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3 September 14

Although it’s half the size of Tasmania, Denmark sprawls across an untidy collection of peninsulas and islands with a bridge connecting it to Sweden. In basing ourselves in the second-largest city of Århus for a week, we missed out on exploring almost half the country — including Copenhagen. However, we found more than enough to keep us busy in Jutland.

Climbing up a stair of too-many steps, outside Aarhus, Denmark, September 2014
Because we're staying in the city centre, we soon find that we just want to be outside in the bush for a while, so we investigate natural playgrounds and native reserves.

Lana paddling in the water outside, Aarhus, Denmark, September 2014
When we stop to investigate the beach, Lana can't resist the lure of the water, but its cool temperature doesn't tempt her linger.

We reached Århus after a stopover in Moscow and an overnight at a Copenhagen hotel.

Lana wearing an Aeroflot mask, August 2014
Once on board our Aeroflot flight from Beijing, the girls are thrilled with the toy packs that are distributed by the cabin crew. This is the first non-budget airline we've taken on our trip, and the difference in service (especially to passengers with children) is very pronounced.

View of planes from Moscow's Terminal D, August 2014
We have quite a long layover in Moscow, but upon discovering a strictly-supervised "Mother's Room" in one corner of Terminal E, we're able to rest and play until it's time for our flight.

After all our international flights, the 2.5 hour flight from Moscow to Copenhagen was by far the most difficult for our family. We were still on Australian/Beijing time-zones and so all the girls slept on the plane and — feeling like it was about 3 in the morning — had difficulty waking at our destination. In a comical performance, Brioni kept falling back asleep as soon as she had acknowledged she was awake, and it was hard to get her to stand up and walk off the plane. I ended up carrying both Calista and Lana off the plane with the cabin crew following behind with our hand luggage. I had actually carried Delaney onto the plane fast asleep — she had fallen asleep in the Moscow airport — and she didn’t wake until the next morning at the hotel! Thankfully, our hotel was directly adjacent to the airport, so we didn’t have to go far in such a state of fatigue.

Aisha looking at breakfast options, August 2014
Our Copenhagen hotel offers a free self-serve breakfast bar from 4 to 6 am, which means that when a child wakes at 4.30 saying she's hungry, I know just where to go!

Aisha arranging the bObles foam blocks at Hilton Copenhagen, August 2014
Trust the Danes to come up with a simple idea that keeps children like mine amused for hours. The girls played on, with, and around these high-density foam blocks for hours!

Our arrival in Denmark has felt like a cultural shock. My first task was to purchase four car-seats for use during our travels in Europe. All the countries have slightly different regulations, but because we’ll be passing through so many of them, I needed to cater to the highest common denominator. Germany has the strictest laws regarding car-seats — children under 12yo and 135cm tall must remain in a booster-seat. This meant that I had to get four booster seats for our travels — whereas in Australia we only use two. I had researched online, discovered what the Danes called booster seats and found a retailer who sold them and was open on a Saturday! This was our first stop once we had collected our hire-car from Århus airport.

I had inadvertently selected a huge department store — much bigger than anything we have in Australia — that served as a combination of Woolworths (supermarket), Big W (department store) and Mitre 10 (hardware) combined. It was only after we arrived at the store that I realised that half of Denmark was shopping alongside us. I’m not an eager shopper at the best of times, and the size of the shop and newness of the language — along with the weekend crowd — felt very overwhelming to me. One great mystery was all the shoppers with their trolleys. Everyone had a shopping trolley except me, and I couldn’t see anywhere from which to obtain one. To add to my stress, I hadn’t been able to change money and wasn’t certain that my brand-new credit card would actually work!

We wandered through the huge warehouse of a store before finally locating a staff member who could speak English and could point us in the direction of the car-seats. Then it was time for a food-shop. In browsing the items in the aisles, I realised how much I rely on the ingredient labels on processed products before I make the decision to purchase something. In Australia, I either stick with trusted products or read the labels carefully. This is very important, especially to Brioni who doesn’t want to inadvertently consume any dairy or egg. Perhaps I expected more items would have English labels, or — more likely — I didn’t expect anything at all and felt that with the internet on my side I could handle any gaps in my knowledge of Danish. However, having just arrived, I was still without mobile internet access, I couldn’t translate the unpronounceable words I was reading, and I felt quite powerless and overwhelmed by it all.

Soon I announced to the girls that I felt overwhelmed by the crowds and the the newness of the situation. We chose semi-familiar products from the fresh-food section, settled on a few products and exited to the carpark. The revolving door at the entrance to the store was a novelty for the girls, and a safety-mechanism stalled its movement if they got too close to the glass. For me, their experimentation felt like a fine balance between exploration and torture as I just wanted to retreat and rest. On the way out I finally located and identified the trolley bays. In Australia, paid employees or contractors collect the shopping trolleys and bring them in-store for the the convenient use of shoppers. In Denmark, the trolleys remain outside in the carpark — held ransom with coin-operated locks — and so shoppers have to collect their own trolley before they enter the store. Once I understood the system, it made sense, but for a while there it felt bewildering.

We’ve borrowed a small apartment in the centre of Århus for a week. I felt that we needed somewhere in which to settle while we adjust to the different currency, language, time-zone and way of life. This time with a smaller hire-car will also allow me to become used to driving on the right before we move into a bigger campervan for our tour of other countries.

Our first couple of days was spent in and around home. The girls and I slowly adjusted to the European time-zone and learned to navigate our way around Århus, stopping at small playgrounds and exploring the natural parks. The first major attraction we visited was one spotted by the girls while they were reading a promotional magazine at the airport — a wildlife park with wolves!

Skandinavisk Dyrepark

Skandinavisk Dyrepark is a wildlife park near Tilst in the northeast of Jutland. The park has several kilometres of tracks to walk around with northern European native animals in “natural-looking” ranges. We visited primarily for the opportunity to see the wolves but discovered that the playful polar bears and awesome mammoth exhibit were more fun. The largest polar bear likes to jump up out of the water, lunging at the spectators on the wooden walkway above his pond. It’s scary but also fun, and the girls would move from one side of the walkway to the other to call to the bear.

In the mammoth exhibit, everything is free-to-touch except for the ancient mammoth skeleton. This sort of interactivity means that we can properly examine the bones, marvel at the weight of the mammoth tooth and feel the texture of the different animal furs. I appreciate places like this that allow a healthy level of participation with the exhibits.

The park sells food to feed the deer and goats and provides wildlife talks at various times throughout the day. A fabulous playground at the half-way-point picnic ground is worth the admission price alone. We’ve never seen a climbing mountain (volcano?) quite like it, and the all-timber obstacle course kept the girls entertained for almost an hour.

Horsens museum

The museum visit was a bit of a mistake. Although I was aiming for the Industrial Museum, we mistakenly spent half a day at the more modest Horsens museum because it was so fun. Horsens is the birthplace of Vitus Bering — he who charted the Bering Strait, proving to European scientists that Asia and North America were not connected by land. His grave was excavated in 1991 and the museum has replicated it (and his skeleton) and then built a comprehensive exhibit around his life and death. Downstairs, in a very child-friendly room, children are invited to climb into a pit of fake dirt (I didn’t know such a thing existed!) and excavate the skeletal bones that are buried. Other activities included bone puzzles, worksheets and colouring-in sheets.

It was difficult to get the girls to leave the skeletal exhibit to explore the other floors of the museum, but when we did, it was only to learn that other rooms were even more fun! One large room is devoted to illustrating and explaining Danish idioms and proverbs. Another wing of the museum displays an impressive collection of vintage toys, along with a puppet theatre, dress-up room and toy collection for children to play with. Our visit to the Horsens Museum was so successful that we only left when it was closing time, and the girls have begged to return to it … so we may never actually get to the Industrial Museum at all!

Girls playing at Horsens Museum, October 2014
During our visits to the Horsens Museum, the girls play for hours at the toy exhibits made especially child-friendly, and this remains one of their favourite places in Denmark.

Water labyrinth

Our time in Århus coincided nicely with the Århus festival, so many extra art exhibits and activites were on offer. Our favourite independent installation was Jeppe Hein’s water labyrinth. Located outside, it’s a square platform fountain of varying drops that appear in a line, creating a maze where any willing participant can navigate a path that keeps them dry while still surrounding them with a wall of water. When the paths change, the water starts off at a low pressure, giving fair warning if you happen to be standing in the wrong spot! West Australians can experience one of Hein’s water labyrinths at Forrest Place in Perth.

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29 August 14

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 14

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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