2009, part I: From Cairo to Shanghai, via Yemen and Lebanon

Just quickly an addendum to 2008: I’ve finally processed and uploaded the “digital breadcrumb trail” of my trip to Aswan, Kom Ombo and Edfu in December: Open this file in Google Earth to see the georeferenced photos and the tracks of my GPS device, which I had with me for most of my travel.At the conclusion of my last all-too-infrequent post here on my blog, I asked “What excitement will 2009 bring?” It’s only the end of July 2009, and I certainly can’t complain — in fact, I need to put this down on blog before the details blur in this whirlwind. The executive summary: I moved from Cairo to Shanghai, but not before long anticipated travels in Yemen and Lebanon.

After a fact-finding work trip to Shanghai in October 2008, the idea was broached that I should perhaps move to Shanghai to manage Sweden’s web strategy in China. The case for moving to Shanghai soon became compelling. A chance to live in China does not come by too often, and it is also something I’ve wanted to do. I had only been in Egypt two years, which is not sufficient time to check off everything on my to-do list for that region, but living in Egypt is an easily arranged project — visas at the airport, renewable ad infinitum. Moving to China takes a bit more planning.

January ended with the customary monthly trip to Stockholm to touch base. This time around, however, the China project was very much on the table, though without any decisions being made as to whether I’d go, or stay in Egypt.

February 4-15: Sana’a and Socotra With the question left pending, I decided to cash in vacation time during February and do some travel in a region that I might soon leave. I thus bought a last minute ticket to Socotra, Yemen’s natural wonder in the Indian Ocean, off the Horn of Africa. This wasn’t an impulse buy; Socotra has long been an obsession of mine. I had known about its unique flora for a long time, but then Google Earth made the place tangible, tantalizing, and yet not quite real. I needed to go there and document it myself.

From Cairo, Yemen’s capital Sana’a is just a few hours’ flying. Yemen’s had bad press of late, with kidnappings of westerners going badly, but Sana’a itself is safe enough, while Socotra is far removed from the tribal strife that afflicts the mainland.

Sana’a is quite a stopover. The old town, with its towering houses, minarets, alleys, hidden gardens and a sprawling souk, is like a medieval Manhattan. I spent a few days exploring this maze-like warren, finding the best spots to take 360-degree panoramas. The souk proved to be a very fertile place for taking the best kind of panorama — those which include portraits of people:

Tin suq, Sana'a, Yemen in Yemen

Spice suq, Sana'a, Yemen in Yemen

But no experience of Sana’a is complete without a sunset view of the skyline.

Sana'a: View from a rooftop at sunset in Yemen

Then on to Socotra, on Yemenia, via a brief stop in Mukalla.

As I suspected, and despite trying, it is impossible to imagine what Socotra is like. The whole place has an otherworldly feel to it, a living tribute to the endless adaptation of flora and fauna through the wonder of evolution. I spent a week exploring the island with Ahmed, my guide, and his 4WD. See all my photos, paths and even a GPS trace of paved roads on Google Earth, via this file.Destinations included the high Diksum plateau at the center of the island, where the primeval-looking Dragon’s Blood trees reside; Hoq cave, into which you can walk for 2 kilometers all by yourself, Qansaliya beach, with its plentiful but shy yellow crabs, the high high dunes of the northeast coast, the corals and fish of Di Hamri point, and the Homhil nature area and its spectacular rock pool:

Homhil Protected Area, Socotra, Yemen in Yemen

Diksum plateau is carved by deep wadis — when you stand at the edge, you can see Dragon’s Blood trees all the way to the horizon:

Wadi Daerhu from on high, Socotra, Yemen in Yemen

Socotra is riddled with caves, most of them unexplored. One cave structure, in Wadi Geneb, Here is their website, which has this video of their expedition. was explored recently by a Belgian speleological expedition — they made it 20km into the cave, diving frequently, confirming this as Arabia’s longest cave. I ventured a little into the cave myself:

Wadi Geneb cave

The whole island is karstic Swiss cheese, carved out by monsoon rainwater seeping into limestone.

February 19 – March 21: Travel rapids The last week of February I was in 19-26 FebGeneva, attending the I ended up taking photos as well.closing meetings of International Polar Year held at the World Meteorological Organisation. Having helped Rhian and Dave with IPY’s web strategy these past three years, it was great to be there as the project reached this landmark. I also managed to go skiing for a day, and of course made a pilgrimage to the World Trade Organisation, guided by old school friend Markus. I also had an opportunity to spoil my godson Leonidas, who lives in Geneva with John and Yianna, his parents.

Then, onwards to February 27 – March 1London by high-speed train, to check in with my niece one last time before my (by now confirmed) move to Shanghai, and then on to March 2-7Belgium, to check in with the parents. Then a week in March 8-13Stockholm for work, then on to March 14-19Shanghai for a workshop with our developers, then back to Cairo via March 20-21Dubai, where I spent 24 hours with old school friends Tom and Uta.

March 26-29: Lebanon The last weekend in March I headed for Lebanon. First to Beirut, where I looked up old school friends Tom, now working there with the IFC, and Makram, now a professor at the Lebanese American University. A first night out in Beirut showcased the resurgent nightlife, and the next day I walked all over town, thought the reconstructed city center, the remaining ruins, and popular neighborhoods home to the different factions. One thing this security-conscious city’s guardians don’t like: Photographers, so I didn’t try capturing the city on camera.

Lion's head, Byblos
You can see my route and all my Lebanon photos in Google Earth via this file.
I did however take photos when the next day I rented a car and visited Byblos,
a remarkable archaeological site about an hour North of Beirut that is frequently cited as being the oldest continuously inhabited site on the planet.

The day after that, Makram and I went hunting for cedars, and Makram w/ cedarsfound them high up in the mountains, covered in snow.

My April 3-5final weekend in Cairo was spent in the company of old schoolfriend Joachim, flying in from Sweden on a visit long in the making. It was an opportunity for me to do all the tourist sites one last time: With Matjaz’s help, we got to see some recently restored mosques not yet open to the public, while with Ilona’s help, we got to visit a “live” excavation at Dashur. Of course, there was the requisite pyramid visiting, with picture proof:

More photos here.Sneferu's Bent Pyramid, Dashur

Shanghai On April 6 I landed in Shanghai. First priority was finding a place to rent for a year. Meanwhile, I stayed in some serviced flats. I soon bought a bike, with which I would come to explore much of the city center, searching for wifi-enabled cafés where you can spend a few hours at a time working. This is a habit first picked up in Stockholm and perfected in Cairo: I am much more efficient and can focus for much longer when sitting in a café environment, as opposed to in an an office, I suspect because in an office one is obligated to gossip and otherwise interact with your co-workers. In a café, you are alone in your thoughts but together with others. Perfect:-)

By the end of April, I had found my apartment, but first another April 29 – May 6trip to Stockholm — to renew my visa, but also to attend my blogger friend Jenny’s wedding. My contribution? This panorama.

Arrival in Shanghai. They have Mexican-sensors!
The view from my apartment:
Shanghai sunset reflection
After returning to Shanghai amid a full-fledged H1N1 flu scare, I moved into my apartment on May 7
, and immediately set about making it home: Getting internet, finding the local supermarket, buying a coffee maker, an iron, a computer screen, a microwave… I found out where the best places are in Shanghai is to buy computers, cameras, books and maps, and at the recommendation of a friend got an ayi, an older lady who comes in twice a week to clean and cook delicious Chinese food.

Meanwhile, work’s been busy, with various conferences and workshops in Shanghai during June and July. That hasn’t stopped me from starting private Chinese lessons with Rose, my teacher, 3 times a week for 2 hours at a time. Chinese is difficult, much more so than Arabic, but just as fun to write.

July 22: Eclipse My first visitor to Shanghai turned out to be Felix, who flew in for a week July 19-25, in part to catch the much-anticipated Moganshan, China - 9:35: Eclipse totality
All four photos here.
total solar eclipse on July 22
. To maximize our chances of seeing it, we headed to Moganshan, a mountain retreat west of Shanghai, near Hangzhou. That turned out to be a lucky move, as almost the entire landfall of the eclipse was covered in a swathe of clouds, and yet our specific spot in a field of tea bushes on a saddleback ridge saw the clouds part just as the eclipse reached totality.

Moganshan, China - 9:30: 3 minutes to go before eclipse totality

Felix wrote up the eclipse on his blog.In contrast, Shanghai was completely rained out during the eclipse.

What does the second half of 2009 portend? Work, but also some opportunities to travel around China. I had already put my sights on Kashgar’s historic old town that is now being demolished in order to “save” it from earthquakes, as well as the nearby Shipton’s Arch, the world’s tallest natural arch. But alas, with the recent unrest, it is not clear how long it will be before the extreme west of China is accessible again. Stay tuned.

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