Archive | China RSS feed for this section

YEAR IN REVIEW – Our Trip around the World

27 Jul

YEAR IN REVIEW – OUR TRIP AROUND THE WORLD

After:

* Visiting 14 countries, 52 cities and…

* 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

* Taking 30 flights

* Riding on 5 trains

* Bumping around on 26 different busses

* And….sleeping in 54 different beds The Watanabe-Swagemakers family is back in Canada.

To reflect, appreciate and let our world experiences settle in, I did a family interview to get everyone’s perspective on the past year. As this journey has ended, a new one is beginning: we are moving to Bangkok, Thailand in September! As a family, we are thoroughly thankful for this past year (an amazing dream come true), and super excited about our new, upcoming life in Asia. We can only wish (and encourage) everyone to pursue their dreams – it makes you come alive in ways you didn’t know were possible.

Thanks to you all for following our adventures on Facebook, and on our blog (http://yolomomonthgo.wordpress.com) – your enthusiasm (even when you despised us as we were posting sunny beach pictures of Thailand during one of the worst winters in Canada) has meant a great deal to us. So, dank je wel, muchas gracias, thank you and merci!

I will try to keep writing about living in Thailand but now we are signing off to spend some quality time with family & friends…Y.O.L.O everyone!

IMG_1162

1. BEST MEMORY OF THE COUNTRIES WE VISITED:

CANADA

Anthony: Driving around Newfoundland in an RV made me proud to be a Canadian. The natural landscape is absolutely stunning.

Rose: Lobster feasts in Nova Scotia with grandpa Jichan, James & Ayako. The kids skinny dipping in the ocean at “Happy Beach”.

Emile: Catching the big codfish with Captain Dave in Newfoundland.

Last Blog_Emile Fish NFDL

Felix: Very peaceful RV travel around Newfoundland; you can sleep anywhere you want.

 

HOLLAND

Anthony: Great weather with Oma and Opa in August, as opposed to our many visits during Christmas holidays over the years. The B&B in Maastricht where, without the kids, Rose and I awoke each morning to a breakfast of classical music, linen tablecloth and lekker Dutch treats.

Rose: Seeing my parents show Emile & Filou their country of heritage for the first time….Such joy! Eating herring up-side down, tasting delicious cheeses, climbing windmills, riding bikes in the beautiful countryside, going to the Aalsmeer Flower Market etc.

IMG_0134

EmileThe best was my 10th. birthday celebration with Opa and Oma. And I loved eating all the delicious food.

Felix: Spending amazing times with Opa & Oma. Eating kroketten and Dutch cheese.

 

FRANCE

Anthony: Emile heading off to the supermarket by himself (his independence was starting) and returning not only with a baguette but also a Parisian accent!

Rose: Strolling the local food markets and re-living France memories with the love of my life. This is where it all started!

Emile: Eating Japanese food while dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Last Blog_Emile Dancing Eiffel Tower

Felix: Playing in the beautiful parks of Paris, especially the play park in le Jardin du Luxembourg, one of papa’s favourites.

 

CHINA

Anthony: Walking the labyrinthine streets of the Dong Cheng area of Beijing where there were tons and tons of people walking and eating at all hours of the day. “Shuffling” was the only way to move through the crowds. And rock climbing, it all started in Yangshuo!

Rose: Hiking the wild and most preserved part of the Great Wall of China while taking in the stunning scenery (China & Mongolia). Such a privilege to walk on this incredible structure & piece of history!  And gliding down the beautiful Li river on a bamboo raft in Yangshuo – taking in the stunning Karst mountain scenery.

IMG_0404

Emile: First time rock climbing experience, great food & friends.

Felix: Running ahead of the family on the Great Wall and getting my head shaven.

IMG_4740

VIETNAM

Anthony: First morning in sweltering Ho Chi Minh City, the first taste of Vietnamese coffee knocked me over. By the end of our month, I was making my own and loving it! Pho soup on the streets of Hanoi with Emile and riding a motorcycle in crazy traffic!

Rose: Enjoying the peaceful beach life in Hoi An and riding a motorcycle on the Hai Van Pass – right into the clouds.

Emile: Living through the aftermath of Cyclone Hayan; one of the world’s biggest hurricanes every recorded (lots of rain and wind).

Felix: Everything, especially eating Pho Soup!

 

CAMBODIA

Anthony: Filou getting chased by a monkey at the Angkor Wat temples! Sleeping in a tree hut in the middle of the jungle at the incredible Jasmine Valley in Kep, and helping make a new roof for a family in need in Siem Reap.

 Last Blog_Cambodia_making roof 2

Rose: Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat. These temples are truly one-of-a-kind magnificent! And going by boat to gorgeous Rabbit Island in Kep.

IMG_2242

Emile: Tarzan jumping into a beautiful river in Kampot.

Felix: Driving around Phnom Penh with Mr. Key, our amazing tuk-tuk driver

 

THAILAND

Anthony: Booting around on motor scooters, on the left side of the road! The ocean water being almost too warm. Rock climbing with locals and visitors from around the world. Christmas day boating and snorkeling around the islands. New Year’s eve on the beach – kids stayed up until 1am – barely! Hanging with our dads in and around Chiang Mai.

Last Blog_Thailand boys

Rose: Too many great memories – can’t choose one: Christmas Day exploring the stunning islands around Krabi by boat. Riding the back roads of Chiang Mai on a scooter with my 75 year old Dad (and having both grandfathers spent 2.5 weeks with us), seeing the children’s commitment to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) where we volunteered; an incredible love for animals (elephants, dogs, cats etc.) came to light and….Dancing my way into a new year: 2014 while lighting & lifting lanterns into the sky…projecting that one day soon we would come back to this amazing country. Our two months here were paradise!

Emile: Amazing people, fun on motorcycles, and the awesome experience of helping the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Thank you Lek for the amazing work you do to save these beautiful animals. I am going to adopt one (or a dog at your shelter).

Felix: Swimming in the pool at the Best Western. Playing with Zack & Sara on the beach and eating the incredible foods, such as garlic chicken on rice.

 

MALAYSIA

Anthony: Penang and Fiji were tied for hottest places we visited. Fortunately, both had pools. Incredible vegetarian food right outside our apartment – ate lunch there every day after discovering it. Kids’ first music lessons with Nelson near Island Plaza, something which has given us a lot of joy and connection ever since.

Rose: Exploring the amazing street art of Georgetown.  And eating some incredible street food: what a wonderful mix of cultures and tastes, you can find in Penang!

Last Blog_Street Art Malysia

Emile: Going to the amazing ESCAPE climbing park to celebrate Ian Minton’s birthday (my new friend from the US).

Felix: Starting to take music lessons for the first time: now I love to play the piano!

 

NEW ZEALAND

Anthony: Filou playing non-stop piano in every hostel we visited. At that time, he only knew 2 songs: Mary Had a Little Lamb and Happy Birthday. Just imagine. Great mountain bike ride in Rotorua, stunning scenery and sparking my interest in trail riding.

Rose: Seeing the geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and learning about the fascinating Maori aboriginal culture. For the first time eating lamb that I actually liked! 

Emile: Cool geysers!  Eating delicious lamb, and taking a nice walk around the Auckland Harbour.

Last Blog_NZ

Felix: Incredible poi dance at the aboriginal Maori show.

 

FIJI ISLANDS

Anthony: Definitely the impromptu and incredible dinner with local Japanese eccentric, Taku Murai. In his self-designed house mixing both Fijian (think ventilation) and Japanese features (think sliding walls), he prepared us a feast. After dinner, he shared his philosophy of life with us, much of which was written in English and Japanese all over his wood, unpainted walls. These are the experiences you cannot find in guidebooks. 

Last Blog_Fiji Emile and Japanese man

Rose: Being invited by a Japanese man to his house. He promised that he would prepare us a meal we wouldn’t forget. And so he did – scrumptious sushi dinner and interesting conversation with this eccentric, lovely man! And lots of fun pool time.

Emile: Funny Japanese guy and cooking with Seria, making a delicious parrot fish dish.

Felix: Building a fort on the beach and the Japanese man.

 

USA

Anthony: Airport reunion with mom and James, kids screaming and jumping for joy. Family bowling and everyone’s body gestures to help guide the bowling ball. After a delicious Mexican meal, singing Karaoke in the bar, complete with cowboys, line dancing and lots of twang! We sang the Bare Naked Ladies.

Last Blog_US_Welcome Airport

Rose: Hiking the Santa Monica Mountains – enjoying a nice pic-nic lunch and seeing crazy YiaYia (grandmother) still climbing trees to make the kids happy!

Emile: Having fun jumping in the trampoline park and bowling with YiaYia and Nuno.

Felix: Playing in the park with YiaYia and Nuno.

 

PERU

Anthony: Great community in Cusco. Buying the kids their first musical instruments – game changer for their progress. The restaurant owner beside our apartment with gold stars on her teeth – fashion without function? Machu Picchu and other incredible Inca sites. Climbing La Rocca with other families and our guide, Tiffany. Oh, and altitude sickness at 3300 metres during the first week.

Last Blog_Peru_Maks

Rose: Taking part in a traditional Depacho ceremony – giving thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the abundance she provides us each and every day – surrounded by some amazing friends. Spending 3 days on the edge of the Amazon making a commercial for Scotia Bank …and of course, exploring the stunning archeological site of Machu Picchu.

Emile: Making great friends such as Kane Crawford and learning Spanish.

Felix: Having lots of fun with the many friends we made and hiking the hills around Cusco.

 

BOLIVIA

Anthony: Seeing Lake Titicaca as we arrived in Copacabana – reminded me of how much I love water. Our snail-shaped house at Las Olas Hostel. Oh, and the killer llama there – could tell by his gaze. Snow storm during our tour of the Salt Flats, French tourist falling through a hole during a snowball fight with the kids, sleeping in winter coat, gloves, etc.

Rose: Taking incredibly fun pictures on the Salar de Uyuni  (Salt Flats) and taking a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, Copacabana to a floating reef village.

IMG_1365

Emile: Long but beautiful hike on Isla del Sol.

Felix: Uyuni Salt Flat – we took fun pictures and I scooped up lots of salt.

 

ECUADOR

Anthony: Hanging with Filou in Quito while Emile suffered through chicken pox and Rose tended to him. The incredible lightness of being, after yoga sessions in Canoa. Getting into World Cup frenzy with Emile, talking schedules and stats and of course watching the Dutch win their first 4 games. Beautiful beach in Canoa and truly wonderful people there, locals, expats and travellers we met.

Rose: Yoga mornings on the beach with Leanne & bonfires with friends… Of course HUP HOLLAND, and let’s not forget PARAGLIDING!!!

Last Blog_Paragliding Shot

Emile: Cheering for the Dutch. World Cup frenzy!!!

IMG_1729

Felix: Learning to surf on some amazing waves.

           

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Anthony: Snorkelling through the incredible, glass-like water, being a guest in another world while holding Emile’s hand

Rose: Being the first person in the family to see a white-tip reef shark that was swimming right below me!  I screamed loudly so that everyone could swim back and see him too, but they were too late – it was a real big one too! And having a sea-lion play and swim all around me and the kids…so much fun!

Emile:  Snorkeling with the turtles and sharks

Emile Turtle 

Felix:  Playing with the sea-lions, and playing soccer with David and Martin.

 

2. WHAT WAS THE SINGLE BEST MEAL YOU ENJOYED, AND WHERE WAS THIS?

Anthony: Very difficult, but if I must: Pho Ga on the streets of Hanoi with Emile for $1.50. For each of our 2 nights there, we took a foot massage, followed by the best Pho we have ever tasted.

Rose: Ginger Crab in Kep, Cambodia overlooking the beautiful ocean.

IMG_1767

Emile: Morning Glory (green vegetable dish) in Thailand.

Felix: Noodles in China.

 

3. WHAT WAS YOUR WEIRDEST EXPERIENCE OR OBSERVATION DURING THIS YEAR?

Anthony: I saw anti-corruption messaging on billboards, TV, magazines and newspapers in virtually every country we visited. And at the same time, I was following news of scandal, misappropriation of public funds and dishonesty at every level of government in Canada. Corruption in government is, alas, universal. The difference is the degree and the level of transparency.

Rose: Seeing a skinned dog hanging up-side-down in a Chinese food market (during my cooking class market tour), and learning that many petdogs are killed each Fall as it’s a delicacy on menus during that time of year.  So sorry for the loss of all your dogs ahLong and Jessie!

Emile: Eating Guinea Pig in Peru.

Felix: A lady in a village in Hue, Vietnam grabbing my private part 3 times! Just to be friendly (bit of a crazy custom)!

IMG_1023

 

4. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITY COUNTRY TO VISIT AND WHY?

Anthony: Overall, Thailand had the most checkboxes. But really, every country created unique experiences and memories for us.

Rose: Thailand without a doubt! The amazing hospitality of the Thai people, the scrumptious food, the stunning beaches and mountains, the fun of getting around on motorbikes and the SUN, SUN, SUN!

IMG_2658

Emile: All of them: every country had something special.

Felix: Thailand – cause the food always has a little kick to it and you can swim around some beautiful islands.

 

5. WHAT WAS YOUR SINGLE MOST FUN, EXCITING/THRILLING ACTIVITY?

Anthony: Rosie, you’re killing me – boiling it down to one thing is tough. But I realized that Vietnam had a number of thrilling experiences. Driving through the huge, jam-packed roundabouts in Danang on a motorbike en route to the stunning Hai Van Pass was a nail-biter. Then there was the adventure Emile I took to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, including early morning bus with Vietnamese Karaoke, getting swindled at least twice and seeing a motorcycle death along the way. And once there, we did deep water soloing – climbing rocks without a rope over water – that was also pretty thrilling. Then of course, we returned to you and Filou in central Vietnam only to be evacuated from the beach to an inland hotel because Typhoon Haiyan was coming towards us. So the most thrilling “activity” would have to be Vietnam.

Last Blog_Vietnam Emile & Maks Motorcycle

Rose: Riding a motorbike in Thailand in my bikini – and trying not to hit an elephant – and motoring on a motorbike in the absolute insane traffic of Vietnam where lights or traffic rules do not exist! Paragliding in Canoa, Ecuador and swimming with sharks, huge tortoises and sea lions on the Galapagos Islands.

Emile: Paragliding in Ecuador.

Felix: Climbing up on tall, funky looking climbing walls, playing laser tag, skating and going to the science lab at Kid’s World in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

6. BESIDES FAMILY AND FRIENDS: WHAT WAS THE ONE THING YOU MISSED MOST ABOUT HOME & THE ONE THING YOU COULD NOT HAVE DONE WITHOUT ON THE TRIP.

Anthony: Missed most: I didn’t realize how much I missed the clean and green spaces of Toronto until I got home. The world is not so proper and organized. Couldn’t have done without: Besides my co-travellers? My iPhone. Might sound trivial but it was my camera, my connection to locals and folks back home through phone, email and social media. I could have survived with half the clothes, my guitar and my iPhone alone.

Rose: Missed most: Fresh green salads with lots of yummy things in them. Couldn’t have done without: Earplugs; the world is an awfully loud place…and my I-phone for pictures.

Emile: Missed most: Sushi, Greek and Indian Food. Couldn’t have done without: I-Pod to read and contact friends.

Felix: Missed most: Canadian Summer Camp. Couldn’t have done without: My mom.

IMG_4263

 

7. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT TRAVELLING THE WORLD?

Anthony: I learned that there are many, many different models for how people live and work and that around the world, some folks actually build their work around their lifestyle – foreign concept for us in the West. I consider myself a tolerant person but I tried even harder not to snap judge those who come at life from a different perspective and who have made choices different from mine.

Rose: Our “once-in-a-lifetime” travel experiences have made me live more in the moment.  They’ve also shown me to value friendships more and be more accepting of others – as people from all around the world have accepted our family this past year and showered us with their kindness. I have learned to have deeper compassion – as it is amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. How can you not care? I also hope that we as a family have lost our sense of “entitlement” and that from now on, we will appreciate that the truly important things in life are not material items, but the creation of unforgettable memories with those you love!   Also, I learned that world schooling is amazing (although I have a whole new respect for teachers) and that travel brings out enormous creativity in children. And finally I have learned to appreciate that there are many ways in which to achieve work-life balance and enjoy life!

IMG_2941

Emile: That I am very lucky to have what I have!

Felix: I never thought Asia would be so poor and that you can make nice friends all around the world.

 

8. WHAT NEW THINGS HAVE YOU TRIED DURING THIS TRIP

As the list would be very long, here is a family recap:

A = Anthony, R=Rose, E=Emile, F=Filou

Family: Paragliding, swimming with white-tipped fin sharks, huge turtles, sea lions, penguins, rays and other amazing marine creatures, eating guinea pig, sitting in a cave mud bath, swimming in a hot & cold geyser stream, floating on a bamboo raft down a beautiful river surrounded by Karst mountains, dancing on stage in front of the Eiffel Tower, going out on a night boat to see fire-flies, rock-climbing and deep-water soloing, eating cricket cookies, flying on a 6-seater plane, volunteering at an amazing Elephant Park.

Last blog_Emile Paragliding Selfie

Plus for….

Anthony: Let’s just say that I am now a Spanish-speaking rock climber and yogi who has reconnected with his musical sensibilities and enjoys reading somewhat esoteric French novels. Oh, I have tried, and succeeded, in not wearing a tie for a year!

Rose: Blogging, learning to deep-sea dive, be an actress in a commercial, riding a motorcycle on the left side of the road, in insane traffic with no rules, with a child in the back, preparing to be evacuated for a hurricane, learning what world and un-schooling is all about, taking a Chinese and Vietnamese cooking class in the local countryside.

Emile & Filou: Learning to surf, zip-lining, fishing a 30LB lake fish (E), learning to play the guitar (E) and piano (F) and sing, performing music on stage, presenting world travel to a group of Dutch school kids (E), cheering on the Dutch soccer team like never before (E), standing up in the back of a pick-up truck that was driving fast, making a bon-fire by myself (E), learning Spanish, hand-weaving a bracelet, poi dancing (F), skinny dipping, holding a live lobster, taking a Vietnamese cooking class (made a delicious curry – F), riding on a FAST motorcycle with no helmet while being squeezed between mom & the driver (F), learning to compose my first original song (F), karaoke singing, volunteering in a dog shelter, collecting starfish out of the ocean, sleeping in a hotel completely made out of salt, being chased by a monkey (F) and getting our first massages in Cambodia and Thailand.

Boys Massages 

9. DESCRIBE WHAT THIS PAST YEAR HAS BEEN LIKE FOR YOU. WAS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE?

Anthony: On the surface, it was an unforgettable experience of new places, new friends and tons of discoveries, both geographic and gastronomic. But below that surface, I think we will realize gradually how the year has taught us to communicate better, to appreciate more and to contextualize our life through a broader perspective. As a parent, one of the profound takeaways was of course sharing these experiences with the boys, discussing their impressions and watching them learn and develop. Virtually everyone we met was excited about how such a trip would shape them as men. And while I, too, am eager to see how they develop following this year of privileged family time, there’s a part of me that just wants to hold on to those moments of holding their hand while walking on a beach in a far off country somewhere in the world.

IMG_1601

Rose: I only had one major goal for this year and that was to experience, learn and grow as a family: to create unforgettable memories for a lifetime. This year has given me all that and sooooooooo much more!

Emile: It was so much more exciting – and we made so many more friends than I expected!

Felix: Exactly what I expected. Very best year of my life!

 

10. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT STARTING A NEW ADVENTURE IN BANGKOK, THAILAND?

Anthony: I’m inspired and grateful that we have found a way to combine the adventure of travel and so-called normal life. Thailand holds new opportunities for growth for all of us: the kids in an international school (or any school, for that matter!) and Rose and I starting a business in the ASEAN region. We are also fortunate that all family members are unselfish and lovingly supportive of our decision.

Rose: Just thrilling…A new start which will once again bring many new learnings, challenges and incredible joys.  Thailand, here we come!

Emile: Can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome!

Felix: I am excited about going to Lycée Français International de Bangkok as this school has a science lab, track & field, pool etc. Here I will be meeting lots of new, international friends.

IMG_3243

11. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHERS ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS?

Anthony: I don’t have any advice. While I realize this year of travel was a big deal in many respects, for me it was just something we needed to do. The tour itself was truly amazing, but I don’t think that our decision to do it was amazing. It just felt right for our family at this time, and so we went with that feeling.

Rose: As one who LOVES to travel and enjoys being on the water, this quote sums it up for me: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Emile: Just do it. It’s awesome…make the most of it!

Felix: Following your dreams will make you HAPPY!

With incredible thanks and gratitude to Anthony, Emile and Filou for their exploratory and open minds. You guys have made this world travel experience for me what it was; a life-changing, incredible journey that I will carry in my heart forever. You are the loves of my life. Now and always!

Last Blog_Family Pic Malaysia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

CHINA, The mountains and rivers of YANGSHUO

4 Nov

 CHINA, The mountains and rivers of YANGSHUO

Yangshuo, a small town in southern China, most known for its beautiful KARST mountain scenery (karst topography is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of layers of soluble bedrock such as limestone or dolomite.  South China is a major Karst area in the world), was our next destination in China.  The major appeal of this area is three-fold – to cycle the area, float the gorgeous Li River while taking in the breath-taking mountain and rice field scenery, and to climb the peaks (Yangshuo is one of the top 5 climbing destinations in the world and many climbers hang out here for months to perfect their skill).

IMG_0659

We stayed at the most perfect eco-friendly, home-style run villa called The Stonebridge Inn http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/The-Stone-Bridge/Yangshuo/53001?sc_sau=sfab&sc_pos=5 This super bright, clean and inviting hostel was located in the valley – just outside the busy town centre – overlooking farmers’ rice paddys, mountains and pomelo orchards (a pomelo is a type of large, delicious grapefruit).  This inn is run by the nicest and most hospitable husband and wife team you’ll ever meet.  ahLong (Australian) and his wife Jess (Chinese) know what foreigners and first-time visitors to China need; a delicious breakfast (with best Muesli ever!), some good directions on what to do in and around town (ahLong will even drop you off at the bus station or ride into the mountains to see that you are going in the right direction), help with translations and your laundry, that quickly starts to pile up, and even play “mommy” and take care of you when you are feeling a bit under the weather (Thanks a bunch Jess!)!

Image 2

Jessie and ahLong, our wonderful hosts at The Stonebridge Inn, Yangshuo

Our first day there, we were excited to take the 1.5 hour ride on a bamboo raft down the Li River. This outing did not disappoint as the scenery was gorgeous – unfortunately the kids were a little tired from travelling and the calm movement of the raft put them to sleep for most of the ride! But no sweat – this gave Anthony and me the chance to chat alone a bit, take lots of pictures and have two cuddle bunnies on our laps. The end of our raft ride was in Xing Ping, a little, historic town where we had a nice lunch by the river (the green, local vegetables with garlic sauce has quickly turned into the boys’ favorite dish!).

IMG_0646

IMG_0634

Li River Bamboo Raft Ride

 IMG_0685

Delicious green vegetables with garlic

Next it was onto cycling into the mountains. Unfortunately, we chose a slightly wrong day for this activity, as it was the first day of China’s Golden Week (a week of holiday for the Chinese where everyone travels!). It took us over an hour to get out of our small town as bikes, motorcycles and cars where whizzing by us – and coming directly at us from all directions!!!  Emile very quickly pointed out that if he could ride his bike in this kind of holiday traffic in China, he could ride it anywhere (so true!). It was a miracle we made it out unharmed– and so quickly, we needed a break to recoup. We stopped at mountain village attraction that showed the life of local aboriginals. At the dance performance finale, the boys were “attacked with kindness” by the girl performers who didn’t want to let them go until they all had a picture taken with them (much to the chagrin of the boy performers who moved Emile and Filou along once they felt they had had enough attention – too funny to watch this male dominance at work!)

IMG_0600

Little aboriginal Chinese children

Photo Booth Library

With Chinese gong

IMG_0606

Boys styling it the Chinese way

Image 1

Emile and Filou with Chinese girl performers!

Among other attractions in this cycling area were Moon Hill Mountain, a hill with a natural arch through it that Filou and I climbed (800 large steps)! Filou was convinced there was jade to be found on this mountain so in true adventurer style, we stopped several times to dig! We didn’t find anything but our reward was a motorcycle ride back home (a first and thrilling experience for Filou who had never been on one, let alone together with his mom and driver all stuck together, and without a helmet – o the things you do in other countries)! And then there was the Mud Cave & Hot Springs that I indulged in with the boys one afternoon – slightly smelly but super fun to float on mud in a beautiful cave!

I have quickly come to love and appreciate the members of a Facebook group called, Families on the Move – a group of avid travellers that take their families on the road for 6 months or more and provide advice to one another about travel in various countries (some have sold all of their belongings and travel continuously – and because of it, are the best travel guides you’ll ever find!).  Through this group, I got to meet Sonja and her lovely family from Vancouver who, like us, set out to travel for a year with their children.  When Sonja, her husband Mike and their children Emma and Jacob arrived in Yangshuo we were all very excited to meet them (the kids were keen to have some English playmates) – and we all clicked instantly. Sonja invited me to a Chinese cooking class she was taking and of course I was game.

We met a sweet, 20-year old girl Chinese girl called Mona in the heart of town. She first took us to Yanghuo’s local farmers market to guide us through the many varieties of Chinese vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. And that is not all you see –if you dare to go to the end of the market, you see all kind of animals being killed on the spot – and when I was pointing to an skinned animal that hung up side down – thinking it was a small pig, I was explained it was a dog.  So, yes indeed the Chinese eat dogs and cats – and even the local water rats.  ahLong explained to me that he lost three of his pet dogs in three weeks! – as poachers were targeting the area and would come over lunch time – when the Chinese sleep –  to scout for dogs to kill and sell at the market!  We were told that people are hungry here so that this is indeed a reality (ps: I will spare you the picture of the dog)!

IMG_0789

Yanshuo’s farmers market

So we quickly moved on from the market and drove 20 minutes out of town. In the beautiful countryside, the Yangshuo Cooking school had a lovely set-up in a farmhouse where we learned to cook the most delicious dishes; bok choy in garlic sauce, spicy cashew chicken, beer fish (a local speciality), stuffed mushroom caps and tofu balls, eggplant in oyster sauce and some delicious pork stuffed dumplings!  So much food we made in a very short time (as cooking in a wok is all about timing, temperature and speed!).  So with very full bellies, recipes in hand and a great satisfaction, we went home that night!

IMG_0813

IMG_0822

Chinese cooking class creations

During our days in Yangshuo, Anthony went to a rock climbing café, where he met the real nice owner called aBond. It turned out that aBond is the number one rock climber in China, sponsored by Adidas to climb all over the world (with his girlfriend Ting – also a force to be reckoned with and sponsored by the same brand).  This goal-driven 25 year old has the big mission to turn China into the number 1 rock climbing destination in the world (something that one day is achievable as the country has fabulous mountains and a growing interest in this sport – with still so many potential local followers).  Abond is building a great community with his rock climbing café, rock climbing hostel and adventure company & gear.  Needless to say, Anthony chose him and his girlfriend to take us on our first rock climbing expedition.

IMG_0725

Filou at the RockAbond climbing wall

 Image

Picture of Anthony with rising climbing superstar Abond

Our beginner mountain was called Swiss Cheese – you can probably imagine why – the many holes make it easier for beginners.  After the initial explanations and equipment checks (ABCDEFG – A:    B: belt, C:  D, E:   F: Friends, G: Go) Emile was eager to be the first to try, and with little effort reached the first mountain top. Filou needed a little more encouragement and Ting proved to be a brilliant coach – she just wouldn’t take no for an answer or bring him down.  After several “I can NOT do this”, he also reached the mountaintop – and was flying with pride (and a high five and candy from Ting). Now, he cannot stop talking about climbing and wants to do it more!  While I was quite happy to be the official photographer, Anthony also really loved his first experience and climbed three different climbs at the hands of aBond….There is now talk about more climbing in Vietnam (where we are as I write) and in Thailand over Christmas!

 IMG_0892

Filou with Ting, his fabulous climbing coach

IMG_0896

So with this great experience we say good-bye to the lovely little town of Yangshuo.

We will remember you for:

– Your most amazing scenery of mountains, rivers, rice fields and yaks.

– Your wonderful markets where you sell many delicious snacks (especially vegetable dumplings) and beautiful things (the best were your scarves and $7 RayBan glasses) and the craziness and charm of West Street where we savored many a coconut drink, smoothie and passion fruit.

IMG_0452

–  Café China where enjoyed wonderful food and made great friends (the daughter of the café owner was crazy about Emile!  Note to Marsha: Emile gave her one of your Canadian penny necklaces and she is still jumping for joy!)

IMG_0721

 –  Your killer $12, one-hour massages that brought such relaxation and comfort

–  Your people that seem to be able to sleep anytime and anywhere (see the guy spread out on his motorcycle sleeping by the road at rush hour – sound asleep!)

IMG_0787

– Your insane traffic that comes from everywhere – but somehow everyone knows how to share the road!

–  Your squatting toilets, some without doors and almost all of them without toilet paper

–  Your (to us), crazy eating habits of dogs, cats and water rats!  We are sorry you are so hungry.

–  Your gorgeous karst mountains that we had the pleasure of climbing (hard to find a second climbing spot more beautiful!)

–  Your beautiful Li River that we loved cooling down in, after a 33C day!

IMG_0830

–  The kindness of your people – we thank you for making us feel so safe, welcomed and treated like stars! (our Chinese cooking instructor told me that children that major in English get the mandate to practice the language with foreigners, and are instructed to take a total of 100 photographs of those they chatted with!).

And with Yangshuo, we say good-bye to a wonderful month in China. Via bus, train and 2 planes, we will arrive soon in Vietnam!

 

XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

22 Oct

XI’AN; one of China’s four great ancient Capitals

From Beijing, we moved by overnight train to Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province located in the middle of China and one of country’s oldest cities (Xi’an is one of China’s four Great Ancient Capitals).

The kids were quite excited to go per sleeper train (about 12 hours) – although the arrangements were rather small (2 tiny bunk beds) and a little cramped for my long Dutch legs – it was a great first, overnight train experience (the train is really a great way to see the beautiful and interesting countryside!).

Anthony was invited to speak at the EuroAsia Economic Forum in Xi’an where he was presenting on Innovolve’s exciting low carbon housing work in Latin America.

IMG_0356

Anthony presenting at the EuroAsia Forum in Xi’an, China

As part of the conference we were staying at the luxurious 5-star Hilton Xi’an (http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/china/hilton-xian-XIYHIHI/index.html).  To have super comfortable beds (with 5 choices of pillows), fluffy bathrobes, a bath to soak in and a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, were real treats after several nights in hard bunk beds.

IMG_0474

Lobby of the Hilton Xi’an Hotel

Our first day, we were offered a complimentary conference tour of the Terra Cotta Warriors Factory. We misunderstood, as we thought we were going to the coveted museum & site– and we probably would have skipped this tourist trap – but in the end is was quite interesting to visit the place where they make the beautiful replicas of these world famous warriors (the ladies who make the replicas go through years of ceramic studies!). Apparently, the replica statues are made from the same clay as the real warriors in the ground and full life-size ones can take up to a year to make (and yes….we were weak, couldn’t resist– a nice, small copy of a Warrior General is being shipped to Canada  – we hope this souvenir will arrive in one piece!).

IMG_0336

IMG_0477 

IMG_0352 

Filou with life-size replicas of the Terra Cotta Warriors, at the factory where they are made

IMG_0483

The real Terra Cotta Warriors site is of course the main reason why many visit Xi’an and we were also quite excited to explore this phenomenon.

In 1974, farmer Yang Zhifa found a piece of old terracotta as he was digging a well.  What he dug up was the first warrior of the now world-famous Chinese Terracotta Army (a selection of 2000 year-old Qin warriors, chariots and horses depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China).  It was absolutely incredible to visit this impressive, large historical site that has now turned into a must-see museum.

When you enter the complex, you walk into a large Pit (they have about 3 pits in total). Pit 1 is the largest excavation pit of the Army and the most impressive one – it is also the easiest one to see as it is the only one in bright light (some of the warriors were found with colours on them – red, blue, black & yellow tints – that disappeared when dug up and exposed to light.  Therefore, Pits 2 & 3 can now only be seen in darkness).

IMG_0551

IMG_0546

IMG_0557

At Pit 1 of the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum

In the Pits, we saw the warriors still in the clay and surrounded by the walls they were found in – several of them in full condition – while others are mere fragments of horses, warriors and wheels of chariots.  The figures vary in height and dress according to their roles (the largest and most impressive being the general). It was truly mind-blowing!

Our guide told us one funny story about the farmer who found this historic treasure. When Bill Clinton came to visit Xi’an and wanted to meet the farmer who dug up the national treasure, the Chinese government prepped him to say a few word in English.  “How are you”? “Thank you” and “Me too”.  When the farmer met the former US President, he was so nervous that he said; WHO are you, instead of HOW are you. So Bill said: “I am Bill Clinton, President of the United States”.  The farmer was confused as he expected “I am fine” in answer to HOW are you – so he asked again: “WHO are you”?, so Bill said: ”I am Bill, husband of Hillary Clinton”.  So the farmer answered: ME TOO!

Everyone had a good laugh and the Chinese still to this day, very much like Bill Clinton who was quite amused by the whole thing!

The children were also quite amused when I rented some bikes with them (Filou and I on a tandem) and we rode 1.4 km on the ancient city wall of Xi’an.  This beautiful, ancient wall that surrounds the core of Xi’an is the most complete city wall that has survived in China. It was quite special to ride on top of this beautiful piece of architecture – but it has to be said that the ride was quite a bit more challenging and longer then we expected (it was also incredibly hot).  But we are troopers and the views both inside and outside the city wall were worth it.  The bikes were not like good solid Dutch bikes though and we had some nice red behinds and hands to show for our adventure!

IMG_0520

IMG_0522

Cycling the Xi’an historic city wall

On our way back from our bike tour, we walked passed several locals selling various pieces of jade, local rocks and coins. Filou was absolutely thrilled to find a small piece of Jade and Emile was super happy to add an old Chinese coin to his collection.  We found a very sweet Chinese lady who made the beautiful pieces into a necklace that the boys don’t seem to want to take off (Filou has learned that Jade is as valuable in China as diamonds are in Canada so he feels that he is walking around with a diamond around his neck – so precious!).   So with “diamonds” around our neck we left Xi’an and headed for the airport to make our flight down south to the mountain retreat of Yangshuo.

 

CHINA-1, Beijing; a city of many surprises

21 Oct

CHINA, BEIJING – a city of many surprises

China – Beijing, a city that houses 22 million people and one of the 7 wonders of the world that many dream of visiting (us four included)! We have come to know Beijing as a city that has a new surprise in store for you each day, so let me tell you a bit about them.

The first surprise we encountered was our hotel called Hutong Ren, This little place of rest boasts only 8 rooms and is located on a side street of the very crowded and lively Dongcheng area. The staff gets it perfectly – after a day of intense sightseeing (where the masses of people, smells and sounds overwhelm you, and take you by surprise each time) – you need a place to kick back & get back to balance. So at Hutong Ren, we relished the wonderfully calm background music, the delightful assortment of teas, the laughter of the sweet & helpful girls that work there and the enthusiastic welcome of Blackie, each time we entered back “home” (Emile & Filou particularly liked this super sweet dog, who would crawl on their laps for cuddles or run and play with them).

IMG_0512

Staff of Hutongren Hotel with “Blackie”

The Dongcheng area is one of the city’s interesting districts where you can get a great, first glimpse into Chinese culture. It is a maze of charming, small streets  & alleys (hutongs), which boast an interesting mix of buildings, food establishments and stores. Side by side you will find designer stores (where you can buy the most beautiful silk scarves, bags and clothing) and little food and nick-nack establishments (some completely falling apart, others doing their best to cater to the tourists). And the city seems to have enough of those – apparently about 2 million foreign visitors and 60 million domestic travellers visit Beijing each year). So, you can probably imagine how busy those streets were!

The Dongcheng Hutong area particularly comes to life at night as it is then when many street sellers crowd the hutongs and you can buy anything from silly toys (and the Chinese do LOVE their toys – teenagers walking around with wooden noise makers that we would consider buying for toddlers or putting silly, fuzzy animal ears on their heads as a headband), to meat or crickets on a stick!  Each night we went out, we saw something different and it was always a great adventure to decide what to eat, what to do to cope with the masses and not get run over by one of the many honking motorcycles, food carts or bike taxis, or how to overcome the incredible smell that is apparent is some of the streets (the exploration was so worth it as it was super fun, but the smell is one that I still find hard to forget)!

IMG_0310

Dongcheng District; the cultural and commercial centre of Beijing 

Our first night, we enjoyed a nice hot-pot – boiling pot of water in which you cook your own vegetables and meat (a good first choice!). Very close to the restaurant, we saw a barbershop with a young, funky hairdresser who seemed to know what he was doing.  Emile & Filou had talked for a while about getting their hair cut off (practical look for on the road that would require little maintenance and a crazy experiment that isn’t as easily tried at home).  However, we were surprised that Filou was dead-set on getting his buzz cut that first night!  But, we happily obliged his enthusiasm and entered the shop.

IMG_0320

Emile with the hot pot

During the whole haircutting process, Filou laughed hysterically! And once his new look was completed, he showed similarities to a little monk – but he was happy as pie (and still is).  Emile (a bit jetlagged) was not quite ready for this adventure and got a regular haircut. Although two days later (after some encouragement from his little bro – who wanted to become the bald brothers) he went back and did the same.  The boys’ new look (which is a bit more in line with Chinese kids), has proven to be somewhat of a defense mechanism as on many occasions, the kids are being stopped, stared at or taken a photograph of (some Chinese have just never seen Caucasians before). It should be said, that the attention does make them feel like little rock stars!

IMG_0332 IMG_0047

IMG_0426

The Bald Brothers with their funky hairdresser in Beijing

Of course Beijing’s incredible history is mind-blowing and we joined the masses in visiting some of the city’s top attractions. The changing of the guards & flag lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square was interesting in that we thought there to be a major festival due to the thousands of people – however we later were surprised to learn that it was just a regular day!  The Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace and home of the emperors for over 500 years – from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty) was incredibly impressive in size and history, and the Summer Palace (the largest and best preserved imperial garden in China) was a beautiful, serene place, that the boys most enjoyed.

IMG_0447

At Being’s Forbidden City

At the Summer Palace, Filou focused in on a local artist who was making grasshoppers out of bamboo leaves. He was charming the man with his attention and after sitting with him for a while, a nice Chinese couple appeared and kindly offered him one of these crafts (they were just so taken by his enthusiasm).  Emile, too was lucky to get one – and he happily gave his away to one of the super-cute little Chinese girls he met in the park later that day.

IMG_0067

Summer Palace

IMG_0080

Filou with his grasshopper made out of bamboo leaves

798 Art Zone is Beijing’s leading concentration of contemporary art galleries and shops (and many wonderful little cafes). This thriving artistic community, located in the Chaoyang District is housed in various 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings of unique architectural style. It was a place on Anthony’s hit list!

IMG_0217

So we spent a lovely afternoon browsing through many interesting galleries and funky shops. We even came across an outdoor rock concert (with a terrible sounding band!) – but in a cool courtyard with fantastic vibe.

We left the arts vibe and enjoyed our best and cheapest meal in Beijing when we found some 5-6 food carts lined up outside on the street (the four of us feasted for about $5).  When waiting for our last portion of delicious grilled vegetables, tofu and meat – Emile almost got run over by the food cart when it suddenly packed up, rushing away in great hurry when the police arrived.  Quite the nightly adventure that the boys still talk about – illegal street food was definitely a new experience for them!

IMG_0384

The guy that made our delicious “Illegal” street food

But the highlight of our stay in Beijing was undoubtedly our walk on the magnificent Great Wall of China.  We picked a perfect day for our adventure as it was slightly cloudy and therefore not too hot for our big walk.  We chose to go to the “Wild Wall” (the portion of the wall between Jinshanling and Simatai). This portion is still in its original state (has not been rebuilt or renovated like some other portions) and is a lot less touristy due to its more distant location from the city (about 2.5 hours outside of Beijing – instead of Badaling which is only 1 hour away).

IMG_0246

Little guy on the Great big Wall

We usually like to do things on our own, but we chose to go with an organized tour for this one (as we didn’t want dishonest cab drivers to ruin our day). We learned that the Great Wall is in fact a discontinuous network of wall segments (and not continuous as many think) built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern border. This UNESCO World Heritage site is over 20,000km long, and took millions of people (soldiers, common people & criminals) over 2000 years to build.  It is the longest man-made structure in the world, and seeing all those big rocks, it must have been a tremendous job to create this masterpiece (without any tools but bare hands)!

IMG_0268

Once arrived, we chose to take a cable-ride up to the #10 Tower on the Great Wall – from there, we would make the trek to tower #20. Frankly, I was ignorant in thinking that the Great Wall of China was an ancient structure that once arrived at, could pretty easily be walked upon. O, was I wrong – it is 4 days later now and my calves are still in serious pain – best stair-master ever!  There were several portions of the Great Wall that we could only climb, using both hands and feet –as double strength was needed to pull ourselves up on the incredibly steep staircases (nothing for you mom!).  But it was little pain for the privilege to be walking on this most incredible, historic structure.  Gazing out, there was stunning nature all around us – looking left were the mountains of China while paying attention on our right, and we were looking at the gorgeous scenery of Mongolia.

IMG_0253

It is without saying that the Great Wall of China needs to be preserved at all cost and no littering of any kind is allowed (including the human bathroom kind).  If you have to do your business (with no facilities anywhere in sight) you need to climb down from the Great Wall to find yourself a secluded spot. And of course, our little boys with small bladders had to (they thought that this unfortunate incident made for a cool story though, as now they can say they did “pipi” in Mongolia!).

IMG_0271

We met several sweet locals on the Great Wall – encouraging us to keep going and trying to sell us some souvenirs. But we were happy, taking our memories and our many “snaps” with us from this most wonderful day.

IMG_0279

So the surprises of Beijing were many;

– The serenity of our hotel amidst chaos

–  The incredible masses of people everywhere & the traffic that knows absolutely no rules (motorcycles zoom all around you when you cross the lights on a green – even cars don’t respect the signs and go when they feel like, even go against traffic all the time!)

–  The many different smells & sounds (loud and not always pleasant)

–  The mix of designer shops & little merchants everywhere

–  The childlike interests of the Chinese and their love for toys & mega drinks

–  The variety and multitude of food (some extremely spicy!) – we even discovered some fabulous Japanese restaurants in Beijing when looking for a change of cuisine

–  The unexpected safe feeling, moving around the city

–  The incredible history of each Beijing attraction

–  The differences in restaurant service (waiters will stand by your table immediately and wait till you have made your selection without giving you a few minutes to ponder the menu and/or dishes come out when ready – and never at the same time for four people dining together!)

–  The deliciousness of Beijing’s illegal street food

–  The incredible beauty and steepness of the Great Wall of China!

–  The behavior of the Chinese, which we at once consider to be rude (spitting, making loud noises during meals, pushing – an 80 year old Chinese woman gave me a mean push when she felt I was taking too long trying on a scarf in front of a mirror) and very kind (laughing and staring at us, being thankful for the opportunity to take pictures of us, giving us gifts, assisting us in showing how a meal is properly eaten or giving us directions, helping us make the best of our stay in their fascinating city)!