Monthly Archives: August 2011

Venice again!


I never thought they would come, but I am finally on holidays (and loving every minute of it!). I will be spending a few weeks in Europe, in a variety of places, including time with the family in country France. We started the trip with Venice. It’s only my second time here, and I am enjoying it as much as the first a few years back. So much has been said about Venice that I don’t really need to say it again. It’s pure magic. A few photos will suffice. Enjoy!

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Above there is Heaven, below there is Suhang… 上有天堂, 下有苏杭


There is an old Chinese saying that every Chinese person knows: “上有天堂, 下有苏杭”. This means “Above there is Heaven, below there is Suhang (Suzhou and Hangzhou).” (my translation). In other words, Suzhou and Hangzhou are heaven on earth. Um… I’m not so sure. Suzhou lies west of Shanghai, about 45 minutes by train, and it has been called “The Venice of the East”. Let’s be honest, it just doesn’t compare, even if it is an attractive place. Lots of canals, water, and old houses. But the Venetian atmosphere and magic isn’t there. As for Hangzhou, where I have just spent two weeks, it has become one of the most expensive places in China in terms of real estate. This is due to the presence of its West Lake (Xi Hu - 西湖), which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO only a few weeks ago. I’m not sure why. The lake is pretty, but not that amazing. Lots of lotus flowers. And lots of cars. Too many, in fact. There is a road that goes around the lake and which, to me, destroys the atmosphere. If you want to walk around the lake, you have to do so next to the road, which is very unpleasant. There are wooden boardwalks, but they are insufficient and crowded. The western side of the lake is more interesting, with small villages, tea culture and (somewhat) less cars. A more interesting place in Hangzhou, however, is the wetlands (Xi Xi Shi Di – 西溪国家湿地公园). They are in the middle of the city, and beautifully preserved: a maze of lakes and swampy areas, with meandering footpaths between them. You can also take a barge trip. Lots of birds and animals, and a world away from busy Hangzhou…

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Weekend in Shanghai


I hadn’t been to Shanghai in four years and was stunned by how much it has developed in so little time. We all know that China’s speed of development is staggering, but to see it with your own eyes is something else entirely. I have read that 30% of the world’s cranes can be found in Shanghai at the moment. I do not know if it is true, but it is certainly an indication of Shanghai’s dynamism. I found the streets much cleaner than they were last time, the city better organised, and some areas even quite pretty. The World Expo probably had a lot to do with it. Shanghai is a great city to visit for a day, a weekend or a week. Pudong and its futuristic buildings, the colonial Bund, the old city, the new suburbs, the French Concession or the markets, it’s all there for you to enjoy. My favourite restaurant is M on the Bund, as in Michelle, the Australian owner. A little pricey for Shanghai, but such a beautiful setting and such good food!

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On top of Huang Shan Mountain (Anhui Province – China) – 漂亮黄山(安徽-中国)


Huang Shan (黄山 in Chinese) is not easy to reach, but well worth the effort. Picture Avatar (the movie). Do you remember Jake Sully riding a dragon and flying among clouds in Pandora, over high peaks where little bits of vegetation clung precariously to vertical cliffs? This is what Huang Shan looks like, so if you want to feel like Jake Sully in Avatar, this is the place to go. Trust me. Okay, there are a few differences. First Huang Shan is not in another galaxy, but in China, in the Anhui Province, south-west of Shanghai. To get there, you need to reach Hangzhou (45 minutes fast train from Shanghai, although with recent train accidents in China, you may want to reconsider this option), then make your way to the West Bus Station. From there it’s still a three hour bus ride to Huang Shan City/Tunxi, the departure point for this fabulous place. There is actually an airport in Huang Shan, but it is tiny and only services a few domestic flights at certain times of the year. Once in Tunxi, you need to reach Tangkou (by bus or taxi), from which a local minibus service takes you to the bottom of the mountain. For the less adventurer, and 99.9% of Chinese tourists, there is a cable car up the mountain. If you want to do this, avoid weekends and Chinese holidays, or you’ll have to wait for two hours to get on. There are two other cable cars at separate entry points. A fourth is under construction. We did hike up, and it was great…. not many people around, and you have time to enjoy the scenery. Beware, it’s only steps though, which can be hard on your legs when you climb up to 1,800 metres. Most people prefer to take the cable car up and walk down. I would advise you to do the opposite and you’ll avoid the masses. The cliffs are amazing and you often find yourself walking over a narrow ledge overlooking a bottomless gorge… Phew! What makes the area special are the clouds, which envelop the mountain and keep changing pattern all the time. It’s truly magic. The other feature of interest is the pines that grow there, the Huangshan pine (Pinus huangshanensis). I can’t help wondering where they find enough substance to survive. I am sure you have seen old Chinese drawings of peaks with pine trees holding onto them – this is Huang Shan. I’ve been told that winter is a great time to go, with snow and ice offering a wonderful contrast to the valley below, but I’d be worried about the cold. There are four hotels or so at the top, most of them pretty good, and staying overnight gives you the opportunity to enjoy the place without masses of tourists. It is very special. You can enjoy the sunset and sunrise, and get up early to walk on narrow ledges overlooking an ocean of clouds, with just the sound of birds and cicadas (very loud ones) filling the air. You’ll come back changed forever. Did I mention that Huang Shan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site? It is.

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Durban


Durban is not the best known of South African cities, but it is a place I really like. It is the second biggest city in South Africa after Johannesburg, and before Cape Town. It is also the busiest port of South Africa. What makes Durban special is its population, with a large number of Indians living there (roughly 10% of its 4.5 million inhabitants). In fact, Durban is the biggest concentration of Indians outside of India. And Mahatma Gandhi lived here from 1893 till 1914. Durban lies in Kwazulu-Natal, on the East coast of South Africa. It’s got a beautiful subtropical climate and fantastic beaches. And there is no insecurity, a plus for South Africa. There’s lots to do in Durban, from swimming in the ocean to walking along the Golden Mile, visiting Ushaka Marine World (the largest aquariums in the world), dining out at one of the beautiful restaurants, going for a game drive in a nearby park, hiking the Drakensberg or even shopping at the Gateway Shopping Centre, the largest of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. You shouldn’t also miss the amazing Moses Mabhida Stadium, built for the recent World Cup. You can go up to the top, from where you have a marvellous view over the city. My favourite attraction though is the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks Board, whose mission is to protect Durban beaches from its infamous sharks. A visit to the Institution finishes with a shark dissection, which is a fascinating lesson about those beautiful animals. The Board also organises early morning boat tours to observe the teams checking the shark nets every day. Seeing the sun rise over the city from the ocean is a wonderful experience.


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In the Valley of Elah


The Valley of Elah is not a recent film, it is from 2007, but I only watched it last week. Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of a man who investigates the murder of his son, recently returned from Irak. Charlize Theron is a policewoman whom he befriends, and who will help him to solve the mystery surrounding his son’s death. The plot is good and the mystery remains until the end. The themes tackled by the movie are not light ones: the Irak war and what it does to soldiers; the behaviour of American soldiers in Irak; the opacity of the army and the powerlessness of individuals against it. The treatment of some of these themes is a little heavy-handied, but the film is a good one, with great acting. It was directed by Paul Haggis.

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Elisha’s Bones, by Don Hoesel


Elisha’s Bones, written by Don Hoesel, is half Indiana Jones, half Da Vinci Code, and unfortunately not half as good. The story is fast-moving, but the plot has holes, and characterisation is a bit weak. The reasons why the characters do what they are doing and let themselves be drawn into a bloody search for some bones are a bit light. The writing is also clumsy at times. It feels like a good attempt at a first novel, and could indicate a good writer in the making, but it’s not enough to make it an unforgettable novel. The story is about an academic and archeologist and one of his former lover who set on a worldwide search for the bones of a prophet, supposed to have the power to resurrect the dead. They are not the only ones searching from the bones, and their opponents will stop at nothing, which includes killing every single person the couple enters in contact with. Starting in Egypt, the story takes the reader to the US, Venezuela, Ethiopia and Australia. As for the bones, if you want to know whether they can really resurrect the dead or not, you’ll have to read the book…

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