When Mom Escaped to Vietnam, Part 1

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Some people say that I’ve been traveling with my kids for so long that I don’t know how truly exhausting it is traveling with them compared to traveling without them.  Fair point.  While I do actually enjoy traveling with my children, when I was presented with the opportunity to accompany my husband on his business trip to Vietnam while my children stayed home with my in-laws, I jumped at the chance!  Now, my lovely husband has always made time over the last few years to watch our kids so that I could enjoy a short “girls trip” every now and then, but they were usually to places I was already quite familiar with.  So this was going to be an adventure!

Part of the mission for the trip was to see if Vietnam was some place we felt we could bring the kids back to and at what age would likely be best.  While I was leaving Seattle on a Sunday morning, I wasn’t going to get into Hanoi until 10:00 p.m. local time on Monday night. Which was going to give me 4 full days in Vietnam, before departing to go back home at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night.  While this might seem too short of a trip to travel so far, flying to Asia from the U.S. has minimum jet lag if you can get a flight that leaves your home in the morning and arrives in Asia at night.  When we fly to Europe, it’s at least 2 days before we time zone adjust.  But in Asia, we land at their night time after being up all day and during most of the 10+ hour flights and are ready to go to bed when we arrive.  Then the next morning we wake up with everyone else and are ready to start the day!

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Breakfast!  Fresh, ripe fruit!

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My husband and I at Lake Hoan Kiem.

On day 1 of my 4 full days that I would be in Vietnam, I got to have breakfast with my husband and only had to dish up a single plate, for myself.  I leisurely looked around at recommendations for sights to see without someone asking me “can we going yet?”  And later, after my husband’s morning meetings, he and I walked at our pleasure and pace through Hanoi without worrying about a kid getting hit by one of the millions of motorcycles whizzing through the streets and sidewalks.  After visiting the famous island shrine in Hoan Kiem Lake, and doing some shopping, we capped off day one with a nice dinner at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant with his co-workers and no one refused to eat their food!

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The island shrine entrance.

On my 2nd day, I had booked a tour to Hoa Lu (an ancient former Capital of Vietnam) and Tam Coc.  Since my husband had warned me that the conference center was a great deal outside of the heart of Hanoi and all the popular sights, I had just planned to spend one day in the city.  On my first morning in Hanoi, while I had been waiting for my husband to get done with his morning meetings, I took to the travel desk at the hotel.  I held my breath and prayed that the tours wouldn’t be too outrageously priced given that I was booking at the hotel.  My first inquiry was about Ha Long Bay, based on basically everyone’s recommendation that I should go there.  The reasonably priced 2 day, 1 night cruise I wanted was book for the Wednesday/Thursday date but was available for Thursday/Friday.  Lucky for me, that option got my back to Hanoi at 4:00 p.m. and our plane didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m.  So I booked it.  That left me with Wednesday still open.  I had seen this rather nice picture of people floating along this river stream that looked like there was rice or plants growing on either side of the passageway, heading towards some beautiful mountains.  I asked about it and made arrangements to take a day trip to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc for Wednesday, the next morning.

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Downtown Hanoi, motorbikes galore!

Waking up that Wednesday morning was a little harder than expected but I made it downstairs to the lobby with plenty of time to spare before the tour bus picked me up from my hotel.  I knew I was their last stop so I was surprised to find only 3 other people inside.  All were older than I and from Australia, though not all traveling together.  The bus was air conditioned, which was nice given the 86 degrees outside and 70% humidity, however the seats benches were not spaced well and my knees would scrunch up against the seat in front of me.  But I made the most of our 2 and a half hour drive by snapping pictures out the window and taking in the countryside and other smaller towns we passed through on the way to Hoa Lu.  We made a stop at a warehouse midway to Hoa Lu so we could use the bathroom, and then they hoped we would shop for the remaining 30 minutes of our bus break.  It was convenient to have all of the different traditional items in one spot, but the prices were 2 to 3 times higher than what I had just seen in Hanoi city center the day before.  I bought nothing but dropped a few dollars into the donation bin for the orphanage.

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Silk weaving art at one of the shopping warehouses along the way to Hao Lu.

Once we got to Hoa Lu, as we  got off the bus we were of course immediately swarmed by people wanting to sell you bottled water or a hat.  We acrossed the street to the sight we had come to see and from there were left in peace to enjoy the two temples that now sit on the sight that was once a great fortress.  They were interesting enough temples to look at in honor of past Emperors of Vietnam, but nothing too spectacular.  I did enjoy hearing more about the history of Vietnam from our guide. It was hard to believe that the sight had once been a great fortress and capital city.  There were no signs of ruins but we were told that all of the stones transferred to Hanoi for the new fortress.

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One of the temples with a shrine to honor the Dinh and Le Dynasties

After about an hour at the temple sights, we got back into the bus and drove to Tam Coc where we were slated for a bike ride through the village and countryside followed by lunch and then a river boat tour.  We arrived in what looked like a storybook Vietnamese village with a man made harbor.  Small mountains sprung up along the outline of the town with a river that flowed around the edge.  We took a nice bike ride outside the village to an area that had some caves.  Several people who seemed to be on a longer tour ventured into the caves, but we were told we only have a few minutes so I didn’t risk going in.  Along the way on our bike ride, we noticed men or women taking pictures of us.  One very boldly insisted that we stop and that three of us ladies pose for a picture.  As it turns out, they follow you out to take pictures on your way to your sight, then they hurry back to the village to get them printed before you return for lunch so that they can sell them to you.  However, unlike cruise ship photos, these didn’t cost you your first born son, I got 5 photos for $1.

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Bike ride through Tam Coc.

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Temple entrance at a cave sight in Tam Coc.

Once back in the village we had a lunch buffet that was included in the price of my tour.  My whole day was only costing me $75.  After lunch, we split in groups of 2 and boarded our 3 person (counting the “driver”) little “bamboo” boats that are nowadays made of metal.  I watched in amazement how the drivers rowed the two oars with their feet as they began to steer us down the river, through a trail of water with river grass floating along side us.  Once again people followed us, this time in their own boats, to take pictures on our journey to the end of the river.  As we moved along the water, I loved seeing some of the different houses perched up along the bank.  Before we got too far away from the village, you could see children coming down to play and cool off in the water.  The river cut beneath several little mountains so we traversed through 3 or 4 cave tunnels in all.  Finally, we came to the end of the road.  A small inlet just on the other side of one of the cave tunnels.  There we would turn around and go back along the same route, BUT, not without first being greeted by several women in boats stocked with snacks and beverages, all beckoning us to buy something for either ourselves, or our boat driver.  Here’s the great dilemma right?  Do you buy or don’t you buy? How much of this money will they actually get to keep? Do you re-enforce this annoying practice of bombarding tourist for a buck?  Or do I accept that this is someone’s livelihood and at the end of the day, is still only setting me back 1/4 of the cost of a Starbucks coffee back home.  Plus, how do you refuse the suggestion that I buy something to drink or eat for my female boat driver who is “working very hard.”  I bought her a bag of chips of her choosing and a cold green tea, all of which cost me around $1.50.  The reality is, everything I was going to do in Vietnam for 4 days was still going to cost less than taking the whole family to Disneyland for a single day!  So if I was going to get something that was already 50-75% less than what I would pay for it in the US, why not?

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Riding along the river at Tam Coc.

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Going under the mountains.

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The mini floating markets selling snacks to tourists.

As we sailed back, I took just as many pictures as on the way in.  I must have snapped 200 pictures on the river alone.  It was quite beautiful and at the same time, humbling.  When I saw all the children in front of their shack of a home, jumping in the water, splashing and playing and smiling, I immediately wished that my children were there with me.  I wished that they were experiencing the beauty of the natural scenery that surrounded me and I wished that they could see these children, these fiscally poor youth, having the time of their life playing by the river as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  It’s those moments that I want to show my children through travel.  Life is life, and ever so precious and that there is joy to be found in it no matter how much money you have or don’t have.  I definitely want them to come back with me.

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Children at play, cooling off in the river.

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How to dry rice, just spread it out on the ground next to the harbor!

The river boat journey was the last activity of the day.  We boarded the bus, after I purchased a few of my river photos, and headed back to Hanoi.  We made a similar warehouse stop, to a different one of course, on the way back but the 2nd leg of the journey did not sit well with my stomach.  I was not sure if it was the food or the fact that I had just spent 5 hours out in the sun and then an hour staring out a bus window with the scenery flying by that made me dizzy and sick to my stomach.  I soon couldn’t tolerate to look at anything, let alone out the window.  I spent the last hour of the drive with my knees pulled up to my chest and my head between my legs trying with every fiber of my being not to puke on the bus!  It felt like forever before we got back to the hotel and after rushing a thank you and some tips to our guide and driver, I ran to my hotel room and immediately got sick.

Thankfully, the emptying of my stomach helped and I started to recover quickly.  Good thing because that night we were dining again with my husband’s colleagues and we were trying out a French style restaurant at the hotel.  I made it through a glorious meal full of adult conversations with no unwelcomed interruptions and then eagerly collapsed into bed.  The next morning was going to be an early one, I was going to take another bus out to Ha Long Bay for a 2 day, 1 night cruise to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World!  All by myself!  Stay tuned as that amazing trip deserves a post all of its own!

 

 

Road Trip Lucky Finds-Dinosaur Footprints!!!

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Road trips are a big part of America’s vacation culture.  I remember many hours spent in the car driving with my family to go camping or visit relatives.  Unfortunately, timelines often get tight so the actual driving part can be very boring for kids and doesn’t allow for many stops or side detours.  So when I started off on our “Great American West Road Trip” I knew I wanted to allow for some unexpected sightseeing in between our different home base destinations.  You never know what you can find, and if you’re willing to stop, some amazing discoveries await you!  We came across one by chance in the northeast corner of New Mexico, in route to Dallas, Texas from Colorado.

Clayton, New Mexico

Clayton, New Mexico

About 5 hours into our drive we were passing through the small New Mexico town of Clayton on highway 87 when I spotted some large dinosaur models on the side of the road in town.  The sign next to the triceratops and brontosaurus said “Clayton Dinosaur Track Way.”  I pulled into a parking lot to turn around and see what those dinosaur tracks were all about.  Next to the dinosaur models was a little tourist information building.  We went inside and inquired about the tracks.  As it turned out, flooding in the area near the lake washed away some ground cover that then revealed approximately 500 dinosaur tracks that had been preserved in the layers of earth below.  The woman in the office said it was 12 miles back west from where we were now, out at Lake Clayton, something we had seen signs for before entering the town.  The 12 miles didn’t seem too far to back track, even on a 35 mile per hour road and we had yet to stop to eat our lunches that I had packed in the cooler.  So off we went.

Dino tracks advertisement in the town.

Dino tracks advertisement in the town.

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We drove the curvy road out to the lake in about 25 minutes from their downtown.  We drove into the park and found the sign directing down a dirt road to the dinosaur tracks.  We also noticed that different sections for camping and boat launching to go out on the lake.  We took the road directing us towards the track, at the end, you could park in a lot, but then had a quarter mile walk, around half of the lake, to the sight where the tracks were located.  We took a couple water bottles with us since the temperature was reaching 100.  The walk provided a few spots of shade along the way in addition to a bench under a tree half way along.  At the end of the quarter mile was a hut, with several informational signs inside about the dinosaur tracks.  It was a nice refuge from the sun and a chance for the kids to sit down one more time before we explored the tracks themselves.

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There were stairs that led down to the level of ground from the hut to where the tracks were.  A boardwalk encircled the most numerous and obvious collection of tracks to help preserve the find.  It was quite amazing to see just how many footprints there were.  That just like different types of animals today, they wandered around, intermixing and passing by different breads.  This was the first time that I had ever seen an actual dinosaur footprint!  I had scene a cast of one before in a museum, but never out in the natural environment where the dinosaur physically stepped and left it’s mark.  I have to admit, I think I was a little more blown away than the kids.  Nonetheless, they still asked some questions and thought it was “neat.”

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We slowly made our way back to the car, taking a pause again in all the shaded spots and being fascinated by the bugs that looked like a cross between a cricket and a butterfly.  At the car we unpacked our lunches from the cooler and set up acceptable eating stations at their seats so that we could get back on the road.  Our total detour time was 90 minutes.  Which put us about 30 minutes over the total of 2 hours that I had factored in for us to use as stopping time between southern Colorado and Dallas (we had stopped for an hour at a Wal-Mart that morning to stock up on water and food for the day).  But in the end, I marveled at the fact that we just stood next to the footprints of dinosaurs!  Something I will never forget and I hope my children will grow to appreciate.

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Deer Mania! Japan Day 6

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You’ve probably seen the pictures or heard about Nara’s famous deer like I had, so this was one of the day trips I was looking forward to the most.  Nara did not disappoint, especially since we were basically going for the deer, and there were plenty to pet and feed.  But during our stay, we found a few other beautiful and unexpected sights as well as the beautiful and historical Todai-ji Temple.  The speed of our trip, with my husband now joining us picked up a bit, and therefore, my daily writing more difficult, but I’m excited to pick back up on the rest of our 17 day trip to Japan.

We were scheduled to be in Kyoto for day 6 & 7 of our trip (the Saturday and Sunday right after my husband’s conference ended) and I had been saving most of the Kyoto stuff for him.  However, with the poor weather on the day I planned for Nara, we didn’t get to go and it was something I was really looking forward to.  Since our next destination after Kyoto was Nagoya, and it was only 45 minutes by train from Kyoto, I knew it would be easier to come back to Kyoto from there than it would be to go to Nara from Nagoya.  With that in mind, decided to go to Nara while we were still staying in Kyoto.  This would be my husband’s first day to join us in exploring Japan.  While I was excited to have him along, but it’s always a bit different traveling with another adult than it is alone.

By this point, we were all on a new schedule of going to bed around 10:00 p.m. and not waking up till 9:00 a.m.  This, we began to discover, was not an ideal schedule for Japan where most attractions close by 5:00 p.m.  We were rushing to get to breakfast and eat before the buffet closed at 10:00 a.m., then quickly gathered up our stuff to head off to Nara.  The hotel shuttle took us right to the main train station where we had to exchange my husband’s JR voucher for his Japan Rail Pass.  I found it comical that the line in the JR ticket line was so long for all the locals, and the separate line for foreigners (any foreigner) was a deserted.  My husband was the lone customer the entire time we were in there.

We got to bypass the long line of locals for the empty

We got to bypass the long line of locals for the empty “Foreigner’s Line.”

On the train, a small regional one this time, we found the cars a little crowded with school children, around middle school age.  There was one open bench with two seats facing another bench the had two young school boys sitting down.  I ushered my sons over to have a spot while my husband and I stayed with the stroller in the open way of the carriage.  Immediately the school children took notice of the two little English speakers sitting across from them.  The term “giggling like a school girl” could very appropriately be applied to them.  It was a sweet moment to watch over the next 20 minutes while they were on the train with us.  They watched my boys talk and play with their stickers from the train workers and tried out their English by asking my sons a few questions. I even tried a few of my own and got an understandable answer.  Those type of things are what you live for one trips like this, for a few moments our kids had the chance to try to communicate with someone from a culture so different from theirs and it gave them a chance to be a hospitable sight and a goodwill representative of their own country.

Getting a small chance to interact with some Japanese school children, and to be a bit of an amusement for them.

Getting a small chance to interact with some Japanese school children, and to be a bit of an amusement for them.

Once we arrived in Nara, we went to the information booth and found out about the bus that would take us around Nara park and through the areas where you could get off to walk to their 3 different temples, all listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  The kids were also immediately given little origami gifts to take with them too, spinning tops!

Many information desks in Japan gave out Origami gifts to kids when we would talk to them.

Many information desks in Japan gave out Origami gifts to kids when we would talk to them.

In all, about 15 minutes from the time we boarded the bus, we got to a part of the park where we could see the deer and got off.  Instantly the kids were drawn to the deer, that really, truly were just walking around with the people.  They were on the grass, they were on the sidewalks, they even crossed the streets, obeying the traffic signals even!  The kids carefully and excitedly approached them and delighted in the fact that they could pet the deer while the deer didn’t seem to notice.  A few, sniffed around for food and one more aggressive deer even went after my shirt!  But, that wasn’t the norm.  A very nice gentleman came over and gave us some of his crackers so that the kids could feed the deer.  You can buy special deer “cookies” from the vendors that are all approved by the city.  He also showed us how the deer will actually bow for their food!  If you hold the cracker up high over your head, then the deer will bow their head/neck down low, some even a few times, to get the cookie from you.  Not sure who started that habit or how long it took to for them to figure it out, my guess is, not very long!

Just petting some deer.

Just petting some deer.

We bought some more cookies of our own and started the walk over to Todai-ji Temple.  Because of our time restraints (us not getting there till around 1:00 p.m., we knew we’d probably make it to just one temple.  I picked Todai-ji based on it’s description and the proximity of some other highly reviewed traditional Japanese gardens near it.  As we walked, we encountered more deer and of course, the row of tourist souvenir stands.  The temple had a fee to get in, 600 Yen for us adults and the kids being free. The gate, statues and the main hall (the world’s largest wooden building) were very impressive, as was the 15 meter tall seated Buddha.

The old gate.

The old gate.

The largest wood structure in the world.

The largest wood structure in the world.

As we walked around, we encountered one of the pillars that had a small hole cut through the middle of it’s base.  The saying is that it is the same size as the Buddha’s nostril and that if you can fit through it, the you will gain enlightenment for your next life.  Of course the kids wanted to climb through the hole.  My husband and I declined the inevitable embarrassment.

The hole the size of the Buddha's nostril.

The hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril.

Each kid wanted to take a turn.

Each kid wanted to take a turn.

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We didn’t explore much more of the temple grounds themselves, but instead headed over to the Japanese garden I had read about.  It was a little confusing getting there by exiting the side of the temple, but eventually we found it.  We arrived with about 35 minutes left before it’s 5:00 p.m. closing, something we were getting used to in Japan.  While we only had a mere half hour to explore it, and had to pay a small fee, it was well worth it to take in the beauty of Isuien Garden.  It is everything you ever pictured a true Japanese garden to be.  We used the comfortable facilities for the kids and a diaper change as we left and then they literally closed and locked the gates behind us on the way out.

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Isuien Garden with the Todai-ji Temple in the background.

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From here we figured it was time to start thinking about some food.  On the bus ride in, we saw a miniature Oktoberfest event set up in the park!  That was definitely not the sight I expected to see when coming to the city boasted as “traveling back to Ancient Japan.”  I thought it would be fun to check it out and see what Japan’s take on the Bavarian tradition was.  We walked over to that section of the park again and did a quick pass through.  After not being able to figure out quickly whether you just paid cash at the booth or if you had to buy some special tickets for admissions and food, we decided that just a walk through was enough and continued on foot by the next section of the park.  I had wanted to walk by a particular pagoda that seemed to be on the way to some other shopping and food.  We could see the towers, but of course, being part of a temple, and it being after 5:00 p.m., much of it was gated off so you couldn’t get too close.

A visiting Oktoberfest in Japan, in June!

A visiting Oktoberfest in Japan, in June!

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We walked the loop of the park and came upon a row of shops and eateries, I ducked into a visitor’s welcome center that gave us a map and guided me to a shopping arcade where they had 2 restaurants serving classical Japanese dishes.  With the map in hand, we headed up the promenade until we reached the restaurant.  Menus are still hard as they are not always in English.  But these had some good pictures to go by and we were able to ask some basic questions.  I ended up with my own little grill on a plate in which to cook some raw vegetables and a few slices of Kobe beef, my husband got the most beautiful (yet a bit scary) plate of 30+ brightly colored vegetables, tofu and meat that he had to cook in a broth, oldest son got a plate of rice with grilled eel (and he ate the whole thing!), my younger son ended up with a noodle soup that he couldn’t get enough of and my 2 year old, well, she was asleep.  The food was really good, but the bill was fairly high (ended up being about $110 for all 4 of us) and my stomach was still pretty empty.  On the way back to the train station, I stopped in a couple little markets to grab some food for myself and my 2 year old, who had slept through dinner.

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By time we got back to the train, it was approaching 7:30 p.m. and we had just the right amount of fun without too much overdoing it on walking.  Getting back to the hotel a little after 9:00 p.m. was probably the earliest we had gotten back in the last three excursions!  But now it was time to pack up.  It was our last night in Kyoto and we had just a few more things on our list to prepare for the next day.  Including leave our really nice suite for a much much smaller single room in the next city.  However, more adventure were about to come our way!

It’s A Date With The Great Salt Lake!

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Of all the times I have flown over the Great Salt Lake, I finally made it to it’s shores and in it’s water.  As we popped across the Utah border from Idaho on day 2 of our road trip, I began to look at where the best place would be to pull in for a lake stop.  While looking at the map the landmark “Golden Spike National Historic Site” caught my attention.  Flashes of U.S. history started to reappear in my mind as I tried to recall a few things I remembered about the great railroad race to connect east and west.  Since we didn’t do a hotel stop Friday night, we had the whole day to explore ahead of us before we could even check in to our Salt Lake City hotel.

Rocket display in Promontory, UT.

Rocket display in Promontory, UT.

I ran the idea by my husband who shared my mind set of “why not explore” and we watched for the break off signs from I-84.  At the turn, we also saw a sign for “Rocket Display” which I found curious, but made sense since U.S. deserts were often used for missile and bomb testing.  As it happened, the rocket display rose up out of nowhere before we reached the Golden Spike.  The large white rocket with the ever familiar blue NASA logo painted on the side stood off the side of the road in front of a large building waving an American Flag.  It was an impressive display.  Besides the NASA trophy in the front, the whole display was actually made up of more than a dozen other rocket engines and missile motors covering the last 75 years of air defense technology.  The building belonged to government contractor Orbital ATK.

So big!

So big!

Not being the most “techy” girl myself, even I was fascinated by the pieces on display and the accompanied explanations of how the missiles and rocket motors worked by their signs and my husband’s seemingly encyclopedia brain.  Seeing how the pieces fit together and their massive size was dumbfounding, especially when you compare your ideas to what these things do in real life to your childhood images of the movie Top Gun.  Call me dumb, but I had really never pieced together the fact that a missile, or even a rocket required its own motor, and a complex one at that.  I only wished that our 5 and 7 year old sons had been there to see it too, though not all was lost on our 2 year old daughter.

Helpful descriptions at each rocket motor station.

Helpful descriptions at each rocket motor station.

From the rocket display, we moved on to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, which was only about a 10 minute drive away.   We pulled up to the visitor’s center and could see the two steam locomotives in the back as we entered the parking lot.  A quick Wikipedia read before we arrived already told me that the actual Golden Spike was not on site, but I did learn that Stanford University’s founder, Leland Stanford was also the founder of the Central Pacific Railroad that built the eastward connection to the Golden Spike meeting point at Promontory, UT.  The fee was $7 per vehicle to “enter” the park.  There were a few movie features that showed throughout the day offering historical information about the site and also re-enactments, which we missed.  My desire to get to the Great Salt Lake limited my desire to spend too much time at the Golden Spike, but we did walk out to the trains where the tracks had met and there were stairs to platforms for each of the two railroad company’s steam engines so that you could get a good look inside of the pilot’s pit.

Golden Spike National Historic Site. Promontory, Utah.

Golden Spike National Historic Site. Promontory, Utah.

The gift shop had some fun and educational items and books highlighting the railroad era as well as America’s expansion into the “Wild West.”  I purchased a book and a couple of postcards, along with a train charm before heading out to drive along one of the original track routes.  You see, this portion of the historically significant feat of manpower, the first transcontinental railway in the world, has actually been re-routed.  I learned from the park ranger’s introduction that a better route, across the Great Salt Lake, was opened in 1904 that cut out 15 miles of travel and took away several portions of uphill grade that had previously required some extra “push” support for the trains along certain parts.  During World War II, the government mandated that all of the railroad tracks not in use in America needed to be torn up for use in the war effort.  So the tracks that were originally laid, connecting the east and the west, were torn up.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that the government decided that it was of historical significance and needed to be remember and was therefore, re-created a small portion of tracks at the original meeting site.  Nonetheless, my 2 year old found the trains interesting and more importantly, the rocks fun to play with.

As we heading back out to I-84, we decided to stop for a late lunch/early dinner in Ogden, Utah.  I had carried some snacks for my 2 year old with us in the car along with her water bottle so she was pretty satisfied.  Since we also had a big breakfast, no one was really hungry until 5:00 p.m.  We decided on a Cracker Barrel since that was a childhood favorite of my Georgia born husband, and something that we couldn’t get in Washington.  This of course suited my daughter just fine as macaroni and cheese is always a top choice, couple that with some steamed broccoli and we were set.  Though we had gotten out of the car to walk around several times that day, our appetizes were not as big as normal so finishing up even a single meal with salad and vegetables left us stuffed!  The decision to go to the Great Salt Lake between Ogden and Salt Lake City was perfect.  After looking on the map, a trip out to Antelope Island made the most sense.

We paid $10 for our car to get onto the island, which is a state park.  While the name suggests you’d see a lot of antelope on the island, the brochure said that bison herds were quite the popular attraction.  In 1893, about 12 bison were introduced to the island and today there are between 300-500!  As we drove towards the beach area to go into the water, we saw one grazing out in the grass, with a suspiciously pulled over van and people standing out around it.  We soon discovered a man running towards the buffalo, much against the advice of the parks department.  We pulled over to see if this person was truly stupid enough to keep going at the buffalo, trying to get it to charge.  It made a start at the man once, and he took off, back to his van, not to return.  After that brief entertainment, we parked over at the beach to go down to the water.

 

A buffalo and a man trying to tease him out our window.

A buffalo and a man trying to tease him out our window.

The sand was warm, but not too hot to walk on.  It was very dry and felt nice on all of our feet, and being so dry, it didn’t stick to the skin as much.  Soon however we found that more rocks and the dried and broken salt blocks to be a little too sharp to walk on bare foot.  It was however, still tricky to walk on with shoes, especially flip flops.  After we got about a 100 yards out, it became more compact and easier to walk on as we approached the water’s edge.  Soon, we took notice of movement that looked like blowing brown sand whenever someone would walk across the beach.  It took us both a second to realize that it was a swarm of bugs, Brine Flies to be exact.  It made me cringe at first, but the brown clouds they would make when movement was near were fascinating.  You could see them along the coast on the sand, and there was no way to get to the water without walking through them.  They do however, move away quickly and want to avoid you just as much as you would like to avoid them.

Playing in the Great Salt Lake.

Playing in the Great Salt Lake.

Breaking through the bug barrier was worth it.  The warm water was still just ankle deep a good 100 feet out from the shore.  My 2 year old loves the water.  Nothing made her day more complete then swimming or splashing in water.  While we weren’t equip to take a full dip, just walking around in the lake was fun enough.  You could feel the water pushing your leg up if you shifted weight to just one foot and let the other one go.  If you stood completely still on both feet would feel yourself starting to sink into the lake floor’s sand too.  We spent about 20 minutes walking and splashing around before we headed back, beginning to feel our only 5 hours of sleep through the night before.  I dreaded the walk back through the sand with wet feet but it actually wasn’t too bad.  Same issue though with the difficulty of walking with or without shoes that resulted in me having to also carry my toddler half the time on the 200 yards back to the car.  A quick rinsing off at the showers outside of the restrooms and we were loading back up into the car.  My daughter had gotten about 2 inches of the bottom of her dress wet in the lake, and when it dried, you would see the stiff salt crystals on the fabric!

Salt Lake City Sunset.

Salt Lake City Sunset.

We pulled into our hotel, a Sheraton in Salt Lake City, the capital also caught my eye with its attractive skyline backed by mountains with a beautiful sunset.  I was pleasantly surprised by the warm feeling Utah left me with at the end of a long drive, full of fun and educational pit stops.  And we haven’t even been to the rest of the state that gets the most press!  For now, I will leave Utah as a pleasant pass through state that I look forward to visiting again with my whole family!

A Rainy Day in Kyoto-Day 5 in Japan

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We woke up to rain, for the first time since arriving in Japan. I knew full well that June was the rainy season for Japan, but we had been incredibly blessed with really nice, rain free, weather up to this point. My plan had been to take the kids to Nara this day, so they could wander around Nara Park petting and feeding the free roaming deer. That just didn’t sound very fun in the rain. I checked the surrounding areas and all had rain in the forecast. So, we needed a new game plan. I still wanted to take the kids to the Japanese performing arts show, and with only a couple more days left at our Kyoto hotel, it only made sense that we do something local. But, we were still saving the main attractions to do with my husband on the weekend.

Since we would be somewhat limited in our adventures today, I pulled out some clothes from the dirty clothes pile and decided to do a load of wash in the bathtub. I had packed 3 packets of sink size Tide detergent travel packs so that we could do wash during the trip. I picked out a couple pieces that I knew would dry quickly and a few that I knew would take a full 24 hours to dry. Then I dumped them all in the tub. Twenty minutes later I had some clean tops, shorts and underwear for all 5 of us hanging up to dry around the bathroom. Then, we headed off to breakfast.

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At breakfast, a little late in the morning, I mulled over our entertainment options for the day. I decided to check with the concierge about a few experiences I had hoped to have for the kids that were special to Japan. I wanted them to get the chance to do Karaoke and I wanted them to be able to do some kind of Japanese craft. I was not disappointed with the choices. The concierge pointed out the Kyoto Handicraft Center and the location of a Karaoke club where you can book private rooms to sing within your own party. While the kids didn’t baulk at the ideas, they had one more of their own. They wanted to go swimming again! With the rain pouring down outside, how could I say no. I figured there was plenty of time in the day to swim for a bit and then go out and do the activities I had found.

The funny thing about the swimming pool at the hotel, and this could be true for all Japanese swimming pools, is that you have to wear a swim cap. At first I thought it was just because your hair could be dirty and they want to keep it from making the water oily or something. But they are mesh hats, given to us to use by the hotel since we didn’t have our own caps. So it’s not like a full barrier anyways. Nonetheless, we wore them and I have to admit, the kids looked pretty cute with them on! After some fun in the pool, we went back to the room to change into clothes to brave the weather.

Swim caps required for the hotel pool!

Swim caps required for the hotel pool!

At this point, I started remembering all of the things I forgot to bring to battle the rain. I had a plastic poncho from Disneyland Paris still sitting in my closet at home and my stroller rain cover still in the back of my car. Both of which would have made our day much less miserable. But the idea of staying in a hotel room all day sounded about as much fun as trying to take all 3 kids to the dentist by myself.

So we put on some of our athletic clothes, the ones that tend to pull away moisture and dry easier, our sandals, and rain jackets, then headed out the door with the one umbrella that I had packed. The rain wasn’t mild, but it wasn’t stormy. In fact, it was a typical Seattle down pour. The handicraft center we were going to looked to be about a mile and a half way. It was just past the Haien temple that we had walked to a couple days prior. I convinced the boys that this was do-able and not much further than they had already walked before. I must admit, I was a little nervous at how well this walk in the rain was going to go, and not so much over how the kids would handle the rain, but how I would handle the rain! But we all marched along our route until we hit our landmark 7-11 store.

Given that it was past lunchtime by time we started our walk, we stopped in for some corn dogs that made for a quick lunch. We’ve been getting a pretty big and hardy breakfast each morning at the hotel so I don’t mind making lunch a bit smaller and am flexible in what they choose. After the corn dogs, we continued our walk and ended up having to navigate some confusing side walk and street construction around the area we should have had a direct path to for the handicraft center. Because of that, we happened upon a building that I originally thought was still part of the temple grounds, since it was constructed in the more traditional Japanese style. I saw a few people standing about and decided to check if anyone knew how close we were to our destination. The woman we approached pointed us in the direction that we had been on and said it was very very near. I took the opportunity to also ask what was going on inside the building in front of us that had multiple pairs of shoes lined up outside. She told me that there was a class practicing Aikido martial arts. The large square building had the sliding doors open on all sides so we walked along the path to watch briefly from outside. Since both of my boys are doing Taekwondo, it was interesting for them to watch a different martial arts form practiced in one of the disciple’s native countries. Not wanting to be a distraction, we stayed just 5 minutes then went back to our path to the handicraft center.

Watching a Japanese Aikido lesson.

Watching a Japanese Aikido lesson.

By time we got to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, it was 2:45 p.m. I went in and inquired about the crafts that kids were allowed to do. They showed me a board with the times but said that you had to make a reservation, and that they were not sure if there were any spots left. My heart sank, I didn’t even think about having the concierge call ahead. But, they said I could check next door in their other building to see if there was still space. So over we went. They had one in progress that started at 2:30 p.m. and the next was schedule for 3:30 p.m. While they said that we could still join in at the 2:30 p.m. one, I liked the craft that they were doing at 3:30, so we waited. The rest of the center was a huge shop selling various things that are made in Japan and then some Japanese souvenirs (that were probably made in China). So I picked up a souvenir and some postcards while waiting.

From reading the description for the center in the hotel’s map of Kyoto and recommended things to do, it sounded like the craft was going to be free. So I was a little surprised when at 3:30 they asked for the fee before we went up. Already committed in my mind to do it, we paid the 1900 yen per person (I just did 3, one for each kid) to do the painted doll (that was actually a bell) craft. They led us over to the other building and up the elevator, to the room, and got us all set up with our paints. My 2 year old, who had been asleep up to this point, seemed to wake just at the right time when she heard the word paint, and activity she loves. There was a beautiful display of the finished product examples on the table to give us an idea of what to do.

Doll bells at the craft sample table.  Kyoto Handicraft Center.

Doll bells at the craft sample table. Kyoto Handicraft Center.

And this is how ours turned out.

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I tried to let my perfectionist ideals go, and let the kids be kids and paint their bells how they wanted to. I struggled with my 2 year old, because in my mind, I wanted something to somewhat resemble the samples. So we compromised, I let her paint what she wanted and then I tried to make it look like a person with hair and a face.

Our Japanese bell doll that my 2 year old and I created.

Our Japanese bell doll that my 2 year old and I created.

While we had been painting, my husband texted me that he had a break from work for a few hours and said he could join us. By time we were done, he had walked over to the center to meet us. While the craft finished, we could also watch some of the artisans working on Damascene with find nails, little hammers and gold patterns.

Artisans making Damascene.

Artisans making Damascene.

Our plan was to go to the Karaoke club next. My husband walked with us to where I had seen the closest subway station on the map, which looked like a straight shot and not that far away. But alas, it took a good 20 minutes to get there, still in the rain. At this point, he was sweaty and soaked, despite his jacket, and would need to go back to the hotel early to change for his business dinner. So he got off the subway before us and we parted ways. It was now 5:00 p.m. and I wanted to be sure we didn’t miss the show again. I decided to try for the 6:00 p.m. show (there was also a 7:00 p.m one too) to ensure we made it and then try Karaoke after. I knew in my mind that I needed to get some cash. But with my preoccupation at finding the theater with the 3 kids in the now stormy pouring rain, I completely forgot to look for an ATM and get cash. We got to the theater with our outer layers dripping wet and relieved to be inside again. Up at the ticket counter I saw the sign “Cash Only.” Crap. Because I forgot to stop, I didn’t have enough to buy the tickets. I asked where the closest ATM was and they gave me a neighborhood map that showed the closest 7-11, which is the most common place for ATMs apparently. Unfortunately for us, it was practically back at the subway station we just came from. But, at least I found a new route that led us through a beautiful temple complex.

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At the 7-11, I got enough cash for the next week and had the kids pick out dinner. Since we weren’t going to make the 6:00 p.m. show and would instead have to do the 7 o’clock one, I gave up on Karaoke for the night, which was where we were going to order food at for dinner. This 7-11 was tiny compared to the one from earlier in the day and had no place for us to stand outside to eat. Cultural custom is that you don’t walk around while eating and I was trying as best I could not to be the rude American. So we set out in search of some kind of covered area where we could stop and eat in our route back to the theater. No such luck until we came back to the temple, where there was a covered pathway between two buildings. It being 6:30 p.m. and in the rain, people weren’t exactly swarming this complex. I decided we needed to stop somewhere with shelter and let the kids eat. We stood in the covered area and ate as quickly as we could before heading back at the theater.

Trying to find shelter in the rain.

Trying to find shelter in the rain.

Finally back at the theater, we waited in line for the 7:00 p.m. tickets, again, thankful to be inside again. Seating was quick and easy and so was putting aside the stroller. The theater was not very big and we got a place near the center in the 4th row. The program included several forms of Japanese performing arts. It began with a tea ceremony (Chado), in which two guest participants were selected. During the tea ceremony, two musicians began playing the Japanese harp (Koto). While they were playing, and while the tea ceremony was still in process, the flower arrangement (Kado) demonstration began. All three ended around the same time. I was really glad of this format as it gave the children something in two different spots to look between, which kept them quiet and captivated.

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Gion Corner.

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Gion Corner.

Japanese harp and a flower arrangement demonstration. Gion Corner.

Japanese harp and a flower arrangement demonstration. Gion Corner.

Next came some of the more lively performances. My 2 year old was particularly fascinated with the court music (Gagaku) and dragon dance.

My 2 year old being fascinated by the court musicians and dragon dance.

My 2 year old being fascinated by the court musicians and dragon dance.

Court musicians and the dragon dancing.

Court musicians and the dragon dancing.

The ancient comic play (Kyogen) came next. While there were some English explanations made over the speakers and written in the program, it wasn’t clear enough for the kids to understand. Nor was there enough time for me to read it to the kids in advance of the performance. So they were a bit confused by the comic play.

Ancient comic play. Gion Corner.

Ancient comic play. Gion Corner.

The main attraction, was 2nd to last and was an actual Maiko (a young Geisha) who performed two Kyoto style dances (Kyomai).

A Maiko dancing.  Gion Corner.

A Maiko dancing. Gion Corner.

Last was the puppet play (Bunrake) which I thought the kids would enjoy the most, but again, we didn’t have time to get the full story beforehand, so they were a bit confused. I think my 5 year old even called it “creepy” haha! But from an adult perspective, it was fascinating how fluid they made the puppet move. For most cases, it took 3 puppeteers to manipulate the one puppet.

Puppet play. Gion Corner.

Puppet play. Gion Corner.

The whole show was an hour total. It was the perfect experience for the kids. They got to see all of the traditional Japanese performances I hoped to expose them too and it was in a very manageable time frame to keep their attention. The theater where we saw the performance was Gion Corner. It is very much a company that created this program especially for tourists. But in my opinion, it was well worth it. Again, my 5 year old and 2 year old were free (and they still got their own seats). I had a discount ticket flyer from our hotel so my ticket was only 2800 yen (around $25 with current exchange rate) as opposed to the normal 31500. And my 7 year old was just 1900 yen.

We had a great time at the Gion Corner performance!

We had a great time at the Gion Corner performance!

By time we were out of the theater, the rain had lightened up quite a bit, so it was a reasonable walk back in the direction of the hotel. I had a rough idea of where we were going, and after 20 minutes of walking, we ended up at the subway station that was on the same line for the stop I had read was next to our hotel. I was so happy to have finally figured out where the subway stop was, turns out it was on the opposite side of our hotel from where we had walked on previous days. This was handy information for Day 6, coming soon!

Himeji Castle and Kobe Harborland-Japan Day 4

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Himeji Castle was one of my “musts” for this trip.  It also was one of the places we learned about in our Little Passports Japan kit, so I really wanted my kids to see the real thing.  Himeji was also a straight shot from Kyoto with our JR pass.  I had just planned to go and visit the castle then come back to Kyoto in order to attend a show of traditional Japanese performance arts.  After such a long day in Osaka the day before, I figured another low key day was in order. At least that is what I thought.

Given that I only planned to visit Himeji, we took our time getting out the door.  We took the shuttle to the train station and made an easy stop at the JR ticket office for our bullet train to Himeji.  It was going to take about 45-50 minutes to get there.  My daughter fell asleep before we got on the train and I employed reason 497 of “Why I love my Baby Jogger City Select stroller.” Since I had to fold it up and put it behind the seats, I just popped off the seat and laid it on the floor with my daughter in it so she could keep sleeping with no blocking of the aisle.  That left just me and the boys to have a little snack and be silly on the train until we arrived.

Nap time on the train in her stroller seat.

Nap time on the train in her stroller seat.

Just having some fun on the train.

Just having some fun on the train.

Once we were at the main JR train station in Himeji, it was really easy to find the way out and to see which direction the castle was in, being how you could see it the moment you walked out the train station!  So we started looking about and saw the buses.  Even though you could see the castle, it was still pretty far.  Japanese cities are like Paris, something looks like it is close, but really it’s 20-30 minutes away by foot.  We inquired in at a local tourist information center who said to take the castle loop bus around the corner.  So off we went, but we found that we had just missed it and it ran only every half hour.  Walking it was, and boy I was not disappointed.  Before we even got half way to the castle (which is a straight shot down the same street, directly out from the front of the train station) I was falling in love with this city.   The side walks were large and wide with very separate lanes for bikes, walkers and had greenery and lovely art statues every so often.  Little allies that were actually large and long shopping arcades shot off in all directions of the street.  I felt so comfortable to be walking along this street, despite the completely foreign language.

One of many statues that line the street from Himeji station to the castle.

One of many statues that line the street from Himeji station to the castle.

Shopping Arcades off the main road to Himeji Castle.

Shopping Arcades off the main road to Himeji Castle.

As we approached the castle and picked up a brochure and map from the information center, I began to wish we had gotten an earlier start.  We probably wouldn’t have enough time to visit the zoo in addition to the castle.  It turns out Himeji is a place you should spend a couple days!  But alas, we had one, and less than that too.  It was time to get up to that castle and see what was in side this colossus.  I was really glad that I brought the Ergo this time!

Walking up to the main keep of the Castle.  It was above 85 degrees F that day!

Walking up to the main keep of the Castle. It was above 85 degrees F that day!

To go into the main part of the castle, you had to take your shoes off and put them in the plastic bag that was provided for you.  What was not provided, slippers or socks.  So if you were wearing sandals, like the kids and I were, you walked barefoot if you wanted to see the castle.  Just a heads up, when you visit, perhaps you’ll want to wear tennis shoes with socks.

Taking shoes off to go inside the castle.

Taking shoes off to go inside the castle.

There was nothing inside the castle except the incredibly steep stairs that were practically ladders.  You could see however the incredible wood build and design of the castle, Japan’s only major castle that has never been damage in a war.  There was a great view of the grounds and Himeji from the top however.  In all, it was a very beautiful sight to behold.  It lives up to it’s nickname “The White Heron” which is a symbol for the whole city and often manhole covers are adorned with a flock of flying white Herons.

Six floors of these steep steps up and down.

Six floors of these steep steps up and down.

Interior of Himeji Castle.

Interior of Himeji Castle.

I was having such a nice time walking around the castle grounds and had seen many things on the road there that I wanted to go back to, I lost my sense of urgency to get back for the show in Kyoto that night.  I knew there would be other days to do the show in Kyoto, but probably wouldn’t get back to Himeji.  Unfortunately for me, because I only planned to see the castle that day, we had gotten a pretty late start and most things in the area, like the Himeji zoo next to the castle, all closed around 5:00 p.m.  Even though things were all closing up by time we finished the castle tour, I decided to take a stroll through the side shopping promenades that I had seen on the way to the castle.  We looked at a few shops and then came across a cupcake and pastry shop.  I had to go in and we splurged a little before dinner.

Japanese interpretations of French and American desserts.  P.S. Their version of Strawberry Short Cake is better!

Japanese interpretations of French and American desserts. P.S. Their version of Strawberry Short Cake is better!

As we made it back to the train station I tried to think what we could do with the rest of our evening.  I checked in at the JR ticket counter about Kobe.  It wasn’t a place I thought I’d make it to this trip but as I looked through my booklet for the Hyogo area (which Himeji is apart of) and it talked a bit about the Haborland of Kobe and a Ferris wheel and the Anpanman Kids Museum & Mall.  It looked like a fun sight, especially at night and I had read about an all you can eat seafood buffet right on the water with a great view of the light up harbor buildings.  So we hopped on a regional JR train and off we went.

On the train from Himeji to Kobe

On the train from Himeji to Kobe

Once we arrived, we asked for directions to Haborland and wandered our way through the station and the huge Umie shopping mall to get to the harbor shops and restaurants that is called the Mosaic, right on the water.  We came across and escalator that the boys begged to ride it down just to go back up.  Of course I had to say yes!

Cool escalator in the Umie shopping mall at Kobe's Harborland.

Cool escalator in the Umie shopping mall at Kobe’s Harborland.

By chance, one of the first things we saw as we followed paths that looked like they lead to the water was the all you can eat seafood restaurant buffet called the “Fisherman’s Market.”  I saw some pasta and pizza in the window and figured I’d be set for the kids.  They saw us in to a table and through some patience and hand signals, we decided on how much we would be charged based on the kids’ ages, and whether or not we would eat just the food or the food buffet and the drink buffet.  There was a fairly wide selection of choices but all the pasta and pizza had seafood of course.  So it took a little convincing to try a few things even though they looked some what familiar to them.  They also had French fries and what would be close enough to fish sticks.  I made them try some new stuff and then let them have some comfort choices as well.  Plus, the dessert bar with a huge chocolate fountain was a big incentive!  What I liked about this place the most was that they had allergy cards at each station!  So I knew which things would contain wheat.  There was still a chance for gluten, but knowing which things had wheat was a big step because it also told me which things had soy sauce, which is often hard to figure out here since it is a common ingredient.  In addition to the food, the view was spectacular!

View from the Fisherman's Market restaurant in the Mosaic.  At Kobe's Harborland.

View from the Fisherman’s Market restaurant in the Mosaic. At Kobe’s Harborland.

We knew even before dinner that we were there too lake for the kids museum, but what we really came for was the view and the Ferris wheel.  And in that, we were not disappointed!

Ferris wheel at Kobe's Harborland.

Ferris wheel at Kobe’s Harborland.

In all, we had a great evening that was the perfect night cap to a fun day.  Now, we just had to get back to the hotel.  I took the risk again of having 3 sleepy children when we arrived back at Kyoto station.  But I was prepared!  Since I had packed my Ergo, I figured I could just put my 2 year old on my back in case my 5 year old fell asleep on the train. I could then push him in the stroller.  Sure enough, my 5 year old fell asleep, but so did my 7 year old!  To make matters worse, my phone froze up and was not working.  I was in a bit of a panic because I can’t handle being in a foreign place without my phone, just in case.  After a few failed attempts to find something I had to fit in the pin hold to pop out the sim to restart it, I asked a group of business man with my pointing and hand gestures if they had something that could fit.  Thankfully one did, the pin from the back of his name badge!  Good thing for me that people go to work late and come home late!  At 10:00 p.m. the train was packed with business men returning home from work!  With my phone fixed, my last feat was to get all 3 kids off the train.  All 3 dead asleep.

I was the evening’s entertainment. Our skit was an American single white female attempting to move a sleeping toddler from the stroller bassinette position to an Ergo, followed by transforming the stroller into an upright forward facing stroller in which a sleeping 7 year old was placed, then trying to balance a sleeping 5 year old on top of said 7 year old while on a moving train, then exciting the train.  There were several oohs and ahhs.  From there, I had no choice but to take a taxi back to the hotel.  As cheap as I am and hate paying for them, the safety of the kids still comes first and there was no way to get then onto two more subway transfers to the hotel.  But we made it, and I had never been so relieved to find my way to my bed!

The World’s Largest Ice Cave. Our St. Johan im Pongau Vacation. Part Two

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As you may remember from Part One of our August Austrian vacation in Sank Johan im Pongau, we tried to visit the world’s largest ice cave in one hour.  Maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the fact that this was the WORLD’S LARGEST ICE CAVE! After our failure on the first day, we decided to go back the next morning, because, I have to say it again, the world’s largest ice cave!  This was not to be missed, and even though there were several other things in the region that looked very appealing, and this was our last full day, I was determined to see it.  Now, my husband was still unsure that we should attempt such a feat with the kids.  Now, I know that I told you last time that you should listen to dissension among the ranks sometimes, but this was not the time.  Why was this time different than not listening to him before?  Because I knew he wanted to go see it too, he was just unsure the children would make it up to the top.  But, we now had the whole day, not just an hour.  And we’ve been through this debate before “Let’s just go next time. We love this place so much, we’ll come back.”  And then we never do.  So, knowing that the kids actually did fine on the 1st part of the hike we tried before, I was determined that today, with the whole day open ahead of us, we would make it up to the cave.

Brochure for the Eisen Welt (Ice World)

Brochure for the “Eisriesenwelt” (World of Ice Giants).

Arriving just 30 minutes after they opened that morning, we were already parking three phases further away from the entrance, unlike the evening before when we were in the first parking lot.  The weather was gloomy and supposed to rain that day, but the temperature was still mid 50’s Fahrenheit.  We were warned however that it would be much colder in the cave. But having done the first part of the hike the day before, I knew how hot you could get just on the way up.  So, we decided on pants and short sleeve shirts that morning and jackets that could be taken off and tied around the waist.  I knew the stroller was not a good choice to go up the mountain, but I couldn’t remember how far the walk was to the entrance, and that was already up hill.  So we took the stroller up and left it in the locker rooms that were available for rent. Though we just stashed it on the side as it wouldn’t fit.  A risk, but one we figured would be ok given the area.  We purchased our tickets again and started the walk.  This time, I kept it at a pace more enjoyable for all.  With the boys and husband walking along and my 18 month old strapped to my back in the Ergo, up we went.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

The path started out wide and remained nicely graveled, and even paved in some areas, all the way to the gondola.  At the gondola entrance, there was a snack shop with some benches for a pit stop going up or coming down the mountain with drinks, packaged snacks, ice creams and a few hot snacks.  The best part was the bottled water.  The line for the gondola started further back this time, it took us 30 minutes to get to our turn.  The ride itself was smooth but startling if you look down as you get closer to the top.  At one point we were literally being pulled straight up rather than the gradual across and upward slope direction.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

Once at the top, we were greeted by a restaurant, which we noted as an ideal stopping point for the way back.  The 2nd trail of the hike up was more narrow than the first, but plenty wide enough for people to stand 4 by 4 across so you could go up and people could come down without a problem passing each other.  Some parts of the trail were covered with a nicely built awning.  The scary part was, you were winding up the side of the mountain, and it was steep up at the top.  There was a guard rail the entire way up to the mouth of the cave, however it was merely two wood logs between posts.  It was a good thing Madelyn was content with riding on my back, at one point she even fell asleep.  Our children, fortunately, are used to traveling and trusting in our guidance in new situations,  so when we’d tell them not to do something or where to walk, they listened.  But if your children are a bit more adventurous and don’t always like to stop climbing or running around when you tell them, this could be a more stressful or dangerous trip.  Just on the other side of the “fence” is a deadly drop over the side of the mountain.  This again reminded me of how lucky I was to have my husband for this experience.  Even with my daughter on my back, it was necessary to have those extra set of hands, and I hadn’t even saw what was in store for us INSIDE the cave!  After winding our way up the 2nd hiking path to the mouth of the cave, there were several terraced benches with a steep view of the valley below and surrounding mountains.  We were all happy to have a rest on the benches after the long hike.  There were a couple benches along the way to stop too.  But it was nothing like finally reaching your destination.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

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A view of the winding trail up to the mouth of the cave.

While the parking lot was crowded, the wait for the actual tours once you got to the top was not long at all.  We only had to wait about 5 minutes for our English speaking tour to begin.  As we gathered around to hear the rules before going into the cave, they handed out our open flame lanterns to light the way.  Only natural light is permitted inside the cave for preservation purposes.  The guides use magnisium strips to light certain areas once inside.  After the door was open to enter the cave, you experience a huge rush of wind.  Then with your open flame lanterns in hand, you proceed on a short path to the first flight of stairs.  We were ultimately about to climb up and down a total of 1,400 steps throughout the tour.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

We had to climb two very tall flights of stairs in the beginning of the tour.  Then there were some flat trails along boardwalks around some of the sculptures.  The ice “sculptures” as they called them, were very beautiful and impressive.  There were about 5 different main formations along the way.  The hardest part was being stressed over the lanterns and making sure that however we held them that one of the kids didn’t turn slightly into the flame.  There are also a couple main areas along the tour where you and another tour group pass by each other on the way in and out of the turn around.  There is only a bar rail separating the path and not a full barrier and some of the other tourist would just carry their lanterns in the hand next to the rail so that it risked brushing up with the tourist walking on the other side.  Several times I had to step to the side so as not to get burned by their lanterns.  Besides the acute awareness you must have while walking up and down the stairs and along the paths of this 70 minute tour inside the cave, the ice sculptures themselves are breathtaking.  One the one hand, I was really sad that I would not be able to take pictures inside the cave.  I desperately wanted to catch the beauty and magnificants of this place.  But, I will admit, being forced to experience very second with wide eyes and not camera lense, did make me appreciate what I was seeing even more.  You really got to take it all in rather than worry about taking a picture.  And in the end, that was the best part.  It was like we were lost in an exciting underground world.  I did however purchase a couple of postcards from the gift shop to remember how amazing it was inside.  Here is one of the official postcards from the visitor’s center.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

You might be wondering how the kids did trekking up and down all 1400 stairs?  Well, the 18 month old slept through half of it in the Ergo on my back, and when she woke up, I think she was so confused she spent the rest of the time just looking around trying to figure out where she was.  As for the 4 and 6 year olds, we didn’t get much complaints at all.  During the longest stair stretch of about 200 steps, there were one or two questions of how many more.  But they got a kick out of counting the stairs and that kept them pretty amazed on those parts since it was a new thing that year to count up to 100, and now they were past that!  Our 4 year old did complain of being too cold when we got into the deepest part of the cave, but other than that, they did great, especially with the promise of hot chocolate and kaiserschmarrn waiting for them at the restaurant we saw at the top of the gondola.  Once we got back to the mouth of the cave and returned our lanterns, we look one last resting break on the terraced benches to take in the view before the walk down.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

The walk back down the trail to the gondola decent post and restaurant was of course much easier and faster than going up.  We ducked into the restaurant just as we realized that we had left our umbrellas at the mouth of the cave where the tours meet (they were not allowed inside the cave and we wouldn’t have been able to carry them anyways).  Had they just been one or two cheap umbrellas that we bought at a drug store, we would have left them, but they had been gifts so my husband graciously agreed to hike back up to the mouth of the cave while I saw at a nice warm table in the corner of the restaurant.  It was very crowded and we just lucked into a corner booth table and chairs just before a big rush came in.  There were several tables with people that had reserved signs on them, so I think that you can make a reservation when you get off the gondola so that you have a table to come back to after the tour.  We did not do this and took our chances and it turned out nicely, that time.  But given the crowds, service was very slow.  In fact, it took my husband nearly 40 minutes to go up and get the umbrellas and come back and we had only ordered and received drinks.  But the kids got their Austrian, powder sugar dusted, crumbled up pancakes (kaiserschmarrn) and hot chocolate so they were all happy campers.

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

By time we got back to the car, we had been gone for 6 hours.  I couldn’t believe we had spent that much time on one attraction, and I had no regrets, including the 2 hours it took to have “snack” at the restaurant before going back down the gondola.  I was so proud, not just of my kids, but of us as a family.  We endured a fairly physical activity, supported one another through it, and got to experience a “once in a life-time” sight with the five of us all together!  It was a good day.