A tale of two missions. Part 1.

The TsUM Magazin on Rudaki was rumoured, according to the chit-chat in the hostel, to be unbeatable in Dušanbe for Soviet tat, but once we’d gotten there it was pretty hard to figure out why. Ground floor was packed to the gunwales with stalls peddling mobile phones and associated paraphernalia, whilst the first floor, up a flight of stairs that reminded me of my elementary school’s building, traded in mildly repulsive wedding dresses. A young mother begged on the corridor, accepting the round bread I’d just bought in the bazaar.
The promised land of the hammer and sickle was indeed there, but took a while to be found. Sandwiched between a shop selling gaudy rugs and another doing a relatively modest trade in authentic, fake La-Z-Boy chairs was what we wanted to come and see. Memorabilia from the so-called Empire of Evil.
Austin to Houston, the satnav chirped, was 187 miles. Make it 200, I thought knowing my penchant for cocking it up even when tasked with the relatively simple job of following an arrow without crashing into other people or stationary objects. Four hundred miles return, a relatively long day on the road but one that, at least for me, was worth it.
Based on a body of evidence constituted by the film “Hell or High Water” and not much else, I expected Texas to be looking not too differently from the Kazakh steppe, save for the occasional oil pump jack taking another sip of crude and Ford pick-ups in lieu of Toyota Land Cruisers. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. The I-10 sneaked through hills carpeted with gnarled and twisty oaks, peppered with ranches, Methodist temples offering “Cowboy Sunday Service” and herds of big-horned cows. The sight of La Grange, with the inevitable memories of ZZ-Top, and of a group of placid bison were met with a suitable degree of excitement.
Courtesy winged_wonderer.
The Soviet memorabilia shop was small, but so well stocked that it undoubtedly served as the mothership for that untold multitude of old, Ukrainian-plated Mercedes vans that appeared at any flea market in Northern Italy with their load of binoculars, Lomo cameras and inextinguishable supply of commemorative pins. If Antique Roadshow’s Fiona Bruce was a closet Communist, this place would’ve made her week.  
 An ethnic Kyrgyz stood, beaming like the genie of the lamp, behind the counter whilst four Russian youths in flip-flops and the inevitable Adidas shorts browsed the wares. They were clean-shaven and short-haired, the one Asian guy in the group sporting a large tattoo of a military symbol – crossed swords and so on – that belied their occupation, probably at one of the major Russian bases in Dušanbe or Kulob. They left shortly thereafter, Pioneers’ hankies wrapped around their necks, tokens from their fathers’ youth.
We began feeling Houston’s presence a lot longer before we actually saw it. Roads got larger and larger, sprouting an extra two, three, sometimes even four lanes of devilish concrete. Prefab boxes – offices, shops and fast food joints – lined the sides, garlanded with gigantic US and Lone Star flags fluttering in the wind. Spaghetti junctions soared above us in delicate choreographies, whilst Texans at the wheel of their pick-up trucks displayed such an ease for right-hand overtakes that would cause a Milanese white-van-driver to blush with embarrassment. Everyone, including us, made little note of the 65-mph limit and cruised at 80. It was curiously ironic to be feeling a sense of déjà-vu bringing me back to Isfahan, Iran.
Still, it wasn’t long before the Johnson Space Center emerged on NASA Parkway, hiding behind two T-38 jets perched atop steel pylons. I drove our rental car past them, succeeding in the rather hard task of missing the visitor’s entrance and trying to access a secure governmental facility through a phalange of campus police officers. Still, they were pretty nice about it and didn’t make use of their Tasers.
If space geekiness was a recognised field of study, I’d have an MS in Gemini and a PhD in Apollo; if a place was bound to make me and my kind fall into a state of semi-permanent priapistic excitation, that was the Johnson Space Center. We parked near the Shuttle mock-up, mated to its 747 transporter, and joined the queue of families waiting by the entrance.
My friend M.’s eyes fixated on a 1960s Lubitel camera. He haggled furiously and then left with the owner in search for an ATM to seal the deal. Large trays, filled with pins in the same way that mussels are arranged at Turnham Green’s fishmonger, eyed me from behind the crystals of the cabinets in which they were kept. They were arranged by thematic and, at prices ranging from 10 somoni – £1 – to 20, they were a steal. One very large tray, possibly the fattest amongst them, was labelled космос. Space.  
Alone in the shop I started browsing the pins. Apollo-Soyuz, Vostok, the small, graphite-grey commemorative lapels for fallen cosmonauts; it was a veritable space Mecca. I left laden with presents, but with only one pin for me. Rhomboid in its shape, it featured an enamelled square of space and, bang in the middle, a delightfully retro spaceship, obviously emblazoned with a red hammer & sickle. Beneath, the Cyrillic writing said 1975 – BEHEPA – 10. Even after weeks in the region I couldn’t decipher it. 
The JSC visitors’ centre was a gift that kept on giving. Apollo 10’s command module. Apollo 17’s. Pete Conrad’s lunar suit, still soiled by the lunar sands. The Moon buggy. Gemini 5 and Gordo Cooper’s Faith 7. We bundled on a small multi-wagon bus, pompously called tram, trundling towards what looked a rural community college campus a little bit worse for wear. It turned out to be where everything, from the glory days of Apollo to the future lunar and Mars missions, was and is managed. Sitting on the plastic benches of the whirring vehicle, it felt bewildering that these 1960s buildings with bike racks outside their entrances, sitting one stone’s throw away from a gated community, a Bullritos restaurant and a Better Home and Gardens estate agency, could be it, but there was no way that this was a dull Surrey business park. Not when parking spots were reserved for people whose title were Chief Astronaut or Orion Program Manager.

… To be continued.
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“Out of Steppe” by Daniel Metcalfe, Arrow – Random House

If the passion for travelling off the beaten path, exploring places that don’t make it on the top-shelf brochure at your local Trailfinders (but, let’s face it, they don’t even make it to the bottom one), was a genetic strand then I’d say that it almost completely disappeared from the British genome.
Fortunately for us it’s just ‘almost’; this is because Colin Thubron is thankfully still active, and also because of Daniel Metcalfe. All I have from him is a pretty agile book of 274 pages with bibliography (thumbs up) and hand-drawn maps (double thumbs-up) called Out of Steppe and many, many thanks for the incredibly nice person who found it in a Covent Garden bookshop that I didn’t even know existed and gifted it to me. 
Reading Daniel’s book – I unconsciously started calling him by his first name, I hope he’ll allow me the confidence – I thought I’d found a worthy successor of Wilfred Thesiger; if not for the prose, for the approach to travelling. Daniel’s book is about his gallivants through the five ‘Stans of the erstwhile Soviet Union, with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan thrown in for good measure, but more importantly it’s about their peoples, or the most obscure communities amongst them. In order to tell the story of these groups he, and this is what I find very Thesiger-ish in him, becomes an erudite. He speaks the language, knows the history, has in a nutshell done his homework.
Don’t think for a second that this is an academic book, or some bearded professor rumbling on for ages in academic English understandable only to him and the other 35 readers of his university’s gazette, because it is first and foremost a travel book. It’s lively, accessible, not dogmatic, vivid and in parts outright funny. Daniel has a great wealth of knowledge and speaks some pretty exotic languages, but doesn’t let either gifts draw the narration down. You’ll struggle to find any self-centred rambling or glorification; this is not a book about him doing cool stuff, is a recollection of what he saw and did.
But what did he see, and what did he do? I realise it’s paragraph 5 and I haven’t said it yet. Well, Daniel started off in Iran, after months studying in Tehran (and that as a Brit takes some guts, considering how everyone I spoke to before my trip there suggested I get a bulletproof vest), crossed into Turkmenistan and then visited the forgotten province of Karakalpakstan, the corner of western Uzbekistan which once functioned as the south shore of the Aral Sea. The comparison between Moynaq, where he’d been, and Aralsk, where I stayed, made the north Kazakh shore an Eden of plenty, and made me realise that if I thought that what I’d seen there – the dust, the emptied port, the town of Aqespe being devoured by the sands – was bad, it’s a lot worse down in Uzbekistan.
A little further to the East is his next stop, Bukhara and its rapidly dwindling Jewish community. This is perhaps the most poignant, intense part of the book. I won’t do any spoilers, but the cemetery scene caused me to miss my Tube stop. Following north he succeeded where I failed, i.e. tracing the Germans of Kazakhstan. He lifts the lid on the cataclysmic proportions of the forced relocations ordered by the mass murderer that never got a Nuremberg, Stalin, poking around in the industrial city of Karaganda for Lutherans who moved into Russia at the time of tsarina Catherine.
It is, then, a crescendo of exoticness. In Tajikistan he treks to see the Yaghnobis, the last speakers of a language that Alexander the Great must’ve heard whilst he steamrolled towards the Ganges; he crosses into Afghanistan to visit the Hazara of Bamyan, a chapter that made me understand how Islamists – in the extremist sense of the term – aren’t just a hateful bunch, but are also racists. Finally, as if what he’d done so far was enough, he travels from Kabul to Peshawar, on routes that Westerners normally visit whilst wearing helmets and vests, garnished with weapons and armoured vehicles. All he has, instead, are local shared taxis, something I don’t think I’d ever have the huevos to do.
His last chapter is dedicated to one of the lesser known ethnic groups in Asia, the Kalasha. Pagans in a deeply Muslim country, where a government official slurring a religious oath was enough to cause mobs with pitchforks and torches to descend onto the streets, they definitely don’t have an easy life. Reading this chapter made me appreciate the beauty of plurality and how idiotic it is to proselytise in the name of some supposed cultural superiority. The forced conversions of the Kalashas, the banning of Polynesian dances, the forced collectivisation of Kazakh nomads; how many more crimes against culture will we need to see?
All in all, Out of Steppe is a great book and one I wish I’d written, if only because it’d have meant that I’d lived those stories. If I had to find one issue with my copy that’s one the praises, unfortunately written on the front cover, from The Economist, where Daniel is likened to Robert Byron. Having had to suffer through The Road to Oxiana when I took it with me in Iran without much else to read, I think that the only things in common between Daniel and that serial moaner of a toff called Byron is their membership to the human specie and, I guess, the ownership of a British passport.
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Song(s) for the Road 6 – An African New Year’s Day

I’m not one for resolutions, for they don’t work, but I do have a couple of traditions for New Year’s Day. One, shared with a longtime friend, is to check what day is Easter on the calendar, and then to message each other (it’s April 1st this year, in case you were wondering). Another is to play some good music. It’s not that I play crap stuff for the remainder of the year, but let’s say that I try and uphold some standards of quality. Today, more by accident than by design, the first couple of artists happened to be African; hence the idea of having an African NYD edition of Song(s) for the Road. All the linked songs are available on Youtube, but the invite is always to try and buy the records if available and if you can.
Tony Allen plays with Afrika 70 – No Accommodation for Lagos

I’m a sucker for Afrobeat. It might be a heavily stereotyped idea, and I might be in for the disappointment of my life the day I finally get there, but I imagine the likes of Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, Ofo & The Black Company and, indeed, Tony Allen to be blaring throughout Lagos whilst everyone moves to rhythm. All day long. Tony Allen, to me, is the man. Drummer for Fela Kuti, and if you’ve ever heard Fela you know you need a lot of stamina and metronome-like precision, he then went solo and began dishing out pearls like this one. No Accommodation for Lagos clicks 60 minutes and yet there are only six songs. The topics are a far cry from N’Sync’s: it’s either denunciation of the precarious lifestyle of those who are forced to move into the big city, a plead for road safety – Look left, look right he says – and hymns to love. All accompanied by sounds funkier than funk itself and horns solos that could send people to Nirvana (not Kurt Cobain’s band, the other one). The opening song, for instance, runs for nine blissful minutes before Tony decides it’s time to start singing. If you don’t mind shoulder gymnastics and odd looks from other motorists, it’s a great album to listen to on your daily commute.
Tinariwen – Elwan

I’ve started seeing a few noses turning up at the sight of Tinariwen. They’ve gone commercial. They played on KEXP. You just see them in big festivals. Tamikrest, Bombino [insert other Touareg group] are much more authentic. 
Frankly, in my humble opinion I think it’s all bollocks. Tinariwen had the luck of being the first of the incredible bands that took Songhoy music, and its bluesy influence, shook and stirred it with their own desert sounds and came out with what they’ve been incredibly successful at ever since. And, honestly, if they’re enjoying a bit of wealth because of this, all the better. I don’t understand why, to be appreciated by some, artists need to remain dirt-poor. If you’ve got talent, it’s right in my books to be making a living out of it. Besides, I’m sure it makes 1,000 Tinariwens to make the money of half a Justin Bieber.
Anyhow, bickering aside, let’s talk about Elwan. Whilst it’s true that Tinariwen have a knack to get the *great* hit out, I’ve always found their LPs to be a bit on the lacking side. Tassili, for example, seemed to be the same guitar chord repeated for half of the album’s songs. In this respect, my preference went to the likes of Bombino, or Imarhan, whose debut album was so great that I actually emailed British Airways to complain when they took it off their in-flight entertainment section (they promised alternatives, but so far zilch). Still, Elwan is different. It rings true, honest and if at times it’s melancholic, it’s because it is – just read the lyrics of Ténéré Tàqqàl – and it’s an all-round gem. Most certainly their best, at least for me.
Mulatu Astatke – New York-Addis-London

You’ve got to give the genre the credit it deserves. When it comes to finding new names for its sub-streams, jazz is in a class of its own in terms of coolness. Ethio-Jazz. Come on, say it, roll it on the top of your tongue, and tell me if it doesn’t sound cool. It does, doesn’t it?
Mulatu Astatke is another one of Africa’s great exports. Sent in Wales to learn engineering, he instead studied music and became a strange mélange of Herbie Hancock and the Buena Vista Social Club. Don’t know if it’s true, don’t know if you can still consider his music jazz, I don’t even know if this is anything you’d be likely to hear in a bar in Addis, but whatever. I like it.
Fatoumata Diawara – Fatou

It feels that there’s somehow of an over-representation of Mali singers in this post but I suppose it’s one of the dangers of the job; if Mali’s industrial prowess was on par with its music output, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the country’s leadership elbowing back Trump in a group photo scrum at the next G20 meeting. But I digress.
From the desert blues of the north to the riverine sounds of the various Ali Farka Touré and Songhoi Blues (damned whoever suggested them to do duets with Iggy Pop and others), one would think it’s a bit of a sausage fest, but you’d be wrong. There’s Rokia Traoré, half of Amadou et Mariam (no points for guessing which one) and the delightful, etheral Fatoumata Diawara.
I suppose a good way to describe her is to think at Beth Orton’s love for acoustic guitar meets Tori Amos’ voice. I haven’t the foggiest of the ideas about what she sings about, apart from what I can gather by listening to her French shows, but even when the songs deal with sad themes – I can’t think Clandestin is garnished with Earth, Wind & Fire-style cheerfulness – she’s got grace, elegance and style by the bucketful.
And finally… FOLI (there is no movement without rhythm)

Ok, this isn’t a song, or a music video. It’s not even from a music group, but still it’s been one of my favourite African music video for ages. Made by Thomas Roebers and Floris Leeuwenberg, it follows the people of Baro, a village of 15-something-thousand people in Guinea, West Africa, and explores the musical attitude of the Malinke, or Mandingo, tribe. It’s worth following to the end for its message and rhythm.  If you can say something more than “I can see that the dancers haven’t ever skipped a leg day ever” then you’ve got a poetic streak that far outstrips mine.
That’s it, merry 2018 to everyone and good listening. If you have other tips for African music – I’m feeling a bit low on my knowledge on the half of the continent running from the Congo down – please share!
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Fireworks, mountains and sleeping elephants. Wrapping up 2017, in pictures.

The last trip of the year has just ended; the rucksack’s been duly unpacked and its contents unceremoniously thrown into the washing-up pile, hoping for some merciful hands to put them into the washing machine without the whites turning pink and the blues turning green. Time to put the kettle on and to think back at 2017.
How original, I hear you yawning. Bespectacled statisticians will point out that, between Christmas and the first weekend in January, 98.8% of WordPress blogs will inevitably feature a summary post for the year that has just gone by, with the same inevitability of newspaper cartoonists drawing the usual vignette where an old, bullet-ridden old year shakes hands with a plump infant wearing the new year’s number around his hairless chest.
I’ll try and do something different, though. I won’t bore you with how many countries I visited, miles driven or flown, visits clocked or visas collected because, let’s face it, no one gives at toss: rather, I’ll select a few photos that meant a lot for me from this year and I’ll try and explain how they came up, why I like them and what they mean to me.
Buckle up.
Last year’s winter brought a discovery: our new London flat featured, once the trees had shed their summer coating of chlorophyll, a direct view towards the plump rotundity of the Eye and, just behind it like an old majordomo, the Shard. Which meant a prime position for the New Year’s fireworks in all their 10-minute-grandiosity. Since concepts like exposure, frame opening and ISOs are, to me, as alien as Sumerian cuneiform script I had to beg for help from a friend, who politely Whatsapped me the required a settings. A brief read of the instruction booklet ensued – a first in seven years of owning this camera – and I was set. The camera whirred and snapped away, perched atop the scaffolding where rosemary, heather and other plants routinely die on our balcony, whilst we drank wine and watched it all unfold. Will I do it again this year? Probably not. Mainly because I still haven’t learned anything about camera set-ups and I’m way too ashamed to ask for help from my friend again, but also because the tree has grown a bit further and now a pesky branch is sticking right in front of us. It’s already six stories high, but sky’s the limit I guess!
A red signal on the Main Line.

A friend commented that this one was one of my best photos yet, and I agree, even though I think the merit ought to be given to fate, or sheer luck, rather than to alleged photographic abilities from yours truly. We were riding on a Sri Lankan train between Nanu Oya and Colombo Fort and we were, by then, a few hours late. We’d bagged two tickets in First Class, the only car available, and that particular train First meant an air-conditioned carriage furnished with exceptionally grubby windows, so much so that nothing could be seen of the world outside but for an oily, blurred smudge. I’d developed a habit to go standing in the vestibule, leaning out of the open doorway, to see the views and take photos. I saw the man with the umbrella walking past and I scurried to the vestibule, fumbling with the camera, to take a picture of him. But remember what I said about my photographic abilities? I selected an autofocus modality and my camera dutifully focussed on something much closer, the gentleman sticking out of the second class car. I remember him realising what I did and, being Sri Lankan – i.e. nice to a fault – he apologised, disappeared from view and let me take another try. Fact was, the photo with him was a lot better than the one without.
The sleeping pachyderm.
Our safari of Udawalawe National Park was drawing to a close and, but for a knee that was reaching new records of sunburnedness, I was loving every minute of it. We’d been bouncing around on a Mahindra jeep with two rather snobbish French girls and the world’s kindest driver, having had our fill of Buddhist crocodiles, watchful eagles, swimming buffalos and mischievous macaques when we came by this beautiful wild Asian elephant. A storm was brewing, cracking lightning and ripping enormous thunders that made our plucky little Mahindra tremble in the aftershock, yet there she was, blissfully asleep, rocking from leg to leg, dreaming of elephants only know what. We turned the engine off and spoke in hushed tones, even though, above us, the sky had put up an artillery barrage second only to  Passchendaele’s.
Magnificent desolation: riding the Pamir Highway to Murghab.
I’ll be honest. My attendance to the “Frontier School of Character” has been, by far, the best travel experience of 2017. The views, the people, the experiences yielded the sort of high that I’d never experienced before, lasted for weeks after I’d returned to normality and, even better, was absolutely legal. And nowhere was more satisfying, enticing and enthralling than the plain that corresponded to the famous Pamir Gap, a few moments before Murghab, Tajikistan. It was late afternoon when I took that photo, and we’d been driving since 8 AM that morning, more than 8 hours to do some 400 kilometres. Our driver and friend, Kudaibergen, stopped to fill up his Land Cruiser’s wheels with some extra air, whatever he could find at 4,000 metres of altitude, and I got out to take in the sheer beauty of this place. Here you can see the canyon dug by the Murghab river cutting the plain in two, and the road leading back to Kyrgyzstan. To your right, outside this photo, the valley continues before branching out: to the left for Chinese Turkestan, to the right for Pakistan. It might be lonesome, bleak and cold, but to me it felt like paradise. I walked past the car and shot a video with my crappy phone, then it was time to ride into town. We might’ve rolled in whilst listening to the opening riff of The Clash’s I Fought the Law, or we mightn’t. But that’s how my memory remembers it.
Ticking a big one off the bucket list.
To you this mightn’t look like much. Some strange, humped figures crouching before a stretch of sea. But those are Bactrian camels, that’s the Aral Sea and this is Western Kazakhstan, precisely outside the village of Aqespe. Seeing the Aral Sea was something I longed to do since I was a meter and a tomato tall but never quite thought I could pull it off. This trip was to be the one that caused me to think the longest, and deepest, both during and afterwards, and both about my role in it and the overall role of us as a specie on this planet. The Aral Sea basin has been the stage for the most gargantuan eco-disaster in history, dwarfing Chernobyl, Fukushima and Exxon Valdez, and it was entirely man-made. Just behind us in this photo, the village of Aqespe was being swallowed by the salty dunes whipped up from the dried-up seabed. Yet, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. As Serik, my guide, showed, North Aral Sea was flourishing, returning to its pre-1960 levels, and that filled me with joy. Plus, I couldn’t deny feeling a great deal of pride for having pulled this one off. It took four flights, two overnight trains, no hotel reservations made on Booking.com – mainly because none were bookable in any of the places I’d been to – and I’d been almost completely alone in a country whose language I didn’t understand and its writing couldn’t read. Sir Ranulph Fiennes might be rolling his eyes at this, but it was as close to “adventurism” as I’d ever gotten.
A glimpse of the future.
A Shanghai transit came as a surprise when it appeared that the direct London – Singapore flight was fully booked. I didn’t really expect to go into town, but then – in the heat of the moment – I decided to go for the “Visa on arrival” queue instead of the “International transfer” one. I had some four hours to kill, something that I used to do some years ago (arrive somewhere, spend a handful of hours, then fly off again); remembering those days when I didn’t think anything of doing two overnight in a row wedged in a tiny middle seat was enough to fill me with excitement for the entire dash downtown. These three fellas are Shanghai’s highest skyscrapers. Even the tiniest one is a full 80 meters taller than the Shard in London. I remember having them as plug-ins on Sim City 4 a good five years ago, and here they are in the flesh. Well, steel and glass.
And finally, home.
This is the view I admired for 25 years straight. We call them pre-Alps, mainly because the serious stuff is still behind it and because, honestly, we can. This is the precise spot where I used to stop on my dog-walking tours, my dog standing on her back legs to sniff at the big labrador living in the garden below this balcony in the old part of town. I used to have an old programme to do panoramas, some 10 years ago, and I used it extensively with my crappy old camera, but I hadn’t done one in years, until today. Feel free to click on the photo to see it in larger size; they might be only the appetisers, but don’t you think that these pre-Alps do look the part?
That’s it, really. 2017 is now ready to be archived. Next year will bring more travels and, unfortunately, the end of my current passport. It’s still got another year to go but it’s now full and needs a replacement. It’s a bit of a bummer because it was the only photo ID where I looked anything but a mug and I was pretty proud of it. But it’s perhaps the reason why, every time I use it, border guards look at it like Leonardo di Caprio in that Inception scene that inspired countless memes. You know what I’m talking about, it’s this one.
Posted in Asia, Central Asia, China, Europe, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, London, Overlooked locations, Piemonte, Random memories, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

The land beneath the mountains.

That’s the name of my region. The land at the feet of the mountains.
Click on the photo to open the panorama

In my region, topography is binary. Clear cut. It’s either flat, or mountainous. No middle ground, no rolling hills. Round where I’m from, it’s often less than 12 miles from where the rice paddies stand, smooth and levelled with the aid of lasers, and the 9000-footers where steinbocks jump from rock to rock and fight with each other. Rocky façades rise up unexpectedly, as if they’d forgotten something home and had jolted up to go and fetch it.
Clear, cold winter days are my favourite; that’s a bad thing, because they’re so damn rare over here. But today is one such day.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
At 3 PM in this season the sun is already low, casting lights between, rather than above, the woods and fields. Long shadows play between the trunks and nature, caught in the stasis of winter, glows golden in the dying light. Specks of snow from the storm of a couple of days ago still glint from the shades.

Above us, the vertical walls of the Alps beckon; above them all towers the Monte Rosa massif, its fourteeners looking positively Himalayan, plumes of powder being blown off the ridges by the wind. Must be snowing in Switzerland.

Today is my favourite kind of day and I’m heading back to the airport. My normal route would be leading me far from where I am at the moment, cruising on the motorway to the south, the mountains hiding in the rear-view mirror behind me. Instead, today I’ve taken the smaller provincial roads, the slow route, past villages I haven’t driven through in five, ten years. I’m damn glad I’m doing that, for the mountains are just to my left; the road all but hugs them.

The drive back to the airport used to be rather gloomy, filled with the dreading expectation of a flight, a long wait at immigration and a commute into a dark, damp city, to an empty flat and emptier fridge. I’d drive listening to music and reminiscing of the times I’d driven on that particular road, at those carefree times, or so they seem today. I’d be thinking at what could’ve happened had I not left, had I not chosen the path I did. But today I’m not reminiscing.

I’ve been upbeat all weekend and I’m still upbeat now. I’ve got loads of time before the plane, a car and the freedom to stop wherever I fancy, to get down on the ice and take photos of the mighty Rosa massif. A factory car park might do the trick, and so might the empty lot before a supermarket, or the bit of scrubland before the fence ringing a flooded quarry. In fact, they all do.

My region isn’t a tourist hotspot, but to me she – for yes, she’s a lady – is pretty, I think as I stand knee-deep in the dry, frozen scrubs next to the fence, wind blowing in my ears the sequential quacking of dozens of geese flapping about above the waters. Biella, Pray, Piedicavallo, Massazza, Masserano, Candelo, Quittengo and many more names. I might no longer live there, I might never do and, let’s face it, in some cases I’m damn glad I don’t, but they are, and always will be, “where I’m from”, I think with a smile.
Yes, it’s got to be snowing in Switzerland.

Posted in Italy, Piemonte | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A cosy red dot away from it all.

You feel it’s a different place from the very moment the jetway disgorges you into the main concourse at Changi Airport. It’s a quick walk on the world’s plushiest, softest carpet to immigration, past ornate flowerbeds erupting with tropical plants, a botanical explosion arranged with gusto. Above, the ceiling flows on in a harmonic wave of thinly perforated metal panels, a mechanical synchronicity of straight lines that looks like a bobbing sea suspended over the travellers’ heads. Or a Minecraft landscape, just a lot more pleasing on the eye. Immigration comes shortly thereafter, each and every desk equipped with a bowl filled with candies and a small bin for the empty wrappers, the agent inviting you to help yourself before stamping you in and saying “Welcome to Singapore”.
Morning brings rainshowers, rolling waves of deluge pounding the streets of East Singapore. Still, despite the onslaught of water, it’s stifling hot and why wouldn’t it be: it never gets chilly one degree north of the Equator. I’m hosted by friends, dipping momentarily in this married couple’s expat life, savouring the pleasures – the air-con, the sweeping vistas, the gym, the pool – of their gated community with security patrols moving snails and centipedes should they venture onto the stone paths. After all, this is the place where people leave iPhone 7s on the food court tables to keep their places.
Shopping arcade follows shopping arcade in a ring around, and inside, the city centre. It’s just four steps between the air-conditioned bubble of our cab and the equally icy atrium of the Japanese supermarket-cum-deli sitting one level below our designated food court.

We eat upstairs at a table commanding imposing views of the financial district’s towers, of the Ferris wheel and of the towering monstrosity of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Around us bubble, hiss and gurgle dozens of pans, woks and bamboo steamers loaded with Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, Cantonese and Malay specialties. Red labels on every booth proclaim that every establishment under that particular roof received top marks for cleanliness, food safety and quality. Singapore: the only place in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometres where you can set about drinking the melted ice scooped in your plastic tumbler without so much of a thought about the trots.
Everything, here, is manicured. Orchids grow in flowerpots. Neat vines sneak up the concrete pillars of flyovers and highways in such orderly fashion that you’d think they’ve been planted that way. Inside a futuristic bubble, built on land reclaimed from the sea, an ecosystem capable of generating its own cloud steals the breath of children and adults alike with its perfect beauty whilst, a stone’s throw away, the man-made cliffs of Marina Bay Sands rise to the skies, its inner atrium reminiscent of a Marseillais HLM, just with four-digit room rates and champagne on sale at $200 the bottle on the rooftop bar. Even the campsite for penny-pinching tourists erected along the shoreline on East Coast park is, to quote from a well-represented fast food chain, “Tip-Top”.
I’m a cynic. Tell me something’s perfect, and I’ll doubt you. Tell me something’s flawless, and I’ll be calling it. Tell me something’s got nothing to hide, and I’ll go around lifting the carpet to check for the dust swept under there. Singapore, I reason one night as the skyline shimmer outside the bedroom windows and enormous lightning run from one stratocumulus to another, has to have one such carpet.

A bus ride offers some insight. Despite having an uncanny resemblance to the 94 bus to Acton Green – same double decker coach, same interiors, same seats – the ads plastered on the inside and of the outside of the no. 14 bus can’t be more different from London’s Routemasters. There is nothing claiming the virtues of junk food, apps doing exactly the same job of a massive CRM system for a fraction of the price, or the latest Old Vic play: the two adverts stickered at eye level on the frigid main deck of this Singaporean bus are warnings. Calls to exert caution against cybersex in exchange for online payments and other scams coming, inevitably, from abroad. Outside, as we notice once we alight and the bus drives past us, a giant-sized photograph has been plastered on the side of the vehicle. It shows a multi-storey building engulfed in flames and thick black smoke, out of which three obviously alarmed yuppies are fleeing. A fourth man in shirt sleeves and burgundy tie indicates something with a steely gaze worth of John Wayne, a pose that reminds me of the statue of Augustus in Rome’s Forum. Below the slogan read something like Be prepared. Our response matters. Not even London, where the IS morons had emerged from the gutters three times lately, thinks necessary to peddle this heavily fear propaganda.
My hosts both are recruiters. One evening, they speak about the traipsing of their work, of what it means to be the ones shovelling new resources into the thousands of businesses that make this island nation the economic hotspot it is. They talk, in desperate tones, of the local youth, so pampered and unaware of the workings of the outside world to fail in almost comical levels of farce. The guy who gave away his company’s secrets after just a drink with a savvy competitor in a Manila bar. The one who forgot to the delete the name of the candidate from the CV sent to the client, effectively making the recruiter useless. The other guy who succeeded in getting his company card cloned by giving it to a stranger he’d just met. Examples, sure, behaviours undoubtedly common the world over, but those were, they argue, symptoms of a new generation of Singaporeans grown in economic abundance, total protection. A generation scared of setbacks, afraid of having to fight for something, imbibed with propaganda magnifying the dangers of anything that lurked outside their nation, where everything was safe and ‘tip-top’.
Peppered around the city are more reminders of this situation, advices against employing illegals, diseases carried from the hic sunt leones of Indonesia and Malaysia and, times and again, new warnings against the modern day’s favourite bogeyman, terrorism.
What is the purpose of this policy, besides the raising of an enfeebled generation that runs away, much to my friends’ dismay, from jobs after three weeks? I couldn’t quite grasp it until, on my final night, I pick up a leaflet from a MTR station rack. Printed by SG Secure, the nations’ police force, it is an encyclopaedia of street smartness and, crucially, shows a photo of a man, kneeling and in handcuffs, a couple of batons lying next to him and a cop standing in front of him, writing something in the characteristic pose of police officers worldwide. The caption below reads Rioting achieves nothing but caning and imprisonment. 
I board my flight and, as we climb out through the warm equatorial air, things feel clearer, so much so that I can even hear that leaflet’s soothing voice whispering, George Clooney-esque, in my ear. Enjoy the perfection, he said. Enjoy the parks, the spotless sidewalks, safe eateries and air-conditioned malls. Enjoy this tranquil safety, enjoy security teams taking straddling snails back in the undergrowth, enjoy all this regardless of how artificial and plasticky it sounds. Don’t rock the boat to much, he soothed in my mind. Enjoy this, unless you want our oasis, our comfy little red dot, to go to the dogs like the all the unspeakable hell-holes all around us. And, obviously, unless you want the cane and ten years in gaol.
I recline my seat as the plane leaves the red dot behind. As it does, I wonder how many Singaporeans actually buy the story.

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Singapore in technicolour.

Expat life. If there is such a thing, my half-a-week in Singapore, was precisely that. No sybaritic luxury and champagne breakfast; rather, restaurants on the East shore park, coconuts, cab rides even to do one kilometre and the shuffle heat-aircon-heat-aircon-pool in the condo. It smells boring, yet it’s a life that takes surprisingly little effort to adapt to. I’ll be back on the topic, but in the meantime here are a couple of snaps from the artificially-coloured corner of the city dedicated to “ethnic authenticity”.

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The future smells of pork noodles.

Five hours in the world’s largest city. Twenty-four million inhabitants, three times and change the size of Luxembourg, and all I’ve got is five hours to dip my toe in this behemoth of a pool. I walk out of Pudong Terminal 2’s arrivals, rolling superlatives on the tip of my tongue like the whisky I savoured before landing, the rock n’ roll breakfast. Eleven thousand buildings higher than thirty storeys. The second-tallest skyscraper in the world. Fourteen lines of metro, three hundred and sixty four stations, five hundred kilometres of tracks. The largest port in the world for container traffic. And I’ve got five hours – hang on, it’s taken a little while at passport control. I’ve now got four hours forty in Shanghai. It’s such a preposterous commitment that I cannot avoid feeling excited about it. It’s when you’re bound to fail that you can truly have fun.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
It’s odd to be gliding into town at the speed of four hundred and thirty kilometres per hour, suspended over the delicate interlocking of opposing magnetic fields alimented by strong electric current. Maglev, the technology of future, is already here in Shanghai, and it feels as if it’s been here a while. So long, in fact, that it’s had the time to grow a bit shabby. The concrete pillars on which we rumble are weather-worn. The white panels on the train have turned yellowish under the beating of the sun. The seat covers, so delightfully démodé in their fake-silk appearance, are creased and mangy. The cushions are sagging. Still, it’s clocking 430 km/h, the display shows, whilst the Piccadilly Line can’t manage a week without shivering, curling up into a tiny ball and dying for the day.
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Exit six of Longyang metro station catapults me back a picture-perfect view of the world in future sense. This is the opening of Blade Runner with an optimist as director: cool breeze, blue sky in which puffy white clouds cruise and a parade of the most outlandish buildings ever designed not for use as background in Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. I leave the last whiffs of sweet & sour pork in the bowels of the metro station, and climb upstairs.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
An elevated platform runs between the palisade of highrises, darting in and out of a shopping centre that smells of delicate eau de toilette, crammed with boutiques peddling Vertu phones and other brands that I don’t recognise but that, inevitably, exude prestige, finesse and price tags that I couldn’t afford getting near to, not even when declined in Yuans. I walk on, mouth gaping wide in awe, but luckily I’m not the only one. Chinese visitors – city burghers from the suburbs, tourists from inland, coarse hands and wind-swept faces – amble about and behave pretty much in the same way, save for shooting selfies in full-automatic bursts. Stacked against a backdrop of skyscrapers, pensioners toss away the umpteenth cigarette butt before giving their personal interpretation of Zoolander’s Blue steel another workout.
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The centrepiece of this whole zone is a triumvirate of giants. Jin Mao Tower is the tiniest of the lot, yet at three hundred and eighty meters and change it’s taller than anything in the whole of Western Europe; if it was a man, London’s Shard would barely scratch his armpits. Shanghai World Financial Centre is the largest bottle opener, a whole half a klick of glass and steel. Finally, the newly finished Shanghai Tower, a whole hundred meters taller than its neighbour. Fifteen years ago, not a single one of them existed. Fact is, fifteen years ago pretty much nothing of what is around me today existed. When you live in such a quickly accelerating city it’s easy to amble on Memory Lane, I reason, wondering whether the old man who’s puffing fags on my right is reminiscing about the old times when everyone just had a bicycle and a Mao-style pyjama. Or perhaps he’s just thinking about his doctor’s appointment.
Three queues – four, I beg your pardon – deliver me to the 118th floor of Shanghai Tower, following a ride on, as the bored-out-of-his-mind operator said, “the world’s fastest lift”. It’s good to know that, somewhere, there’s somebody measuring this sort of things. Sleek dark polished deck, floor-to-ceiling windows offer what real estate view would undoubtedly call ‘unparalleled views’ above the city larger than Luxembourg three times and change. Twenty-four million people huff and puff, wheel and deal, below us, together with the world’s largest container port. From up here the magnificent palisade of Pudong appears a collection of Lego.
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Up above, around me, are dozens of other men and women. I hear Spanish being talked, together with Hebrew, German and English, but first and foremost it’s Chinese. Teenagers update their Instagram statuses, or whichever micro-blogging platform is in use over here, families put together a group photo, yoga clubs practice a choreography in front a photographer hired for the occasion. I, however, am drawn towards a group of four elderlies, three men and a lady, with their portable stools and walking sticks. They are perched against the glass in a direction facing away from the rest of the skyscrapers, away from the city centre, towards a rather nondescript slice of urban sprawl. I move on, liking to think they’re up here trying to locate the whereabouts of the old shikumen where they grew up.
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Another ride on the world’s fastest elevator, a quick dip in the metro and on the Maglev and I’m back to Pudong. Sitting on a metal chair I watch a family unfolding a studiously packed lunch, iPhone and other modern paraphernalia momentarily forgotten. As the smell of food floats through the terminal – inevitably, it’s again sweet & sour pork – I can’t help but reflecting that this family is as good a personification of Shanghai as it gets. Modern, bursting at the seams with cutting-edge technology but inhabited nonetheless by people, people with portable cookers where soy sauce and other ingredients slowly cook meat and noodles, people who still squat underneath the tall skyscrapers to pick up herbs, grown in studiously landscaped gardens, to be used in their grandparents’ recipes.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Posted in Asia, China | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Shanghai stopover.

Five hours to kill before boarding for Singapore, one trip into town and the discovery that, out of all my music on the iPad, only one has survived an iOS update, many thanks Tim Cook. Still, it’s from Les Sages Poètes de la Rue. Somehow it fits with Pudong and even if it didn’t, it’s the only song I’ve got to listen to.
 La loi de la jungle tue, si tu es pas roi tu es perdu.

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Goodbye for now, Italy!

As with most good things (and luckily a fair few bad ones), it all must come to an end. On a nice day in September, the sky akin to Microsoft’s Windows 98 screen saver, we gave the car back to the Milan airport rental company and flew home. As cheesy as it might sound, the last record played by the car stereo before we turned it off one last time, 1,600 kms after we took it, was Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t stop. So, in true Grand Tour fashion (think the Amazon show, not the toffs heading to Italy to catch syphilis and cirrhosis), here’s a series of galleries of what we saw in the rest of our Tuscan journey. Just whistle don’t stop thinking about tomorrow as you flicker through them. As usual, open on any photo to start the slideshow.
Stormy Burano, a couple of views from Giudecca and a Canal Grande sunset, just because it’d be rude not to.
Ferrara, land of sweet accents, tan bricks and bicycles. It’s not a coincidence if Marco Pantani, the unforgettable Pirata, was born in this region.
Tuscany: San Giminiano, with its quirky art, tourists and painters; Pienza, smelling of Popery as the Protestants would say; Montalcino and its Siena Republic’s sign, and finally San Quirico.
And at last, Siena. Where the Contrade are the real deal.
That’s it from Italy. It’s been great to come back and visit.
Posted in Emilia Romagna, Europe, Italy, Toscana, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments