"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Turkeys on the Beach (and a few other things of interest...to us at least)

 The week leading up to and the week of Thanksgiving had a few activities that we enjoyed including our first ever trip out of town for Turkey Day.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 : We snagged some nice lower bowl seats to see our somewhat woeful Tennessee Titans take on divisional rival, the Indianapolis Colts, in prime time on national TV on The NFL Channel's Thursday Night Football.  We jumped out to a big lead, but let the Colts slip by us in the end by just a field goal.  A disappointing loss, but still a fun time was had.  Thanks to our friends, Danny and Brenda, for joining us at the game, and to our old pal, Wayne, for meeting us for dinner beforehand over in East Nashville at The Pharmacy Burger and Beer Parlor for some good food and tasty brews.

Saturday, November 16, 2013:  We hooked back up with Danny and Brenda along with our friend, Carolyn, to check out the new Robert Redford one-man (literally) show of a film, All is Lost, at The Belcourt Theater.  With barely any dialog and only Redford as a character, it was an amazing movie experience enjoyed by everyone.  Could be an Oscar contender for sure.  We enjoyed dinner across the street at the always-tasty Belcourt Taps beforehand.

November 26 - 30, 2013: We decided to head down to Florida for Thanksgiving this year and get a little warmer weather and beach time.  It was also a celebration of Ashlee's mom, Evelyn, taking her first real vacation since her life-threatening hospitalization last year at the this time.  Ashlee's sister, Paige, and her daughter and our niece, Ella, came along as well.  Ashlee found a great 3-bedroom condo on the beach just south of St. Augustine where we had visited back in September and got the idea for this trip.  We did a lot of relaxing, ate some great food and caught the sunshine and fairly warms temps when we could between Nor'easter gusts along the coast creating some unseasonably cold weather at times.  Below are a few of my favorite shots from this beautiful place.

The view from our sweet condo on Cinnamon Beach in the Hammock Dunes Complex in the town of Palm Coast was amazing.  We didn't always have sunny skies or the warmest temps, but you sure could count on the view, and at night the stars were dazzling.

It's called Cinnamon Beach for a reason.  The red sand created here on this rather rare rocky Florida beach (I've never seen one before in Florida) is a mixture of the rocks being pounded by the sand and tiny crushed sea shells by the millions.

A beautiful natural collection of shells take refuge behind ancient coral rock on Cinnamon Beach.

I first thought this photo was smudged with sand or grit on the lens, but as I zoomed in after downloading it I realized it was a feeding frenzy going on behind this fishing trawler moving down the coast far out to sea in front of our condo.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Atlon Brown and the Georgia Trifecta

A really busy long weekend recently found us at four back-to-back shows 
along with some other fun sprinkled in between them.

Thursday, 11/8/13 -The always funny and wise, Alton Brown, of TV's Food Network fame made a stop at TPAC in Nashville for his first-ever national tour and we jumped at the chance to see him.   His show was a variety of entertainment that included informative food topics discussion, interesting food facts, a lot of jokes and even some music.  He sang some original (and funny) songs, played guitar and even the sax.  His two "cooking" demonstrations included " Jet Cream"  - that's a gallon of ice cream made in 10 seconds thanks to Co2, and pizza in a giant Easy Bake Oven that he designed and built himself.  In true Food Network fashion, Ashlee even made our own dinner beforehand with a wonderful shrimp salad from Blue Apron, a home delivery company that sends you great recipes and every ingredient you need to make them each week right to your door for a very reasonable price. 

Friday 11/9/13 - We headed down to Atlanta this afternoon to catch yet another show by one of our favorite bands, Michael Franti and Spearhead along with the talented Serena Ryder opening at The Tabernacle.  Joining us were seven of our friends including Wayne, Danny, Brenda, Chris and Tarryn from the Nashville area, plus Mike from Chattanooga and Rex from Atlanta.  In the shot above "The Sound of Sunshine" is literally coming down all around us.  The show was great as usual.

A friend of Rex's took this great picture of Michael Franti up amongst his people including our large crew of nine who were a couple rows from the center of the stage (look due north of Michael''s green hat to see us.)
A great suggestion by Rex after the show was to go to The Porter Beer Bar in Little 5 Points for an amazing beer selection and some really tasty food. We closed this place down and didn't get back to our nice room at the Westin Buckhead until 3 A.M.  What a great day/night/day it was!

Saturday 11/10/13 -  We got up probably a little earlier than we really wanted to after the late night before, and headed to Athens, Georgia, for another concert tonight.  While in the home of the Bulldogs, we grabbed some cheap tickets to see Georgia vs. Appy State at beautiful Sanford Stadium for their homecoming.  It was a fun game and the beautiful weather was a bonus.  Thanks to our friends, Chris and Tarryn, for going with us and for not getting towed!   
After the game, we meet up with the rest of the crew from the night before except for Rex and had a great visit to The Terrapin Beer Company (another reason I wanted to come to Athens).  These guys are one of our favorite regional craft brewers and they have a dandy tasting and tour opportunity each evening at their busy brewery.  The place was packed and for basically 4 quality beers for 10 bucks you can see why.

It was on to the SOLD OUT Dirty Guv'nahs show at beautiful Georgia Theater in downtown Athens next.. Before the show and while the two ho-hum openers were playing (yes, Dangermuffin is a great band name, but their music's a bit of snooze), we had a tasty dinner at Momma Goldbergs Deli next door and then hung out on the awesome roof-top bar at the theater.  The show was raucous as usual and it was the first time for several of our group to see The Guvs live and they were impressed.

Sunday 11/11/13 - We headed back to Atlanta for yet another show while the rest of our group headed back north.  We hooked back up with our friend, Rex, at the new Skyview Atlanta Ferris Wheel which has been set up right next to The Tabernacle.  It was nice ride and our BOGO tickets made it even better and Rex even got to ride for free.  Thanks Scoutmob.com!  After going round-and-round a few times and enjoying the downtown views at sunset on a clear late-autumn day, we had dinner at Serpas, another fantastic recommendation by Rex.  This guy knows Atlanta!!  
After dinner, Rex dropped us off at The Center Stage Theater where we caught a show by Frank Turner and the Sleepless Souls.  We caught these guys at Bonnaroo this year and were blown away by them.  This show was just as good despite the fact that lead singer, Frank Turner, had a back injury.  But that sure didn't slow him down!  This was our first visit to this venue also and we really liked it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

FALLing into a month of fun

With late September bringing the start of the fall season, we've had a month of fun activities around our local region here to report:

Saturday, 9/21/13 - We had tickets to see The Alabama Shakes at the Fontanel Amphitheater in Nashville tonight.   We had an early dinner beforehand at the Crow's Nest Sports Bar in Green Hills.  We got to Fontanel in time to grab some FRONT ROW spots for the show! Theopening two bands, Majestico and The Dexateens, were OK but their sound engineering was crappy making their vocals weak to nonexistent. Overall, The Shakes are solid and tight as a band, but there isn't a ton of showmanship on stage when they play. It was a good show, but nothing to compare to some of the other great shows we've seen this summer. The highlight of the night was probably the Jeni's Ice Cream we had before the show!  Yumm-o!
Friday, 9/27/13 -  We stayed in Wilson County tonight and enjoyed a nice dinner on the patio at Mirko's Italian Restaurant in Mt. Juliet and then caught a showing of "We're the Millers" at the local movie theater which was hilarious.

Saturday, 9/28/13 - We continued the weekend at home with a good hike in the Cedars of Lebanon State Park We did two laps of the Cedar Forest Loop for a total of 6K in distance.  This great little IPhone app called TrackRec does a cool job of keeping up with your distance as well as your route. 

Sunday,9/29/13:  Our old friend, Wayne, invited us to an early-season Titans game vs. the New York Jets.  It was a beautiful sunset after a beautiful, dominating win for our boys.  Before the 3 PM kick-off, we had a tasty lunch over at Drifter's Barbecue in East Nashville.

After the game, we returned back to East Nashville for some awesome ice cream at Jeni's.

Saturday, 10/5/13 - We had a return visit and stay at Evins Mill Inn over in Smithville, TN, this weekend along with Ashlee's mom, Evelyn.  We had good weather and great food.  This was an extra special trip because it was Evelyn's first real "vacation" since her serious illness last year.  The inn itself had some exciting news also with plans to add a large addition to the property soon.  In the photo above Evelyn and Ashlee stroll along the walkway above the dam at Evins Mill.
Monday, 10/7/13 - We HAD tickets to see NeedtoBreathe at Exit/In tonight which was a quickly SOLD OUT show since it's such a small venue.  Due to time constraints, making the show was going to be tough so on a whim I posted the tickets on Craigslist.com for an exorbitant amount and amazingly, a really nice guy from Knoxville bought them.  Sorry, N2B, but we've seen you guys a few times already and we just made $110, and a big fan of yours got to see you guys for the first time in a great venue.

Part of that time crunch that forced us to skip the N2B show was the fact that Ashlee and I had  separate trips coming up the proceeding weekend of 10/10 through 10/13 with her going to Austin City Limits while I headed off to Seattle for a guys trip to see the Titans play the Seahawks (more on that trip in my beer blog).

Saturday, 10/19/13 - We had a terrific dinner at the awesome Watermark Restaurant in downtown Nashville  with Ashlee's cousin Steve and his wife, Jennifer, tonight.
Sunday, 10/20/13 - Wayne allowed us to use a couple of his season tickets again for another Titans game vs. the San Francisco 49ers along with him and our friend, Mike.  It was a tough loss to very talented team.

Thursday, 10/24/13 - We attended our first Predators hockey game of the season vs. the Winnipeg Jets with our friends, Danny and Brenda, tonight.  It turned out to be a thrilling 3-2 win in overtime.  Our lower bowl seats behind the Defend Twice Goal were a good deal and only about 10 rows off the ice.

Saturday, 11/2/13:  We caught a showing of the amazing film Gravity (in 3D) tonight.  This was the second time I had seen it and it was just as good the second time (or maybe better since it was with my honey!).

Monday, September 23, 2013


We celebrated Ashlee's birthday this year with a little road trip down south to St. Augustine, Florida, to catch another stop on the Mumford and Sons Gentlemen of the Road  Stopover concert series.  We attended this two-day festival last year up in Bristol, TN, (see previous blog entry) and really enjoyed it.             
Thursday, Sept. 12 - Happy Birthday, Ashlee!!  We started our road trip with our own little one-night stopover in Chattanooga for a birthday dinner at the much-loved-by-us  Brewhaus  over on the North Shore with several folks including Ashlee's mom, Evelyn, and her twin sister, Paige, who believe it or not was celebrating a birthday as well...small world, isn't it?  Thanks to all who came out and joined us for a lovely evening of good food and libations.

.Friday, Sept. 13 - We picked up our friend, Mike, early this morning and began the 7-or-so-hour drive down to St. Augustine.  Not a bad trip since it's all interstate and we got through Atlanta without much difficulty.  We  met up with our old friend, Wayne, who had driven over from Tampa where he had been working all week. We checked into the Hilton Garden Inn across the street from the beach and made a bee-line for the sand and the waves!  
The beach was lovely and the first thing we visited when we arrived in St. Augustine, Florida.
While only briefly visiting here on a drive back home several years ago form Disney World, we had forgotten what a beautiful and serene little town St. Augustine really is. It's got it all:  a beautiful Atlantic Ocean beach (it beats the crap out of The Gulf side);  tons of history (it is the country's oldest city BTW at 450 years); beautiful buildings and public areas (including a sweet harbor and the stunning Bridge of Lions);  and a feel of a real small town and not just some tourist area surrounding a beach.   And some of the food we had here was outstanding including dinner on Friday night at A1A Ale Works which had pretty good beer to go along with their outstanding food.  We also had an amazing breakfast the morning of our departure on Sunday at Mary's Harbor View Café (best biscuits we've had...ever!).

We opted to skip the first night of music at the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover since there weren't any bands we just had to see and instead took a unique ghost tour at the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse.
Atop the lighthouse we saw no ghosts, but the view and ambiance were pretty cool.  This was the first time we had been up in a lighthouse at night.   We also got up close and personal to the mustache the lighthouse was sporting in honor of the Gentlemen of the Road tour that was in town since mustaches are a theme for the GOTR concert series.
 Saturday, September 14 - The music started at the GOTR around 1 PM, so after a leisurely breakfast and a quick swim (for me and Mike) at the beach, we loaded up on the pre-paid shuttle bus over to the venue at Francis Field near downtown.  The shuttle bus turned out to be an excellent  choice with quick, comfortable and organized service both coming and going.

Gentlemen of the Road is an on-going two-day concert series developed by Mumford and Sons that moves around the world and sets up in rather small, unique areas and towns instead of just big cities and giant arenas.  They get the whole community involved and celebrate not just the music, but the town/area as well.  Amazing idea from an amazing band.

We caught a little bit of a few bands throughout the fairly brutal heat of the day (Bear's Den, Those Darlins and The Vaccines) with the big headliners of fun. and, of course, Mumford and Sons to close out the night.  As the crowd swelled with the anticipation of the new and popular band fun. scheduled to take the stage just after sunset, an announcement was made that we (the crowd) were definitely gonna have "fun" next...just not the band by the same name.  Instead, out walks living legend, John Fogerty, of Creedance Clearwater Revival fame plus a ton of his own great solo work. Wow!  Nice replacement!!  We sure knew a lot more of his and CCR songs than the one hit fun. has currently!  To sweeten the deal even more, the entire Mumford and Sons band joined John after his second song and played the rest of the set with him!!  Below is a little snippet of this amazing show and a quite befitting song (performed by Mumford Clearwater Revival, as I like to call them) since it threatened to storm throughout most of the show, but it held off and moved out to sea instead.

Mumford and Sons closed out the day and the event with a two-hour set that doled out great song after great song of theirs.  They even got the crowd of 30,000 or so to draw very quiet as they did an accapella cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire."  Stunning.  They closed the show by inviting two other Brit bands out on stage with them, Bears Den and The Vaccines, and did an excellent version of The Beatles' "Come Together."  Well done, lads, well done.  EDITOR'S NOTE: The following week after this show, Mumford and Sons announced they were taking a hiatus from touring, recording and even being a band.  We feel even more lucky now to have seen this performance which could be one of their last for an extended period of time...but hopefully not their last ever since they are simply one of our favorites of all time.  Rest up, lads, and come back when you're really ready to put out more amazing music for the world to enjoy.
Sunday, September 15 - It was already time to head home and after another early morning ocean swim (by just me and Mike again....Ashlee and Wayne are such wimps!) and a fantastic breakfast at the aforementioned Mary's Harbor View Café (definitely worth mentioning again), we hit the road with Wayne heading to the Jacksonville Airport for an afternoon flight back to Nashville and us three back in the car on  I-75 North. 
We entertained ourselves on the long drive home with silly stuff like a stop at the "World's Largest Peanut" located next to (Ashlee?) Carroll's Sausage Company.  We also had a good audiobook written and read by Billy Crystal that helped a lot.  Thanks again to Mike and Wayne for joining us on this little adventure.  Can't wait to do it again!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Holy moly! We're in China!! 圣钼!我们是在中国!

Today we embarked on what we feel is our most ambitious trip so far.  We are off to the other side of the world for a 10-day visit to China!!  Following is a day-by-day, place-by-place account of what turned out to be an amazing journey from start to finish.  

Wednesday, August 28 - Nashville to Seattle:   Since we have to head west to get to The Far East, we flew out today on a non-stop Southwest Airlines flight to Seattle where we would spend the night before boarding the big plane to Beijing, China.  We had the afternoon to enjoy the Jet City and did so very much with a visit to Pritty Boys Pizza for lunch which was delicious, Emerald City Brewing for a few tasty afternoon libations and the grand finale: a evening boat ride and  houseboat tour of Lake Union.
Our vessel for the evening was the lovely restored, Mary Adda. a 1928 all-wooden yacht that was given up for dead in a Seattle boatyard up until a few years ago when our captain, Kevin, brought her back from the grave.  I have to thank groupon.com for helping me find this jewel in The Emerald City...and at a great discount, of course.  (EDITOR'S NOTE:  This was also sort of a recon mission to check out the boat because five friends and I plan to hire Kevin and his boat to take us to the Titans-Seahawks game in early October from our rental house on Vashon Island.  That little adventure will be included in an upcoming beer blog entry.)

We couldn't have asked for better weather in the always-tricky Northwest for our evening cruise.  We hit it off with our captain, Kevin, and his first-mate and friend, Laura, so well that they invited us to dinner with them afterwards to a great little restaurant nearby called Cicchetti, a great little Mediterranean restaurant.

Made famous in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, "Sleepless in Seattle" this beautiful floating lake house is just one of dozens of private homes that surround Lake Union.

Thursday, August 29 - Friday, August 30 - Seattle to Beijing - We boarded our Hainan Airlines flight around 2 PM on Thursday and would fly all night to arrive in Beijing on late Friday afternoon.  Kinda trippy, and the really weird thing with this flight was we never flew in darkness.  Despite that odd date-line fact, we were able to get some sleep, the food served was pretty good and our coach seats weren't bad for the 12-hour flight. After an "interesting" car-ride transfer from the Beijing airport to downtown (evidently you can use the emergency lane in China for passing), we arrived at the nice Dong Fang Hotel where we checked in and just basically crashed for the rest of the evening.
Our first glimpse of China was dazzling with the crinkled mountains in the northeast of the country in shimmering green.

Saturday, August 31 - A Day in Beijing -  After a good night's sleep and a hearty complimentary breakfast that included "breakfast bowels" (i.e. sausage).  We were somehow able to get on Facebook (we read that we would not be able to in China) and a picture of the sausage tray with it's interesting "description" on my timeline brought howls of laughter and pangs of disgust from several folks back home. Yep, this was going to be a fun and interesting trip. After breakfast and with a free day in Beijing before our official tour of China started, we were picked up for a day-tour of the city with three stops that weren't on the list of places we would visit with our main tour: the Giant Panda Garden at the Bejing Zoo, the Summer Palace and the Lama Temple.  All three places, plus lunch across from the famous "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium were great.  Our guide, Jason (bet that's not his real name since he's a native), was excellent and easy to understand.

This great zoomed-in shot was taken by Ashlee of two of the Beijing Zoo's most popular residents, giant pandas, noshing on some morning bamboo.

The Summer Palace (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is right in the heart of Beijing, but you would never know there was a giant city surrounding this beautiful and peaceful oasis.  In this shot is part of the huge, man-made Hunming Lake and the soaring Buddhist pagoda temple on  Longevity Hill.  As we where leaving the Summer Palace Ashlee experienced the first of several times while we were traveling in China the phenomena of us as Caucasians being sought after by rural Chinese people to have their picture taken with us.  According to our guide, this was probably the fist time these folks had ever visited Beijing and the first time they had ever seen a "big nose" (that's what they call any foreigner) in person.

Lunch time across from The Bird's Nest (i.e. The Beijing National Stadium)!! The pride and positive affect of the 2008 Summer Olympics is still very evident in Beijing.  While driving around town we also got a glimpse of The Water Cube  (National Aquatic Center) where Michael Phelps did all his gold-medal damage.

The Lama Temple is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Beijing  that is not only a tourist attraction, but also an active religious site for practicing Buddhists.  This beautiful and serene sanctuary boasts a Guinness World Record with the largest wooden Buddha (85+ feet tall) carved from a single piece of sandalwood (no pictures allowed out of respect).
After our wonderful day tour, we were dropped off back at the hotel in time for a little rest up and then we met the rest of our tour group and our guide, Michael, in the lobby and then walked to dinner together.  This is the first multi-day tour we have ever taken and we probably just got  really spoiled.  Our entire group was wonderfully nice and interesting, and our guide, Michael, and our drivers throughout the trip were top-notch.  It's going to be hard for any future tour to live up to this one.  Here's a quick run-down of the great people we traveled with.  I mention these folks because they were equally as enjoyable as the country of China and each of them enriched the experience for us in so many ways:

Michael - our guide - his real name is Huang Hai Tao and he couldn't have been nicer, more helpful, more patient and honest about our trip, his country and the overall experience.

Bob - a very successful businessman from Toronto
Kevin - Bob's son, and a charismatic and funny guy
Richard - an always-smiling, globe-hopping Brit who most recently worked on oil rigs in Russia and was heading to North (yes, North) Korea for his next adventure after this.  EDITOR'S NOTE:  He made it out fine and enjoyed the trip.  Whew!
Olly - a young, friendly Aussie businessman who was squeezing a visit to China in between international business meetings
Katharina - a young college graduate from Austria who had never left Europe and was now continuing her studies in China after this trip
Joe - a witty and intelligent Brit who loves adventure and hasn't met a dark, dingy alley yet he won't explore
Natalie - a young British medical student with Indian heritage and a bubbly personality
Usha - Natalie's mom, a recent widow and a warm, sincere and classy lady

Thanks to all these new friends for making our entire trip even better than expected!

Sunday, September 1 - Beijing to The Great Wall of China - Our "official" tour with G Adventures started off with a bang as the ten of us loaded up in a small tour bus and headed for The Great Wall of China, the first place on the agenda to visit.  BUCKET LIST GO BOOM!  Wow!  What an amazing thing to see in person.  Pictures will NEVER do it justice and we feel privileged and fortunate to have seen and experienced at least a small part of it in our lifetime.
Our guides for the next 10 days in China.  They were excellent and we hope to use them again.

The Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall is about an hour from Beijing and one of the best preserved portions of this modern wonder of the world.   As the picture above shows, we couldn't have asked for better weather for our visit.

Up and down, up and down.  One of the truly amazing things about this section of The Great Wall besides it's sheer enormity is that fact that it was built along the spines of many jagged mountains.  Our visit turned into quite a workout as we were able to explore for more than an hour up and down the endless stairways.
We took an aerial tram to the top of The Great Wall, but another option to come back down was by toboggan .  What a surreal (and fun) experience to whisk off the mountainside riding a modern plastic sled in a  metal chute while the ancient, silent bricks of the wall loom behind you.
Back in Beijing that evening we wondered through some of the tiny, winding and historic alleys (known as hutongs) near our hotel.  These tiny streets gave us a glimpse of how most of China truly lives their lives in humble clean homes, eking out just enough for a meager livelihood, yet with the smiles and laughter of people focused on family and who are basically happy. Not a bad lesson to be learned here.   After dinner, we caught an optional show called "The Legend of Kung Fu" at The Red Theater which turned out to be more of a Broadway-style musical instead of a martial arts demonstration.  Ashlee was the only female in the group to go and was paid off "handsomely" with some great-looking shirtless guys on stage.
Monday, Sept. 2 to Tuesday, Sept. 3 - Beijing to Xi'an - We spent most of today in Beijing visiting some of the most famous (and infamous) parts of the city including Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, The Pearl Market, and The Temple of Heaven.

The gigantic Tiananmen Square is the third-largest public square in the world.  It's a nice place and the picture above obviously reflects a happier time now than the one incident back in 1989 that most people think of in relation to this place...but don't speak of in China...our guide warned us that there are three political "T's" you don't discuss in public in China:  Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  Enough said I guess.

Pagodas near and far in The Forbidden City.

"Which purse you want?"  "How many you want?"  "Good prices here!"
Shopping is an intense experience in The Pearl Market where pearls and everything else you can think of are for sale.   We stopped here for a bite of  lunch (the McDonald's we had was delicious!) and tried to browse in some shops but the term "just looking" isn't a concept that the aggressive salespeople here can relate to very well.

We finished our Beijing visit with the exquisite Heavenly Temple, a Taoist temple which sits in a vast park not only packed with visitors but with locals as well, playing cards or Mai Jong, or practicing Tai Chi or some other exercise or just chatting the afternoon away with friends.
After dinner we packed up our suitcases and headed for the incredibly busy train station for an overnight trip to the "small" city of  Xi'an (only five million or so people) nearly 700 miles southwest of Beijing.  Spending the night on a sleeper train was a new experience for us and overall it was pretty enjoyable.  The quarters were tight, but the beds were comfortable, and the toilet was western.  Google "eastern toilet" for more in-depth research on this "sensitive" topic if you want to know more.  It's definitely something you want to know about before you head to The Far East.  Our roommates in our double bunk-bed compartment were the other "North Americans"  in the group, Bob and Kevin from Canada.  We all laughed and giggled like kids well into the night as the train rushed through the darkness toward our next adventure.

Let's eat!!  All our meals together as a group were served family-style at tables with giant lazy-Susans on them.  The big giant Chinese beers were usually cheaper (about $1.50 each) than bottled water.

Tuesday, Sept. 3 - Xi'an to the Terra Cotta Army and Back Again

The wall around the city of Xi'an is impressive and in immaculate shape.  The city is busy and full of students since there are several universities here.  Unfortunately, we encountered the worst smog around this area than anywhere else.  We were expecting more in Beijing which has been suffering from some of the worst air pollution on the planet in the last decade, but it wasn't too bad while we were there.  The smog in Xi'an was somewhat depressing and definitely altered one's view (literally and figuratively) of this obviously impressive city focused on history, culture and art.
Above is a shot of our awesome guide, Michael, giving us an intro to The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, our first stop in his hometown, the ancient walled-city  of Xi'an.  This huge Buddhist temple was built in 652 A.D.

After lunch we loaded up on a tour bus and trekked out to see country's "newest" ancient tourist attraction, the life-sized Terracotta Army that was buried with the first emperor of China dating back to 209 B.C.  Re-discovered back in the 1970's, it has become an incredibly important archaeological site  in China as well as a hugely-popular tourist destination.
Only 6 of the of estimated 8,000 life-sized clay army were found intact.  All others were smashed by a preceding dynasty to insure the first emperor would not return from the afterlife with his army.

one of the intact "survivors"
Jig-saw puzzle masters at work on site.

Coming back to life.  The army is being painstakingly reassembled and the site of them standing in rank and file in their original location under a giant airplane hangar is quite breathtaking.

Xi'an was prettier at night with the smog hidden in the darkness.  The strikingly beautiful Bell Tower Pagoda is the true center of the city as it sits amid a huge traffic circle constantly buzzing with activity.

Weds., Sept. 4 - Xi'an to Hangzhou - This morning we took a short flight (on Hainan Airlines again) due east toward the coast to the larger city of Hangzhou (8 million+).  The city's most distinctive feature is West Lake, a huge half-natural, half man-made body of water the embodies peacefulness and tranquility.  It recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We took a private cruise on West Lake with a nice view of the Hangzhou skyline in the distance.
Like most things in China, even the koi pond at West Lake is BIG.

Tea time!  Just outside Hangzhou, we had a great visit at this family tea plantation in the Longjing Valley. Both sides of the steep valley were terraced in tea plants in all directions, including up and down the mountain sides

No tea bags here!

Thursday, Sept, 5 - Hangzhou - Wuzhen - Shanghai - We had about a four-hour drive (with traffic) from Hangzhou to our last destination, Shanghai.  On the way to break up the drive, we stopped in Wuzhen for a couple of hours.  Wuzhen is a "water town" and is known as the "Venice of the East."  Having been to the actual Venice and ranking it as still THE BEST place we have ever visited, I would beg to differ on this comparison.  Nonetheless, it was a charming little town with a ton of cool exhibits and shops and a place we could have easily spent a whole day exploring instead of such a short period of time.
A little rain doesn't matter in a water town like Wuzhen.
Welcome to Shanghai..well, welcome to  a half-hour from it thanks to an incredible amount of traffic.  Note that all those skyscrapers ahead are apartment buildings and they are everywhere even this far out from the city center with tons more being built.   That's what 22 million plus residents gets you I guess.

Friday, Sept, 6 - A day in Shanghai - Look out New York...you've got some real competition here!!  This city is mind-blowing in so many aspects.  Below is a pictorial list of some of the "wow" moments in our brief visit to the incredible city:
A rainy day view of the amazing "new" Pudong skyline in Shanghai on the east bank of the massive Huangpu River.  That's not smog on the right, those are clouds enveloping the soon-to-be tallest building in China (for now, anyway, and second tallest in the world) when it's completed, the Shanghai Tower.  The picture below was taken from the 155th floor of the building next to it that looks like a bottle opener, the Shanghai World Finance Center (SWFC).  The futuristic one to the left is The Oriental Pearl (radio and TV) Tower.  This great view is from The Bund, an expansive river-walk on the west "old" side of Shanghai.
An evening Shanghai view westward from the SWFC Observation Deck, 155 floors up.  The floor of this enclosed observation deck is made of glass to add  to the fun (or horror depending on the person).  The public bathrooms up here have two urinals in the men's room with the same view, and there is one (western) toilet in the ladies room with the same view.

East Nanjing Road is like the Broadway of Shanghai on the old side.  A quick subway ride from here under the river puts you on the "new" side of the city with its massive skyscrapers in a matter of seconds.
This was my favorite jade sculpture  at The Shanghai Museum which boasts and incredible amount of priceless Chinese artwork and heritage pieces dating as far back as...get this...circa 4800 B.C....wow!

Oh, the shopping you can do in Shanghai and at 16 cents to one Chinese Yuan, there are bargains galore!
Our last night in China was a doozy with tickets to an amazing, live acrobatic show followed by goodbye drinks with our group on the 14th floor outdoor bar of The Peninsula Hotel.  Another one of those unforgettable nights.
The very short video below is what 261 miles (431 kmh) looks like on the amazing Maglev Train (that's right, it LEVitates on MAGnets) from downtown to the Shanghai Airport in about 8 minutes.  That's the fastest in the world in commercial service, folks.  Jaw-freaking-dropping to say the least.

Saturday, Sept. 7 - Shanghai - San Francisco - Denver - Nashville - HOME! 

The package flight deal we bought on Orbitz.com was a good deal, but it meant we would be flying a different airline back to the U.S.  That direct flight to San Francisco clocked in at just over 10 hours and was handled quite nicely by China Eastern Airlines.  Just like going over on Hainan Airlines, the food was decent, the coach seats were comfy (and a bit roomier even) and the entertainment system was top notch (tons of movies and TV shows to choose from - so many in fact, neither of us slept coming back which was probably a mistake in terms of some jet lag when we got home).  We had a fairly long layover in San Francisco and couldn't help ourselves not to take a kinda expensive round-trip cab ride downtown to grab a burger in one of our favorite cities in the U.S..  We connected back home on Frontier Airlines with a quick stop in Denver and were home by 11 P.M., exhausted but  happy that we had just completed an amazing journey to an awe-inspiring place with some of the nicest people in and from around the world (literally). And, we would be able sleep in our own bed tonight (and all day tomorrow!!).
Hey, that's The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  We're home!  (kind of).