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I'm a nomadic mama with four lovely daughters. We're travelling Australia in a small housebus — meeting inspiring people, learning lots and re-thinking everything. I feel passionately about travel, good design, alternative education and conscious parenting.

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29 August 2014, 11:20

Two days is hardly enough understand a different country, culture and way of life, but we learned a lot during our brief time in Beijing. I’m glad the girls have experienced a taste of China. It’s been a positive encounter for them, one that has whet their appetites for more!

Before we reached China, one of the challenges I faced was booking a place that could accommodate our four-kid family. Although we co-sleep (and can fit together on a king-sized bed), hotels have their fire regulations which dictate how many people can fit into a room. Add to that a cultural norm of one or two children, and we’re pretty odd as a family! I did manage to book a two-bedroom apartment for a reduced rate in a hotel that’s currently undergoing renovations, and when I arrived I was astounded at the high quality of the room which included a kitchenette, washing/drying machine and full living/dining rooms.

I loved soaking in the extra-long bath and washing my hair (just with water — I went off shampoo years ago) with the never-ending supply of hot water! The girls enjoyed the breakfast bar — with continental, Chinese and fresh-food options. Because we had a kitchen, we could store and prepare food instead of always relying on restaurants. We’ve only packed a couple of sets of clothes, and so the option to wash and dry clothes means that when we left China, it was with absolutely no dirty laundry!

Lana and Aisha co-sleeping in a Beijing hotel, August 2014
In the morning, I'm amused to find the girls sleeping in close proximity to each other despite the generous size of the bed!

Aisha hair-drying Lauren's dreadlocks, August 2014
I was thrilled to find a hairdryer in the hotel room to use after washing my dreadlocks, and after she was introduced to it, Aisha used it after every shower!

Girls playing in the kids' club room at Ascott Beijing, August 2014
Even though the facilities are quite simple, the girls love playing in the kids' room at our hotel. I like the fact that it includes a free milo/coffee/hot-juice (yes, hot juice!) dispenser.

Venturing out from the hotel in the middle of the day, we quickly learned to walk in the shade and to only cross roads in the company of other pedestrians — regardless of what the traffic light gave us permission to do! The girls’ responses to the 30ºC temperature reminded me that our time in the cooler climes of Australia has morphed us into a cooler-weather family.

Finding food to suit our tastes wasn’t a problem. Street vendors sell fruit salad and freshly-squeezed juices. Little shops stock fresh fruit and vegies, and dragon fruit, melons and cherry tomatoes are currently in season. We sampled local dates and nuts and discovered that dried strawberries are as tasty as dried mango. Local restaurants provide a variety of dishes based on fungus, tofu and vegetables. The girls love both rice and noodles, and I was encouraged by their enthusiasm for new flavours.

The legendary traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected, although there’s almost a complete disregard for traffic signs and signals. Drivers respond accordingly — driving defensively — and pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and cars share the road at a moderate speed and with the deftness of dancers.

I was surprised to learn for the first time about the road space rationing in Beijing where private car-use is limited to certain days based on the last digit on the license plate. This meant that our driver used a friend to take us to the airport today because his vehicle wasn’t permitted within the fifth ring road from 7am to 8pm. It seems like an obvious amelioration of the traffic situation, but when I asked Cheryl about it, she laughed and said that wealthy people buy a second car with a different license plate so they’re not forced to take public transport or travel outside peak times!

Lana looking out the window at the Beijing skyline, August 2014
The view from our hotel includes the sci-fi-looking, newly-completed People's Daily newspaper headquarters.

The People’s Daily headquarters infamously had a more phallic appearance during construction, provoking worldwide jokes about the official newspaper of the PRC.

I loved the opportunity to see many of the iconic Beijing buildings in person. Some of them were visible from our hotel, and others flashed by as we drove around town. Many are world-famous after the Olympics, and a few were completely new to me. Our guide, Linda, proudly pointed out the Pangu dragon hotel — a seven-star establishment whose buildings form the stylised shape of a dragon.

Fairmont Beijing hotel, as seen from SOHO, Chaouang District, August 2014
As we walk along the city streets, we catch a glimpse of pink glass of the Fairmont hotel up ahead.

CCTV headquarters and China Garments Mansion, Chaoyang District, Beijing, August 2014
As we cross a busy road, two more iconic buildings rise before us: the twisted CCTV headquarters and the round China Garments Mansion.

Although we didn’t practice much Mandarin with the locals, the girls’ awareness of written Chinese has been practically enhanced by our book The Pet Dragon. After revising with the book each day, we started recognising characters all around us. With the help of our guide and driver, we quickly learned to decipher other common phrases such as “Bei Jing” and “Middle Country” (China).

I feel a pang of awareness that — although they’re privileged to be growing up literate within an English-speaking country — I’m not giving my children an immersive experience into another culture and language. At Lana’s age, I was speaking Hausa fluently, and at sixteen I realised I spoke better French than my mother.

Occasionally, I was amused by English written on signs. I didn’t see a lot of Chinglish — unlike during my 2009 visit to Hong Kong — but there were a few gems worth recording.

Chinglish sign, Beijing, August 2014
When you're serving a city of 21 million people, there are bound to be complaints — specific complaints, even. It's more efficient to provide the people with a direct number to dial when they want to complain about the prices at the Summer Palace Imperial Gardens.

Chinglish on an ATM, Beijing, China, August 2014
"Cash recycling system" makes a whole lot of sense. After all, an ATM *is* a machine that redistributes notes back into circulation!

Service rater at desk of clerk, Beijing, China, August 2014
"Please leave your valuable opinions", the gadget invites. This picture is taken at a bank, but I first saw an electronic service-rater at the immigration desk in the airport. I'm equally enthralled and appalled by such a transparent method of rating someone's service. After receiving slow service both times, I wonder — what is the norm for China? — and thus I decline to register my opinion.

My highlight of our visit to Beijing was the opportunity to catch up with my sister-in-law Cheryl. She and David’s brother Ben have been living in China since November 2008. That’s a long time, and we’ve each had babies since then. Obviously we needed to talk about David and Elijah — something that’s always better done in person — and it was fascinating to hear about the Fishers’ life in the context of what I had seen of Beijing.

Cheryl serving dinner, Beijing, August 2014
For dinner, Cheryl serves us up a mixed treat of Western and Chinese dishes. The girls try a little bit of everything and settle on the tastes that they like.

The girls responded to Cheryl’s warmth and we savoured her treats. She met us again this morning and accompanied us part-way to the airport. It’s been special to re-establish contact with her, and I’m glad that our trip to China has accomplished that! As we fly on to Europe, we’re taking away a good feeling about Beijing — about China! — and perhaps even an inclination to see more of it in the future.

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28 August 2014, 20:27

What’s not to love about Chinese acrobats and dancers in fabulous costume and contortionate positions? The Chaoyang Theater Flying Acrobatic Show comes highly recommended — both by locals and by tourists — and we pre-booked tickets for the early (5.30pm) show so we wouldn’t be out too late.

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
Dressed in a dramatic style, the Chaoyang Theatre is relatively small, so almost every row has a good view.

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
Acrobats juggle and tumble and jump to impossibly tall heights to somersault through hoops. It's amazing to watch!

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
Each act features a different digital backdrop that changes the mood. In this lotus-flower performance, a troupe of teenage girls contorted and balanced themselves into pyramids.

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
The hat-jugglers are comical with their golden outfits and exaggerated movements.

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
Bowls are superbly balanced while the gymnasts also balance on each other. At one point, the stack of bowls fell — revealing that they're not really ceramic, nor are they separable! (This revelation took away some of the mystique and charm of the performance.)

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
The two hamster-wheels rotated around while the men took turns trick-walking on the outside or the inside of them.

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
At least a dozen dancers balance on a single bicycle as it rides around in circles. The all started out on their own bicycles and eventually moved onto the same one.

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
When the first motorcyclist came out, revved his engine and then drove into the caged dome, I was convinced that the stunt was madness. By the time the number of motorcycles driving around the dome tripled — around and upside and somehow never colliding — I was sure they're not being paid enough!

Chaoyang Theatre Flying Acrobatic Show, Beijing, August 2014
We maxxed out at eight. There are five bikers driving around the cage and three more revving to join them. I doubt I'd see a stunt like this in any other country in the world!

I thought I took lots of photos of all the acts, but when sitting next to me and reviewing the photos, Calista said that her two favourite stunts — one involving drums and the other involving a stack of wine-goblets — weren’t shown. My favourite mental memory from the show is seeing the girls’ faces as they watched the performers. In a cute move that charmed her neighbours, Brioni considerately placed her toys on the backs of the seats so they could all see.

We love the curtain-call because we get to see the performers in their original costumes again!

It’s only a one-hour show, but after our busy day, that was still too long for four-year-old Lana who curled up in my lap and fell asleep. The other three girls remained enthralled throughout the performances, responding to the set-changes, extravagant costumes, the beat of the music and the thrill of the acts. It wasn’t so much of an introduction to Chinese culture as simply a form of pure entertainment, and I’m glad we fit the Chaoyang Theatre show into our whirlwind tour of Beijing’s highlights!

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28 August 2014, 17:00

720 square acres of highly-decorative parklands seems too ambitious for even our family to explore in one day, but after the long drive to and from the Great Wall of China, I wanted the girls to run freely and explore. We visited the Summer Palace Imperial Gardens during the Chinese school holidays, so it felt very busy, but our tour-guide Linda showed us the major highlights and kept us rounded-up amidst the crowds.

Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
The gate to the imperial gardens is guarded by two lions. One has its paw on a ball, the other on a cub. Linda invited us to guess which one was male and which was female.

Kumming Lake, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
In the centre of the gardens, Kumming Lake covers about 540 acres — and is entirely man-made. It served first as a reservoir for the town water in the twelfth century. The dirt from its excavation became the adjacent Longevity Hill, upon which perches the Temple of Buddhist Virtue and other imperial buildings.

Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
Many of the buildings on site were once functional office or entertainment spaces. Now they're maintained as historical relics. The details in the paintings and carvings are amazing.

Detail of carved stone flower, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
Much of the original carved stone is well-weathered by exposure to the elements, but I locate an intact flower still clinging to the internal corner of a wall.

Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
Each of the windows is a different shape at the Happiness is Longevity House.

Kumming Lake, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
The lake is relatively shallow — mostly around 1.5 metres deep — and was dredged in the early 1990s, clearing it of several unexploded Japanese bombs from WWII.

Tree at Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
This tree's roots are rubbed smooth by countless generations. I love the juxtaposition of the parallel planks of the deck with the organic shape of the living wood.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
728-metres of paintings in the covered timber walkway called the Long Corridor alleviated the boredom of past imperial families. When we visit, there's a steady stream of Chinese tourists walking its length, taking pictures and remarking on the artworks.

Yunhui Yuyu Archway, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
This amazing gate — the Yunhui Yuyu Archway — is also known as the Glowing Clouds and Holy Land Archway. I feel like I'm looking at a cliché when I see structures like this, but this is absolutely the genuine article from which all the knock-offs are inspired!

Restaurant, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
The red lanterns around the perimeter of this building that serves as a restaurant catch our attention. We're too early for the Autumn-moon festival (which coincided with my visit to Hong Kong in 2009), and from the girls' responses to this small display of festivity, I know they would enjoy being in a Chinese city during festival-time.

Marble boat, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
A marble boat sits in the waters of Kumming Lake. With marble representing the imperial family and water representing the masses, the boat's designer is quoted as saying, "the waters that float the boat can also swallow it" — a not-so-subtle warning to the emperor!

Dragon Boat on Lake Kumming, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
The dragon boats cross the lake purely as a pleasure ride, and we board one to return back to where we started.

Details on a Dragon Boat on Lake Kumming, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
Even the boat's interior is intricately painted. A sign placed up high tells us how many passengers the boat can hold. Since we've been learning Chinese characters, the girls have been recognising words everywhere!

Seventeen-Arch Bridge, Summer Palace Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China, August 2014
The Seventeen-Arch Bridge was built in the eighteenth century.

Cheryl Fisher with Calista, Brioni and Aisha, Beijing, August 2014
The girls' Aunt Cheryl is waiting for us on the shore. She and I caught up late last night, but this is the first time Cheryl has seen the girls in four years! Our visit to China was originally booked so our girls could visit their Chinese cousins, but last-minute travel means they're currently out of the country.

Although we only explored this fantastic parkland for a couple hours, with Linda’s guidance it was the perfect introduction to a whole lot of Chinese history and culture. I’m fascinated that this is not just a tourist attraction for foreigners — so many locals come here too. We’ve only skimmed the outskirts of the Summer Palace’s beauty, but I’m glad we were able to see what we have!

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