A typical mom and freelance writer with atypical ambitions, Amy Nicholson's vision of a dream life includes primarily raising her three wonderful children. In addition, she would not feel complete without a few exotic trips to places worthy of creating inspiring stories, lasting memories and a broader sense of her own place in the world. Her experiences in Europe, Russia, Israel, Washington DC and China, have been life changing ones that have molded her character, and produced stories that will last forever.

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Shandong or Bussed — Schlepping Kids Across China

I have always prided myself in my ability to curl up in a little ball almost anywhere and get some zzzz’s. This talent is especially handy when traveling.

Still, I was a bit worried about how our family vacation with our kids ages 5, 3 and 1 to some coastal towns in China would begin – with an overnight bus ride.

At 7 p.m. we loaded our kids and luggage into two taxis, drove to a chartered bus, and transferred everyone and everything to our hotel on wheels.

Once we were settled on board, I discovered that there were only about 3 inches of legroom between the rows of seats.

I was barely able to squeeze myself in with my legs wedged against the backs of the next row of seats. Poor guys like my 6’ 1” husband had no choice but to sprawl their legs out into the aisle.

It wasn’t all that bad. At least I could lay all three kids on the seats to sleep without worrying that they would roll off onto the floor. The gap was so narrow that they wouldn’t actually fit.

The bus wasn’t full, so our family spread out over eight seats, or four pairs of two. I made beds for Sophie and Ian, laying them each across two seats. And, Brian and I each got our own set of two seats. We took turns taking care of Isaac throughout the night.

The good news is that our kids did surprisingly well for the 10 hour drive.

The bad news is that this happened in spite of the fact that the bus didn’t seem to have any shocks whatsoever. Did I mention before that the streets in Tianjin — where we were living — weren’t that good? I actually meant the roads in China were just awful!

At one point, Isaac was nestled up in Brian’s arms while I curled myself across my two seats. I would have been pretty comfy except for the fact that I was being jolted into the seat in front of me over and over. I peered through the late night blackness to try to see what was going on. It looked like we were driving through a dirt field full of potholes.

I noticed a lot of other passengers were also looking confused and helplessly out the windows. Then we looked at each other and broke the dark silence with laughter, because, well, what else can you do in a situation like that?

All night long the jolting continued. And, the smell of the outside air seemed to oscillate between sewer and cigarette smoke.

I was told that even large cities, such as Tianjin, have only had paved roads for about 5-10 years. Before that, the roads were little better than dirt or non-existent. Additionally, the widespread use of cars is relatively new and increasing dramatically every year. I don’t want to be around to witness the traffic jams that will be created when the masses trade in their bikes and walking shoes for automobiles.

When there is road construction, there is no posted detour. So, drivers improvise and do what they can to get where they need to go. They always make up their own rules, such as navigating an unmarked field of potholes in the middle of the night.

Early in the morning, we arrived at Penglai, the first of three destination stops for us, south of Tianjin in the Shandong Province.

Before the trip, we were given the following information: “The Chinese always describe Penglai as heaven on earth. It is a modern seaside city full of legends and tales.” I got that statement in an e-mail, but it sounds like it was copied right out of a travel brochure.

I don’t know if I would exactly call Penglai “Heaven on Earth,” but I will concede that getting off of that bus and into our hotel room was like a little piece of Heaven.

We had some free time until 1 p.m. so Brian, the kids, and I took turns alternating between sleeping and exploring the neighborhood in a rotational sequence since it was beyond our luck to get all three kids to go to sleep at once.

Our hotel room was pretty and seemed clean. It had hardwood floors, two twin-sized beds with fluffy white comforters, and a drinking water dispenser. The flooring and furniture were light oak. We had air conditioning, and a nice big window spanning the length of one wall giving us a view of the city.

Outside, the street was lined with food vendors, a grocery store, and a single level mall. I happened upon a baby gear store inside the mall. This was a great discovery since I had already made up my mind to buy an umbrella stroller to use on this trip.

I found just what I wanted, but the price of $15 was more than I wanted to pay. Most things are quite a bit cheaper in China and, stupidly, I was holding out for a great deal.

Bargaining is a fine art and once you have mastered it, there is always room for negotiation. I used my limited vocabulary of numbers and sign language to talk the price down to $12. But, at that price, the salesperson stood firm. I decided to walk away and buy the stroller later – a decision I would soon regret.

I did, however, buy my first street food at that time, three different kinds of “meat on a stick,” cooked in hot oil. One was chicken, one looked like a hot dog, and the other may have been pork, but because of its wide flat shape, the kids called it “elephant ears.” All that, plus a bag of sweet and salty kettlecorn cost less than $1.

That afternoon we headed to the Temple of the Eight Immortals, a gorgeous structure surrounded by gardens on the border of the Yellow Sea.

The temple itself is 6-stories tall with sloping triangular roofs and bright paintings of dragons and Chinese folklore. We made our way through displays of intricately carved furniture made from wood, jade and other precious stones and then climbed all six stories of the Temple filled with statues of gods. It was quite impressive.

We tried to land special coins onto an ancient brass turtle for good luck. We also paid a dollar for everyone to take turns ringing a giant bell.

There was an area where, for a small fee, the kids could feed fish to sea lions. This wasn’t like Sea World where you drop the food a few feet down to the animals. Here, you could walk right up and place the food into their mouths with tongs. We were having a great time while Brian snapped photos for posterity, when Ian dropped a fish on the ground and tried to pick it back up while a sea lion barked anxiously just millimeters away from his tong grasping little fingers. The moment was a little intense, but I’m proud to report we completed the activity without injury.

As we made our way through the grounds admiring the scenery, Isaac rode in the baby backpack on Brian’s back. Sophie walked, stopping at intervals to grant requests to be photographed by Chinese visitors. And, Ian who was tired and experiencing growing pains in his foot cried for me to carry him the entire time. This, I mostly did, for the whole four hour visit. Suddenly $12 for a stroller sounded like a great deal compared to the ache in my arms from lugging around my 40-pound almost-four-year-old.

We were the only ones in our group with children, hence it was a bit difficult to keep up. Then, I noticed a rock path off from the main sidewalk that wound around through the gardens. We decided to peal off and take things at a slower pace on our own, then meet up with the others later.

A sign along the walkway bore the English translation, “Cherish the Trees.” By way of explanation, we saw a lot of interesting and humorous translations and I know the intended meaning was to “Keep off the Grass,” “Stay on the Path,” or, “Don’t Disturb the Gardens,” but “Cherish the Trees” seemed more appropriate and it became our mantra as we slowed down and took our time strolling along and soaking in the beauty of the gardens and the millions of diamonds created by the sunlight flashing on the sea.

Then, we saw another sign that said, “Staff off the grass.” So, we chuckled and made sure we “staffed” off the grass and “cherished the trees” and cherished the moments and the memories and had a great day.

That evening, we went to a restaurant where our group of twenty was seated around two large round tables in a private room. We were served a dozen selections of seafood including escargot, spicy clams in hard shells, and squid. I made sure to have a taste of everything no matter how exotic it seemed.

Back at the hotel, we got the kids to sleep easily and, since Brian was recovering from bronchitis, he went to bed early too.

I got directions to a spa down the street where others from the group had gone for massages.

A Chinese girl led me into a room and seated me in a big comfy chair. In China, it is the norm to remain fully clothed for a massage. She soaked my feet in some bright purple hot water infused with tea. After a short rub down on my back, shoulders and hands, she went to work on my feet for an hour. It was very relaxing.

At the very end, she brought in some little glass jars, sprayed them with some sort of flammable liquid, lit them on fire and then stuck them to the bottoms of my feet so that the hot air created a suction against my arches.

It was really bizarre having the skin on my feet all sucked up in bottles like that. After a few minutes I was sure I was going to have huge bruises. But, then she popped the jars off, my feet felt fine, and it was over. I am told this is a method to “release toxins” from the body after a massage.

At about 10 p.m. I walked outside to head back to my hotel all happy and relaxed and as soon as I got to the curb I tripped and fell right into the road! One minute I was totally relaxed, the next minute I was lying in the filthy gutter mortified while all the workers from the spa ran outside to see if I was O.K.

I picked myself up and hurried back to my hotel for a good night of rest, mostly unscathed except for my pride.

The next morning, I ran to the baby gear store and purchased the umbrella stroller for $11.50 before we piled onto the bus and headed to Weihai, our next destination.

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