24 October 2017

China High Speed Rail: Wuhan - Shanghai!

For a developing country, China's high speed rail network is quite remarkable, looking at one section that I took at the end of July 2017 brought together one place that I lived in for two years and three others that I have visited. From Wuhan Railway Station to Shanghai Hongqiao with two express stops in Hefei and Nanjing south stations concluded my experiences in China. 

Setting off from Wuhan Railway Station on the 28th of July 2017 signified the end of my time living in Wuhan, China. From the first moments in Hankou to the final moment that saw me running for my first class carriage kept me on my toes. English teaching was definitely my trade during that time but I got around the city to see some amazing sights indeed, some slightly unrefined but that's Wuhan! The Yellow Crane Tower impressed me with its panoramic views over Wuchang and across the Yangtze River. My Guanggu location had me crazy, but towards the end of my second year of living there I felt comfortable amongst the madness. It was such a conflicting feeling as I relaxed into my Shanghai bound first class seat, I had wanted that moment to happen, it was definitely tinged with sadness. Living in Wuhan hadn't been a walk in the park but those pitfalls and challenges shaped me for my next chapter. W!

Wuhan's East Lake had me chilled with its never-ending scenic views, contrasting with the quiet of Hubei's tranquil charms I had my first mad nights out at Wuhan Prison. That underground bar gave me my first taste of Wuhan nightlife, that evolved with my partner in crime Fiona because turned the party up! Coffee and cake along Tanhualin served a slice of Wuhan life that gave me life, over the waters in Hankou I was shown another sedate scene thanks to a special friend. Hanyang had a set of new rules, fashioning itself into something else I adored Qinghuan Pavilion and Guishan Park without hesitation. My nonstop kindergarten life glued all of this craziness together, keeping it together I applied myself to my trade. I had traveled from Wuhan Railway Station many times before that Shanghai departure but that final journey finally pulled me away from Wuhan. That Hubei city gave a fist full of surprises but a bucket full of dreams that I worked hard to turn into gold! Chill out, Wuhan!

Stopping in Hefei, Anhui, the third time round gave me a sense of accomplishment, casting my mind back to my Nanjing trip I had passed through Anhui's south station with a certain curiosity. Biting the bullet for 2017's Dragon Boat Festival weekend took me to Hefei, Anhui to see what that pint-sized city had to offer. Quiet but perfectly formed, Hefei had a very pedestrian feel about it with not much madness going on compared to the many big cities in China. A certain phase of construction was going strong around Hefei's south rail station but the remainder of the city sat waiting for the next phase. Investing my time visiting cities that didn't attract the masses always gave me life, Hefei had an unrefined nature that oozed qualities that larger cities have lost within the maddening crowds. Lord Bao kept it calm for me, allowing me to do some serious walking without being surrounded by the usual madness! Hefei knew this!

Hefei had parks without admission fees, being within a national holiday it was amazing to be one of the only people going about their business within the city's Municipal Square, the calmness was almost unnerving. Compared to my previous Dragon Boat Festival weekend I was pleasantly surprised to experience it without crowds or fussing, it can be quite something else in China during these holidays. Not forgetting my high speed rail journey from Wuhan, I felt appreciative for my time spent in Hefei as that Anhui city needed time but I had seen it before the boom bang had truly happened. Hefei had my attention for some reason, it was meant to have been one of my first twenty-seven places for my first China chapter. My G train hurtled towards its Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station terminus, my view of Wuhan had disappeared already but I was feeling blessed nevertheless, Hefei and Wuhan's chapters had been closed tightly but I was good with that development. Jiangsu grew nearer.

The penultimate stop along my final China high speed rail journey from Wuhan to Shanghai Hognqiao was fast approaching. Nanjing had me going round in circles, trusting that Jiangsu city during 2016's Dragon Boat Festival I saw everything that I wanted, well considering I got lost multiple times! The chilled nature of Nanjing's city streets impressed me much, giving me a sense of calm that Wuhan could only dream of. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen had brought me to my third and final place of remembrance after Wuhan and Guangzhou respectively. The Mausoleum of Zhongshan was worth the wait, even the manic crowds didn't bother me as much as usual, but that lady needed to respect the rules regarding photography! Unlike Wuhan and Hefei it wasn't easy to take a peak of Nanjing's city vista because that high speed train sneaked into Nanjing South Railway Station and departed after a few moments bound of Shanghai Hongqiao.

Reliving those Nanjing memories as that speedy train hurtled towards one of China's four metropolis's it gave me time to think what milestones I had achieved during those two years in China. The time period when I visited Nanjing was such a busy time, the escape to Nanjing showed me places that instilled some chill into my life for that long weekend. Spending a snapshot alongside the waters of the Qinhuai River showed me a lovely river vista, chaotic with tourists I casted those people out of my view to enjoy the sights that surrounded me. First Class was treating me well, I relaxed back into my seat as the Chinese countryside whizzed past me, the ordeal of getting on the train was pure drama but I was well on my way to connect with my flight that bound for Moscow in the early hours of the next morning. Nanjing once again became a distant memory, hurtling through the remainder of Jiangsu Province meant the municipality of Shanghai was growing ever closer. England called me B!

Checking Baidu Maps on my phone revealed my train was passing through Suzhou, Jiangsu. Suzhou wasn't one of my stops because my train was bound straight for Hongqiao Railway Station but that Jiangsu Province city played a pivotal part during the first phases of my time in China, it was all so new back then! Leaving that blurred view of Suzhou's city limits meant my high speed train finally made its approach into its final station stop, getting my things together was fine but the next phase of journey to Shanghai's Pudong International Airport was going to be a mad one! Hongqiao Railway Station oozed that Shanghai city feeling as I passed through the main station concourse. The taxi line was a joke, not wasting any time I used my suitcases as buffers as I powered to the east exit because that seemed like a great idea at that time! It was an ordeal with three suitcases but I made it into a DiDi bound for the airport. Oh S!

I had completed my final high speed rail journey in China for that chapter from Wuhan Railway Station to Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station in under five hours, stopping at two key stations flashed back memories of my previous visits to those places. Leaving Wuhan had to be done but I didn't appreciate the craze before and during the boarding process! Returning to Shanghai, the city that I arrived into two years previous of that late July 2017 high speed arrival was magic, time was still on my side! I definitely plan on creating more China high speed rail themed blogs in the future as I'm planning to make my return to China in a few weeks but to Beijing because Wuhan just wasn't international! Through the stress of that epic journey it was one major relief to touchdown into London Heathrow Airport the following day, the epic journey from Wuhan to London via Shanghai and Moscow was something else entirely! So, next time will be from Beijing to Shenzhen North! I'll revisit Shenzhen!

Tickets, please!

Joseph Harrison

8 October 2017

Like A Prayer: Mainland 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 how 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