Tuesday, June 23, 2009
We took our very first holiday with both boys last October. A holiday with children is mostly just moving your kids from one location to another and stressing they'd break something at each location you stay - but we thought we should give it a go.
So we packed up the kids, dog, boat and luggage and off we set. It was raining and we have a hilux with an open back so the luggage had to be tied in and covered with garbage bags. The dog got dropped off at the boarding kennels along the way so thankfully his flatulence didn't accompany us the entire trip, only the first 3 hours.
We were headed to my girlfriend's farm near Coffs Harbour but stayed at Port Macquarie for 2 nights along the way. We also stayed there on our way back home and I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I woke up to find a cockroach sitting on my arm. I have a bug phobia so needless to say I didn't sleep real well after that.
Staying with my girlfriend was great - lots of chats and moscato, visits to the Big Banana, feeding her horses and just kicking back (as much as you can with a non-child-proof house and an in-built fear that the kids might destroy their flat screen tv or something else).
While we stayed at my girlfriend's farm we took a day trip to Yamba - *sigh* - how we loved it there. The photo above was taken on the main beach at Yamba and Crash was dancing on the sand. It was a beautifully blissful time on that beach. Rowdy had only been to the beach once before but was too young to remember so it took him some time to adjust to the sensation of walking on sand but then he was running about and dancing too.
We're going back there again this October. I can't wait.
Friday, June 19, 2009
And so we begin our week long celebration of Rowdy's 3rd birthday. He will get Mr Chic & my presents this Sunday (a loop-the-loop racing track because he's obsessed with rollercoasters and a play cash-register for creative play). He's getting his presents early as it's his actual birthday on Tuesday and he'll be at preschool and I don't want the drama of him wanting to play with his presents while we all try and leave the house. He will get a small gift on Tuesday from Crash - but it's small enough that he can take it to preschool with him.
Mucking about in the toys tub - I love the way they are looking at each other - almost thinking "just you wait Mum, when we're older we are going to get into so much mischief!"
making contact with dear old Beau - such a tolerant and patient dog
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Friday, June 12, 2009
Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan
As we wait for the train to leave Almaty Railway Station the
temperature continues to rise in the carriage, and whilst it is
boiling hot at seated level, it’s an absolute furnace near the ceiling
for those in the top bunks. I sympathise but have enough to deal with
myself – not only am I right at the other end of the carriage from the
rest of the group, but to add insult to injury I was going to be
sharing a cabin with three men. Two of the men were of Asian
appearance and one Caucasian, but they are all Kazakhs and don’t speak
any English. Still, at least I am on the bottom bunk, I don’t know
that I could have got up to the top one without a step!!
The men are obviously curious as to what a single white female
tourist is doing in their cabin, headed to a remote area of Kazakhstan
that is well off the regular tourist path. To explain, I whip out the
travel brochure and they pore over the pages, flicking back and
forth between the pictures and the map. This must be an expensive
trip, they conclude, making the universal gesture for money by rubbing
their thumb and fingers together and raising their eyebrows. It’s
easier to agree than try to explain my job. One of the men finds a
picture of a Muslim woman in the brochure and points to it, then
points at me and makes a gesture to show only his eyes left exposed.
I guess he is telling me that I will have to wear the Islamic
clothing, and so I put on a woebegone expression and nod in agreement.
I point to my bag and then make a circle around my face to tell him I
already have a hijab, and he laughs kindly at me.
Before the train has even left the station the Asian men are having a
cup of tea and an apple each. They kindly offer me some but I
decline, showing them that I have my own apple. One man makes his
green tea more flavoursome by vigorously pulling his tea bag in large
circles around the top of his mug, almost as if he is taking it on
exercise laps. How he can enjoy a hot drink when the temperature
inside the carriage is pushing 40 degrees is beyond me.
The train eventually begins to rattle along the tracks and we settle
down for the night. We are due to arrive in Shymkent early in the
morning and will be leaving Kazakhstan as we cross the border into
Uzbekistan. Given that we were only going to be in Kazakhstan for
such a short period of time, and given how difficult it had been to
get my visa from the Kazakh embassy in Beijing, I had made a vow to
try not to spend a single cent of my money in this country. I had
planned to arrive, look and depart without leaving any tourist dollars
to show for it. And as the train headed towards southern Kazakhstan,
it appeared that I would be successful in my mini-protest. Not a
single cent spent! A new record!
Arriving at Shymkent, we piled off the train and quickly found our
driver, who spoke not a word of English. Thank goodness for the
Sundowners sign he was dutifully holding up or we could have been
wandering around the southern reaches of Kazakhstan for days. We
discovered we were to be travelling in a small van which would have
comfortably held four people and their luggage. We fit 9 people and
luggage into it, but certainly not comfortably! I took the passenger
seat, which was to prove both fortuitous in terms of space and
potentially fatal in terms of survival rates if the van was to collide
with anything… but more on that in a minute. This driver was to take
us to the Kazakh/Uzbek border and the plan was that we would walk
through the border and be collected by a driver on the other side.
We set off through Shymkent and it rapidly became obvious that the
driver was hell bent on getting us to the Uzbekistan border asap. With
a speed limit posted at 60km/hr, the driver was managing close to
90km/hr through the town itself, and when we reached the flatter,
longer stretches of road out of the towns, the speed would creep up to
well over 120km/hr. I should just mention, however, that the vehicle
we were travelling in was not a custom built racing car,
aerodynamically designed to cope with high speeds. No, this vehicle
was an old white van which had definitely seen better days. The
windscreen was cracked from one side to the other and also had several
interesting spirals radiating out from various stone chips. I was
terrified of needing to sneeze in case the whole windscreen fell out.
As we began to rocket through the countryside at speeds I have
previously only managed to obtain whilst under lights and sirens in an
ambulance, I surreptitiously reached for my seat belt and was rather
disconcerted to discover that although the seat belt was in the usual
place, the buckle was not. More specifically, the buckle was
completely absent. I allowed the belt to roll back up and instead had
to satisfy myself with gripping the arm rest hard enough to leave
fingerprints permanently etched into the plastic. On the dashboard
was a curious black box which I initially assumed to be a radar
detector, and certainly the speeds this driver seemed to enjoy would
warrant some sort of warning device. Upon reflection, however, I
couldn’t be sure that it was not a black box recorder from an
aircraft, because if a recorder was required once a certain speed was
reached, then surely this van now qualified as a low flying aircraft
and the black box could be there to allow investigators to understand
better the final minutes before the vehicle was completely immolated
in a high speed impact. I took small consolation from the fact that
should we crash into anything there was every chance I might be found
still alive several kilometres from the crash site, propelled into
flight by a fragile windscreen, high speeds, and the complete absence
of a seat belt.
To make the journey even more interesting, the roads in southern
Kazakhstan leave a little to be desired. Many patches over potholes
gave the roads a dappled appearance, but most lethal were the
occasional dips in the road that were virtually invisible to the naked
eye. When one of these ditches was hit at over 120km/hr, the van
would leave the road for a moment before crashing back to earth with a
bone shattering smash followed by several wallowing bounces. The
driver, who was further flaunting death by driving with only one hand
on the wheel at any given time, would be forced to desperately grab
the wheel with both hands to stop the vehicle slewing off to one side,
and as he wrestled with control of the vehicle my single cohesive
thought was that maybe donning a sports bra could have benefited me
prior to the commencement of the trip.
The van plunged onwards at remarkable speeds and I realised that the 3
½ hour drive to the border was probably going to take a little less
than that at the current velocity. Nonetheless, inside the human body
the release of adrenaline fuelled by fear for one’s life cannot last
forever. After close to an hour of flinching as cows and goats stepped
perilously close to the edge of the road where our vehicle would often
stray after hitting a dip and watching as the countryside whirled past
in a blur of beautiful green hills and livestock, I began to resign
myself to the outcome of the drive whatever it might be. In my
wildest imaginings I’d never thought I might die in a high speed
accident (possibly involving a bovine) on some of the most isolated
roads in Kazakhstan and I took comfort from the thought that surely
not many tourists perish in this fashion. The hypnotic motion of the
wallowing van began to lull me to sleep.
This, of course, was a mistake on my behalf. As my rigid muscles
began to relax in sleep, I lost my main protection from the sudden
decelerations that occurred when the driver spotted a dip in the road
far too late to actually do anything about it. The absence of a seat
belt meant that there was now nothing to prevent my forward momentum
in the event of sudden braking. And brake we did. Being asleep, I
have no idea when the cow stepped onto the road, only that the driver
felt that stomping on the brakes would be the best way to avoid
producing a surplus of hamburger meat. In what I hope was a graceful
manoeuvre but I rather suspect was anything but, I toppled forwards in
my seat, waking only when my head struck the windscreen. Two things
immediately crossed my confused thought processes. The first was
wondering why a cow was staring at me from less than a metre away and
the second was amazement that the windscreen hadn’t fallen out.
The horror my group members felt at my sudden demise was apparently
not shared by the driver of the van, who cursed fluently at the cow,
the shepherd and possibly the sky before jamming the accelerator down
to the floor the second the bemused animal stepped out of the path of
our vehicle. I was flung unceremoniously back into my seat by the G
forces as we took off down the road again, and a moment’s silence
reigned before one of my group members tentatively suggested that
maybe I should put a seat belt on. As if I hadn’t already thought of
Resolving not to allow myself to fall asleep again, I kept myself
amused counting donkeys as we continued on to the Uzbekistan border.
Only once did the driver actually voluntarily allow the van to slow,
and that was when the radar detector emitted a piercing series of
shrieks to warn of a Police presence ahead. In a breath-taking
display of model citizenship, the driver immediately brought the
vehicle to about 40km/hr, the sudden deceleration feeling strangely
disorienting after so long moving at high speed. To add to the
picture of a law abiding road user, the driver also pulled his seat
belt down and tucked the buckle under his thigh, giving the impression
that he was actually safely buckled into his seat. The instant we
were past the Police stop, he lifted his right leg slightly and the
seat belt slithered happily back to its retracted position. Frankly,
it was with a not inconsiderable amount of relief that we arrived
intact at the border post, and indeed the 3 ½ hour journey had taken
us only 2 ½ hours. Needless to say, we didn’t give the driver a tip.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Campbells Country Ladle - Creamy Tomato with cheese ravioli. This is another favourite - again a bit of spice and flavour from the tomato with the little pillows of cheesey ravioli thrown in.
Everything so far that I've tasted in the La Zuppa range. The Lentil was revolting and gave me wind. The Ribbolita reminded me of vomit and I couldn't even finish it. The Cauliflower and Pea was the colour of snot, too salty and was just outright disgusting. The packaging and healthy promotion of the product keeps sucking me back in! I still have 2 flavours in the pantry to try. I don't know that I can bear it. Really. I think they are "Tuscan Bean" and "Spinach and Chickpea". Perhaps I'd be better off going back to a proven success and donating these to the dog.
Have you ever bought a product based soley on the pretty packaging only to be greatly disappointed?
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
This was the recipe which I swiped from "4 Ingredients" - sort of.
pasta (I had twists or whatever they were but it doesn't matter)
olive oil (a good splash)
sweet chilli sauce (as much or as little as you like)
That's it. I am a master, I know.
Rowdy loved the pasta - hot or cold, even if it was pretty spicey. Crash "I don't like it Mum, it makes my mouth hot".
We got him settled and put the tv on a timer and I went to bed to read for a while as I was wide awake - it was already midnight. At about 1am Crash wanders down "Mum, the tv turned itself off and Dad is asleep" so he climbed into bed with me and then coughed for the next hour or so.
Just as we were both drifting off to sleep I'm woken by Rowdy half crying from the next room. I went in to check on him and he appeared to be having a nightmare and was asleep so I went back to bed. 5 minutes later he's crying again and calling "Mum!!", no escaping this time so back up I get. He tells me that there are bugs on his fingers and his pillow. I feel his pillow in the dark and there is a big wet patch, I can vaguely see in the dark that it's a dark wet patch, WTF? I flick the light on and there is a pool of blood on his pillow - he's had a nosebleed. I then stayed up for the next half an hour to make sure his nose had stopped and cleaning up him and his bed. I convince him that he should go back to sleep on the promise that if I get sleep I can buy chocolate donuts at work tomorrow. This works and I'm allowed back to bed.
I then can't sleep - Crash is beside me, coughing periodically in his sleep and I'm worrying about the cause of Rowdy's nosebleed (his first one). Finally at 3.30am I manage to sleep, but wake hourly until it's time to get up and get ready for work.
The boys got to stay home from preschool today - no such luck for me.
Monday, June 8, 2009
Thursday, June 4, 2009
I lingered at the hostel for as long as possible before
resigning myself to the move across town to the new hotel the Travel Company
is using. In a bid to save money, they have abandoned our usual poor
quality hotel in the centre of town for another poor quality hotel now
located in the outskirts of the city. Essentially this means that any
time a group member wants to do some sight-seeing, go shopping, have a
meal or see a show etc they need to catch a taxi across the entire
city. As you can well imagine, this can become an expensive exercise
when teemed with Beijing’s heavy traffic. It took 40 minutes for the
taxi to transport me to the outskirts of the city and I was decidedly
unenthusiastic upon my arrival to the Tiantian Jiari hotel. This was
for a couple of reasons – not only was I due to meet the group in a
few hours but I knew I was going to be sharing with a group member, so
effectively for the next 31 days I have absolutely no privacy and no
“down” time to relax away from the group.
The issue of my Kazakhstan visa still had not been
resolved – the last email I got from the Travel Company told me I would have
to stay behind in Beijing while the group left for Xian, and after I
collected the passport I would catch the train to try and catch up
with the group before they left Xian. As the Travel Company would have to pay
for one of the local guides to go with the group to Xian, it seemed a
bit pointless for me for me to stay behind when they could pay the
same amount and have someone else collect my passport and bring it to
Xian for me – I’m not actually required to collect it in person, the
Kazakhstan embassy is more than happy to hand it over to anyone. I
suggested this to the Travel Company and will wait to hear from them.
After checking into the hotel and heading up to my room,
it was partly with despair and partly with resignation that I realised
the room had a clear glass wall separating the bathroom from the
bedroom – meaning that anyone using the bathroom was easily seen from
the room. Nice. No wonder I hate sharing! The group member I was to
share with had apparently not arrived yet, and I didn’t dare pop into
the shower when she should be arriving any second. To find me in the
shower when she walks into the room - that’s not the kind of first
impression I was hoping to make!! So I went without the shower and
instead got ready for the pre-departure meeting. At 5pm I met the
group for the first time, and what an eclectic group they are!! I
have 3 Australians, who consist of a woman, her younger brother and
her friend (all in their 60’s). The woman I am sharing with is a
Canadian engineer who is a little younger than me, and then I have 2
lesbian couples who are all friends in their 50’s and 60’s from the
UK... among them they number a head mistress and an OBE recipient!
They all seem really nice, and I am marginally amused that I am
setting off for one of the strictest Islamic countries in the world
for the first time in a group that consists of 8 women and 1 man. If
we make it through this alive, it will be a bloody miracle.
Our time in Beijing was fairly straightforward, with the
main entertainment coming unexpectedly from one Australian woman who
was hesitant to try the local food. Due to our more remote location in
the city, there was no one around who spoke English, and no tourist
restaurants with English menus. This meant that on the few occasions
when we tried to eat around the local area, we had an uphill battle to
choose food that wasn’t of the exotic variety. We usually resorted to
charades describing various animals like chickens or cows, and figured
that at least that would prevent weird things like eel and offal
coming out. But alas, our idea of the edible parts of animals differs
from the Chinese, and on more than one occasion this poor Australian
woman ended up with chicken heads – intact – on her plate. Needless
to say, this was not received enthusiastically. It became somewhat of
a group joke about the magnetic attraction of chicken heads to this
woman, and she was not allowed to order at restaurants for the rest of
our time in Beijing.
From Beijing we caught the train to Xian, and this was when
it became apparent my number was up – literally! With 8 group members
and myself, and compartments on the train being 4-berth, I came to the
sudden realisation that I was going to be spending the next month
travelling east to west across the largest continent on Earth on
trains where I would be in a confined space with 3 strangers where I
didn’t speak the languages. My joy knew no bounds.
When I got on the Xian train, I felt a momentary hope
when I saw a Caucasian woman about my age in the cabin already. Turns
out she was an American who had married a Chinese man, and they were
heading to Xian to visit his family. Sounded all very nice until she
revealed that also travelling with her & her husband was a
sister-in-law and her two small children, and that they would all be
in the 4-berth cabin with me!! My first train trip of the season,
isolated from my group and now with 6 people in 4 beds in a space
roughly 2 metres wide. And two of them were highly excitable and
restless children. There wasn’t a lot of peace on that journey, let
me tell you.
It was with a touch of relief that I got off in Xian, and
we were collected by our local guide and taken to the hotel. Unlike
the Beijing hotel, this one was centrally located and meant that we
could walk to a lot of the attractions around Xian. Other than a
scheduled trip to the Terracotta Warriors, the group had almost 2 full
days free on their own to sight-see in Xian, and rather than try and
follow them as they scattered to different parts of the city I decided
to pretty much leave them all to their own devices. I did take them
for a walk through the Muslim Quarter of town to orient them to the
street layout and show them some of my favourite street vendors
selling local Muslim food. The four women from the UK are very
adventurous when it comes to trying street food but the Australians
are not, so more often than not we’d buy something to try and share it
5 or 6 ways, with the Aussies opting out. It’s a bit of a shame for
them as they miss out on some fantastic stuff but I can understand
that they don’t want to get sick.
After our time finished in Xian it was back to the train
station to head towards Turpan in the far north west of China. From
this point onwards I was completely in the dark as to things to see or
do and what to expect, as I have not been to western China before. My
three companions on this train were Chinese women, 2 of them quite
elderly who seemed to have a penchant for turning the radio up to
eardrum shattering decibel level and leaving it that way all day.
Rather than music though, it played a woman talking for minutes at a
time, interspersed with a riff or two of Chinese music. I rather
suspect that it was religious radio but regardless of what the woman
was saying, all I know was that being on the top bunk meant that my
ear was alarmingly close to the speaker in the roof. It was one of
the more irritating things I have experienced recently, and when my
subtle turning down of the radio whenever they left the room failed to
give them the hint that possibly not everyone in the cabin was
enjoying the racket, I was forced to resort to outright treachery.
I discovered that by stretching my arm between the wall and
the top of my bed, I could just reach the radio controls. When they
lay down to nap, I would turn the radio off, but usually just as I was
subsequently settling down for a nap of my own they would wake up and
turn it back on. Enough was enough, I was becoming homicidal. I
waited until they were both out of the room and using my steak knife,
pried the knob off the radio after turning it off. I then hid the
knob in my luggage so they couldn’t find it again. Normally I don’t
condone destruction of public property but if it came to using my
steak knife on them or the knob, I figured they were still getting the
best of the deal. They quickly realised what I had done, and did a
bit of yelling at me in Chinese but I just shrugged and looked at them
blankly. So they went to the conductor and complained, dragging him
into the room to show him the disappearance of the radio controls and
he asked me something but I did my best innocent look with wide open
eyes and told him politely that I only speak English. He put the
whole thing in the “too hard” basket and left, much to the frustration
of the two elderly women. For the rest of the journey I was subjected
to glares from the women but as it was accompanied by the blissful
sound of silence I could afford to smile back ever so sweetly. When
the train arrived in Turpan I allowed them to exit first and carefully
placed the knob back in place as I headed out. Mission successful.