04 March 2018

Train back to Hong Kong and flights to Europe

Morning at home, final packing and tidying up before leaving Guiyang.As usual we have a couple of suitcases full of goodies, mostly food from family farm in Yanjia.

Brunch with family, bamboo shoots pork, water chestnut soup. And fish: a big black from the pond on our terrace! It is quite common for people to keep gold fish and live fish for eating together, in the same pond!

A neighbor gracefully drives us to Chenzhou station in his brand new Honda, which he points out costs twice as much in China as in Japan. Honda has factory here but it is supposed to be producing for export only, so he is not sure where his car, or parts of it, comes from.

He is a banker and has a good life. Happy with the way things are going in China but he says communism can never work. China is still officially pursuing communism but in practice it is successful because it is capitalist.

Chenzhou station is crowded beyond imagination, never seen it so full of people like an egg. And it must have been worse a couple of weeks ago for Chinese New Year's. They estimated that about 600 million people travel across the country to go home, the largest annual migration in the history of the world. No wonder the transportation system is busy.

Can't move around no chance to buy my favorite duck neck snacks from Shenhua. Bags through x-rays, but they don't check any of them.

people are allowed onto platforms in waves as each trains homes in on the station. There is one train every 8 to 10 minutes going either north toward Wuhan and Beijing or south to Guangzhou.

Fast train (over 300kmh) is slightly delayed but no problem we have a good buffer before our flight from Changsha. Once underway, the delay increases somewhat because one passenger sets off the smoke alarm. The driver slows down and two security guards walk up and down the train to catch the smoker. I am not sure what they will do to him or her but after about 10 minutes we resume our normal speed.

At Changsha station an avalanche of people moves to catch a bus or a taxi, or a maglev shuttle to the airport. We choose the bus as there is less to walk and we have large heavy suitcases full of Hunan food!

Just before boarding bus another x-ray machine for our bags, again no one cares to check .

The bus is an old and cranky machine from the bad old times, and a TV screen blasts off some kind of funny talk show at ear-piercing volume. It must be funny because Lifang laughs all the time.

At the airport we have to wait a while to check in but there is no place to sit down as people take up seats with bags, or lie down across three seats and think it is normal. We do not feel like starting an argument and just relax on our suitcases.

After check in we go through yet another x-ray machine no one pays any attention to and then passport control. Our flight to Hong Kong is in the same terminal area as international flights (and flights to Macau and Taiwan). Hong Kong is still a "special" administrative region, with its own borders, police, currency, laws etc. It is supposed to remain so at least until 2047 according to the treaty signed with the UK when the last remnant of the British empire was returned to its motherland.

After which we have another (you guess?) x-ray machine control! This time the do look very carefully and stop me. A guard asks if I am carrying a knife. I replied of course I was not. He asked me to open my trolley and take pretty much everything out. Of course there was no knife but the spine of a box looked like one on their screen. OK I can go.

The lounge of Changsha airport is nothing spectacular, and in fact they have reduced both its size and its offering since my last visit. Just some snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

Uneventful flight to Hong Kong, where we spend a pleasant hour or so in the Qantas lounge while waiting to connect to our British Airways flight to Brussels. We walk to the gate quite early to board with the first batch of passengers and enjoy a drink or two before take-off.

Here, again, we run into the less than fully prepared staff of British Airways. We're flying to London and connect directly onward to Brussels. They won't let my Chinese wife board the plane because she does not have a Schengen visa. The rule says that she does not need one, because she is a resident of the UK and is with me, her husband, and an EU citizen. She would need one if she were traveling alone (though they usually let her through) but not in my company. It is a rather complicated rule, but it should not be beyond the grasp of people who check passport for a living.

I love a united Europe but they could really make an effort to simplify the rules back there in Brussels. Or just allow anyone who legally lives in Europe to move anywhere else in Europe, whatever the passport. but you would think the employees of a major international airline which fly planeloads of people from every corner of the world would familiarize themselves with it. No, they did not. For the third time in a little over a year we are held for some 30 minutes while the staff makes phone calls and scrambles to read manuals. I googled the relevant EU rule on the internet in less than 10 seconds and showed it to them, and finally we were allowed on board.

One more trip to Asia is over, though every time it feels less and less like a trip and more of a home coming. A long night on our BA flight and we'll be in Europe. BA is on a downhill slope when it comes to quality. Service on the plane, while friendly, is less meticulous and attentive than it used to be.

25 December 2017

My book on the Maldives is available in English! "Journeys through the Maldives" by Marco Carnovale

Typical Maldivan boat
Tales from the many trips to the Maldives of the author. Avoiding the tourist resorts, he visited remote villages, where tradition is combined with innovation and technology, meeting local people and trying to understand their culture. Always island hopping by boat, he went from postcard perfect uninhabited islands and through the streets of the bustling capital Malé, in its hidden corners often overlooked by tourism. In dozens of dives, he witnessed the richness of wildlife and the sparkling colors of these seas.

But the islands are facing rapid changes and serious problems, and they are not always the paradise they seem. The Maldives are at a turning point, with political, economic and environmental changes that pose difficult challenges to the government and to the nation.

The book is completed by an analytical index, a chronology of the Maldivian history, a bibliography and some black and white photographs.

Available on all Amazon websites.


In the UK buy it here



In Italy buy it here



In France, Belgium and Switzerland buy it here



In the US buy it here



In Canada but it here





18 December 2017

Book review: The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy (2015) by J. J. Robinson, ****

Islamic Center in Malé
Synopsis

The Maldives is a small and beautiful archipelago south of India, more renowned for luxury resorts than experiments in democracy. It is a country of contradictions, where tourists sip cocktails on the beach while on nearby islands local women are flogged for extramarital sex and blackmarket vodka costs $140 a bottle. Until 2008 the Maldives also hosted Asia's longest-serving dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A former political prisoner, Mohamed Nasheed, an environmental activist, journalist, and politician, brought Gayoom's thirty-year autocracy to a sudden end, in the Maldives' first democratic elections.

Young, progressive and charismatic, President Nasheed thrust the Maldives into the spotlight as a symbol of the fight against climate change and the struggle for democracy and human rights in one of the world's strictest Islamic societies. But dictatorships are hard to defeat, enduring in a country's institutions and the minds of people conditioned to autocracy over three decades. Democracy brought turmoil, protests, violence and intense political polarisation.The ousted dictatorship overthrew Nasheed's government in February 2012, supported by Islamic radicals and mutinying security forces. Amid Byzantine intrigue, the fight for democracy was just beginning. (Amazon)


Review

It is unusual for a book entirely dedicated to the Maldives to come out, and here it is from an English journalist who lived and worked there for four years. The book is a compendium of his time there. It touches upon many aspects of Maldivian life, with special attention to the political dimension. Loads of facts and footnotes but also some opinions and evaluations. The book is written loosely in chronological manner, and it ends with the author's departure in 2013.

The general approach is typically English, ie detached. John J gets to know a lot about the Maldives but one does not get the impression he ever fell in love with the country, or was emotionally involved with it at all. But that is not a criticism, in fact perhaps it is a good thing in a journalist!

What the book lacks is a more critical organization of the issues, but perhaps as a journalistic chronicle it was never intended to delve in political analysis. Still, you will find more raw material for political analysis her than in any other book I know of that has been written on this country in the last decades.

I recommend reading this book to understand more about a country known mostly for its resorts.





06 December 2017

Book review: Wild Swans (1992), by Jung Chang, *****

Synopsis

Through the lives of three different women - grandmother, mother and daughter - this book tells the story of 20th-century China. At times scarcely credible in the details it reveals of the suffering of millions of ordinary Chinese people, it is an unforgettable record of tyranny, hope and ultimate survival under conditions of extreme harshness.

In 1924, at the age of 15, the author's grandmother became the concubine of a powerful warlord, whom she was seldom to see during the 10 years of their "marriage". Her daughter, born in 1931, experienced the horrors of Japanese occupation in Manchuria as a schoolgirl, and after their surrender joined the Communist-led underground fighting Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang. She rose to be a senior Communist official, but was imprisoned three times. Her husband, also a high official and one of the very first to join the Communists, was relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned and finally sent to a labour camp where, physically broken and disillusioned, he lost his sanity.

The author herself grew up during the Cultural Revolution, at the time of the personality cult of Mao and the worst excesses of the Gang of Four. She joined the Red Guard but after Mao's death she was to become one of the first Chinese students to study abroad.


Review

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It traces a micro-story of a family through three generations of highly motivated women interwoven with the history of China over almost a century. It it meticulous and fastidious about details and context, which allows the reader to immerse himself into the incredible evolution and revolution of this continent/country.

China went from the feudal system of the late Qing dynasty to a modern superpower, passing through two revolutions, civil war, foreign aggression, a world war, economic transformations that took other countries centuries to complete. In the course of these events China was invaded, then locked itself up and isolated its people from the world, then opened up again after Mao's death, and that is roughly where the book ends.

So we don't see the new China in this book, but we can understand how it got there and why the Chinese today are so eager to break with the early period of the People'd republic and open up to the world. Even the Communist Party of China today considers the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, two of the central events in the book, to have been complete mistakes.

Translated in 37 languages and 13 million copies later, this book is banned in China, perhaps because it is very critical of Mao. Even if today the policies of China are the opposite of what Mao preached, the time to criticize the great Chairman too much has not yet arrived. Deng Xiaoping famously said Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. This book would probably reverse those two numbers!









23 September 2017

Film review: Farewell my concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige, *****

 Synopsis

The film gives a most interesting overview of China's history in the XX century through the eyes of Peking opera actors. We see the country moving from the fall of the Qing Empire (the last eunuch is still around for a long time after the advent of the Republic), through the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the various phases of the Communist rule.

Two boys are educated to play two classical roles in the Peking Opera, one masculine and the other effeminate. They are so good at it that they play the opera together for their entire career: during the chaos of China after the fall of the Qing Empire, during the Japanese occupation, the brief Nationalist takeover, the Communist take over, the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li becomes the wife of the masculine actor, and as such created serious, and ultimately unsolvable, dilemmas in the mind of her husband, with tragic consequences.






Review

In this film the character Douzi represents in many ways the real life of the actor Leslie Cheung. Douzi was gay and struggled to be accepted in the society of his time, and so was Cheung in real life. He is however successful professionally and admired for that, and so is Cheung, the first Hong Kong actor who acted in a mainland China film. And the real life of Cheung represents Douzi's role in the film: he can't take the pressure any more and ends up committing suicide. Beautiful costumes!

A courageous masterpiece by Chen Kaige, a pillar of Chinese film in the XX century. He addressed the controversial issues of homosexuality and the Cultural Revolution in a film before anyone else dared to do so in the People's Republic of China. For this "farewell my Concubine" was banned shortly after its release in 1993, only to be cleared by the censors a while later in an abridged form.

This was the very first film from the People's Republic of China to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

See my other reviews of films about China here on this blog.

















Buy this film by clicking on one of these links



29 August 2017

Film review: A United Kingdom (2016) by Amma Asante, *****

Synopsis

From director Amma Asante, starring David Oyelowo (Selma) and Rosamund Pike and set against the breath-taking backdrops of the African savannah and period London, A United Kingdom celebrates the inspiring real-life romance of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the British and South African governments.


Review

A historical narrative of one sad page of the decline and fall of the British Empire after WW II. There are two levels to the story: a personal tale of love and a non-fiction account of the birth of a new African country.

Churchill is depicted for what he was: an anti-democratic imperialist, who would go back on his promises to try and salvage the decomposing British empire. But the prejudice of blacks against whites is displayed as well at length.

In the face of all these difficulties, it was a remarkable feat for the young leader to pull off a national reconciliation that would make Botswana a unique success story in post-colonial Africa. One of very few examples where the leaders who took over power from the colonial rulers actually improved their nation's lot and did not squander national resources for personal gain.

Highly recommended movie to understand a very special part of Africa.










06 June 2017

Recensione libro: Tramonto alle Maldive (1993) by Anne Weale, ***

Sinossi

Le Maldive: spiagge bianche profumate d'Oriente... Pur conoscendo per motivi professionali tutti i possibili inconvenienti tecnici di una crociera alle Maldive, l'accompagnatrice turistica Charlotte non può certo accettare di condividere la stessa cabina con un uomo, anche se l'affascinante Dean sarebbe un ottimo compagno di stanza per le sue vacanze. E infatti, qualche giorno dopo...


Recensione

Il romanzo è ambientato alle Maldive, ma potrebbe essere anche altrove. Mare tropicale, caldo, sensualità e un triangolo amoroso sono gli elementi principali della storia che si snoda piacevolmente tra spiagge, barche e noci di cocco. Il lettore che non sia mai stato alle Maldive viene portato per mano per le isole e può assaporare qualche assaggio dell'atmosfera locale. La storia in se stessa è un po' prevedibile, ed il finale quasi scontato, ma ciononostante mi ha fatto piacere leggerla. Alcuni dei personaggi sono dipinti a colori vividi e realistici.


25 May 2017

Book review: Living in Italy: The Real Deal - How to Survive the Good Life - an expat guide (2017) by Stef Smulders, ***

Synopsis

Stef is a Dutch expat who moved to Italy in 2008, accompanied by his husband and dog, to start their bed and breakfast Villa I Due Padroni in the Oltrepò Pavese wine region, just 50 km (30 miles) south of Milan. In 2014 Stef published his first book (in Dutch) about their life in Italy. This is the English translation that is available since November 2016.


Review

The author sent me the book asking to review it, and I am grateful for that. It is at times interesting reading, though so many foreigners have come to Italy to renovate a quaint property that one hardly finds anything new: bureaucratic complications, delays, Italians who have funny habits and don't know what they are doing but are so charming.

Though I do not doubt they sincerely love Italy I feel the authors do not really think highly of Italians. Once Barzini, the great journalist, said "Italians respect Germans but don't like them. Germans like Italians but don't respect them". I feel the Dutch couple in the oltrepò pavese feels the same.

Also I don't understand why the text is interspersed with Italian words. Yes, sometimes there is no obvious translation, but why write "architetta" instead of the English "architect"? It does not add much at all.

More broadly, the book's title is a bit misleading. It is not a book about life in Italy, but about the couple's renovation project, which takes virtually all of the book.

"How to survive the good life" kind of gives it away: it seems to suggest Italy has a lot to offer except they make so difficult for you... if only it could be run by Dutchmen...






10 April 2017

Film review: You and Me (2013) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Golden-globe winning Chinese film director Zhang Yimou has staged his first Peking opera at the NCPA, spectacularly fusing the traditional and modern together for his production of You and Me. This production is an overwhelming feast for the senses. Lavish and colorful costumes, unique music composed and conducted by Zhu Shaoyu, and a world class ensemble that features the greatest stars of the Peking opera, including Meng Guanglu, Shi Yihong, and Li Mingyan, turn You and Me into an unforgettable experience. You and Me is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend, Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan, which is a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience. This release also includes Tradition versus Modernity, a documentary about Peking opera and the making of You and Me.

It can be a bit difficult to follow for a Western audience, even with the help of subtitles. We are not used to Chinese music's tonalities and rhythm, but I would encourage the listener to try and be patient and they.

"You and Me" is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend “Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan” – a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking Opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience.

The production of "You and Me" attaches great importance to tradition. It follows the aesthetic principle of paying tribute to the Peking opera tradition while adding a new approach to its traditional props of “one desk and two chairs”. Says Zhang Yimou: “My concern was to produce a unique Peking opera, not a unique genre, but a unique way of putting it across.” (from IMZ)


Buy your DVD here


16 February 2017

Leave Hong Kong to Bohol, Philippines

Sorry to leave our nice hotel. It's early in the morning we got to catch a 07:50 flight and the fabulous Airport Express is not running early enough. So we need a taxi and get a brand new electric Tesla. Beautiful, quiet and of course not polluting the Hong Kong air, which is often on the brink of health limits. In part this is because of factories on the Chinese side, but traffic, air-conditioning and so much more energy consumption in Hong Kong itself play a part.

As we drive past the Kowloon station I notice a lot of roadwork, and I ask our driver. He says they are building a new high speed train station that will connect with the Shenzhen station just on the other side of the border and offer seamless superfast connection with Beijing. One more way that Hong Kong is becoming more and more integrated with the mainland.

To fly to the Philippines you need to check-in at terminal 2, but there are no gates there. After check-in, you can walk to terminal 1, about ten minutes, or take a shuttle which takes virtually no time.

The Hong Kong airport is my favorite in the world. Bright, spacious, beautiful, full of great shopping and food, efficient. Of course, free and fast wifi everywhere.

After an uneventful flight to Manila we have to wait a few hours for our connection to Bohol. Manila airport is a bit chaotic but we find a nice bench outside, it's a sunny day and wifi is free. Time goes by relatively fast before we are called in to board a Philippines Air flight. It's OK, nothing to write home about.

When we arrive in Bohol it's raining, not a good start. But it's warm and our driver has a comfy car with cool water and A/C, so the two-hour ride to our resort is bearable. Before setting off we stop at a large shopping mall near the airport to get some cash from an ATM, it would be our last chance here.

Seafood soup
By about 7:00pm we reach our resort, Amun Ini, in Anda, on the eastern side of Bohol. We are tired and hungry. After leaving our stuff in the room we head to the restaurant, a beautiful terrace overlooking the resort's garden and pool. Food is plentiful land varied, and
it will be for the rest of our stay.