Looking back at my travels in 2010

I've been reading to sweetest post about travel memories by Liz Borod Wright of Travelogged and it made me realise how much I've travelled in 2010.

After having left home in 1998, and spent seven years in Rome, two in Dublin and two in London, I finally made it back to my hometown, Sardinia, for quite a long while. This has given me the invaluable chance to spend some quality time with my parents, visit places I had never seen, carry out some research on the fascinating past of my island, meet interesting people, going down Europe's deepest canyon, participate to some of my favourite local festivals such as S'Ardia in Sedilo and the Mamuthones of Mamoiada, enjoy Sardinia's culinary delicacies and listening to my grandmother's extraordinary story of when she and my grandfather left the island to move to France in the late '50s.

Local getting ready for dune driving in Abu Dhabi desert
During the year I spent in Sardinia, I have also travelled to the Middle East, a region that has always captivated me. So far I've only been to the UAE, but I liked it so much that it won't take me long to go back and explore the rest of that charming corner of the planet. My short, yet unforgettable, stay in the Emirates gave me the chance to spark my passion for the desert, not only for the timeless beauty of its endless stretch of sandy dunes, but also because I could better understand the past and the culture of this young nation.

I thoroughly enjoyed dawdling about Dubai and admired its quirky skyline, but have been captured by the characters I met in Abu Dhabi local markets, the typical places where you can genuinely sense a country's identity.

Gordes, Provence
Before leaving Europe, I somehow felt compelled to make another trip within the Old Continent, and this is how, end of Mars, I ended up in the French region of Provence, where my aunt lives. Here I had the unique opportunity to visit the creepiest dolls' house I had ever seen, be able to picture how was the life of the infamous Marquis De Sade after the Catholic Church banned him and his works from public life, wander the streets of a ghost town, and enjoy a photo-trip in Gordes, picturesque village located right on the edge of a cliff.

After all this traveling around, I finally made it to my new hometown, and last July I landed in China. For who's been following my blog, it's not a mystery that the beginning of my stay in Shanghai has been quite a shock and more than once I thought I couldn't make it.

The Great Wall of China
Fortunately, however, my Sardinian roots provided me with a good deal of stubbornness and made me refuse to admit defeat. Now I'm glad I stuck to my original plan, otherwise I wouldn't have visited so many great places such as the Great Wall or picturesque water towns, I wouldn't have met such beautiful people, I wouldn't have had the chance to explore the fascinating culture of ancient China, and especially I would have missed the chance to challenge myself with studying Mandarin, activity with the unique feature of making me realise that the more I learn the less I understand.

Despite this barrier and my initial shock, I've been gradually collecting little defining moments in the "Country of the middle", conquests that are contributing in shaping my personality, enriching my life experience and opening my mind to a whole new set of priorities. In a nutshell, I'm applying for a visa extension.

2010 has been exciting and challenging, and I wish 2011 will be as constructive and inspiring. Happy New Year everybody!

Favourite destinations for solo female travelers? Emirates' timeless beauty

I'm honoured to host on my blog a guest post by Stephanie Lee, the author of "The Art of Solo Travel". Not only she gives very useful tips for any woman traveling alone, but I'm happy she has chosen the United Arab Emirates, one of my most favourite destinations.

When embarking on the adventure of solo travel for the first time, one of the first things that spring to mind is health and safety. As a solo female traveller who’s been around the globe, interestingly two of the cities in which I felt safest were Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Despite what the media frequently portrays, these cities in the UAE are forward metropolitan hubs with modern conveniences, friendly people, and have their fair share to offer any solo traveller without compromising on personal comfort and safety.
Some of the factors that contribute to this:

The city never sleeps

These two cities are high rollers with a busy and vibrant nightlife. Because there is always something going on in the city – be it 24-hour restaurants or clubs, the presence of people out socializing in the evenings and nights provided me with reassurance when going out after dark.

An international crowd

If travelling alone, it is guaranteed that you will meet other like-minded souls in these cities. Whether a fellow traveller or a working expat, making friends is easy, therefore there was never any reasons to feel lonely or unsafe. There are also ladies night in many places meaning free cocktails!

Day safaris

Join the plethora of day tours available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Try your hand at crab-hunting in the Arabian Sea, go dune-bashing in the exotic desert, or watch belly-dancers entertaining you in front of a local feast. Whatever you decide, you will always have a small group of people enjoying a similar activity with you.

Visit the new wonders of the UAE

It is always safe to visit popular monuments as there will be many others doing exactly the same thing. Along with many other tourists in the city, spend a day or two visiting the new Burj Dubai, or gawk at old ones like the Burj-al-Arab and the Atlantis Hotel. Alternatively go shopping at the fantastic Mall of the Emirates where you can also go skiing.

Watch a concert at the Emirates Palace

With thousands of other screaming fans, it is impossible to feel unsafe. Many popular artists frequently hold concerts at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, and from personal experiences it is pretty spectacular to watch your favourite band put on a show for you in the middle of the desert.

Take the taxi

Taxis are cheap, clean, and the drivers in a smart uniform are polite, helpful and courteous. Don’t take the bus.

Other obvious things

Besides keeping in mind the obvious such as not walking down a dark alley or tunnel alone, and never bringing your valuables out with you, it is almost impossible to feel insecure or unsafe in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Although not the cheapest places to visit, a few days there wouldn’t hurt. So head over there and party like it’s 2011! Happy New Year to all solo travellers!

You can buy "The Art of Solo Travel" here.

In Shanghai, model for a day

Meet the characters, Mustafa on the left, Volkan on the right.

As I've mentioned before, I believe the best part of travelling is the people you meet, and in Shanghai I'm indeed meeting a huge variety of humanity.

First of all, I've acquired a little brother, he's from my beloved Istanbul, and his name is Mustafa. As it happens, along with a brother, I've acquired his friends too.

The other day Volkan, Mustafa's friend, also from Turkey, was on college assignment, and his homework involved hang around the city and make some good shots. He needed two models, so, naturally, we were chosen as main characters.

Mustafa and I kindly agreed to lend our image rights for the sake of Volkan's grade, that, as I found out after a couple of days, was the highest in the class, nonetheless.

Our first stop was at Buddhist Jing'an Temple, just on time to witness my first Buddhist service. The orange-clad monks didn't even bother hiding their surprise at seeing "tourists" taking pictures, although this is one of the most popular and beautiful Buddhist Temples in the heart of Shanghai, oriental-style construction nestled among state-of-the-art architecture and shopping malls.

After quietly following the celebrations rich in incense, chants, fruits and colours, we decided to leave our otherworldly experience and tackle some more mundane targets. After a couple of skyscrapers marking Shanghai's skyline, we ended up at Jing'an Park, where Mustafa and I had the opportunity to pose as models for Volkan's photo-story, of which I'm not sure I understood the plot.

Mustafa and myself, models for a day
Like most parks I've visited in Shanghai, also the one in Jing'an was plentiful with Chinese people performing Tai-Chi, beautiful to watch, certainly even more beautiful to practice.

After hours of laughing, freezing at the early cold, attracting locals' attention and causing their genuine amusement, I realised I had spent a whole afternoon in which, for once, I wasn't the one behind the camera.

Photos courtesy of Volkan.

Dawdling about Shanghai's little Venice

Shanghai is indeed a metropolis that leaves very little time to rest. Since I've been in China I haven't done anything but working, studying and running. Non-stop. The city is literally absorbing all my energies, and I believe all Shanghainese are on the same boat.

Although the city offers countless opportunities to hang out and spend your leisure time, a particularly nice way to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life and get an idea of ancient China is dawdling about one of the lovely water towns surrounding Shanghai's area. I would recommend that your foreign currency conversion is taken care of before you travel to small cities in China as you might find it difficult to change your money here.

Last Sunday I went to ZhuJiaJiao, picturesque, old-styled corner just 45 minutes away from the latest state-of-the-art architecture that makes Shanghai the vibrant and glitzy capital of South East Asia.

It literally took my friends and I only 45 minutes to step back in time. Despite the unavoidable touristy aspects that I believe nowadays are everywhere, the town strongly reminded what could have looked when Chinese people were the least thinking they were going to become one of the first world powers.

The vicinity of the sea and the HuangPu river crossing the region gave origin to the rise of many little towns right on the water. Like in Venice, cars are not allowed in and houses are perched on the banks of the waterways.

All along the riversides traditional shops and restaurants line up ready to serve the continuous flow of tourists, both foreigners and natives. Being outside of the city, the atmosphere is naturally chilled out, people are the least worried about their clothes or looking good in general, and despite the cold temperature, the day went by very pleasantly.

Being in the Chinese version of "Venice", could I miss a tour on board of the Chinese version of the "gondola"? Of course not. And good for us that we made it: our "gondolier" brought us to the very intimate corners of the town, no tourists around, laundry hanging out of the windows and on the narrow alleys, and old houses overlooking the calm waterway.

This is not the only water town around Shanghai, and it's not even the most popular. In fact, among the next villages I will visit there certainly are Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, in the hope they will be able to fulfill my constant quest for nice spots for taking photos.

In China, collecting defining moments

I've been in China for about three months now, started the language course two months ago, and began to collect my first language-related defining moments only a couple of weeks ago. Is it too late?

It's not that I don't ask myself if I'm doing something wrong or what I should change, but despite some healthy self-criticism, I somehow struggle to make the whole process of learning Mandarin faster.

I have just begun to learn the characters, so it's quite hard to notice any improvement in my writing and reading already: I might know about 300 and they are 5000, I need to be patient, I'll be able to read the newspaper in about 3000 characters.

I'm getting to grips with the grammar, not too difficult, but still very different from Western languages structures. I know how it works, I've gone through grammar learning before, so I know it takes time.

What I'm finding more challenging, however, is the pronunciation, both when I speak and when I listen.

Speaking is not always easy because I miss many words. However, I try to follow the advice of our laoshi and talk to anybody I meet, but even when I'm happy I for once know the right expression, my excitement is very short-lived: people simply don't understand me.

On the other hand, when Chinese people speak (very fast), my first reaction is panic. When finally my brain starts functioning, it's already too late, the person has left.

 I can never forget my first defining moment language-wise: after hopping on a cab, I told the driver where I wanted to go and he understood without me having to show him the place written in Han zi (Chinese characters). I know it might seem pretty straightforward, but it's not: you get one tone wrong and they'll drive you to the other side of the city.

I was so excited I managed to make the driver understand me for the first time that at the end of the drive I forgot how to tell him where to stop and I issued a ridiculous "zhe ge, zhe ge!" that corresponds to the English "this one, this one!", very little appropriate to the situation.

Since then, I developed a greater self-confidence and I have no problems taking a taxi anymore. Actually now probably I say it so well that drivers feel compelled to strike up a conversation with me and inevitably end up mocking my accent when they realise my only answer is "Ting bu dong" ("I don't understand").

So, since most of my attempts to communicate so far have ended up into a stalemate, I've decided to make some more effort on this. My next steps will include:

1. Watching tv every day even if I understand next to nothing.

2. Getting a language partner for conversation.

3. Going out more often and strike up a conversation with anybody, especially taxi drivers that are proving very talkative.

I hope my Chinese will improve faster with such a full immersion learning process but no worries, next post will still be in English!

In Shanghai, discovering the Tea Art

It's been a while since I have updated my travel blog. My new Chinese life is keeping me very busy, especially the language course, that is becoming increasingly challenging. Of course, I'm not only studying. In fact, I've also been sightseeing in and out of Shanghai. In my quest for authentic traditions, I ended up delving into a local tea market.

If you think the national sport in China is Kung Fu, think again. Last Sunday, in fact, I went tea fighting, nonetheless.

I thought I was simply going to buy tea, but I sensed it wasn't that obvious when my friend told me: "Tasting tea is an art, not simple drinking."

I wanted to discover China's most intimate traditions, didn't I? Well, the Tea Art is one of them. Ancestral, fascinating, magical. To the extent that buying tea in a normal supermarket in China is almost betraying its roots and missing something essential of its culture.

Writes Yizhou Wu: "There are many legends and folklores about the tea". And this is only the beginning of the journey into this intriguing tradition that has been an important element in the Chinese society for thousands of years, throughout royal dinasties, revolutions and wars.

China has been repeatedly criticised for having completely lost its traditions and connection with its past. Although I find this statement very simplistic in the attempt to define a so complex culture such as the Chinese, I agree that much of their identity is being sacrificed for the sake of modernity, and often the worst aspects of globalisation are being adopted very easily.

However, one of the aspects of the ancient society that Chinese people are not ready to give up is indeed the Tea Art.

The most widespread legend about the tea sees Shennong, believed to have written the earliest book on Chinese pharmacology, as the main character. According to the tale, he tasted all kinds of plants and water with the aim to make people aware of what was edible and what wasn't.

Finally, one day he was poisoned by 72 different plants and found relief only tasting the leaves of tea trees. Although that book wasn't written by Shennong, who is himself a legendary figure, it's an important account of the beginning of the tea tradition.

According to the Chinese tradition, the tea plays an important role in the Cosmo. This is how Yu Lu in his The Classic of Tea puts it:

Tea grows on land, that is "earth"; it is brewed in a stove, that is "metal"; it is heated by the burning "fire", which is fuelled by charcoal, which is "wood"; the final tea drink is "water".
The process through which tea changes from being a plant to being a drink is a process of going through the natural process of five elements, metal, wood, water, fire and earth, to reach a state of harmony.

This gives an idea of how important the tea is, considered not merely a drink, but a plant with medicinal properties that plays a central role in the society itself. During business meetings, meals or while welcoming guests, any occasion sees the ritual of the tea happen.

At the tea market, every little shop appear as cosy sitting rooms in which customers are invited to sit and taste all kinds of tea and infusion before deciding if and/or which to buy.

Only staring at the ritual is already fascinating. First there's the washing of the tiny cups, then the first water is thrown away after one minute of infusion, and finally the set is ready for serving the beloved drink.

Also the tasting is part of the ritual, during which the seller will explain the characteristics of the tea you are sipping. The first advice they give is not to swallow immediately, so that you are able to fully understand the flavour and what the seller is saying: the origins, the type of land where the herb was harvested, the kind of processing that brought it to be a drink.

According to tradition, the spirit of the tea is aimed at giving peace to the soul. Says Xufeng Wang:

"Heping (peace) is the spiritual core of Chinese tea. Pinghe (tranquillity) is the outward shape of the peaceful spirit shown by tea drinkers. Heping and pinghe, peace and tranquillity, are interdependent like teeth and lips. Here, peace is a spirit, and also a shape; tranquillity is a shape, and also a spirit."

The expert moves of the sellers make the whole experience of purchasing tea so rich that it will feel a shame to simply pick one from the Carrefour shelves next time I want to buy it.

The great walk along the Great Wall of China, with unexpected ending

Going to China and not visiting the Great Wall should be considered a sin. I knew it was impressive, but being actually walking along that piece of history felt really special.

Although the fact that it can be seen from the moon is a myth, the Great Wall is a truly outstanding piece of ancient architecture, a series of walls built between the 5th and the 16th century BC, with the main purpose of protecting the Chinese Empire from the attacks of nomadic tribes.

Our tour began at the Ming Tombs, big complex with the graveyard of the emperors of the Ming Dinasty. Most of the Great Wall was built during this dinasty, and was started under emperor Zhu Yuanzhang who also founded the Dinasty in 1368. The Ming period ended tragically in 1644, when the last emperor, Sizong, hanged himself after strong peasant uprisings headed by Li Zicheng, who managed to defeat imperial forces and break into Beijing.

In Changling, we have visited the burial mausoleum of Chengzu, Zhu Di (third emperor of the Ming Dinasty) and empress Xushi, with annexed a museum displaying ancient imperial Chinese tools and jewellery. To stay within the jewellery topic, afterwards we headed to the state-run jade factory, where they work (and sell) all kinds of Chinese jade.

After the jade factory was the turn of Chinese medicine. Or better, a wellbeing-sort-of-spa centre where we were introduced to the fascinating world of natural remedies. Apart from the too touristy atmosphere, the group was starting to get impatient about the Great Wall that, in the itinerary, was left as the last part.

Finally, we made it, more than an hour drive from Beijing, through a mental summer holiday traffic, we got to the Wall. Needless to say, the view started striking all of us since far away, and every time we saw a "piece" of it, the bus echoed of our "Oooohhhh".

The heat was stifling, and the massive crowd didn't help face the long walk that was awaiting us. We started climbing huge stone steps and steep uphill paths literally pushing our way with the elbows.

There is not one single best viewpoint, it's a gradual achievement, and staring at that overwhelming landscape from the Great Wall nonetheless, makes the exhausting route all the way worthwhile.

Our guide gave us instructions on how to go back but didn't come with the group, so after we reached our top spot and were starting the descent, we followed the crowd towards the exit. While we were facing the hard way back, the first signs that something was out of place started showing up.

Then, we realised we hadn't seen the little train we used to get to the entrance of the wall, that was supposed to bring us back down since we had a return ticket.

We kept going and immediately after the exit something felt unavoidably wrong. Much more quiet than what we had found when we had arrived, slightly different people, a soft-looking camel posing for tourist pictures and, more importantly, our bus was not there anymore.

It took us a while to understand it, but connecting all the dots, the truth was inescapable: we had ended up in Mongolia. Inner Mongolia, to be precise.

Originally, with my parents we had planned to go to Mongolia, but of course organising the trip, not "by mistake".

It has been an exhausting walk, the descent was double-length of the way up because we couldn't find the train that spared us half of the trip at the beginning; the heat was unbearable, the path bristled with pitfalls, such as small stones making it dangerously slippery.

As if this wasn't enough, once outside, before understanding where we were, we kept looking in vain for our bus. Finally, we had the epiphany, we found the phone number of our guide through her office and she told the taxi driver where was the bus (oh, because of course none of us spoke Chinese and we were unable to explain it ourselves).

After a huge traffic in the pass between Mongolia and China, we got to our bus, tired and annoyed for the unexpected extra-walk, but suspecting already our adventure would have become source of jokes for long time in the future.

"Don't be afraid, you are in China!"

A view of the Great Wall of China
When our laoshi delivered to the class the odd statement "Don't be afraid: you are in China!", the first thing that crossed my mind was to imagine this sentence out of its context.

Admittedly, out of nowhere, it does make China look like some kind of shelter, and said by a Chinese person, you will inevitably think "Wow, Chinese people have a really great concept of their country!"

I am slowly appreciating the fact that Chinese people truly love their country, and every time a foreigner mentions Zhong Guo (China), the face of the local shines with a smirk, let alone when foreigners confess their own love for the Red Dragon.

However, the sudden burst of vigor didn't belong to such a patriotic context, but was simply a way to reassure the class that by living in China we naturally have all tools we need to learn the language properly and quickly.

Our teacher insists, and rightly so, that we need to go out and speak to as many people as possible.

After having overcome the initial shock of moving to such a different culture, I'm starting to getting to grips with Chinese mentality and outlandish lifestyle, so I took my teacher's advice and started talking to people in shops, streets or wherever I had the occasion.

The result so far hasn't been very remarkable as most people don't understand what I'm saying. Did I think learning Chinese was like learning any other language? Not quite.

Last week the government was conducting a population census in Shanghai and when the officer came to my place in order to "count me", I took it as a great occasion to sport the sentences I had just learnt and introduce myself. Wrong guess, little did I know that it was going to be source of greater frustration.

The man only understood I was from Italy, he didn't understand I was here to "study", and when I showed him the character and told him I was studying Chinese, he looked at me puzzled: "Are you studying Korean?!"

I get it: I need to look after my pronunciation.

The trick is to understand the difference between tones, they are four, and the same word can have four (or more) different meanings, according to the tone. Admittedly, to me the tones sound all pretty much the same, but our teacher promised us that they are completely different. It must be, otherwise people would understand at least some of the words I say.

I'm not even starting mentioning how hard learning the characters is, and now we are talking about a "simplified" Chinese, courtesy of Mao who thought the traditional characters were too difficult and imposed to make them "easier".

We learn about ten characters per class, and at the beginning (the very beginning, let's say the first ten characters), I was thrilled: "It's not that difficult after all!" I kept repeating to myself. After thirty characters (I know, just three classes) I had already changed my mind.

Not only the difference between tones is almost undetectable to foreign ears, but many characters are hopelessly similar, with only a couple of strokes marking the distinction between them.

While I'm increasingly less afraid of Shanghai life, I'm starting getting worried about communicating with locals. But I guess, like everything, it's only a matter of time.

In China, where you never say "No"

"Chinese never say 'No'!" Warned us our laoshi.

So do they always say 'Yes'? - Was my very first thought. Once again, too easy.

Chinese culture is a fascinating array of unspoken rules that date back thousands of years, how can I understand them in only two months? With a rich oral tradition, Chinese people proudly perpetuate almost unconsciously the lengthy heritage of their ancestors.

I'm usually quite direct in my responses, but I admit some difficulty in delivering a blunt "No" when I get invitations for something I'm not too keen on, so probably at least in this case I won't need to make an effort to adapt to Chinese customs.

Apparently this is also the tradition when it comes to dating: "Careful!" laoshi advised my male classmates this time. "If a girl tells you she's tired, she's just not interested, so admit defeat and leave her alone!"

As long as this happens in contexts such as dating, shopping or among friends, it might be annoying but no harm is made. However, awkward situations might be caused when it comes to business. The whole not-saying-no thing, in fact, rules also in trade and economy, and this is why Westerners consider doing business with Chinese people exhausting.

Apparently, if a Chinese businessman says "I will think about it", he means "No way"; on the contrary, if he says "Wo qing ni chi fan" (I invite you for a meal), there is hope.

Although so far I've been regarding the Chinese not exactly fussy when it comes to manners, probably they consider saying a direct "No" a sign of impoliteness, and they always prefer a "middle way".

This "middle way" of thinking is actually the foundation of Chinese culture: the word "China" itself in Mandarin sounds Zhong Guo, looks 中国 and means "the middle country". This is not to stress that China is the "centre" of the universe, but it's because the Chinese think the philosophy of staying "half-way" is the best one in pretty much all daily occasions.

This entails also never be "too sad" nor "too happy," for that matter, because after a too strong sentiment, inevitably follows the opposite. Now, although I think (and have experienced) that this is often true, and I do admire their ability to master their feelings, I'm not quite sure I'll be able to do the same.

Let's see if my stay in China will teach me how to be "less Italian" and better manage situations with a too high emotional burden. Starting point? Unavoidably Confucius.

Chinese families, baby boy or baby girl?

The Great Wall of China
During Chinese class our laoshi (teacher), along with teaching us the mysteries of her ancient language, gives us also little pearls of oriental wisdom and precious information about China's culture and society.

Last week we studied how to approach people, introduce ourselves and ask for others' names. In China there is the unspoken rule that you cannot ask directly for the personal name if a person is older than you or in a higher position: in this case, you will need to politely ask for the family name.

At this juncture, laoshi told us about the controversial topic of Chinese people preferring to have a baby boy instead of a girl.

As in most countries, also in China the new-born takes his/her father's family name, so in order to keep the name alive through the future generations, when women learnt they were expecting a baby girl, they would have an abortion.

Truth be said, in the (recent) past also in Italy having a baby boy was much preferred, to the extent that when I was born and my grandmother learnt I was a girl, with a hint of disappointment, told my mother just recovering from the birth: "Umm...it's ok too...".

While in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai this practice has disappeared, in other parts of China, especially rural areas in the 1970s and 1980s when the country faced the biggest poverty of modern times, it had started becoming too common.

This has led the Chinese government to come up with a drastic plan: it is now illegal for new parents to check on the sex of the baby. This way women won't get an abortion and the awkward situation of having a nation made only of men will be avoided.

In addition, due to the boom that made China's population reach the figure of 1.3 billion people, the government has adopted the two-child policy, meaning that a family can only have two children, after that the mother can be sterilised or, in case of a third child, the parents would get fined.

This applies only for Chinese people: the law, in fact, exempts from this rule the minorities such as Mongolian and Tibetan that, *because* minorities, have the right to have as many children as they wish.

I was pleased to learn that in China women keep their own family name and don't take their husband's one, as it happens for example in the UK. "We must thank Mao for giving us this power," told us our laoshi in a burst of national pride. I have to agree, in addition to avoiding all the hassle of changing the name in ID papers, I wouldn't be very willing to give up the name my father gave me.

My first (unwanted) experience with Chinese medicine

I know, I always say I want to fully experience the country I'm visiting, and this is why I usually stay longer than a normal holiday. Of course this applies to China too, being the Giant Dragon a fascinating society and boasting one of the richest cultures in human history.

But let's face it, I would have gladly avoided experiencing Chinese medicine so early. Or at least in these conditions.

I believe this time the ever-present air conditioning is to blame. Although we are nearing the end of September, the weather in Shanghai was still humid and stifling hot. To put it mildly. Apparently, to please users and customers in China is very trendy to have the air conditioning at its maximum, and this has been lethal for me.

Shifting quickly and repeatedly between hot and humid to the dramatically low temperatures of the metro stations has caused my first Chinese flu.

The initial symptoms were the usual sore throat, cough, shivers and weakness, so I asked my Chinese teacher to write something to show the chemist in order to get the proper medicine. All good, except that by the time I got to the pharmacy I was also boiling with fever.

Due to an excessive weakness, I avoided new medicines and immediately opted for a common aspirin to make the temperature drop, but for throat and cough, I was still at the mercy of Chinese natural remedies.

Following my teacher's guidelines and some of my best gestures (in these cases being Italian, and able to talk with hands, helps), the chemist gave me a flowery box containing the herbs that will make my cough and sore throat go away.

The medicine is called Sangju Ganmao Keli, and is a mix of mulberry leaf, chrysanthemum, weeping forsythia, mint, bitter apricot seed, balloon flower root, licorice roots, reed rhizome. I've been taking one sachet in hot water three times a day and results are good so far: my throat is getting better, my voice has got back to normal, I'm not constantly blowing my nose, which is re-assuming its natural colour and abandoning that ridiculous red-ish look. In a nutshell, I'm breathing again.

What I have learnt, a little doing some research before coming to China, then listening to my teacher's anedoctes and being in touch with Chinese people, is that their philosophy is to prevent rather than treating, so they maintain a very healthy lifestyle and natural remedies are part of their daily routine.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who caught the flu despite the heat. My teacher came to class yesterday with weird red signs on her throat and forehead, and even before we could ask what had happened to her, she explained that it is Chinese medicine against the fever. Our puzzled look prodded her to explain further: basically when we start having fever, by pinching on our forehead and our throat, we make the temperature drop.

I'm not suggesting anyone to do it, as I believe there is a special way to pinch effectively and not just randomly to only cause awkward redness. I don't think I'll try that either nex time I have the flu, but I found it fascinating as an introduction to alternative medicine.

Finally today the weather has changed and is much cooler, a completely different season from yesterday, quite pleasant and certainly more appropriate to the end of September.

I was told Shanghai's coldest temperatures are around 10-8°C, but it feels colder as it's always very humid. This might be an incentive for me to start looking at different remedies in order to prevent a potential next flu.

Settling in Shanghai, easier said than done

After a couple of posts covering the quirky aspects of my stay in Shanghai, time has come to release the truth: it's not all that fun.

First of all, ni hao everybody, as this is one of the very few Chinese words I managed to grasp before starting the course.

When I've arrived in China, end of July, I took all August as a holiday-adjustment to the new reality, and although it's been great traveling to Beijing and Qingdao and exploring Shanghai itself, the first signs of what I was going to face shortly had started showing up.

First and foremost, the biggest barrier was (and is) the language. Not just because Chinese is very difficult, but also because nobody speaks English. Or French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese, for that matter.

I agree that I am the foreigner, meaning that I have to adapt, and locals don't have to feel compelled to study another language just to make tourists or expats feel at home. Also true is that in Italy is not that common to find locals with a proficient level of English either, except in very touristy areas, but this applies to Shanghai too. 

What is the problem of not being confident in Chinese? For a Westerner like me, used to completely different writing characters, is impossible even to look up in the dictionary when in need to translate Chinese to English.

Going shopping for food is still a disaster: there is literally everything on sale, some things I have never seen before, and names and descriptions are only in Chinese, making it impossible for me to buy them. Admittedly, with my great regret as I'm quite open-minded food-wise and I love trying anything new. Well, almost anything.

If you are wondering about the public transport, yes, the metro (very well organised, 13 lines that reach pretty much every corner of the city) is bilingual, meaning that the stops are written also with English characters, but the workers are still monolingual.

The linguistic hindrance entails much more than just grocery shopping, of course. A couple of examples? Getting the mail, understanding the bills, reading building announcements and block rules. Or answering to the lady who came to read the business gas metres and ask for the money missing from last bill.

All these difficulties notwithstanding, I have always had the impression that life in China is made very easy, little hassle and relaxed.

I am now on my third day of Chinese class, tomorrow will be the fourth one, and I already know several words, I can make sentences just swaping the terms and changing their order and, most of all, I can do all this also by writing with Chinese characters.

This does require every-day after-class review and studying at home, but it's way less difficult than I had ever thought. After a month and a half of China, and almost two weeks living by myself in my own place, the initial frustration is gradually giving way to a greater appreciation of a totally new lifestyle (it is what I was looking for, isn't it?), discovering unknown social mores and small idiosyncrasies that make the Sleeping Dragon an invaluable mix of tradition and modernity.

Wandering about Jordan treasures

I went to Shanghai International Expo with the aim to visit the pavilions of the countries that captivate me. So I found myself on the lookout of the nations I'm curious to visit.

Admittedly, they are a lot and due to the many queues standing in front of each pavilion, I realised I wasn't going to see them in only one afternoon.

I had to make a choice and this didn't take me long: Middle East.

Just off Shibo Avenue lied all "my" countries, and for my greater convenience the Asia Joint Pavilion II gathered most nations I had in mind. This is how I made my way to discover the ancient wonders of charming Jordan.

Jordan is renowned for its timeless beauty, and travelers are bedazzled by its evocative landscapes and heritage, but getting under the skin of place is always a challenge, and dawdling about Jordan pavilion felt like taking a crash course in digging deeper into a foreign society and sharing cultural norms with its people.

Goes without saying that the welcoming of the visitors was prerogative of the overwhelming landscape of Petra, and after walking past the initial posters I was met by Jordanian products, styles and atmosphere. Looking about me, I realised that Jordanians have all the good reasons to be proud of their country.

What was on display were the typical products coming from Jordan, from food, to pots, to textiles, all oozing the flavours and ochre colours that belong to the Middle Eastern region and represent much of its identity. Since I've been to the United Arab Emirates, I've fallen in love with those countries where the desert plays a major role, both geographical and social.

Visiting Jordan vicariously through its pavilion has proved as inspiring as I had predicted, and the neighbouring nations-pavilions, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine, managed to keep high my enthusiasm and make me promise I will come back next time I visit the Expo, in the wait to experience the real country.

Enjoying Chinese cuisine, and I'm not talking about worms, scorpions and grasshoppers!

I had heard about it: "In China they eat worms!" - "Oh please!" Was my usual answer.

Until I went to Beijing and Qingdao street food markets. Food of any sort, insects of any sort, from worms to scorpions to grasshoppers. The scorpions were still alive ready to be spit-roasted, the grasshoppers were already warm and crunchy.

Surprisingly though, I didn't lose my appetite and I delved into the other delicacies the street vendors were cooking, from seafood to fried noodles to steamed dumplings filled with vegetables and meat.

In Beijing, the street market was set up every evening only for dinner just in front of my hotel, becoming in a matter of minutes absolutely packed with tourists and locals alike in the lookout for their favourite delicacy.

After a couple of days in Beijing I went to Qingdao, little town (only 8 million people) on the coast of the Yellow Sea, where the street market in the old part of the city was also for lunch. And for lunch I went, finding a huge range of Chinese treats for all tastes, to be eaten rigorously with the chopsticks.

What I like of this way of eating is that I can have a little of many different things, instead of a full dish of only one choice. And this is exactly what I did, jumping from one vendor to another, I had the opportunity to taste several specialities, and I'm pretty sure nothing I've had involved snakes, worms or other delicacies I'm not ready to understand yet.

In Shanghai, exploring the Ancient City

Chinese society and economy are developing so fast that even the population can barely catch up. One of the most evident symptoms is the way they cross the street: any foreigner will notice horrified that despite the hectic traffic, locals cross huge roads without even checking if cars are coming their way.

Drivers in Shanghai are busier trying to avoid running over reckless pedestrians rather than following traffic signs.

Chinese are very proud of their bike-tradition, they have always gone through the streets by bike and no matter what the traffic is like, they will keep going by bike, little respecting the red light, barely watching if cars are crossing from side streets, seemingly caring very little whether they'll actually be able to cross or they'll end up lying on the ground. 

As for me, the post-London re-adjusting to the left side of the road is happening quite fast, due to the massive amount of any sort of vehicles present in Shanghai's roads and sidelwalks.
Following this resilience to modernity that characterises Chinese people, I thought I would enjoy a walk through the Ancient City and its Yu Gardens. Lucky guess.

What is called the Ancient City is actually a cluster of shops selling all things traditional, from pearls and jade to silk, to tea sets. And of course many sit-in and take-away restaurants. They are pretty much tourist traps, but if you can bargain the price, the stuff you'll find there is quite of a good quality.
All shops inside the Ancient City are set on traditional-looking surroundings, but the real jewel are to be considered the Yu Gardens, an evocative model of classical Chinese gardening architecture. 

Built during the Ming dinasty in 1559 as the private garden of high-rank official of Sichuan Province, Pan Yunduan, they are a lovely collaboration of architecture and tradition.

The many halls are separated from each other by rare plants, small rivers, ponds and decorative rocks. Rocks are an important part of Chinese culture, as they are seen as a gift from Nature to men.

Visiting these cultural spots makes it evident how Chinese people love their own traditions, as most tourists are actually locals.

I'm discovering Shanghai little by little, and I hope my passion for old-fashioned things will lead me to unearth unusual spots, less glitzy than the tall skyscrapers but by all means with a richer past.

Pasta Fresca, the best Italian food in Shanghai

I'm not the typical Italian because when I'm abroad I carefully avoid any Italian restaurant.

This for two main reasons: they are usually very far from reproducing the quality of the food you will eat in Italy, and I always prefer to try the local cuisine, wherever I am.

In Shanghai I made an exception, and this is because the Italian restaurants I found were worth breaking my personal rules.

They are part of a chain, Pasta Fresca, and the owner, Salvatore Carecci, comes from Lecce, Puglia, in Southern Italy. In his restaurants the quality of the food is the same, if not better, than in the best restaurants of the Belpaese.

So what's the trick? An Italian chef for every kitchen? Not quite.

Behind the dishes the Chinese waiters bring to the tables there is a whole Italian-style preparation: the pasta is freshly made (hence the name Pasta Fresca!), which means every single day each restaurant of the chain prepares the pasta they need.

The freshness is not limited to the pasta, of course.

The mozzarella is freshly made in loco, not in the restaurants' kitchens but in the big factory where machines were brought directly from Italy. Even the legendary Italian gelato, ice cream, is made by Pasta Fresca with Italian machines.
Only the main chef in each restaurant is Italian, the rest of the staff, from the chef's assistants to the waiters to the halls' supervisors are Chinese, or some from the Philippines.

The result of this ethnic mix and collaboration is impressive, I highly recommend a visit to one of Pasta Fresca restaurants to anyone who comes to Shanghai and is willing to try Italian food.

Visiting Palestine through Shanghai

Believe it or not, yesterday I went to Palestine, and the stamp on my passport is the evidence for what I'm saying.
I had been looking for a kefiah for some time, and the best place to buy it was naturally Palestine, so I went straight to the cosy shop at the end of the pavilion and I was lucky enough to meet the lovely lady from Nablus and her daughter Leen only two days before their departure back to Palestine.
The pavilion reflected the class and the elegance of the Palestinians who, despite the hardships they are constantly put through, have not lost their style.
Experiencing Palestine through their costumes, shows, photos, miniatures of their cities, tea rooms and local products was great, as this is one of the hardest countries to visit due to the occupation and blockade they have been forced to since 1948.
Of course my curiosity about their rich civilisation was met only a little, and now I'm even more inspired to travel to Palestine than before.
I wish I can make it soon, but in the meantime, I will share these photos and some of the feelings they brought from the Holy Land to Shanghai Expo 2010.

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