24 December 2011

Book Review: Inferno, by James Nachtwey, *****

Synopsis
A document of war and strife during the 1990s, this volume of photographs by the photojournalist James Nachtwey includes dramatic and shocking images of human suffering in Rwanda, Somalia, Romania, Bosnia, Chechnya and India, a well as photographs of the conflict in Kosovo. An essay by the author Luc Sante is included. The book is published to coincide with an exhibition of Nachtwey's work at the International Centre of Photography, New York.

21 December 2011

Film Review: Pacific Battleship Yamato (2010), by Junya Sato, ****

Synopsis

World War II action film set aboard the Battleship Yamato, the most fearsome ship in the Pacific fleet and still to date the largest warship ever built. Based on a book by Jun Henmi with a framing story set in the present day and through the use of flashbacks, Yamato tells the story of the crew of a WWII battleship, concentrating on the ship's demise during Operation Ten-Go.


20 December 2011

Film Review: Assault on the Pacific - Kamikaze (2007), by Taku Shinjo, ****

Synopsis
World War II epic about a squadron of Japanese Kamikaze pilots and their journey through training and first missions toward the terrifying destiny of their battle with the US Navy over the Pacific Ocean. It is essentially a backstage shoot, very little in terms of war action.

13 December 2011

Book Review: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, ****

Japanese soldier beheading a Chinese man
Synopsis

In December 1937, in what was then the capital of China, one of the most brutal massacres in the long annals of wartime barbarity occurred. The Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking (Nanjing) and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenceless city, but systematically raped, tortured and murdered many thousands of Chinese civilians. The story of this atrocity continues to be denied or minimized by the Japanese government, though some in Japan do recognize it. Based on extensive interviews with survivors and newly discovered documents in four different languages (many never before published), Iris Chang has written an emotional account of that disgraceful episode.


09 December 2011

Map Review: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Freytag & Berndt, ****

Description
Explore Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with this Freytag&Berndt road map. The best way to plan your trip, prepare your itinerary, and to travel independently in this part of Southeast Asia.

07 December 2011

Film Review: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), by R Fleischer, T Masuda and K Fukusaku, *****

Synopsis

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. That is one reason to review a forty years old movie. Another is the publication of a stunning new Blu-ray edition. A Japanese-American co-production, director Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green) and two Japanese directors put together this ultrarealistic account of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as presented from the perspectives of both nations, as diplomatic tensions rise between the two countries. While the Japanese military plans its attack on American military installations, the American forces nearly stumble into a much greater calamity due to a series of errors and mistakes. As the two sides plunge closer to war, the tension escalates until the final, spectacular air raid, arguably the most realistic ever filmed.


30 November 2011

Book Review: My China Years, by Helen Foster Snow, **

Foster Snow is the wife of Edgar Snow, the author of "Red Star Over China - The Rise Of The Red Army". She actually met "Ed" in China and her book is about her time there, mostly with him. It is an interesting read to grasp the reality of life in China, and especially in Shanghai, in the thirties. She was well introduced in the circles that made things happen then, and had tea with notable Chinese as well as foreign dignitaries. She always was a naive political analyst though, and when she leaves her travelogue mode to draw more general conclusions about politics in China, or her future, it is clear that this was not her cup of tea...

24 November 2011

Book Review: City of Sadness, by Bérénice Reynaud, ****

Synopsis
This work introduces the Western audience to the richness of New Taiwanese Cinema. It revisits a painful episode in Taiwanese history, creating an elliptical and impressionistic picture of Chiang Kai-shek's takeover of the island after the defeat of his Kuomintang army by Mao Zedong.

Review
This is a moving love story that serves as a conduit to illustrate the period right after WW II in Taiwan, when the Japanese colonial administration was replaced by the ruthless and corrupt rule of Chen Yi, a mainland administrator for Chiang Kai-shek. The infamous episode of 2/28/47 is the background against which the story is set.

Taiwan later became an extraordinary success story and today it is a thriving democracy, but the end of Japanese colonial rule did not start under the best auspices...

23 November 2011

Book Review: Singapore Swing, by John Malathronas, *****

MBS from the modern art museum
Synopsis

For generations of Britons, Singapore was the international crossroads of the Empire, the ultimate colonial posting, the stimulus for writers such as Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham or Noel Coward. Can today’s hightech 24-hour city with its gleaming skyscrapers and high standard of living provide a similar kind of inspiration to a visitor?

John Malathronas penetrates the Oriental psyche and discovers the hustle among the stuffiness, the thrill behind the Confucian ethic and, ultimately, the joie de vivre in what has been unjustly dismissed as “a shopping mall with UN representation”. Still more importantly, during his quest, he realises that this overcrowded, multicultural, multifaith city-state can teach us a lesson about living together in harmony and with mutual respect.

More about the book and the author here on his website, with some additional material not found in the book.


17 November 2011

Film Review: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), by Woody Allen, ****

Synopsis

Two couples discover the grass may not always be greener on the other side in Woody Allen’s breezy comedy on wry, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. Hoping to relive the pleasures of youth, Alfie Shepridge (Anthony Hopkins) dumps his wife of 40 years (Gemma Jones) and pursues a young call girl (Lucy Punch). So when daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) develops a crush on her boss (Antonio Banderas) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin) becomes obsessed with the beauty (Freida Pinto) who lives across the way, the entire clan’s fantasies take on reality as their passions not only drive them out of their marriages, but out of their minds as well.


Review

I had great fun watching this movie. Typical dry Woody Allen irony about the futile attempts by simple people to change the way the world works. And wasting their life in doing so. I got a great quote from this move, that I would probably never have read in the original in my life:

"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 5

Thanks Woody for bringing this to my attention!


11 November 2011

Glass and gondolas in Venice


Murano glass taking shape
Early start of the day in Venice. I am here for a photo workshop and we are off to catch the sun rise by the dock of the ferry to Murano, where Stefano has talked to his brother in law who owns a glass shop. We will have the privilege of being let into the shop while the dozen or so glass blowers are working to make the glass masterpieces which make Murano famous.

About a dozen artisans are blowing glass today, all Italian men plus a young and very thin French lady who has moved here six years ago to learn the trade. It seems that with 8% "unemployment" in Italy we need to import tall young girls from Burgundy to keep the magic of Murano glass alive! She follows closely each and every move of the senior master, who sometimes holds her hand in a fatherly fashion to guide her through the moves that transform sand into glass masterpieces.

The atmosphere is magic. In the middle of the shop a huge furnace radiates intense heat, and all around skilled workers dance with their red-hot glass at the end of a steel pole, blowing, cutting, chiselling, attaching gold leaves, shaping and reshaping their creations.

We leave the shop after two very full hours and take the ferry back to Venice, where a lineup of "spritz" is waiting for us at a local bar. They will be followed by delicious cicchetti for a true Venetian lunch by Rialto. I was afraid to run into a tourist trap, of which there are too many in the neighborhood, but ended up in a delightful little restaurant for a very special treat.

Fixing gondolas
The day then continues with a visit to  "squero" of San Trovaso, a shop where they build and maintain gondolas, the trademark boats of Venice. Again thanks to the good offices of Stefano we are welcomed into one of a handful of workshops where this ancient art is kept alive by a bunch of skilled masters.

As one of them shows us the tools he explains that a gondola costs about thirty thousand euro as it comes out of the carpenter's shop, with no accessories, decorations, or anything one would call an "optional" in a car. It can be twice as much when it hits the water with all its bells and whistles installed. There are only 420 licensed gondolas in Venice and licences are impossible to get unless you are well connected into the inner circles of the city and come from a family of gondolieri.

This squero can only make two new gondolas per year, and spend most of its labor time on maintenance. I had the good luck to witness some of this work today, one master was pushing special straw thread in the crevices between the long beams of a gondola to improve its water tightness. As the sun sets, a gondoliere arrives at the squero to deliver his gondola for repairs. Everyone gives a hand to raise it from the water, and after a first inspection a workplan is agreed upon. It's time for us to say farewell, and head off to town for a dinner of polenta with cuttle fish in its black ink sauce...

26 October 2011

Book Review: Formosa Betrayed, by George Kerr, *****

Island of Tatan, off Quemoy with Nationalist flag
By way of background...

"Our experience in Formosa is most enlightening. The Administration of the former Governor Chen Yi has alienated the people from the Central Government. Many were forced to feel that conditions under autocratic rule [Japan's rule] were preferable.

25 October 2011

Recensione: Percorsi d'Amore, di Maurizio Cremasco, ****

Recensione
Questa è una serie di poesie che trasmettono lo stato d'animo irrequieto dell'autore, uno scrittore che è stato pilota da caccia e politologo, si è appassionato di vini e cucina ed ha viaggiato per il mondo. Una fertile mente che affronta l'ultima fase della sua vita con l'entusiasmo di un aitante giovanotto. Nelle poesie traspare questo afflato ansioso, la voglia di vivere, l'energia che sprizza da tutti i pori...

15 October 2011

Book review: Coral Gardens, by Leni Riefenstahl, *****

Review
Leni Riefenstahl was a great, if politically controversial, movie director, but only later in her life she picked up photography in a serious way. Her books on African tribes are justly famous.

14 October 2011

Book Review: A Little Book of Zen, *****

I bought this book some six years ago and it has found a permament home atop my writing desk ever since. I open it almost every day, usually on a random page, and almost always find someething that gives me reason to pause and think positively. Strongly recommended as dispenser of a daily pill of wisdom.

13 October 2011

Recensione: People from Ikea, di Andrea Pugliese, ***

Sinossi
Componendo a incastro questi tubi, ripiani, viti e bulloni, sono possibili milioni di combinazioni. Sul catalogo per tale meraviglia si sprecano i sostantivi: guardaroba, libreria, scaffalatura, separatore d'ambiente, portatutto, riassumicasino...

12 October 2011

Film review: "Larry Crowne" by Tom Hanks (2011), *

 Synopsis

Academy Award® winners TOM HANKS and JULIA ROBERTS come together for what was supposed to be a perfect romantic comedy match with a heartwarming story about how it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. When he suddenly finds himself without his long-standing job, Larry Crowne (Hanks) enrolls at his local college to start over. There, he becomes part of an eclectic community of students and develops a crush on his teacher (Roberts). Now this simple guy will discover that when you think everything worth having has passed you by, you just might rediscover life and love.


Review

The worst film by Tom Hanks I have ever seen, by far. Clint Eastwood made a spectacularly successful shift from acting to directing, but Hanks, so far, did not.

This was a boring movie, I could not wait for it to end. No real story to speak of, no pathos, no drama, no fun, no message I could understand. Two high quality stars such as Hanks and Roberts, I thought, would guarantee a worthwhile night. I was soooo wrong. But I seem to be in a minority here. Most people seem to like it. So it you want to experience Hanks's directing... buy the DVD or BD! Here are the links:


10 October 2011

Book Review: Slaves of the Cool Mountains, by Alan Winnington, *****

Author with released slaves in Yunnan
Synopsis

Beijing, 1956: foreign correspondent Alan Winnington heard reports of slaves being freed in the mountains of south-west China. The following year he travelled to Yunnan province and spent several months with the head-hunting Wa and the slave-owning Norsu and Jingpaw. From that journey was born this book, which Neal Ascherson has called 'one of the classics of modern English travel writing'. The first European to enter and leave these areas alive, Winnington met a slave-owner who assessed his value at five silver ingots ('Your age is against you, but as a curiosity you would fetch a decent price'), a head-hunter who a fortnight earlier killed a man in order to improve his own rice harvest and a sorcerer struggling against the modern medicines sapping his authority and livelihood.


01 October 2011

Book Review: Excerpta Maldiviana, by HCP Bell, *****

Male' harbour in early 1880s
H.C.P. Bell 1887
This is not easy reading. In fact it is not really meant for reading at all. It is mostly a comprehensive catalog of historical documents on the islands, compiled by a British civil servant who went there many times over several decades spanning the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX.

24 September 2011

Book review: Maldives: Kingdom of a Thousand Isles (2004), by Andrew Forbes, ****

Cemetery on a Maldivian island
Precious little is written on the Maldives besides guide books on posh resorts. This book goes a long way toward filling that gap. The author is well read on the subject and has spent considerable time travelling around the archipelago. He provides fairly exhaustive historical and cultural analyses.

12 September 2011

In treno in giro per l'Italia

La settimana scorsa ho deciso di prendere il treno per andare da alcuni amici a Vicenza. Aperta la pagina delle prenotazioni di Trenitalia ho indicato le stazioni di partenza e di arrivo, Roma e Vicenza, e ho scelto data e ora per il mio viaggio. Per un biglietto Frecciargento di prima il prezzo era di 116 Euro. Non proprio regalato, i prezzi dei treni sembrano ormai paragonabili a quelli degli aerei. A titolo di paragone sono andato a vedere quanto costano biglietti simili in altri paesi, sempre in 1a classe. In Francia Parigi-Bordeaux costa dai 40 ai 75 euro, un affare. Per la verità in Germania sembra il treno costi ancora di più, Francoforte-Monaco si vende a 140 euro. In Inghilterra da Londra a Newcastle costa sui 150 euro. In Spagna da Madrid a Barcellona si pagano dagli 80 ai 210 euro a seconda del servizio. Ma andiamo per ordine e cominciamo dall'inizio: la prenotazione.

01 September 2011

Bibliography: Books on the Maldives

This is my selection of most significant books on the Maldive islands, which I have visited at least ten times since 2003: culture, history, tourism, politics, and of course travelogues, I have tried to include as much as I could. Let me know if you have suggestions of titles to include in this list! 

Per prima cosa vorrei presentare il mio libro sulle Maldive! Lo trovate su Amazon.it in formato cartaceo e ebook.




Guide / Guidebooks

Ellis, Royston: Maldives (Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 3rd edition, 2005).

Ghisotti, Andrea: Pesci delle Maldive (Firenze: Casa Editrice Bonechi, 2007).

Forbes, Andrew: Maldives - Kingdom of a Thousand Isles (Hong Kong: Odyssey, 2004).

Vv. Aa.: Spectrum Guide to the Maldives (Nairobi, Kenya: Camerapix Publishers Inter­national, Revised edition, 1998).

Carte goegrafiche / Maps

Globetrotter travel map: Maldives 1:500.000 (London: New Holland, 2002)

World Cart: Maldive 1:700.000 (Bologna: Studio F.M.B., senza data).

Divers and Travelers: A Guide to the Maldives Archipelago, various scales (Victoria, Australia: Apollo Editions, 4th edition, 2004).


Racconti di viaggiatori / Travelogues

Battuta, Ibn: Maldives and Ceylon (Colombo: Royal Asiatic Society, 1882, reprinted in Delhi by Asian Educational Society, 1999).

Bell, H.C.P.: Excerpta Maldiviana (R.A.S., Ceylon 1922-1935; reprinted by Asian Educatonal Service, Delhi, 1998). A detailed catalog of documents on Maldivian history.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt , Irenaeus: Land of a Thousand Atolls (English translation, London: McGibbon and Kee, 1965).

Hockly, T. W.: The Two Thousand Isles, (London: Witherby, 1935).

Jones, Steve: Coral - a Pessimist in Paradise (London: Little, Brown, 2007).

Pyrard de Laval, François: Voyages, various editions available in French and English. Click here to find many editions of Pyrard's work.


Storia, politica e cultura / History, politics and Culture

Heyerdahl, Thor: The Maldive Mystery (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1986). Archeological research into the islands' pre-Islamic past.

Grover, Verinder /Ed.): Maldives: Goverment and Politics (New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 2002). A complete reference tool for Maldivian politics.

Robinson, John J.: The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy (2015). An English journalist worked four years in the Maldives, 2010 to 2013 and this is what he found out. Lots of detailed facts.

Romero-frias, Xavier: Folk Tales of the Maldives (2012)

25 August 2011

Book Review: Daily Life in China in the XIII century, by Jacques Gernet, *****

Gengiz Khan and Chinese Tangut envoys
This book deals with one of the periods when China, then numbering sixty million inhabitants, was the richest and most powerful empire in the world. (Another such period would occur some 500 years later, and another one might be soon in the making.)

During the Sung dynasty the country flourished, even though wealth was far from evenly distributed, and the excesses of a small minority contributed to a worsening balance of payments and eventual weakening of the economy.


This empire would take a beating because of the Mongols' invasion in 1276, but up to then it was an even more impressive China than that Marco Polo would witness several decades later.

The capital was in Hangzhou, a port city near today's Shanghai, and its commercial fleet plied the seas exporting porcelain and silk. There was also relative peace, despite the fact that the Northern provinces had been lost already to the Mongols, who were held out for a while until Gengiz Khan invaded.

The book is written in scholarly academic style, but its flowing prose remains accessible to the non specialist as well. Buy this book on Amazon!

15 August 2011

Book Review: The Two Thousand Isles: A Short Account of the People, History and Customs of the Maldive Archipelago, by T. W. Hockly (1935), ***

Old Friday mosque in Malè, perhaps early XX century
Review

A short account of the people, history and customs of the Maldive Archipelago, written in 1935.  T.W. Hockly spent many weeks in the Maldives in 1935 and his book is an interesting account of his time there. He tells about life in the islands, and especially in the capital Male' where he actually spent his time. His account is interspersed with historical and political commentary, much of which is useful to put his experience in context.

14 August 2011

Book Review: Spectrum Guide to Maldives, by Camerapix, ****

Review
This is an interesting book on the Maldives, unlike most guide books on the market. It contains lots of useful data about the country's history and culture, and therefore it is still interesting even if published many years ago.

10 August 2011

Book Review: Maldives Mistery, by Thor Heyerdahl, ***

From the museum of Malè, 2009
Synopsis

When the Maldive Islanders converted to Islam in the 12th century, they discarded or destroyed all traces of earlier cultures, thus denying their past. Recent archeological discoveries prompted the government to invite Heyerdahl to examine the artifacts and attempt a reconstruction of pre-Islamic history.

Located in the Indian Ocean southwest of India and west of Sri Lanka, the Maldives encompass two broad, reefless sea passages ("One-and-Half" and Equatorial Channels) well-known to ancient mariners. Heyerdahl, an authority on primitive sea travel (Kon-Tiki, The Ra Expeditions, unravels a mystery that reaches into the vanished civilizations of Sumer and the Indus Valley. The Maldivan artifacts showed that temples were built around A.D. 550; that the original settlers had been sun-worshipers. (Reed Business, 1986).


03 August 2011

Il mercato dei libri in Italia: poveri noi lettori di libri, "protetti" dalla nuova legge sugli sconti.

Il parlamento italiano ha approvato, con nefasto consenso trasversale, una legge che regolamenta il prezzo dei libri, il "ddl Levi 2281-B", dal nome del primo firmatario. Solo i radicali si sono pilatescamente astenuti, tutti gli altri hanno votato a favore. E allora vediamo un po' in cosa consiste questo capolavoro normativo che ha messo d'accordo tutto il parlamento.

02 August 2011

Book Review: Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore (2003), by James Warren, *****

Synopsis

Between 1880 and 1930 colonial Singapore attracted tens of thousands of Chinese immigrant laborers, brought to serve its rapidly growing economy. This book chronicles the vast movement of coolies between China and the Nanyang, and their efforts to survive in colonial Singapore.


27 July 2011

Book Review: First Shot - The Untold Story of Japanese Minisubs That Attacked Pearl Harbor, by John Craddock, ****

Synopsis
America’s first shot of World War II was fired by a worn-out World War I destroyer. An hour before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S.S. Ward hit its mark - a tiny but lethal Japanese submarine - but no one heeded the captain’s report. Before the morning was out, more than 2,400 people were dead, thousands more were wounded, and more than 100 American warships were destroyed or crippled. What became of the Ward’s message?

26 July 2011

Recensione: Sommergibili a Singapore, di Achille Rastelli, ****

Sinossi

Questo libro trae lo spunto da una serie di lettere inedite inviate alla famiglia da un sottufficiale macchinista, Pietro Appi, friulano di Cordenons, che entrò nella Regia Marina nel 1937 e alla fine del 1939 fu imbarcato sul sommergibile Bagnolini. Dopo aver partecipato a missioni di guerra in Mediterraneo e in Atlantico, nel 1943 passò sul Giuliani che, trasformato in battello subacqueo da trasporto, fu adibito con altre unità similari al trasferimento, per conto dei tedeschi, di materiale strategico tra basi navali giapponesi in Estremo Oriente e porti europei.

23 June 2011

Itinerary of North Sulawesi cruise on Dewi Nusantara

Itinerary of my diving trip in Indonesia, June 2011
You can see some pictures I took during this cruise here on Flickr.

My boat was the Dewi Nusantara.

06 June 2011

Map Review: Singapore Popout Map, ****

This is a great little map to carry around as you explore Singapore. It is several maps in one in fact, as you get a larger scale "Central" map and two smaller scale maps for City Centre and Orchard Road. It is sturdy enough that it will take some abuse and weighs next to nothing. A map of the metro system is in the back cover, very useful to find your way in the superefficient MRT. And finally one small map of all of Singapore and one of Sentosa island complete the picture.

I did not give it five stars because the index in the back of the two main maps is difficult to read/access.



04 June 2011

Arrival in Singapore, Chinatown dinner, the Quay

Long flight with Turkish airlines via Istanbul, I am very happy with this company. Good food, wines, service and comfortable cabins. After a long flight and a stopover in Istanbul, the Singapore airports welcomes me into the XXI century.

It is no coincidence that it is routinely ranked among the top airports of the world, year after year... Btw, its closest competitors are Hong Kong and Seoul. The airport is indeed stunning, superefficient, spotless clean (including the toilets, it actually smells good in there, you are sort of sorry to leave when you are done!) and a great place to spend some time shopping or even sleeping while waiting for a plane. In my case I get my bags (they are already spinning around the carousel by the time I am done with passport control) and I am on my way out.

A twenty-minute taxi ride takes me across two thirds of the length of the whole country. The road is perfect, quiet, of course very clean. I am struck by the fact that in this land of shopping (Singapore has been called a shopping mall with a UN vote) there are no ads on the road, no nean signs, no billboards. The taxi itself is nice and comfortable, the driver impeccable, and it's actually less expensive than comparable rides in European cities I am familiar with (Rome, London, Paris, Brussels).

I am staying at the Pan Pacific Hotel, a supermodern building not far from the famed Raffles. A filipino lady welcomes me at the immense concierge and takes me to the glass walled elevators that climb up the exterior of the hotel, providing a good view of the city state.

In the evening I am out to Chinatown with a local friend. I can't wait to sink my incisors into some hearty Chinese food! After some pondering I opt for her suggestion of  some pork or other in a dark soup. I won't even try to describe what was in it, but it was certainly tasty. We are at the Chinatown food court, where, like in other similar places in Singapore, you sit down and pick up food and drinks from the many available stands in the court.

Meanwhile, groups of old men hang around drinking beer or playing Chinese checkers. No women to be seen except my friend and the waitresses and cleaning ladies.

After dinner a nice walk in the soggy evening. Climate is certainly not Singapore's strong point and it takes a few days to become accustomed to the humidity. A few tricycle rickshaws scoot by. These were a common means of local transportation in the past but are now reserved for tourists. In fac the rickshaw was THE means of transportation for many decades until the 1930s. I have reviewed a great book that tells their story, an important people's history of Singapore. I strongly recommend it even if you are not interested in rickshaws!

The evening ends by the Quays, the vastly overrated social mingling hub of Singapore. I find it too crowded, impersonal and a bit tacky, but so be it, most people seems to have a different view. Anyway some of the bars look (for my taste) pleasant, but tonight it's saturday and everything is way too crowded. Many Western expats, clearly affected by what a local friend called the "yellow fever" seem to enjoy the company of local Chinese girls. Nice touch: by the river some band is playing some kind of ethnic music, can't really say what it is but it puts me in the right mood to give in to my jet lag and go back to the hotel.




19 May 2011

Book Review: Yunnan, China South of the Clouds, by Jim Goodman, *****

Buddhist monastery in Yunnan
Synopsis

Wedged between Tibet and the exotic lands of Southeast Asia, Yunnan Province is one of the least known and most beguiling regions of China. A mountainous wonderland, it is home to 24 diverse, colorful ethnic cultures. With a name meaning ‘South of the Clouds’, Yunnan boasts sparkling blue skies, red earth, and green forests. The picturesque capital of Yunnan, Kunming — ‘the City of Eternal Spring’—lies near a serene, mile-high lake. Other natural marvels, such as the haunting Stone Forest and lush tropical Xizhuangbanna, make Yunnan a microcosm of China at its very best. With 211 color photographs.


Review

This is, by far, the most comprehensive guide on Yunnan. It deal with all aspects of culture, history, art, society, minorities, festivals, markets, etc and it is probably going to remain an invaluable resource for the intellectually motivated traveler for a long time.

The books does NOT have much in terms of where to stay and eat, logistics, practical info. But this kind of book is not meant to. I recommend the Lonely Planet Southern China for that. But by all means buy this book if you want to have one reference work to turn to for your cultural interests and curiosity. It is a bit heavy to carry around, and there is no kindle version for now, but it's worth every gram!

See my other reviews of books on China in this blog.

15 May 2011

Film review: The Big Blue (1988), by Luc Besson, ***

Synopsis
Enzo and Jacques have known each other for a long time. Their friendship started in their childhood days in the Mediterranean. They were not real friends in these days, but there was something they both loved and used to do the whole day long: diving. One day Jacques' father, who was a diver too, died in the Mediterranean sea. After that incident Enzo and Jacques lost contact. After several years, Enzo and Jacques had grown up, Johanna, a young clerk in a security office, has to go to Peru. There she meets Jacques who works for a group of scientists. He dives for some minutes into ice-cold water and the scientists monitor his physical state that is more like a dolphin's than a human's. Johanna can not believe what she sees and gets very interested in Jacques but she's unable to get acquainted with him. Some weeks later, back in her office, she notices a championship for divers that is supposed to take place in Taormina, Italy. In order to see Jacques again she makes up a story so the firm sends her to Italy for business purposes. In Taormina there is also Enzo, the reigning diving world champion. He knows that only Jacques can challenge and probably beat him. This time Johanna and Jacques get closer, but Jacques, being more a dolphin than a man, can not really commit and his rivalry with Enzo pushes both men into dangerous territory...

Review
A controversial movie about two great champions of free-diving, their relationship with one another and that which bound both of them to the sea. The movie does not (and does not purport to) reflect the reality of these relationships however, it is only a fictional rendering of what the two men did and were. I found this disappointing, I would have preferred a real account of their real lives.

Apparently Besson had tried to involve the two protagonists in the making of the film but for various reasons was only partially successful with Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca refused all cooperation, which is why the movie protagonist is called Enzo Molinari. In a tragic ending that reminds one of the film's ending, Mayol committed suicide in 2001.

Nonetheless, an interesting introspection into the personalities of the two characters. The film shows how an inner passion can motivate a person to do incredible feats and perform immense sacrifices, as well as to take extreme risks. All for no real, or at least no rational, reason.


08 May 2011

Book Review: Yunnan, by Stephen Mansfield, ****

Yunnan mountains and temple
Synopsis

Located in southwest China, this geographically and ethnically diverse region is the centre of a growing focus on tourism. This guide covers Yunnan's many attractions including the provincial capital of Kunming, legendary Yangtze and Mekong rivers, Buddhist stupas and Tibetan border monasteries. You also get detailed insight into Yunnanese history and culture, giving an all-round picture of this intriguing province.


Review

As is often the case with Bradt guides, this book is the best available on the culture, history, art etc of Yunnan. In a concise 250 pages you get as much as most tourists will ever digest on what makes Yunnan... Yunnan. And indeed this book makes you want to go there. I used it during my trip in Yunnan in May 2011 and found it highly informative and to the point.

For info on hotels, restaurants and other practicalities go to Lonely Planet or the web. This is never Bradt's strong point and in any case this book is from 2007, and the way things change so fast in China it is bound to be out of date. But the cultural information will remain relevant for some time.

See my other reviews of books on China in this blog.

07 May 2011

14. - 7 MAY: Fly back to Italy via Chengdu and Amsterdam End of the trip.

I come away from China impressed, even awestruck. Despite my strong misgivings about the politics of the country, I must recognize that the improvements to the living standards of the Chinese people are immense. At least if what I was able to see is any indication of reality, but it must be. I am aware that there are huge discrepancies between one region and another, between cities and countryside, etc. But overall the picture must be positive. Leaving aside material improvement, I am heartened by the fact that great efforts are being made to make up for the enormous losses caused by the maoist regime, and especially the Cultural Revolution, to China’s immense treasures of art, literature, architecture, music, etc.

What would they say if they saw China today?

06 May 2011

13. - 6 MAY: Drive to Wuhan, Yellow Crane

I visited this tower today after our flight from Yichang to Chengdu was cancelled and we had to come to Wuhan to catch a plane in time for the KLM flight back to Europe. Several legends have been told about the yellow crane at the Wuhan Tower. Here is what they tell us...

05 May 2011

12. - 5 MAY: Three Gorges Dam: Disembarkation and brief visit of Yichang

Today we get to actually walk on the largest dam in the world by capacity (the second after Itaipu by production of electricity), it is more impressive than my words can ever convey. To acces the site, one is led through a checkpoint, with metal detectors and all, and must take a local shuttle bus. It rides for about fifteen minutes in a closed town where dam workers and families live, a perfectly manicured model project to showcase the new China to domestic and foreign visitors. And there the show begins...

04 May 2011

11. - 4 MAY: Cruise on the Yangtse:

The highlight of an otherwise quiet day is the Shennong stream cruise. We leave our ship for a ride on a smaller ferry up the Shennong river, and after half an hour or so we are transferred to smaller wooden pirogues where skinny rowmen start working their oars up the stream. We float by serene and green areas, some fishermen, some villages, and an impressive contruction site for a bridge of the Chongqing-Shanghai highway. The whole thing is a bit touristy, a lot in fact, but pleasant nonetheless.


Our guide for the tour is a semi-professional singer dressed in traditional costume. She is trying to keep alive some traditional music from the area, and on our way back offers a little performance to her captive audience on the raw-boat: us. She also has CDs to sell of course, very entrepreneurial of her...


In the evening, after dinner, we reach the Three Gorges Dam. At this point the ship is lowered through five ship-locks, in a little over three hours, to the lower part of the river. Read more on tomorrow’s post...

03 May 2011

10. - 3 MAY: Cruise on the Yangtse: Shibaozhai



Peaceful day of cruising down the river. The most meaningful part of the day is our visit to Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Fortress) located in Zhong County, at the south bank of the Yangtze River, 52 km away from Wanxian, it was first built in Qing Dynasty in 1750, with a height of 56 meters.

The original village has been inundated after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and all inhabitants have been moved to a brand new village 56 meters higher on the nearby hill. I can’t comment on the old village, but people here say it was pretty poor, no sanitation, damp wooden houses and gardens by the waterline that were flooded every rainy season. Now I can see brick apartment buildings with electric power and sewage systems. Of course there will be those who will regret the romantic old ways, but to me this is a net improvement of huge proportions.



Late at night I talk to Li about our day and we sip baijiu on the balcony of my cabin. As we look out to the river, several towns and a couple of large cities pass by, she is not even sure of their names, but they count millions of people. Row after row of brightly lit skyscrapers stick out against the black moonless night. I can't but be impressed by the achievements of China.

02 May 2011

9. - 2 MAY: Dazu, legend of the country girl; board ship for Yangtse cruise

The highlight today is another Unesco WHS: the Dazu rock carvings dating from the 9th to the 13th century of our era.. I won't take time to describe them here, just click on the Unesco page linked above. It is a magical place, and worth spending a full day in. Maybe even two if your schedule allows.

Dazu Rock carvings



But I would like to share the "legend of the country girl", subject of one of the carvings, as reported to me by a local guide. I found it moving.

A beautiful country girl is invited to town by a bunch of boys she does not know. She does not want to go because she is shy, but they insist so much that she relents and accepts to follow them. And that's when her troubles start...

Once in town they take her to a party and force her to dance. But she is weak because of pregnancy and after many hours she collapses and aborts her child. Soon thereafter she dies of grief and goes to hell. Here she gemerates five hundred children with all the demons she meets in the ghastly place. Nonetheless, she never forgot her one child on earth and wants revenge against the town boys for her lost child. Strong of her afterwordly powers, she goes back to the town where she died, attends more parties and every night she eats a local child.

After this had been going on for a while Buddha Sakyamuni decides to intervene, sneaks up to her and kidnaps one of her 500 children. He then goes to pay a visit and finds her in a desperate state of mind and asks her why she is so cruel since, after all, she now has 500 children. What does she think of the mothers of the children she eats, Buddha asks her. She understands and stops eating children, at which point Buddha returns her kidnapped child to her. She then loved all children of the world for the rest of her life and became a goddess of children!


Recommended reading: This one below is one of several books on the Dazu carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the best of the bunch, great binding, good photographs and detailed descriptions, in English, of each one of them. It is expensive: there are cheaper versions of this book but this is the one to buy if you can afford it. It is impossible to convey the sheer size and majesty of the carvings in pictures, but this is as close as it gets.


In the US and worldwide buy it here:



In the UK buy it here:










It is a rainy day, and the long bus ride makes a few of us doze off... I stay awake, mostly, and from my seat at the front of the vehicle keep looking at the two flags our nostalgic driver has glued to his dashboard...

Nostalgic driver...

After the visit to the carvings' site we go for lunch, but first we stumble into another great temple. The Longevity temple, built in 1178, and now again in use after decades of neglect during Maoist times.

In the evening we board our cruise ship, the "President", for a 3-day run down the Yangtse, which in some languages is referred to as the Blue River, the longest river in Asia and the main artery of life in China since time immemorial!

01 May 2011

8. - 1 MAY: Kunming Western mountains, flight to Chongqing

Morning to the Western Mountains, it’s May 1st, officially Workers' Day in China, so EVERYONE is out enjoying the sunshine and the city parks. There are so many Chinese tourists, and not a few foreigners, that it is literally difficult to move around in the park.

Hundreds of souvenir stands line up the walk from the parking lot to the site, and with tons of junk I spot a few nostalgic items, like Mao’s little red book, sold here in countless versions and many languages. I have already a few copies at home from my last trip, so I pass, and anyway prices are going up for the real ones, printed when Mao was alive. I suppose they must be getting scarcer, even though billions must have been printed during the Cultural Revolution.

Interesting talk with our guide Xu. He says Kunming is becoming a sought after destination for retirement: good climate (between 15 and 30° C year round, they don’t use much either heating or A/C), less crowded than the big cities of the coast, lower prices. Lots of effort to clean up the air, many scooters are now electric, cost about 400 euros and 5-6 euros per month in recharges. Quite a few from the West are moving here as well, he says, though that is more surprising to me. I see a lot of police around, Xu says it’s because of drugs, we are near the “golden triangle” here and there is smugglers coming in from Burma.

Short visit to old downtown Kunming, just a street or two with a few old buildings and a live pet market that are included in all the tourist itineraries. Nothing much at all. Kunming is a new, vibrant and growing city, pretty impressive. I am irritated by some of the comments of my companions who regret the good old times when homes were made of wood, there was no electricity, no cars, no plumbing... the usual litany of "it was better when it was worse". I meet a couple of friendly old ladies, hard to understand each other but they make it a point to underline to me that they are christians, they can say so more or less openly now, but remember well the times when they feared for their lives...

30 April 2011

7. - 30 APR: Flight to Kunming, Shilin stone forest

A two-hour flight delay screws up our schedule a bit... Anyway we get to Kunming and head of to the Shilin stone forest. Shilin actually means "the stone forest". It’s a long drive, and we don’t get there before the early afternoon. Great weather and very pleasant walk in the karstic formations.

There are zillions of Chinese tourists, but when I ask our local guide whether there might be a less beaten track he says yes, of course, and off we go. In a second we are alone with the rocks and the water canals, taking pictures from the precisely designed walkways that snake around them.

 
All of a sudden it’s eerily silent! Great. After a while we meet some ladies who are returning from the fields, dressed in bright colors and all wearing a wide straw hat.

As we head back to the bus the sun is setting, and a few more ladies approach us. These are vendors of table cloths and little embroided wallets, five for a dollar. We all buy some, they are in heaven!

The ride back to Kunming is not easy. Lots of traffic. We don’t get to the city before 8pm or so, too late to attend a concert of local music I had planned to take the group to.

29 April 2011

6. - 29 APR: Shangri-la, lake Bitahai, Shudu and visit of town, shopping

Lake Bitahai
In the morning we make a trip to lake Bitahai, the highest in Yunnan at 3500msl. Nice walk along the river, abou three kilometers. We also take a short ride on a boat, a rip-off at 5 dollars to sail 10 minutes locked inside an ugly ferry. Would have been nicer to walk that distance as well. Then a drive to lake Shuduhai and another pleasant walk of a kilometer and a half. Tons of Chinese tourists all around. Not as many yaks as we had hoped to see, but still we see lots of the archetycal animal of this region in the meadows that paint this landscape.

28 April 2011

5. - 28 APR: Drive to Shangri-la, via leaping Tiger gorge, tibetan villages

We leave Lijiang for a drive north, toward the Himalaya. At the Yangtse we cross the “border” between Yunnan and the Shangri-la (formerly Zhongdian) districts. Right after the bridge over the river we turn right and drive to the “Tiger Leaping Gorge”, nothing much really... but the Chinese are pretty good at making this look like a never to be missed natural wonder!

Recensione: Benvenuti nel paese delle donne, di Francesca Rosati Freeman, ****

A sud delle nuvole
Sinossi

Un viaggio straordinario 'a sud delle nuvole', alla scoperta di Nu Guo, il paese delle donne. Qui abitano i Moso, un'etnia strutturata in grandi famiglie matriarcali. Un sistema unico, nel quale le donne 'portano sulle spalle' un'intera comunità e i valori su cui sono costruite tutte le nostre società sono rovesciati. I Moso, infatti, rifiutano il matrimonio e le coppie passano la notte insieme per separarsi all'alba.



Recensione

L'Autrice Francesca Rosati Freeman  ripercorre il viaggio di Namu, la protagonista di "Il paese delle donne" (Sperlig & Kupfer) nello Yunnan, la provincia cinese dove abitano i Moso, una piccola minoranza etnica presso la quale le donne hanno un ruolo preminente e molto speciale.

Un'interessante approfondimento sociale e poltico di una piccola realtà della Cina del sud ovest. L'autrice visita ripetutamente la regione e riesce ad entrare nelle case e dar voce a tanti Moso che altrimenti non ascolterebbe nessuno. Il libro mette a nudo i successi ma anche le contraddizioni dell'amministrazione cinese in questa regiona, dagli estremismi del maoismo alla maggiore autonomia dei giorni nostri.

Consiglio di leggere entrambi i libri, sono complementari tra di loro.


Book Review/Recensione: Leaving Mother Lake, by Namu and Christine Mathieu, *****

Recensione italiana di seguito

Synopsis

The Tibetans refer to Moso country as "The Country of Daughters" because of their unique matrilineal society. In Moso culture, daughters are favoured children. There is no word for father, marriage is considered a backward practice and property is passed on from mother to daughter. This book is the haunting memoir of a girl growing up in a remarkable place. In her village, Namu was known as the girl whose mother tried to give her away three times because she would not stop crying...

27 April 2011

4. - 27 APR: Lijiang, Jade Dragon Mountain, Baisha, market

Up early and off to a bus ride to the mountains of Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Mountain), where we leave the bus and buy some tickets. To do so, one must go through a weird sort of hangar, with a whole series of stands selling anything from oxygen bottles (in case of mountain sickness) to T-shirts, to traditional Chinese medicine, to dried frogs... I end up buying some CDs of local music.

26 April 2011

3. - 26 APR: Fly from Chengdu to Lijiang, Yunnan. Naxi concert

Alalalei! (Hello!) is the first word in Naxi language I learn from our guide upon arrival in this small but pretty and efficient airport in Yunnan province. Zhubaysay (Thank you!) is the second. Swallow, (the name of our guide) welcomes us in this peculiar province, where most of all the minorities of China live.

25 April 2011

2. - 25 APR: Chengdu, Sichuan province, China

It is pleasantly warm, about 25 °C. Passport control is fast, and customs officers could not care less to check my bags. In fact the only person they seem to be interested in checking thoroughly is a pitch black man who was sitting next to me on the KLM plane. Maybe it's a coincidence, random checks. Maybe not, and it's racial profiling. I don't know. They scan his luggage repeatedly with the X-ray machine, then let him go.

The airport is brand new and very functional, like many in China today. By the time we reach the luggage carousel all our bags are already there, spinning slowly around and waiting to be picked up. It reminds of Rome where a half hour wait is good reason to consider oneself lucky!

24 April 2011

1. - 24 APR: Depart Italy via Amsterdam to Chengdu, Sichuan, start of the trip

I am again leading a group of Italian tourists to Asia. I am quite excited, have not been to China for some time, and it's my first visit to the western part of the country. The focus of the trip will be Yunnan, but we'll also spend some time in Chengdu and along the Yangtse river.

Uneventful flight with KLM via Amsterdam nonstop to Chengdu, a "medium size" city of 12 million people in Western China, capital of the Sichuan province. "Provinces" in China are in fact huge regions, this one is about one and one half times the size of Italy and weighs in at 80 million people, as many as live in all of Germany.

Chengdu is a lively city, if not a most charming one. Much of the older treasures have been destroyed in wars and revolution. It will be up to this generation to make up by creating a new Chengdu that won't replace the old one, for that is impossible, but will allow the world to miss it less.

Keeping Chengdu windows clean

23 April 2011

Itinerary of a trip to South West China, 24 April - 7 May 2011

 



Click here to see a slideshow of my pictures from this trip. I advise you to view the show at full screen.
 

 Trip to South West China, Yunnan, Sichuan and Yangtse

24 April – 7 May 2011

click on an itinerary to go to its post

Date
Itinerary
Night
Km
Hours
1
in flight


2
Chengdu
0
0
3
Lijiang
0
0
4
Lijiang
90
3
5
Shangri-la
190
4
6
Shangri-la
160
3
7
Kunming
220
4
8
Chongqing
50
2
9
aboard
0
0
10
aboard
0
0
11
aboard
0
0
12
Yichang
50
1
13
Wuhan


14







1.110
22