China: Spicy Pandas

We continued our exploration of Chinese culture and history in Chengdu, home of the pandas… obviously a highlight. Finally, we visited Chongqing, home of my maternal grandfather, where we embarked on the Yangtze River Cruise. We concluded with 1 1/2 weeks of relaxation in Japan for Cherry Blossom Festivals in Kyoto and Tokyo.

Chengdu 成都
03/26-28/16: Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, renown for spicy cuisine, and home to the giant pandas. Upon arrival, we took a walk to Chen Mapo Tofu for dinner. On our first full day, we volunteered at the Dujianyan (都江堰) Panda Rescue Center which housed 15-20 pandas. What a memorable experience spent in such close proximity to the giant pandas: sweeping the enclosures, feeding an injured panda, enjoying a photo op with a baby panda, and exploring the expansive grounds in our free time. The next day, we visited the Chengdu Panda Breeding & Research Base (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地) in town. This was a much larger operation with around 80 pandas, including the playful cubs in the panda kindergarten and red panda wilderness preserve. Afterward, we lunched and shopped at the Wide & Narrow Alley (宽窄巷) and also visited People’s Park (人民公园) in historical district of Old Town.

Chongqing 重庆
03/29-31/16: Chongqing is the starting point for Yangtze Cruises, former capital of the Republic of China, and hometown of my paternal grandfather. Thanks to immense hospitality of extended family, we were treated to sumptuous feasts of fine seafood, fancy delicacies and flowing wine. The welcome was overseen by my great aunt, an incredibly vibrant and sharp lady, who also managed to obtain special permission to tour our ancestral home, a hotspring now turned government resort with two museums where Chiang Kai-shek stayed overnight and the Chengchi University campus. Due to the upcoming Qing Ming holiday, we also stopped at the family cemetery to pay respects and observe ceremonial tomb sweeping rituals. The kids then enjoyed a class of soccer drills arranged by their great uncle. The next day, we visited the impressive Dazu Rock Carvings (大足石刻) with 50,000 buddhas and an 1,000-armed golden Guan Yin. On our final day, we explored the restored Hongya Cave (洪崖洞) mall and the pedestrian walkway near Liberation Plaza (解放广场). Of course, we had to taste the famous Chongqing Hot Pot. Such an incredible time spent with newfound family!

Yangtze River Cruise 长江游轮
04/01-04/16: We sailed the newly commissioned Presidents 8 Cruise down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang (宜昌). After skipping the first morning’s excursion to Fengdu Ghost Town (丰都鬼城), we crossed the Drunken Bridge and visited the Shibaozhai (石宝寨) Pagoda in the afternoon. The second morning’s excursion to the White Emperor City (白帝城) provided a glimpse to the historical setting for the Three Kingdoms Novel. In the afternoon, we embarked on a 3-hour outing on a Shennong Stream (神农溪) ferry then transferred onto a small wooden rowboat where we witnessed how the old boatmen pulled the boats by ropes. On the English tour, we met quite few families, including a number of young Star Wars fans. We purchased CD recordings of ethnic songs performed by the guides. On the final day, we took a bus up to the 3 Gorges Dam (三峡大坝) for the scenic overview of the locks, ship elevator, and hydroelectric dam. Due to a storm in Guangdong, our flight was delayed by several hours, so we were relieved when we finally arrived back in Shanghai, concluding our epic journey around China.

China: Gardens of Cultural History

We’ve traveled quite a bit but we finally made a long overdue trip to China. The burden to prepare for the trip felt heavier than usual, as we were returning to the land of our ancestry. Therefore you can imagine that our goals for this trip were unique. Beyond just educational enrichment and exposure to other cultures and first hand learning of geography, history, and culture, I hope to instill appreciation for and to connect with their heritage. At the same time, this is a bit of a scouting mission as well, since we’ve been considering do an extended immersion stay.

The total stay in Chinese was roughly 2 1/2 weeks, hitting 4 main regions staying 3-4 days each. We started off with the metropolitan city of Shanghai, where we met of with relatives of my maternal grandmother and also took day trips to the famed Suzhou and Hangzhou. Then, we flew to Xi’an home of the Terra-cotta Warriors where my daughter’s wonderful Chinese teacher via Skype gave us an insiders tour of the city. Next, we went to Chengdu, home of the pandas. Finally, we visited Chongqing, home of my maternal grandfather, where we embarked on the Yangtze River Cruise.

Shanghai 上海
03/20/16: Shanghai is a bustling metropolis, the most populated city in China, and my maternal grandmother’s hometown. We took a nice stroll down Nanjing Rd towards the Bund (外滩), where we met up with grandmother’s family. Her niece’s family hosted us for the rest of the day and the kids had a blast running around with her 7 year old daughter, who was technically be their aunt. After enjoying the turn of the century architecture along the Bund and the new developments of Pudong, we headed to the vibrant City God Temple (城隍庙) for lots of snacks and lunch at famous dumpling house Nanxiang where we had sumptuous soup dumplings. Afterwards, we explored Yu Garden (豫园), admiring the beautiful plants and layout. We finished off with a dinner feast, where met up with the rest of the extended family. I finally met my great uncle in person for the first time and learned about his impressive background in multiple languages and artificial intelligence. The hospitality and generosity was overwhelming.

Suzhou 苏州
03/21/16: Suzhou is best known for its beautiful gardens steeped with historical significance. We explored the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园), the largest and among the most famous gardens of all China. Afterwards, we strolled along the canal, down the ancient Pingjiang street (平江街). When we finally reached the dining area, we discovered a power outage in effect so most of the restaurants were closed. Due to exhaustion and jet lag, we settled for a simple noodle soup for lunch then took an afternoon nap. Once refreshed, we thoroughly enjoyed the visit Panmen (盘门) Garden and City Gate, conveniently located adjacent to the Pan Pacific Hotel.

Hangzhou 杭州
03/22/16: Upon arriving in Hangzhou by train, we headed for the Wansong Academy (万松学院) named for the snow pine forest setting where the Butterfly Lovers met. Here, we also learned about the Chinese imperial exam system. During lunch at the tea plantation, we tasted the freshly harvested, tender tea leaves known for their subtle flavors. Afterwards, we took a long walk around West Lake (西湖) from Yue Fei’s Mausoleum (岳飞墓) along the Bai Causeway to the Broken Bridge. While enjoying the lovely lakeside view and spring blossoms, we recounted the famous legends that took place around West Lake and Hangzhou including, of course, White Snake.

Xi’an 西安
03/23-25/16: Xi’an is the ancient capital of the Qin, Han and Tang Dynasties and famed site of the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑). Alexis’ former Chinese teacher graciously guided us around her hometown and instilled an appreciation for Chinese culture in the kids. After our arrival, we dropped by a restored historical center near the hotel and tried Shaan Nan food with a whole fish hot pot. On our first full day, we decided to visit the Shaanxi History Museum (陕西历史博物馆) highlighting artifacts of the region. It was such a dreary day, so we just made a quick photo stop outside the Wild Goose Pagoda (大雁塔) with the Journey to West monk. In the afternoon, the girls took a 7km bike ride along the ancient city wall from the south gate to north gate, passing the Bell & Drum Towers (钟鼓楼). We ended the day with a meal of beef & mutton dumplings, skewered meats, colorful cotton candy and other snacks at the lively Muslim Quarter (回民街). On our final day, we visited all 3 pits of the Terracotta Museum in the morning then had Shaan Bei food for lunch. Then the kids spent the afternoon playing until Alexis’ current Chinese teacher joined us for dinner.

China Trip: Reading List

The children have been studying Chinese language, culture, and legends for years and we added an intensive dose of Chinese history and biographies to the mix in preparation for our extended China trip. In addition to using the typical books and videos from our local library, I was particularly excited to find several excellent CNTV series and a Youtube animation channel that provided wonderful introduction our areas of interest, while also teaching the Chinese language. Quizlet also had some vocabulary flashcards that were designed for travel agents training.

The Chì-lin Purse : a collection of ancient Chinese stories by Fang, Linda
Cloud Weavers : Ancient Chinese legends by Krasno, Rena
The Emperor’s Silent Army : Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China by O’Connor, Jane
The Story of Silk : From Worm Spit to Woven Scarves by Sobol, Richard
The Legend of Lao Tzu and The Tao Te Ching by Demi

The Adventures of the Young Marco Polo – cute animated series about a young Marco Polo making the trip to China
Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven – animated version of the classic Journey to the West
Pandas: The Journey Home – excellent documentary on panda breeding and preservation
Up the Yangtze River – documentary of life working on the cruise ship serving foreign tourists

online videos
CNTV Travel in Chinese travel series mix of Chinese & English
CNTV Happy China travel series almost entirely in Chinese
China Animation Official Channel: Classic Fairy Tales (中国经典童话故事)
China Animation Official Channel: Festival Legends (中华传统文化故事·节庆篇)
China Animation Official Channel: Folktales (中华传统文化故事·民俗篇)

Ireland: Enchanting Emerald

We spent a shortened week exploring Ireland: learning about the Book of Kells, following the footsteps of James Joyce and St Patrick, as well as visiting other important historical sites. However, our most memorable moments were spent relaxing for an idyllic few days at a bed & breakfast on a working farm. The refreshing coolness and sparkling greenery of the countryside were welcomed contrast to the blistering heat we left behind in Italy. We came to appreciate its name of Emerald Isle and enjoyed our fill of daily lamb stew.

07/24/15: Upon landing in Dublin, we immediately started our tour by heading out to the Jame Joyce Museum, housed in the tower where Joyce stayed while writing his masterpiece Ulysses. Then we visited Sweny Chemist Shop, former pharmacy mentioned in Ulysses. The shop has become a collector’s bookshop but still sells the famed lemon soap that the character Leopold Bloom bought. We finished the day at Trinity College Old Library, visiting the lovely Book of Kells exhibit of illuminated medieval manuscript of Gospels.

07/25-26/15: Staying on Lawcus Farm was definitely the highlight of our trip. It was a charming piece of property, completely built by the owners. The kids enjoyed playing with animals, feeding the goats and pigs, watching the German shepherd puppy terrorize the chickens, and swimming in the stream with other visiting kids. We used that location in Kilkenny as a base to visitor neighboring sites. Climb up Blarney Castle to see the famous stone. Stopped at historic Rock of Cashel, coronation site of Irish kings and St. Patrick is known to have visited. Experienced re-enactment of dreadful conditions on replica ship that took emigrants to America during potato famine

Ring of Kerry
07/27-28/15: Quaint town of Killarney used as base for Ring of Kerry tour. Toured Powercourt Estates then lunched at charming Irish pub lunch afterward. Observed demonstration by Waterford crystal master cutter Sean Daly in Dingle. Drove along wild Atlantic Coast, passed ancient ruins and braved strong winds at the Cliffs of Moher.

Italy: Coastal Excursions

Between the exquisite food and rich history, Italy has always held a special place in our hearts. This time, we visited a few new spots, including Sicily, Capri, and the Italian Riviera. But we also returned to some old favorites, such as Amalfi Coast, Naples, and Venice, but this time with the kids in tow. In retrospect, we essentially traveled up one coastline to another on this trip.

07/01-05/15: We started our trip by visiting Sicily, the big island at the south end of Italy’s boot. Sicily is known for fresh seafood and locally grown produce, especially olive oil. From the city of Palermo, we went to see a Greek temple and amphitheater in Segesta and also some medieval towns with cobble stone roads, castle walls and colorful shops. Cefalu was a seaport town and Erice was up on a hill. Agrigento is known as the Valley of the Temples and used to be a large Greek city. It took several hours to drive across Sicily to reach Taormina, a beautiful city overlooking the ocean, next to the volcano, Mt Etna. We stayed at palace hotel where many movies were filmed.

Amalfi Coast
07/06-10/15: After a week in Sicily, we flew to the city of Naples, near another dormant volcano, Mt Vesuvius. We stayed across of the San Lucia castle and harbor, lined with lots of restaurants serving pasta with fresh cherry tomatoes and the best thin crusted pizzas. We took a hydrofoil, a superheats ferry, to the island of Capri. There we got to swim and enjoy more delicious food. After 2 days in Capri, Daddy rented a car and we drove along the Amalfi Coast and visited the cute towns of Sorrento, Positano, Ravello, and Amalfi. These towns are known for their lemons. It was super hot but fortunately there was gelato and granite ice everywhere. Back in Naples, we visited the National Archeological Museum and saw many old sculptures from Greek mythology.

Italian Riveria
07/11-19/15: Next, we spent a week along the Italian Riviera. First, we stayed at Porto Venere then took a ferry and trains to visit the 5 towns called Cinque Terre, where we played in the waters and tried different food. The towns are named Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Varnazzo, and Monte Rosso. Corniglia was really hard to reach because it’s built high on a hill and we had to climb 365 steps to reach it. We also stayed a few days in Portofino. The hotel had a nice pool overlooking the sea port below. For the final few days in the area, we stayed in Genoa, home of Christopher Columbus. We took a hop on hop off bus tour of the city and visited the Aquarium in the Old Port. We also walked along Via Garibaldi, an old street lined with many palaces.

07/20-23/15: We finished our trip with a few days in Venice. When we arrived at the airport, we took a water taxi through the Grand Canal then through some smaller canals to the water entrance to our hotel. As we explored narrow alleys and many bridges, we saw many shops with beautiful masks and glass displays. On Murano island, we visited a glass factory where we watched the masters blowing and shaping glass into a chandelier. On our last day in Venice and Italy, we took a relaxing gondola ride throw the narrow canals, under many bridges, and past Marco Polo’s house. We enjoyed a fancy meal with a 7 course tasting menu at a restaurant overlooking San Marco Square with the famous cathedral, bell tower, and Doges Palace.