Harbour cruise & creepy crawlies

We started the day with a harbour cruise. The weather was perfect for sitting on the deck in the sun taking in the sights. We got great views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, and cruised around the many bays and coves surrounding Sydney.

Next we visited the Sydney Aquarium, and it was excellent. There were all kinds of sea creatures on view, but the high points for me were the two large pools which had underwater viewing tunnels where you could see the seals in one pool, and sharks, turtles, and rays in another. You could stay for hours just watching them swimming around.

After lunch by the harbour, we went to Sydney Wildlife World, and checked out the wierd creatures that inhabit the island. First up were the creepy crawlies, where I lingered while the others moved swiftly on :) There were glow-in-the-dark scorpions, giant cockroaches, huge red ants, deadly spiders, stick insects, and more!

Next up were the reptiles, including the deadliest snake in the world, and Adam, Cora, and I got to stroke a baby python! The nocturnal section boasted strange large-eyed rodents of various shapes and sizes. Up on the roof there were koalas resting and eating eucalyptus, while further on there were several variants of kangaroo and walabee.

Our last stop was the tropical butterfly area, where the butterflies and people could mingle. My orange t-shirt proved irresistible to the butterflies, and a couple landed on me. A large blue-winged Ulysees butterfly stayed on my back for several minutes, and finally it had to be taken off by one of the staff. Cora got to hold it for ages before we left.

Rachel was meeting up with a Google colleague who had transferred to Sydney, so I brought Adam and Cora to see The Simpsons Movie. It was great, full of laughs, and “spider pig” had us chortling our way home :)

The Rocks and The Botanic Gardens

The weather was gorgeous today – although the sydney siders are wearing jackets, scarves and Ugg boots – its 20 degrees!

We stayed outside all day – we spent the morning and lunch in The Rocks, the old, convict part of the city – quite European looking with one alley only 1 meter wide – i was reminded of the snickerways in York.

The afternoon was spent in The Botanical Gardens – its right on a harbour and beautiful – although not as packed with specimens as the Irish version. Seeing European plants and herbs billed as exotic was fun!

We saw 100’s of fox bats in the trees in the garden – they are the size of crows and have red fur and are really active – creeped me out a bit actually.

Great day!

Sydney is lovely

After sleeping for so long yesterday we were all nicely refreshed and ready for some sightseeing in Sydney. Rachel’s suitcase had turned up at the airport but wouldn’t be at the hotel for a few hours, so while she went off to get a warmer jumper & shoes I brought the kids to the playground (again!). The Darling Harbour area is lovely, with lots of pedestrian areas linking the various waterside restaurants and shops. The pathways are interspersed with interesting water features, and you quickly forget the roadways overhead.

It’s wierd having a low, winter sun but temperatures in the high teens. The weather is really mild with clear blue skies, light breezes, and no humidity to speak of. It’s such a contrast with China, where the temperatures were in the low 30s with 100%+ humidity. It’s a relief not to start sweating as soon as you leave somewhere air-conditioned :)

Sydney also really highlights how crowded and full of noise China is. Looking back I realise that I was stressed out a little by the press of humanity in the Chinese cities, the sheer difference and alienness of the place, and the inability to understand the language. At the same time there were several aspects of China that were familiar, especially in Shanghai, and the whole place was fascinating.

Whatever the reasons, I am much more relaxed here in Sydney. It has a strong European feel, but with American overtones. It has a clean, compact city centre that feels safe and friendly. I really like it :) We decided to hop on the Sydney Explorer city tour bus to find our feet and get our bearings. Before long we found ourselves approaching one of the most recognizable buildings in Sydney, if not the world – the Sydney Opera House.

The Opera House is built on a headland which gives great views of the harbour and the other famous Sydney landmark – the Harbour Bridge. While the Harbour Bridge is the largest single span metal bridge in the world, and is impressive enough, the Opera House is something else entirely. It took many more years to complete than originally expected, came in at more than 10 times over budget, the original Danish architect fell out with the Australian government and has never seen the building in person, but his vision of sails in the harbour that was so revolutionary in the 1950s is still breathtaking.

We went on a guided tour of the building, and the interior is a striking mixture of polished concrete and natural wood. There are a couple of smaller stages, and the two main halls – the Concert hall and the Opera hall. We saw the larger Concert hall which is approached round the sides via staircases that feel and look like a cathedral, and the lobby is at the back of the building, but with great views out over the harbour. The hall itself is magnificent, and we were allowed in to listen to a school choir doing some rehearsing. The acoustics are supposed to be excellent, and they sounded great to my untrained ear. I think it’s a wonderful building, a real modernist statement without being a stark concrete box, and it thoroughly deserves its place on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

We ate lunch at the waterside on Circular Quay with the winter sun glinting off the water, fending off the scavenging seagulls. We strolled on up to the Museum of Sydney and spent an hour or so wandering around the exhibits. Adam & Cora had fun with activities prompted by a leaflet they each received as we went in, and the exhibits were interesting enough, and well presented.

We hopped back on the bus and travelled around the city, including crossing the Harbour Bridge. We saw most of the city centre and its environs, though it was dusk at this stage so it was hard to see some of the buildings properly. It seems like a lovely city.

We ended up back at Darling Harbour, and after a quick stop back at the hotel where Rachel’s bag had turned up, we went to yhe IMAX cinema to see the latest Harry Potter movie. It was AU$66 for us all, which was a bit steep to be honest. The movie wasn’t much bigger than most screens back home, and the 3D section at the end didn’t add much to the whole experience. However the movie was fine, enjoyable enough, and we returned to the hotel where the kids were asleep before long. Tomorrow we’ll continue exploring this lovely city.

Shanghai to Sydney

So, this was our first day without a set agenda and without our guide, Terry. We took his advice and headed off to Nanjing Road – the main, upmarket shopping st in Shanghai. We went by foot and started to melt by step 3! The humidity was incredible. The street was exactly what we expected – lots of western looking department stores and huge, Chinese neon signs. This was also where the trendier Chinese younger set hung out – i was beginning to think they didn’t exist. We headed out to the airport in the afternoon for our flight to Sydney.

Natasha mentioned that food came up and lot – and she is right. I had arrived in China concerned that i wouldn’t be able to get enough into the kids over the holiday – adam was fantastic, after a few days of just eating fried rice, he began tasting other things and is now a big fan of Chinese cooking – even the hot and spicey stuff. Cora was a different matter – she was only eating boiled rice …so, every second day we took her to what passes for western food here – bad, American fast food…..pizzahut, kfc and mcdonalds. She did lose weight on the Chinese leg – we all did actually. But in our case, it had more to do with sweating and fluid loss than anything else :)

The flight to sydney was a 10 hour job and was over night. Quantas have individual entertainnent systems and the kids acted like Santa had actually moved in to live with us! The psp’s were dumped and the systems put through their paces! The flight was beautifully uneventful and the kids slept for a good bit of it.

Hotel in sydney is lovely – and compared to the rooms in China, they are vast. Its right in Darling Harbour, which is a gorgeous Marina, shopping, restaurants and playground. The playground was immediately used by the kids – running off excess energy. We then headed for a couple of hours nap and slept straight through 14 hours, waking up on Tuesday morning!

Our spaceship landed today…

Our spaceship landed today in the form of The Oriental Pearl TV Tower. What an inexplicable building! We went up to the top “ball” and the viewing area at 264 metres to look out at the weird and wonderful skyline of Shanghai. There seems to be massive competition between the buildings to create the most unusual shapes and heights – i guess it comes as close as possible to an architects playground, where the sense of fun and the optical illusion is everything.

We also went to see The Childrens Palace – i had assumed this would be some plastic, playground monstrousity purpose built to bring on parental migraine! I merely proved that i still haven’t gotten China! It was a arts, crafts and general betterment “school”….teaching children from aged 2 logical thinking, musical instruments, Chinese opera and caligraphy. I was truely impressed by how disciplined the kids were – certainly if compared to mine where a 30 sec ad break in SpongeBob can lead to melt down!
Must admit i was a little uncomfortable visiting the school as it felt a little like intrusion. Saying that, 2 students aged about 12 year spontaneously gave us a musical recital on the piano and a local stringed thingie.

We lunched in the biggest shopping centre in Asia (everything here is biggest, highest, fastest etc.)….felt immediately at home here :) Ciaran tried to buy some shoes, but they only stocked up to size 8!

We headed to the Shanghai Museum and looked at priceless porcelain, furniture, traditional costumes, jade and ancient sculpture. All very impressive and beautifully displayed – but as usual, 2 hours in and feet were sore, legs hanging off and the ability to retain info had reached crisis point!

After dinner we walked along the Bund and looked at the lit up night sky – sadly ever to be associated with Tom Cruise and MI3. I think everyone in Shanghai was there – it certainly felt like 24 million people.

We have a day to ourselves tomorrow before heading to the airport at 4pm to fly to Sydney – we are thinking to the Jade Buddist Temple.

I have had a wonderful time in China, but must admit to looking forward, just a little, to being somewhere i can read signs, menus etc. I’ve also been really suprised by how much general attention Adam and Cora have received. We are asked for photos constantly and feel a bit like a tourist attraction ourselves!!!!

Shanghai

We had to get up early today to catch our flight to Shanghai, which only took about 2 hours. We said our goodbyes to Lucy at Xi’an airport, which reminded me of Stansted. In Shanghai airport there were few people around, especially at the baggage reclaim. We were all like “where is everybody?” – a first for our stay in China :) We met our local guide “E” (I’m sure that’s not how it’s spelt!) who told us all about her city as we drove into it.

Shanghai feels much more cosmopolitan than Xi’an and Beijing. It has some western architecture from when the city was under the control of European countries after the Opium Wars, and this is mixed with soaring skyscrapers on the opposite side of the river and traditional Chinese architecture in the Yuyuan Garden area.

After checking in to the hotel we drove down the Bund area where the western buildings mostly are. They could have been transplanted directly from a London street. Across the river are the modern skyscrapers, which are great – all different designs trying to outdo each other, and lit up at night in a multicoloured light show. We took a boat trip along the river which gave us a closer look at them. It also showed us the working areas of the docks, which frankly we could have done without.

Next we visited the area around Yuyuan Garden, which uses traditional Chinese architecture with flying eaves on the sloping tiled rooves. Picture an oriental version of Temple Bar and you get some idea what it’s like. Yuyuan Garden itself is a traditional Chinese garden, full of rockeries, pools, trees and shrubs, and wooden halls and walkways. The garden has a convoluted layout designed to increase its perceived size. It’s full of little details, and it’s no wonder it took 28 years to complete!

At this stage we were all hungry, despite it being just after 5, so our guides recommended one of the restaurants in the area. The food was lovely, and we polished off the lot – though Cora didn’t eat much. I think she’ll eat for a week when we get to Sydney! After eating we grabbed a couple of coffees from Starbucks and wandered around the streets. We were impressed by warnings we seemed to receive from people to watch our bags, until we realized they were asking us if we wanted to buy watches or bags :) We politely declined. We’ve bought enough already to last the whole trip!

We finally headed back along the Bund as dusk fell, and watched as the skyscrapers began their light show. This was complemented by a natural lightshow as a thunderstorm got going. Back at the hotel we chilled out, playing cards and watching “The Incredibles” on Cora’s PSP, with the sparkling lights from the TV tower glinting through our window. Tomorrow we’ll be going up there to get panoramic views of the city. It’s a remarkable building that looks like some kind of alien space rocket ready to take off! I can’t wait :)

A jigsaw of nightmare proportions

I have never seen so much rain in my life- it certainly rivals our June in Dublin…..it’s rained buckets continuiously since last night.

Still – that didn’t dampen our spirits today. We spent the majority of the day gaping in amazment at the terra-cotta warriors. Rows and rows of soldiers lined up in pits deep in the ground….with carts, horses, archers and generals. Some even had some of the original paint intact.

They were found smashed into 1000’s of pieces and have been carefully glued back together – a jigsaw of nightmare proportions! Buried, newly baked in 2200BC, they were smashed during a farmers uprising in 2000BC. They had a very short time whole.

We also visited a neolithic village – which was a good site, but more “typical” an archeological find for us than the warriors. The Chinese are excited about this site though as its only 1 of 3 neo sites they have in the whole, vast country. Interestingly, the neo society was a matriarchial – as it should be :)

We had our lunch in a traditional Teahouse – this was fantastic and offered 14 types of tea. No ceremony, but very pleasant.

We arrived back in the hotel very damp and tired – but, like the end of an Enid Blyton story, very happy.

Up early tomorrow to fly to Shanghai.

Xi’an in the rain

We awoke fairly early on the train, ensuring we had enough time to get ourselves sorted before arriving at Xi’an. I found the bed a bit hard, and didn’t get a good night’s sleep, but the overnight train was overall a fun experience.

The area outside Xi’an train station was packed with people waiting to meet the arriving passengers, but we found our local guide “Lucy”, who led us through the throng to our minibus. Our driver had parked outside a hotel, and one of the attendants prevented us leaving without paying for parking, despite the driver trying to persuade him with 5 yuan. After returning from paying the fee, the driver said something to the attendant as we drove past, and the row took off again. It could have dragged on if it weren’t for the fact that we were blocking the exit so someone else came over to move us on. It was refreshing to see some dissent for once!

We arrived at our new hotel without further incident, and had breakfast while Terry checked us in to our rooms. After eating we headed up to our rooms for some rest and much-needed showers :) We met up at noon and went to a local restaurant which specializes in noodles and dumplings. The food was really tasty, and Rachel and I tucked into the delicious noodles, dumplings, and other tasty dishes, while Adam and Cora made short work of the rice and sliced meats.

After the meal there was a demonstration of how to make dumplings, and everyone had a go. We saw how to make standard dumplings as well as the special ones used for new year’s eve that are shaped according to the filling. Adam and Cora chose one each to take with them – though they didn’t last too long before becoming shapeless blobs!

After stuffing our faces we visited the old city walls. They are still standing because after one of the Emperors moved the capital from Xi’an to Beijing no-one attacked the city walls any more. We climbed up the Southern Gate and had good views of the old city – only 3km by 4km. No tall buildings are allowed within the city walls, and new ones must conform to traditional designs. In contrast the buildings on the other side of the wall are tall modern skyscrapers, especially to the south. The wall is a great place to see the contrast.

The day was much cooler than those previous in Beijing due to the threat of rain. Sure enough the showers began just as we were about to hire bikes to cycle along the top of the wall. A combination of the weather and lack of bikes suitable to accommodate Adam and Cora meant we took an electric car along the wall instead. It felt a bit like cheating really!

Finally we visited the Muslim area of the city. Xi’an used to be the end of the Silk Road, so many middle-eastern traders remained, bringing their customs with them. We walked through a busy alleyway full of stalls that led to the mosque. While the mosque itself was closed to visitors, the courtyards and gateways leading up to it were open, and they were really calm and peaceful – a real island of tranquility among the surrounding commercial hubbub.

We were all tired from the early start and the train journey, so we returned to the hotel to take it easy before heading out to dinner.

Cora says…

I enjoyed making a dumpling today. I also liked the little horses on the market stalls. Trying to fly the kites was fun. I like the hotel we are staying in today. I liked the train last night because of the sleeping and everything. The kites are the best thing so far.

Adam says…

I like the hotel we are in here in Xi’an, it’s nicer than the one in Beijing and the beds are more comfortable. I enjoyed visiting the mosque today – it was different and interesting – and making the dumplings was fun. The train from Beijing was very fast and enjoyable. I also enjoyed flying the kites the other day. The Great Wall is still the best thing I have seen so far. Oh and I also enjoyed going along the top of the city walls today in the electric car.