10 February 2017

Harbin: China's Russian Secrets...

Chinese New Year came around again, I decided after the warmth of HK, Macau and Guangzhou that I wanted to experience somewhere in the far north of China for 2017's festivities. Harbin, Heilongjiang called me to see its former Russian charms and to embrace its sub-zero temperatures. Oh, I wanted to see what the craze was regarding Harbin's unique Russian history!

Peering out of my airplane window it was amazing to see a sea of colourful explosions, no China hadn't turned into a war zone because the whole country was celebrating Chinese New Year! As my China Southern flight neared the frozen far northeast I marveled at those special New Year fireworks, truly with the best seat in the house! Turning up the heat in a city that was hitting -20 Degrees had to be done, I wasn't paying 700 RMB for a taxi ride from the airport to my hostel, no! Exploding like a firework I wasn't having any of that shady business! Anyway, brushing off that crazy I emerged from my hostel bundled in all the layers I had packed, the mind-numbing cold bit at my face but I was living as Zhongyang Dajie came into view, what's a trip without a bit of drama? Central Street was at my feet, sensing a serving of an 'Eastern Moscow' I was ready to embrace Harbin even if it was too cold for words!

Absorbing the Russian grandeur and European design of Central Street's fine buildings I was getting my life for certain! First constructed from the late 1800's this tourist honey pot was paved with cobbles that were shipped all the way from the former Russian Federation, forgetting my Oriental location it was a nice feeling to be surrounded by architecture that originated from my own continent, Europe. Seeing those Russian signs and shop fronts I was pleasantly surprised to see such a respectable Russian presence along Harbin's Central Street! Missing breakfast I took a chance on a Russian bakery to find something to ease that hunger within, calling up my foreign language skills I managed to say 'thank you' in Russian to the lady who appeared to be from that former Soviet nation. Even through those early stages of my time in that freezing city, Harbin was schooling me about its rich history. Who eats ice cream that doesn't melt?! Yes, trust that to be a Harbin thing C!

I remembered when I was a boy I had a Russian doll, but when in Harbin I threw caution to the wind and bought another one for myself! I was truly spoiled for choice, I had to make sure those wooden dolls were authentically Russian! Getting that confirmation I snatched a smallish Russian doll that was of a reasonable price. Flashing back to my Qingdao time I appreciated the Germanic qualities of that Shandong seaside city but I never saw themed shops like Harbin had to showcase its Russian get-up, get it together Qingdao! My manager worked in Russia for a while and mentioned to me how much she missed Russian chocolate, being a good teacher I bought her some Russian chocolate that I know she will really appreciate! Making sure that European confection tasted good enough I enjoyed a bar or two of Russian chocolate, my treat was like a dark Aero bar that wouldn't be found in a Chinese supermarket! No way!

Yes, food seemed to be a central part of my Russian crusade in Harbin that bitterly cold Chinese New Year's Day, shunning the usual Chinese choices I jumped at the chance to sample some near Russian quality food. Dining at Tatoc Russian Restaurant had to be the one, it had the best reviews on Trip Advisor and with that reassurance I was willing to give it a chance. Hit by the superb warm air conditioning it felt I had walked into a time capsule back to Harbin's Russian heyday! Ordering some Russian Borscht soup was a winner, followed by a fancy version of Russian 'bangers and mash' winning at life I had to have a side serving of mashed potato because its a rare commodity in China! I'm a lover of world beers, turning it up a few notches I took my chances with a Baltika 6, a super strength Russian beer that even my manager, Katy said it wasn't a wise choice for an afternoon tipple! Filled with my starter and main courses I wasn't read to pay up, Harbin there's always time for Tiramisu!

I was utterly stunned to see a sign for the Harbin Architectural Museum because what stood in front of me resembled something more like a magnificent former Eastern Othrodox place of worship! Banishing that sign out of my head I was fronted with Harbin's St. Sophia Cathedral, standing proud amongst more of a modern surrounding, I was loving that moment because I had waited for sometime to see that Russian piece of history in Harbin, China. I don't usually appreciate people in my photographs but I was far too cold to care, the family photos could carry on because I was getting my snaps no matter what! Paying my admission I walked inside the former house of God to find a barrage of vintage photos depicting the cosmopolitan days of Harbin's Russian high points, dressed in all their European chic designs those western settlers made Harbin look like a sophisticated Moscow of the East! Serve it St. Sophia!

Following on from making my Russian purchases and taking my frozen photos I retreated back to my hostel to regain the feeling of my hands, legs and face, yes it was really that blooming well freezing! To picture how bone-chillingly cold it was, I saw several ice carvings of popular Chinese brands elaborately displayed. One ice carving was of a bottle of 'Hongfu Spring Water', that super-sized ice shaped bottle did not drip a single drop during those near arctic feeling temperatures. This next development leaves me with no doubt in my mind that Harbin was another Spring Festival contender along with Hong Kong because I'm going to be serving three blog posts at least for this frozen Chinese city! Nevertheless, Harbin's first throws of Russian heritage impressed me much, from that pedestrian street to my Russian winter warming food! From that first bit of drama to calling it a night to watch the Spring Festival Gala, I knew that Harbin was next level! Конечно Харбин город! Да!

Until Next Time Harbin!

Joseph Harrison 

5 February 2017

Chinese Spring Festival 2016

China doesn't do Christmas so it brings the big guns out during the annual Chinese New Year celebrations, experiencing my first Chinese Spring Festival took me over the borderline and back again! From Hong Kong to Guangzhou via Macau I was on my travelling game as people traveled back home. Taking a road less travelled by 2016's Chinese festivities were next level!

Zooming down from Wuhan on my third China high speed train to Shenzhen, I was beyond excited to be visiting Hong Kong, kicking off my 2016 Chinese Spring Festival holiday. Shenzhen didn't give me the best of vibes but Hong Kong welcomed me without stress, being a former British Overseas Territory I sensed British passports were favoured at that HK border crossing. Reuniting with my best one Kelly at her Lai Chi Kok family flat it was great to have made our promise to each other a reality! No hotel reservations were made for that portion of my Spring Festival trip as her parents had been so gracious to open their home to me. Settling into my Kowloon environment I enjoyed some home-cooked Shepherd's Pie, it tasted so good after living in China for nine months at that point! No VPN was needed, after changing my sim card I was back on the grid but Facebook could be freely accessed! I was living!

Dim Sum was on the menu for breakfast, meeting Kelly's maternal grandparents for a delicious breakfast was lovely, I truly felt part of that Hong Kong breakfast club! Hitting the road with our Octopus travel cards it was onto the next one for me and Kelly, choosing Lantau Island showed us the unpredictability of Hong Kong's weather as the Buddha didn't want to play ball! Skimming over the HK water we found ourselves in the heart of Central, Hong Kong Island's financial district fronted us with all of its concrete and glass! HSBC impressed me with the collapsible HQ and the echoes of the Colonial courthouse served HK's British past. I was loving the colourful HK city trams! Taking to the peak to conclude our random HK day I was blessed with an electrifying view of the world famous 'Victoria Harbour' away from the tourists that next level experience will never leave me! Temple Street Market told us our fortunes and served us some amazing tasting Thai food! Yes, HK is beyond!

On an independent hype I covered some serious miles during my second official day in Hong Kong! Standing before the staggering skyline of Hong Kong Island from the Kowloon side I watched the choppy waters of Victoria Harbour do its thing! Navigating my back over to that side of HK I found Western Market, dating from the days of Empire that 18th century market was something that I wanted to see, adding to the fusion that is Hong Kong! Ginseng & Bird's Nest Street showcased a sea of health foods and tonics that must have been for good health? A working Hong Kong street nonetheless, I was on to the next sight! Leaving Sheung Wan for the New Territories, seeking something spiritual I found Fung Ying Seen Koon Temple, located with a normal Hong Kong estate surrounding this colourful temple with many tower-blocks it was a contrast for sure. No, it wasn't just the temple that looked gorgeous!

Concluding my second day I headed for Argyle Street, deep within the manic streets of Kowloon it was only a matter of time before the neon signs would be making an appearance, serving a bold impact I was truly mesmirised by that Oriental display! Giving Lantau Island a second chance, myself and Kelly took the coach back up to Ngong Ping Village to see if the weather was going to play ball. Getting my photos secured it felt good to see Lantau's Big Buddha in brighter circumstances, Kelly waited at the bottom of the towering staircase whilst I got the sights captured that I needed. Taking a stroll along the Wisdom Path was lovely, it was so calm and quiet it was strange to think that the daily chaos of city continued just over the mountains. Finishing up at Tai O fishing village I was more than satisfied to see more of Lantau's charm, that sight of normality was truly lovely! Reuniting with Kelly was amazing, teamed with my discoveries I had in HK was a dream come true!

A white knuckle ride it wasn't but the hydrofoil crossing from HK's Tsim Sha Tsui docks had me worried, I don't like sea bound vessels at the best of times so I just wanted to be in Macau. The second of China's Special Administrative Regions I was ready to see a glimpse of its former Portuguese colonial splendour. Another seamless border crossing from Macau's Outer Ferry Terminal I made my way to my hotel, switching on the television to see what I would find shocked me, I found a Portuguese speaking channel that instantly took me back to my New Jersey Ironbound days! The Mainland Chinese tourists had descended upon Macau's Senado Square without hesitation, it looked like they were attempted to buy everything in their paths. Regardless of that I adored the Ruins of St. Paul's too much to care about that absurdity! Seeing Macau's bilingual street signs, I felt like I was almost back in old Europe!

The former days as a Portuguese Overseas Territory had definitely left an imprint on the architecture of Macau, away from its historic centre I took some time to see the A-Ma Temple, this modern day SAR got it name from that Macanese temple, something to do with their first encounters with the Portuguese sailors? Making my way back towards Senado Square I walked through some quiet side streets that oozed European Realness, I had to take some time to realise that I was less than a twenty minute drive away from the border with Mainland China! I was feeling hungry for some Portuguese fusion food, trusting a European looking fusion restaurant on Rua da Felicidade was a winner for sure! I loved my life as I devoured my delicious serving of Bacalhau com natas served with fried cheesy bites was a winner, obviously washed down with some authentic Portuguese red wine. Being Chinese New Year I loved the red lanterns that were colorfully serving a festive scene! 

Back over the borderline there was a moment where I thought I wasn't going to make it back over the Chinese border at Zhuhai for some crazy reason! Without a seconds thought I was hurtling towards Guangzhou South Railway Station to experience one of Guangdong's super-sized cities for myself. Taking the first day to familiarise myself with the gargantuan metro system I waited for Chinese New Year's Day to get out and about properly. The Memorial of Dr. Sun Yat Sen was across the road from my hotel, being a special day it was free admission for visitors! Shamian Island showed me a slice of British colonialism alongside the Pearl River, it was a very picturesque sight for sure. Getting my life I stumbled across a side street that represented Old Guangzhou in its rawest form, something that I loved! The Canton also served me some uncomplicated Cantonese dishes for lunch, Cantonese food is ace! Yes!

Well. New Year's Day for me is all about the hangover from the previous Eve but at Guangzhou's Hualin Temple it was a scene of worship and positivity. I had never seen a temple so busy, people were lighting three incense sticks at a time and offering up to the spirits to bless them for the next year, it was a sight of renewal and hope. I threw a few small Chinese notes like other people were doing, I was definitely entitled to the same luck as the rest of those people! Embracing some park life I dashed over to Yuexiu Mountain Park, it showed me more than I had bargained, weaving my way between the crowds I loved it! Guangzhou was proving the haters wrong as I had been told there was much going on in that Guangdong powerhouse! But the highlight of my Guangzhou weekend was my meeting with the Canton Tower, that sleek and sexy towering glamazon served her rainbow rays of neon light! No, I've not yet finished with GZ but I'll leave this Chinese Spring Festival re-up here!

新年快樂!

Joseph Harrison 

27 January 2017

On The Metro: Wuhan Metro, Line 2

I'm not one for the bus, wherever there is a metro I am underground before you could say 'Mind The Gap!' After living in Wuhan, China for sometime now I have seen the steady growth of its metro system. From Optics Valley Square to Jiyuqiao, I'm going to explore Line 2 of the Wuhan Metro before it crosses the Yangtze River to Hankou. Have some manners Wuhan!

I am blessed to live moments away from Optics Valley Square station, its the current southern terminus for Wuhan Metro's Line 2. Fashioned with Cherry Blossom Pink its a firm favourite of mine, connecting Guanggu to Tianhe International Airport it wasn't always easy to get from Optics Valley to Wuhan's own airport! Enough of that business I'm ready to look back to see what delights through Hongshan and Wuchang can be found along Line 2 before crossing over the Yangtze River branch of the line to Hankou and the airport. Optics Valley Square is surely running way past its capacity, to navigate this station sincerely takes patience and the willpower not to kick off, the way people walk through the station it's like the shepherd's gone on holiday and he's never coming back! Optics Valley Square station unlocked the key for me, I wouldn't of seen as much without the metro! Guanggu Square, don't let me lose it! Let's go!

Aside from the insane rate of construction Optics Valley Square is seeing right now I know it will unveil something spectacular, its just the herding of commuters that's the problem! Living within my prime Guanggu location it only takes me around eight minutes from my building to Exit C of Optics Valley Square Station, it's not bad at all! Shopping in Guanggu is endless for the Chinese audience, I prefer to get off the Metro and get home as fast as possible! Sunday is not a day of rest at Optics Valley Square station, no it has to be the busiest day judging by the consistent seas of people bumbling they way to the Wuhan Metro! A Southern extension is being built as we speak, so far its making my bus commute to work a nightmare as the construction has overtaken Luoyu East Road and Jiayuan Road! All in the name of progress for Optics Valley. Getting away is easy because of this terminus station, I might complain but its very convenient for me. No, where's my Wuhan Tong!?

Yangjiawan and Huquan stations follow Optics Valley Square station, I rarely get off at those stations unless I don't get an electric bike to my friend Elli's community as she lives near Huquan station. Computown and the China Central Normal University can be found at Guangbutun, I tried to get my phone screened replaced at Computown, it was maze of wires and electric repair shops! Trying a secret bar was also another reason that Guangbutun station was my destination. Further into Wuchang District lies Jiedaokou Station, home to many bars and shopping, its a popular Wuhan hangout but I now rarely get off there. Since I started using Line 2 of the Wuhan Metro I have been able to see parts of Hongshan Distrct within this side of the line, these place are not touristy at all so they inhabit a certain concrete charm. With Baotong Temple station approaching, I do feel a certain connection to that stop. 

It should be a dead giveaway what can be found at Baotong Temple station?! Yes, one of Wuhan's legendary Buddhist temples can be found a few steps away from Exits C2 and D. Baotong Temple has to be one of my favourite Wuhan temples along with the Gude Temple of Hankou, I love living six stops away from Optics Valley Square to Baotong Temple! I cannot get over the stillness of the temple even though its only a stones through from the Wuhan Metro it helps people get their spiritual fix, then get back underground on the metro. One stop away heading towards Tianhe Airport is Zhongnan Road, a true of sight of crazy with umpteenth amounts of skyscrapers that almost touch the clouds! I will always have a close connection between the areas around Baotong Temple and Zhongnan Road stations, but that's a secret! I find myself at Zhongnan Road station when I change onto Line 4 to either Han Street or Wuhan Railway Station, sometimes I have to take care of some business!

Staying on the metro between Zhongnan Road and Pangxiejia stations I don't have a clue about Hongshan Square or Xiaoguishan but I'm not going to loose any sleep over that! Finding coffee and cake along Tanhualin I took a chance on my 25th birthday to surface from Line 2 at Pangxiejia station, I didn't really know where I was going at first until I saw a brown tourist sign. Taken into a labyrinth of coffeeshops and small hipster-like bars I loved the feel of Tanhualin even thought the Trip Advisor reviews had been less than complimentary! Stopping off at Merci I got my coffee and cake fix, I would definitely return. Done with my sweet treat I took a stroll away from that cute Wuhan street to find a gritty market street, not short of smells and sights that would put a westerner off their food for a month but it gave me life, I live for pieces of Realness. From Hongshan to Wuchang, its true Line 2 covers so much! 

Before passing under the Yangtze River to the Hankou section of Line 2, the last stop before the water is Jiyuqiao station. During my first year teaching I went to a few pre-drinks close to Jiyuqiao, those apartments were close to the station, giving a perfect distance to Guanggu in one direction and over the water to Hankou in the other direction but I'll always be rooting for Optics Valley Square! Taking in the crazy at Optics Valley Square station I have lost my cool more times than I could count, shepherd you've got one hell of a flock to guide! Baotong Temple gave me some calm and connected me to a special one, there's just something about that place! Well, as of the 28th of December 2016 the northern extension from Jinyintan to Tianhe International Airport will make my Spring Festival flight out to Harbin seamless from my end. Line 2's truly a monster I couldn't find the space for all of the stations in one post! The Wuhan Metro gets me about a lot! Keep on growing! 

Going Underground! 

Joseph Harrison 

26 January 2017

China: The Wildcard Cities!

Following the crowd is boring, dealing three of China's wildcard cities showed me how to be a travel trailblazer! Bowing down to the favourites like Shanghai and Beijing I wanted to give three alternative cities my full attention, I took on that travel challenge without question! Feeling like the only 'Waiguoren', Guangzhou, Changsha and Zhengzhou are my three wildcards!

I had never heard so much shade thrown at one place before I visited the first of my Chinese wildcard cities in February 2016. Guangdong's mega-city called me after checking out China's two Special Administrative Regions during Spring Festival 2016. Guangzhou boasted a super speedy rail link from Zhuhai, hopping over the border from Macau I zoomed to GZ to give this Canton giant a thorough inspection! Apparently I was going to be visiting a great dirty, smoggy and boring city but let me strike down those haters with one snap back, I saw nothing but greatness! Spurred on by the negativity of others I was amazed by everything Guangzhou served! The memorial of Dr. Sun Yat Sen showed me another slice of this savvy Chinese leader for free, Chinese New Year's Day allowed me complimentary access to that museum, my hotel was named after that site too! Guangzhou's Metro showed me the way B!

Shamian Island took me away from China for a brief interlude, that former trading post guarded by the British and the French defecated on any report that this Guangdong city wouldn't be cultured, people need to leave their hate for another day! The Pearl River spanned across the two sides of GZ with finesse, for such a large river I was reminded of Wuhan's branch of the mighty Yangtze River. This wildcard city served me some amazing Cantonese food, I was staggered to be getting a taste of Hong Kong in Guangzhou! With the night fast approaching I left the pandemonium of Beijing Road to catch a glimpse of a sleek and sexy Guangzhou icon, shining in its rainbow fashion Guangzhou's Canton Tower served like a true glamazon! Guangzhou was snatching wildcard points for its city from all directions, I would be having the last laugh! No, I didn't see any smog, dirtiness or I wasn't bored for one second because Guangzhou served nothing but China wildcard city Realness! Go GZ!

Humid Hunan lured me to its provincial capital of Changsha for 2016's Tomb Sweeping weekend. Changsha didn't choose me, I went to visit a friend who I had met online via social media. Andy showed me this wildcard city well, weather permitting we saw a sweeping stone figure of former leader Mao Zedong, it was more like a scene for Disney's Magic Kingdom due to the hysteria over a sight. I sensed Changsha's development was behind compared to the likes of Wuhan but I admired the unassuming city streets of Changsha too much to care. It was apparent very quickly that the tourist boom had not hit Changsha, or was it ever going to? That for me sealed this Hunan city as a favourite because I despise the tourist traps, I love a wildcard city! Seeking some sustenance I was introduced to some delicious Hunan rice noodles, am I an alien? Those children must have never seen a 'Waiguoren' before?! No!

Tianxin Pavilion allowed me to see Changsha's growing cityscape, the rising skyline was being fashioned for the future but the untouched nature of the Changsha's current view looked great! I wasn't looking for an ordinary kind of 'Next Level' amazing because that was what Hong Kong's for but the Sha served! No way was I going to be trying any Stinky Tofu but hitting up Huogong Palace showed me a snapshot of that potent Changsha signature snack, catering to my ever-lasting thirst of seeing something that is memorably on the down and low! No hotel reservations were made, I had lodgings at Andy's place, affording me to catch a glimpse of an unchanged Changsha city neighbourhood. Why was Changsha worthy to be a wildcard city of mine? It served a vibe that told me that this Hunan city was getting ready for the future, allowing me catch a glimpse of normality. Ultimately, curiousity and a new friendship took me to Changsha without much thought. Oh, Changsha!

I wouldn't say that I'm handy with my fists but if provoked I'm a force to be reckoned with! Keeping with that fighting talk, I chose Zhengzhou as my third wildcard city in September 2016 during Mid-Autumn Festival. The distant home of Chinese Kung Fu, I self-navigated this Henan city, relying on public transport in place of an expensive tour. Arriving under the cover of darkness by High Speed Train from Wuhan I made my way to my Jinjiang Inn hotel without stress. I literally had no clue what the city of Zhengzhou would serve up to me, I had my Dengfeng plan ironed out but I needed some other trouble to make in Z'Zhou! The stone carved figures of Huangdi and Yandi were easy enough to find at Zhengzhou's Yellow River Scenic Area, those former Yan Emperor's both gave me stern looks, three can play at that game! Zhengzhou's tourists were mostly Chinese, loving life I was probably the only 'Laowai' knocking about. Win!

Staying next to Zhengzhou Railway Station, I was fronted a nonstop energy with passengers catching their long distance China trains. Leaving my hotel I was in pursuit to find Z'Zhou's Erqi Square, making it to that sight of crazy I was greeted by the illuminated Erqi Memorial Tower. Sipping my Starbucks coffee I was loving the technicolour view of Erqi's manic square and its shimmering towers much! Seeking the legendary Shaolin Temple and the Pagoda Forest I boarded that early hour bus to Dengfeng, Henan. On some extra crazy person mode I went to battle, this wildcard city had me mad because I wanted that photo without waiting for those family poses to be over, slaying I got my photo of the Shaolin Temple, I wasn't taking no for an answer! Shaolin's Pagoda Forest took the madness away from me, it was quiet and fenced off for a reason! Seeing a short Kung Fu show concluded by third wildcard city experience, I wouldn't mess with those brothers! Zhengzhou brought it! 

Pick Your Wildcards!

Joseph Harrison