Category Archives: Travel

Best Chinese Food Ever!

A few years ago, a teenager from our town traveled with her orchestra to China.  Upon her return, I asked about her favorite memories.  A big smile came across her face, and she said, “The food!”  She quickly added, “I love our local Chinese restaurant, but the food in China was so much better.”

While traveling in China with my family, I enjoyed lots of delicious food.  And with each great meal, I thought of that young lady.  I agree with her; the food in China is delicious!

We had a number of delicious and memorable culinary experiences in China.  While in Beijing, we stayed in an AirBnB apartment owned by an American family and run by Holly, a wonderful Chinese woman.

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

We told Holly how much we love dumplings, and she agreed to teach us how to make them.  She started with a trip to a local market, which I never could have found on my own.  Walking from our apartment, we ventured off the main road and turned into a small side street that became a walking path.  Eventually, we entered a nondescript building that held a bustling market filled with local produce and baked goods.

Then, we returned to our apartment where Holly led a cooking class for our family.  She taught us to make the filling, which included pork, cabbage, carrots, onions, spices, vinegar, and soy sauce stir fried in the wok.

 

Hollys Wok - Edited

Then, she taught us how to mix flour and water with chopsticks until the dough was firm and ready to knead.  Holly pinched off small bits, rolled them out, filled them, and cooked them in a pot of boiling water.

Rachel with Holly (2)

Then, we joined other Chinese friends from the neighborhood around the kitchen table eating lots of dumplings.  Delicious and memorable!

Noodle TeacherWe received another cooking lesson while in Beijing.  We went to Mama’s Lunch for a dumpling and noodle lesson.  Our gracious host and excellent teacher, Joyce, greeted us with tea and snacks before beginning the class.  We made regular dumplings as well as green dumplings with spinach water and orange dumplings from pumpkin water.  In addition to the traditional filling of pork and spices, Joyce taught us how to make a filling of scrambled eggs with chives.

 

 

We then shared a feast of boiled and fried dumplings.  Delicious!

Eating Noodles

In addition to our cooking classes, we enjoyed wonderful meals in two restaurants.  In Beijing, we shared a ten-course dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen that included five flavored eggplant, shredded lettuce stem, and black sesame ice for dessert!  The restaurant is located in a hutong, a traditional neighborhood with narrow alleys and courtyard residences.  The meal was pretty expensive, but it was a great treat for our family.

Menu Beijing

Finally, in Shanghai, we had a great meal of Xiaolongbao, soup dumplings cooked in steamer baskets.  We ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant chain with several stores around Shanghai and other cities around the world.  All dumplings have a thin skin and sixteen delicate folds, and they are filled with various broths.  We especially loved the pork dumplings and the crab dumplings.

Shanghai Dumplings

I still love Chinese food at home, but I have to agree with the young lady from our town.  These meals in Beijing and Shanghai were the Best Chinese Food Ever!

Group Dinner Plate

Journey to The Great Wall of China

I often have said that the journey is more important than the destination.  While visiting the Great Wall of China, I learned again how true this saying can be.  The journey to the Wall was fantastic, and while it did not top my joy of walking on the ancient structure, it was a great experience all its own.

Great Wall

When traveling, our family uses public transportation as much as possible.  Our trip to the Great Wall of China was no different.  And getting to the Wall by public transportation is very feasible, quite inexpensive, and a great adventure!  If you have the chance, skip the tour group and go with the locals!

We took the Beijing Metro to the public bus stop where we waited for Bus 877, which would take us to Badaling, the section of the Wall most visited by tourists and foreign dignitaries.  As a child, I remember seeing the 1972 picture of US President Richard Nixon walking on the Wall in a big winter coat with the furry collar.  Nixon was at Badaling.

Great Wall Crowded

Bus 877 departs Beijing from the Deshengmen Arrow Tower, and the trip costs 12 RMB (about US$2) per person.  After we boarded the bus, a helpful worker walked through the aisle taking money.  We did not have exact change, but she made change for the four of us.  Then, we settled into the sixty-five kilometer trip (about forty miles) that lasted a bit more than an hour.

Bus 877 was filled with Chinese people except for six foreigners — a German couple and our family of four Americans.  Riding with the Chinese passengers, listening to them talk with each other, and watching them gaze out the windows as we caught our first glimpses of the Wall was a great experience.  The ride was smooth, and we enjoyed our time on the bus.  The journey was fantastic.

When we arrived at Badaling, we waded into a sea of people.  Several tour guides yelled into megaphones, and loads of vendors sold all kinds of souvenirs and snacks.  People swarmed around us, and groups pushed toward the ticket windows.  Thankfully, we have taken many rides on crowded Metro trains, so the crowd did not dissuade us.  In fact, I found it fascinating and fun.

Great Wall Hills

The terrain at Badaling is very hilly, and the elevation change between the parking area and the Wall is pretty extreme.  You can walk up to the Wall, but it is a steep climb.  You can be whisked to the top in a cable car.  Or, you can ride on pulley cars, which are sort-of toboggans that run along a rickety track.  The pulley cars reminded me of the county fair where I grew up.  The ride is thrilling at least partly because you are not sure you will make it to the end in one piece!

Pulley Car going up to Great Wall

Pulley Car going up to Great Wall

At Badaling, you sit in a car, and the pulley car takes you up to the Wall.  The ride up to the Wall was a fun surprise.  And, the ride down the hill was even more fun.  While riding down, a worker sat in the front car leading a string of about twenty cars.  He seemed to control the speed and braking for all twenty cars by pulling on hand levers.  Taking the pulley car made the journey almost as much fun as getting on the Wall.

Great Wall Walking

And, then once we were up on the Wall, we had the thrill of walking around this ancient structure.  As I walked, I thought of the millions of people who have walked there before me.  I looked out from the wall at the beautiful landscape and thought about the Chinese empires it had protected.  I watched people from many countries who had made this journey like our family.

Watch Tower on the Great Wall

Watch Tower on the Great Wall

Looking out from The Great Wall

Looking out from The Great Wall

As happened many times in China, friendly Chinese people asked if they could take a picture with someone from our family.  Well, I suppose I could be more accurate.  During our visit to China, lots of people asked if they could take a picture with our daughter, Rachel, some asked if they could snap a picture with our son, Jonathan, and a few asked if they could have a picture with my wife, Lisa.  No one — not one single person — asked to take a picture with me.  At one point, a person walked up to me with a camera and said, “Excuse me, sir.”  “Yes,” I replied and began to smile expecting to have my picture taken.  Then, the person continued:  “Would you please take a picture of me with your daughter?”  I was not a desirable subject!

Rachel on the Great Wall

Rachel on the Great Wall

After our ride down the pulley car, we had an easy return to Beijing on Bus 877.  Then, we took the Metro back to our apartment.  It was a great day at an iconic place.  And, taking public transportation allowed us to save some money and, especially, have a great experience traveling with locals.  The journey was almost as good as the destination.

The four of us on The Great Wall.  I finally had someone take my picture!

The four of us on The Great Wall. I finally had someone take my picture!

Noah’s Ark in Shanghai

During the Second World War, millions of Jews suffered humiliation, tragedy, and death.  The treatment of Jews during this period is a horrible moment in human history.

As our family has traveled around the world, we have encountered a number of reminders of World War II and the Holocaust.  We spent somber time at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  Looking at pictures of adults and children the same age as our family made the horror real for our children.  After our time there, we talked in depth about this time in human history.

While in Shanghai, we deepened our learning about the treatment of Jews during World War II.  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum tells the story of the 25,000 to 30,000 Jews who found safe refuge in Shanghai during this time.  Housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the Hongkou District and easily accessible by Subway Line 4, the museum offers regularly scheduled tours in English.

Shanghai Jewish Museum

Our family spent an informative afternoon at the museum.  Our helpful and kind volunteer guide told us the history of the synagogue and the experiences of Jews who found refuge in Shanghai.  Despite Japanese occupation after 1937, the French Concession in Shanghai remained under European powers’ control.  Shanghai was the only city in the world that did not require a visa for Jews to enter.  As mistreatment of Jews increased during World War II, nearly 30,000 Jewish refugees moved to the city and established their lives there.

Jewish life was concentrated in the Shanghai International Settlement, which often was called Little Vienna because of the European-style cafes and shops.  The nearly 30,000 Jews lived in close proximity with about 100,000 Chinese neighbors.  Despite differences in language, history, and culture, the museum documents numerous cases of positive relationships between neighbors.  While Jewish survivors left Shanghai following the war’s end, many returned through the years to thank their Shanghai friends.  Photos and accounts of their reunions are a heart-warming part of the museum.

Although small, the museum contains exhibits, artifacts, a documentary film, and stories of survival.  One of the survivors was Michael Blumenthal who later served as United States Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter Administration.

We spent much time looking at pictures and paintings to learn about the Jews who survived because of the welcome offered them in Shanghai.  Some refer to the Jewish settlement in Shanghai as Noah’s Ark because Jews found refuge in Shanghai just as Noah, his family members, and animals found refuge during the great flood.

Shanghai Jewish Museum Inside

David Kranzler, a Holocaust survivor and noted historian, called the welcome offered to Jewish refugees the “miracle of Shanghai.”  He said, “Within Jewry’s greatest tragedy, there shone a few bright lights.  Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven.”  Visiting the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum reminded me of the Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem.  In a time shaped by tragedy, hatred, and horror, there were some examples of compassion, care, and survival.  It is good and right for us to remember them.

Should you find yourself in Shanghai, I encourage you to venture beyond The Bund and the Shanghai Pearl.  Enjoy those places, but also take time to visit the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.  Look at the pictures.  Read the stories.  Imagine life in Little Vienna.  Picture reunions in the years after World War II.

It is well worth your time.

Experiencing China with Locals

During our round-the-world adventure, we have tried to experience life as much like local people as possible. While we know this is impossible, we still think it provides an important glimpse into the lives of the people we encounter in different places. Rick Steves, the travel specialist, calls this traveling through the back door.

The goal of living as much like locals as possible has shaped many decisions during our trip. For example, we have chosen to stay in people’s homes rather than in hotels. By house sitting in South Africa, France, New Zealand, and Australia, we have lived in the homes of wonderful people and befriended their neighbors, which has been a very special gift during our travels. When not house sitting, we have booked apartments and rooms through AirBnB, which has meant that we lived in ordinary apartments in regular neighborhoods.

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

We also have taken public transportation as much as possible. While we could have taken taxis to get from Point A to Point B, we have climbed aboard city buses and subways along with local people. More than simply helping our budget, this has allowed us to stand side-by-side with locals making their way to work or school or the market.

We also have spent time walking the streets in cities and towns that have been our home. We have shopped at local markets and joined in local celebrations. Through our stumbling attempts to speak different languages and a comical series of charades acting out our words, we have communicated with people across the world. And, with very, very few exceptions, we have found people everywhere to be kind, caring, and helpful.

Forbidden City

While in Beijing, China, we went to Tiananmen Square. Rather than joining a tour group, we took the excellent Beijing Metro from our apartment to Tiananmen Square. And, we timed our visit to coincide with the flag-lowering ceremony at sunset. About an hour before sunset, a crowd began forming around the large flag in Tiananmen Square near the Forbidden City. Once the ceremony began, we were some of the very few international people in the crowd of 1,000 or more.

Chinese Flag in Tiananment Square

Chinese Flag in Tiananmen Square

As soldiers lowered the flag and marched with it to the Forbidden City, I could see the pride on the faces of Chinese people with whom I was standing. I thought of times I have enjoyed patriotic celebrations in the United States, my home country, and I was reminded that love of one’s home land is prevalent around the world.

Mao

By encountering life with locals, my wife, our children, and I have learned that people the world over are far more alike than they are different. In China, people live under a different social and political system than the one I know in the United States, but when I rode with them on buses or the Metro, when I shopped with them at markets, and when I saw them taking their children to school, I realized anew that our deepest concerns and most of our daily activities are really very similar.

Great Times in Sydney

One of the highlights of our round-the-world adventure has been spending time with my parents, first in Israel/Palestine in October and second in Sydney in April.  We planned our travel to coincide with my parents’ trip to Sydney, and we had a great time together.  We spent many hours laughing and making jokes as we always do, and oh yeah, we also saw some great sites.

We met Mom and Dad at Sydney Airport after their long flight from the United States, and they were amazingly awake and cheerful. Rather than resting for a couple of hours as we had anticipated, they were ready to tour the city. We had a great introduction to Sydney thanks to I’m Free Tours.  The idea is that you take the free tour, in our case a two-and-a-half hour overview of the city, without paying.  Then, you tip the guide at the end. It was great, and I recommend it to anyone in Sydney.

On Sunday, Mom and Dad were up early (just like at home), and we joined St. Stephen’s Uniting Church for Palm Sunday worship. On Sunday afternoon, we headed to Bondi Beach for the beautiful walk from Bondi to Coogee Beach.

On Monday, we headed west to the Blue Mountains where we saw the Three Sisters rock formation. I learned that the blue in the Blue Mountains comes from oils released by eucalyptus trees.

We visited Featherdale Wildlife Park so Mom and Dad could see koalas and kangaroos.

We learned about Aboriginal culture on a Sydney Harbor cruise with the Tribal Warrior Association, which provides education for indigenous and non-indigenous people. We listened to a didgeridoo, practiced indigenous dances, and learned about Aboriginal peoples in Sydney and beyond.

We enjoyed Sydney Harbor and shared a picnic in the Royal Botanic Garden.

 

The highlight of our time came from two performances at the Sydney Opera House. The first was J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion inside the opera house, and the second was Verdi’s Aida on the harbor with the opera house as the backdrop.

Jesus’ words sung in Bach’s St. John Passion were deeply moving:  “Es ist vollbracht!”  “It is accomplished!”  And the chorus’ words, “Ruht wohl” (“Rest well”), shaped my experience of Holy Week.

Aida was on a grand scale. The head of  Nefertiti, which towers over the stage, is eighteen meters (nearly sixty feet) tall.  The show was outside in the elements, and the pouring rain, whose arrival coincided with the Triumphal March, only made our experience more memorable. We donned ponchos and stayed until the end when Aida and Radames died as the orchestra’a music faded away.

Our time ended in Circular Quay when we took Mom and Dad to their cruise ship.  Happily aboard, they can rest, and we will too!  But we will have wonderful memories of our time Down Under.

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef was at the top of our list of things to do in Australia, and our time there exceeded our expectations. We decided to stay in Cairns, Queensland. Despite being chased by Cyclone Nathan (see my earlier blog post), we loved our time in Cairns with its warm weather, delicious tropical fruit, and friendly people.

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From Cairns, we traveled by large catamaran to Green Island to spend three wonderful days at the Green Island Resort (one of the few splurges during our round-the-world adventure). Green Island is about 27 kilometers (nearly 17 miles) off the coast of Cairns. While at the resort, we enjoyed snorkeling, glass-bottom boat rides, wind surfing, nature walks, star gazing, and sea kayaking.  We saw many beautiful fish such as groupers and reef sharks and many Green Sea Turtles.

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During one of our days at Green Island, we traveled to Norman Reef, which is farther offshore and has greater visibility in the water. The highlight of our time there was snorkeling.  All four of us donned stinger suits, which protect you from jelly fish.  The suits are skin tight and keep no secrets. Someone said that they are effective because jelly fish are too busy laughing at you to sting you.

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While trying to get into my stinger suit, I nearly pulled a muscle and eventually laughed so hard that I cried.  My wife, son, and daughter heard me grunting and groaning while trying to get into my suit.  After much effort, I finally had both legs covered, but I could only fit one arm in the suit.  And, the suit was so tight that I could not stand up straight.  Finally, I came out of the bathroom bent over and pleading for help.  My wife tried to pull the suit over my shoulder to insert my second arm, but it would not budge.  At that point, I looked at my ten-year-old daughter, Rachel, standing quite comfortably beside me in a very baggy stinger suit.  Then, I realized that we had switched suits.  By this point, I was doubled over laughing with tears streaming down my face.  After much effort to get out of Rachel’s suit (I’m not sure if it was harder to get into the tiny suit or to get our of it…), I put on my adult-size suit and was ready to snorkel.

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It was glorious!  I have been snorkeling in a number of places, and I enjoy it very much.  But, this was spectacular!  The colors were vibrant, the varieties of coral amazing, and the fish plentiful.  I loved floating at the surface, silently watching fish and looking at the beautiful coral.  Just then, I experienced the highlight of snorkeling — and indeed of my time at the Great Barrier Reef.

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I was all alone when I spotted a Green Sea Turtle feeding about two meters (six feet) below me in the water.  I spent a long time watching the turtle feed below the surface and come up for air.  I thought, “I wish Lisa, Jonathan, and Rachel could see this.”  I looked around and, thankfully, spotted them.  They swam over, and together, all four of us spent a long time watching this amazing creature.

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For me, the highlight was not only being so close to such a beautiful animal but also sharing this experience with my wife, son, and daughter.  I thought, “This experience — and these moments together — have been worth all the effort to get here.”

Chased by a Cyclone

As we prepared to travel to Cairns, Australia, for our visit to the Great Barrier Reef, a news item caught our attention. Almost in passing, the television news anchor said, “A tropical cyclone is off the coast of northern Queensland.”  We paid close attention and learned about Tropical Cyclone Nathan, which would become our companion and nemesis for several days. 

Because we are veterans of hurricanes on Florida’s Gulf Coast, we know to keep an eye on the storm forecast while making our plans. And we know that such plans are subject to change if a storm changes direction. 

As we arrived at Trinity Beach, just north of Cairns, Nathan was offshore churning west toward the coast. The waves were higher than normal with plenty of rain, but Nathan then veered north and started heading away from land. 

  

As planned, we travelled to Green Island and Norman Reef (more on our time on the Great Barrier Reef in a future blog post).  While at Green Island with its beautiful weather, I saw the newspaper headline, “Second Coming,” warning of Nathan’s u-turn and return toward land. 

 

Our time at Green Island was excellent, but the twenty-seven kilometer catamaran ride back to Cairns was rocky and windy. The crew was helpful and kindly provided seasickness bags to many passengers. Thankfully, we did not need them!

We returned to Trinity Beach and waited. We regularly checked the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s website for updates. After heading away a few days before, Nathan was coming back even stronger.  The storm was expected to intensify to a Category 3 or 4 Cyclone. 

 

We joined heaps of Australians at the market buying bottled water and canned food. It reminded me of empty shelves of milk and bread when snow is forecast in the American South.  Our host graciously said that we could come to her hillside home should the storm bear down on us. 

What happened?  

Tropical Cyclone Nathan eventually turned north and came ashore far away from us. We had periods of rain and higher than usual tides, but these gave us a great chance to catch up on reading as we enjoyed canned food and delicious bottles of water.  After a couple of days, the skies cleared, the waves settled down, and beautiful weather returned. 

All was well!