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Oct. 6th, 2017

Mediterranean trip day 10

Last official tour day; tomorrow we head back to the US.

This morning we hit the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, both museums now within walking distance of our hotel (called Sura). The palace is a little bit reminiscent of the Forbidden Palace, if only in gaudiness, though of course not nearly as big as the chinese emperor's epeen.

Lunch was at a random restaurant and not much of note. Afterwards we visited the Basilica Cistern, which was pretty cool and Moria-esque. Unfortunately my camera couldn't see a thing down there and gave up the last of its battery trying. Oh well, just as well I didn't need it anymore.

The remaining afternoon was spent at the grand bazaar. I got my Istanbul T-shirt for the collection. My mom spent the rest of our Euros on some scarves and a lamb-skin jacket. Pft.

Dinner was at this seafood place. Their grilled bass (and other fish servings) were pretty good. Comparatively, though, I'd say I've preferred the Greek restaurants to the Turkish ones (cruise excepted). Better salads and more tender meats.

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Oct. 5th, 2017

Mediterranean trip day 9

Aka day 2 Istanbul. Also, it appears Turkey is a kitty kingdom too. Cats cats everywhere.

Our hotel is very well located, so our morning walk passed by several items of interest, including the outside of the hippodrome, an Egyptian obelisk and the original of a spire we just saw days ago in Delphi.

First major tour spot was the Blue Mosque, and all the women had to put on head scarves to get in. Otherwise, thr inside aesthetics seemed pretty similar to medieval cathedrals to me. =P

Then the Chora, a church turned mosque turned museum, known for its frescoes and mosaics.

Then the...Sulaiman Mosque (?).

After that we had lunch near the Egyptian spice bazaar. Grilled fish sandwich sold off a boat. Kinda gimmicky, and taste was meh otherwise. Afterwards we had time to shop a bit, and ended up buying 2 boxes of Turkish Delights.

Afternoon was a 2 hour cruise on the Bosphorus Strait, which was pretty cool to have Europe on one side and Asia the other.

Finally, after a brief rest at the hotel, dinner was at a nightclub with a (traditional?) Turkish dance show. Yes, with bellydancers.

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Oct. 4th, 2017

Mediterranean trip day 8

Our last destination in Greece this morning was the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. A very pretty place, but it was on the way there that I had my completely unrelated epiphany on just why the Hetalia character for Greece was a narcoleptic cat lover.

If I had to estimate the number of cats I've seen so far on this tour, it would be *at least* 5, per *day*. And I'm not talking half wild cats that are appropriately wary or humans. These are all domesticated felines just placidly waiting for tourist to coo over/pet/feed them.

Also, Greeks have a waaaay easy lifestyle. Most retail stores only open 3-4 days a week, and even places that do open daily for tourist have short hours by US or Chinese standards.

Also noticed that even the middle of Athens is closer to US suburbia in the amount of foot and car traffic you would typically see on the street. That is to say, very little of anything seems to be going on. The only places that are full of people are the tourist spots.

Comparatively, arriving at Istanbul this afternoon was rather reminiscent of arriving in China (or HK or Taiwan, etc.) in terms of all the masses of people, construction, and general activity.

(Current time is 9:15 pm)

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Oct. 3rd, 2017

Mediterranean trip day 7

Left Paktos at a leisurely 830 am today. On the way out of town, we drove its venetian harbor and some old castle.

Then it was a long drive across the bridge to the Pelopponesian (sp?) peninsula and over to the Olympia archaeological site. More walking, ruins, and museum with statues of nekkid men (with the dangly bits on display). *eye waggle*

Then a lunch at a place near the museum, befor starting the long drive back, this time by way of the bridge over the Corinthian canal. It looked more narrow than I expected, but apparently all canals are like that and modern ships do make use of it.

The hotel tonight is the same one in Athens that we first used, Elektra Palace, though not the same rooms obviously. Ah the small niceties of a 5 star hotel...

(Currently 9:20pm)

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Oct. 2nd, 2017

Mediterranean trip / Agean cruise (day 3-5 + 6)

Current time is 9:25 pm.

My last 3 or so days were spent on a cruise ship, where Wi-fi was hella expensive. So didn't get a chance to post interim updates. Figured I'd just do a data dump now.

Day 3

Took all morning to check onto the Celestyal Olympia. My first time on a cruise ship, so lessons learned: they take your passports for the duration of the trip, but on the bright side, we didn't need to present either passport or visa on our one stop in Turkey.

Jetlag mixed with a bit if sea sickness was the pits on this first day, but it cleared up mostly after a night's sleep on board.

In the afternoon, we stopped at the island of Mykonos, a cozy and windy seaside tourist trap. Has dinner there as well. Grilled fish, although fresh, was rather meh. The tiger shrimp were slightly better.

Day 4

Landed in Kusadasi, Turkey for the morning, and the cruise also provided a local guide. This guy was the best tour guide we had so far (up to day 6).

First tour destination was the House of Virgin Mary. I'm not Christian, so it was kinda meh to me.

Second destination was the ancient city of Ephesus. Now this was more like it. We walked for hours in the archaeological site of the Roman city, covering everything from the gymnasium, forum, temple, fountains, baths, bathrooms, library, to theater. All marble all the time. It was pretty awesome.

On our way back to the ship, we also stopped at Turkmen, apparently a government sponsored place to do/teach/sell handmade carpets. Unfortunately our tour group were all American-Chinese, so no one bought anything.

There was another tour announced in the afternoon for Patmos, another religious place, but I wasn't interested and didn't go.

Day 5

Morning was Crete. We saw thwe archaeological site of the Minoan palace of Knossos. Not was intact as Ephesus but it is a much older city. Then we did a brief tour of Heraklion, apparently the capital. But as it was Sunday, not much was open.

In the afternoon we arrived at Santorini to look at the sights. Unfortunately thick clouds rolled in about 10 mins to sunset, sono one got to see it that day. Not that we'd have been able to anyway, due to bus and ship schedules.

Had lobster on the ship for dinner. While the lobster was quite big and cheaper than in the US, the cooking was mediocre.

Day 6

Docked back at th Piraeus port in Athens. Apparently this major Grecian port is now 60-80% Chinese owned nowadays. Hah.

Then had a 2 hour drive up to the monastery of St. Lucas. Expacted sights of medieval religious building.

Had lunch at this random place, which was actually rather good.

Then drove over to Delphi and the archaeological site of the temple of Apollo. Not much remaining to see...

Finally, our hotel tonight is in a random small town on the way back to Athens, called Nafpaktos. Ok place, good view of the bay at least.

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Sep. 28th, 2017

Mediterranean trip day 2

Current time 9:07 pm

Took an Athens city tour today. Started off with a quick driveby of the Temple of Zeus (or remnants thereof) and a bit of Hadrian's Wall. Then headed to the Athens city Acropolis which is the main attraction of the city. It involved a long climb up jagged and slippery marble paths through to the Parthenon. And from the higher vantage, we could see below the smaller temples and the Theater of Dionysus.

Afterwards, feet still sore from the long line getting out of the Parthenon, we went over to the new museum and walked through allof the major exhibitions. I have to mention here that for today's tour, we actually had a local guide doing much of the show and tell in English. Unfortunately, her accent was impenetrable and her English vocabulary was kinda...lacking too. Oh eell, I'm sure most of the historical into cam be found online anyway.

Afterwards, there were some more drive-by sightseeing. There was the Parliament building, the three neoclassical buildings built in the 19th (?) century: a library, a museum, and a...university? Etc. We did make a stop for the original olympic stadium though.

Finally,we paused for a very late lunch, for which I just got a sandwich to go and ate at the hotel. Then there was a brief pause at the hotel (for siesta or whatever they call it here?) And its straight to dinner at a local small restaurant. That wasn't too interesting. We did do some shopping along the small street shops after. Got a T-shirt to go with my Auusie/NZ one.

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Sep. 27th, 2017

Mediterranean trip day 1

Currently 11:47 pm in Athens.

It was a 13 hour flight to Instanbul (over the US and Atlantic), and then a transfer backwards to Athens. Eh, something something prices I guess.

Turkish Airlines was kinda meh. No adjustable fans for cooling downn and food was blah. Watched 3 in flight movies and stuck to light stuff like Ice Age (Collision Course), Kungfu Panda 3, and Lego Batman. KP3 was a great laugh, but I thought the other two were trying too hard.

Also, while waiting at the airport, I browsed a bit on the details of the new Star Trek Discovery pilot. Not too impressed, honestly. Sounded to me like they tried to do Kelvinverse style squished into Prime universe, and I'm not just referring to the lens flares.

To wit: A tramatised faux-emo main character which is going to a actual main character (since when has any Prime Trek had a series MC?) and whose backstory reads like a bad fanfic Mary Sue. Seriously, haven't they learned from the last time they tried to give Spock a sibling?

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Jan. 23rd, 2017

Hawaii Day 5

Finished the last day of our Hawaiian tour with Maui. Not much to say about this island...we preety much just hit a series of beaches, and they weren't even all that different from one another. I'm guessing this was the island you come to to have fun, not to spectate.

There were two highlights today though. One was lunch, surprisingly. We finally were introduced to a chinese place, and we ordered an steamed local fish. It was a flounder like thing whose name escapes me, but was tasty (and expensive, but oh well).

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Jan. 22nd, 2017

Hawaii Day 4

Got up at 5 in the morning to catch the early flight to Hilo (the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands). Looks like today was sunny in Honolulu...but foggy and sprinkly in Hilo. Boo.

After we got to Hilo, our first stop was a beach named...Richardson? I didn't catch it, but it was a black sand beach. We got to take a few pics of the waves breaking over the volcanic ricks before we were told the beach was closing due to advisory warnings. Hm.

Next was a small waterfall called Rainbow Falls, which I'm sure is normally pretty, were the sun out to actually form a rainbow. Yeah, with the day's foggy weather, it was just a small yellowish waterfall.

Lunch was meh, though the gardens next to the restaurant was nice (even if they added a charge for it to the meal fee). The rain kinda put a kibosh at looking at the place closer than from the covered walkways though.

Afternoon, we went over to the Mauna Loa caldera, I guess it's called. Couldn't see much given the rain (or just the wind blowing the clouds into our faces), but we managed to make our the caldera mouth and at least one active lava plume. It was way too far/vague to photograph though.

We also visited a lava tube, which was neat eccept for the wet puddles and the rain on the was to the entrance. Sigh.

New hotel for the night, then tomorrow we hit Maui before heading back to Honolulu.

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Jan. 20th, 2017

Hawaii Day 2

Got up before dawn to visit Pearl Harbor right as it opened. Apparently lines are horrible there afterwards. Had a single sandwich for breakfast from the gift shop there. (Ugh, our itinerary for most of the days in Hawaii involves setting out before breakfast hours; no wonder our hotel reservations didn't include breakfast even though the hotel has that service.)

Anyway. Pearl Harbor. Saw the wreck/memorial of the U.S.S. Arizona. Watched a movie about the attack. There were also a coupleof small museums that were information's but not very photogenic.

Lunch was a udon place near our hotel, chosen because it was one of the few places open before 11. The place was still quite popular even as we were leaving closer to lunch hours though. I did like its a la cart tempura selection.

In the afternoon, visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. Pretty plave with pretty people and a LOT of dancing and singing (hollering). I liked the fire dances most of all. Those were...hot (badum-tish)

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Jan. 19th, 2017

Aloha Day 1

Flew to Honolulu this morning, and arrived to a warm summer temperature. I can see why Hawaii is such a nice tourist place. You get perrenial summers and none of the scary bugs from Australia.

Anyway, took a cruise on the Star of Honolulu in the evening. The view was pretty good, and there was even a whale sighting! Alas, it was too quick and shy to captute on camera. Also, there were some nice dances for entertainment.

The food...ugh, in hindsight we should've bought the deluxe ticket instead of basic. Apparently for just $10 more, you get lobster. Sigh. The tour pamphlet said it was just crab legs. Those were not crab legs I saw at the other tables. Actually, it turns out there were three tiers and only the five star one has lobster. But our tour service only offers the 3 & 4 star tiers, so we weren't missing out on anything after all. Ah well.

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Jan. 2nd, 2015

Home Sweet Home

Didn't actually get any sleep the last night in Auckland. Basically just tossed and turned for like 4 hours. We flew first to Sydney and then waited for another 4 hours for our connecting flight to LAX. Not sure why they can't just have us fly directly from NZ to the US but I'm guessing it is probably due to group rates. I didn't get any sleep on that flight, but did manage to catch maybe an hour's nap during the wait.

The international flight from Sydney to LAX was supposed to be about 12+ hours in duration. I watched two in flight movies (Qantas international has a pretty big list to pick from) - Guardians of the Galaxy and Inglorious Basterds. Then I think I must have slept about 5+ hours, which is pretty good, even if I missed the 'midnight' ice cream snack they served.

As an aside for the movies, they were kinda meh to be honest. GotG didn't really grab me, and I thought the male lead way too cliche. Inglorious Basterds reminds of a revenge fanfic; I didn't get what's so great about it that has so many authors on AO3 lauding it.

Anyway, the connecting flight from LAX to SFO was much tighter in schedule. We were lucky that the checkout was quick (they didn't even collect my customs declaration form, which is kinda a WTF after the interrogation in NZ), and the check-in wasn't too bad. We managed to get through everything in like 1.5 hours and just 15-20 mins before the boarding.

The flight to SFO was uneventful, as was the BART ride afterwards. One the "same day" that we left NZ, as a matter of fact, due to crossing the international date line. (Hm...looking over the timestamps of previous entries, it seems that IJ used the US Pacific Time for all of them even though I posted them from AU/NZ. Ah well, don't think it would be worth the bother to manually change them all.)

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Jan. 1st, 2015

Down Under Day 11

Happy New Year to all! (It ought to be the first in the US at this point).

Before we left Rotorua proper, we stopped at the Wylie (?) Gardens for some quick pictures. Then, it was a 3 hour drive to Auckland.

We stopped at the outskirts of the city to get lunch at a mall food court. Got some sushi with fresh locally produced trout. Mmmh.

After that we went worked off our lunch with a short hike at the peak of Mt. Eden. It's not exactly a famous mountain (ex-volcano) but it does give a nice view of the city.

After that there were a few more short stops at a local beach, a ferry station, and the local bridge. These three spots weren't really worth getting off at really. The beach was more of a have fun place than scenic spot. The ferry station didn't have any really unique architecture. And the bridge honestly photographed better from the mountain than close up.

Finally we got to the hotel, which was the Skycity casino, a tower like building that's probably the highest building in the city by a lot. They have free wifi here, but it takes like a dozen tries to connect. Dinner was the buffet in the atrium. Then afterwards we went up to the observation decks to take pictures of the surrounding city. On the way down, we spent most of the remaining NZ dollars we had in the gift shop to finish off our checklists.

Tomorrow our wake up call is at 4 am in order to catch the international flight to Australia (then LA, then SFO). Kia ora New Zealand!

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Dec. 31st, 2014

Down Under Day 10

Today's schedule started off with a trip to a local (mega)farm called the Agridome. We saw a farm show showcasing a bunch of different sheep breeds they have there, as well as a demo of sheep shearing, lamb feeding, and sheep dog herding. It was adorable. And smelly. Then we took a farm tour in a tractor through the various areas of the farm. Got to pet some sheep and alpacas, and see some deer, bunch of different cows, and some ostriches (emu?). Also got a lot of crap (literally!) on our shoes and had to clean then off at a special wash stand. Yuck.

Lunch was eaten at McDonald's because we were pushed for time. Though, their beef patties are unique in that they use local beef sources, and certainly tasted different from US ones.

Next we stopped at a place for bungee jumps cuz a few folks in our group signed up for it, and the rest just wanted to take pictures (and live vicariously through them crazy kids). Have I ever mentioned I'm not too fond of heights?

After that we made a stop at the Huka Falls. Though, I would call it more like a steep rapids than "real" waterfall. Very pretty though. And definitely the short of place I can imagine a gaggle of dwarves in empty wine barrels to sweep through to get away from the scary elfking. Not that I think that scene from the Hobbit was filmed there. But it does suit the scene.

Last main stop was at the Te Puia, the indigenous Maori village place. We got to tour the grounds, see a demo of there woodwork and weaving crafts (the leaf weaving was awesome), some dance performances (with a lot of half naked buff guys...mmm...'dem abs), and a buffet dinner. The food was cooked in their traditional style, which was buried in the ground and then heated on top. It gave the food a smoky quality and was quite tasty. I was stuffed. Finally, we took a short walk to see the local geyser, and got sprinkled with sulfiric water for our trouble.

Ah well, we managed to make it back to the hotel before the weather started sprinkling. We've consistently had pretty good weather this trip, which is kinda nice.

Also, later tonight our guide held (is holding) a New Years party just with some group contributed snacks and guide contributed alcohol. A lot of silly group games til midnight when the year turns. I stuck out early to use the lobby wifi to post this latest entry, cuz I don't want to pay for another full day when tomorrow is our last actual tour day and we'll be heading back to Auckland.

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Dec. 30th, 2014

Down Under Day 9

This morning we left Queenstown for Auckland airport. I noticed that 2 out of 2 NZ airports have the same process of (dis)embarkation. Basically you have to cross the tarmac and go up and down a ladder to the plane. The good thing is that there are two ladders at the front and tail of the plane, so if you're seated in the back you don't have to squeeze through everyone in front of you to get on and off the plane, making the process more than twice as fast as normal flights in most other countries. The con is of course you're SOL if its raining.

After we left the airport the bus drove for about 2 hours to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Very pretty ceiling. Quiet boat ride under a very pretty glittery ceiling. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed there so we could only take pics of the cave exit.

Then 2 more hours drive to the town of Rotorua. Dinner was at a chinese restaurant that specializes in venison. Food was pretty good. Or maybe its just the fact we didn't have time for lunch today.

Our hotel in town is the Millennium again, the same hotel chain as before, and same wifi policy. I actually also spotted a Rydges hotel in town as well and the town brochure mentions they have the same unlimited wifi policy as our hotel in Sydney. Hrm.

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Dec. 28th, 2014

Down Under Day 8

Today could more accurately be called the day of food.

This morning we have a free period to do whatever on our own. We chose to do a hour long Segway tour of the area. My first time on one of these things. It turns out to be not that different from riding a bike, except the balance is front to back instead of side to sides. In the same group with us where two kids and their parents. The dad was taking pictures with one hand as he went along. This turned out to be a bad idea, as on the pebbly trail just before the star/finish lot, he ran over some rock and wasn't able to keep his balance. Apparently the dive he took caused him scrape his leg along some sharp rock fragments, resulting in a painful and scary looking wound (going by the hysterics the rest of the family went into; I didn't see it myself). A reminder kids - somethings you just don't do with one hand unless you're pro.

Around lunch time we met with the rest of our tour group and rode the gondola up the nearby mountain (whose name I forgot). We had a few moments to snap pictures of the scenic view up high while waiting for everyone to arrive.

Lunch was a buffet at the restaurant there at the top. The food was good and the view was great. Of special note were the mussels (local specialty and very fresh), actual sushi (mmm...sashimi), and large variety of desserts (mmm...tiramisu).

Our gondola + lunch ticket also included one free ride of the Luge. That was pretty fun, though I would on the whole prefer things that used more leg muscle than arm. My upper body strength is puny. =P

Later that afternoon we went to visit the early chinese settlements from the gold rush days a century ago. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy that as much, since there really wasn't much to see there, plus the trees in the area were dropping these fuzz things that drove my allergies wild.

Eventually we headed back to town, and after a bit more wandering and waiting, we had our dinner at a korean BBQ place. Food was ok, the kimchi was nice if really spicy, etc.

To tomorrow we have another flight up to north NZ. It's not an early flight (and the airport is teeny) so there's that.

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Dec. 27th, 2014

Down Under Day 7

Today's outing centered around a cruise at Milford Sound.

First, we got up early for a four hour drive ove to Te Anau (sp?) lake. There were a few pit stops at a few scenic spots such as Mirror Lake and so forth. But I admit I actually slept through most of the drive up. I am told the scenery on the way was pretty good, and we passed by a few sheep herds.

The cruise itself, despite having an English name, was distinctly Asian. The lunch buffet was Asain food, the second announcer/commentator was in chinese, and like 90%+ of the people on board were Asian. I guess that tells you a lot about the demographics of tourism here.

The view, of course, was gorgeous. We also passed by afew spots where seals were resting on the shore. The cruise was about an hour long and covered a round trip from the harbor to the place where the lake meets the sea.

The drive back was our tour guide telling jokes and riddles, and trying to get our tour members to each sing something. Ugh. I was hiding low in my seat. Fingers crossed for future long drives.

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Dec. 26th, 2014

Down Under Day 6

Continued from previous entry... So, the flight from Australia to New Zealand was not quite uneventful.

One family apparently joined our tour group using a third party tour company from China. Everyone else are from the USA using the actual tour company (Ritz Tours). The problem is whoever hooked that guy up only got him a visa for Australia. Now, apparently if you have a US passport, you don't actually need a separate visa for NZ. But a chinese passport? SOL. The guy ( who was there with two twin daughters maybe 12 years old) had to stay behind in Melbourne. Not sure if he can get a last minute visa to join the rest of the tour eventually or figure out a way to go back to Sydney and stay there until the return flight at the end (which has a connecting stop there).

Another thing that took everyone by surprise was how stringent Customs was in NZ about bringing in anything resembling food products. One family got fined $400 for a container of commercial honey they bought in Australia. My mom got pulled aside because their k9 unit caught a sniff of some shreds of curry beef jerky in her backpack (the rest of it had been eaten in the flight and it was just some spilled remnants, thank god). There was also a camera guy there taking pictures of everyone being pulled aside. When asked he said that the film was going to go on TV. Ugh. Dick move.

Anyway...after the almighty struggles with Customs, we finally left the (very...small) airport into the city proper. Queenstown, though, is also a very small city, for all that it's an almost 100% tourist city. It is maybe ten blocks by six blocks in size, and at most a 30 min walk to cross the whole place. Then again, NZ itself is a sparsely populated country; I think the entire population might be smaller than some chinese cities.

The hotel is called the Millennium Hotel. Decent for a small town I guess. WIFI is only freeform the lobby for 30 mins out of every day, so I'm actually purchasing my internet use for an outrageous price. Bleh.

Dinner was just some random chinese restaurant in the town. Tomorrow is another full day.

EDIT: Forgot to add...we did get some time to wander the town after eating. We took a short stroll through along Lake Wakatipu and then through the local rose garden. The flowers were mostly in bloom, and they were beautiful.

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Down Under Day 5

Posting this from the airport on day 6...

So yesterday morning we were allowed to get up late for once. Left the hotel at a leisurely 10 am and hit up a couple more places in the city.

We visited St. Patrick's, the Fitzroy gardens which included Capt. Cook's cottage and a "fairy tree". Then the Shrine of Remembrance, another war memorial.

At lunch we ate at Chinatown, a dim sum place called Shark Fin Group (食为先). We were actually to try the taste of kangaroo though, since you can trust a cantonese diner to serve anything. So we had kangaroo meat cooked in the style of mongolian beef. It was pretty good. The appearance of the meat looked more similar to beef. The texture when chewed was kinda a midway between pork, chicken, and liver.

Afterwards we killed about an hour or so in a local Chinese museum (澳华历史博物馆) about the history of the chinese community in Australia. It was a really well made museum, with 5 floors that made the best of its limited area. It was also full of infostats and anecdotes. Wonder if there's anything like it in SF.

In the afternoon we drove a long way over to Phillip Island. First stop was at the seal rocks place called The Nobbies. Unfortunately, the weather was too chilly for the seals to come out so we didn't see much except seagulls and one lone wallaby.

Dinner was lobster, nicely done but not much else to say about it. There was wine served for once, and I think our tour guide was a little drunk. He certainly did a lot of loud singing on the bus afterwards, though at least his singing voice was ok.

Then we waited out the sunset at the beach for the penguin parade. A lot of chilly waiting for a bunch of blobs wobbling in the distance. No lights/flash allowed, no cameras period with or without flash...meh. We actually got a better look at the penguins on our way back to the parking lot, wobbling along the causeways just outside the fence. No photos even if they'd allowed it though. The lack of ambient light meant your average digital camera and cellphone just showed a fully black screen if you tried.

The drive back to the hotel was quiet. It was nearly midnight when we got back. Then this morning we all got woken up early to catch the flight to NZ. And here we are.

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Dec. 25th, 2014

Down Under Day 4

Merry Xmas from Australia. In the midst of summer, hah. Departed Sydney early this morning and took a short domestic flight to Melbourne.

Lunch was provided by the tour and was at a dim sum place. However, the dishes were predetermined rather than a la carte, so they weren't all that varied. Tasted pretty much like every other dim sum I've had. Meh.

We checked in early to our hotel, the Crown Metropol, which is attached to this huge casino complex, also called Crown. Gotta say, the place looks really high class both inside and out. However they're more stingy about their internet, which sucks. I'm pretty much relegated to using the free wifi in the lobby for this post.

After checking in, our tour guide took us on an 2 hour walk around the surrounding area, which is the city center. Man, this guy is a beast.

We saw the Yarra river, the town square, Hoiser Lane (aka Graffiti Alley), the town hall and government buildings, and ended up at the local Chinatown (aka the long street with all Chinese restaurants and pretty much nothing else).

I am further impressed by the city, which is prettier than Sydney. There are old style buildings from the colonial days interspersed with glass covered modern high rises, and yet the mix blends well instead of being schizophrenic. Also, the newer buildings all have their stylistic quirk, without giving the impression of trying way too hard to flaunt gaudily. I like it here.

Tomorrow we'll be finishing really late since we're going to see some penguins in their natural habitat. Since they're nocturnal, that means after sunset. So by the time we get back it'll be around midnight. Then the day after that we have an early flight to NZ. So probably the next journal update is going to be delayed.

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Dec. 24th, 2014

Down Under Day 3

Popped over to Canberra today, the actual capital of Australia. The drive was a long one though, nearly 4 hours one way.

Once there, we mainly stopped by to see the Cook Memorial/Fountain, Parliament, the War Memorial. Also made short stops at the embassies and the peak of Mt. Ainsle.

Nothing too exciting really, though the sizes of the US and Chinese embassies respectively says a lot about certain political egos.

Also a lot of Falun Gong signs and paid propagandists raining on everyone's day. Bleh. The actual weather held up beautifully.

Another thing I found really interesting was the drive. The fact that, if I didn't look closely at all the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the drive would not have been much different from one on CA. Australia is really very similar to the US, which makes a lot of since given its history. It's a young first world country, and a melting pot of occidental and oriental demographics, just like Cali.

Hm, ok...one other difference. Every once in a while we would see a residential skyscraper on the outskirts of a city. I don't recall seeing many of those in the US. They are more common in China. But, the additional difference is the ones here all generally have aesthetically pleasing designs rather than the perfunctory brick shape. And there's generally no laundry and external AC outlets decorating them. =P

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Dec. 23rd, 2014

Down Under Day 2

This morning we went to the Featherdale Wildlife Park where we were introduced to Australia's native wildlife. The place is actually kinda a cross between a normal zoo and a petting zoo. I got to pet a koala, an emu, and some kangaroos. Koala fur is surprisingly coarse, like wool. Emu... feathers feel more like fur than feathers. Kangaroo felt like oversized rats. Things that weren't for petting: dingoes, crocodile, echidna. I did not find any platypus there, sadly.

Afterwards was a long drive to the Blue Mountains, so named due to the refraction of sunlight off eucalyptus leaf oil. Unfortunately, during our short stop in a villa for lunch it started to rain, so we couldn't get the full effect today.

At Blue Moutains we started off taking pictures from Echo Point at the Three Sisters cluster of rocky peaks. We then took a ride downhill in the scenic rail, kinda like the one in Lucerne. Difference is, the ride is very short, and the track much more steep. The track must have been like a 50 to 60 degree incline. After that we hiked for a bit (in a quick thunderstorm no less...though with more lightning and thunder than actual rain) until we got to a small waterfall. That parts was really underwhelming to be honest. We took a cable car back up. The operator in the car showed off by repeating his scenic spiel in a bunch of languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, French, and Japanese.

Dinner was at a buffet inside a huge casino called The Star. Mostly western cuisine with some eastern, but nothing really stood out for me except the dessert. They had some really fancy dessert items in shot glasses. And a chocolate fountain.

In the evening, the weather was clear once more, and our tour guide took us on a walk around our hotel. We passed by the St. Andrews chapel, the Town Hall, through the Queen Victoria Building (supposedly the first mall in AU but it was renovated in the 80s so the inside looked like any other fancy modern mall).

We went up the Sydney Tower (to the "Eye"). There was a 4D intro that was pretty cool. The actual observation deck was pretty meh though. The tower wasn't as high as the ones in HK or Shanghai; nor did the city below have any especially fancy lights to go wow about.

By the time we finished everything it was about 10 pm. Tomorrow is another early day. Le sigh.

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Dec. 22nd, 2014

Down under day 1

So I flew out of SFO on Sat evening and after a stop in LAX, arrived in Sydney at just before noon local time Monday.

No rest for the weary though, and we went dierctly from the 13 hour flight to the tour.

Stop one was some spot called Mrs Macquarie's Chair. Pretty sure I misspelled that but I can't be bothered to look up the exact name right now. From what I could tell the point of the place is just that it had a good view of the Sydney opera house.

Stop two was St. Mary's cathedral. Which honestly is not that different from any of the other cathedrals in Europe.

Stop three was the Opera House itself. Nice place. Definitely interesting architecture. It's too bad I've never been inside the new opera house in Beijing built for the Olympics for a comparison.

After that we stopped at some shopping district (The Rocks) so some folks can exchange their money.

Last item of the day was a cruise plus dinner in Darling Harbor. Not a very filling dinner since the day's schedule meant we only had a light brunch at the end of the plane flight and then nothing else til dinner. But the food was well cooked. Shrimp vermicelli appetizer. Fish and potatoes main course. Coffee cake dessert. Good views on the water.

Got into the hotel around 7 pm local time. Will need to get up early for a full day tomorrow. Hopefully the good weather from today will hold and there wont be any summer storms.

Oh yeah. It's summer here down under which is nice. Weather is kinda muggy but the constant winds from the ocean offset it. Kinda nice, really. Have not spotted any huge venomous bugs that Australia is known for (along with the world's most poisonous everything else). Here's hoping that will also last.

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Dec. 2nd, 2013

China 2013 Index

Hong Kong
Day 2
Day 3

Nanjing
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 8 - 90th Bday
Day 9 - Nanjing Museum
Day 10
Day 15

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Nov. 30th, 2013

Day 15 Nanjing

The day started on a high(er) note. We had lunch out with my grandfather, uncle/aunt, older cousin, and the aunt staying with us. It was at a hotel my grandmother had a coupon for. The food wasn't all that great, as is normal for hotel restaurants, but it wasn't horrible. Just small portions I guess.

After food, my uncle/aunt left to deliver the portions we'd set aside for my grandmother (she isn't mobile enough to leave the house far). My mom and aunt went to a nearby bookstore to use up another coupon that they had for that place.

Outside the bookstore, there were some small seller stalls. One of them was for hats, and they had some really adorable animal ear hats. I picked up a grey fuzzy wolf ears hat. My mom and aunt also picked out a hats they liked, and we also got one for grandmother and one for my baby nephew.

In the bookstore, we picked up a novel that my uncle mentioned wanting at lunch. Then my mom and I went to the fourth floor to look at kiddie books for my nephew (he's very lucky with being the focus of the entire families on both parents' side). We mainly looked up educational and acitivity oriented children's books. I was reminded of the Where's Waldo and I Spy series books that I remember from grade school that might apply for him as well - if not now then in coming years. Unfortunately they don't carry any translations or equivalents of these books in Chinese bookstores, so I settled for writing down the names and passing it onto my uncle, to see if they can find/order anything online.

This evening, however, everyone gathered together for a 'family meeting'. My aunt has something of a person crisis going on in her life, and the meeting was to inform everyone and come up with ideas on what she should do. I won't go into much further on a public entry, but suffice it to say that it really is pretty depressing and I feel for her and for my absent younger cousin who was hit pretty hard by it as well.

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