river.  Water buffalos patrol on the fields; ducks paddle in the waters; peasants reap paddies in front of village houses; fishermen use the cormorants to catch the fish and return them to the boat and kids go home singing songs.  An idyllic and beautiful scene of life on the river, far removed from concrete cities.

Nine Horse Mural Hill (jiuma hua shan) is a 100-meter-high cliff face,  61km from Guilin and 4km from Xinping.  It has been weathered and is a stratified rock surface in various shades of colors.  The legend is that the colors represent nine horses that assume a variety of poses: some seem to be running, some just lying there and others playing.   It is said that a herdsman (Monkey King) from the heaven brought his horses to Li River and while there, an artist saw those horses and wanted to draw them.  Unfortunately, the horses were so scared of him that they ran into the cliff and never came out again.

Legend says that if a person can point out all the nine horses on the precipice, she or he would be the winner of the next “Imperial Examination”.  It is reported that Premier Zhou Enlai and President Bill Clinton were able to recognize and identify all of the nine horses.  Legendary stories are given to hill rocks and peaks and it is a delightful experience to appreciate the stunning landscape while listening to tour guide’s interpretation of the stories behind it.

Can you see the Nine Horses?

Can you see the Nine Horses?

Sailing on downstream, south from the Mural Hill about 500 meters, peaks become steep and the river becomes wide and quiet. A huge yellow flagstone lying under the waters can easily be seen. It is like a cloth piece and people called it Yellow Cloth Shoal. There are seven green peaks standing nearby. A legend goes that the seven peaks are fairy girls from the heaven who took baths in the river.  Enthralled by the charming scene, they stayed here and become into the peaks.  The green peaks under the blue sky reflected on the quiet waters create a spectacular scene.

The scenery is spectacular.

The scenery is spectacular.

One of the Riverboat views.

One of the Riverboat views.

Another view!

Another view!

A waterfall captured from the Boat.

A waterfall captured from the Boat.

Another View!

Another View!

A Panoramic view

A Panoramic view

One of the caves that we saw along the way.

One of the caves that we saw along the way.

It was a little breezy on the top of the boat!

It was a little breezy on the top of the boat!

Oliver and Isabelle practising Kung Fu on the top of the boat.

Oliver and Isabelle practising Kung Fu on the top of the boat.

Cormorants are good sized birds who enjoy diving underwater in search of fish. The local fishermen use the cormorants to catch the fish and return them to the boat.  They drive the birds into the water where they dive below the surface in search of fish.  When the birds catch a fish they return to the boat and the fisherman removes the fish from their throat and places it in the basket.  The secret is that the fisherman places a cord around the bird’s neck to keep the bird from swallowing the fish.  I am not sure if I like this approach, but it was certainly a good show.

Cormorant Fishing

Cormorant Fishing

The river takes a big turn at Xingping and this was the most beautiful scenery.  For anyone who has visited China you will be familiar with this scene as it is reproduced on the back of the 20 RMB note.

Owen holding the 20 RMB note at the spot on the cruise where it is reproduced from.

Owen holding the 20 RMB note at the spot on the cruise where it is reproduced from.

My turn!  Had to be quick taking these photos as the boat moves quite rapidly.

My turn! Had to be quick taking these photos as the boat moves quite rapidly.

The kids enjoyed the upper deck.  It was empty for most of the trip.

The kids enjoyed the upper deck. It was empty for most of the trip.

A kiss for my honey!

A kiss for my honey!

Part of the Village.

Part of the Village.

An old castle complex can be seen from the boat that is over 500 years old.  Some of the courtyard buildings have weathered through ages; the simple but elegant flying-eaves, roofs with colorful paintings, lattice windows and unique timber structures present the folk residence from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  Local Chinese call it the ‘village’ because that nowadays it is inhabited by villagers.   Many of the villagers have the same surname of Zhao, so it is rumored that they are descendents of the imperial family in the Song Dynasty.

It was a fun and relaxing way to spend half a day!

It was a fun and relaxing way to spend half a day!

The very last section of the river cruise took us from Water-Dropping Village to Yangshuo.  Along this section we passed Snail Hill, Green Lotus (Bilian) Peak and Schoolboy (Shutong) Hill.

One of Yangshuo’s renowned photo-ready hills, Snail Hill is about 1 km (0.6 mile) south of Xingping Town, and is 64 km (40 miles) from Guilin. The veins that twist up from the bottom to the hill make it look like a big snail. That’s how it got its name!  Underneath is Snail Cave, full of Stalactites, in the shapes of birds, beasts, fruits and flowers.  There are three snail stones which are hanging upside down- 0ne is as white as snow, one is as dark as midnight and the other is as green as emerald.  Legend says that they are the babies of the big Snail (the hill!)

The nearby hut, named Tengjiao Nunnery, was originally built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It consists of two sections: Sanbao (three treasures) Hall and Kuixing (God that governs literature and writing) Pavilion.  Every year, on 3rd of the 3rd lunar month, 6th of the 6th lunar month and 9th of the 9th lunar month, people around will take their children here to pray for good marks in their education!

Schoolboy Hill rises up on the right bank of the Li River. It is the smallest peak along the bank of the river.  According to legend, a long time ago, there was an evil dragon in the Li River which often hovered on the river and endangered the local people.  One day, a schoolboy received a sealed book from his teacher. The book taught him how to conquer this vicious creature and when the dragon saw this book, it fell down to the river.  For fear that the dragon might play a trick of opossum, the schoolboy, holding the book, stood by the riverside and changed into a hill (Schoolboy Hill) to protect the local people.

Yangshuo is a very small town on the Li River that has been made famous by the River Cruise business.  It is 90km south of Guilin.  When our boat docked we walked along West Street which is lined with cafes, restaurants, market stalls and hotels.   We stopped to get some Haagen Daas icecream and were outraged to be charged almost $50 for 2 little pots.  We returned the cups and said that we didn’t want it.  Our guide was horrified at the whole affair.  Instead, we headed to a delicious Mango shop and had Luscious Lemon juice and Magnificent Mango smoothies at Mango.  This place is covered with signed cup holders so we left our notes too (evidence up on the wall).

Signing our names and adding to the wall in the Mango shop

Signing our names and adding to the wall in the Mango shop

After this, we walked back to meet our driver who took us to another part of the River for Bamboo river ride.  This was a huge highlight for the whole family! They are floating bamboo rafts that hold 2 people.  Owen and Isabelle were in 1 and Oliver and I in another.  We bought some water pistols and had LOADS of fun drenching everybody. We also got soaked as a result of the payback.  Both of our guides stopped to get us beers – which were being kept cool in the river!!

The start of the Bamboo River Raft ride

The start of the Bamboo River Raft ride

Owen and Isabelle's raft

Owen and Isabelle’s raft

Squirt and splash time

Squirt and splash time

Oliver getting brave!  The river is only a few feet deep!!

Oliver getting brave! The river is only a few feet deep!!

Enjoying my beer that was chilled from the River

Enjoying my beer that was chilled from the River

Owen had 1 too!

Owen had 1 too!

Spectacular

Spectacular

This was a brilliant way to spend a few hours.

This was a brilliant way to spend a few hours.

Ready, aim, fire and soak!!

Ready, aim, fire and soak!!

The water pistols were remarkably powerful and we could get quite the distance on the squirt!

The water pistols were remarkably powerful and we could get quite the distance on the squirt!

Our driver was waiting for us at the end of the ride, so we quickly dried off and then had a 90 minute drive back to hotel in Guilin.  All exhausted after a very active day so it was dinner in the Italian restaurant in the hotel.
Monday morning we flew back to Shanghai.

Can highly recommend this as a long weekend visit in China.  The scenery is spectacular and there is so much to do to accommodate all ages.

Beautiful Guilin – Fubo Hill, Reed Flute Cave & Elephant Trunk Hill

Another long weekend, this time due to Dragon Boat Festival and we had booked a long weekend to Guilin.  On Friday afternoon we picked the kids up a little early from school and then set off for the airport.   In true China fashion, we had a delay, but it was only 30 minutes.  We landed in Guilin at 7.15 and a driver from the hotel we had booked (the Sheraton) met us ready to take us to hotel.  We had a late dinner in the cafe and then settled in for the night.

The Sheraton is a nice hotel on the river and there is spectacular scenery all around this beautiful city.  On Saturday morning our guide, Lily met us to start our days adventures.  Just like our guides in Beijing and Xi’an, Lily was knowledgeable, flexible and attentive.  She had arranged a nice minivan for our transportation and we had a good driver to go with that!  We started the morning by visiting Fubo Hill which is a large local park set around a large rock hill.

Fubo Hill Park - a peacock!

Fubo Hill Park – a peacock!

Isabelle and Oliver trying to pull the sword out!

Isabelle and Oliver trying to pull the sword out!

Oliver (and Army General) by the entrance to Fubo Hill Park.

Oliver (and Army General) by the entrance to Fubo Hill Park.

Oliver & Isabelle by the "Huge Bell"

Oliver & Isabelle by the “Huge Bell”

The "Huge Bell" information

The “Huge Bell” information

Owen, Kids and our guide, Lily by the Thousand Men Pot

Owen, Kids and our guide, Lily by the Thousand Men Pot

The Thousand Men Pot

The Thousand Men Pot

Inside of the huge stone hill are caves, with stone carvings, statues and walkways.

Inside of the huge stone hill are caves, with stone carvings, statues and walkways.

Some of the ancient stone carvings

Some of the ancient stone carvings

Information about the stone carvings

Information about the stone carvings

Oliver by a Buddha

Oliver by a Buddha

The back of Fubo Hill Park opens onto water.  There are caves everywhere!

The back of Fubo Hill Park opens onto water. There are caves everywhere!

The Sword Testing Stone

The Sword Testing Stone

Details about the Sword Testing Stone and the Thousand Buddha Rock

Details about the Sword Testing Stone and the Thousand Buddha Rock

All of us by the lovely gardens at the public park - Fubo Hill

All of us by the lovely gardens at the public park – Fubo Hill

After spending a few hours at Fubo Hill Park, we then set off for Reed Flute Cave, which is absolutely stunning.

The cave received its name in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) for the numerous reeds growing outside the cave.  Back then, the local children liked to carve the reeds into flutes and even today, children can be seen around the cave’s entrance offering to sell the reed flutes that they make to visitors.  What makes Reed Flute Cave so marvelous are the stalactites, stalagmites, and columns that can be found inside the cave and the very creative and effective lighting for tourists.  The formations were created over thousands of years by dripping water.  A very small amount of calcium carbonate located in the water adheres to the stone with each drop.  When the drop hits the floor of the cave it also leaves a small calcium carbonate deposit that will eventually become a stalagmite.  These formations sometimes meet and become a column.  They grow on average of one millimeter per year.  The formations can be quite astounding and the ones found in Reed Flute Cave are particularly beautiful.

Reed Flute Cave

Reed Flute Cave

The beautiful lighting against the fabulous stalagmites and stalactites.

The beautiful lighting against the fabulous stalagmites and stalactites.

While walking through the cave, you can use your imagination to feel like you are being transported to different environments.  Some sections seem like a forest of crystal trees, while others seem like underground mountain ranges and even cities.  The strange formations can sometimes seem unworldly.  Many of the formations have taken on recognizable shapes of mythological creatures, or natural images.  There is one formation that even looks like Santa Claus with his sack on his back.  Due to the darkness of the cave, it is quite difficult to get a photograph that can express the same feeling as actually being there.

This one looks like mosquito nets hanging down!

This one looks like mosquito nets hanging down!

 

The kids loved the cave - it is huge and quite breathtaking.

The kids loved the cave – it is huge and quite breathtaking.

We spent ages looking at the different formations - everyone's imagination interprets them in different ways.

We spent ages looking at the different formations – everyone’s imagination interprets them in different ways.

A giant ice cream sundae!

A giant ice cream sundae!

The lighting really makes an impact when you are walking around.

The lighting really makes an impact when you are walking around.

More formations

More formations

The cave is over 240 meters in length and it takes visitors approximately one hour to walk through the entire cave. The cave’s route is U-shaped and the exit and entrance are very near each other. There are over 70 ancient stone inscriptions that can be found in the cave. They are travelogues and poems writing by Tang Dynasty literati who visited the cave and found it so beautiful that they wanted to leave their thoughts behind for future generations of visitors.  It is a magical place with so much to see.  Every 20 minutes there is a video projection in the main great cavern space.  It fast forwards through millions of years of history around the Cave and finishes with a ballet projection.  It is all beautifully done.

The ballet show.

The ballet show.

Stunning lights.

Stunning lights.

Simply Beautiful

Simply Beautiful

Outside the Reed Flute Cave, walking through the grounds by the river and lakes.

Outside the Reed Flute Cave, walking through the grounds by the river and lakes.

The view from the other side (outside Reed Flute Cave).

The view from the other side (outside Reed Flute Cave).

After the Reed Flute Cave we went on to Elephant Trunk Hill.  On the top of Elephant Trunk Hill sits a pagoda named Puxian Pagoda.  It is 14-meter-high, and was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  The pagoda looks like the hilt of a sword sticking out of the back of the elephant.  There is a ancient legend that in times long ago, the Emperor of Heaven set out to conquer Earth commanding his troops from the back of the elephant.  The elephant worked so hard to provide transportation for the Emperor of Heaven, that it became seriously ill.  The local farmers nursed it back to health.  The elephant being extremely grateful, decided to desert the emperor and stay on earth to help the farmers plow their fields during a time of famine.  The Emperor of Heaven was so angry, that he thrust his sword into the elephant’s back and turned the elephant into the rocky hill.  The pagoda erected on top of the hill stands for the hilt of the sword.  Now this kindly elephant can forever stay with the friendly people of Guilin, guarding the city and welcoming guests from all over the world to this beautiful city.

Elephant Trunk Hill

Elephant Trunk Hill

Kids by Elephant Trunk Hill

Kids by Elephant Trunk Hill

Hugging the elephants

Hugging the elephants

Lots of elephants by Elephant Trunk Hill!

Lots of elephants by Elephant Trunk Hill!

The cormorants who put on quite the fishing show!

The cormorants who put on quite the fishing show!

Back to the hotel pool for swimming in the afternoon. It is the rainy season so we had to sit out for 20 mins but the kids were laughing about it.  We did dinner in the hotel (club lounge) as we were in a bit of a hurry to do the night river boat tour.  It was a beautiful evening to walk from our hotel to the local wharf where there were at least 8 boats waiting to take people out for an hour.  Lily had met us at the hotel to walk with us.  There was a motorbike show outside the front of our hotel with some Evil Knieval type stunts going on!!!

This boat trip was quite the treat as all along the way there were entertainers for us: musicians, dancers, actors and actresses.  All the trees were beautifully lit along the whole journey which took about 1 hour.

The late afternoon view of the sun and moon pagodas.  The Sun and Moon Twin Pagodas is situated in Shanhu (Shan Lake).  The word sun and moon in Chinese character written together mean brightness.  Some say it symbolises the future of Guilin is bright.  The Sun Pagoda is constructed with copper, it has 9 floors and reaches a height of 41 metres. The Moon Pagoda's is made of marble; it has 7 floors and measures 35 meters high. The two pagodas are connected via a tunnel at the bottom of the lake.

The late afternoon view of the sun and moon pagodas. The Sun and Moon Twin Pagodas is situated in Shanhu (Shan Lake). The word sun and moon in Chinese character written together mean brightness. Some say it symbolises the future of Guilin is bright.
The Sun Pagoda is constructed with copper, it has 9 floors and reaches a height of 41 metres. The Moon Pagoda’s is made of marble; it has 7 floors and measures 35 meters high. The two pagodas are connected via a tunnel at the bottom of the lake.

The Sun and Moon Pagoda's just lit at the start of sunset.  Our boat was just about to set off.

The Sun and Moon Pagoda’s just lit at the start of sunset. Our boat was just about to set off.

Beautiful scenery all around

Beautiful scenery all around

Another view from the boat.

Another view from the boat.

Entertainment along the river banks during our night boat ride.

Entertainment along the river banks during our night boat ride.

More entertainment

More entertainment

We passed under many bridges.  Many are modeled after famous bridges around the world!

We passed under many bridges. Many are modeled after famous bridges around the world!

I really liked the detail of the Chinese scripture on this bridge.  Look closely under the arch and you can see how much detail is there.

I really liked the detail of the Chinese scripture on this bridge. Look closely under the arch and you can see how much detail is there.

Beautifully lit trees along the embankment

Beautifully lit trees along the embankment

One of the attractions here is the cormorant fishing show.  The birds dive down and catch the fish and then the fishermen massage the birds necks to get the fish out.  Isabelle and Oliver did not like this as they thought the birds were getting strangled!!

A cormorant about to dive down for a fish.

A cormorant about to dive down for a fish.

The fisherman massaging the neck to get the fish out.

The fisherman massaging the neck to get the fish out.

Artefacts along the river banks.

Artefacts along the river banks.

Wonderful night lights.

Wonderful night lights.

Managed to capture the moon in this one too!!

Managed to capture the moon in this one too!!

Detail of the pagoda

Detail of the pagoda

After the boat ride, it was a short walk back to the hotel but via the Waterfall hotel because at every day at 8.30pm for 10 minutes the hotel has a waterfall of water from their roof plus synchronised fountain display to music.  We stayed to watch and then headed back for a good night sleep after such a busy day!

The waterfall at the Waterfall Hotel.

The waterfall at the Waterfall Hotel.

 

Long Weekend in Tokyo, Japan

Thursday was a terrible travel day.  We had got up early to get our 9.15am flight. When we got to the departure gate we saw that the flight was delayed, with no reason or estimated departure time.  After waiting for 90 minutes at this gate, a gate change was announced (the opposite end of the airport!) so we hurried over with the assumption that we would be boarding.  However, it was another case of “hurry up and wait” with no announcements and no information.  It was incredibly frustrating to not know if we were going to be delayed another 30 minutes or 6 hours!  I knew we were in for a longer wait when they started serving lunch at the boarding area…..
We eventually made it on to the plane at 1.30 and even this was drama driven.  As we had had an equipment change, they were assigning new seats and hand writing on the new seat numbers.  I could not read the numbers on our boarding cards, and was getting pushed from behind to move onto the bus.  The gate agent shouted 32A to me and so I assumed that we would all be sitting in the same row. However, when we actually got on the plane, I discovered that Oliver’s seat assignment was 71H and Isabelle’s was 34C!  I sat us all down together and then refused to move.  It worked because they then had to move everyone else around us!!  We then sat on the tarmac for another 90 minutes before finally taking off.
We landed in Tokyo at 6.30pm (a whole day wasted!) and I was immediately struck by the air – I could actually see clear blue sky.  We found the Narita Express train station easily and then boarded very clean and comfortable train for the hour ride to Tokyo down town.  When we arrived at Tokyo Station, it was a little confusing as the station is HUGE and there are many different lines and many different exits.  I had stopped to check my phone for the details on which exit to head for when a local asked if I needed help.  When I told her which exit I was looking for, she said, “follow me and I will take you there”.  I was amazed – this was so helpful and not what I was used after 2 years in China!  Our friends Earoel and Graham met us at the exit to walk us to the hotel we were all staying at (they had already been in Tokyo for 4 days).  The Marriott Courtyard at Tokyo Station is in a great central location and proved to be a great base for the 4 days that we spent in Tokyo.

We quickly checked in, dumped our bags and then immediately headed out for dinner.  We walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant called Charcoal which was a Japanese BBQ.  The tables had small grills in them where you cook your own food.  We ordered a selection of meats and seafood and then had fun cooking it all.  The kids enjoyed this and managed to act as Chef’s for us all!  We were joined by a couple of colleagues from the Japanese office of my company which proved a good chance to learn a little more about Japanese customs as well as learn the words for; please, thank you and hello.  It is always good to know those words in any language!!

After this lovely dinner, we walked back to the hotel, it was a lovely evening and I hoped that the weather would be as nice for the entire weekend (it was!)  After settling the kids into bed – out like lights, we then planned the following day.  We had decided to brave the queues/lines and visit Disney!  We figured that it was a school day and not a holiday in Japan so it should be less busy (ha, ha, ha, ha!!)
We rushed through breakfast so we could get on the train to Disney (15 minutes away from Tokyo Station).  We arrived about an hour after opening time and it was already packed!!  The day had dawned with clear blue skies and the sun was already beating down.  Although I had thought to bring sunscreen and had covered us all, the kids did not have sunglasses so our first stop was to the Disney store to buy sunglasses for Isabelle and a baseball cap for Oliver.  These were obviously hits with the kids as they then wore them for the entire trip!  We then saw our first show – the Disney orchestra playing some well known songs from the movies.

Woo hoo - Disney, here we come!

Woo hoo – Disney, here we come!

Japanese Orchestra playing well known Disney tunes by the entrance.

Japanese Orchestra playing well known Disney tunes by the entrance.

"What shall we do first, Mum?"

“What shall we do first, Mum?”

The Disney Magic Castle

The Disney Magic Castle

Earoel and kids by the Castle

Earoel and kids by the Castle

Steamboat ride around the Peter Pan lake

Steamboat ride around the Peter Pan lake

We met Winnie the Pooh and Tigger

We met Winnie the Pooh and Tigger

Splash Mountain is behind the kids.

Splash Mountain is behind the kids.

The Indians from Peter Pan

The Indians from Peter Pan

Lovely scenery!

Lovely scenery!

More scenes from the Steam Boat

More scenes from the Steam Boat

Getting a hug from Smee!

Getting a hug from Smee!

Making a wish!

Making a wish!

Graham had not been to Disney before and wanted to “experience the experience”.  Isabelle and Oliver had been to Disney in Florida (September 2011) and their memories were of 10 minutes of queuing (timed it perfectly for FL!!) even for the very popular rides back then.  We could not believe our luck at how many rides we got to go on.  Tokyo was another story – the wait times were already at 120+ minutes and once we had done a fast pass for Thunder Mountain we were then told that we could not apply for another fast pass until 1.30pm. Both kids wanted to go on Splash Mountain, so we headed over there to find that the wait time was 140 minutes – cue Mummy as Fast Pass!  Earoel and Graham were happy to take the kids on some other rides while I waited in line at Splash Mountain.  This was an incredibly boring 90 minutes for me!!!  However, knowing that they kids got to go on the Cars ride and the Carousel so it kept them happy, made me happy.  Splash Mountain did not disappoint and we all got wet!

Our Splash Mountain photo!

Our Splash Mountain photo!

Getting a hug from a character from Pinnochio

Getting a hug from a character from Pinnochio

After this it was time for lunch.  Kids had picked a burger place in Toon Town and so we walked over to that area of the park only to be told that it was shut!  So, back to Tomorrowland for Burgers there!  While we were eating, we noticed that the queue time for the Rocket Ship ride was only 25 minutes, so we jumped in line for that.

Kids trying "old fashioned" telephones!

Kids trying “old fashioned” telephones!

Jumping in for a ride!

Jumping in for a ride!

Fun Fountains

Fun Fountains

The Disney Easter Parade

The Disney Easter Parade

More Easter Carnival floats

More Easter Carnival floats

The whole park was themed for Easter

The whole park was themed for Easter

Even the entrance!

Even the entrance!

I was a little bit disappointed to see that all the Disney Princess characters were Westerners, but when I did a little research after, I learned that the Asian culture actually want to have photos taken with the Disney characters as they look in the movies and not the Asian version.
We went back to Toontown for a couple more rides and then, as it was now getting later in the day, decided to head back to the hotel before dinner.

It was a quick change time at the hotel before going to Andy’s Seafood restaurant for dinner.  An old colleague from my days working in America is COO of the Japanese office and he had arranged this dinner at his favourite place in Tokyo.  It did not disappoint!  It was a large, lively table.  We started the meal with crab and we were served the biggest legs and claws I had ever seen – yummy delicious. The ladies at the table were making local cocktails (???) with freshly squeezed grapefruit (aka – do it yourself at the table!).  Isabelle had an alcohol free version and loved it.  Oliver made fast friends with another colleague over his camera and was busy taking lots of photos of us all.

I love taking my kids out and getting compliments on them.  We had practised the correct way to introduce themselves (handshake, eye contact, clear articulation!) and I was thrilled when EVERYBODY at the table commented on the confidence and firm handshake of both Isabelle and Oliver! (Proud Mum moment!)
Andy’s was a fabulous meal – great company, great food and great drinks.  It was lovely to catch up with Tim (from my Atlanta days).  Wish I had more time to discover Japan through his eyes!!  This was a late night for the kids as we didn’t leave the restaurant until 9.30 (tried to make myself feel better by telling myself that it was only 8.30pm Shanghai time!!)  However, they had been so well behaved and so engaged that it did not seem to matter!  We all crashed fairly quickly after getting back to the hotel room!  It is definitely a fact that a whole day at Disney followed by a dinner out is guaranteed for immediate sleep…..
We did not set the alarm for Saturday morning as we had a fluid agenda.  Just as well, as no-one woke up until 9.00!!  We headed down for breakfast and decided on our itinerary for the day – off to Tokyo Tower, followed by Hibiya Park.
Tokyo Tower used to be the tallest tower in Tokyo (until the completion of the Skytower in 2013).

About to experience Tokyo Tower

About to experience Tokyo Tower

At the bottom of the Tokyo Tower. with some friends!

At the bottom of the Tokyo Tower. with some friends!

Some beautiful displays around the Tower

Some beautiful displays around the Tower

Inside and waiting to ride up to the top!

Inside and waiting to ride up to the top!

A view from the Top.

A view from the Top.

Quite close to Mount Fiji.  The kids wanted to climb this in the afternoon!! We will have to save that for another visit :-)

Quite close to Mount Fuji. The kids wanted to climb this in the afternoon!! We will have to save that for another visit 🙂

While we were waiting for the upper level elevators, we saw this board where people could post good luck messages.

Good luck wishes "Ema"

Good luck wishes “Ema”

The explanation!

The explanation!

More views across the City.

More views across the City.

Kids at the top!

Kids at the top!

There were glass floors at certain areas.  Bit scary to stand on and look down!

There were glass floors at certain areas. Bit scary to stand on and look down!

A view through the glass to the ground!

A view through the glass to the ground!

The afternoon was a lovely walk around Hibiya Park.  I was amazed that in a city of 34 million people, we bumped into the only people that I know in Tokyo – sometimes it is a small world!!

We went to a Tempura restaurant in the evening and had a fantastic meal.  We had walked down the busy main street (equivalent to Times Square) and saw the bright lights that light up the City at night.

Japanese Tempura!

Japanese Tempura!

Great meal, great company!

Great meal, great company!

The bright night lights of Tokyo city

The bright night lights of Tokyo city

On Sunday we decided to do a Red Bus City Tour in the morning, prior to our trip back to the airport in the afternoon.  The weather was clear blue skies and very sunny, but it was a bit breezy on the open top and we were all a little chilly when the bus picked up speed.  This was great way to see much of Tokyo and listen to the commentator tell us about the history, culture and interesting facts.

On top of the bus.

On top of the bus.

Ready to go……..

Ready to go……..

This was the original Japanese Opera Theatre.

This was the original Japanese Opera Theatre.

I also got a great view of the Tokyo Tower where we had been the day before!

I also got a great view of the Tokyo Tower where we had been the day before!

After the city tour, we enjoyed a lazy lunch and then headed back to the Metro to get the train back to the airport.  Again, I must comment on the kindness of Japanese strangers.  I was completely lost once we had our tickets (the Tokyo Station is HUGE!), but not only did someone stop to see if we were ok, but they also walked us to our platform (which was out of their way as they were on their way out!!)  No delays for the return journey.  We flew Japan Airlines for the first time.  This was a good experience – excellent plane food and the kids got to watch the new Lego Movie!

Xi’an Terracotta Warrior Army (秦陵兵马俑), City Wall and Muslim Market

We got off the sleeper train from Beijing at 8:00am ready for another action packed day and were met by our guide, Lily.  She immediately asked if we wanted to freshen up before starting our day, but we knew that it was going to be a packed agenda and wanted to get going.  It was a 45 minute journey in a very comfortable vehicle to the Terracotta Army site and we were well stocked with plenty of water to keep us hydrated.

Lily was extremely knowledgeable about Xi’an, China history in general and especially about the Warriors.  As we were pulling into the Museum, she was telling us the story about how they were discovered (by a farmer called Mr Yang in 1974) and said that he was often at the shop to meet people and answer questions and have photos taken. It was our lucky day as he was just walking into the shop at the same time as us so we all had our photo with him and he signed our book!

All of us meeting Mr Yang who discovered the Warriors.  We got his autograph too!  What an honour.

All of us meeting Mr Yang who discovered the Warriors. We got his autograph too! What an honour.

Lily told us a funny story about Mr Yang meeting President Clinton.  He was being taught some basic English to say and was told to say “how are you?”, with which Clinton would respond “fine, thank you, and you?”  and then Mr Yang should say “me too”.  However, when he met the President he actually said “who are you?”  Clinton then said “I am the husband of Hilary Clinton” and Mr Yang responded “me too”.  Definitely lost in translation!!

The entrance to the Terracotta Warrior Museum.

The entrance to the Terracotta Warrior Museum.

There are beautiful gardens all round the pits.

There are beautiful gardens all round the pits.

Experiencing the very moving Warriors was all the more special as Lily was telling us stories about each section and how they are working on uncovering more, the preservation techniques and the history associated with them.  The detail on each Warrior is outstanding and hard to believe that they are over 2200 years old.

The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, wanted to be protected in his afterlife and therefore had his army recreated in Terracotta to be buried with him.  To date, over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses have been discovered in 3 main pits.  The figures vary in height according to their roles and the tallest are the Generals.  Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.

In addition to the warriors, an entire necropolis built for the emperor also has been found surrounding the first emperor’s tomb mound which is located at the foot of Mount Li and built in a pyramid shape.   It was designed to be a scaled down version of his imperial palace and includes offices, halls, stables and other buildings.  This is all surrounded by rammed earth walls with different gateway entrances.

The terracotta army figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen using materials originated on Mount Li, and some historical documents estimate as many as 700,000 people working on these. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were all created separately and then assembled – an early production assembly line!  Historians believe that there were 8 basic face moulds which were then made unique with additions of clay and sculpting.  Each worker signed the piece that they worked on.  Once complete, they were placed in military formation around the tomb.  They vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank and most of them originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows. Evidence shows that they were also painted with bright paint – pink, red, blue, green, white, black and brown.  Unfortunately, once the terracotta warriors are uncovered the vivid paint curls and flakes off or fades rapidly – within 15 minutes of exposure.  Lily told us that they know there are many more figures to excavate, but are waiting for the right technology to do that AND preserve the colour.  And, they haven’t even started on the actual tomb of the Emperor yet!

Pit 1 is HUGE.  Approximately 6,000 Warriors in this building.

Pit 1 is HUGE. Approximately 6,000 Warriors in this building.

Tight squeeze to get all of us plus some Warriors in 1 photo!

Tight squeeze to get all of us plus some Warriors in 1 photo!

Although I had seen pictures of the Warriors, it does not prepare you for the scale and magnitude.

Although I had seen pictures of the Warriors, it does not prepare you for the scale and magnitude.

Sara, Oliver, Owen and Isabelle by the Warriors

Sara, Oliver, Owen and Isabelle by the Warriors

Warriors

Warriors

Broken Warriors waiting to be fixed.

Broken Warriors waiting to be fixed.

The slow and delicate process of excavation….

The slow and delicate process of excavation….

Restored and repaired Warriors

Restored and repaired Warriors

More Warriors and us!

More Warriors and us!

Information about the pigments and colours.

Some of the original vivid pigments and colours.

Waiting to be assembled

Waiting to be assembled

More colour examples

More colour examples

Some of the horses

Some of the horses

We all got to pose with some very good replicas!!

We all got to pose with some very good replicas!!

To keep Isabelle and Oliver occupied while us adults were in awe of what we were seeing, Lily kept them fed with Oreo Cookies and other treats!  After seeing the pits, we moved into the museum area.

Information

Information about Pit 3

The kneeling archer.  Even the soles of his shoes are incredibly detailed.

The kneeling archer. Even the soles of his shoes are incredibly detailed.

Each exhibit had information next to it.

Each exhibit had information next to it.

The back of the kneeling archer.  Some of the colour has been preserved and you can also see the detail on the shoes.

The back of the kneeling archer. Some of the colour has been preserved and you can also see the detail on the shoes.

A Cavalryman with his horse.

A Cavalryman with his horse.

Information about the Cavalryman and Horse.

Information about the Cavalryman and Horse.

A Chrome plated weapon.  This technology was not "re-invented" until the 20th century!!

A Chrome plated weapon. This technology was not “re-invented” until the 20th century!!

Technology from 2200 years ago!!

Technology from 2200 years ago!!

Leaving the Terracotta Warrior Museum and on to Xi'an.

Leaving the Terracotta Warrior Museum and on to Xi’an.

After spending several hours at the Museum, we left to have a delicious lunch at a local restaurant. Lily was very conscious of Oliver’s nut allergy when ordering all the dishes and was very insistent with the restaurant staff that everything should be nut free.  The meal was fantastic (she had asked what food we preferred, but of course we all said local!!)  More history and local knowledge was shared with us over this meal.  After lunch we went to visit the City wall and the Muslim shopping area.

When Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), captured Huizhou, a hermit named Zhu Sheng admonished him that he should ‘built high walls, store abundant food supplies and take time to be an Emperor,’ so that he could fortify the city and unify the other states. After the establishment of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang followed his advice and began to enlarge the wall built initially during the old Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), creating the modern Xian City Wall. It’s the most complete city wall that has survived in China, as well being one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world.  Source: TravelChinaGuide.

The wall is almost 14km long, with a deep moat surrounding it.  Every 120 meters there is a rampant, 98 in total, that houses a sentry building.  The only way for an enemy to enter the city was by attacking the gates in the wall, so the ancient Chinese built complex structures within the wall!  The City Wall in Xi’an includes four gates and they are; Changle (meaning eternal joy) in the east, Anding (harmony peace) in the west, Yongning (eternal peace) in the south and Anyuan (forever harmony) in the north. The south gate, Yongning, is the most beautifully decorated one. It is very near to the Bell Tower at the center of the city.  Watch towers are  located on each of the four corners of the wall.  The one at the southwestern corner is round, but the other three are square-shaped.

On top of the City Wall at Xi'an

On top of the City Wall at Xi’an

Isabelle & Oliver on the top of the City Wall, and looking through to the City.

Isabelle & Oliver on the top of the City Wall, and looking through to the City.

More intricate and fascinating architecture.  This was an important building, and you can tell because of the animals on the roof edges.

More intricate and fascinating architecture on a Watch Tower. This was an important building, and you can tell because of the animals on the roof edges.

Xi'an City Walls important buildings

Xi’an City Walls important buildings

Hanging out over the City Gates.

Hanging out over the City Gates.

More detailed architecture.

More detailed architecture.

Looking across the gate to administrative buildings on the other side.

Looking across the gate to administrative buildings on the other side.

The view across the City (and moat below) was very good.  Wish it had been a clearer day!!

The view across the City (and moat below) was very good. Wish it had been a clearer day!!

Underneath a huge bell.

Underneath a huge bell.

The Bell Tower

The Drum Tower

The Drum Tower got its name from the huge drum located within the building.  At the beginning of each day, at dawn, a bell was struck – in the Bell Tower.  At the end of each day, the drum was beat at sunset to indicate the end of the day – in the Drum Tower.  On the first floor of this tower is a hall that houses many large drums, decorated with intrinsic and beautiful Chinese writing, which symbolizes good fortune.

Many of the tour guides offer bicycle riding along the top of the City Wall.  I think this is an excellent way to see it all!

Many of the tour guides offer bicycle riding along the top of the City Wall. I think this is an excellent way to see it all!

After we had visited the City Wall, Lily took us to Muslim Quarter, which includes Muslim Street.  The street is about 500 meters in length from south to north and you reach it under the archway under the Drum Tower. This street is paved with dark colored stone with lots of green trees lining the street.  The buildings on both sides of the street are modeled on the styles of both the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasties (1644-1911).  Some of the buildings are restaurants, while others are stores selling lots of tourist souvenirs, but here there is one thing in common: the owners are all Muslims.  This is a big tourist attraction in Xi’an! Xi’an was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road 1,000 years ago in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD).  A number of merchants and overseas students from the Arabic countries and Persia went to Xi’an for business and studying since the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD); they settled down on the present Muslim Street, and they were called the Hui people by the locals.  One generation after another, the descendants of the Hui ethnic people now number over 60,000.

Muslim Street

Muslim Street

The street is lined with street food vendors.

The street is lined with street food vendors.

We did not try anything here, although i wanted to!

We did not try anything here, although i wanted to!

Lily was a great tour guide.  We had heard lots of stories about tourists being taken to certain shops and vendors and pushed into buying something, but Lily did not do this.  At the end of the day, she returned us back to the train station and even wanted to come and wait with us until the train time (which we declined as we thought we could do that by ourselves!)  The whole day was a brilliant experience with a lovely lady who ensured that EVERYTHING ran smoothly with no unexpected surprises or additional fees.  Like Jeff the day before in Beijing, Lily is also proud of the history and culture of China and this comes through when she is explaining and discussing it.  This made a huge difference to me – being able to hear from a local all the things that you would never read in a guide book.  She answered all our questions with patience and detail.  It could not have been a better day!

Sharing a meal with a local!

Sharing a meal with a local!

The Great Wall at Mutianyu, 长城/万里长城

After a good night sleep in the hotel, we were up early to to do the hour’s ride to the Great Wall (ChongQing in Chinese).  It was a fairly easy drive, and only the last 20 minutes were busy.  Lots of mini-buses, coaches and vans taking crowds of tourists to this popular part of the Wall.  We were lucky with the weather as the smog levels were relatively low and it was not raining!  Jeff went off to buy our tickets for the ride up/ride down part of the day.  He told us that Michelle Obama and her 2 children had been there within the previous 2 weeks which now made this part of the Great Wall even more popular.  The American public will be pleased to know that their taxes paid for this busy attraction to be completely closed for their visit!  There were street vendors all over the place selling souvenirs, fruit and vegetables.

The busy street vendors.  We bought some dried pineapple here - best ever!

The busy street vendors. We bought some dried pineapple here – best ever!

The plan was to take a chair lift up to the Great Wall and then do the toboggan ride back down after.

Isabelle & Oliver by the entrance to the Chair Lift ride.

Isabelle & Oliver by the entrance to the Chair Lift ride.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Ashley & Oliver riding up on the Chair Lift.

Ashley & Oliver riding up on the Chair Lift.

Ashley, Harley, Kim. Owen. Isabelle, Sara & Oliver on the Great Wall.

Ashley, Harley, Kim. Owen. Isabelle, Sara & Oliver on the Great Wall.

Another one checked off my Bucket List!  Oliver took this photo of me on the wonky steps on the Great Wall.

Another one checked off my Bucket List! Oliver took this photo of me on the wonky steps on the Great Wall.

And, here is how the wonky steps look from the bottom.....

And, here is how the wonky steps look from the bottom…..

This was an amazing experience.  I did not imagine that I would make it to the Great Wall.  It just shows that if you put items on your Bucket List to achieve (even if you think they are wild and out there, hopes and dreams) you can complete them.  Now, if I can just find a way to complete 77 – take off and land on an aircraft carrier in the ocean…….

We spent several hours walking parts of the wall and listening to Jeff give us some history and facts.  The architecture is quite spectacular.  All the more because it has survived for thousands of years, is so extensive and has some quite brilliant engineering.  For example, archeological surveys have determined that the Wall is over 8,850km (5,500 miles) long; it was started 800BC but was mostly built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644); there are approximately 25,000 watch towers; it has been estimated that up to a million people died building the Wall over the period of time of construction.

Fire was used to signal to other watch towers, so when the guards/soldiers wanted to eat or stay warm, they had to light fires in chimneys like this one.  It would have been incredibly smokey in here!

Fire was used to signal to other watch towers, so when the guards/soldiers wanted to eat or stay warm, they had to light fires in chimneys like this one. It would have been incredibly smokey in here as there is no outlet for the smoke!

The Great Wall has holes like this to line up bow and arrows to fire at approaching enemies.

The Great Wall has holes like this to line up bow and arrows to fire at approaching enemies.

There are cannons at intervals - pointing at the North (Mongolia) ready to fire!

There are cannons at intervals – pointing at the North (Mongolia) ready to fire!  Oliver is in the line of fire here!!

We were lucky with the weather.  It was actually a warm sunny day.  Smog was relatively low - even so, you can see the haze.

We were lucky with the weather. It was actually a warm sunny day. Smog was relatively low – even so, you can see the haze.

Absolutely amazing.

Absolutely amazing.

All of us with another view…..

All of us with another view…..

Oliver & Isabelle by one of the windows in a watch tower.

Oliver & Isabelle by one of the windows in a watch tower.

Jeff took a photo of all of us at the top of a Watch Tower.

Jeff took a photo of all of us at the top of a Watch Tower.

I was quite surprised at how many steps there were.  When I thought of the Great Wall, I had imagined it quite smooth on the top.  It is definitely a work out to see this marvelous piece of engineering and building.  After all the exercise walking along, we were ready for a thrill ride back down to the village.

We had to wait in line for about 45 minutes as this is a popular way to return to base!  But, it was definitely worth the wait…….

Kim and Sara ready in our toboggans.

Kim and Sara ready in our toboggans.

Oliver rode with Ashley.

Oliver rode with Ashley.

Harley and Isabelle riding down.

Harley and Isabelle riding down.

Once we were all safely at the bottom, it was time for a very late lunch.  Jeff took us to another great local restaurant and we stuffed our faces with more delicious local food.  Our original plan had been to see the Summer Palace after this, but we had spent so much time on the Great Wall, that we ran out of time.  So, Jeff took us to the train station so that we could continue on with the next leg of our journey.  On to the sleeper train for 1 more night, this time traveling to Xi’an.

 

Beijing – Ti’an’anmen Square, Forbidden City & Rickshaws

Our Beijing adventure started on Thursday April 10th. We had booked an action packed weekend through Catherine Lu Tours (highly recommended). The kids came home from school, we rushed through dinner and packing and then set off for the train station to catch the sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing. It had all started well, the traffic was not so bad and we made it to the Hongqiao Travel Hub with plenty of time to spare. However, when we asked where our train was, the reply was “at Shanghai Station”!!  Owen made a couple of frantic calls to Catherine, I made a couple of calls to my lovely assistant and we immediately called Fu to return back to pick us up and take us to the right station!
This was a stressful journey as the time was ticking down and we were not sure if we would make the train or not.  I did not know that Shanghai actually has several (ie, more than 5) major train stations!  It was obviously not clear on our tickets either as it was all in Mandarin which none of us can read.
We did make the train – 4 minutes before departure time we were sitting in our cabin and catching our breath.  We had run all the way through the station and down the platform and were all panting.  Once on the train, we saw that the cabin’s were set up with 4 beds (fluffy duvet and narrow pillows on each bed) bunkbed style. The kids were on top, Owen and I had a bottom bunk each. In the cabin next door were Kim, Ashley and Harley.  We had paid for the extra bed so that they would not have a stranger sharing the last bunk!  There was room underneath the beds to stow our luggage and a small table inbetween. We quickly organized the kids into their pj’s, cleaned their teeth and settled them into their beds. The kids thought it was all cool!  The toilet’s (one of my favourite subjects!) were not as bad as I was expecting and there was a choice between western and squat so all of us were especially happy about that.
The kids soon fell asleep lulled by the gentle motion of the train.  It had the same effect on me and so I organized my duvet, got in my pj’s and prepared for sleep. It was quite a hard mattress and the pillow was not very soft.  I had seen some of the locals carrying their own pillows and I now discovered why.  I did sleep, but not particularly well.  However, the kids had a blissful full nights sleep!
We woke up in the morning with about 1 hour to go until arrival in Beijing, so got ourselves ready and packed everything away.
When we got off the train, our guide Jeff was waiting for us and eager to get going. We had to delay him for a few moments as we had seen a MacDonalds and all of us were hungry and adults needed coffee!  I think that Jeff might have been a bit depressed at this point, thinking “these westerners only eating western food!!”  We all felt perked up and raring to go after food and cafeine.  Jeff asked about lunch and we all said, “local, of course” and I am sure he felt much better about being our guide for the day!

Owen, Oliver, Isabelle, Sara, Harley, Kim & Ashley at Ti'ananmen Square outside the Forbidden City.

Owen, Oliver, Isabelle, Sara, Harley, Kim & Ashley at Ti’ananmen Square outside the Forbidden City.

We had a lovely van to transport us around – spacious and comfortable for all 7 of us.  Jeff took us straight to the hotel (Marriott Apartments at Imperial Palace) so that we could check in and leave our luggage.  Immediately after we were on our way to Ti’an’anmen Square and the Forbidden City as our first stop.
Jeff was entertaining, knowledgeable and full of energy. He really made a difference to our time in Beijing as he was flexible with our schedule (tight to start with) and conscious of all our needs (including ensuring that Oliver’s nut allergy was covered).  Jeff also knew all the good photo stops so throughout our visit he was stopping us to take pictures of all of us.
Tianamen Square was quite the sight to see. The 25th Anniversary of the protests are this year and Jeff was pointing out where the tanks and Chinese Army had been.  I had expected some reluctance to discuss this episode in Chinese history, but Jeff was very matter of fact about it and did not try to gloss over or distort the events.  Security was tight around the Square and into the Forbidden City – we all had to pass bags through X-Ray and walk through metal detectors, but the line moved quickly and we were in the Forbidden Palace grounds within 10 -15 minutes.  We entered through the Meridian Gate (午门; Wǔ Mén).  In ancient times, this gate was reserved for the Emporer.  The Emporer’s Army would enter through the West Gate, while mere mortals had to use the East Gate.  Once through Meridian Gate, we immediately enter an enormous courtyard.  The Golden Stream (金水; Jīn Shuǐ – shaped to resemble a Tartar bow and spanned by five marble bridges) runs through this area.  The other side of the courtyard is the Gate of  Supreme Harmony (太和门; Tàihé Mén). This courtyard could hold an imperial audience of 100,000 people.

One of the lions guarding the Forbidden City

One of the lions guarding the Forbidden City

The detail on the buildings is beautiful

The detail on the buildings is beautiful

Standing by 1 of the main entrances into the Forbidden City.  The red doors are huge and very thick.

Standing by 1 of the main entrances into the Forbidden City. The red doors are huge and very thick.

A Red Door

A Red Door

Isabelle and Oliver on the bridge in front of the Supreme Harmony Hall.

Isabelle and Oliver on the bridge over the Golden Stream in front of the Supreme Harmony Hall

All of us by one of the many stone Lions guarding the Palace.

All of us by one of the many stone Lions guarding the Palace.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

The Hall of Supreme Harmony

The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 by over 1 million workers.  There are 980 buildings over 180 acres.  It was the home of the Imperial Palace for the Ming and Qing Dynastys.  After being the home of 24 emperors – 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty – the Forbidden City ceased being the political centre of China in 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. In 1933 the Japanese invasion of China meant that many of the precious relics were evacuated to Taiwan.  They can be seen today in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.  However, there were still many beautiful and ancient artifacts to see in the many buildings within the Forbidden City Walls.

The building names within the Forbidden City, are interesting!  Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall for Ancestral Worship, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union, Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity, Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies, Hall of Mental Cultivation, and the Palace of Gathered Elegance.  Each of these buildings have many symbols to identify the significance and importance:

  • Yellow is the color of the Emperor.  Therefore, almost all of the roofs in the Forbidden City have yellow glazed tiles. There are 2 exceptions to this – the library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity had black tiles because black was associated with water (fire-prevention) and the Crown Prince’s residences have green tiles because green was associated with wood (growth).
  • The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three – the shape of the Qian triagram which represents Heaven.  The residences of the Inner Court are arranged in groups of 6 (Kun triagram) which represent the Earth.
  • The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statutuettes, starting with a man riding a phoenix, followed by an imperial dragon.  The number of statuettes represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 or 5.  The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in China to be permitted this in Imperial times. As a result, its 10th statuette, called a “Hangshi“, or “ranked tenth” is also unique in the Forbidden City.
The 10 Statuettes on the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The 10 Statuettes on the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

Harley, Isabelle, Oliver and Ashley.

Harley, Isabelle, Oliver and Ashley.

The detail on the buildings is exquisite

The detail on the buildings is exquisite

All of us with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the background.

All of us with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the background.

Inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Dragon Throne.  This is where the Emporer would sit before his trembling, nervous court!  The entire court would have to touch their heads to the floor 9 times in his presence.  This is called kowtowing!

The history of the urns.

The history of the urns.

Huge copper and iron urns - for both water storage and fire.

Huge copper and iron urns – for both water storage and fire.

I was grateful for these reminders of the artifacts we were looking at!

I was grateful for these reminders of the artifacts we were looking at!

Inspiration from Native Indians??

Inspiration from Native Indians??

Owen wanted one of these!

Owen wanted one of these!

Back scratchers!  Owen wanted one of these too!

Back scratchers! Owen wanted one of these too!

The Clock Exhibition Hall is in the Hall for Ancestral Worship and is filled with amazing elaborate timepieces.  Many of the examples were gifts to Emperors from Kings and rulers around the world.

The Clock Exhibition Hall is in the Hall for Ancestral Worship and is filled with amazing elaborate timepieces. Many of the examples were gifts to Emperors from Kings and rulers around the world.

So many beautiful works of art.

So many beautiful works of art.

The Face of the last Emperor - Puyi.

The Face of the last Emperor – Puyi.

A centurys old teapot.

A centurys old teapot.

Owen and I loved the carving on this.

Owen and I loved the carving on this.

So much detail everywhere.  This is the domed ceiling in one of the halls.

So much detail everywhere. This is the domed ceiling in one of the halls.

Harley, Oliver and Ashley.

Harley, Oliver and Ashley.

The Imperial Garden

The Imperial Garden

After this history filled morning, it was time for lunch.  Jeff took us to a great local restaurant.  He ordered a great selection of food for us to eat.  We all enjoyed everything.

Our lunch restaurant

Our lunch restaurant

Best Tofu I have ever eaten!

Best Tofu I have ever eaten!

After lunch it was time to go visit the Hutongs via a Rickshaw ride.

In the past, Beijing was composed of hundreds of courtyards around the Forbidden City and these lanes stretched out in all directions, inter-connecting with one another across the city. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well.  They were originally formed in the Yuan Dynasty and grew rapidly during the Ming and Qing dynasties.  In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well, which provided the daily water for the locals. Until now, one can still find dry wells in Hutongs.   In the Yuan Dynasty, there were about 29 Hutongs, while in the Ming Dynasty (1368 –1644), this number increased to 1,070.  In the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), it grew to 2,076.  It is said that by 1949 there were as many as 3,250.  Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, much of this was demolished for “new development” – housing and buildings and in 2003, only 1,500 were left, and now no more than 1,000 remain.  Today, protecting what is left is now a priority.

The lanes have their own layout and structure, and when viewed from the air the combination of the lanes and courtyards resemble a chessboard with delicate gardens, fine rockeries and ancient ruins this makes them a wonder in the world. Because of the cross interlacement of the lanes every house connects to the other, making it easy for local people to keep in touch with their neighbors. Therefore, once one enters any of the lanes, one can feel the deep and warm relationships among people, which is rarely found in this modern world.

Jeff & Kim ready for our Rickshaw tour around the Hutongs.

Jeff & Kim ready for our Rickshaw tour around the Hutongs.

Isabelle & Harley sharing a Rickshaw

Isabelle & Harley sharing a Rickshaw

Owen & Ashley

Owen & Ashley

Me and Oliver ready to go!

Me and Oliver ready to go!

A great view of the Drum and Bell Towers that are the outer edges of the Forbidden City.

A great view of the Drum and Bell Towers that are the outer edges of the Forbidden City.

A rickshaw!

A rickshaw!

So many symbols in China.  The four blue posts signify the level of the family living here.  The color is also significant and indicates different professions (military, government, retail, etc)

So many symbols in China. The four blue posts signify the level of the family living here. The color is also significant and indicates different professions (military, government, retail, etc)

We stopped at some of the stores in the Hutongs and saw this display of food - these are 1000 year old eggs!!

We stopped at some of the stores in the Hutongs and saw this display of food – these are 100 year old eggs!!

Fantastic selection of spices

Fantastic selection of spices

Lots of souvenirs to buy in the little shops

Lots of souvenirs to buy in the little shops

Ashley & Oliver by a Hutong that is designated for demolition.

Ashley & Oliver by a Hutong that is designated for demolition.

When we had checked into the hotel at the beginning of the day, the kids had seen the swimming pool on the 8th floor.  I am glad that they knew it was there as the promise of swimming later in the day kept them going through all the site-seeing! Ashley and Harley were keen to go with Isabelle and Oliver and it was a race to see who would be ready to go first!  Kim and Owen took this opportunity to nap while I “supervised” from the side of the pool!  An hour of so of swimming recharged the batteries ready for dinner…..

Isabelle taking a flying leap into the pool.

Isabelle taking a flying leap into the pool.

Ashley throwing Oliver!

Ashley throwing Oliver!

A large leap from all 4 - huge splash!

A large leap from all 4 – huge splash!

I had asked a few local colleagues that live in Beiing for recommendations on a good Peking Duck restaurant and the reply was unanimous – “Da Dong Duck”.  So, the 7 of us were excited to eat Peking Duck in Peking at Da Dong Duck!!  Jeff had recommended that we order 2 ducks and then a selection of vegetable side dishes so that is exactly what we did.  What a delicious meal!  The Duck was beautifully carved and there was plenty of perfect crispy skin for everyone. The traditional accompaniments is spring onion (scallion), finely chopped garlic, plus sugar! Sugar and crispy duck skin is a wonderful taste explosion!
We all had multiple duck pancakes. All of the vegetable dishes were yummy too – we had each picked 1 that we liked the look of in the menu (thank goodness for pictures!)  By desert time, the kids wanted a Chocolate Bomb.  This arrived at the table with what looked like a big sparkler sticking out.  The server lit this and when it had burned down, the chocolate “bomb” had opened to reveal lots of packets of chocolate sweets inside.

Da Dong Duck Restaurant

Da Dong Duck Restaurant

The Duck getting expertly carved.

The Duck getting expertly carved.

The arrival of the Chocolate Bomb dessert.

The arrival of the Chocolate Bomb dessert.

After the "bomb" had exploded!!

After the “bomb” had exploded!!

A very busy day, with another one ahead of us.  It was an early night for all of us!

Thailand Part 3 – Koh Samui

Chinese New Year holidays were upon us and we were off to Koh Samui, Thailand to escape the fireworks, cold weather and air pollution.

In true fashion, I had left it quite late to book this trip at one of the busiest travel times in China.  So, we ended up returning to Thailand – Koh Samui this time, and taking the kids out of school 2.5 days early.   So on Monday January 27th we set off for Shanghai airport to enjoy 12 days in the warmth, sunshine and clean air of Thailand.  We flew into Bangkok to connect with our flight to Koh Samui island and were totally amazed to bump into Sheila O’Neill who was checking in for a girlie getaway!  We only know 9 people in Bangkok, so to see one of them at that particular time was funny!  We had a quick catch up before we left for our different flights.

We were picked up at the airport by a lovely man driving a very luxurious, spacious van.  A good omen for a great holiday!  A short 15 minute drive from the airport and we arrived at our Villa at Kanda Residences at the north end of Chaweng Beach.  Owen had researched many places for us to stay and had picked a fantastic villa for us.  A 3 bedroom place with a private pool very close to the beach, in a facility that had a good restaurant and a couple more communal pools, plus a private beach.

We quickly unpacked and then all collapsed into our beds.  The last 3 or 4 months have been incredibly busy, stressful and tiring for me.  The last quarter of our year is always busy with major sales cycles coming to a close, a major customer event, plus planning for 2014.  I felt like I had not had a chance to take a breath and enjoy life or my family.  The year had also started in a crazy fashion with our sales kick off, year end reviews, bonus calculations and settling down organization changes.  I was exhausted!  I spent the first couple of days frantically closing HR and bonus issues before I finally was able to relax and completely switch off.  This is a rare time of year where China shuts down and I knew that I could decompress because everyone else would be off too.  So, for the first time in a year, I did not feel under pressure to check email or follow up on anything – it was bliss.

Oliver relaxing in the pool at our villa.  "This is the life, Mum!"

Oliver relaxing in the pool at our villa. “This is the life, Mum!”

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I slept late, worked a little and chilled by the pool.  The kids loved our pool and were perfectly happy to be entertaining themselves with endless hours of swimming and games.  Owen was exhausted from his trip to the UK and slept and read alot too.  We found a Tesco and stocked up on supplies so that we could enjoy our paradise cocoon.  I did not realize how stressed I had been as I could actually feel it lifting as the days went by.  I was sleeping better and enjoying the simple pleasure of being with my family with no itinerary and no agenda.

We booked the resort Spa experts to come to our villa and pamper us all.  The kids experienced their first massage (a “baby” massage – but didn’t tell them that is what it was called!)  We all had our treatments in the Sala by the pool.  They both loved their experience!  Owen had a lovely foot massage while I had a relaxing body massage.  How wonderful to experience that while chilling in the warm weather.

Isabelle and Oliver getting totally spoiled with massages in our villa!

Isabelle and Oliver getting totally spoiled with massages in our villa!

We went into Chaweng Beach a couple of times.  We spent a couple of hours wandering around the market stalls.  We bought a couple of bedside lights for the kids – made out of coconut and shaped into animals.  Isabelle’s is like an elephant and Oliver’s is shaped like a buffalo.  Oliver also got a lovely pair of Foakley sunglasses (that is Fake Oakley!)  We explored the wonderful beach by the villa.  It is very private (there was no-one else there when we were there) and a mix of interesting rock pools and small pebbles.  It is not a beach for swimming because of all the rocks.  But, it is a children’s paradise for finding things!

Rockpool exploration at Kanda residences

Rockpool exploration at Kanda residences

By the steps on the way down to the beach.  The kids are holding onto the shower (made out of bamboo!)

By the steps on the way down to the beach. The kids are holding onto the shower (made out of bamboo!)

Oliver found a coconut and Isabelle found a sand dollar.

Oliver found a coconut and Isabelle found a sand dollar.

It was so disappointing to see so much rubbish washed up on the beach.  This sandal had obviously been in the water for a while, judging by the shellfish that had attached itself.  This was one example of nature merging with man made mess.

It was so disappointing to see so much rubbish washed up on the beach. This sandal had obviously been in the water for a while, judging by the shellfish that had attached itself. This was one example of nature merging with man made mess.

The deserted beach.  This is the Kanda Residence Villas nestled into the hills.  A beautiful place to recharge!

The deserted beach. This is the Kanda Residence Villas nestled into the hills. A beautiful place to recharge!

Daddy with his little explorers.  The buckets came back full of shells, rocks and other interesting "stuff"

Daddy with his little explorers. The buckets came back full of shells, rocks and other interesting “stuff”

Isabelle as Queen of the Castle on the rocks.

Isabelle as Queen of the Castle on the rocks.

Oliver as King of the Castle on the rocks

Oliver as King of the Castle on the rocks

Owen pretending to eat a dead crab that he found in the rock pools.

Owen pretending to eat a dead crab that he found in the rock pools.

We poured over the island information brochures and told Isabelle and Oliver that they could pick 1 thing each that they wanted to do.  Isabelle chose Quad Biking (separate post) and Oliver chose Coco Splash – a water park (separate post), Owen and I chose a private boat charter (separate post).  We booked the boat charter for Saturday February 1st, the water park for Monday 3rd and Quad biking on Wednesday 5th.  This was a perfect combination of planned activities and then days with nothing to do except relax, swim, eat, drink, read and play.

Family in the infinity edge pool at Kanda Residences.

Family in the lower children’s pool at Kanda Residences.

The infinity edge pool at Kanda residences is wonderful.  The views from here are lovely.

The infinity edge pool at Kanda residences is wonderful. The views from here are lovely.

"Hey Guys"

“Hey Guys”

Owen horsing around with the kids!

Owen horsing around with the kids!

Our first meal out was to the Spirit House Restaurant.  We had asked our resort concierge for some recommendations for some good Thai food.  Owen and I both love this cuisine and were eager to eat authentically.  We had a lovely meal in a lovely location (but not sure how authentic it was, especially after our Quad Biking day!!).

Isabelle and Oliver at the Spirit House Restaurant.

Isabelle and Oliver at the Spirit House Restaurant.

Cuddle time between courses!

Cuddle time between courses!

One of the offerings at the Spirit House restaurant.

One of the offerings at the Spirit House restaurant.

Oliver & Isabelle by a wall sculpture in the Spirit House Restaurant

Oliver & Isabelle by a wall sculpture in the Spirit House Restaurant

Offerings to the Gods all over the place!

Offerings to the Gods all over the place!

We bought some Chinese lanterns from a beach vendor and let them off by our pool.

Isabelle and Oliver watching Daddy make sure that the Chinese Lantern is full before letting go.

Isabelle and Oliver watching Daddy make sure that the Chinese Lantern is full before letting go.

Up, up and away.  The white light to the right is the Moon.  This is very soon after the "New Year".

Up, up and away. The white light to the right is the Moon. This is very soon after the “New Year”.

A lovely meal out was at Tree Tops in the Anantara Lawana resort.  The tables are set on raised stages in the trees.  It is a molecular cuisine which particularly pleased Owen as this is what he is studying at the moment!  I had ordered a lychee martini cocktail that was made at the table and then served over dry ice – the kids thought this was really cool as my drink was surrounded in smoke!!  Owen’s cocktail was also made at the table but was not as visually stunning as mine.  A unique feature of our meal here was a Salt Guru/Sommelier.  She brought over a selection of different salts and then gave Owen and I a couple to try with our main meal.  It was a very nice meal.

A "smoking" Lychee Martini!

A “smoking” Lychee Martini!

Our Tree Tops "welcome" drink

Our Tree Tops “welcome” drink

Non-alcoholic version for the kids!

Non-alcoholic version for the kids!

We ate at Eat Sense after our day at Coco Splash.  This was a lovely beach side restaurant with some wonderful Thai food.  It was very busy the night we were there and I was glad that we had placed our order before a massive group of Chinese people arrived.  I had to laugh at the table next to us – it was a table of 12 and ALL of them were on their smart phones.  One of their group was obviously upset by this and made them all hand them over to him.  He wrapped them all up in a napkin and put it under the table!  Then, all of a sudden, the conversation started to flow, laughing and animated for the rest of their meal.  I guess some things are universal and you don’t need to speak Mandarin to understand that whole interaction!  I was pleased to see this – we have a “no technology” rule when we are eating too!

The Wet Bar at Akaryn Samui Resort and Spa was upscale Pizza night for us all.  82 different pizza’s on the menu and we were spoilt for choice.  This was another fantastic beach side table in another lovely resort.  Our table was right by the ocean waves crashing on the sand – so soothing and relaxing to eat with the music of Mother Nature playing behind us.

Pizza by the beach

Pizza by the beach

After one particular hard afternoon of shopping, we realized that it was getting late.  As we walked down the main strip, we were debating about getting a taxi, when Owen saw Red Snapper restaurant across the road.  We did a quick Trip Advisor look up and saw that it was rated high so headed in for our dinner!  Owen and I both had yummy flank steak followed by limoncello spheres for dessert.  This restaurant had some very colorful lights behind the bar.

Our Red Snapper dinner

Our Red Snapper dinner

Lemoncello Spheres that burst in your mouth!  Owen is going to attempt to recreate these at home.

Limoncello Spheres that burst in your mouth! Owen is going to attempt to recreate these at home.

The lit up bottles at the bar in Red Snapper restaurant.

The lit up bottles at the bar in Red Snapper restaurant.

Our last night in Koh Samui and we ate at Coco Rock.  This restaurant is located in the Coral Bay resort very close to Kanda.  It was a beautiful location and the evening light was fantastic for some good photos.  The menu had a combination of Thai cuisine and International favorites.  Owen and I both chose Thai options – Phad Thai for Owen and Massan Chicken curry for me – yummy!  Owen finished off with Tiramisu, Isabelle had ice cream.  Oliver and I were too stuffed for dessert!

On the beach by Coco Rock restaurant.

On the beach by Coco Rock restaurant.

Beautiful light for photos.

Beautiful light for photos.

Me and my girl in our matching vacation dresses bought the day before in a local Koh Samui shop.

Me and my girl in our matching vacation dresses bought the day before in a local Koh Samui shop.

After our wonderful day on the boat, we decided to eat at the restaurant in Kanda (Rockpool Restaurant).  They had some interesting evening entertainment serenading us to help celebrate the Lunar New Year.  Owen and I were not sure how many of the group were ladies or if they were all part of the famous Thailand lady boys that often entertain tourists.  Either way, it was a pretty average performance!!

Entertain at Rockpool Restaurant.

Entertain at Rockpool Restaurant.

Isabelle and Oliver liked sitting up at the big bar table overlooking the ocean at Rockpool restaurant.  Owen took this cool shot of the wind capturing her hair!

I like this photo of the wind in Isabelle's hair.

I like this photo of the wind in Isabelle’s hair.

Even though we were in a private villa, we still had some of the amenities of a hotel/resort.  When we returned from dinner on Lunar/Chinese New Year, we each had a fortune cookie and a delightful little colorful purse with a shiny new coin in it.  A very nice touch from the resort!

New Year gifts

New Year gifts

Thailand is a beautiful Country.  The food is delicious, the people are welcoming and friendly, the air and the ocean are clean (relatively!!) and the pace of life is relaxed.  We all enjoyed a very relaxing holiday here and will definitely try to return to visit another area of this wonderful part of the world.