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.
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