8 October 2017

Like A Prayer: China & Tibet...

I'm not down for religion as such but I don't judge someone else's beliefs, shelving those holy scriptures to one side I do love discovering new places of worship whatever the chosen religious flex. China and Tibet showed me a series of inspiring houses of religion, giving me a history lesson, I left with a calm and centred mind. Oh, St. Sophia's acted crazy but she wasn't sinning!

China's bitterly cold far northeast showed me a slice of Moscow in China! Harbin had been colonised by the Russian empire during the early 1900's, bringing a Russian flare to Heilongjiang's provincial city, transforming that freezing city into an Eastern Moscow of sorts. Completed in 1937, St. Sophia Cathedral still stands to this day with a fair amount of its European Orthodox design. I was attracted to Harbin for its ice festival but I would have been a liar to say it was the only reason why I dealt with the below freezing weather conditions. Nowadays, St. Sophia's goes by the name 'Harbin Architectural Art Galley' stripped back of its alter and congregation it showed me and many other visitors who the Russian influence fashioned Harbin into a sophisticated Moscow of the Far East. From the outside the revival of this former Orthodox cathedral looked in great shape considering its turbulent past. Saint Sophia keeps serving H! 

From Russian cathedrals to another European christian house of god, I visited the Shandong capital of Qingdao to stumble upon another Catholic cathedral from the German period of influence. Qingdao was just famous for its beer because St. Michael's Cathedral conducted those key sermons during the European days that brought German and British interest to those East China shores. I admired the large paintings of the JC, it had those Chinese tourists transfixed for certain! Restored to its former glory in 2000, St. Michael's was sure welcomed into the Diocese of Qingdao with its very own bishop who shared the same name as myself! It was incredibly bizarre to see such a convincing looking European house of prayer in Mainland China, when I blocked out the tourists in the courtyard outside the cathedral I could picture the German settlers going to mass back in those first brewing days. After my Macanese mission, I was amazed to see two prime examples of western religion in China. 

Bhuddism and Taoism seems to be prominent faiths in the China of today, making up the main focus in prayer within the temples on the Chinese Mainland. I couldn't possibly begin to count the amount of temples I visited during my two year stint in China but I can remember two temples for a good reason. Hangzhou had attracted me firstly to its West Lake but the Lingyin Temple brought me to its doors like a magnet with much force. I learnt that the monastery had been designed and built by an Indian monk named 'Huili' around 328 AD. The main hall caught my attention the most, I may have got confused about the names of the halls but the bright colours pleased my senses to no end. Aside from the temple grounds I found the enchanted stones of the Feilai Park area, formed of jagged rocks, separated by a winding creek I loved life at Hangzhou's Lingyin Temple. Yes, I saw the resting place of Huili's' ashes! 

From Hangzhou in April 2017, I want to take this opportunity to rewind back to December 2016 during my Christmas holiday within Southwest China's Yunnan province. Touching down into Kunming Changshui International Airport I didn't really have a set plan for my two days in China's spring city but I knew Yuantong Temple was in my sights. I wasn't reading into the history behind Kunming's city centre temple because it was so pleasing to the eye I was taken away to another world. The shallow pond in the middle of the temple grounds set a peaceful tone to my visit and added to the atmosphere, no stress was in life during that moment. Yuantong Temple's already placid nature had me centred and focussed, it was the first place that I visited during my Kunming sector and it calmly kickstarted my Yunnan break effortlessly. Spanning 1,200 years since it's opening in 817 AD I didn't notice any major fatigue, I'm taking anti-ageing tips from Yuantong's nature! I was spirited away KM!

Ascending over the Tibetan Plateau took me away from real life to Lhasa, Tibet. My experience was impacted by the many monasteries, temples and one majestic palace I saw during my four day experience. Drepung Monastery was the first Tibetan place of religions significance that I saw in Lhasa, it didn't take me long till I was confronted with a labyrinth of colour and timeless scriptures that related to Tibetan Buddhism. The sky shone like a bright blue ocean vista, adding to the heavenly feeling that was already being served so perfectly. Spirited away once again but within the quarters of Sera Monastery allowed me to see the monks debate session, that meeting of minds mesmerised me, I was living to see that slice of Lhasa living in real-time motion. Sera and Drepung Monasteries schooled me about the history and the succession of the Dalai's, I lived a dream! Lhasa's religious offerings were on-point! Lhasa!

Johkang Temple crossed my path, ushered into the winding paths within the temple walls gave me the opportunity to see so much more! I had noticed the golden statues of the many buddhas, with eyebrows painted on flawlessly and a piercing eye they were definitely judging each passerby, now that's some shade that I could champion to the highest! Leaving the best for last, climbing up the many stairs to enter the red halls of the Potala Palace I made it to the top even though the thin air choked me. Amazed by the luxurious furnishings and decorations I could well have lived there in my own lap of luxury. Both Johkang Temple and the Potala Palace slayed in their own ways, I felt so blessed. The heavenly sights from the Potala Palace confirmed the reason why I had travelled so far from Wuhan to make those dreams play out in real life. Since my first 'Like A Prayer' blog publication I forged ahead without any religious conviction to find a sense of spirituality. I sense a Mosque next! 

Yinchuan's Next! 

Joseph Harrison 

3 October 2017

Cardiff, Wales: Castles, Bays & Mines...

Living life dangerously I chose Cardiff, Wales for a weekend full of whatever I could find from that UK capital city. Everyday life can sometimes leave me feeling low so that Megabus coach took me over that English borderline to Wales without any delays. Two good nights out were definitely on my mind but those Cawl cravings needed satisfying! Cardiff gave me so much! 

Bilston and Birmingham sure felt like far off places when I stepped down from my Megabus coach just a stones throw from Cardiff Castle! Yes, I needed one more little escape! Not wasting anytime I made my way to that historical Welsh point of interest. Dating back to the 11th century this Welsh ruin was crafted on top of a Roman fort by Norman invaders, a brief history lesson for myself done with I pressed on to check out the grounds that stood within the castle walls, from what I saw I was impressed very much, I felt like I was taken to another world, a time that could have well made me a princess or even an evil queen? Now, that royal prospect excited me very much! Seeing the Welsh flag fluttering proudly at the top of the Norman Shell Keep cemented the fact I had left England and I was in another country, within the boundaries of the United Kingdom. Anyhow, I wasn't quite finished with Cardiff Castle just yet! No!

Buying my ticket at the castle saved me some money, so in future I'll be double checking to make another saving at whatever sight I shall see! If the truth be told I wasn't interested seeing the staterooms because I had too much to see that day, getting with the programme I headed to the top of the Normal Shell Keep where I found an extra view over the main castle walls of the city centre. Climbing the next set of stairs to the top also wasn't part of the plan because I still remember when I was at Warwick Castle and the small spaces didn't agree with me. Getting as far as the surrounding stone walls I concluded my castle visit with a reasonable stroll around the edge of the green towards the exit. Was I in the firing line? No, I had Cawl on my mind so the 'regimental museum' section passed me by, sorry not sorry! I had a craving coming on and I would have been a fool to ignore that hunger pang! Was I too hasty to get onto the next phase of my day? No way, I was so busy dreaming about Cawl!

Like any trip of mine I like to do some research beforehand, Cardiff had me questioning the possibility of finding some Welsh food during that weekend. Leeds and York wasn't a trip that required a specific meal because I definitely sipped on some Yorkshire tea so that was good! The differences between English and Welsh food became apparent to me once I found out about a winter warmer known as 'Cawl'. Finding 'Seasons' opposite from Cardiff Castle as part of Central Arcade was a mini victory! Ordering the Welsh lamb Cawl without any hesitation because I was damn hungry as my pitstop Brummie breakfast had wore off. Tucking into my Cawl was an experience, an attack on my tastebuds in the very best way I was getting the taste of the rich boneless lamb that was surrounded by a range of freshly cooked seasonal vegetables, obviously I tasted some Welsh leeks! A champion hangover cure, oh I would be there on Saturday!

Feeling more than satisfied with my Cawl I was still euphoric about that simple Welsh dining experience, the tiger bread served with the Cawl was amazing as it was teamed with some mature Welsh cheese for a little bit extra. Cardiff got me crazy on the Friday night, following the way back to Seasons I was hoping to cure my deafening hungover state with a bowl of Cawl. Unfortunately, there would be no Cawl that day but in place of a visit to Barry I dashed for a Welsh omelette, I was grateful for that tasty Welsh serving because I was feeling fragile and then some! Looking for a final fix I looked to Fabulous, that Welshcake bakery had caught my eye the previous day but I wanted to wait for the right moment. Realising those sugary Welsh treats would give me the boost that I needed I was game for twelve or so to take my hangover away. Seasons and Fabulous served me equal amounts of Welsh loveliness, from Cawl to Welshcakes for the win! What other treasures would Cardiff have?

Reporting to my hostel for check-in was no bother, choosing the NosDa Hostel for two nights over the weekend for less than fifty pound was the one! Following the River Taff was the plan to reach Cardiff Bay but a pesky rail line got me sidelined, stumbling into Butetown opened my eyes to a whole lot of realness for certain! Finding Mermaid Quay brought me to one of the main reasons I had chosen to visit Cardiff, Wales in the first place. I had plans to get crazy later on so the waterfront pubs, bars and restaurants didn't appeal to me but they definitely gave a cosmopolitan edge to the Bay. Standing in its French Gothic Renaissance 18th century style, Cardiff's Pierhead Building stood like a pillar of strength amongst it's accompanying bayside landmarks on the Cardiff waterfront. Formerly the head of the Bute Dock Company the 'Big Ben of Wales' stood strong just before the sunset that autumn afternoon. Yes, Cardiff Bay slayed it!

Ready and waiting to turn it up I waited till Cardiff turned a darker shade, Friday was on fire as I made my way towards its rainbow avenue, well its Gay bars. WOW had my attention at first, not pre-drinking before going out meant I had a few cheeky ciders to let my inner crazy out, not taking too long I was ready to see what the night held for me! Moving to The Kings for something different, there I found cans of Strongbow cider for a great price, those may have been a bad idea but I didn't care! Finding my groove I was loving life, the night turned out to be a great one but it was time for bed! Friday night left me waking up with a very sore head and maybe I was still a bit drunk still but I powered through the day to find I was better getting back on the dancing juice to ease my hangover, it was a desperate decision! Finding my flex I loved the dance-floor with my KIA moves slaying the competition, I didn't care! Cardiff's nightlife left me feeling very tender on the Sunday but I loved it badly!

Pushing my horrendous hangover to one side I eventually boarded a train from Cardiff Central Station to Trehafod railway station to find the Rhondda Heritage Park. After watching the film 'Pride' I wanted to see a village within the greener pastures of the South Wales Valleys, I wasn't disappointed for the views were breathtakingly lush! Reaching the heritage park was an absolute relief as the distance between it and the centre of Cardiff turned out to be longer than I had previously imagined. Ready and waiting for my tour around the former mine, it would be something different to add to my already eventful Welsh weekender. Our guide happened to be an actual ex-miner. I was fascinated to hear about the different ways mining transformed the Valleys in South Wales especially and how children as young as five would work down in the mines, working in an environment that wasn't safe for them to do so. Yes!

Finding out how the colourful canary birds were used to track the air quality down in the pits was fascinating, computing such information was challenging because I wasn't feeling too rosy but it was an education for sure. The condition of the former mine was quite remarkable and the competitive price of the tour warranted the amount of firsthand information we were given by our ex-mining guide. It goes without saying, I really rated my experience at the Rhondda Heritage Park that changeable Saturday lunch time. Returning to the city centre I decided to make the most of my final night by having another night out on the town, because there was no use just sitting in my dorm room! From the beginning to the very end, Cardiff showed me a class act weekend with the right amount of history, food and nightlife. I returned to the West Midlands feeling very contented but ready for a rest! Undoubtedly, my decision to visit Cardiff was well made because I loved every bit! Done!

Creigiau Caerdydd!

Joseph Harrison

1 October 2017

Historic York

So, York had been on my list for time, being attracted to its historical charm I wanted to see if it was really just a Shambles! Before there was a New York it started with York, representing that former Viking and Roman settlement had to be done before I returned to China. York's Minster had me looking for the Madonna and those Adventures had searching for their hall!

Literally jumping off at York as my Leeds train pulled into the station, I had my game face on to get those key photos I wanted before the masses of tourists would crawl out of the woodwork, I was on a mission for true! Wasting not a second I made my way to the Shambles without haste, I wasn't about to be getting crazy over a good photo, I had that covered! Rewinding the clock back to York's Anglo-Saxon days I was transfixed by that winding street that looked even better in person, securing my snaps I relaxed into that moment before the masses had even arrived. The architecture impressed ten fold and then some more, it had been an English dream of mine to see that former meat street! Comprised with tourist appropriate haunts that supplied the usual UK souvenirs, looking closer I saw a lovely looking tea room, Betty's could keep their brew thank you very much for I wasn't entertaining any queues! O, I was ready!

Those timber-framed buildings were serving 14th century realness without a shadow of a doubt, planting a scene from some medieval time way back when York could well have been called Jorvik? I was content with my find, moving onwards to another part of that exclusive showcase city I vowed to myself that I would return to the Shambles to take a closer look when more of the businesses had opened. The Earl Grey Tea Room didn't have a queue, it was quaint and very inviting so I had nothing to loose, giving it a try I dined inside the front room with a pot of English Breakfast tea and ate two toasted tea cakes because the lady on the next table had some, they looked so good I had to try some for myself. The overall experience was really good but one of the guys tone wasn't very complimentary, that shade was noted but did nothing to dent my time along the Shambles. My timing had been perfect, from those first glimpses to leaving after my spot of tea it was an absolute pleasure Y!

So, York became like a beating heart, growing busier with more tourists making their way to the grand York Minster. I didn't have any songs of praise in my head but I was intrigued to see inside the vast cathedral that had been causing a commotion since 4th century. I wasn't in a rush, taking my time to walk around York's main focal point. It was a definite hit with the Chinese market as many tourists were talking that Mandarin language with some hailing from Hong Kong also, but they spoke Cantonese. The intricate stained glass shone in the autumn sun during that mid morning time, I'm not a religious soul but it was pleasing to see such a sight. Casting my mind back to my Qingdao church experience I could see why such a house of god like York Minster was a big hit with those Middle Kingdom visitors. I was looking for the Madonna, not the 'Like A Prayer' singer, no the Virgin Mary because the statues are lovely!

York Minster might have not been part of the Roman Catholic church but before the days that York Minster stood there was a Roman palace. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the statue of Constantine The Great, hearing about a former Roman palace I was schooled about a former religious fortress. One excavated Roman column still stands, causing quite a stir I didn't get crazy but from that point of view I appreciated the rich history York presented to me. Contrary to belief Constantine The Great didn't stay in York for long but he must have left something quite remarkable? From that modern day view a clash cultures and times definitely stood before me. York Minster had shown me what I had wanted, standing strong as one of York's main sights for all to see and with a vast intertwining history with the Romans it impressed me much! York had been drastically different compared to Leeds but the difference was giving me life for certain! Actually, I saw tones of Cambridge!

Before New York there was York, I tried to delve further into that moment in time as I had the privilege to live just over the Hudson River from the Big Apple during my airport days. Nevertheless, not letting that chestnut go I knew that NY's origins started in York so I was cool with that point. My final point of interest discovered during my day in York was the Merchants Adventurers' Hall. Dating back to 1357 this period building had seen some tough times throughout the years, from the rule of Queen Elizabeth I during those medieval days. Specifically comprised of an influential group of powerful men and women, their ventures contributed to many good deeds and noble things for the community. Housing a chapel and a hospital this Adventurers' Hall had many functions for different purposes. Did this institution have anything with the Mayflower or any of the pilgrims that set sail for a New kind of York? Y, I was tired!

This country persists to have pricey rail prices and the coach timetable saw me staying in a hostel overnight before my Megabus the next day back to the West Midlands. The hostel was basic but surprisingly comfortable, I was able to practice some of my Chinese language skills because I had a sneaking suspicion that the guy in the same bunk as me was from the Middle Kingdom. We had the usual conversation about our reasons of being in each others countries and the grave state of high speed rail in the United Kingdom or the serious lack of it! York had shown me everything that I had set out to see, I felt very contented to have seen the Shambles from a less crazy view first time around, the lofty ceiling of the grand York Minster followed by the Merchant Adventurers' Hall for good measure. The north of England had been something I wasn't expecting, for that reason it felt good by seeing the three sights in did in the city of York! Sorry Jorvik I wasn't paying for you! No, no Y!

Yes, York!

Joseph Harrison

7 September 2017

Next Stop... Leeds, England!

Beating my post Scotland blues I looked towards Yorkshire to serve something industrial and then historical. With the astronomical train fares I chose the Megabus to Leeds before checking out York, going up north had to be the one! Choosing the alternative, Leeds had something to show me, from darkness there comes light and Leeds shone brightly! Don't hold back!

Getting down from my Birmingham Megabus at Leeds Bus Station allowed me to begin my northern trip. Looking for the markets I didn't have to go far, clocking Kirkgate Market I viewed a normal looking set of market stalls that didn't exude the 19th century architecture that I had researched! Seeing the period market stalls with the fresh fruit and the famous Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar I was snatching the views that I had wanted to! Giving me everything that a traditional English market should do, adorned with colourful beams and a legendary glass roof that oozed period features I was loving that Yorkshire market without a doubt! Ranging from a unique foods stall that served a slice of what London's Borough Market does I was thrilled the majority of the stalls embodied independence, not paying no mind to chains or the shady business a certain Corn Exchange did to eradicate the talent! Kirkgate tell the truth!

Was I looking to bag a bargain from those humble stalls at Leeds's Kirkgate Market? I did stop for a coffee at an ordinary looking cafe, personally for me it was all about appreciating the look of the market. The Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar stood proud, representing the original store that began the empire of quality products. Taking note of the history I was extremely impressed by the story of Kirkgate Market, a powerhouse of enterprise within a city that went above and beyond within its many industries. Did M&S shade Kirkgate Market? Returning to the market during 2012 with a dedicated Penny Bazaar brought that Leeds born business back to its roots, telling the time wasn't an issue as a timely green clock was presented to the market in 1984 to celebrate the centenary of M&S setting up shop way back at Kirkgate in 1884. Kirkgate Market kept it real, honest and from my view it looked like things were independent, finding out about a certain ousting within Leeds was so cold!

Leeds presented itself as a Victorian showcase city with all of its period features I loved it, obviously Victoria is my favourite queen! Leaving Kirkgate Market behind me I was curious what was worth to see next. Millennium Square was littered with a funfair, not impressed by that sight I noticed Leeds Town Hall was just over the road from the Mandela Gardens, lets just say that Victorian civic hall had me transfixed by it's ruling queen! Walking away from Millennium Square towards Leeds Town Hall I captured a top vista, encapsulating Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds War Memorial and the Town Hall for good measure. Challenging this alternative northern city had me looking for something ordinary that in my minds eye gave me everything and even more! I could only imagine what life was like during that Victorian hey day after the opening of the Town Hall? Leeds looked victorious with all of its Victorian overness! Yass!

Why Leeds? I had three north west cities to choose from, between Sheffield and Bradford I chose Leeds for its close to proximity and cheap train fares to York, my next port of call during that northern trip. I always look for somewhere that's not on the tourist map, any of those cities sounded like the perfect place for that business. Not wasting any time I was off my Megabus that morning to see what hidden gems I could find, as I profess that I hate shopping I did not pay attention to the pedestrianised shopping streets for something else. The rain may have poured a bit in the morning but the early afternoon was blessed with some lovely sunny weather, perfect for moving onto the next phase of my Leeds day. Being proud of it's working class flex, Leeds presented itself as a modernising city with bucket loads of character. I saw that it was fashioning its factories into spaces for the future. Talking about a working class flex, I was about to see a place that allowed Leeds to soar! 

Leeds displayed its fashion lines proudly thanks to its industrious ways, crafting the cotton brought by the barges the working people of the Armley Mills hustled hard during those challenging days during Britain's Industrial Revolution. Stepping into the Leeds Industrial Museum schooled me back to those days and beyond, linked to the port of Liverpool by a vital canal link brought the raw materials to the former mill. Leeds's premier fashion houses would have well been stocked with the finest garments but the workers of Armley Mill and many others of its time worked immensely hard in conditions that brought the name 'sweat shop' to light. Witnessing the 'spinning mule' I could not begin to imagine how the work conditions were for those desperate workers, some of them I read were children who were working to support their families. I was proud of the history of the mill but for the treatment of the workers, no!

Not just famous for its cloth making but in the here and now Leeds is known for a popular ITV soap opera, going by the name of Emmerdale. Before making my self guided trip to Leeds and then York I had looked at tours that were packaged for that area with a visit to the Emmerdale filming set. Deciding the Armley Mills at the Leeds Industrial Museum would show me a real part of Leeds's history I didn't pay the Emmerdale Experience much attention, but believe me I'm not being shady. Leeds looked like it had a great set of bars but I was so whacked out from seeing all I did in that day, choosing to take it easy I missed the opportunity to see any of the bars during their best hours. Dealing with that nighttime factor I know that I will make up for taking it easy in one of my upcoming trips. Leeds served several things that I really loved, its past and Victorian charm impressed me much! I'll never underestimate the draw of a city that's not a London, Manchester or Birmingham! Yes L!

Legendary Leeds! 

Joseph Harrison

2 September 2017

Back To Birmingham

Birmingham hasn't been part of my life for some time due to being in Wuhan, China. Time away from my student city has always been good for me, the longer time passes since my university days the more I feel immensely appreciative for the journey. With some time on my hands I wanted to hop back to my past student home. Of course I had Southside in my sights!

Chinese food and culture has been part of my life for the last two years, before I moved to the Middle Kingdom I was eased into things during my students days within Birmingham's Chinese Quarter with the help of my dear friend Kelly. Fresh off the Midland Metro I bypassed Grand Central for the moment because I had China Town set in my sights, I was hungry for a late dinnertime treat at Peach Garden. It didn't take me long for some Oriental talent to cross my path as I grew closer to Birmingham's Chinese Quarter, those East Asian brothers were looking finer than fine! Over the years Birmingham has brought me back together with myself, since finishing university it was bitter pill to swallow not living in Birmingham full time but as the years have past and I've been living my real life Chinese life it was humbling to be back for that one time. One thing I couldn't deny was the view, pure gorgeousness from every angle!

The late summer sun in the Arcadian shone, the atmosphere of that Friday was great as I made my way to Day In Oriental Supermarket. Transported back to my Oolong Tea hunting time I wasn't looking for that brew, no it was all about the curry paste I swore by during my China days first time around. The air may have felt fresh but it was filled with the familiar tones of the Cantonese language, that Hong Kong and Guangdong chat took me back to my time in Hong Kong and also in Guangzhou. Content with my curry mix, I was hungry for some sweet and sour from Peach Garden on Ladywell Walk. Ready with my chopsticks I loved my late dinnertime treat, accompanied by some mixed chow mian with a cup of hot water for good measure. I knew my return to China wouldn't be too long away so that brief Oriental moment gave me some life. Did I want some post-dinner Bubble Tea? Yes, please! Ordering my milky tea in pure Mandarin Chinese was life! 珍珠奶茶? 是的, 大而冷!

Rewinding slightly I did things differently as my Metro tram passed by the all new Snow Hill development, staying on past the new 'St. Chads' and 'Bull Street' stops, passing the shops along Corporation Street before pulling into the all new and finally open Grand Central terminus. After checking into my hotel and having my Cantonese dinner I took a walk through the new Grand Central and New Street Station complex that amazed me, the wind and airy environment oozed modernity and light. The smaller parts of the new station were so cramped during my final term at University College Birmingham and the Metro extension took such a long time the whole project seemed more like a hindrance rather than a help during that concluding part of my Birmingham living. Redeeming itself in the present day I saw a streamlined view for Birmingham's main railway interchange. It resembled 武汉站 but without the shops! Oh BHM!

In a strange way I felt a slight detachment from Birmingham but in a healthy way, casting my mind back to the last full day I spent in Birmingham I felt gutted to leave the city because essentially I wasn't happy with life before China, working in a place in the West Midlands that didn't give me life had me running to Birmingham to seek some solace. I remember my first 'Back To Birmingham' post from August 2015 it was a time when I craved the city that took me away from Bilston and that gave me independence. 2017s Birmingham had me looking at a whole new city that still had the same quirks as before but my life has evolved so much from that point of leaving the Maltings for the final time before summer 2014. All in all the progress that I and Birmingham have made is remarkable if I don't mind saying so! In that moment Birmingham's New Station looked just right from my view. Going back to the hotel I decided it was time to relax and get ready before the night started. Let's go BR!

Even before I came back from China, me and my younger brother had already decided we would hit the town after I came back from Wuhan, China. Keeping to our word we met at Grand Central along with his lovely girlfriend, Alice. Beginning the night with our first drink at Grand Central's very own All Bar One set the pace for the night. We decided a bar crawl would be the perfect thing to do, moving onto Lost & Found along Bennett's Hill for a mixed gin cocktail. We rambled on about anything and everything, I've met Alice a few times since coming back from China, so the night out gave me a chance to get to know her better. Leaving that gin infused lounge for the Wetherspoon's at the Briar Rose shocked us as two double mixed drinks and a pint of Strongbow Dark Fruit only cost us £9.99! Winning with that price we stayed for three rounds or so at the Rose to take advantage of those prices! It was turning out great!

I had only found two cities in China during my two years that served me with fabulous venues, holding onto those experiences in Chengdu and Jinan I waited patiently for my chance to slay at the Village Inn within Southside, Birmingham. Making our way to the Village for the midnight Friday night cabaret was our plan, Sandra London's performance was one of the reasons I had called the night out on the 25th of August 2017! Being on the dance floor felt truly freeing, with the music right and Sandra slightly behind schedule I lost myself in the music, they played some RuPaul and after being starved of that type of music had me crazy! Sandra was amazing as per usual, the drinks free flowed and the night just felt so lovely, we don't always see eye to eye but as we get older as brothers we will always have each others back no matter what! Bidding a rather drunken farewell to Lewis and Alice I carried on the party at the Village Inn. After that episode I can close that Birmingham chapter! Getting back that Chinese flavour felt ace, seeing Grand Central's completion pleased me but the night out ruined me the next day!

Birmingham, I Can't!

Joseph Harrison 

Helensburgh & Loch Lomond, Scotland

So, I hadn't made any reservations in Glasgow, I was told that I needed to book my flights to Scotland and my friend would sort me out. Running for the train at Glasgow's Queen Street Station, we eventually arrived at Helensburgh Central after going via Dunbarton! Those ticket machines! Well, Luss and Loch Lomond were waiting for us and a bottle of Buckfast was all mine! So?

Helensburgh had been a place that Fiona had told me about during our time in Wuhan, China. To be very honest it sounded quite like a Bilston by the sea! After our introductions I made myself comfortable at the Dade-McPhee household, after a lovely lasagna tea with a few pink gins for good measure it was time to rest, the next day was going to be eventful! I want more pink gin! Waking up uncharacteristically early for me during my post-China routine it was a chilled morning for us before the crazy commenced. It only took a hot minute before Helensburgh turned into a distant thought, the lush green hills of the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park grew closer. No, I'm not a tourist neither is Fiona so I tried to keep my cool as the hoards of tourists made their way into the picture postcard streets of Luss, I wasn't going to go out of mind! The chocolate box holiday cottages desensitised me as modernity beckoned so near. Go!

Chauffeur driven by Norman, Fiona's stepdad got us to where we wanted to be that morning. The weather was as changeable as life was in Wuhan for myself and Fiona, those clouds brought the rain down in annoying spots. Gifts aren't usually my thing I usually like to use photos as my only memento of a place but my grandparents deserved a gift or two for being fantastic and then some. Wading through the groups of stationary tourists tested my patience's, but I exercised impeccable manners throughout that brief shopping period. Content with my Scottish purchases it was back to finding the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Luss had something special, going from the sandstone looks of Glasgow's city centre to the rolling hills of Luss gave me life for true! I'm not usually about travelling within the United Kingdom but after spending two years in China, detoxing from the utter pandemonium of Wuhan with such views has been the perfect tonic. Yes, Loch Lomond was hiding somewhere!

The boundless beauty of Loch Lomond treated my eyes to a sight so beautiful I wasn't bothered by the thick layers of clouds and sporadic showers. My nan would always sing the song 'The Bonnie Banks 'o' Loch Lomond' to us and to my younger cousins when we were babies so that idyllic vista was amazing to finally see in real life. Relocating Joanne and Norman was a relief as me and Fiona had briefly lost them, they had chosen to have a look at local art display whilst we were in the gift shop. I took my time to get a good photo of the fresh waters of Loch Lomond with a few boats in the background, the Loch was lively yet sedate, it seemed the off weather had kept people away from the waters edge and that completely fine with me. Had I seen a sight as beautiful as Loch Lomond before? I'd have to say the Erhai Lake in Dali, China closely matched Scotland's beautiful Loch Lomond. I paid those tourists no mind!

The Loch Lomond Arms had me thirsty for a pre pre-party drink but it was rammed with families, leaving that business behind us we drove for a little bit around passing the Gare Loch that showed me a glimpse of HMND Clyde before ending up at 'The Cafe' in Kilcreggan that overlooked Kilcreggan Bay on Roseneath Road. Unknowingly we were just over the water from Greenock Port where the majority of the cruise liners dock for Glasgow and Loch Lomond. Our light lunch was nice, it gave me and Fiona the permission to speak about our crazy lives in China and if anyone felt jealous they knew that they could have an experience like we did, we don't have time for negativity because thats so basic! The morning and afternoon out had been really nice, Loch Lomond and Luss served views and then some! Going back to Fiona's after our lovely outing to Luss, Loch Lomond and Kilcreggan gave us the chance to take a disco nap before the carnage would begin. Everybody let's say Scotland!

With our looks on-point it was down to Helensburgh town centre to begin the night ahead. I had promised to pre-drink a bottle of Buckfast, known as 'tramp tipple' I bravely bought a bottle of fortified wine for the win! Getting our night started at Charlotte's flat was the key for us! We were later joined by Fiona's sister Caroline after she got herself ready for the night. As we sipped on our pre-drinks I felt the Buckfast kick in, being my first night out after getting disorderly in China I was on my best behaviour. Leaving Charlotte's place we headed for the Logie Baird, but the locals just called it 'The Logie'. The Clyde had lost its buzz so I had already heard a lot about Helensburgh's top late night venue. Hitting the Logie just before 11pm allowed me to survey the locals, mostly from the forces it was going to be an interesting night to say the least! Getting our drink on and then some it was a scandalous night! We got mad with it HB!

With the lights almost up it was time for something to eat, Chinese had to be the one and I was so excited to eat properly with chopsticks again. Back to Charlotte's we went with our food, unbeknownst to the others I baffled them with my crafty chopstick game, I was too hungry to notice and essentially it felt normal for me to eat without a knife and fork. Feeling rather 'not well' the next morning we took a walk down the seafront close to the town centre, it definitely took the edge of our hangovers but I needed a bottle of Iron Bru to settle that score. Dropping into Caroline's we reminisced on the previous nights antics, we honestly had a great time and there was no drama! Sunday Dinner came to the rescue, chilling for the rest of the day had to be the one, we were both not well. All in all the two days spent in Helensburgh was lovely, Loch Lomond and Less were beautiful and the Logie was mad! Fiona and I may be on different paths but we're shared such an experience. Bye Fiona!

Get Mad With It!

Joseph Harrison 

1 September 2017

Destination: Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland called my name! Boarding my flight from Birmingham I touched down into a dreary Glasgow but my China bestie, Fiona was waiting for me at domestic arrivals so it all good. Ready to reconnect with Scotland's realest city, I didn't want to a one single thing! Second time lucky I was feeling so ready to see the city again, Glasgow was absolutely incredible!

Returning from China me and Fiona had made a pact to meet in her homeland of Scotland, keeping to our plan I booked up my flights from Birmingham to Glasgow International without any hesitation. We had connected during our crazy two year teaching experience in Wuhan, China and had vowed to keep in touch no matter! Forbidding any basic energy I was more than ready to slay my way to Glasgow, bounding ahead on my propeller plane it was a fifty minute flight from BHX to Glasgow! Not appreciating the weather forecast whatsoever it wasn't going to have a detrimental impact on that long weekend thing. Sashaying through domestic arrivals had me reunited with Fiona, we were ready to take the city of Glasgow for ourselves and nobody would dare stop us! My post-China life had me slowed down, getting out of the malarkey of visa renewal craziness had to be done! Oh no, Glasgow didn't have a choice!

I had previously been to Glasgow during my university days, accompanied by two friends who hailed from Portugal it was a great weekend but we missed out so much during our time in Glasgow. Not throwing shade on those Portuguese beauties but I had to take power, stepping on the gas to get us to the hotel and then to break down the language barrier. I had seen the Necropolis and the Cathedral, both amazing sights that I didn't need to see a second time around, that distant trip served ultimate realness with the duel we saw in McDonalds by Central Station, only high heels and chicken nuggets are needed to cause drama in Glasgow! Saving the Buckfast for the next night I wasn't looking for drama at all, leaving the perimeter of the airport brought us closer to Glasgow's city centre. Being back with Fiona felt amazing, it had only been a few weeks since we said goodbye in Wuhan but we were back! George Square, the Tenement House and the Clyde River were all in our sights! Yes!

Straight up Glasgow served its gritty truth, facing George Square gave me life for certain. Glasgow's centre point didn't need approval, that 17th century focal point impressed me much with the City Chambers as the main focal point. Listening to a reliable source we learnt that before George Square was fashioned into its current state it was a ground to slaughter horses, I suppose darkness always turns into light? I believe so in George Square's legacy, looking at its location I recognised the links from Buchanan Street from previous trip, how did we miss that? George Square sure was pint-sized but its horse statues brought the royal factor back, I'm always in favour when Queen Victoria's present. During the Scottish Referendum, George Square was a hype of activity with people expressing their views to be independent or to remain with the United Kingdom. In many respect's George Square is a main stage! Work Glasgow!

The stature of George Square had me working for a worthy photo, the threatening weather brought an unfavourable amount of cloud into my view! Now that's just shady! Greggs for breakfast, there's no shame in that because Glasgow wasn't going to judge us! Glasgow had me ready to recapture what I had wanted to see the first time but the blog wasn't alive back then, I really had no clue! Hopping on the sightseeing bus seemed like a champion plan, I usually look for transport like the Subway but embracing something different I was game to be schooled about this Glaswegian wonder! Leaving George Square behind us, me and Fiona were bamboozled with enough information it was almost too much! Passing the Winter Gardens showcased a slice of Victorian splendour, it was a shame art isn't our thing because were impressed by the People's Palace much! My day up till that point had been hectically fantastic, both of us looked forwards to our next stop, we were ready to step back in time!

My family is definitely the realest, we don't live in mansion or penthouse suites because we live on a council estate and there's nothing wrong with that at all! Seeking out a piece of Glasgow's housing history I came across the Tenement House along the sightseeing bus, located near Argyle Street and on the Subway system I could have found it independently but time wasn't a healer in our case. Supporting the National Trust Scotland with our entrance fee, we rang the bell on the first floor to be greeted by a volunteer worker. At first glance I was shocked to see how comfortable the Tenement rooms looked, I had an image of abject squalor but a Middle Class style was present. The dining room was modestly decorated with a cupboard housing a small double bed, presumably for the parents? A small bedroom sat next door, complete with a chamber pot reminding me of the Black Country term 'Guzunder'. Everything looked untouched! 

Delving into the kitchen led us to a helpful and very knowledgeable volunteered who informed us that the house had been kept exactly how it would have been during the 1800s as the previous tenant had not changed a single thing. The original family were not typical of the common impression of tenement housing in Glasgow, many other families would be in a state of poverty without running water or any real form of sanitation. I asked questions about the disparity between social classes in Glasgow during that time, she informed us that rents would be cheaper on the top floor and in the basement due to severe coldness at the bottom and the many floors to reach the top floor. Having seen many historic photos of Tenements from the Gorbals planted the impression of Glasgow housing, my family would have probably been living on the top floor or down in the basement, let me proclaim that we don't have tine for the middle class style. Glasgow had to work for it, no it's no Edinburgh!

Glasgow stands legendary with its own waterway, famously known as a powerhouse for its ship building along the Clyde River. Glasgow stone structures were given life by the Clyde many industrious ways, ship building built that city for certain! During my first visit to Glasgow we made it to the waterfront as the sun began to set, I won't lie it was a little bit sketchy but that what made me love Glasgow's edgy Clyde Riverside. The crane that stood still caught my eye because it resembled the past, sat by the crane is the wonky bridge. Why was that bridge not built straight? Due to the historic foundations of the Bankside it was thought if the bridge was curved it would cheaper and wouldn't cause much chaos. I have a love for industrious city that have worked for what they own, even though the shipping industry doesn't power Glasgow like it used to there are still moneymakers that fuel the city today. Build it G!

Let me eat my words because the Clyde is still craft sea worthy vessels to this day, hot off the docks is HMS Forth, slated for handover to the British Royal Navy in 2017 it's being completely assembled in Glasgow. Over the years Glasgow's branch of the Clyde River can say its been part of the building of the following vessels; the legendary tea clipper known as the Cutty Sark was crafted in Glasgow but has now been lifted into its own dry dock in Royal Greenwich in London. Ships fit for royalty such as RMS Queen Mary and the QE2 respectively, now that sounds like music to my ears. Glasgow showed us all of that and even more, stopping for in-between visiting the Tenement House and the Clyde Riverside we went for a lovely burger because Glasgow served it better than the previous time! There were no early evening scuffles near Central Station involved a Happy Meal but during this 2017 rebooted edition Glasgow sure delivered! Of course Scotland's realest city took us on the best ride!

Giving Us Glasgow! 

Joseph Harrison 

15 August 2017

2017: No Summertime Sadness!

Summertime during 2017 has so far been busy, mad and worth every second whatever happened during my final month in China and beyond. Concluding my final term of teaching in Wuhan, China I got up to a lot during that July period but here and after things have been on an England hype! It's been a mix bag of experiences, I'm gunning for the next chapter! Quite frankly!

Applying myself to my kindergarten English teaching duties it was time to breakout the summertime curriculum! With the Casa classes it was time for us to read and explore 'summer' a picture book displaying lots of fun things that can done during the summer. I made butterflies and fish from card and yes they were all handmade, they loved catching them and having a little bit of mild competition. Singing the summer song, the children and I, loved every single moment! Beating the heat during my final week we made some juice boxes from card, I had made a prototype but like always I was amazed by the kids boundless imaginations! The previous two years had been a challenge worth excepting, at the end of things it was worth every moment to see the children have fun and progress with their English skills along with their character. It's not just being about the English for me its fundamental a child's confidence soars!

Away from work I revelled in my Guanggu location for the final months, not to put a depressive not on this because I was seeing my chaotic area with a new perspective, during that summertime I felt humbled to have gone through such a journey in that corner of Wuhan. Taking a walk into Guanggu on the two anniversary since arriving in Guanggu, two years on I couldn't believe how I had slotted in with that life and moulded into the rhythm of that berserk environment. Getting a Happy Lemon bubble milk tea had to be done, rewinding back to my first few days in Wuhan I had chosen Happy Lemon over other milk tea brands. That celebratory milk tea maybe have tasted sweet but he journey hadn't been easy but I didn't want things to be plane sailing. Meeting up with Tony we had a lovely milestone meal, no Chinese for that celebration for we had tacos and burgers at Devil's Brewery on Guanggu Street. As one chapter was preparing to close I knew things would go out with a bang!

Reuniting with Mark, we went out for my final night out in Wuhan before saying goodbye to that Central Chinese City! I worked alongside Mark during the first semester of my second year at my kindergarten, he's a great guy and we got each other through the madness of that autumn/winter semester without a doubt. Meeting before the midnight hour at Hype on Zhongnan Road we watched the young entitled Chinese few get their crazies on with much amusement, I channelled my 'Kia' persona and had those few gagged by what I served up on the dance floor! Moving on would it be to MUSE or straight to All Stars for the next phase of the night? The dancing juice had started to kick in and the night had only just begun! All Stars brought the beat and the drinks flowed ever more, dancing through to the early morning I had the time of my life slaying! The sun had already risen, my bed called me but what a night B!

The weekend before that craziness I decided to take one final trip to Wuchang, ready for Tanhualin once again since my first visit back in November 2015 I wanted to revisit that coffee street. Getting back to Merci served up the same cutesy experience, getting my caffeine and cake fix was great within that kitsch cafe. Desheng Bridge didn't have a name when I visited briefly during Tanhualin's first try, after seeing an over-edited snap of that down to earth market street on social media I was determined to catch a more realistic and honest view. The riverside called me even though the weather wasn't pleasant I wanted to catch my final glimpse of the Yangtze River. Summer 2017 had been mostly about working hard but having those snatched moments allowed the sun to shine when the rain fell from the skies. Keeping myself busy was the key, my China bestie Fiona had flew home after that point and I was dealing with it well but missed that Scottish pal of mine! Fiona had been my partner in crime for close to two years, she wouldn't have wanted me to be sad during the summertime! See you Fio!

Shanghai Pudong International Airport brought me back to the beginning, ready for take off I made my way home with Aeroflot Russian Airlines via Moscow to London's Heathrow Airport. Getting back to Bilston after two years felt down right weird but amazing in the same breath, I hadn't seen family for a while so getting back home was really nice. I didn't stop eating and in the present I'm still putting away some serious food because it'll be back to China soon but to Beijing! Getting out of Bilston a few days after arriving back to England I made an important trip to Liverpool to renew my passport. Wuhan didn't have a British Embassy so I wasn't left with much of a choice but to get that renewal done as soon as I got home. Ready and shiny new in under four hours I spent a nice day in Liverpool getting my new passport, thankfully its valid for ten years with a few more pages I'll be good for a long while! Oh, Liverpool looked good!

Slipping into a lazy daze I have been getting my papers ready to send back to China, the dreaded visa process begins again before I can board my one way flight back to the Middle Kingdom. What else do I have planned to see the summer out? I'll be jetting up to Scotland to see Fiona as promised we're going to be hitting the town during the twilight hour in Helensburgh! Glasgow is in my sights, kindly accompanied by Fiona we will sightsee as if our lives depended on it! Nights in Wuhan sure got scandalous for different reasons but I have been begging for a night out in Birmingham during my China hiatus, pulling the troops together I cannot wait to get down and shameless within the right kind of venues in Southside, Birmingham! Getting my life together its not being a bad summertime so far, its had its up and downs but there's been so much to celebrate, its not over just yet so there's time to get it done! From making juice boxes, dancing the night away to then arriving home. Yes 2017!

Summertime Realness! 

Joseph Harrison 

12 August 2017

Hubei Province: China's Central Heart!

Hubei province was my home for over two years as I lived in Wuhan, the provincial capital was exploding before my eyes but I wanted to break out of the city limits to see more of Hubei during my time there. Xianning, Enshi and Yichang all took me by the hand for different reasons, from cementing a lasting friendship to witnessing a man-made wonder I was amazed by Hubei! 

Rushing from my kindergarten to Wuhan Railway Station I wasn't ready for the off the wall antics Xianning, Hubei would serve to me that very weekend! Zooming to Xianning North I was greeted by Fiona, my China bestie hailed a taxi to allow the mayhem to begin! Changed within minutes we battled the rain to reach her local bar, the lower tier city of Xianning had a rough and rustic vibe it hadn't had the boom like Wuhan received with endless construction but I loved Fiona's neighbourhood, it was full of drama and everyday trouble for sure! Tanning a drink or three it was a foreign affair for we were the only expats in the bar. Graduating to a nearby club our inner freaks were truly released on the runway, literally the runway in that club became our because we were high on that moment! Boozed up and ready to sleep we called it a night, it had been a very eventful day but I was ready for round two! Don't be haram!

Waking up to fireworks banging outside wasn't what I planned at all it was only April! Dragging ourselves out into the daylight we caught the bus to Xianning's Qianshan National Park to get a higher view of Wuhan's little sister. I nearly didn't make it up but Fiona as company it wasn't difficult to just power up to the top to see the views. The city of Xianning looked a lot smaller to the monster that is Wuhan, the less stress was much easier to deal with. Getting back to the city was interesting, taking a tuk-tuk was our only choice as the buses disappeared! McDonalds got us through the day, taking a rest we need to be ready for the evening ahead. The night was mental! Leaving the drama behind and a classless individual it was home time! Sunday brought my final day in Xianning, reuniting with Alvaro we had a look around Fiona's school it was very different to mine. The old streets gave me life, since Baltimore I hunt down Realness! With enough time for lunch and coffee it was back to Wuhan. 

Focussing most of my time on trips outside of Hubei I bit the bullet towards the end of my two years of living in Wuhan with a weekend jaunt to Enshi, Hubei. Going out of my comfort zone I took my second sleeper train, my first experience of a sleeper train was in a hard sleeper compartment but the overnight journey to Enshi was in a soft sleeper, not the best! Waking up a little while before my train was scheduled to arrive at Enshi Railway Station the train was stuck at a silent station that wasn't my destination. After a little delay I was on Enshi soil with my sights set on the Tusi Ancient City as I wasn't going to have time to visit the Canyon in the one day I chose places in the city centre. I liked the Ancient City, it was nice to see from the walls that surrounded that Enshi attraction. The unfortunate elements of the train journey melted away as the heavens opened to a level that caused flooding in the streets! Yes!

The rain finally deiced to stop, how very considerate of it because me and my rucksack stood soaking! No, I don't travel with an umbrella! Trying again I caught a second great view of Enshi's branch of the Qing River, calmer and a lot smaller than Wuhan's branch of the Yangtze River, that chilled sight gave me some life as it had been a long day. Reaching my hotel was a relief, dropping my things and airing out my soaked trainers and clothes I headed out for some food and to mooch around what felt like the city centre of Enshi during the early evening. Heading back to the half-flooded street that I passed through on the bus wasn't my plan but I saw some killer fried rice being cooked outside a small restaurant, it didn't cost the earth and it tasted amazing! Heading back to the hotel I loved the lively vibe of people just enjoying the evening in a civilised way without stress, seeing people out and about wasn't annoying like Guanggu throws up! So, Enshi was worth the journey Hubei!

Yichang had been a city within Hubei province that I had wanted to visit for a while, home to the Three Gorges Dam I was running out of time fast so booking a last minute weekend trip before leaving China had to be done! Arriving just before the midnight hour at Yichang East Railway Station took me closer to the controversial dam project. Checking into my hotel wasn't a stress, opening the door to my room I was staggered by what stood in front of me! I thought I had booked a simple double room but low and behold I had a huge bathroom and even a separate sitting room, for all of forty pounds for two night I was winning! Refreshed from my sound sleep in my queen size bed I attempted breakfast but that was a no go! Meeting my tour guide I was shown to some Re Gan Mian and some soy bean milk for breakfast, I was complemented on my Chinese skills by the ladies who served me! Refuelled, I was ready for the day Yi!

Marvelling at the views from the car it didn't take long to leave Yichang's small city centre, the lush green mountain views impressed me much! Arriving at the visitor centre the short bus ride was fine, taking in the sight of the vast gorge was amazing because I had only seen photos before that moment, which didn't justify the actual scene. The vast gorge area that was centred around the dam lasted forever, the landscape gave a sweeping effect that I appreciated. Stopping for lunch had to be done, usually the China Highlights package included lunch but that tour didn't but it wasn't expensive so I was going to stress my mind over that business. Qu Yuan's Ancestral Hall had me schooled about Dragon Boat Festival, the reasons for the different customs all made perfect sense after the story was introduced to me. The hall had been relocated due to the rising water levels that dam construction trigger, the view amazed me with the principles 'Feng Shui' had been noticed. Yes, Yichang!

My Hubei Province!

Joseph Harrison 

9 August 2017

Wuchang: Coffeeshops, Markets & The Riverside!

Wuchang had one more day of exploration in-store for me, my departure back to the UK loomed. This final Wuchang instalment had me revisiting a favourite coffee street of mine, getting back to the rough scene of a market area that could well disappear soon and a final walk along the riverside of the legendary Yangtze River. One more time Wuchang? Coffee, Wu?!

My time in Wuhan was seriously running out, reserving one more night out and a Wuchang day before the flight back to England I knew what I needed to do! Jumping on the Wuhan Metro for the final time I headed for Tanhualin, a kitsch street bursting with coffeeshops had been a hotspot for my 25th birthday in November 2015. Leaving just enough time in-between those visits I noticed a surge in development around Pangxiejia station compared to my first visit when things basically looked like a sight of rubble. The street had changed slightly, not paying too much attention to the new modifications I headed for Merci. I had chosen that cute coffeeshop on my birthday and quite frankly it looked the best on the street out of the many other competitors. Choosing a milky coffee and a sweet chocolate cake it was great to treat myself as the rain pelted down outside. Luckily the character of Merci hadn't changed! Oh!

Tanhualin brought many memories back from the beginning of my time in Wuhan, things were blessed during that November 2015 period when I first visited that colourful Wuchang street. Standing in that moment it felt very strange to be looking at the same place, even if some of the other coffeeshops had closed down, maybe it was due to the metro construction? Such shady business! My coffee and cake were lovely, the staff in Merci hadn't lost their friendly vibe like when I first visited almost two years previous to that July afternoon. Sundays had become the new Saturday for me, plus the rain could have well kept people away because it was nice and chilled. Wuhan is great and Wuchang kept me coming back for more but it wouldn't half get crazy! I adored being back along Tanhualin, it was a place that I wanted to revisit before saying bye to Wuhan. Tanhualin had seen the last of me, bidding a fond farewell to that coffee street I finished my drink and snack and got back on with it B!

Desheng Bridge cropped up on a Instagram photo from a wannabe blogger/photographer, ain't nobody trying my game, I do what I do with integrity and without silly editing tools! Revisiting another November 2015 haunt I could appreciate this up-front market street that served up no apologises. The stench of raw meat hanging in a Chinese style butchers reminded me of my first nights in China during that Shanghai weekend, the hostel was next to a food market that carried the same smells over that will never leave me! The great thing about Desheng Bridge is that everything is sold there, from vegetables to household items, going back to my first visit I even got a haircut in the hairdressers along the parade of shops and stalls. The most recent trip wasn't about purchases, I never spent a penny because I was taking the views in for a final time. Desheng Bridge looked better in real life without any filters. 

Embracing Wuhan's low foreign presence I seemed to be the only westerner walking along Desheng Bridge, the market traders thought that was very amusing indeed. I could half understand what they were saying to me and about me but I knew what to say back to them and I was perfectly cordial. The rain still felt the need keep on but I wasn't bothered, the afternoon so far felt like closure in one breath with a smattering of new discovery. Was Desheng Bridge anything like Bilston Market? I would have to say certain similarities could be seen as far as both sets of traders all want make living by selling their products, sounds like the same common goal? The meat may have harboured some unsavoury smells but the was suited to Desheng's vibe, taking me back to my first nights in China I sort of appreciated that acrid scent. Both Tanhualin and Desheng Bridge served equal amounts of Wuchang realness, fulfilling two of my final three segments. Baidu Maps had the next part covered! 

I had never realised how close by Tanhualin and Desheng Bridge were to the riverside of the Yangtze! The rain persisted still but I didn't care about that one bit! Taking in the magnificent views of the gargantuan Changjiang for the final time I was living for that moment, practically deserted due to the rain I was almost alone during that rainy afternoon river walk. Captured is the Hankou portion of the Yangtze's riverside with views in the distance of the Customs House and main historic Bund area. I had seen the views of the Wuchang side many times from Hankou but didn't really take the time to visit the other side. I spent some of the time sat down, watching the river flow as spoke to my dear friend Tony, we spoke about the colonial influences of the Bund area and how Liverpool and Shanghai shared a few similarities along both their riverfront's. I knew a certain goodbye would be in order. I didn't want to!

Gazing at the wide expanse of the Yangtze River in front of me it hit me that I had broken past the two year mark, visiting the Yellow Crane Tower during August 2015 gave me my first sunny views of Hankou and Hanyang with so much optimism. In that moment I had worked my two years and been in two jobs, the second teaching gig had worked out for the best so all looked good from where I was standing. Going back to retrace my steps in Wuchang for the final time to lead me to such a calming sight in the rain felt amazing, it was quite sobering in one respect. I had looked to Wuchang a few times before and from a tourist point of view I had delved further into the areas that surrounded the Yellow Crane Tower to find a labyrinth of sights, smells and delights. Brushing all of that away for a moment I wouldn't of wanted to trade that view even for all the dreariness, Wuhan had come full circle. Take the metro back for the final time, Optics Valley Square saw the last of me! Life!

Wuchang, I'm Out! 

Joseph Harrison 

China: Cities Off The Radar!

China's megacities have impressed me much during my time, well I am yet to experience Beijing but that will all change very soon! Shanghai may be a city of neon lights with a skyline to bring down New York City's performance but I like to go 'off the radar' to find cities within China that give me everything and sometimes more! Daring to be different, I sure hit the jackpot!

Jinan, the 'Spring City' of Shandong Province was brought to my attention as I searched for my return journey from Qingdao during 2016's National Day holiday. Knowing nothing about Jinan I booked my hotel and high speed train without a care in the world. Arriving on my train from Qingdao I hit the streets to find the city's Quancheng Square, undoubtedly Jinan's city centre I took in the striking thoroughfare that stood in front of me. As the sun disappeared I was served a beautiful crimson sky that swept this space into such a memorable moment. Jinan may have not been a famous city, well I had never heard of it, I already knew that wasn't going to stop me exploring deeper into its core. Searching for something to see I found Baotu Spring, like a hidden secret garden with a charming spring that may have been teeming with people but I saw what I wanted. Jinan had more to show me, bring on the night!

Shunning Jinan's Furong Ancient street I found a more 'down to earth' environment off the beaten track. Xichengen Jie presented itself as an ordinary alley lined with rustic Chinese eateries that didn't scream a touristy mess, for that reason I was sold immediately. Qingdao posed to be a city that didn't bring the party so I was curious what this undercover city had to offer after dark, consulting my go-to social media APP I found a helpful friend who led me to 2012 Bar, tucked away down a side street only a few steps away from my hotel I had booked the right place to stay! Being the only westerner in the place I chilled with my beers, out of nowhere the stage in front of me presented a series of drag performances, dressed from the Dynasties as wannabe empresses, I was gagged by their Oriental sass! Climbing the Qianfo Mountain the next day hungover, returning to see the queens of Bar 2012, let's just say I had a great time there over the two nights and I even had to serve some sass myself! Seriously, some queens should know themselves before getting attitude! Yes, Jinan gave me everything CN!

Suffering from the sub-zero temperatures after spending three days in Harbin, I left behind the ice festivals and Siberian tigers for the city of Shenyang. Like Jinan I didn't know much about Shenyang aside from its Korean Connection, I wanted to take some chances to see that Liaoning Province city. Qingzhen Street had caught my eye during some pre-trip research, serving nothing but Hui Muslim Chinese food I was blessed with this street being situated only a few paces from my hotel, I had no idea! Pounding the pavements the next morning before the birds could even make their song, I had Shenyang where I wanted it! Beiling Park recaptured Harbin's frozen nature, taking my time to enjoy that iced over environment I loved life in this practically secret city! Homesickness hadn't hit me hard but TESCO transported me home! Plotting my next move I found a certain war lord had an impressive residence in the 'Yang!

The former residence of Marshal Zhang Xueling crossed my path, impressing me much with that colonial scene I was content with Shenyang alternative sights. In the mood for a party I found Glasgow to begin my night, the fish and chips were phenomenal and the company wasn't bad either! Along with my new friend J, we went into the night to slay the competition at MIA because those rigid few needed to see us command the attention! It was a night to remember but I'm not revealing anything else about it! Feeling tender the next day with my hungover self I got back onto the sightseeing grind to Mukden Palace and Zhongshan Square, finishing with the neon lights of Xita Street to be at the centre of Shenyang's Korean corner. In need of food I chose the 'Pyongyang Rainbow' for some NK food, that North Korean dining experience knocked the ball out of the park for its state run television and Kimchi kept me aware. Of course Shenyang had me swirling within its madness! 사랑해!

Hefei may not be a city of great size or be known by international tourists but I know that it deserved my attention during 2017's Dragon Boat Festival. Despite what I had been told, I paid the shade and trash talkers no mind because Anhui's capital called me regardless! Noticing its understated charm I took it easy, making the most of the peace with those quieter street fronts I liked what I saw very much! Benefiting from a cheaper hotel and cut price first class tickets I wasn't spending a bomb load of money like those bigger cities require me to do. Huizhou Avenue led me to the city's Municipal Square where I practically had the city centre to myself. Hefei's legend Lord Bao had me calling up his Memorial Temple during my second day in Hefei, not costing the earth once again I was winning by choosing another undiscovered city! Serving pretty lotus ponds and sunshine, Hefei had me loving its pint-sized uniqueness! Yass!

Hefei didn't get me lost, I was on the right path! Xiaoyaojin Park welcomed me as I passed through its memorable gate, I wasn't looking for anything flashy because I was thankfully served a whole lot of normality. People just chilled and went about their business and that was a fact. Taking some time out I had made the right choice to visit Hefei because it didn't stress me out or have horrendous crowds for me to wade through! Keeping my chilled frame of mind I saw all I wanted to in Hefei without breaking a sweat, well at least I tried for the weather was heating up! Jinan, Shenyang and Hefei challenged the meaning of a Chinese city, taking different elements of the unexpected things I saw and experience gives me the motivation to keep on pursuing China's alternative lesser known cities. Going undercover to these three provincial cities had me challenging the tourist norm, passing challenges that megacities have lost I had the power to see all of this realness! Get it C!

Challenge Difference!

Joseph Harrison

31 July 2017

Flying High... Aeroflot Russian Airlines!

It had been two years or so since I had flown for more than three hours, embarking on my first long haul flight with Aeroflot Russian Airlines was something I had been looking forward to. Bagging an absolute bargain I had booked this London bound flight via Moscow some nine months before I would leave Shanghai for home. I was ready for some Russian service! Let's go Ru!

Believe me when I say that I would have flown from Wuhan back to England but was I paying those ludicrously high prices?! Absolutely, no way was that happening! Snatching a bargain flight with Aeroflot Russian Airlines was the winner, for the price I was willing to make the connection at Moscow Sheremetyevo to London Heathrow all the way from Shanghai Pudong. Taking the high speed train from Wuhan to Shanghai Hongqiao with all my bags was some task, catching a DiDi taxi was a drama but before I knew it I was checked in and through security at PVG airport. Let the preflight shenanigans begin! I honestly didn't know what tricks were being played that evening, the gate changed once, that wasn't an issue but then a second time till it changed a fourth time before we finally boarded the aircraft. The final boarding gate was on the lower level by the tarmac, I had a feeling it was buses for us. No!

Two burly Russian pilots made their way to our third boarding gate before that was changed for a fourth time, I could tell by their appearance we would be in safe hands in the flight deck for that cruise to Moscow! Soon after the bulk of the cabin crew glided in with their suitcases and orange uniforms, no smile was present because they were serving some Aeroflot attitude! I was sincerely ready to board, it had been a long day and I wasn't looking forward to my window seat, no I wanted an aisle! As if luck would have it we were bussed to our Boeing 777-300, all passengers had to board the aircraft through one door that took long enough. I had a feeling that my first Aeroflot experience would be a memorable one to say the very least. Boarded and seated in my window seat, I had already asked a member of the cabin crew if there was a spare aisle seat going, she was on the lookout for me. As our crew did their pre-flight checks I was granted my wish for an aisle seat, with thanks to Svetlana!

After reading countless reviews about Aeroflot's in-flight service I was extremely dubious about the quality of the food that was going to be served. I had already resided that no alcohol was going to be served throughout both of my Russian flights, that had me checking flights for a famous Middle Eastern airline for my return to China. Nevertheless, we began our flight smoothly to begin with, shortly following the first service of non-alcoholic drinks that were served by our cabin crew. Generally, the in-flight entertainment was very good with a favourable amount of films that had been released within the last year. Being on a flight that was made up of mostly Chinese passengers it was quite nice when they all felt asleep together, it would have been good to have slept for the whole flight but that was never going to happen in economy class. So far so good Aeroflot Russian Airlines served something worth my flight ticket.

Settling into my film, I chose 'Hidden Figures' a great choice as I had limited access to good western films during my time living in Wuhan, China. Centred around three strong African American women during the years of segregation, their heroic story of their fight to be serving the space missions managed by NASA made for a gripping watch even if I was exhausted. Dinner came around in the form of a seafood pasta that was served with potatoes, desert was a mango cheesecake and to be fair to those previous poor reviews and photos I had been served a perfectly edible meal that was quite tasty. The second meal was nice also but I was dog tired by that point so it was purely to keep my energy levels stable, the cheeky Oreo cookie bar was definitely appreciated. On an entertainment slant I even watched a little bit of a Russian children's cartoon, that was very random! Turbulence hit bad, loosing height to below 10,000 ft brought an announcement that was not for the passengers!

On my previous long haul flight with Sri Lankan Airlines to China, I took the plunge by asking the cabin crew for a little blog photo, this time around I wanted to take a backseat. The Aeroflot crew didn't seem like the type of girls to be willing to pose for photos, saying that they provided enough sass and entertainment to make up for their steely manner. Svetlana helped me from the moment I boarded the Russia bound aircraft, she changed my seat was changed without any hassle, she was really cool. Slay Svetlana! My section of the cabin was catered for by Svetlana and Viktoria, they ran our section with attitude and put they put the Chinese passengers in their place, giving their direct responses and not wasting time during their duties. It was blatantly clear to see that the majority of the cabin crew were beautiful ladies who looked under 30 years old. I didn't ask for a photo, I was always polite. Да, я служил! Go!

Boarding my second flight from Sheremetyevo to Heathrow I noticed the purser was a young gentleman, that wasn't a problem at all, it just didn't seem to fit with their ultra feminine young crew propaganda stance. Anastasia was one of the crew members on the second flight, she was undeniably stunning and mustn't of been over 25 years old? I contemplated catching the other bus after seeing her beauty! Overall, the down to earth no-nonsense attitude of the Aeroflot Russian Airlines cabin crew made for two great flights from an entertainment point of view. Svetlana and Viktoria worked hard during the Shanghai to Russia sector and the male presence was a nice change during the Russia to London sector. As I've mentioned I don't regret not asking for a photo with any of the female crew mentioned because it just didn't feel like the right thing to do. I didn't see many smiles but in place of that the crew did there jobs genuinely well without being fake. Their class attitudes were real!

Touching down into Moscow Sheremetyevo was a blessing, we had made up the slight delay from missing our departure slot in Shanghai. Poised to dock at a gate at Terminal D was what I wanted because the connection time would soon run away, I wasn't going to miss that London bound flight for anything. To our dismay we had taken several turns to then stop at the wrong terminal, the aircraft didn't connect to a jet-bridge so we had to wait a while to disembark by stairs for the second time and to be bussed to Terminal D after a long flight. People had advised me against choosing the option to pass through Russia, for me it wasn't an issue because my connection was under 24 hours so I didn't need a transit visa or a document to enter Russia out of the airport. Having my passport and boarding card verified seemed like a formality and the screening of baggage felt like a routine check even though the queues were crazy! No!

Cleared through into Terminal D's air side boarding gate area I checked the boards to avoid any problems as Shanghai had thrown some serious shade in that department. From the original gate 31 to gate 29, I checked the screen close to gate 29 meticulously because I was so ready to board, attempting to get any shut eye was my ultimate plan. Boarding time arrived and like magic the unmarked gate 29 finally displayed the details for the London flight that I was bound for. The bulk of the passengers on that second flight must of been all Russian, I was not putting up with waiting as I was a British Citizen who didn't need any visa to board that aircraft. Descending into Heathrow was a relief that I had made the journey, the River Thames came into view meaning my two flights were over! Aeroflot Russian Airlines surprised me, across that mammoth journey from Shanghai to London via Moscow, I was served edible food and served by the steely crew to then arrive on-time!

Аэрофлот, спасибо!

Joseph Harrison