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mercoledì 27 marzo 2013

Shanghai Surprise

I know this video was not shot in Shanghai but I love the song! Plus David Bowie is one of my favourite artists of all times. I was in Shanghai in October coming from Bejing and my staying was as it is usually said: short and intense. I got there with the Bullet train in five hours at a speed of over 300 Km per hour. I slept most of the time but ...damn it was fast. Everytime I tried to get up I was inevitably almost falling off. I had already been overwhelmed by Beijing South Station where I had been almost stamped on by a billion people and nobody could understand nor speak English. Getting on the train was a relief although I should have thought about getting some food since there was almost none on the train . I had an instant soup which left me starving for the whole day. When we finally got to Shanghai it took us almost two hours to get to the hotel and there was a lot of humidity. Everybody stayed at the Westin just a couple of blocks away from tthe Bund but I decided to stay somewhere else around the corner (bad choice. I guess four stars in China is hardly like three stars in Europe.... ) The room was good but the hotel itself, the common parts were dirty and rundown. At the entrance there were literal shacks where people lived and the dirt was terrible. Plus as you probably know a usual Chinese habit is to spit very ofetn despite of the place. So the porter in my hotel would spit in the bronze vases at the entrance for example and at the Westin some guests would just spit in the ashtrays or in the umbrella rack. I was told that if you ride a bycicle you might also get hit by other cyclists spitting randomly and therefore you have to keep your head down: one of the reasons why I would probably have some problems in living there. Anyway, Shanghai is very modern and built up and is a very nice and lively city. The first thing I saw was the Bund where the skyline is impressive especially at night and where you can find lovely colonial buildings. Then there is this famous YU Garden located into one of the biggest open air market where they sell every possible thing you can imagine. And when I say everything I mean everything. Mostly it is all fake and counterfeited stuff but there are also thousands of little shops and stalls where you can buy whatever you want. Of course the shops and the stalls come with thousands of people amongst sellers and buyers and I found it too overwhelming for me. Therefore I decided to walk into this oasis of peace and tranquillity where at least I could slowly walk around and visit all the pavillions and the ponds. Now advice to all travellers: if two nice boys or girls or a couple ask you to take a picture of them in the market do it but don't stay and talk too long, because they are all students of English and want to practice and by the way since there is an international tea festival why don't you come with us to an ancient tea house for tea tasting? Of course it is a scam because there is no festival, and the tea houses are traps for tourists. As soon as you sit down they start this very picturesque ceremony and when they give you the list of teas to taste they are incredibly expensive for Chinese standards. Of course they will tell you that a minimum of six tastings is required in order for you to spend around 40-50 Euros. When I realized it was getting weird I left but still they managed to get 10 Euros out of me for the three types of tea I tasted. The tea houses are nice and the tea tasting ceremony very interesting but still it is a scam. Another very nice part of the city is the French concession where all the modern and trendy places are located and where most of fthe foreigners live. I went to Xitiandi where also some of the old Shanghaiese buildings have been rebuilt for tourists to see how they used to look like. In any case amongst the malls and the trendy bars and restaurants to see how the locals live one can get into these narrow alleys where a lot of families live and look at the traditional houses. Somehow similar as a concept to the hutongs in Beijing they are in fact very different. I tried to look inside some of the houses and all I could see was a unprecised number of things of various nature all contained in the same place. Outside the houses people sit and drink tea while playing majong and chess often in their pajamas (Chinese men sometimes go out like that when it's a day of rest), smoking and of course spitting. Another reason why I could not live in China: see this shop above? It basically sold everything including fish, toads, frogs, turtle and chickens. It had a basin on the street front where probably the owner was killing the chickens/killing and cleaning the fish and other animals and it was full of blood as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Sorry but it's going to take ages before most of the Chinese realize that animals have to be respected and that certain types of animals you shoud not eat let alone skin alive or torture. See why i would have problems? I think it is a damn good reason. Let's see who disagrees. As far as mundane life was concerned I didn't really do a lot since most of the time I was with people from the conference at dinners and other things but had dinner in Simply thai a very nice Thai restaurant in Xiandi. My last night in Shanghai was memorable but not in a good way: we were stuck on a ferry for a dinner cruise in the rain eating orrible food and we were going up and down not being able to get off...Let's put it this way :as much as I think Shanghai is a beautiful and interesting place it was not love at first sight so I guess I'll have to go again to see if it ever happens...

lunedì 25 marzo 2013

Winter fascination in Belgium

I have been in Antwerp twice and I have to admit that I always liked it more than Brussels. It has a certain something that really fascinates me plus it's very pretty. I went there in January for work purposes and I remember it to be one of the coldest experiences of my whole life. I was staying in Leopold Hotel located in the Diamond district, which was very nice although for some reason also very cold. The heating was not working properly so I always had a sweater on when I was in the room. The location is perfect since from there you can easily walk to the center or take the trams at the railway station which is a few blocks away. If it hadn't been for the cold it would have been a lot more pleasant. Even more so and a lot nicer is Park Inn by Radisson, located just outside the railways station . Now, when talking about the station one might think it is a dodgy place and/or nothing special. Instead the one in Antwerp is absolutely stunning. I actually went to take the train to go to Ghent, another very beautiful place, although the day I went it was snowing and the temperature was -17 (!!!). I am still a Southern Italian, therefore although I live in Milan and I have lived in London and NYC I will never get used to it. What can I do? It's not my fault that I carry the sun and the warmth within me all the time. Even if I thought I would not make it and probably freeze to death on a street corner I ventured and visited the city for which every comment is probably unnecessary once you have seen the pictures. It's a lovely place and I am sure that in the milder season it is great to walk around and look at all the beautiful buildings, the streets and the churches. For me it was quite a torture : apart from the cold wind which slaps your face all the time, the streets were covered in snow and ice so I had to walk slowly with my eyes fixed on the pavement since it was terribly slippery. I could still appreciate the beauty of the city which really looks like a painting from the Flemish school, talking of which I would suggest to visit Rubens' house while in Antwerp since it's one of the main attractions. I am talking about Antwerp and Ghent as the same place since they are so close (1 hour train ride) that if visiting one, one might as well visit the other. Back to Rubens' house I initially visited it to find some shelter and warmth but I ended up enjoying it very much. A great area of Antwerp is the city center where you can easily get to by foot or by public transport. Grote Markt Square is probably the most known and it is very beautiful. There is a manin building from the 17th century surrounded by a lot of Flemish coloured buildings which give the square a flare of a Grimms' tale, at least for me. Another very nice area is the one around Leopoldstraat also known as the antiques area, where you can find lots of nice shops, galleries and bars: As I said it was very hard for me to go around with that temperature and at some point I thought about going to the movie theater where I saw Life of Pi one of the best movies of the year. For those who haven't seen it I strongly suggest to do it. Pure poetry and spirituality plus great special effects. Well, the movie was great but( you would never imagine that) there was AIR CONDITIONING in the theatre. I got so frustrated that after the movie I had to go outside and have a Belgian waffle with chocolate and whipped cream. Well in my defense I can say, I was cold, frustrated and famished. Plus when you do things especially transgressions you have to do them well or not do them at all!. Until next time but ... never again in winter
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