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!

Tuesday, June 24, 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

The Sights of Shanghai

During our whirlwind stopover we only got a very blurry glimpse of Shanghai. When I look back on those few days, I catch little snapshots of what happened so it feels as though I'm watching a few photos rather than a fluid film.


We headed first for the downtown shopping epicentre of Nanjing street, where the masses of people in a fast paced consumer frenzy were dwarfed but huge shiny buildings. The shopping mall was filled with every designer and high street name you can think of, at prices that you don't want to think about. Heading one block off the main street, however, we encountered street stalls selling hardware, bric-a-brac, and food... lots of it! It was really impossible to walk on any street around there without the aromas of something delicious hitting your nose. Little dumplings, buns, noodles, deep friend bread sticks, cakes-I was permanently hungry! The shops are dark and dingy, with clothes piled up inside, on the pavement and hanging on the walls so it gave the impression that the shop was stuffed so full it burst out onto the street.


Next, we travelled via the "Tourist sight seeing tunnel" to the Pudong area, a recently developed block of land sprouting skyscrapers all over the place. About the tunnel, there wasn't really much sight seeing to be done on the trip- I mean, we are underground and all. It's basically a slow moving train (much like the Turin metro) with some flashy fairy lights hanging in the tunnel. It really should be called "Tourist ripoff tunnel" and labelled unsuitable for epileptics or people with better things to do with their money.


Pudong is nuts! There's the pearl tower which look like three fishballs on a satay stick. Then jinmao building (which we heard the tallest residential building in the world- info still to be confirmed), it looks like a giant shiny beer bottle opener- it even has the hole at the top for the purpose. There are so many glass and steel buildings here, the glare is just blinding on a hot Shanghai summer day.


Then in complete contrast we headed to the french concession district where we were being hosted by Alicia and Britt. The main streets have posh shops and eateries. On a little side street behind Alicia and Britts apartment the french colonial buildings house workshops, fruit and grocery stores, open air restaurants and a morning market for breakfast goodies.It feelt as though the Chinese took over Paris. I walked down the streets expecting to find a boulangerie or patisserie around any corner at any moment...


We had heard that Shanghai was a good place for technology shopping so we managed to pack in a morning of camera shopping for a new lense for Davide. Apparently there are little shopping hotspots for any kind of thing you want to buy in Shanghai - from toilets, to shoes to electronics. We were expecting bargains to be bountiful but after walking around 5 storeys of camera shops, we realised nobody was that keen on negotiation- what you see is what you got. How very strange and un-Chinese! Still we managed to trade in the old lense and got a relatively good deal - so you should be expecting some nice pics out of Davide soon!

Now that boys shopping was done, I insisted on visting the Yuyuan markets. At one end, it's very touristy and the "traditional" chinese shops are a little newly painted and kitchly decorated. Still very nice but it looked somewhat like a caricature. There were some lovely teapots, silk dresses, paintings, souvenirs and all sorts of things I wish I could buy if I only had a magic bag that makes its contents less than the 20kilo aircraft limit. At the other end of the market, it was still touristy but it was all about shoes... SHOES!! Believe it or not, I resisted and it was Davide who walked out of there with a pair of new leather sandals.


Thrown in somewhere here was a visit to the Shanghai Museum, a beautifully curated collection of historical Chinese artefacts.


Lastly, we couldn't leave Shanghai without visiting the Bund- a famous street or so I'm told. So we braved the rain and the slippery pavements to see English style buildings on onew side, the river on the other and the best part is that the skyscraper lights on the other bank of the river were mostly switched off to save energy. What a surprising and remarkable statement on energy conservation.


Phew! It was exhausting and exhilarating... can't wait to return!

Thursday, June 19, 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.

Sunday, June 15, 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.

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!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

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

Pingyao


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

Hey!
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...


Wednesday, June 4, 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.