26 April 2017

April: Through The Years...

So, April has come around with equally exciting opportunities for new memories to be made. Looking through the years I'm going to see what 2012, 2015 and 2017 served to me during the month of April. From my time in Newark, NJ to working in a hotel as a receptionist after my graduation its sure been a mix of experiences. Oh yes, China saved me! April slayed after all!

Turning back the hands of time it feels right for April 2012 to make a comeback. My third month during my Newark days in New Jersey served nothing but straight up Ironbound Realness! The whole time around April 2012 stands as a blur at this moment but I still remember the simple things, well maybe some of the more major moments if I take a few moments to think about them. Working as a Passenger Services Agent for a British flag carrier airline gave me all the insight to the workings of a pre-departure flight experience at that point. My third month working at Newark Liberty International Airport was character building to say the least, well the commute was an eye-opener if nothing else! Breaking from the state-line of New Jersey I got myself on a Pennsylvania bound train to experience Philadelphia for the day, I should of stayed overnight but that would of got me into trouble! The Northeast Coast was on fire!

Lady Liberty had my attention, fresh from my assault of Philadelphia I was good with staying closer to my Newark, NJ location. Boarding a Liberty Ferry across Jersey's stretch of the Hudson River unlocked the key to Ellis Island Immigration Centre and the legendary Statue of Liberty in one afternoon! I was schooled about America's immigration boom and how those dreamers were processed after their epic voyages to the supposed 'New World', it was so much more than I had previously expected. Saving the best for last it had to be the lady herself, standing on-point with her binding tablet. A gift from the French this NYC icon served nothing but truth and freedom, I was blown away by her strength as she stood poised to ward the evils away from New York City and it's New Jersey sister! I tried to open my eyes as it felt like I was dreaming, but as sure fire I was living that moment for real! April 2012 and it's exact events might be hazy but I remembered greatness!

April 2015 saw me in very different circumstances than my Jersey days at the airport, I had finished university and was working as a hotel receptionist at a Walsall hotel. To escape that situation I used the best of my West Midlands location with two day trips away from my hometown to Leicester and Cambridge. Leicester served an Indian spice to my April day of discovery, I used that East Midlands city as a distraction because I was in the middle of hatching a master-plan to reach China, I thanked Leicester for its sanctuary. The hotel had its moment, earning my coins to get where I wanted to be was the reason, I was experiencing a job that fitted my degree but I was desperately seeking a new international adventure. Biding my time I had faith in April 2015 to lay the foundations to my then next move. Days out like I had to Leicester at that point made all the difference. April 2015 done!

A second outing was just the ticket, going further south than Birmingham I trekked down to Cambridge for a lovely spring day. That upper class student city served a sense of Oxford with its historic school houses, showing me how the other half get the chance to study. I had the best experience at UCB in Birmingham so I wasn't bitter by what regal buildings Cambridge offered its student whatsoever. Punting impressed me much, that scenic view wasn't just pleasing for my sight it got me away from my daily routine. Kings College and the winding River Cam gave me a sense of something I needed at that point, my life was in the works at that point if truth be told. Stopping in my brothers uni dorm the night before my early morning coach I was reminded of my former city life. Life had changed beyond belief for me since my uni days but I had my priorities straight at that point, it would of only been a matter of weeks before I had my golden ticket. I just had to go a little further!

In the present, during April 2017 I stand with my feet firmly on Chinese soil, I got what I wanted and even though I almost had it taken away from me I made every moment of this month count! Hangzhou, China had me covered for the Tomb Sweeping Festival as I had a trip booked that was as pretty as a picture. Touching down on-board my China Southern flight from Wuhan I wasted no time, admiring the Feilai Peak Scenic Area to see the mystical looking grotto's. Like a prayer I found Hangzhou's Lingyin Temple without stress, embracing the busy nature of the temple I got my photos and a great feel for that colourful place of worship without much thought, there was something about my 22nd destination within Mainland China that I loved! I had kicked the woes of April 2015 away like a football and scored the winning goal! Oh, teaching is still blessed! Yes, I'm still at the kindergarten and I hope that remains.

China Highlights had me booking up my third trip in less than two years, being the second trip of 2017 with that company after my Harbin extravaganza, I was pumped for the day of Hangzhou delights I had been promised. Concurring the first Chinese Yuan note, the 'Three Pools Mirroring the Moon' gave me life for certain as the beauty of Hangzhou's West Lake blew me away without question. Lunch was enjoyed a the Chenghuang Pavilion, those delectable Hangzhou snacks satisfied my stomach without a doubt! Breezing through a museum about Chinese Medicine was over in a flash, I'm just not a museum type! Picking my own tea leaves within the plantations where Hangzhou's famous Green Tea grows was an experience for certain, I looked the part throughout! I'll be ending April 2017 with my Hainan Airlines flight to Lanzhou in-preparation for my overnight train to Lhasa! Through the three April's mentioned I have been blessed in different ways, blessed never stressed!

Amazing April!

Joseph Harrison 

24 April 2017

Wuhan: Hankou's Calling!

Hankou was calling, trading a weekend on the booze to be cultured. Me and my best one, Fiona decided to meet in the middle one beautiful Sunday afternoon. Checking a revamped boulevard it set us to go off the beaten track during that Sunday discovery. Our time in Wuhan may be over the half way point but we've got this! Oh Hankou, take us to the riverside!

Hankou's main shopping street, Jianghan Road had been hiding an historic avenue for the best part of my first year and a half in Wuhan. Zhongshan Avenue had been under an intensive restoration and modernisation project, removing the scaffolding and the barriers allowed myself and Fiona to be fronted by a spacious and bright colonised Wuhan boulevard. Meeting at Jianghan Road metro station we had a lovely stroll down the brand new looking Zhongshan Avenue, we were very impressed by the wide walking space and the familiar European style architecture. Our weekends are usually a time for us to get boozy but that Saturday was a sober affair to allow for such a sightseeing Sunday to occur. I'm not sure about Fiona but it was nice to get out of the expected weekend hangovers, generally speaking we had left a certain negative energy behind us. Hankou wouldn't dare judge us!

At this point I had definitely slacked on my Wuhan sightseeing compared to the first year, before that hiatus I would be out most weekends during the day to explore new and undiscovered places with little planning but with work getting too much sometimes it became easier to have a bottle or two of wine and spend the day in my own space, falling into a trap that became a vicious circle. For both me and Fiona it was a welcomed change to see the shiny new Zhongshan Avenue instead of nursing a hangover, not that having a hangover is a problem because its not! We didn't have a fixed plan for that afternoon, but for certain we agreed it would be OK to admire the Wuhan Art Museum from the outside without feeling guilty, we just aren't museum or gallery types! Moving onto the next phase of our Hankou day out it was time to step back in time further. Thanks Zhongshan Avenue for revealing yourself after all the chaos that would over-spill during your beautification! Work H!

I had discovered a side street that I had managed to track down online with the help of some parents from my kindergarten and friends on WeChat, armed with my then brand new iPhone 6s, I was hopeful to guide us from our Zhongshan Avenue location to a quieter side of Hankou's historic core. After weaving in and out of different street corners we even went to great lengths by asking unsuspecting members of the public, they also didn't have a clue. We came to the conclusion that the corner was cordoned off for restoration like much of the oldest parts were to. We hadn't gone far from Zhongshan Avenue to then find ourselves in what felt like another world, steeped in history the tenement like buildings of Hankou's Jianghan District sure impressed us much with the decaying brickwork between the sense of a simpler time. It reminded Fiona of a project she did about the tenements in Glasgow.

Even though we didn't find the street that I wanted it was an eye-opener for sure, the narrow historic paths that presented themselves to us looking amazing. It mind blowing to think that people still got on fine in those colonial style red-bricked flats, Hankou was serving big time for a Sunday afternoon. Before we settled on our find it was decided that Tianjin Street would lead us to an afternoon beer, that beverage stop was well needed because either my Baidu Maps App was lying or something mysterious had happened to the whereabouts of that street!? It hadn't been a boozy weekend and it was almost Monday so it was just the one! Wuhan has become normal to me, Hankou more so because each time I visit this part of the city I am reminded about the moment when I arrived, it seems like a world away. Spotting such rustic gems in the rough of Hankou's historic corner confirmed to me I'm where I should be for now. No H, I won't ask this again, take us to the riverside!

Content with our historical find it was down Nanjing Road for some Hui Chinese food, grabbing a can of lager for good measure we headed over to Hankou's Beach Park. Finding a vacant bench we chowed down on our eggs and tomato with rice, standing out from the crowd we attracted a lot of attention from the public. It seemed like a swarm of newlyweds were enjoying the sunnier climbs of the Yangtze Riverside like we were trying to do, we posed for at least six selfies that had to be from the perfect angle for the Chinese couples. We even had an overjoyed family who's daughter sung 'You Are My Sunshine' especially for us, it was a tad bizarre but being foreigners in a developing city like Wuhan it doesn't take a lot to stand out from the crowd. Believe me when I say that we didn't ask for any of that mild hysteria, we just wanted our food and to enjoy the view. Another beer, I know but it was our last! That's not fair!

The growing Wuchang skyline had never looked better, the sun had been so kind to make an appearance. Pollution was low that day for once, breathing air that wasn't as bad as usually with a blue sky to gaze at helped, its been amazing to see the transformation that Wuhan's section of the Yangzte River has gone under since my arrival in July 2015. The river containers chugged past us as we ate our lunch, with Shanghai to the left and Chongqing to the right-hand sides it was an amazing sight. Hankou had came up trumps that sunny seventh day, ditching our usually hungover states for a sober outing was a winner for certain! Whatever crossed our path that day was equally as fantastic as previously envisaged, there are no mistakes so it was all good! Those alley ways and tenement-like flats impressed us much with all of their understated glory. We know a repeat lunch day on the river banks of the Yangtze is called for, but we'll triple the one beer we had that day! Go!

Round Two Soon?

Joseph Harrison 

13 April 2017

Hangzhou: Lakes, Pavilions & Tea Plantations...

Waking up to a new day in Hangzhou, I was more than ready for my third China Highlights tour that would take me to the best sights in town! From the idyllic views over West Lake to lunch at Chenghuang Pavilion I was in for a royal treat, I even had the opportunity to pick my own tea leaves! I believed in the supposed healing wonders of Chinese Medicine! Oh, maybe?

Picked up bang on time, my tour guide May introduced herself and informed me on the day's itinerary. I was very much looking forward to seeing the beauty of West Lake, living in a city that famed for it's 'East Lake' I was excited to see the difference. Beating the crowds wasn't difficult even though the day had been dubbed the country's 'Spring Outing' it was onto the waters of West Lake to snatch those photos! The sky was a perfect light blue and the weather behaved itself impeccably, I couldn't believe how magnificent the views that captured glimpses of the outstanding Chenghuang Pavilion and Leifeng Pagoda. Getting off the boat in the middle of the lake at an island called 'Fairy Island' this small space served all round views of West Lake's natural and undisturbed beauty. Keeping a one Yuan note, I was looking for three floating pagodas being the symbol of Hangzhou. Yass, West Lake slayed! 

Being the height of the Tomb Sweeping Festival break it was a trifle busy around West Lake, a natural landmark that draws its fair share of tourists to Hangzhou. I had seen so many photos before my visit to West Lake but after pushing those aside I was amazed! Being in China for almost twenty-two months to that point I was used to the numbers of people that were pushing alone the narrow path of the island. Finding a break in the crowd I managed to take look at three floating pagoda's from the enchanted 'Fairy Island', the 'Three Pools Mirroring the Moon' sat waiting for me to gaze at, I had made it to one of the sights that's depicted on the Chinese New Yuan (RMB). Pardon the phrase but my next money shot will be of the Potala Palace in Tibet as the fifty Yuan note features that sacred place. Visiting West Lake that April morning was just the ticket, bowled over by the delightful scenes I felt satisfied. Wuhan's East Lake had competition, but I'll give this one to Hangzhou! 

Chenghuang Pavilion was next on the agenda, located on top of Wushan being a prominent hill that's just south of Hangzhou's old city. I managed to catch a quick glimpse of this heavenly pavilion during the short boat trip across the unforgettable West Lake. Known as City of God Pavilion, this well known Hangzhou figure stood proud in a burgundy tone. Taking the newly installed lift to a higher floor it was time to take a break and have a series of Song Dynasty snacks. Including Hangzhou style cat's-ears noodles, wrapped up fried bread sticks with shallots and local moon cakes that were in the shape of the 'Three Pools Mirroring the Moon'. That light lunch was just what I needed, refueled and ready I wanted to see if the view from Chenghuang Pavilion's top floor was something else, I wasn't mistaken for a sweeping scene of West Lake was presented to me effortlessly. It may have been a brief stop but it was amazing! Yes H!

A change in the schedule meant a visit to the China National Tea Museum was changed to the Museum of Chinese Medicine instead. I'm not one for museums but I embraced that moment, I immediately recognised the smells of Chinese Medicinal products as my Great-Granddad favoured Chinese Tiger Balm for any ailment no matter what the problem was he swore by it into his later years of life. Passing through the many exhibits it did make me think about how my Chinese friends feel towards the ways of Chinese Medicine, they really don't trust and would only resort to it if the needed was so great that conventional medicine didn't have the answer. I tasted some tea, it tasted light and fresh but as soon as I found out it was for liver repair I bought a whole bag of the stuff, I know my alcohol beaten liver will thank me for that purchase. Outside of the museum lay such an overcrowded tourist infested cultural street that I didn't appreciate, so thankfully May had a plan B!

I dozed off on the way to the final part of my outstanding day touring around Hangzhou, arriving within the heart of the Meijiawu Tea Village it was already proving to be a show-stopper of a visit even before I stepped out of the car. Introduced to a local tea expert I learnt this lady was the only person in the whole village who gave visitors the chance to pick their own tea leaves. Climbing high into the tea plantations I wore a straw hat and had a basket tied to my waist. The friendly tea expert came from a very successful tea producing family and she certainly knew her tea well. I was schooled in how to pick a tea leaf correctly, I tried my best to apply the technique not to break the smaller bit of the shoot so the leaf would regrow in the next season. I wasn't as fast as the tea expert was, I wanted to take the whole experience, capturing some sensational snaps during my time at the plantation! Was it time for tea?

Leaving the heights of the tea plantations I was guided to the tea experts home to watch her perform a tea ceremony, there was going to be some serious tea making schooling going on! The art of the tea ceremony and the patience involved was something to remember, there's really no time for us western folk when its time for a cuppa! It's really made me think each time I make a cup of tea after that sight. It was evident to see that the village had changed since the popularity of the Green Tea produced from the plantations, the families of the village who grew tea no longer spent the back breaking work to pick the leaves, it was evident to see the rich tea had served these families into a wealthy and prosperous status. From the very beginning of that full-packed trip around Hangzhou's best sights I was impressed with the consistent service quality that China Highlights delivered. It was a case of third time lucky, I can see a fourth in the future! Hangzhou is heavenly for sure!

Hangzhou's My Cuppa!

Joseph Harrison 

9 April 2017

Hangzhou: The First 24 Hours!

With the second semester of my second year teaching English underway the Spring Festival break seemed much longer than February, with the arrival of April signified another national holiday to enjoy. Hangzhou, a city located in the east of China had secured itself as my 22nd city visited in China since arriving in June 2015. Tomb Sweeping Festival flew past like a dream!

As I awaited the boarding call of my 15th flight within Mainland China I sat amused as the gate was suddenly changed, for me that wasn't an issue. I had to explain to one guy on the Beijing flight where he had to go, I felt sorry for the ground crew for that foolishness was unnecessary! Touching down into Hangzhou's Xiaoshan International Airport was so orderly, I jumped into a taxi for the city in under ten minutes after disembarking that China Southern Airlines flight from Wuhan. Dropping my bag and checking into my hotel should of been so easy, but I was quizzed by the hotel staff because they couldn't understand my visa. It was mental because even the passport control at the many airports I have been to in China haven't batted an eyelid, they just stamp my boarding card and let me through. Leaving that negativity behind I was in hot pursuit of Hangzhou's Lingyin Temple, I had a plan! Yes, I was OK!

Taking the number 7 bus overlooking the famous West Lake I was bound for a temple that caught my eye, that bus may have been packed to the rafters but I made it to the temple in one piece. Grabbing my incense sticks I lit them accordingly and made my way around taking photos, no temple is the same in China and I proclaim that with conviction. Grabbing my snaps wasn't so difficult as the outside the Hall of the Medicine Buddha had bright yellow hall that were wide enough to allow for a orderly photo. I saw the monks pray during their daily service, remembering to be respectful at that time I refrained from taking any photos, well at least I kept that vow of restraint. The weather felt like a mild spring day, the Tomb Sweeping festivities were in full swing as people brought gifts to leave for their departed loved ones. The bright colours and lush surrounding of Hangzhou's Lingyin Temple helped me zone out from all those tourists! With some zen restored I carried on.

So, before I reached Lingyin Temple I had to buy my ticket for the Feilai Peak Scenic Area that featured a series of enchanted looking grotto's, I chose to view the grotto's from the other side of the brook because I didn't fancy my chances walking alongside the large  numbers of tourists, being patience and keeping it together I was able to take a lovely photo of the statues that sat overlooking the brook, set amongst a stony exterior the trees and greenery set the scene perfectly. Legend has it that the stone statues hail from an Indian influence as the Lingyin Temple was crafted by an Indian monk. The main cave was dedicated to Bodhisattva Guanyin, known as the 'Goddess of Mercy'. As I made my way past that area, at the foot of Feilai Feng I spotted a grand pagoda that held the ashes of Huili, the Indian Buddhist monk and pilgrim that constructed the Lingyin Temple after arriving in Hangzhou in 326 AD. Go!

One thing I was loving about my first day in Hangzhou was I hadn't really planned to see anything apart from the temple, catching a glimpse of the stone statues at Feilai Peak was amazing and something that boosted my Spring outing. A lifeline had been given to Hangzhou's Linyin and Feilai Peak Scenic Areas as much of the historic features were not harmed during the Cultural Revolution, the less said about that period the better. Behind the stone statues lay an entrance to a beautiful park, lush and peaceful compared to the busy thoroughfare between the temple and the exit. Hangzhou itself was showing itself to be a scenic city compared to other more concrete places that I've already been to in China. I was almost taken back to my 2016 trip to Guilin during the May Day holiday, upon those similarities I could tell I was going to love Hangzhou for its beauty and history. Above everything else I was glad the area including the statues and temple didn't close until 6:30 p.m.!

Braving the bus until it got so busy I was left with no choice to get off a stop earlier than I had planned to, the roads were jammed packed but I kept on walking at my own pace. I had my sights set on Wulin Square, unfortunately my phone was running out of battery so I had to trust my sense of direction and reading ability of the road signs in Chinese. Thankfully the months of reading street signs in Chinese had paid off that evening, making my way to Wulin Square without a hitch I was pleasantly surprised. I may not be able to hold a conversation in Chinese but the knowledge I do have came in handy that April evening Hangzhou. Bright colours could be seen as I stood on the other side of Wulin Square, it was a water show that seemed to have built a strong crowd of Chinese people who were armed with their phones. I didn't find the water feature hypnotic but it was great photo opportunity. Alright?!

The night was still young but I had been on the go since 6 a.m. that morning, flying to Hangzhou from Wuhan at an early hour gave me the opportunity to see a respectable amount of the city during my first day. I'm not sure what I had expected from Wulin Square but it impressed me much. Wulin Square had a really chilled feel to it, unlikely many of the other centre squares that I been to in China it had some chill about. I didn't need to return to Wulin Square, not for a negative reason I express that but I only had a short time in Hangzhou. I wanted to see as much as possible. Admitting to my hunger and tiredness I grabbed a pizza as that seemed like an easy option, taking a takeaway box back to my hotel meant that breakfast was taken care of. From being questioned about my last entry into China by the confused hotel staff to finding some chill within the mayhem I adored my first day in Hangzhou, China! Returning to my Jinjiang Inn, I wanted to be fresh for my tour!

Hangzhou Ready!

Joseph Harrison