27 March 2017

2014-2017: The Road To China...

After graduating with honours I was not prepared for the journey ahead of me, taking a road less travelled before wasn't easy but what really is in this life? In honour of this 300th blog post that marks six years of blogging, I want to see how life since graduation to this moment has panned out. Now in 2017 I survey my journey, but has everything really been worth it? Okay?!

Going further back before my graduation ceremony in September 2014, I believe the final semester of my degree course shaped me for certain. By March 2014 I had my dissertation in a favourable state, returning from Manchester in the January of that year I had a new fire for my final stint of university life. Assignments were second nature to me by that point, referencing was something I could do in my sleep and that third person writing style was on lock. I was taking in every last moment of student life, going down the Village Inn only at the weekends, I was past that Broad Street weeknight routine. After completing my placement with a well know British airline in Newark, NJ, I was set on becoming a flight attendant after graduation, or even missing that ceremony if a certain Middle Eastern airline liked the look of me! I was blinded by what was going on at that point, it was a hectic time! Birmingham helped me out! 

All of my actual assignments had been submitted, my dissertation had been finalised and the proud moment came for that to be bound. Getting down to Salisbury for the day I used my then Birmingham location to enjoy a day taking in the sights of Stonehenge, Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral to celebrate the last weeks of my course, it had been a mental year for a few reasons but at that point I wanted to enjoy the moment. Arriving back into Birmingham after that day hit me as it was the final time I returned to Birmingham as a student. Before packing up my room and saying goodbye to the Maltings I enjoyed an incredible weekend at Birmingham Pride, the last two years had seen me out of the country so I took my one chance before leaving Brum for good. Crashing down to reality with an almighty bang, I left the Maltings for the final time never to return in the same capacity again. I was about to find out what life would be like after finishing university, I was not ready!

Achieving a degree with honours I made it back to Birmingham a few months later after a summer spent between Bilston and London, those airline dreams never materialised so it was back to my hometown to get my life. Held up by the business of my university certificate I was impatient to graduate. It was an amazing day but I had a fire to fly high in a different way, my year in America had given me something I wanted to recapture. I interviewed for jobs over Skype to teach English in China. I was offered job positions but there would always be a problem that would be thrown up, I kindly declined those offers because they didn't feel genuine. Bilston didn't give me life, I felt let down by life, harbouring a resentment towards not being briefed about the transition from university life to real life. Claiming through a means that showed me how a cross-section of people living in Bilston made me want more!

2015 showed its face and I was getting closer to my China reality, obtaining both my degree and TEFL certificates I found my savings to be seriously dwindling. Taking my first job since finishing university at a Walsall hotel as a receptionist cemented the first stage of me feeling better about the way things had turned out. I worked when I had to and got by and with each passing pay day I was able to put money aside. I had been blessed in one major way as I was living with my grandparents, it was a means of saving whatever money I could without the constraints of rent and the rest of that negativity. I stuck to my guns and never gave up on the hope of finding a trustworthy company to sign a contract with, stumbling across an English Training company who's name I have mentioned before I was going to China for real! With June 16th 2015 as my departure date I was on my way to a brighter day! As I sat on that London bound train, I felt relieved because I was going to China! Yes!

Touching down into Shanghai was a surreal feeling, I had finally made the leap from life in Bilston to be standing in one of China's most famous cities! Facing the epic neon Shanghai skyline I was truly living. The stresses of the previous year or so melted during those first gob-smacking moments! The first two months moved at lighting pace with a weeks training in Suzhou, Jiangsu before taking my first high speed train in China to Wuhan, Hubei. Training centre life wasn't easy, I was doing my utmost to deliver what was expected of me, but I had this niggling feeling that style of teaching wasn't going to be in my life much longer as mid-August approached. As fate would have it I was pushed into another direction, moving from that goldfish bowl to a whole new teaching experience that would change everything! The easy option is so boring, going down a road less travelled sounds better to me! Get it!

Bewildered by the change I stuck with my apartment, that new arrangement questioned the reason why I had thrown so many jobs back during my first months since finishing university in 2014. Keeping my cards close my chest I negotiated the best deal I could, China was showing me that getting what you deserve takes a lot of straight talking, I was satisfied with the outcome. Kindergarten life gave me a sense of fulfillment, the children were adorable and still are but I felt comfortable and it felt like the job I was meant to have first time around. Not regretting a single thing I kept a tight rein of that shady business, I had a future unraveling before my very eyes and I knew that drain wouldn't be part of my long term. Breaking out of Wuhan for National Day 2015 to Chongqing and Chengdu I found a whole new side of China at my feet, my blog was set free and back on an international platform. 2016 kept me on my toes, it was a challenging two semesters but I worked hard!

Signing a second year contract pushed my negotiating skills to the limit but I had a new ally that helped me secure what I needed. My students were a dream to teach if not crazy from time to time, going into my first semester of my second year teaching at this private Montessori kindergarten gave me a new perspective. I had an after-school class on each Monday to manage and I was pushing myself to produce more challenging lessons for my older students who would be progressing onto primary school in the following Autumn. Wuhan had become familiar to me, I almost had it ripped away from me! Staying savvy and embracing my new no-nonsense way of dealing with China life I still feel secure here to this day. Moving back to my life away from school I had encountered sweet moments that went sour, I was better than those unfortunate happenings! 2016 had been a blast, but I was ready for 2017!

Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou had turned my 2016 Spring Festival holiday upside down but 2017's festivities was a much colder time, Harbin and Shenyang served two different personalities that brought the house down! Choosing cities that were 'off the radar' impresses me more than the world renowned Chinese destinations, I can't get enough of those 'wildcard' cities! Wuhan may be working for now but I have a new plan in motion, let's just say that I'll be sticking with my current Kindergarten, trading Hubei for a Beijing state of mind for the final throws of 2017, I'm not counting my stars yet because a lot more hard work has to be put in to sustain that progression. Things haven't been easy, I may have been dramatic at stages but when I secured my fate I slayed the competition, I'm still working! I haven't sat pretty waiting for a miracle, I got back up and dusted myself off to keep on this road to China. There are no mistakes, its all about being centred and focused. 

The Road Continues...

Joseph Harrison 

12 March 2017

Shenyang's Korean Connection...

Striding back to my hotel the next morning feeling slightly worse for wear, my second full day of sightseeing wasn't going to be wasted! Refreshed from the night before I got back out to discover Shenyang's city sights, feeling tender I had three specific places to successfully find before sunset. I was in-search of Shenyang's Korean connection! SY, I got myself together!

I was back out in the cold I pushed my hangover to one side, ditching the metro I walked the short distance from my Fengtian Jie hotel to Shenyang's Imperial Palace. It wasn't exactly early on but I got myself back on that sightseeing grind without a problem. Serving 1625 Realness I appreciated the regal surroundings that I was stood in, that Shenyang Imperial Palace had me stunned. I didn't waste time taking extensive photos of the many buildings, satisfied with what photos I secured it was a successful visit. Built to resemble the Forbidden City in Beijing, I will be keeping those elaborate buildings in mind for my next chapter in China's capital. Going under I remembered how much of a great time I had the previous night, that hangover was worn like a badge of honour, I got over myself during my palatial visit. Formally known as Mukden Palace, Emperor Huang Taji added several structures during his reign! Go!

The cold in Shenyang wasn't as mind-numbing as it had been in Harbin, in fact the air had more a fresh feel to it. Embracing all that Shenyang had to offer was easy, I was yet again one of the very few foreign visitors at the Imperial Palace as I did see a couple who looked like they from a European country? I found out quickly Shenyang's Imperial Palace was like a maze to navigate, I had seen a photo similar to the one above as a marketing tool online and wasn't going to move onto my next place until I had found it! Hailed as one of Shenyang's top 10 tourist attractions I had unknowingly walked past it the previous day after I had finished with the European influenced former residence of Zhang Xueliang, that factor made retracing my steps the next day a blessing in disguise. As I said I left the metro behind as Shenyang proved itself to be a walk-able city! Pushing the previous nights shenanigans out of my head I was adamant to see everything. Boy, get a grip now!

Being an 'off the radar' city I noticed fast that a surge of development could be seen without much effort in Shenyang. Heading for the metro I marveled at the upcoming W Hotel that was being constructed in the shadow of the Shenyang TV Tower, that towering feature was in my view earlier that morning as I walked back to my JinJiang Inn hotel. Qingnian Gong Yuan metro station quickened things up a little, I had Zhongshan Square in my sights because that was the plan! Trusting my Baidu Maps App I sailed through the city streets of Shenyang without a hitch, I always seem to feel a sense of trust with these alternative cities. Slap bang in-front of me stood the former communist leader of the People's Republic of China, the late Chairman Mao Zedong stood with his bronze style as a figure of power, I really didn't pay much to the particulars, I was drawn to the square for that monument and nothing else, OK? Good!

Well, if the truth be told Zhongshan Square was another point of interest that I had randomly found online during my pre-trip research. Hailing the success of the Communist victory of the Chinese Civil War, Zhongshan Square memorial centerpiece almost shone in the dark with deep orange glimmers as the sun began to set on that chilly February night. After doing some digging after I returned from Shenyang, word on the street is that the locals say Mao is hailing a taxi with his hand arm in the air? Facing Shenyang Railway Station I was only a few paces away from my departure point back to Wuhan, but not until the next day so I had time left. The vast square looked huge with the regal Russian inspired buildings that surrounded the steady flow of the early evening traffic. I knew in that moment I did the right thing saying no to Changchun. It was a wonder that I was still slaying, I needed to eat but I was doing my best to keep my hunger for a Korean connection.

Xita Street held the key to Shenyang's Korean Connection, ditching public transport I got back on that navigational App to find that Korean street. I kept my eye's peeled for those neon lights that gave this east Asian street a special after glow. Channeling a K-Pop anthem by Wonder Girls I was bowled over by this neon charged Korean street. South Korea could keep its cuisine and qualities because I was in search of some North Korean cooking that evening! Catching a glimpse of two North Korean restaurants I chose the smaller one, named the 'Pyongyang Rainbow' I gingerly opened the job to be greeted by a North Korean lady in their national dress the 'Hanbok'. A second door was opened into a spotlessly clean restaurant that was decorated in a clean cut, modern stainless steel style. My model waitress sprinted over with a menu and immediately handed me an appetiser. Yes, I seriously needed a livener!

Choosing a bottle of Taedonggang Beer, a recommended North Korean beer that brewed in Pyongyang I returned to my table to be handed a menu. The immaculately dressed waitress watched over me as I made my choice, I went for a simple looking beef and rice dish that was served with a fried egg and vegetables. No Korean dining experience wouldn't of been complete without a serving of Kimchi! I chose that fiery dish in honour of Season 8 Rupaul's Drag Race queen, who is aptly named 'Kimchi!' As I savoured my only beer in my deteriorating state I watched the state run North Korean television channel as my food was mysteriously cooked in a kitchen I couldn't see an entrance to, that propaganda was something quite unspeakable to watch as I have watched hundreds of documentaries about the 'DPRK'. I had finished my manic pursuit, feeling drained but contented with my efforts I paid up, the waitress produced the correct change as soon as she saw my 100 RMB note! Bye SY!

선양, 감사 합니다!

Joseph Harrison

11 March 2017

Serving Up... Shenyang, China!

Shenyang called me, leaving Harbin West Railway Station by high speed train on the last day of January 2017 I was ready to see my second 'off the radar' city in China! I didn't have a plan, I merely knew of a few places that I could potentially see but I was ready. Excited for the unexpected, Shenyang would be serving up all shades of crazy! Yes, I was so ready for Shenyang!

Like most Chinese cities that are 'off the radar' it can make my pre-trip research a little challenging, embracing that factor completely I came across Qingzhen Street on Trip Advisor. Not really detailing much or its exact location I took a mental note so I could search for that intriguing Hui themed street on Baidu Maps. Taking advantage of Shenyang's shiny and new looking metro system I made it to Fengtian Jie without any stress, out of the corner of my eye to the left I randomly caught a glimpse of that Muslim food street without much warning, a pleasant surprise if truth be told. Checking into my JinJiang Inn hotel room was a blessing as I was able to pay for my stay using WeChat Pay! Having adequate time to see all I could of Shenyang I was in no rush to hit the town that evening, the routine of waking up early in Harbin and full days of sightseeing had hit me like a truck, I needed food and to sleep. Yes S!

Food was on my mind, getting it together before I crashed completely I was up for checking out Qingzhen Street to grab a bite to eat. Being a fan of Hui Chinese food I was excited to see what was in-store for me! Not many places were open due to it being the Chinese New Year holiday week but the restaurants that stood open seemed to be doing a roaring trade, a good sign for any place to eat at in my book! My third attempt proved to be successful, taking the table closest to the door I played it safe by choosing a meat dish and a vegetable dish, followed by what looked like a meat pastry that tasted amazing, it was like a Chinese sausage roll with a twist. I reveled being the only foreigner in the place, sitting back to watch the other diners who acted like ordinary British people would do at Christmas time, it certainly looked like they were enjoying their food and drink! Burnt out, with a satisfied stomach it was time for me to recharge and rest, I wanted to seize the next day!

Waking up before the birds I was feeling fresh and ready to take on Shenyang. The hotel breakfast was a no-go, stopping by McDonald's outside Qingnian Dajie metro station was a winner! After a short interchange on the metro I arrived at the gates of Shenyang's Beiling Park. I had seen something about a series of historic buildings that looked worthy enough to check out. Entering the park I loved the frozen feel that had overtaken the park, taking a glance over to my left I saw one of the frozen lakes. That iced lake looked onto some city buildings, giving me everything I needed to be reminded that I was in a provincial city whilst experiencing such a quiet sight. Was on I some kind of mission? No, not at all but I was living to be in such a peaceful place away from any noise or tourists, the freezing cold was something to deal with, like Harbin it added to the atmosphere. Oh sure, Shenyang slayed!

Checking out the Zhaoling Tomb had to be done, getting a ticket for the park and the tomb for less than £6.00 I would of been a fool to of missed that one out! The area around the tomb was amazing, it was like stepping back into the Qing Dynasty with the ancient buildings staring back at me, the mild phase of restoration didn't bother me, no matter what we all must be looking our best. Climbing to the top of a questionable set of shiny stone steps I was pleasantly surprised to see such a quiet view, being right in the middle of the Chinese New Year festivities and so early on in the day I had hit the jackpot! Making my away from the skaters on the iced lake I headed towards a remembrance garden of some sort to commemorate the concubines of Emperor Huang Taji, a random sight it was within that Shenyang park. Almost onto the next step, I had pretty much finished my visit to Shenyang's Beiling Park, so I had heard a familiar British supermarket was nearby?

A few weeks before my Chinese New Year holiday I couldn't believe that Shenyang had several Tesco supermarkets! In Wuhan I tend to shop at Carrefour, a French supermarket because its conveniently located from my flat but its not my first choice. Beiling Park was well behind me, but stopping me in my tracks was the five lettered red British supermarket logo staring at me, I saw a Tesco's! I wasn't expecting to find much from the Tesco Everyday Value range or something that in a familiar wrapper because it was a Chinese Tesco after all. Taking the escalator to the shop-floor I was transported back home instantly as I saw the standardised Tesco font, it was bizarre if truth be told. It's the little things I find to be important, even though 98% of everything was Chinese, it didn't matter to me because it felt like I was in a homely environment with the font and displays that mirrored a Midlands Tesco.

Moving away from the food I was fronted by the F&F clothing range that I instantly recognised from home, I thought about getting some clothes because the sizes looked like UK sizes but I was on holiday and didn't have time to carry unnecessary purchases with me on the road. I had been told by my friend Sam who lives in Ningbo, a city in China that has a few Tesco's, she told me not to expect much from home in these Chinese British supermarkets. She was right, as the international section wasn't a lot to desire, I saw the usual British imports like Weetabix and Alpen Bars but the rest wasn't very good, I wasn't there to judge but I wanted something Tesco! Not admitting defeat I found the confectionery aisle, sitting pretty was a pack of Tesco Everyday Value chocolate wafers, not the best tasting wafers in the world but the packaging was British! Satisfied with that Tesco find I headed for Starbucks outside to hatch the next stage of my Shenyang plan. Yes, I was ready!

Surfacing from Shenyang's metro network onto Chaoyang Road in hot pursuit of the former residence of Marshal Zhang Xueliang. As I bought my ticket to access this former ruling mansion I was pleased to see no other foreign tourists, it was great to be within the ordinary Chinese crowd, well that factor always throws up challenges. Home to the son of a former war lord I was definitely transported back to another time, the European grandeur of the former mansion gave me life, the early 1914 style design impressed me much! Did Zhang Xueliang have ties with Taiwan? I loved seeing the Taiwanese flag displayed in one of the impressive boardrooms, I'm so controversial! Over the courtyard I loved the Dutch inspired Xiaoqing Building that was home to the Marshal's wife, Zhao Yidi. It always staggers me how bewildered Chinese people by the reminisce of European influence. Oh, I felt proud of being European!

Feeling more than satisfied with my sightseeing for the day I turned my thoughts to the night ahead, what was I going to do? Where was I going to get crazy at? Harbin had been all  about sightseeing and early nights so I was ready to marry the night! Heading back to Qingnian Dajie I grabbed some Tsingtao from Carrefour, returning to my hotel I started to source possible places to head to. Tracking down Glasgow through my App I wasn't disappointed with the fish and chips, they tasted amazing! Finishing my drink I got talking to a new friend, he had a funky look and yes he was very fabulous, with my Chinese queen we headed to MIA to get crazy and to down some shots! Showing the locals how to have a good time I got my groove on, let's just say we made an impression with a few of these Shenyangers! So, I don't remember too much of the night after that point but I it was great and alternative night out! Oh, I do remember what happened but I'm not revealing such details!

Those Shenyang Shenanigans!

Joseph Harrison 

28 February 2017

Harbin: Snow Sculptures, Siberian Tigers & Ice Festivals...

Harbin was serving everything that I wanted and more during that Spring Festival 2017 trip, I was just about to embark on my private tour that would take me to three of Harbin's most famous sights. Taking in Harbin's world famous snow sculptures, catching a glimpse of those Siberian tigers and being mesmirised by the Ice Festival had to be done! Right Harbin, let's go go!

So, I trusted China Highlights once again, I was so impressed with my private day tour in Guilin to the Longji Rice Terraces that when planning to visit Harbin I booked up to experience their full day Ice Festival trip! Handled with the utmost professionalism it was off to Sun Island to see the snow sculptures, not one for technical names I'm just going to focus on the day itself and the unforgettable sights that I saw. Accompanied by my guide Walton I seemed to be the only person on the tour, the same had a happened in Guilin and that had worked out just fine! Passing through the Snow Expo it was amazing to see the precision and skill the sculptors had worked so hard to create the show-stopping snow sculptures. I had imagined seeing a huge snow sculpture that would be something spectacular, I had hit the jackpot, passing through the majority of the impressive sculptures I was greeted by a masterpiece H!

I waited with my camera at the turnstiles to enter the snow park on Sun Island, the crowds had not yet descended upon this Harbin honey pot. I had to visit this winter themed attraction during my first segment of my 2017 Chinese New Year trip as it was famed along with the tigers and the Ice figures. As me and my guide made our way through the first section of snow sculptures it was lovely too see lots of Chinese Zodiac inspired snow sculptures, being the same as if it was anything to do with Christmas. I don't think I had seen anything like it before, more still it was another one in a lifetime place to see because I don't plan on repeating any of these adventures, getting it right the first time counts! There was even a snow sculpture related to Hot Pot, not a pie like dish from the north of English but a very famous Mainland Chinese food favourite! The weather was so misleading, the sun was shining beautifully bright but the temperatures were still stupidly low! So cold!

The second stop of the day was to Harbin's Siberian Tiger Conservation Park, I stayed optimistic about that feline part of my trip because China doesn't have the best track with animal welfare. Putting my preconceptions in a box for a moment I have to say that my experience seeing those gorgeous Siberian's was a positive if not bizarre thing. I had only wanted to see the Panda's during my trip to Chengdu but this 2017 itinerary included a visit to see some of China's most famed endangered wild animals. Walton my guide was a wealth of knowledge regarding the Siberian tigers, I learnt that only a handful of tigers were counted in China before conservation efforts ensured these fierce predators weren't going to die out due to the changing landscape of the northeast of China. Prepared for my drive through the tiger enclosures I wasn't surprised by the hysteria caused by my fellow riders! Oh no, just behave!

Ready to admire those Siberian Tigers and grab my photos at the same time I knew how to conduct my behaviour without question, need I say no more? The safety of the barred van gave us the opportunity to get up close and personal with those crazy cats, it must of been like the pandas because those tigers were chilled out to the maximum, they certainly weren't fazed by the craziness exhibited by the Chinese tourists on the same van as me, I paid those individuals no mind because the beauty of the tigers was what I wanted to see and that I did without question. Stretched out like a lazy house cat in front of a roaring fire these Siberian tigers luxuriated in their sub-zero snow covered environment, I didn't share their enthusiasm for the cold whatsoever! Let's just say I was satisfied with my time at the Siberian Tiger Park to notice anything else going on, I was hungry so it was definitely a good time for our super tasty Spring Festival lunch! Those fried dumplings!

No Spring Festival trip to Harbin would be complete without visiting the world famous Ice Festival! Located close to the snow sculptures I had seen earlier that same day I was looking forward to seeing the colourfully lit ice figures that had amazed me through the countless Chinese New Year documentaries I had watched before my 2017 Harbin trip. Battling the crowds to access the action it was a blessing I had my tour guide to sort the tickets swiftly as patience wasn't a known virtue according to the other visitors. Celebrating its 18th year I was fronted with a million lights, the ice sculptures shone in the evenings darkness, I was paying no mind to the cold because that moment was far too important even if I couldn't feel my fingers as I tried to get some snaps of the ice attractions. Intricate ice figures were on display in one corner from around the world, from places like China, Russia and Mongolia.Yes!

How does Harbin find so much ice to carve into these amazing sculptures and figures? It's no secret that Harbin receives some bone-chilling winters, so as soon as the Songhua River starts to freeze the ice is carved out and used to make the magnificent figures that I had the opportunity to see that January night. Finding one indoor space I paid through the nose for a cup of coffee but to even feel the warmth from the cup on my hands was amazing, it was so blinding freezing but so worth it I should really stop harping on about the cold! Right from the very beginning my China Highlights tour around Harbin's top sights went without a hitch, my guide was extremely knowledgeable about the city and all that was linked with the places that we visited! I even got the chance to eat a frozen ice cream during the break along Central Avenue before finding out about the Flood Control Monument. Would I book another tour with China Highlights? Oh yes, try and stop me H!

A Million Lights...

Joseph Harrison