An “Aussie” Christmas

The kids have always wanted to take a trip in a RV.  What better country to tour around in a RV than Australia, right?  Merry Christmas Australia!  Here come the Christensen’s…

Now Boarding

Now Boarding

We have a couple days to spend in Sydney before we pick up the campervan in Brisbane.  Sydney is a really cool city if you can just get past the cost of everything.  Bottled water costs $3 and my jaw dropped when I saw that diet coke cost over $4 each.

We found one free thing in Sydney and that turned out to be the most helpful if it’s your first time in Sydney like us.  A free walking tour of downtown Sydney starting at the Town Hall and ending at the Sydney Harbour.  We learned a lot about the history of this country on the tour and found it was easier to decide where we wanted to go next as well.

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We took the ferry to Manly Beach, walked across the bridge, watched street performers for a bit too, but nothing was as entertaining as our next tour guide by the name of Ethan.  He had many of his own stories to share with us and even offered to take a picture of our family.  Too bad we couldn’t get his boss to take the picture so he could step in it with us.IMG_8967

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Nothing prepared us for the next adventure of picking up our Campervan that we planned to drive, eat, and sleep in for the next two weeks.  Here we are trying to eat our first lunch after picking up the van.

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As you can see it’s a little cramped for the five of us.  Not knowing where we will sleep come nightfall and what choices we will have for meals is a little nerve-racking then add the fact that Greg’s driving this on what we call “the wrong side of the road” with me navigating.  It’s day one on the road and I’m not sure we will survive the day let alone the week or next.  Another factor we didn’t take into account was that it takes twice as long to travel as we planned so the farthest we drove today was to Noosa beach on the Sunshine coast.

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Noosa has a really nice beach with warm water, warm sand, and warm people.  There is also a nice National park we enjoyed our walkabout in and the kids had fun playing in the water.

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It was also the hardest night on our trip with us adjusting to sleeping in a campervan while it’s thundering and raining outside, everyone wanting to sleep in the same bed together, and a knock on the door early in the morning to tell us we parked the van in the wrong area so we quickly drove away.

Mon Repos was our next stop where you can watch loggerhead turtles nest on the beach.  There was a nice trail from the campervan park to the turtle park where we saw our first kangaroos in the wild.  We didn’t get a chance to see the turtles though because another thunderstorm moved in and we ended up calling a cab to take us back to the campervan where we realized we had left the windows open and our bedding got wet.  This was the night we second-guessed our decision to rent a campervan.

Snorkling on the Great Barrier Reef is next on our bucket list.  Here in this town of 1770 we can take a cruise out to the reef to snorkle, sit in a semi-submarine to view the reef, and ride in a glass bottom boat to tour the island of Lady Musgrave.

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 This was my favorite part of the trip to Australia.  Maybe it was because the snorkling was so good, maybe it was because I knew I didn’t have to sleep in the campervan for a few days, or maybe it was because I finally got in a date night with Greg while the kids chilled in the cabin.  Either way it was the highlight for me.  This is the fun little cabin we stayed in.

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On our way to the Crocodile Hunter’s Australia Zoo we stopped at the Glass House Mountains.  We saw some fresh macadamia nuts off the side of the road and had to stop.  I still think it’s awesome everywhere we stop the locals will ask the kids “How many more sleeps til Christmas Mate?”  It’s still hard to believe it’s Christmas time when it’s the middle of summer here.  Other things I notice that are different is that everything closes early except the drive thru liquor stores and the sun comes up way too early around 4:30am.

I don’t know if it’s the sun we never see in China, the feeling of summer in the air, or just the fact that we are on vacation that we feel the need to act like kids again but here we all are trying out the zipline at the visitors center in Glass House Mountains.

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The Australia Zoo like everything else is overpriced but we did enjoy the time we spent there and I can’t think of a better way to see the wildlife Australia has to offer if you can’t see them in their natural environment.  This is where we got to feed the kangaroos and pet a koala plus see the famous Crocodile show.

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We booked a Holiday Park for Christmas near the theme parks on the Gold Coast but it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.  These parks have everything: pools with waterslides, a mini-golf course, theatre room, laundry facilities, cafe bar & restaurant, even a jumping pillow, but they also have a LOT of people.  Everyone in Australia booked this park for Christmas I think.  We tried to make the best of it by purchasing some camp stools to sit on outside the RV and we even thought if we put up the tent that came with the RV we might have more room.  Don’t laugh but this is our broken tent and us sitting around in this park wondering what we are going to do here on Christmas day.  Afterall we have this spot booked for 3 days.

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We decided to cut our loss and take the chance that there is something better for us down the road.  It’s a little scary not knowing where we will sleep on Christmas and what we will eat with everything closing early on Christmas Eve but I’m not sorry we kept going.  The drive was absolutely gorgeous.

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We drove as far as Ballina Bay where we found another cabin to sleep in for Christmas.  Ballina is a small, quiet town, with a nice beach and even some familiar stores like Target and Kmart.  Believe it or not Santa even found us here in this small town.

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We skyped our family back in the States and spent the day on the beach for Christmas.  We loved watching the dolphins come into the bay at night too.

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We got another chance to see more dolphins the next day when we stopped at Port Stevens/Nelson Bay area.  We found a great camping spot right next to the sand dunes in the Myall National Park.

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This area is where we spotted some dingo tracks and actually saw dingos in the wild.  This picture is a picture of a dingo we saw at the zoo but the dingo we saw from the vehicle had something that looked like a platypus in it’s mouth and we saw another crossing the road too.

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This is the last night we will sleep in the campervan so we are pretty happy.

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We returned the campervan in Sydney and picked up a rental car for the weekend.  We are happy to be back at the Marriott with clean beds, a hot shower, and WIFI.  The buffet breakfast was great and then we were off to see the Blue Mountains.  Is there anywhere more beautiful than this place?

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Our last day in Sydney we spent at Darling Harbour and Maroubra beach.  Mckaela took some great pictures at the Aquarium.  My favorite is the shark one.  Check out those teeth.

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I don’t think we will ever forget this trip to Australia.  It will always be a Christmas to remember.  We decided in the end that we were glad we booked the campervan.  The kids would forget some of our adventures in a rental car but something tells me they won’t forget the experience of the campervan.  My favorite quotes of the vacation were when Olivia said “Ethan, we eat turkeys turkeys don’t eat us.” and when Greg said “We should be hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve not laundry.”

IMG_1642Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


How to feed a Crocodile in Borneo

Once in a while we get a break from China and it’s much too expensive to fly to the United States for a short time.  We took a vote and the kids wanted to go to the beach and Greg misses the mountains so I found a place for both beaches and a big mountain.  Yeah…Everyone wins!

Borneo is the third largest island in the world.  What is unique about this island is that three countries are represented here: Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  The tallest mountain in South-East Asia is also located on this island so off to Sabah we go.

This is the 2 bedroom pool villa we are going to stay in for a week and that is the mountain Greg is going to climb.

The kids jumped in the pool right away…

I was so happy to see the sun setting again I wasn’t sure I would ever want to leave this place…

The excitement wears off quickly when we realize how far away we are from everything and the food here is terrible and much too expensive.  The resort also wants a lot of money for activities.  We decided we would be better off getting a rental car for the week and going into town to eat.

Here’s our cute little rental car Greg drove on what we would say is the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car.  Everything in this car is opposite of what we are used to except the gas pedal and brake.  Here we are at Mount Kinabalu National Park where Greg needs to register for the climb.

Although it is possible to climb the mountain in one day most climbers take two days staying overnight at Laban Rata (3,272.7m above sea level) in order to catch the sunrise at the top in the morning before the clouds move in obscuring the views.  Greg did it all in one day.  He left the resort at 5 am and was back before 5 pm.

  

The South China Sea is quite warm to swim in.  We thought we would find a good snorkling spot on one of the islands here.  We took a boat out to a deserted island where the snorkling is supposed to be good but the water was too rough so we spent the day here alone and I mean ALONE!  It’s just us and the island.

What does one do on an island all day without food, bathrooms, or people?  I’ll tell you what we did…

We swam in the ocean, made sand castles, collected sea shells, played Tic-Tac-Toe and still had more than a couple hours to take a nap before it was time to depart.

   

We saw a sign for a Crocodile Farm and thought if it was cheap enough we would stop and check it out.  So glad we did because it ended up being the most memorable experience of our trip.  Now if you see a sign like this when you enter a Crocodile farm you know you’re in for an adventure for sure…

 I mean to tell you right after you enter the park you can get your photo taken on a fake crocodile while a real crocodile waits just a few feet away.

There are somewhere around 1,000 crocodiles in this park and for about 60 cents you can feed the crocodiles a raw chicken.  I really hope this video works because I took a lot of video but this is the only one I could get to upload.  There are also some living chickens running around the park too I noticed in case I needed to grab one of them to feed the crocs before they got one of us.

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We may have survived the Crocodile Farm but now I’m not so sure I we will survive the flight back to China.  Yes all these people are going on the same plane back to Chengdu with us.

 

Welcome back to China!


The Many Faces of Ethan in Bali

Ethan has been nicknamed “The Photo-bomber” at our house because he likes to photo-bomb any picture we take.

This week spent in Bali, Indonesia was no different.  Ethan poses for every picture.

It sure was nice to spend the week on this beautiful beach in Nusa Dua.

  The water was so clear and warm we all enjoyed playing in the ocean here.

Olivia loved the snorkling here…

 

Ethan wanted to stay on the glass bottom boat where he could drink his Dad’s cold coke before he noticed.

Turtle Island was a lot of fun for the kids too.

 

  

A romantic dinner on the beach was a real nice way to end the day.

The next day the girls & I took a class with a local Silversmith learning how to make sterling silver jewelry while the boys went on a bike tour.

I really liked making jewelry with my girls.  I will never forget this time spent with them.

 

 The boys had fun riding bikes through rice terraces, seeing an active volcano, visiting a coffee plantation, and eating lunch with locals.

 

I’m not sure we will ever forget this coffee plantation either.  This is where they make coffee beans from an animal’s poop and sell it for a ton of money.

The animal eats some berries and poops them out. Someone collect the berry poop and sun-dries them until they are ready for roasting.  This is the most expensive coffee bean in the world ($100/lb.) and you couldn’t even pay me to try it either.

 

Other highlights of our trip to Bali included the Monkey Forest and Ubud.  I loved seeing the arts & crafts in Ubud and the monkeys are pretty fun to watch.

  

We also visited some temples and statues but I gotta say I find myself looking more at the beautiful views than the actual temples and landmarks.

 

  

We had a 24 hour lay-over in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia on our way home so we took advantage of that time riding a bus from the airport into the city where we saw the famous Patronis Towers, toured what we could of the city, and enjoyed a dinner at Chili’s.   Thought we had died and gone to Heaven with the Bottomless chips & salsa and fountain drinks we greatly miss by living in China.

 


Learning Kung Fu at Shaolin Temple

I don’t remember much about the fieldtrip I went on with Mckaela when she was 5 years old but somehow I think I will never forget this fieldtrip I went on with her at the age of 13.

 

With 35 students, 5 teachers, 2 parents, and 2 tour guides we take a short 1 1/2 hour flight to the Henan Province where the Shaolin Temple, Forest of Pagodas, and Mount Songshan are located.  Here the students will spend 5 days studying basic Kong Fu skills, hike across the mountain of Songshan, and visit the Longmen Grottoes before returning back to Chengdu via hard sleeper overnight train.

We learned that there are over 30,000 teenagers that live at the Shaolin Temple Martial Arts Training Center where students practice the ancient Kung Fu skills that monks have been practicing for over 1,500 years.

   

It is said that a group of monks lived in this secluded area in 540AD when an Indian Buddhist priest named Tamo traveled to the temple and joined the monks living there.  Tamo saw that the monks were not in good physical condition.  Most of them spent hours each day hunched over tables where they copied handwritten texts so they lacked the stamina needed to perform most of the basic Buddhist meditation practices.  Tamo taught them movement exercises designed to both enhance chi flow and build strength.  These exercises were based on the movements of the main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography (e.g., tiger, deer, leopard, cobra, snake, dragon, etc) This is now known as the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu.

After the students each wrote in their reflection journals it was our turn to study basic Kong Fu skills such as boxers, leg, fortune, hand, and steps.

 

I think the kids had more fun playing at the monks playground but at least it’s still exercise, right?

   

The Forest of Pagodas is a graveyard for Buddhist dignitaries.  The layer and shape depend on the Buddhist status and prestige during his lifetime.  There are over 200 pagodas here and the tallest one has seven layers.  If I don’t make it off this mountain I would rather have a 7 tier pagoda than be cremated which is what they would do with me in Chengdu…just saying~

Mount Song is one of the five Sacred Mountains of Taoism in China.  It’s summit is 4923 ft. above sea level and the views are spectacular.  It’s just a couple thousand steep steps to the top and not one tree was cut down to make the path so you either go around or duck under…

   

The trees are pretty cool though.  Some even have an eye like they are watching you.

 Just a few more steps to the top…

then you can finally smell the blossoms.

  

The coolest part of the whole mountain is the backside.  If you have Acrophobia you may want to skip this part.

   Made it!  Guess I won’t need that pagoda after all.

On the bus again we are on our way to Luoyang where the Ancient Longmen Grottoes are located.  The Longmen Grottoes is one of the oldest and finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art housing tens of thousands of statues in little caves but let me tell you this place is CROWDED.

   

 

One of the unique things about this trip is the students got to interact with other students their age at a local Chinese school.

 

Playing basketball is always a good ice-breaker.

I still don’t get the obsession with autographs but Mckaela was asked to sign her name again….

and again….

and again.

I can’t believe this is the only picture I got of the food we ate this week but it’s the same thing every meal.  There’s always rice, a few plates of vegetables fried in a lot of oil, meat is questionable, and there was a bottle of coke and sprite at each table that the teenagers guzzled down quickly usually.  This picture was taken at a restaurant called The Roasted Duck.

Just 22 hours now on a hard-sleeper train and we will be back in Chengdu.

This is the group of girls I’m assigned to.  I couldn’t have asked for a better group to travel with.

 What it looks like in our boxcar…

I was surprised to see the fruit trolley but not a bit surprised to see the typical Chinese snack trolley come by.

A lot of students said the train ride home was their favorite part of the trip.  Mine was being in the mountains at Shaolin Temple and hanging out with Mckaela all week long.  I felt more like an overgrown teenager than a chaparone on this trip.  I’ve never seen more dedicated teachers in my life and the students are all so fun!


A Weekend in Xian

Xian is home of the famous Terracotta Soldiers and a short flight from Chengdu.  (if you don’t mind riding a bus from the airport terminal to get on the airplane way off in left field and then sitting on the tarmac for another hour)

A stinky taxi cab ride to the Shangri-la only to find out it’s the wrong location and then another stinky taxi cab ride and we finally make it to the other Shangri-la that must be the knock-off brand of the hotel chain because this Shangri-la isn’t in a great location and we had quite a few problems but here we are and we are more than ready to see these Terracotta Warriors.

This is my interpretation of the most famous tourist site in Xian.  The first emperor in Chinese history, Emperor QinShihuang spent almost forty years having these Terracotta warriors built because it was believed that the artifacts in one’s Tomb would follow one to the afterlife and this army would protect him there. (even though they are made of clay)  Well in 1974 (the year I was born) some local farmers discovered these sculptures while digging for a well.  The kneeling archer was the only warrior still intact…

The site now has three pits and a musuem open to the public. Pit 1 is the largest pit with over 6000 life-size warriors and horses though only about 2000 have been restored and are on display, the others still lie fractured in the pit.

Pit 2 has over a thousand warriors.  The reason they don’t have any heads is because the emperior died before that mold was done so the workers weren’t required to finish the job.  (I’m not sure how they are going to protect him in the afterlife without their heads?)

Pit 3 has seventy two high ranking warriors and horses and is therefore believed to be the army headquarters.  The kneeling archer, the standing archer, the cavalryman and his horse, the mid ranking officer, and the general can all be purchased as a souvenier in about any size you want.

Day 2

There is an ancient city wall in Xian that is said to be the oldest and best preserved wall in existance.  I was reading in my hotel guide that you can ride 5 bikes side by side on the wall easily so I thought we should put this theory to the test.

 

On our bicycles built for two we traveled 8.5 miles around the wall together as a family.  How fun is that?  The views were great and we even heard music playing along most of the wall.

 

As cool as these places are that we get to see we continue to struggle with the culture in China.  I haul my own toilet paper, food, and hand sanitizer with us everywhere we go.  Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and KFC are the only western options for food most of the time and there are very few local restaurants we like.  Last time we tried a local chinese restaurant Ethan claimed we were all turning Chinese on him.  (He doesn’t like any of the Chinese food)  I think this struggle we have is extremely hard to tackle while on vacation since we run out of Mom’s snacks the first day.  In Xian we tried to have a pizza delivered to the hotel one night and ended up overpaying for a cold pizza, a taxi cab ride to deliver the pizza, and everyone is still hungry.  We tried the KFC but we could only choke down the fries and a soda.  We also tried eating at the McDonalds and I can safely say I don’t care if I ever eat at a McDonalds again in my life.


Riding Elephants in Thailand

A National Holiday is upon us again and the kids are out of school for a whole week so Thailand here we come….

We can fly directly to Bangkok from Chengdu and then it’s just another short flight to Phuket where we want to ride elephants and play at the beach.

We stayed at the Ramada Resort in Khao Lak.  I liked that they picked us up from the airport and provided us with a wet towel service and cold water bottles.  Once we got to the resort they gave us freshly squeezed Orange Juice ~Yummy!

Our breakfast was included everyday and right on the ocean too…

Every night we tried a new restaurant for dinner and thought they were all good.  There was also a guy selling Thai pancakes filled with banana, nutella, fresh coconut or pineapple.  Whatever you wanted in your pancake for $1 ea.  We had to have one of those everyday too.

We all agreed that the most memorable experience in Thailand is riding on elephants.

There are around 4,000 elephants to be found in Thailand and it’s said that elephants bring good luck.  Riding an elephant might bring us some luck but I think it’s more likely we will be lucky to not fall off…

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I did think it was fun to ride on an elephant through the rainforest.  You can see up close how they harvest rubber trees in this region and then take a swim at the waterfall.

The kids liked feeding the elephants and Greg and I liked the fresh pineapple and coke they gave us after the ride.

 

The kids are still talking about riding the elephants but as I’m writing this they are reminding me of the leech’s we pulled off Greg and Olivia in the rainforest and our visit to the memorial for the Tsunami in 2004.

The kids were also excited to ride so many different forms of transportation while in Thailand…

We rode the skytrain to get from the airport to the hotel in Bangkok.  We also used the skytrain to get to the market, shopping centers, and then we took a tuk tuk to the pier.

 

 

The river cruise was an interesting way to see Bangkok too.

   

We didn’t see many boats at the floating market today but we only needed one to pick souveniers from…

 

It was nice to get out of China for a week even if it was Thailands wet season and believe me we saw plenty of rain there but we still went home with sunburns and a smile on our faces.


Playing in the water on Tiantai Mountain

The mountains in the Sichuan Province of China are completely different from our Rocky Mountains back home.  The last mountain I wrote a blog about had monkeys and a giant Buddha carved out of the mountain but Tiantai Mountain has some beautiful waterfalls and an obstacle course through water.

As the legend goes, Mount Tiantai used to be carried by a giant turtle, swimming in the ocean until a goddess cut off the turtle’s legs in order to use them to support the falling sky and she moved the mountain to the dry land of Southwest China so that it would not sink in the ocean.

Our plan was to drive to the top of the mountain and hike our way down the mountain but by the time we reached the top we didn’t have much time to do all the hiking trails.  The kids usually whine a little when we mention the word “hike” but this hiking trail was too much fun to complain.  First you need to cross over the river…

The views are so nice even this bride is having her wedding pictures done here.  The rose pedals are a nice touch don’t you think?

  We love bamboo rafts and we were lucky enough to have it all to ourselves today…

  This lovers chain game was too tempting to pass by.  Olivia and Greg decided to try it out.

Plan on getting wet because most of the trail is wet.


There are cool handmade sandals you can get quite cheap if you don’t come prepared.

There is so much creativity on this mountain. The water wheel, suspension bridge, tree-house, and swings just to mention a few.

    

 

By the time we made it through the obstacle course it was time to head home so we didn’t get to see the famous waterfall and natural bridge over it but that is one more reason to come back another weekend.