Where in the world are we?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A pizza connection in Phuket

After some delightful days in Singapore, it was time to get to our last an most relaxing stop in our travels: Thailand. We decided that after three months of traveling and touring, it was time to take a break and relax on the beaches of a beautiful tropical island. Phuket was our choice.

Phuket turned out to be much more populated and touristy than we had expected. Plenty of foreigners infested all the streets, "lady-boys" attracted some eccentric audience, bars were everywhere and alcohol was certainly not missing. International food was more readily available than local food sometimes, and pizza places were certainly dominating the market. We took advantage of that, and made friends with our hotel host and his friend, a Pizzaiolo from Rome. He taught me how he made pizzas, and his secret recipes for sausages.

We took advantage of the location to go for some excursions. We saw Phi Phi island, and its surrounding beaches populated by monkeys. We snorkeled in the blue waters of the Indian ocean, and eventually we scuba dived too. It was amazing to see how much life thrives among the corals. It's a real pity that the Thai government does not do much to preserve its natural resources from wild western investments and savage tourism.

After scuba diving, Suzie felt a bit sick. We went for a check-up at a local hospital and they thought it was nothing. She kept feeling worse during the night and so we went to the specialized hospital early in the morning, where she was visited more accurately. The hospital was more like a resort. It made most of its money from esthetical surgery to western clients, that came over to Thailand due to the competitive prices. Suzie got her own luxury room, way more luxurious than any hotel we had stayed in the whole trip. Personal TV, internet, satellite channels, nice meals, and even a masseuse were included in the price. I slept on the couch for a couple of nights. It was comfortable too. Suzie turned out to have a decompression sickness, so she went into the hyperbaric room twice. I really hoped the insurance would cover that because the hospital thing was going to cost more than the whole three months traveling in Asia. Thankfully, after a lot of checking procedures, they did.

So the last week of relaxing holidays turned out to be shorter than we hoped. I flew to Sydney on the day we had planned, while Suzie enjoyed a couple more sunny days in Thailand before joining me in our new place. I cannot believe the holiday is over. It feels like it has been a dream and I am now back to reality. All I can think of right now is organizing our next trip!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chinatown in Singapore

Singapore has a lot to offer. Because of its history of immigration, there are several distinctive areas where one ethnicity prevails. This is the case of Little India, where we slept, and Chinatown, that we explored a bit more in depth.

Chinatown changed a lot in recent years. Travelers who went there just ten years ago found it unrecognizable. A local guide had us walk in lots of back streets, where life used to happen. Tens of thousands of Chinese illegal immigrants used to live there, ending up as Rickshaw pullers or prostitutes. With a lot of skill, the guide summoned vivid images of their hard lives, dominated by exploitation, ruled by a strict society and eased only by heavy use of opium.

There are still remnants of those times though, such as isolated, disguised and still active brothels and local museums. Prostitution, in fact, is not completely illegal in Singapore. After the failure of prohibition, the government got more pragmatic and decided to regulate it instead of banning it. Brothels are allowed to exist only in designated areas, and Chinatown is one of these. Chinatown is unique in this though, because brothels open in that area have licenses that will expire with their owner, and they cannot be sold, and new ones are not granted. Therefore there are less and less, and the "faithful" customers get older and older, and so do the prostitutes inside. Perhaps not surprisingly, those brothels now close at 10pm.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A fine city for shopping

Our original plan was to go through Cambodia on the Mekong river. We decided to change our plan. It turned out that the only affordable way to get to Thailand in an acceptable amount of time was to go through Singapore! I have always been curious about Singapore. It is a metropolis, a country, a little island, a commercial heaven and an amazing mix of cultures and technology.

Although the majority of people are Chinese, there is very little in common with the vibe of Chinese cities. The sky is reasonably clear, people are polite and the streets are absolutely spotless. There are plenty of rules regulating everything and an army of fines and punishments awaiting the trespassers. There are signs all around announcing such fines and that is probably why Singapore is such a Fine City.

It surely is a fine city for shopping! The Singaporean economy has brought the price of technology to very competitive prices, and the Singaporean government allows tourists to claim the taxes back on their shopping. Plus, we got in the city during a festival, that basically put the whole city on special sales! Only tourists had a chance to get free local food samplings and special discounts on pretty much anything!

We certainly took advantage of this and bought two computers and lots of accessories, ate a lot, and enjoyed this unique city, a blend of East and West.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Living on the edge of the Mekong river

From Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), we took a few trips to the surrounding areas. One of them took us up the murky delta waters of the Mekong river. Located in the south of Vietnam, the river flows to the border with Cambodia and then onwards to other countries. We decided not to venture that far, since time constraints would have prevented us from seeing other places (and in fact getting home on time!). Still, we took a two day trip on the Mekong.

Since the beginning, the weather did not bless this trip. Heavy rain poured on us while we were on a small canoe and the only protection we had was our conic hat, which proved exceptionally useful both under the sun and under the rain.

We took refuge several times along the way under some cute huts, made with bamboo and leaves. There we could see the local production of coconut candies, taste some tea and tropical fruits, and see -again- how they make rice paper.

We stayed overnight with a family who lives in a big old house on one of the branches of the delta. At dinner we had some delicious vietnamese rice rolls, that we filled with herbs, vegetables, rice noodles and fried elephant fish, caught the same day from the neighbour who had a little fish farm. Mosquitoes were everywhere and their bites hurt like hell here, so we got to sleep on beds similar to the Chinese Qing style beds we had in Pingyao under a hanging cloth to be protected.

The next morning, after a nice sunrise walk on the edge of the river, we got a boat and went to the floating market. That's right! a whole market on the river, floating on boats, where customers and merchants move on their own little boats. You could recognize what each boat was selling from hanging samples of their products (e.g. Pineapples) on tall sticks in the back of the boat. That was fun!

Before heading back to the city, we had lunch with noodles and snake. The snake was heavily marinated, so it would be hard to tell what it tastes like... I'd say something like fish and in the mouth feels like chicken...?

Dalla principale citta' settentrionale del Vietnam, Saigon, abbiamo fatto un paio di viaggetti nei dintorni. Uno di questi viaggi ci ha portato nelle acque fangose del misterioso fiume Mekong. Situato al sud del Vietnam, percorrendo il fiume a ritroso si arriva fino nelle profondita' della Cambogia. Tuttavia, abbiamo deciso di non avventurarci cosi' lontano, a causa di limiti di tempo che ci avrebbero impedito di vedere altri posti. Ma lo stesso, abbiamo fatto una scampagnata di due giorni sul fiume.

Fin dall'inizio, il tempo non ci ha sorriso. Pioggia a catinelle ci ha accompagnati mentre eravamo su una piccola canoa e la sola protezione che avevamo era il nostro cappello conico, che si e' dimostrato eccezionale sia sotto il Sole sia sotto la pioggia.

Abbiamo trovato rifugio diverse volte presso il fiume sotto casupole di bamboo e foglie di banano. In questi posti abbiamo potuto visitare la produzione locale di caramelle fatte con latte di cocco, abbiamo provato del te' locale e frutta tropicale, ed abbiamo visto - di nuovo - come fanno la carta di riso.

Abbiamo dormito poi presso una famiglia locale che vive in una grande casa sulla sponda di uno dei rami del delta. A cena abbiamo mangiato dei deliziosi involtini vietnamiti, che abbiamo imbottito con spaghetti di riso, erbe, verdure e pesce elefante, direttamente pescato dal laghetto del vicino di casa. Le zanzare la facevano da padrona, ed i loro morsi qui fanno un male cane, per cui ci siamo addormentati sotto un baldacchino fatto di zanzariere, su un letto simile allo stile cinese della dinastia Qing su cui abbiamo dormito a Pingyao.

La mattina successiva, dopo una bella passeggiata sul fiume all'alba, abbiamo ripreso la barca e siamo andati al mercato galleggiante. Esatto! Un intero mercato costruito su navette e barchette, dove ciascun cliente deve navigare fino al mercante che gli interessa. I mercanti possono essere riconosciuti anche da lontano dato che appendono esempi dei loro prodotti su alti pali, sulla cima della nave. E' stato divertente!

Prima di tornare in citta', abbiamo fatto pranzo con spaghetti e serpente. La carne del serpente era pesantemente preservata e marinata per cui sarebbe difficile descriverne il sapore originale... Direi qualcosa come il sapore di pesce e la consistenza del pollo? (E no Andrea, anche se siamo in Tailandia non sapeva de Cocco!)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Out of the wall

Finally we're outside the great firewall of China! We're in Vietnam! Yay! We spent two very quick days in Ha Noi, the capital city of Vietnam and a lot of differences immediately stroke us coming out of China.

First, maybe the most important: the Sun! Vietnam energy provision is not as heavily reliant on burning coal, or maybe the energy demand per person is much lower. But the fact is that the Sun is much brighter in this country, even in a polluted city such as Ha Noi. The side effect of the cleaner air is that people do not suffer from breathing problems like in China. Therefore they don't spit or snot on the ground as much!

Ha Noi is a pretty big city, but most of the streets feel like we are in a ultra-busy small town. Small lanes crowded with speeding scooters are the main landscape in the city centre, and crossing the street can involve several heart attacks. The right technique is to walk in front of the traffic slowly and staring at the coming people, making your way across the street. Never run to avoid the scooters, as such sudden movements are hard for them to read and could have disastrous effects. Even when not crossing, walking along the streets requires attention, because all sidewalks are completely used up by parked scooters, so people have to walk on the street.

Scooters are not just the main private medium of transport. They greatly outnumber taxis for public transport too. We got one to go to the ethnic museum after bargaining a lot. And when I say "we got one", I mean that on one scooter there was the driver, me and Suzie squeezing on the seat. Being in three is not that bad though. We even saw a family of five once on a single scooter. It was fun, except the driver had no idea where to go and got us lost. Plus, I burnt myself on the muffler. Hurray.

Fruit in Vietnam is really delicious, and coming from London the difference is so strong that it feels like I had eaten rubber fruit for two years. Actually... most food gets more tasty coming out of London...

We didn't actually do too much in Ha Noi. We couldn't skip the Ethnic Minorities Museum though, where we got to see the countless nationalities that live in Vietnam. Some are specialised in hunting, others in making hats but the important thing is that: the Viet grow rice, the Thai grow rice, the Miao grow rice, and so do the other 20 or so groups... I wonder why they have to specify that each single ethnic group grows rice since they all do!

In the evening we had dinner in a peculiar type of restaurant. It was mixed cuisine, Viet and western, and all cooks and waiters are very young people taken from the streets and trained to give them a better future. None of them were Suor Germana or Gordon Ramsay, but the food was ok and we felt like we did some good at the end of the night.

The timing for visiting Vietnam was probably not the best, as this is rainy season. And when I say rainy I don't mean those annoying drops that fall in London, not enough for an umbrella but enough to keep the mood grumpy. I mean the whole black sky falls down for about one hour, before the Sun shines again! These are the tropics!

Finalmente, siamo fuori dal firewall cinese! siamo in Vietnam! Abbiamo passato due giorni veloci ad Hanoi, capitale del Vietnam, e siamo stati colpiti da un sacco di cambiamenti rispetto la Cina.

Primo, forse il piu' importante... il Sole! La provvigione energetica vietnamita non si basa sul carbone o forse la richiesta per persona e' piu' bassa... fatto sta che il sole qui e' molto piu' brillante, perfino in una metropoli inquinata come Hanoi. Un'altro effetto dell'aria piu' pulita e' che la gente non soffre di problemi respiratori e quindi non scatarra per terra altrettanto!

Hanoi e' una citta' piuttosto grossa, ma la maggior parte delle strade la fanno sembrare un paesino affollato. Piccoli vicoli pieni di gente e di motorini sono il paesaggio tipico nel centro citta', e attraversare la strada puo' comportare piu' attacchi di cuore che metri attraversati. La tecnica corretta consiste nel camminare davanti al traffico lentamente e regolarmente, guardando attentamente se passare prima o dopo ciascun mezzo. Mai correre per evitare i mezzi, dato che i movimenti improvvisi sono difficili da prevedere, e potrebbero avere effetti disastrosi. Anche quando non si sta attraversando, camminare lungo la strada richiede una certa attenzione dato che tutti i marciapiedi sono interamente ricoperti di motorini parcheggiati e bisogna camminare sulla strada.

I motorini non sono soltanto un mezzo di trasporto privato, ma fungono anche da taxi. Ne abbiamo preso uno per andare al museo, e quando dico "ne abbiamo preso uno", intendo dire che eravamo in tre sul motorino, l'autista e noi due. Ma non e' poi tanto male. Abbiamo visto perfino famiglie di sei su un singolo sellino. E' stato divertente, eccetto che l'autista non aveva idea di dove andare e ha finito col farci perdere. In piu' mi sono bruciato il polpaccio con la marmitta dato che non c'erano poggiapiedi a sufficienza per tutti.

La frutta in Vietnam e' veramente deliziosa, e venendo da Londra la differenza diventa cosi' grande che sembra di aver mangiato gomma per due anni. In realta', la maggior parte dei prodotti freschi sono assolutamente piu gustosi di quelli inglesi.

Non abbiamo fatto poi granche' in Hanoi. Non ci siamo persi tuttavia il museo delle minoranze etniche, dove abbiamo potuto vedere le miriadi di nazionalita che convivono in Vietnam. Alcune sono specializzate nella caccia, altre nel fabbricare cappelli, ma la cosa piu importante e' che i Viet coltivano riso, i Thai coltivano riso, i Miao coltivano riso, gli Han coltivano riso, e cosi' fanno tutte le altre. Ora indovinate su cosa si e' basata la nostra dieta? Bravi.

In serata siamo andati a cenare in ristorante particolare. La cucina era mista, Vietnamita ed occidentale (e fin li nulla di strano, a Roma ho visto dei ristoranti indiani servire sushi), ma ciascun cuoco e cameriere erano giovani presi dalle strade ed addestrati perche' potessero avere un futuro migliore. Nessuno di loro era Suor Germana, o Gordon Ramsay, ma il cibo non era malaccio e ci siam sentiti di aver fatto qualcosa di buono.

La stagione in cui abbiamo visitato il Vietnam non e' probabilmente la migliore, e' la stagione delle piogge. E quando dico piogge non intendo quelle goccioline fastidiose che cadono a Londra, non abbastanza per aprire l'ombrello e troppe per arrivare a casa asciutto. Voglio dire che qui in mezz'ora cade l'intero cielo nero in terra, prima che il Sole splenda poi di nuovo. Questi sono i tropici!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

One in 1.3 billion

I have a few funny stories about coincidences that have happened in my life. Up to this trip the best one was about a German I met in Australia who met another Italian I knew in India.
But in this trip we had something more amazing happen. I remember walking along a very touristy street in Moscow and seeing a couple, asking for directions about their hostel. We decided to stop and see if we could help and accidentally gave the right directions, giving the wrong ones but thinking about the wrong hostel.
Well, on a train in the middle of Siberia, over a week and a thousand kilometers later we see this couple walking down the our car, and we stop them for asking if they found their hostel in the end. This is how we met them. Andrew, from Ireland, and Maria, from Spain are a lovely couple traveling from Ireland to Australia overland, just like us, but taking a different path and allowing a lot more time. They were going through Mongolia, and then China, after stopping at lake Baikal camping for a while. What a nice surprise to meet them properly!
Over a month and a half later, we were cycling on a tandem bike in the fields around Yangshuo in China. We decided to stop under the shade of some leafy trees near the river we were riding along. A few minutes after we stopped, we saw another couple on a similar tandem, stopping by near our trees for some shade and rest. And, hey, they did look kind of familiar. "Davide??" I hear, and that was Andrew right there!
After recovering from the shock for the pleasant surprise, we rode up the river together, we swam in it and took a bamboo rafting trip down the river again, telling each other the adventures we had since we last met. I'll never forget how random can be life in crossing the paths of people. And seeing how we keep crossing, we'll probably meet again guys!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pillars in the sky

Few things have left a mark in my memory as much as the natural reserve of Wulingyuan. Located in the heart of southern China, Zhangjiajie is a sleepy village that lies on one of the entrances of this enchanting park and we used it as our base for some excursions on the peaks.

The landscape is indeed unique, unlike any mountain I had ever seen. Giant pillars of stone rise hundreds of meters above a semi-flat forest cover. They often look scary as their bases can be much thinner than their tips. In rainy mornings, the mist completely hides the lower valleys, showing an eerie landscape where the peaks come out of a sea of clouds. These landscapes inspired a lot of chinese artists, who came like pilgrins in these lands just for admiring such views.

Incredibly enough, there are even people who live on the tops of the peaks. Tiny villages survive, protected by the Chinese authorities, and the people there seem to live on very little, farming chickens, ducks and bees and gathering small amounts of timber, as well as taking care of the park itself. Some of these people belong to minority ethnic groups such as the Tujia, and as our guide told us they look different from the Chinese and still largely maintain their own language, traditions and culture.

We initially badly underestimated the distances on the maps. Our first climb was physically intense, but fatigue dissipated every time we reached a grove where our hearts pounded in the breath-taking views of Wulingyuan peaks against the sunset. Only once we reached the top we realised that there wasn't enough time to go back down before dark. The result was a long run down the stairs of the steepest path under the dying blue light of the sky, that ended in complete darkness, amongst loud toads and slippery stones. Fortunately, my mobile had enough charge to keep a small torch on until our trembling knees found releif in the village again.

Zhangjiajie has suffered a downturn in its tourism-driven economy because of the earthquake that killed tens of thousands in central China. The whole sector is suffering even outside the affected areas. The result was that prices were unusually bargainable and restaurants owners chased after the few tourists trying to offer special deals on dinners. It was a bit sad to see that the whole village was badly overstaffed, despite the fact that we got better service and prices this way. One evening we got literally picked up by an old woman who took us to a little restaurant managed by her family. For a very small price we got a huge and delicious dinner, surrounded by cages where some of their live ingredients (chickens, phaesants, toads and even snakes) were on display, ready to be picked for dinner.

Pochi posti hanno lasciato un segno nella mia memoria quanto la riserva di Wulingyuan. Situato nel cuore della Cina meridionale, Zhangjiajie e' un tranquillo paesino che si trova in uno degli ingressi nel parco nazionale, e l'abiamo usato come base per le nostre escursioni ai picchi.

Il paesaggio e' di certo unico, diverso da ogni montagna che io abbia mai visto. Giganteschi pilastri di pietra si innalzano per centinaia di metri sopra una coltre di foresta quasi piatta. Spesso hanno un aspetto sinistro, dato che la loro base e' talvolta molto piu sottile della cima. In certe mattinate piovose, le nuvole nascondono completamente le valli sottostanti, mostrando un paesaggio spettrale dove i picchi escono come isole da un mare di foschia. Questi paesaggi hanno ispirato molti artisti cinesi, che vennero in pellegrinaggio in queste terre per poter ammirare tali viste.

Incredibilmente, ci sono perfino persone che ci vivono, su questi picchi. Minuscoli villaggi sopravvivono oggi, protetti dalle autorita' cinesi, e le persone li sembrano vivere di poco, con allevamenti di polli e anatre, con un po' di apicoltura, tagliando legna e prendendosi cura del parco stesso.

Dapprima abbiamo sottovalutato brutalmente le distanze sulla mappa. La nostra prima salita e' stata fisicamente intensa, ma la fatica e' sparita ogni volta che abbiamo raggiunto una radura, dove i nostri cuori hanno palpitato nelle viste mozzafiato dei picchi di Wulingyuan contro il tramonto. Una volta raggiunta la cima pero', abbiamo realizzato che non c'era piu' abbastanza tempo per tornare al villaggio prima che facesse buio. Il risultato e' stata una lunga corsa giu per le scale del sentiero piu' ripido sotto l'azzurra luce morente del cielo, che e' finita in completa oscurita', tra grassi rospi e viscide rocce. Per fortuna, il mio cellulare aveva abbastanza batteria per tenere accesa una piccola torcia finche' le nostre ginocchia tremanti hanno ritrovato sollievo nel villaggio.

Zhangjiajie ha sofferto un calo nella sua economia basata sul turismo, a causa del terremoto che ha ucciso decine di migliaia di persone nella Cina centrale. L'intero settore sta soffrendo perfino fuori dalle aree direttamente colpite. Il risultato e' stato che i prezzi erano piu' negoziabili del solito, e che i gestori dei ristoranti andavano a caccia dei pochi turisti proponendo loro offerte speciali per cena. E' stato un po' triste vedere che l'intero villaggio era brutalmente sottoutilizzato, sebbene fossimo noi quelli che ne hanno tratto i vantaggi. Una sera siamo stati letteralmente prelevati dalla strada da una anziana che ci ha portati in un ristorantino gestito dalla sua famiglia. Per un prezzo molto basso, ci ha offerto una gigantesca e deliziosa cena, che abbiamo assaporato in mezzo alle gabbie dove alcuni dei loro ingredienti vivi (polli, fagiani, rospi e perfino serpenti) erano in mostra, pronti per essere selezionati per la cena.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A cozy couch in Shanghai

In Shanghai we surfed the couch of a very nice American couple, Britt and Alicia. They hosted us with only a couple of days notice and made us feel at home all the time. They showed us around the city, took us to eat out at amazing places, like the best (according to a recent expat vote) Japanese restaurant in town, a happy Uighur brasserie and a very, very sinful chocolaterie. Eventually, they even took us to the Shanghai circus where we could see lots of acrobatics and contortionists. I wish i could be as fit as some of those people there heheheh....

Staying at home there was also very entertaining. The spotlight was always on Simon, a beautiful and elegant big cat, and Garfunkel, his younger crazy buddy who likes drinking toilet water. The highlights came when Garfunkel fought - and arguably lost - against a paper bag thinking he had been sneakily attacked by it.

A Shanghai siamo stati ospitati da una simpatica coppia americana, Britt e Alicia. Ci hanno ospitati con solo un paio di giorni di preavviso e ci hanno fatto sentire a casa tutto il tempo. Ci hanno mostrato la citta', ci hanno portato a mangiare fuori in posti eccezionali, come il miglior ristorante giapponese della citta', un allegro posto Uighur, e una cioccolateria molto peccaminosa. Infine, ci hanno perfino portati al circo residente di Shanghai, dove abbiamo visto acrobazie e contorsionismi mozzafiato. Mi piacerebbe essere in forma come certi di quei giovani!
Anche stare a casa era divertente di suo. La luce della ribalta era sempre su Simon, un elegante gattone, e Garfunkel, il suo giovane e pazzo compagno di appartamento. I momenti migliori sono venuti quando Garfunkel ha lottato - e perso - contro una borsa di carta, pensando di essere stato vittima di un agguato da parte di essa.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Summer Games will miss the Sun

Pechino e' una citta' unica sotto molteplici aspetti.

Senz'altro non poter vedere la propria ombra o il cielo anche quando non c'e' una sola nuvola in cielo fa un certo effetto. L'inquinamento e' cosi tremendo che la gente prende vacanze solo per poter vedere il sole con i propri occhi e per poter rimuovere la mascherina antipolvere che tanti ciclisti indossano. Mi domando in che stato arriveranno al traguardo i coraggiosi maratoneti che si sfideranno presto nei giochi olimpici.

Detto cio', Pechino sembra ben organizzata per l'evento. I trasporti pubblici sono piuttosto efficienti, e sempre piu persone parlano almeno un po' di inglese. Dappertutto si vedono cartelli propagandistici e didattici, che insegnano ai pechinesi ad essere simpatici verso I turisti, a non sputare per terra e a prendersi cura della loro bella citta'.

E va detto, Pechino e' proprio bella.
Abbiamo visitato dapprima la citta' proibita, una reliquia dei tempi imperiali eccezionalmente ben conservata nonostante le immense dimensioni e la mole di turisti che la inondano ogni giorno. Al suo interno, tra cortili e palazzi, si trovano esposizioni, talvolta temporanee, di ogni genere. Dalla storia degli imperatori a gallerie improvvisate di arte che sembrano piu che altro dei negozi di souvenir. Va detto che un caffe la dentro costa piu che in piazza San Marco.

Abbiamo poi visto le vie principali, dove l'oriente incontra l'occidente in un arcobaleno di negozi, ristoranti, catene e mercati. La sera ci siamo viziati con una cena a base di autentica anatra pechinese, un piatto famoso per la sua bonta' in tutto il mondo. Uno chef e' venuto al nostro tavolo per tagliare l'anatra con l'accortezza che andrebbe dedicata al miglior sushi. Secondo la tradizione, dopo il taglio, i pezzi di carne vanno riposti insieme a poche verdure e una apposita salsa dentro un pancake che viene poi arrotolato e, giustamente, divorato.

Il giorno dopo abbiamo visitato la citta' vecchia. Dopo aver usato buona parte delle nostre energie su un pedalo' nel lago Huaihai, abbiamo rinunciato a noleggiare una bicicletta ed abbiamo passeggiato tra vicoli pieni di gente e di vita come cunicoli di un formicaio. Infine la serata e' andata al tempio dei cieli, un complesso di templi e costruzioni buddiste dentro un immenso curato e pacifico parco in mezzo alla citta'. Anche grazie alla nostra generosa ospite, i giorni sono volati troppo in fretta, ed ecco che e' ora di prendere il treno alla volta di un'altra metropoli.

Beijing is a unique city in many aspects.

Firstly, not being able to see one's own shadow even when there is not a single cloud in the sky leaves quite an impression. Pollution is so bad that people go on holiday just to be able to see the sun with their own eyes and to remove the anti-dust mask that many cyclists wear.

I wonder how healthy the brave marathon athletes will be at the finish line in the coming olympic games.

Having said that, Beijing seems pretty well organised for the event. Public transport is quite efficient, and more and more people speak English. You can spot propaganda or didactic signs, teaching Beijingers to be nice to tourists, not to spit on the ground and to take care of their pretty city. And, I have to say, Beijing is really pretty. We first visited the Forbidden city, which despite the massive scale and the amount of visitors each day, is an extraordinarily well preserved relic of the imperial period. Inside, among courtyards and palaces, you can find expositions, sometimes temporary, of any kind: from the history of the emperors to improvised galeries that are more like souvenir shops. Note that having a coffee inside the Forbidden City is more expensive than in Piazza San Marco, Venice.

Then we saw the main high streets, where west meets east in a rainbow of workshops, retail outlets, restaurants and markets. In the evening we treated ourselves with a dinner based on authentic Peking Duck, a speciality famous all over the world. A chef came to our table to slice the duck with the same care reserved for the best sashimi. According to the tradition, the pieces of meat are joined to few vegetables and a special sauce, wrapped in a pancake and, of course, devoured!

The next day we visited a part of the old city. After having used a good portion of our energy on a pedalo boat in the Huaihai lake, we gave up on hiring a bike and we just walked in lanes as busy as beehive tunnels. The evening was spent at the Temple of Heaven, a complex of temples, gardens and buddhist building inside an immense, beautiful and peaceful park in the middle of the metropolis.

Also thanks to our generous host, the days went far too quickly, and it was soon time to catch the train to another big city.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tourism terrorism

Chinese tourists travel in big groups on designated tourist buses and all wearing matching hats. They also wear fashionable clothing to walk through forest, high heels to navigate caves, and stop for waaaaay too many photos - usually with two fingers pointed upwards in a V shape next to the signpost for a particular attraction (though not necessarily near the attraction itself). Chinese tourist groups skip the terracotta warriors, in preference for the miniature replica of the sphynx down the road. They follow in herds behind a flag bearing guide with microphone and amplifier which can barely be heard as the group makes more noise than a gabble of Italians at dinner time. Mothers will stop to let their children defecate pavements or streets, a feat made convenient by their little poo-suits (jumpsuits with strategic splits). Fathers stand about smoking, spitting and occasionally snotting on the floor... and then resuming to smoke again. Everybody throws plastic bottles and all sorts of rubbish anywhere they like. Watch out for this bunch – and get out of the way!

I turisti cinesi viaggiano in grandi gruppi su appositi bus, e indossano tutti cappellini uguali. Si vestono alla moda per scarpinare nelle foreste, usano tacchi alti per esplorare caverne e si fermano per fare decisamente troppe foto, di solito con le dita a forma di V di fianco all'isegna di ogni singola attrazione, ma non necessariamente vicino all'attrazione stessa.
I gruppi di turisti cinesi evitano l'esercito di terracotta, preferendo invece la replica in miniatura di una sfinge piu avanti sulla stessa strada. Seguono in gregge la bandiera tenuta alta dalla loro guida, che usa un megafono che si sente appena dato che il gruppo fa piu rumore di una massa di italiani in pizzeria. Le madri si fermano per lasciare che i loro bambini facciano i loro bisogni sulla strada o sul marciapiede, cosa resa piu facile dalle loro speciali tutine-per-cacare (tute da ginnastica con un conveniente taglio nella zona adatta). I padri rimangono nelle vicinanze, fumando, sputando (e a volte peggio) per terra, per poi riprendere a fumare. Tutti buttano le bottiglie di plastica per terra... Guardatevi bene da questa mandria e toglietevi dalla loro traiettoria!

The Other Great Wall

Unlike the great firewall which blocked us from posting on the blog, this was one big heckuva barrier that we WERE looking forward to. So after sleeping in and lazing about, we set off rather late in the day to catch a public bus as far as we could, then haggle a taxi driver to take us the rest of the way in his poor excuse for a minivan to Simatai. After putt-putting pitifully uphill a few kilometres, a tyre popped and we stopped to flag down another van for a spare tyre. To our relief, we arrived one hour before closing time at the great wall.

We had heard that Simatai was less touristy than other great wall sites. Despite this, we caught a cablecar two thirds of the way up a mountain and walked up a 70 degree incline to the top to find a tourist tout trying to flog us souvenirs at over inflated prices!

The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular. The wall and its towers, crumbling away in sections, look down on sheer mountains and deep ravines which stretch away until the mist in the distance hides them from the view. Situated high on the ridge, they made for a formidable defensive outpost refuting the old rumor that the wall was built “to keep the Chinese in rather than the Mongols out” - although it isn't tall, I sure wouldn't want to be scaling the wall after a tough mountain climb, not to mention the inner walls and traps laid by the enemy atop its battlements.

We posed for some photos, stopped at the snack bar half way down and returned at sunset to base camp to find the very last taxi driver who had added a late-in-the-day-and-I-wanna-go-home tax to his usual fee. A local woman strolled up to the car to undercut the driver with an offer for accomodation in her farmhouse (for two euros each!). So we accepted, ate a huge meal and collapsed exhausted in her little brick house amongst corn fields.

Surfing china

We've discovered a new hobby – surfing on couches! No, we're not catching a wave on a three seater sofa, but we've joined up to an international movement where local people open their homes to like minded travellers and offer them a couch to sleep on for a few days. It was through couch surfing that we were able to survive - ahrm, experience more comfortably – in expensive cities such as Beijing, tap into some local knowledge about the area and hang out with some really cool people.

Our first host, Nan Zhao, was an upbeat budding filmmaker originally from southern China. We were treated to a private screening of her latest short, “Amor Amor”, which was banned by Chinese censors on the eve of its premiere. Nan's apartment was also a surfing place for other travellers (much more intrepid than us... ): Rueben from Spain who had been riding his bike around Asia for 3 years and Thomas the Dutchman who has been on his travels for... well, we lost track of just how many years!

After crashing at the homes of other surfers, Couch surfing ideology does dictate that we should return the favour... so who knows, you might just see some globetrotters at our pad in Sydney sometime soon.

Abbiamo scoperto un nuovo hobby - fare surf sui divani! No, non stiamo prendendo un'onda su un divanone triplo, ma ci siamo uniti ad un movimento internazionale dove persone aprono le loro case ad altri viaggiatori ed offrono loro un divano per dormire per qualche giorno. E' stato attraverso questo "couch surfing" che siamo riusciti a sopravv... ehm, scoprire con piu' comfort citta' care come Pechino, usare un po' della conoscenza della gente locale sulla loro zona ed uscire con gente davvero straordinaria.

La nostra prima ospite, Nan Zhao, e' una regista alle prime armi, originaria dalla Cina del sud. Dapprima ci ha mostrato il suo ultimo cortometraggio: "Amor amor", bandito dai censori Cinesi alla vigilia della premiere. L'appartamento di Nan era anche il luogo dove altri viaggiatori (piu coraggiosi di noi) hanno trovato alloggio: Ruben, lo spagnolo, che ha viaggiato in bicicletta per l'asia sudorientale per tre anni, e Thomas l'olandese che ha viaggiato per... boh... abbiamo perso il conto degli anni!

Dopo essere stati a casa di altri "Surfer", l'ideologia di questa comunita' richiede che si restituisca il favore... per cui chissa'. Potreste trovare qualche viaggiatore a casa nostra a Sydney prima o poi!

Mozzarellas and bananas

In certe citta' la gente cinese non e' abituata alla vista di facce occidentali, dato che mi sono dovuto abituare a dita puntate nella mia direzione, gente che voleva toccare il mio piercing, risatine, e lunghi sguardi curiosi degli abitanti. A un certo punto una ragazza ha pure voluto farsi fare una foto con me. Forse non hanno mai visto nessuno buzzicone come me. D'altra parte la grande sorpresa per loro e' scoprire che Suzie non e' ne' parla cinese. Essendo la cosa inaccettabile tutti si intestardivano a parlarle in cinese.
Insomma, mentre io sono bianco dentro e fuori, come una mozzarella, Suzie cade nella nota categoria delle banane: gialla (o cinese) fuori ma bianca (od occidentale) dentro. Uno dei nostri ospiti a Shanghai, Britt, invece pur essendo americano parlava Cinese, creando confusione nei ristoranti, dove i camerieri parlavano all'unica cinese nel gruppo (Suzie) e ricevevano risposte da uno straniero.

In some cities, Chinese people are not used to seeing western faces, and I had to get used to fingers being pointed at me, people poking my piercing, cheeky giggles and long curious gazes from locals. Someone even wanted to take pictures with me. On the other hand, the great surprise for them was to find out that Suzie was not and did not speak chinese. Being this inacceptable, they all insisted in talking to her in chinese expecting her to translate for me.
In other words, while I am white inside and outside, like a mozzarella, Suzie falls in the notorious category of the Banana asians: yellow (chinese) outside but white (westerner) inside. One of our american hosts in Shanghai, Britt, could speak chinese and it caused a lot of confusion to waiters when we went out: they were speaking to Suzie but the white foreigner answered instead.

What to do with cliffs. Advanced class.

Dopo la prolungata pausa a Pingyao, siamo arrivati a Datong, unacitta' inquinata e di per se piuttosto poco interessante. Siccome in Cina si usano quasi solo contanti e noi li avevamo finiti, quasi una intera giornata e' andata alla frustrante ricerca di un bancomat che accettasse una delle nostre carte, per poter pagare il conto di un ristorantino dove Suzie e' dovuta rimanere in ostaggio. Il giorno successivo, appena usciti dall'albergo siamo stati accalappiati da un tassista che ci ha proposto un tour dei posti che gia avevamo deciso di vedere. Sebbene fossimo timorosi fosse una truffa abbiamo infine accettato dopo aver tirato sul prezzo. Cio ci ha permesso di sperimentare le innovative auto semplificate cinesi: hanno solo l'acceleratore ed il clacson. I posti che abbiamo visitato hanno dell'incredibile. Abbiamo visto caverne con sculture buddiste mastodontiche scavate nella montagna, oppure cesellate con migliaia di piccole sculture i cui colori si sono conservati per molte centinaia di anni. Poi abbiamo scalato il lato diuna montagna per raggiungere dei monasteri letteralmente appesi alla roccia. Lo spettacolo mozzafiato che aspetta il turista dai balconi del tempio e' qualcosa che raccomando a chi non soffre di vertigini!
After the extended break in Pingyao, we got to Datong, a polluted and unappealing city. Since in China you can only pay in cash and we had run out, almost a whole day went in the frustrating search for an atm that would accept any of our cards, in order to pay the bill of a little restaurant. While I was rushing around, Suzie was kept hostage there.

The next day, just outside our hotel we got snatched by a taxi driver that proposed us a tour of the places we had chosen to visit. Although scared it would be a scam, we eventually accepted after some bargaining with a lot of italian gestures and after attracting a crowd of curious spectators. This allowed us to experiment the innovative simplified chinese cars, equipped with only accelerator and horn.

The places we visited were quite amazing. We saw caves with massive buddhist monuments carved into the mountain, or dotted with thousands of little statues. Sometimes an entire cavern was filled with a six storey tall statue of buddha. Each statue was finished off to minute details and some retained their original paint. Then we climbed a high cliff to reach some monasteries that were built on the side of the mountain so that they literally hanged from the cliff face. The breathtaking view you can have from the top is something I recommend to anyone who does not suffer from vertigo!

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Perhaps the most pretty and characteristic chinese ancient town is Pingyao. It is quite small but the city walls and most of the architecture is uniquely preserved, which recently makes it a very popular target for tourists. The locals are surely used to westerners and never miss a chance to try to get you into their restaurant, pedicab, guesthouse or even just to say "ha-looooo". We stayed in one of the beautifully restored qing-style house with two courtyards and 20 rooms and, most importantly, wifi! The main streets are dotted with red lanterns and are very nicely restored and safe from western chain shops. In the distance, at night, you can see walls and towers lined with bright yellow lights. In the lesser streets there is no public lighting and they look abandoned for a long time.

Plenty of little puppies are all over the town, but we could make out hardly any adult dogs. We asked the reason to our host and he said that in the winter they occasionally eat dog, a very warming meat according to him. It was also according to him that cupping (a traditional way of curing pains and colds) would have eased my light sore throat. Cupping consists of applying glass cups on the affected parts and to suck the air out. The result is like a massive lovebyte. Me and Suzie committed the mistake of believing him and suffered an excruciatingly painful hour of such treatment. The result was a back that looked like a pizza with salami and not being able to sleep on our back. Plus, the next day we got flu, stomachache and cold. Next time we'll go for aspirine!

Forse la piu' bella e caratteristica cittadina antica Cinese, e' Pingyao. E' abbastanza piccola ma le mura cittadine e la maggior parte degli edifici si sono conservati molto bene, il che la rende ultimamente una meta gettonata del turismo occidentale. I cittadini di certo si sono abituati agli stranieri e non mancano mai un'occasione per cercare di infilarti nel loro ristorante, taxi, albergo o anche solo per sorridere e dire "ha-looooooo". Siamo stati in una delle ville magnificamente restaurate dalla dinastia Qing. Aveva 20 stanze, due cortili e, importantissimo, wifi!

Le strade principali sono punteggiate di lanterne rosse e molto ben preservate al sicuro dalle catene di negozi occidentali. Da lontano, di notte, si possono vedere mura e torri contornate da lucine gialle. Nelle strade minori non c'e' illuminazione pubblica e sembrano per lo piu abbandonate di notte.

Ci sono una moltitudine di cuccioli di cane in tutta la citta', ma abbiamo potuto vedere ben pochi esemplari adulti. Temendo di sapere la risposta, abbiamo chiesto come mai al nostro padrone di casa, e lui ha detto che d'inverno li si mangiavano ogni tanto i cani, per le occasioni speciali. La carne di cane sembra avere un sapore molto "calorifero" per cui non va bene d'estate.
Sempre secondo lui, il mio leggero mal di gola sarebbe passato all'istante con una terapia di tazze cinesi, un modo tradizionale per guarire dolori e raffreddori. Questa tecnica consiste nell'applicare tazze speciali di vetro sulle parti doloranti e succhiare via l'aria. Il risultato e' un gigantesco succhiotto. Io e Suzie abbiamo commesso l'errore di credere al nostro padrone di casa ed abbiamo sofferto un'ora di dolorosa terapia. Il risultato e' una schiena che sembra una quattro stagioni, e non riuscire a dormire sulla schiena per due giorni. Per di piu', il giorno successivo ci siam presi influenza, mal di pancia e raffreddore. Prossima volta andiam di aspirina!

A Thousand and One Night Markets

Our first stop in China was supposed to be just a logistic break so we could take the train to other parts of the country. However, it turned out to be much more. First of all, we were delighted to find out that sleeping and eating were much cheaper, which allowed us to enjoy life a bit more. No more instant noodles, supermarket catering or staying in hostile hostel rooms with no hot water.

Urumqi is a fairly big city. It is home to a great number of people of the Uyghur ethnic group. These people have their own customs, architecture, food and they are mainly muslims. In some way they looked to my untrained eye like a mix of Persian and central Asian.

The highlight of Urumqi for us was the night market. Open from sunset to late night, it showed us a new and enjoyable face of the city. The food was amazing and in some occasions a bit scary. Whole roasted muttons were displayed like they were looking at the passers by. Chicken feet and heads, whole little birds and fishes were ready to be stir fried or barbecued on a skewer. Small scampi and what looked like big silk worms were crawling out of their compartments trying to escape being fried alive. And no, I did not eat the worms.

La nostra prima tappa in Cina doveva essere solo una pausa logistica per continuare il viaggio verso il resto del paese. Tuttavia, alla fine e' stato molto di piu. Prima di tutto, abbiamo scoperto che dormire e mangiare erano molto meno cari, il che ci ha permesso di goderci la vita un po di piu. Niente piu spaghetti istantanei, cibo da supermercato o ostelli ostili e senza acqua calda!

Urumqi e' una citta' piuttosto grande. E' dimora di un grande numero di persone del gruppo etnico Uyghur. Queste persone hanno una propria identita', usanze, architettura, cucina e sono per lo piu musulmani. In qualche modo sono sembrati ai miei occhi inesperti un miscuglio tra una popolazione persiana e dell'asia centrale.

La parte piu interessante di Urumqi per noi e' stato il mercato notturno. Aperto dal tramonto fino a tardi, ci ha mostrato una nuova faccia della citta'. Il cibo era incredibile e per certi versi un po' spaventoso. Montoni interi arrostiti stavano a guardare i passanti. Piedi e teste di gallina, uccellini interi e pescetti erano li pronti per essere soffritti o cotti alla brace. Piccoli scampi e vermoni strisciavano fuori dai loro compartimenti cercando di fuggire prima di venire fritti ancora vivi. E no: non li ho mangiati i vermi.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Great Firewall of China

We are still alive. We haven't been posting because inside China it is really hard to break through the firewall. We are working on a solution and it seems like it is starting to work!
more posts coming soon!

Siamo ancora vivi! Non abbiamo potuto postare perche' dalla Cina e' molto difficile passare attraverso il firewall. Stiamo lavorando su una soluzione e sembra stia funzionando!
altre novita' sul viaggio in arrivo!

Terracotta and dumplings

Finally in Xi'an! A 6 million people city with massive walls, seductive markets, imposing towers and beautiful pagodas. The main attractions of the city, however, are located outside of its boundaries.

The famous terracotta army, first unearthed in 1994, is composed of over 8000 live scale terracotta figures of all unique soldiers, horses and officials. After seeing the originals, we had a chance to visit a workshop that still builds terracotta figures using the same technique artisans used over 2000 years ago. It is interesting to see how the army does not appeal to chinese people as it does to foreigners. Our guide told us that they seem to prefer provincial attractions like an egyptian museum - notice, this museum had no original relic whatsoever, only replicas, it was a total fake!

In the evening we treated ourselves with a banquet of tons of delicious dumplings, each made with different ingredients. To seal the evening in the best of ways, we saw a beautiful performance of music and dance.

All along one of the days we had our own faithful local guide with us. She was a master of bargaining and managed to lower more than we could imagine the prices of everything, from tickets to meals, and told us about activities, sights and history. Probably she got a commission out of each place she took us too, and maybe some place was managed by her relatives, it was particularly obvious at night for the performance. Still, she got us great seats and without her we would have paid the inflated tourist price. So hurray for local guides!

Finalmente a Xi'an! Una citta' con 6 milioni di abitanti, mura gigantesche, mercati seducenti, torri imponenti e bellissime pagode. Le attrattive migliori della citta' tuttavia si trovano fuori dai suoi confini.

Il famoso esercito di terracotta, scoperto nel 1994, e' fatto di oltre 8000 modelli di terracotta in scala 1 a 1, tutti unici, di soldati, ufficiali e cavalli. Dopo aver visto gli originali abbiamo avuto la possibilita' di vedere un laboratorio che ancora costruisce modelli di terracotta usando le stesse tecniche che gli artigiani di 2000 anni fa usavano. E' interessante vedere quanto tale armata non eserciti la stessa attrattiva ai turisti cinesi. La nostra guida ci ha detto per esempio che molti cinesi preferiscono andare a vedere il "museo" egizio locale, che pero' non ha nessun reperto ne' alcun artefatto. E' fatto esclusivamente di repliche!

Quella sera ci siam viziati con un banchetto fatto di ravioli cinesi, ciascuno fatto con ingredienti e forme diverse. Per sigillare la serata nel modo migliore, abbiamo visto un saggio di musica e danza di una compagnia teatrale locale.

Per parte della nostra permanenza abbiamo avuto una guida locale. Era una maestra a tirare sui prezzi e ci e' riuscita a fornire sconti su ogni cosa, dai pasti ai biglietti e ci faceva da Cicerone per attivita', attrazioni e storia. Probabilmente prendeva una commissione su ogni cosa che ci "raccomandava". E' stato particolarmente evidente la sera del saggio. Tuttavia ci ha procurato degli ottimi posti a sedere e sicuramente un prezzo inferiore al prezzo per "turisti stranieri". Per cui... viva le guide!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Two beers or not two beers

Our second stop in China was the ancient capital, Xi'an. Because of its distance from Urumqi, the journey took two days by train, so we got some comfortable sleeper tickets, in a nice compartment shared with only 2 more passengers. However we found out in the first night that these turned out to be two completely drunk old men. In the first phase they were yelling and singing, then they started getting sad and eventually crying, thinking of their daughters, and snotting and spitting on the floor. Finally the next morning they were so hangover and embarassed that, after throwing up twice, they slept all day and hardly dared to speak to us. After the second night they seemed to recover, only to admit they got this smashed on just two beers! - and they earnestly thought that was a lot of drinking.

La nostra seconda tappa in Cina e' stata la antica capitale Xian. Data la sua distanza da Urumqi, il viaggio ha preso due giorni e due notti in treno, per cui ci siamo prenotati dei biglietti comodi per dormire in un compartimento condiviso con sole altre due persone. Purtroppo abbiamo poi scoperto che queste due persone erano due vecchi completamente ubriachi. Nella prima fase urlavano e cantavano, poi si sono intristiti pensando alle loro famiglie lontane. Si son messi a piangere e nella passione hanno iniziato a smoccolare e sputare sul tappeto. Infine il mattino successivo, sono sembrati ripigliarsi, per poi ammettere di essersi devastati cosi' con solo due birre. E a loro sembrava onestamente un gran numero...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Finally in China

Ce l'abbiamo fatta! Dopo un'estenuante viaggio in treno ed un controllo al confine che e' durato 8 ore, siamo infine entrati in Cina. Il primo impatto e' stato il treno stesso. In confronto ai treni Russi e soprattutto quelli Kazaki, i treni Cinesi a parita' di classe sono puliti, e superattrezzati con prese elettriche per qualsiasi spina (inglese, americana, australiana, europea), acqua calda per il te o per i noodle istantanei.

Al confine Kazako il treno e' dovuto andare in un impianto per cambiare l'ampiezza dei binari. Chi volesse poteva scendere per prendere qualcosa da mangiare. I poliziotti hanno brevemente controllato i documenti. A chiunque non fosse perfettamente in regola venivano chieste sistematicamente delle tangenti variabili tra i 150 e i 400 dollari. Nota che non sono multe, dato che non vengono mai dichiarate e vengono richieste in stanzette chiuse, prima amichevolmente, poi a suon di minacce. A detta dei nostri compagni di viaggio, in Kazakistan non ci sono mai problemi, se si e' irregolari, ci si legalizza a botta di bustarelle. I problemi vengono in Cina semmai.

Al confine cinese ci hanno fatto scendere a piccoli gruppi. Hanno controllato i nostri bagagli a fondo, ma si sono fermati a guardare solo i libri, le macchine fotografiche e le mappe, per verificare non portassimo materiali propagandistici. Sono rimasti perplessi per diversi minuti, osservando la foto di un murale di Banksy scattata a Londra: "A Nation under CCTV", pensando fosse un pericoloso messaggio politico (nota: CCTV e' il nome di una televisione pubblica cinese). In compenso ci hanno trattato benissimo. Molto gentili, formali, ci hanno offerto dell'acqua, e da gentiluomini si sono offerti di portare i bagagli di ogni donna sul treno.

We did it! After a strenuous journey on the train, and 8 hours of border controls, we finally entered China. The first notable difference was the train itself. Compared to Russian and most of all to Kazakh trains, the Chinese trains are very clean and very well equipped with multiple international power points, air conditioning, and hot water for making tea or instant noodles.

At the Kazakh border, the train had to go to a facility to fix the width of the wheels. People were allowed to get off at the station of the most depressive little town I've ever seen. Police briefly checked our documents. Whoever was not perfeclty regular was systematically asked for a bribe. variable between 150 and 400 USD. It happened to at least two people on our train. Note these were not fines, since they were not declared and were demanded in small closed rooms. As our compartment mates pointed out, as long as you are happy to pay bribes, you never have to worry about rules in Kazakhstan.

At the Chinese border instead, they had us get out of the train in small groups. They checked our luggage and paid extra attention to the content of our cameras, books and maps, to verify that we did not carry any propaganda materials. They got suspicious seeing a picture I got in London of a Banksy mural: "A Nation under CCTV", as they thought it was a dangerous political statement about China (note: CCTV is the name of a public Chinese tv).
On the other hand, they treated us extra nicely. Very formal, they offered us water, and like real gentlemen they offered to carry the luggage from and back to the train for every woman.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Leaves and fountains

Siamo arrivati ad Almaty passando per zone aride e desertiche. Certo giungere in una citta' che viene ricordata per i suoi viali circondati da alberi secolari non era quello che ci saremmo aspettati. Difficile parlare di architettura o di monumenti memorabili in una citta i cui edifici sono quasi interamente nascosti da alberi su ogni singola strada che abbiamo potuto vedere. In piu', ogni secondo isolato si trovano parchi e fontane suggestive. Sebbene sia una citta' piuttosto calda, l'ombra e la brezza la rendono molto piacevole.

C'e' molta vita, e molti negozi, bar, ristoranti punteggiano le vie centrali. Anche se non sembra, una macchina ogni due e' un taxi. Per andare a prendere I biglietti per il treno successivo ci siamo trovati a doverne prendere uno. Non si vedevano taxi sulle strade ma ho provato lo stesso a sbracciare un po' su un angolo e nel giro di 10 secondi stavamo gia' contrattando Il prezzo con un simpatico tassista non registrato.

Almaty e' un ottimo posto per provare il cibo kazako. Al bazaar o nei ristoranti o nei piccoli stand che si trovano lungo le strade, la scelta e' ampia e deliziosa. I samsa, lontani parenti dei samoosa indiani, sono delle paste sfoglie ripiene di carne. I shaslik sono probabilmente il piatto piu comune: sono degli spiedini, spesso di montone, cotti su forni a legna. Poi c'e' il plov, un risotto locale fatto con carne e verdure, e una serie di focacce deliziose. Frutta esiccata, noci, e latte di cavalla fermentato si aggiungono alla gamma dei cibi che si possono trovare per le strade.

We got to Almaty passing through arid deserts. Arriving to a city that distinguishes itself for its tree-lined avenues was not what we had expected. It's hard to talk about the architecture or about monuments in a city where every building is hidden behind huge trees in each and every street we could see. Plus, each second block we could find beautiful parks and fountains. Despite the heat, shade and breeze made the days very pleasant.

There is a lot of life, and lots of shops, bars and restaurants line the streets. Moving around the city is pretty easy, even if it does not look like, every second car is a taxi. Once we needed to get one but we could not find it. I decided to wave my hand at a corner anyways and in less than 10 seconds we were negociating the price with a funny unregistered driver.

Almaty is a great place to sample kazakh food. In the bazaars, in the restaurants or on the street, the choice is wide and delicious. Samsas, distant relatives of indian samoosas, are pastries stuffed with meat. Shaslik are a favourite: mutton kebabs cooked on a wood fired barbeque. A very common dish is plov, a local rice cooked with meat and vegetables in huge woks. Kazakh bread reminds me of the focaccias you can buy in italian pizzarias. Dried fruits, nuts and fermented mare's milk add to the range of food we found on the streets.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Horses and mountains

Prima di lanciarci sull'altra grande citta' Kazaka, Almaty, abbiamo deciso di spendere qualche giorno nella riserva naturale di Aksu Jabagly. Sono sceso dal treno mezzo intossicato dai fumi di pesce esiccato che la donna con cui dividevamo il compartimento aveva comprato. Per fortuna l'aria di montagna, il buon cibo locale e le escursioni nel parco mi hanno fatto rinascere.Che la si visiti in jeep saltando sui fossi a tutta velocita', o cavalcando cavallini kazaki che pensano solo a mangiare e a mordersi a vicenda, oppure a piedi, la riserva ha dei paesaggi formidabili, flora e fauna unici ed un'atmosfera rilassante che mi mancava vivendo a Londra.

Il parc
o si trova vicino ad un villaggio, nel quale una coppia kazaka-olandese ci ha ospitato. Il villaggio, Jabagly, ha 2000 abitanti e 600 di questi sono ragazzini che frequentano la scuola locale. Non ci sono bar, non ci sono ristoranti, non ci sono locande, c'e' un solo negozio che vende un po' di tutto. Veramente, a parte prendersi cura di pecore e cavalli, non sembra esserci nulla da fare per questi ragazzi. Quasi tutti I bambini che abbiamo trovato bighellonare per le strade sono stati entusiasti per mettersi in posa, e tutti ci hanno salutato in inglese.

Le tubature del gas sono particolari qui in kazakstan, perche' invece di essere interrate, sono tutte rialzate a pochi centimetri dal terreno per facilitare le riparazioni in caso di terremoto. Se c'e un passo carrabile, le tubature prendono la forma di una porta da calcio. Di ritorno da una escursione, abbiamo incontrato il solo esperto dei paesi vicini per tali tubature. Il poveretto non ha una macchina per cui si sposta di posto in posto facendo autostop.

Before going to the other Kazakh big city, Almaty, we decided to spend some days in the natural reserve of Aksy Jabagly. I got off the train half intoxicated from the fumes of the dried fish the lady we were sharing the compartment with had bought. Luckily, the mountain air, the good local food and the excursions in the park gave me a rebirth. Either speeding on the hills on a jeep, riding small Kazakh horses that only focused in eating and biting each other, or trekking on canyons, the reserve has amazing landscapes, unique flora and fauna and a relaxing atmosphere I really missed living in London.

The park is near a village where a kazakh-dutch couple hosted us. The village, Jabagly, has 2000 inhabitants and 600 of these are school children. There are no cafes, no restaurants, no hostels, and only one shop that sells a bit of everything. Really, except for talking care of sheep and horses, there is nothing to do here for those kids. Almost all the children we met killing time on the streets were keen in posing for pictures and they all greeted us in english.

The gas tubes are peculiar in Kazakhstan, because instead of being underground, they are lifted a few centimetres above the ground. If there is a passage for cars, the tubes take the amusing shape of a soccer goal. Back from an excursion, we met the only expert in the neighborhood for such tubes. The poor man had no car and therefore moved around hitchhiking.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Abbandonata la Siberia dopo un solo giorno di treno ci siamo trovati in un clima completamente differente. Il caldo di Astana, da soli 14 anni la capitale del Kazakistan, e' stata solo la prima delle sorprese. Grattacieli dalle linee che rifiutano ogni ortogonalita' dominano il paesaggio, spiaggie fluviali e foreste artificiali lo abbelliscono e monumenti mastodontici catturano l'attenzione all'orizzonte. Ben poco autenticamente kazaka, questa citta' sembra voler sfoggiare la trovata indipendenza e la ricchezza del terzo paese nel mondo in termini di riserve petrolifere.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Omsk and Tomsk

Nascoste nelle profondita' della Siberia ci sono due cittadine con simili nomi: Omsk e Tomsk. Sebbene piacevoli e rilassate, non hanno molto da sfoggiare. Entrambe costruite su fiumi i cui orizzonti sono costellati di impianti di estrazione, mostrano un volto meno turistico della Russia post sovietica.

Blocchi giganteschi di appartamenti in cemento e metallo arrugginito torreggiano sopra la citta' intervallati qua e la da cupole di chiese ortodosse, palazzine antiche e statue di Lenin. Lungo le strade principali cominciano a comparire alcuni negozi di catene occidentali, e si vedono cartelli pubblicitari di televisori, pellicce e videocamere.

Il fulcro piu vibrante della citta' rimane pero' il bazaar. Ce n'e' almeno uno in ogni citta', e' aperto tutti i giorni ed ha alcune sezioni al coperto. Ottimo posto per trovare cibo a buon mercato e per gustare un po della vita di tutti i giorni qui in Siberia.

Hidden in the depths of Siberia are two towns with similar names: Omsk and Tomsk. Though pleasant and relaxing, they don't have much to show off. Both built along rivers whose horizons are dotted with extraction plants, they show a less touristy face of post soviet Russia.

Huge concrete and rusty metal apartment blocks tower over the landscape, interrupted here and there by the domes of orthodox churches, statues of Lenin and antique mansions. Along the major streets some western chain shops are starting to sprout and you can see signs advertising TVs, fur coats and camcorders.

The most vibrant centre of life, however, is the Bazaar. There is at least one in each town. They are open everyday and have some covered sections. It was definitely worth visiting them when we wanted some cheap food and an insight on everyday life in Siberia.

Monday, May 19, 2008


The workforce in Russia is comprised of an army of little old women. They are everywhere- in hotels, museums, restaurants and trains. They are the tendons and muscles holding together the service industries. Some guard the floors in hotels, growling at bypassers until guest passes are profferred, to which they then wave you down the corridor to your room. Babushkas sit on designated chairs in museums and watch your every move. They stop you from leaning on and touching things, and slap your hand away from the camera when you shouldn't be taking photos. Some check your train tickets and most importantly make sure you get off at the right stop.Others are the keepers of public toilets, who sit outside and take your 10 ruble admisssion fee for the loo. The Babushkas clean up after, supervise and cajole their guests to make sure things are in order and everyone follows the rules. Without these endearing women, I suppose our travels in this country would not have been so comfortable. We were only to learn later that most of the Babushkas are forced to find menial jobs beacause they can't live off the measly state pensions allocated to them.

Tobolsk: wrong way, turn back!

Our holiday planning was based on the recommendation of our “Lonely Planet” book on Russia. We decided to allocate three days to Tobolsk. This little town used to be the place of exile of Tsar Nicholas II and Dostoevsky among others. It is a little off the main railway, so it took a few kilometres by bus to reach it. What we found was a bit of a shock.

We found a nice Kremlin (fortress) on top of a hill. Enclosed within triangular walls, there are two beautiful churches. We managed to sneak inside one. To show respect, women are expected to cover their heads with scarves. The fashion conscious younger women, however, wear scarves to match their trendy jackets, mini skirts and high heels!

Other than that there is really nothing to see or do. A tiny museum, a few shops, no cafes or bars that we could detect, one restaurant. The book in particular recommended the old town, so we visited it. There were rotting, skewed and twisted wooden houses, but not as picturesque as the slums in Tiumen, lots of stray dogs and plenty of sand and roadworks everywhere. The Siberian wind was creating sand waves and whirlwinds all over. In the distance, across the river, we could make out factories and oil extraction facilities, plus a few eyesores of soviet architecture.

There is definitely not much to fill three days with, and so we are taking it easy, relaxing, reading and walking around.On the other hand, I have to say that the people are really nice here. They try hard to understand and to be understood despite the language barriers, they are helpful and ready to smile back to our embarrassed faces. Every shop here seems to be selling mostly the same things. Whole dried fishes, small local semi-dried sausages and pickles are among the most popular products.

Abbiamo programmato le vacanze in siberia in base alle raccomandazioni che abbiamo letto sulla nostra guida. Cosi' abbiamo deciso di allocare tre giorni a Tobolsk. Questa cittadina e' stata il luogo dove lo zar Nicola II e Dostoevsky tra gli altri sono stati esiliati. Si trova un po' spostata rispetto alle linee dei treni principali e perfino per arrivare alla sua stessa stazione dei treni ci vuole un bus che viaggia per un po' in campagna. Quello che abbiamo trovato e' stato pero' un po' uno shock.

Abbiamo trovato un bel Cremlino (fortezza) in cima ad una collina. Racchiuse tra mura triangolari, ci sono due bellissime chiese ortodosse. Siamo riusciti ad entrare in una. Per dimostrare rispetto, qui le donne devono coprire la testa con uno scialle. Le ragazze piu alla moda pero', usano scialli che si abinnino bene con le loro giacchette, minigonne e tacchi alti!

A parte quello, non c'e' veramente quasi nulla da vedere e da fare. Un museo minuscolo, pochi negozi, nessun bar, un ristorante. Il libro in particolare ha raccomandato di vedere la citta' vecchia cosi' ci siam andati. C'erano case in legno in putrefazione, piegate grottescamente dal vento. E tuttavia non erano altrettanto decadenti e pittoresce quanto quelle nei sobborghi poveri di Tiumen. C'erano molti cani randagi e moltissimi lavori in corso e cumuli di sabbia e terra. Il vento siberiano creava ondate di sabbia e piccoli cicloni dappertutto. Da lontano, oltre il fiume, potevamo scorgere estrazioni e raffinerie di petrolio, e molti mostruosi blocchi sovietici di appartamenti. Decisamente non avevamo molto con cui riempire tre giorni, cosi ce la siamo presa comoda, ci siam rilassati, leggendo e passeggiando. D'altra parte pero' devo dire che la gente qui e' molto simpatica. Cercano di capire e di farsi capire nonostante le barriere linguistiche. Cercano sempre di essere d'aiuto e sono sempre pronti a sorridere per rinfrancarci nei momenti di imbarazzo. Ogni negozio sembra vendere per lo piu le stesse cose. Pesci esiccati interi, salsicce raggrinzite che sanno di mortadella e sottaceti sono tra I prodotti piu comuni.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cold Showers in Siberia

Tyumen was to be a brief halt as we waited for a train leaving the next day. The whole town is a construction site, quaint old wooden houses were being demolished to make way for new concrete and brick high rises. It smacked of progress and we wondered how much the town would change in the coming months and years.

For some reason, all the hotels in Tyumen were fully booked! We still don't know whether there was some big event going on that we didn't know about, or whether the appearance of two forlorn foreigners who hadn't showered for a while might have made them scared to admit us! After scouring the whole town, we found one hotel which turned out to be another soviet establishment. We were issued forms to fill in, and eventually our guest ID cards and keys from an unhelpful and perfectly useless receptionist. Then we were shown to a dingy twin room. The bathroom curiously had only one tap which swivelled between the shower recess and the wash basin, the latter appeaingd to be held suspended by some cabling. The toilet was lopsided so if you weren't careful you would fall off and end up in the shower... which only dispensed cold water!

After a freezing cold shower, we explored the town- which we found to be quaint and somewhat charming.At one end were all the modern facilities and amusements, at the other was a village of wooden houses. These traditional abodes were quite beautiful, but unfortunately deteriorating and poorly maintained. We walked out of the main town to a local monastery and then found a gem of an eatery a little off the main street. We were greeted by friendly waitresses who recommended some delicious food after seeing the looks of puzzlement on our faces upon encountering the menu.

We retired, exhausted, to our hotel room to watch some hollywood action movie with the original voices in tact, interspersed with Russian dubbing which followed the dialogue at five second delays.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Trans-Siberian

The first overnight train we took was on the main trans-siberian railway line. This was a modern train with the comforts of hot water, a restaurant, and a motherly carriage attendant who bustled about cleaning after us several times a day. We settled into our sleeper cabin with two middle-aged russian men who occupied the bunks below us. With much gesturing and face pulling, we figured out where one friedly roommate was from, where he was going to, how to store our luggage, switch off the lights, the radio and lock the door. Meanwhile, the other roommate aka “grumpy” occasionally grunted in our direction, frequently left the cabin for a smoko and otherwise snored... very loudly! We slept uneasily the first night and when we awoke, the room was a smelly sauna.

The next day we decided to try out the restaurant car. This turned out to be a cosy little parlour serving beer and simple food prepared by a raggedy cook smoking a cigarrette, whilst russian soaps were playing on a tiny TV in the corner. Here we met other travellers who were taking the trans-siberian and trans-mongolian routes, we shared a few good yarns which helped the time pass as the Siberian forests swept past outside our window....

2 days and 1500 kilometres later, we disembarked for our first stopover.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sweet Moscow

The days in Moscow went really quickly. It is a more modern city than St Petersburg but it felt somehow less authentically Russian. The city is expensive - prices are comparable to London, if not higher.

We spent the first day in Moscow's huge market, Izmaylovo. Covering over two square kilometers, it was way too big to see it all. Walking across it in one direction once already took a long time. Cheap international food, souvenir booths, hundreds of clothes and knick-knack booths, a big Persian carpet area mounted on old wooden walls and turrets, and a massive Chinese market are only a few examples of the variety we found there. It was indeed like a city inside the city!

The last couple of days were dedicated to visiting the touristy things. The Kremlin turned out to be a disappointment. A lot of rain, grumpy guards and mostly closed museums and churches made it a ripoff. On the other hand, St Basil's cathedral, the red square, a gorgeous river cruise and the old town showed us a pretty face of Moscow.

Some aspects of the hostel we stayed in was also interesting. The location was great. We were on a very touristy but cute and central old street, despite lots of western chains and shops. The guests were amusing. There was an American yoga guru who had lived for a month on a sequoia tree to stop a company from cutting it down. His wife is Russian but her mother won't let him sleep with her at home so he had to stay in the hostel. The administrators loved to listen to loud 90s disco dance all day and the building itself looked like it was being demolished and rebuilt.
Oh, by the way, I am 28 now! Suzie made me feel special all the day.. In the morning, she even managed to sneak outside of the hostel while I was sleeping and got me some nice fruity cake, ready in the kitchen when I woke up! Yum!

I giorni a Mosca sono passati in fretta. E' una citta' piu' moderna di san Pietroburgo, e in un certo senso sembra meno autenticamente Russa. I prezzi di certo sono paragonabili a Londra se non peggio.

Il primo giorno l'abbiamo passato nell'enorme mercato di Mosca, Izmaylovo. Copre piu di 2 kmq, era troppo grande per vederlo per intero. Solo attraversarlo in una direzione prende gia' molto tempo. Cibi internazionali a buon mercato, negozietti di souvenir, centinaia di stand tipici da mercato con vestiti e attrezzini vari, una grande area dedicata a tappeti Persiani, montata su antiche mura e torri, e un gigantesco mercato cinese sono solo alcuni esempi della varieta' che si poteva trovare li. Era come una citta' dentro un'altra citta'!

Gli ultimi giorni sono stati dedicati per visitare le cose piu turistiche. Il Cremlino si e' mostrato essere un pacco. Tanta pioggia, guardie incazzose e musei e chiese per lo piu chiusi al pubblico hanno fatto del biglietto gia' caro una vera truffa. D'altra parte, la cattedrale di San Basilio, la piazza Rossa, una meravigliosa crociera sul fiume e la citta' vecchia hanno mostrato un lato piu amichevole di Mosca.

Anche l'ostello in cui stavamo era interessante sotto certi aspetti. La posizione era grandiosa. Stavamo su una stradina antica, molto centrale e bella, nonostante le numerose catene occidentali di baretti e fast food. Gli altri ospiti dell'ostello erano particolari. C'era un guru di Yoga americano che aveva vissuto un mese su un albero di sequoia per impedire a una impresa di tagliarlo. Sua moglie e' di Mosca ma la suocera non lo lasciava dormire nella loro casa cosi' ha dovuto trovarsi un posto nell'ostello. Gli amministratori adoravano ascoltare musica disco anni novanta altissima a tutte le ore del giorno e della notte. L'edificio stesso sembrava essere in via di demolizione o ricostruzione.

Ah dimenticavo. Ho 28 anni ora. Suzie mi ha fatto sentire speciale tutta la giornata... la mattina e' pure riuscita a svicolare fuori dall'ostello mentre dormivo, per procurarsi una torta di compleanno che ho trovato quando mi son svegliato, pronta in cucina. Buona!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

St Peterburg Highlights

We've spent five jammed packed days getting a taste of St Petersburg. What do we think? Here's a little snapshot of our favourite discoveries.

Walking through history

We loved walking around admiring the city at ground level, it really has a buzz and atmosphere about it... we did, however, seriously understimate the sheer scale of the streets and blocks on the map, resulting in 2 very tired tourists at the end of each trek. One day we enlisted a local guide, Sascha, to show us the city off the beaten tourist trail. Looking dishevelled, big burly Sascha turned up to our hostel in the morning looking like a hairy shaggy dog. After a series of stopoffs to Cafes all over the city and five coffees later, he transformed into something more human.

We sampled the best local produce at Kuznecky farmers market, right in the heart of inner city St Petersburg. Here we tried pickled gherkins, pickled wild garlic and a sort of Russian curd similar to ricotta.

We also stopped off in a little artistic quarter, which opens into a courtyard painted in psychadelic colours dedicated to the Beatles. The artists based here had been squatting for several decades, at one stage coming head to head with local government officials. Nowadays, they are allowed to stay and in exchange the government takes credit for this initiative as their own.

Whilst Sascha downed his coffee, we were able to try Kvas, a non-alcoholic Russian beer brewed from bread.... its not as bad as it sounds! It's actually quite delicious and is enjoying something of a renaissance after it fell out of favour in Soviet times due to its connection with old monarchists who supported the Tsars. Following the fall of the Soviet union, western soft drinks such as coca cola were all the rage so Kvas even went out of production. We are certainly glad it's back!

Other quarters were home to best known Russian poets and writers, local neighbourhoods were the inspiration for the likes of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Seeing these settings helped to make these stories leap off the page a little.

Beautiful Buildings

St Petersburg's star attraction, and deservedly so, is the Hermitage museum. Housed in the winter palace of the Tsars, we saw a beautiful collection of artwork from all periods of history, all over the world. Most spectacular, though, were the decor and furnishings of this palace. Each set of rooms with their own themes and ornate trimmings. We had to be careful in rooms which were gilded in gold as we would receive the wrath of museum attendants for leaning on gold columns or against gorgeous doorways or walls.

There were loads of other beautiful buildings: St Isaacs Cathedral, the Church on the spilled blood and many palaces mostly built by famous Italian architects...including quite a few which Catherine the Great built as presents to her lovers!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Victory Day

Here in Russia, Victory Day which marks the defeat over the Nazis in WWII is an occasion for an important national festivity. It is very different from the celebrations I saw in other countries. The day's events included a large parade which seemed to be a display of both nationalism and military might. Soldiers and police lined the streets at two metre intervals, forming a human barrier between the crowds and the parade, which included heavy tanks and rocket launchers. Crowds cheered loudly at the passing military procession; there were children with toy machine guns; women handing flowers to old war veterans. On one hand it is nice to see that history was not forgotten here. On the other, people seem to really liked the idea of warfare, it looked as though they were celebrating rather than commemorating. It echoed of a sinister time of wartime parades where troops with weapons farewelled their home nation on the way to the frontlines.

Qui in Russia, il giorno della Vittoria, che marca la sconfitta dei nazisti nella seconda guerra mondiale, e' un'occasione per un'importante festivita' nazionale. E' molto diversa dai festeggiamenti che ho visto in altri paesi. Gli eventi del giorno comprendevano una grande parata che sembrava un'ostentazione di nazionalismo e potenza militare. Soldati e poliziotti si allineavano sui marciapiedi ogni due metri formando una barriera umana tra la folla e la parata, che includeva carri armati e mezzi lanciamissili. La folla urlava in eccitazione al passaggio di ogni mezzo. C'erano bambini con mitragliatrici giocattolo, donne che donavano fiori agli anziani veterani di guerra. Se da un lato e' bello vedere che la storia qui non e' andata dimenticata, dall'altro la gente sembra amare l'idea della guerra qui, sembrava stessero festeggiando piuttosto che commemorando. Mi ha ricordato un po' i tempi di guerra in cui le i soldati armati salutavano la loro nazione, in partenza per il fronte.