Archive for August, 2019

World’s most romantic cities: But are they sexy?

21/08/2019

Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.There are a few candidates for “Saint Valentine” and no really compelling argument for why we celebrate him on February 14, but this morning we are waking up to another Valentine’s Day and some of us have expectations of red roses, chocolate boxes, frilly knickers or any other of the suggested tokens of passion the Valentine’s Day industry promotes.
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I’m sorry for sounding cynical but I’m in favour of more spontaneous expressions of love and affection. I don’t see what’s romantic about going out to dinner on a night when every other couple does, or eating chocolates out of a heart-shaped box when a rectangular one will do. I’d be way more impressed if I were given a book of Pablo Neruda poetry, but the supermarkets don’t seem to sell those.

Anyway, the time-worn, universal clichés of love and romance set me thinking about those inevitable Valentine’s Day lists of cities named the world’s “most romantic” and whether they live up to their reputations. What makes a city romantic? Do we agree on some of them?

The top ten often goes like this: Venice, Paris, Prague, Florence, Rome, Vienna, Seville, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Marrakesh. Other cities considered world-class romantic include Amsterdam, Lisbon, Kyoto, Bruges, Monte Carlo, Savannah, Sydney, Verona. I don’t think any list like this is complete without Istanbul and Budapest.

It’s all a matter of what you think is romantic – the chocolate box idea of it, or the wild, windswept Wuthering Heights view.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many definitions of the word “romance”, including this:  “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life.” In other words, the atmospherics of a city like Venice make it romantic whether you’re with the love of your life in gondola gridlock under the Bridge of Sighs, or wandering its canals alone.

I find Venice, Paris and Prague melancholy. There’s a sadness and weariness under the beauty that makes them romantic, especially in the misty, moody greyness of their winters. You see, I’m a Wuthering Heights kind of gal.

Whenever I stroll through Paris’s Palais-Royale I feel the ghosts of the past walking with me. Yes, it’s completely fanciful of me, but the city’s turbulent history and its present always seem intertwined. It’s been the city of love since medieval courtly times, when “romance” as an ideal flourished.  But its reputation has literally weighed it down – modern-day “love locks”, affixed to its bridges by lovers, are threatening to collapse some of the structures into the Seine.

Then there are the cities like Barcelona that are romantic in a sexy rather than moody way, because of a liberal, youthful spirit. Sydney might be considered one of these, especially on warm summer nights at the Opera Bar by the harbour.

Buenos Aires is undoubtedly sexy. It’s snake-hipped tango dancers and the music of Carlos Gardel and the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges – and quite a few raffish bars with some very raffish patrons.

Rome is magnificent but it’s also sexy. For me, it’s Anita Ekberg (RIP) wading through the Trevi Fountain; Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on a Vespa. (The Trevi Fountain may be a disappointing boarded-up trickle these days but it’s still a place to hang if you have a thing for American backpackers in shorts eating gelati.)

Marrakesh is erotic – the fragrance of incense, the labyrinthine souk in the medina populated by mysterious men robed in hoods, the inherent sensuality of its culture.  So is Seville, with its iron balconies, orange trees and passion of the bullfight. (Not so romantic for the bulls, however.)

I suppose Monte Carlo can attribute its romantic reputation to Princess Grace Kelly, although it seems romance was really far from the truth. And I’ve never found Vienna, lovely as it is, sexy or romantic. I can’t help associating it with Andre Rieu conducting Strauss waltzes, even though he’s Dutch, not Viennese – but I concede some may find this a definite turn-on.

I suppose there’s a parallel Not Sexy city list, which might include cities like Johannesburg, Toronto, and Seoul. I’ve never heard anyone call them romantic. But I imagine, if the stars aligned, you could have a lovely romance in Toronto.

I’m not as much a cynic as I make out – I admit to once strolling down the Champs Élysées singing Maurice Chevalier songs. But, like most things, what is romantic is a matter of taste.

Wishing you red roses and chocolates anyway.

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Airline review: Air India Dreamliner 787 economy class

21/08/2019

The Dreamliner’s quieter cabin and larger windows with adjustable tinting make for a pleasant flight. Photo: Alan Marts The Dreamliner’s quieter cabin and larger windows with adjustable tinting make for a pleasant flight. Photo: Alan Marts
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The Dreamliner’s quieter cabin and larger windows with adjustable tinting make for a pleasant flight. Photo: Alan Marts

The Dreamliner’s quieter cabin and larger windows with adjustable tinting make for a pleasant flight. Photo: Alan Marts

THE ROUTE

Delhi to Sydney. THE PLANE

Boeing 787 Dreamliner 800 series. Air India uses the Dreamliner exclusively on this route and has 16 in total in its fleet. The plane is configured with 18 business class seats and 238 economy. THE LOYALTY SCHEME

Flying Returns. Passengers can also earn points towards other Star Alliance airlines’ programs.  CLASS 

Economy class, seat 36C. DURATION 

Twelve hours.  FREQUENCY

Flights are daily, but operate on a round-robin system, alternating between Delhi to Sydney via Melbourne and Delhi to Melbourne via Sydney. THE SEAT 

Seats are in a 3-3-3 layout and feature spacious storage nets and headrests with adjustable wings (so you have something to rest your head on while sleeping). The red and orange colour scheme is on the busy side, but the recline is good and there is plenty of leg room. A small pillow and blanket is supplied. Seat pitch is 84 centimetres. Seat width43 centimetres.  BAGGAGE

Checked luggage allowance is 30 kilograms (which can be split over two bags) plus one carry-on bag up to eight kilograms and a laptop or handbag. COMFORT 

Air India uses the Dreamliner exclusively on this route and its quieter cabin and larger windows with adjustable tinting make for a much more pleasant flying experience. The superior air-purification system claims to reduce the effects of jet lag and dehydration and I disembark feeling fresher than normal after an overnight flight.   ENTERTAINMENT

Entertainment is via a responsive 26.5-centimetre touch-sensitive seatback screen. Content is clearly aimed at an Indian audience with a large selection of movies in Hindi. The range in English is limited with only 11 new releases and 24 older Hollywood titles. The TV selection is similarly sparse: a few comedies, some city guides, a talk show and – to the great consternation of the Indian man sitting next to me – no cricket (or sport of any kind). More entertaining is the inflight magazine, Shubh Yatra, with its advertisements for missile manufacturers, constipation cures and luxury light switches. SERVICE

Air India’s computer system in Delhi is down so check-in has to be done manually, and a 90-minute delay to departure. Apparently, this isn’t a common occurrence but communication is sparse and check-in staff struggle to manage the ensuing chaos. On board, things are better – the elegantly dressed crew are efficient and courteous.  FOOD 

There are three options for lunch: two Indian dishes (chicken with rice and vegetables, and mixed vegetable with rice and dahl) and an “international” dish of rice and lamb. The Indian dishes are better than the international one (although still only “average”, according to my neighbour). Bizarrely, a supper is served eight hours into the flight (roughly 2.30am Sydney time) rather than a breakfast before arrival. This time, there’s a choice of chicken or vegetable biryani, both of which are tasty and come with a traditional Indian dessert. Drinks-wise, there’s a good selection of spirits plus a French white and a surprisingly drinkable Indian red. THE VERDICT

Although Air India is no match for the top-tier airlines in terms of food and entertainment, it’s the only carrier to fly direct between Australia and India. That convenience coupled with the superior Dreamliner flying experience makes it a compelling proposition. Air India also has direct flights from Delhi to Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Milan, London and Birmingham.

Tested by Rob McFarland, who flew courtesy of Air India.

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Bali nine’s Myuran Sukumaran paints the island of his execution

21/08/2019

Myuran Sukumaran in Kerobokan jail. Photo: Jason Childs Myuran Sukumaran in Kerobokan jail. Photo: Jason Childs
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Ben Quilty with Myuran Sukumaran in Kerobokan in 2013. Photo: Jason Childs

Myuran Sukumaran in Kerobokan jail. Photo: Jason Childs

Myuran Sukumaran in Kerobokan jail. Photo: Jason Childs

Nusakambangan, Indonesia. Photo: Syubhan Akib

Bali: Myuran Sukumaran is painting his final destination: the penal island of Nusakambangan, where he will be shot dead.

The condemned man can no longer sleep as he braces for the knock at his prison cell that means his transferral is underway to the island dubbed “Indonesia’s Alcatraz”.

But he is still painting – a self -portrait of himself transposed onto Nusakambangan.

“Someone has given him an image of the location and he is making a big self-portrait with a very stormy sky,” said artist Ben Quilty who visited him on Thursday.

The order for the transfer to Nusakambangan was made by Indonesian authorities on Wednesday, although a date is yet to be set. Logistics for the transfer – and a possible date – will be decided at a meeting on Friday.

The men will be given 72 hours notice before they are shot dead.

But Sukumaran and fellow Bali nine member on death row Andrew Chan are spooked: it is obvious final preparations are underway.

“There have been preparations made so they can be taken in the night,”  Quilty said. “The night before they searched his room – I think they were preparing to move him. That night  he really couldn’t sleep.”

Before the harrowing news of the transfer, Chan and Sukumaran and their families had had a good day. They were buoyed by the messages of support from Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and shadow minister Tanya Plibersek in Parliament, and the letter signed by almost 100 MPs calling on the Indonesian government to save their lives.

“The guys were feeling really supported for the first time. I keep telling them how much support they have but that’s when it really hit them how much support they have,” Quilty said.

Sukumaran spent Thursday painting the self-portrait part of his Nusakambangan painting in front of a mirror with Quilty, his family and former lawyer Supreme Court judge Lex Lasry.

Thursday was the first time Sukumaran would allow Quilty to say goodbye. When the men are given their final 72 hours notice, only family members and a religious figure will be allowed to see them.

“That’s the first time I properly said goodbye,”  Quilty said. “In the past he wanted me to stay strong. He was very direct about not saying goodbye but yesterday he said goodbye.”

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Guided tour Guilin, China: Natural beauty mingles with the bizarre

21/08/2019

A man fishes with cormorants on a river. Photo: 123rf南京夜网 A man fishes with cormorants on a river. Photo: 123rf南京夜网
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A man fishes with cormorants on a river. Photo: 123rf南京夜网

A man fishes with cormorants on a river. Photo: 123rf南京夜网

Bamboo rafts on a river near Guilin. Photo: 123rf南京夜网

Reed Flute Cave. Photo: 123rf南京夜网

The half-naked woman in the steaming hot tub is singing opera. I’m watching her through the windows of her little wooden pagoda, and feeling like a bit of a creep. The feeling quickly fades, however, as I remind myself where I am. I’m on the Two Rivers and Four Lakes night cruise in Guilin in south-east China. For the past 20 minutes I’ve been bobbing past majestic mountains, pagodas and bridges lit by neon lights, while watching a handful of rather bizarre music and dance acts being performed on the shore.

It’s only my first night in Guilin, yet I’m already starting to realise that this is precisely what makes the destination so unique – this peculiar mix of stunning natural beauty, and slightly psychedelic strangeness. Our boat putters round the bend and we find, in another pagoda, a punky girl band playing transparent mandolins and flutes while performing a traditional dance.

Another few hundred metres and we find a small group of bamboo rafts, lit by green lights and manned by pyjama-clad gents with cormorants by their sides. The men are chanting and bobbing up and down and, just as I start to wonder if this is some kind of Chinese river rave, the birds dive into the water and return a few moments later, triumphantly clasping fish in their beaks.

This, our local guide Maggie tells us, is a 1300-year-old tradition that used to earn the fishermen a living. Due to competition from modern fishing techniques, however, it’s now practised mostly to entertain tourists.

“The birds are trained since birth to catch fish for their master,” she says. “There’s a small noose around their neck to stop them swallowing fish they catch.” The fishermen’s chanting and dancing, she adds, is all just encouragement for the birds to take the plunge.

The otherworldly experiences continue the next morning, when for a moment I think I’ve stumbled into Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Soaring forest-clad mountains jut up around the city like crooked teeth, which are endlessly flossed by the two rivers and four lakes that flow between them.

The best way to get the lay of these mountains is to climb one of them. We start with Solitary Beauty Peak, the original centre of Guilin in the Princes’ City Scenic Area. Our thighs burn like the fires of hell as we ascend the 300 stone steps, but it’s worth every painful second. From the top, it’s nothing but hulking limestone mountains, strips of glossy green river, a smattering of low buildings, and distant hills so blurred and blue that for a second I think they’re clouds.

This is the stuff that has inspired Chinese artists and poets for centuries. And, as Maggie tells us at least half a dozen times over the next few days, the stuff that stirred an astute Chinese governor 800 years ago to famously announce, “Guilin’s scenery is the best under heaven.”

As we continue our explorations, I start to think it might be. There are the magical views from another craggy peak, Folded Brocade Hill, made even sweeter by the marble slide carved into the side to get us back down. There’s the curiously shaped Elephant Trunk Hill, the symbol of Guilin that looks like – you guessed it – an elephant dipping its trunk in the water. And, when the day becomes unbearably hot, there are the subterranean delights.

Because Guilin is founded on porous limestone rock, more than 3000 underground caverns are concealed beneath the city. This is also why there’s a lack of tall buildings in the city; the ground isn’t solid enough to support them.

Reed Flute Cave has been around for more than 180 million years, and wall inscriptions near its mouth tell us tourists began visiting way back in the seventh century. We enter, the temperature drops 10 degrees, and things start to get a little weird again. Stalactites and stalagmites lit by multicoloured lights reach from the floor and ceiling, creating lumpy sculptures that look like wet sandcastles. Maggie points out signposted descriptions like “centipede scared by the magic mirror” that leave us wondering whether the writers were indulging in something a little stronger than rice wine when they penned them. In the cave’s belly is the Crystal Palace of the Dragon King, a cavernous grotto that once served as an air-raid shelter during World War II, and is now an occasional events space. A short animated film depicting how the caves were formed is projected onto the ceiling, while two life-sized holograms dance to classical music to our right. The beautiful and the bizarre, merging once again.

The next day we rise early to take the 2½-hour cruise to Yangshuo along the Li River. It’s hot, but we brave the morning sun to stand on the upper deck and watch hundreds of karst peaks slip by like sleeping giants, their inverted reflections shimmering on the water. It’s the ideal way to observe life along the river. Children flap about in the shallows. Bamboo rafts covered with sun shields ferry tourists about. Fishermen cast out their nets. Farmers tend small squares of farmland.

We disembark in Yangshuo and find ourselves in the middle of a buzzing local market, selling everything from antique teapots and jewelry to oversized fans painted with Chinese landscapes. From here, the town spans out into a series of laneways lined with small shops and teahouses, and restaurants and bars that thrum with live music at night.

We’ll have to save those for later though. Right now we’re off to see Yangshuo’s famous Impression Sanjie Liu night show. It’s performed on the Li River with the hills as its backdrop, creating what might be the world’s most gorgeous natural theatre.

We can’t understand a word of the show (it’s all in Mandarin) that apparently tells the tale of the minority groups living in the area. But it doesn’t matter in the slightest. More than 600 performers, including 400 local fishermen and 200 professional dancers perform an extravaganza that fuses folk music and dancing, spectacular costumes and bright lights (of course), all choreographed by Zhang Yimou, the guy who directed the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.

Our second day in Yangshuo begins with sunrise tai chi in our hotel’s garden with Master Huang, who began learning the martial art at just 12 years old. He teaches us a series of graceful movements that we vow we’ll continue practising once we get home, as well as some simple philosophies based around letting go and staying calm.

In the afternoon we grab pushbikes from our hotel and cycle to Moon Hill (no prizes for guessing what this one resembles), then escape the sweltering heat at the Gold Water caves on the way back. Another fairyland of brightly lit stalactites and stalagmites, but with the added bonus of ice-cold mud baths. We float around in the gooey sludge, giggling like kids at the feeling of it squishing around our bodies, before washing off and plunging into the hot springs.

The alarm is set early the following morning since we’re on the road again. A two-hour coach ride sees us in Longji, in the heart of the great rice bowl of China. Rain sifts down as we step off the bus, but that doesn’t stop us from immediately clicking away at the striking rice terraces that cling to the steep hillsides all around us.

The Chinese have been cultivating rice here for at least eight centuries, and it has transformed the landscape. We hike along the thin strips of hand-carved terraces that twist towards our destination, Ping’an village. Along the way we pass timber houses built into the hills, and meet women from the Zhuang, Miao and Yao minority groups, the three largest minority groups living in this region. The Yao women dress in hot pink embroidered jackets and cut their floor-length hair, which they twist on top of their heads, only once in their lives between the ages of 16 and 18.

Once we reach Ping’an, I have just enough energy left to haul myself up one final hill to watch the sunset. At least that’s what I plan to do, before I get distracted by bargaining with Yao stallholders to buy my very own handloom jacket.

We spend the evening dining on the local speciality of smoky rice cooked over an open fire in bamboo tubes, sleep in a traditional stilted wooden guesthouse, and rise early to watch the morning sun spill over this mosaic of kaleidoscopic greens. One final moment of stunning natural beauty, with just enough psychedelic strangeness thrown in.  FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN GUILIN AND YANGSHUO

1. Cloud 9 Cooking School, Yangshuo The experience here begins with a guided tour through a market, where you’re taught about the ingredients to be used during your cooking class. You’ll make spicy pork dumplings, beer fish (a delectable specialty of the region) and more. See facebook南京夜网/cloud9cookingschoolyangshuo.

2. Kayaking on the Li River, Yangshuo Watch life on the Li River pass you by as you kayak its smooth waters. Two or three-hour trips available, through wendywutours南京夜网.au.

3. Tea Science and Research Institute, Guilin The institute has been around since 1965 and was the royal tea garden during the Ming Dynasty, 400 years ago. Take a tour through their organic tea plantation, before experiencing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. See guilintea南京夜网.

4. Tour Jingjiang Princes’ City, Guilin Covering almost 20 hectares, it encompasses Jingjiang Palace and Solitary Beauty Peak. Originally built in 1372 under the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the palace includes temples, pavilions, terraces and halls. It now also functions as the Guangxi Normal University. Donghua Rd, Xiufeng, Guilin; call +86 773 280 3149.

5.  Rock climbing, Yangshuo If simply hiking up those beautiful limestone towers just doesn’t cut it for you, this is an option for the adventurous. There are routes for both beginners and pros, and climbing is best from late September to December, when it’s not too hot and the rainfall is low. Available through wendywutours南京夜网.au.  TRIP NOTESMORE INFORMATION

visitguilin.orgGETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific flies four times a day from Sydney and three times a day from Melbourne to Hong Kong, then connects to daily flights to Guilin with its regional airline Dragonair. From $991 per person return. See cathaypacific南京夜网.au. STAYING THERE

Shangri-La Guilin has 449 rooms and suites from about RMB 695 ($130) a night. See shangri-la南京夜网/guilin.

Yangshuo Resort, set among the limestone hills on the banks of the river, has rooms and suites from about RMB 980 ($185) a night. See yangshuoresorthotel南京夜网. EATING THERE

Wei Xiang Guan (Taste Fragrance Restaurant in English) in Guilin is a specialty rice noodle restaurant that’s been serving up the region’s famous rice noodles since 1947. They’re still doing a damn good job of it, too. In Zongshan Middle Road and Yiren Road.

Yangshuo’s Pure Lotus vegetarian restaurant is crammed with gorgeous antiques, has iPad menus, and the chefs work wonders with tofu and eggplant. See yangshuomagnolia南京夜网/purelotus. TOURING THERE

Wendy Wu Tours has a Guilin, Yangshuo and Longji package from $650 per person twin share that includes four nights’ accommodation with daily breakfast, private touring with local guides, entrance fees and some meals. Call 1300 727 998 or see wendywutours南京夜网.au.

The writer travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours.

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