31 January 2018

Niu Jie... Beijing's Muslim Quarter

This New Year's period has hit me with some serious bad luck, one part of that misfortune made my Niu Jie exploration very tough indeed! Through events that will be addressed soon enough, I was forced to dedicate two Sundays to discover Beijing's Muslim Quarter, even though it was ridiculous what happened I felt relieved in the end to see what I set out to see. Serving B!

For me Beijing isn't just about the famous sights like; Tiananmen Square or the world famous Great Wall because I want to look closer, scratch beneath the surface to see more. Anyhow, the two subway changes turned into four because the station names looked the same in Chinese, trying to differentiate the different characters delayed me just a little. Armed with my new camera I arrived at Niu Jie's very own mosque, dating back from the Liao Dynasty around the year 996. The architecture looked typically Chinese but it was in fact a real working place of worship. Respecting that I did not go inside the prayer hall even though the photos I had seen online looked amazing, having respect for such rules is really important. Going to take my first photo I realised my new camera had been damaged by some glasses cleaning fluid, I was devastated but I managed to get two photos of the mosque. It wasn't OK!

Before my camera packed up on me I turned the corner onto Niu Jie, seeing the Halal signs over the restaurants and snack vendors I felt relieved to finally be on Niu Jie, translated into English it means 'Ox Street', that meaning shall be revealed in due course. It didn't take much to see the mosque as I made my way down Niu Jie that bitterly cold but sunny afternoon, the decorative tiling and Islamic writing told me I was in the right place. The calls to prayer were listed at the ticket window, it was only five Yuan for entrance to the mosque and I had no complaints with that admission fee. The buildings surrounding the prayer hall looked in good condition, it was great to see the Muslim people congregating before the call to prayer. Actually when I think about it, Niu Jie Mosque was the first mosque I had been able to visit properly in China! Aside from the drama with my camera, the visit gave me food for thought, I'm going to be arranging a big Halal trip to Lanzhou and Xining! No, now!

Being from the West Midlands in England, I am very familiar with Halal foods and its accompanying culture because there's a large Muslim population in that region, so the infusion of Hui Chinese culture with its Halal twist fascinated me but also it felt normal to see such things along Niu Jie and along Shuru Hutong. Taking a left hand turn from Niu Jie I found an orderly line of Halal butchers and meat markets that displayed their offerings, the freezing temperatures meant the meat didn't smell, regardless of that it was quite clean for Chinese standards. Seeing many people buy huge amounts of fresh beef and other meat it was easy to see the pre-Chinese New Year food purchases being made by those busy Beijingers. Even though I didn't dream of buying any produce it was great to see such a lively sight, people going about their business within Beijing's Muslim Quarter gave me life for certain! I was feeling so hungry!

Backtracking to my first visit to Niu Jie, I felt so angry about my camera malfunction that I turned back to Shunyi to continue that trip the following weekend. Content with my mosque visit the first time I knew what I needed to see, passing the busy nature of Shuru Hutong during my second visit felt great. I could hear the dialects from the northwestern corner of China, that Islamic flare impressed me much because that side of Chinese life always captivates my attention. Finding some shredded beef gravy filled pastry, they tasted amazing even I wouldn't have called them a pie they gave me something different other than rice or noodles. Finishing that snack I had some deep fried syrup treats that I had to leave for another time because they were extremely sweet and not so forgiving on my teeth. Wandering away from the butchers of Shuru Hutong's main energy I found myself surrounded by a real Hutong, complete with the typical non-gentrified look that I prefer. Second chances work!

My Shuru Hutong snacks masked my hunger for a moment, edging back towards the subway I took a gamble on Tulufan Xinjiang Restaurant because I hadn't had enough of that Halal Chinese food that Sunday! Abruptly pushed to a shared round dining table on the edge of a packed restaurant full of diners, enjoying a meaty fest before the Spring Festival festivities. On the wrong side of payday I ordered one dish because it wasn't all about that Sunday, real life had to continue after my Niu Jie afternoon. Taking a chance on the braised mutton served upon a thick Xinjiang bread pancake had to be done, no I didn't hestitate making that choice. The braised mutton practically fell off the bone, it was to die for, I was sure in food heaven without a doubt! The bread was soaked in this curry infused gravy with such an aroma I was loving it! Content with my fill I took the leftovers home for the next day because saving is crucial!

Through all of January's rubbish, was Niu Jie worth the second visit? Oh, without a doubt it was so worth it trekking down from my Shunyi home to Beijing's Muslim Quarter for some great food and exploration. Getting out and about proves to be a challenge sometimes, my weekends are precious so it makes it worthwhile to get past the tiredness to see something in China's showcase capital city. The food was amazing and the genuine feel of the Niu Jie Mosque acted as the perfect antidote during those stressful moments when my camera potentially broke, thankfully with an overnight soak in some rice I hadn't cooked, my camera, battery and memory card worked without any issues. Niu Jie is well worth checking out in Beijing, the locals trust the produce and with Spring Festival coming up its a promising sign, imagine the western equivalent to a British Christmas dinner, so its very important! Oh, finally I must say not getting sidetracked on the underground was appreciated B!

Serving Halal Overness!

Joseph Harrison 

27 January 2018

China: Rolling On The River!

Chinese people say that a city only truly has wealth if it has a river running through it or alongside it, I suppose London prospered with the River Thames during the days of the British Empire? Looking at three Chinese waterways will be the mission of this blog, from Wuhan's Yangtze to Tianjin's Hai He might reveal a few secrets? China, what's around the river bend?

Spanning the majority of Central China has to be the Yangtze River, around its many bends it revealed to me four standalone cities all with unqiue tales to tell with the help of its faithful waterway. In one direction I would find Chongqing to the west and to the far east would be Shanghai, anchoring this vast waterway stood Wuhan. Separating three districts with its mighty flowing nature, a pack of bridges would bring the rivers parting edges together as one. Commissioned by the late Chairamn Mao Zedong the 'First Yangtze River Bridge' allowed train travel between Wuchang and Hankou districts during the city's developing years. From the Yellow Crane Tower I truly grasped the enormity of the Yangtze river, cementing the reason why Wuhan had chosen me to experience my first two years in China. It's clear to see with more bridges and metro lines crossing the big 'Y' its all go for this river! What's Yichang got to do with?

The Yangtze River might not flow calmly in certain stages but the scenery changed compared to Wuhan during my Yichang weekend of discovery. The idyllic trees and riverside homes hid a gargantuan project, not choosing the smoothest course the 'Three Gorges Dam' project showed me something quite the opposite. I was educated about the technicalities of the project but just wanted to see the view of the dam walls, it was impressive for sure! Fuelling that big city vibe, Chongqing Municipality blew me away with a vista so strong, the Yangtze River moved with the uneven terrain and the mega-structures that surrounded the booming skyline. The Yangtze might be quiet in certain places but overall it works hard to help transport trade and people along its wide riverfront, rolling into a new century of development its the Yangtze's time to truly show China what its got! The Yangtze River isn't part of my life anymore it's safe in my heart. So it goes, river deep, Yangtze strong!

When the cold bites its common to see one or two rivers frozen still, creating a whole new space for all to enjoy. The far northeastern Chinese city of Harbin acquainted me with frozen waters of the Songhua River. That Heilongjiang Province waterway has many functions when the already freezing temperatures turn sub-zero, ice is taken from this river for the world famous Harbin Ice Festival. The sculptures on display at the ice festival were out of this world, even though the below freezing temperatures did their best to disable me I was amazed by that by-product of the Songhua River. A former Russian outpost, Harbin's Songhua River seamlessly flows into Russian territory via the Nen River that flows further north towards Qiqhar, China. Navigating its frozen waters along the China-North Korean border and the Changbai Mountains I have been seriously schooled for sure! For a frozen river it gets about quite a lot H?!

Harbin's Songhua riverfront became a multi-faceted cultural experience during that 2017 Chinese Spring Festival holiday, from the unspeakably freezing temperatures I managed to see the Flood Control Monument and Stalin Park. Stalin Park posed as a contrast, from one side the orderly park gardens gave quite the Soviet impression but from the waters side of the Songhua it was a hive of activity. All sorts of fun wintry sports were being played on top of the frozen waters, I wasn't going to indulge in any of those because it was unspeakably cold and that's just not my niche. I saw a few German Shephard dogs pull small sleighs on the ice, it didn't settle well with me but that's China and that was the end of that! Aside from the horribly cold weather I loved the vista of the busy icy river, the ice must have been thick enough because I saw two 4x4's driving normally! With a boosted knowledge of this far northeastern Chinese river I still wouldn't revisit this place because -25 degrees isn't fun!

Ringing in 2018, I chose one of China's five Muncipalities for the New Year weekend. Tianjin city showed me a thing or two about its colonial past but it's river impressed me much! Even though the Five Great Avenues gave me a slice of home I was finally drawn to Tianjin's Hai He, that grand river served me its split personality with skyscrapers in one direction and colonial splendour in the other. Chinese people have a complex that water brings development, it was a testament to see Tianjin's Ocean River could have brought the European owners of the Five Great Avenues and the riverside residences? Whatever the claim I was being given all sorts of contradictions, the modernity and classical tones gave me an eye full for sure! I must admit the river looked perfectly faux close to Jinwan Square, those imitation buildings didn't do much for me! Tianjin's Ocean River had its own flex, it didn't need that fakery frankly.

Having the name 'Hai He' officially translates to 'Ocean River', from the towering structures of the city centre this river flows into the big ocean blue at the Binhai Port, boosting Tianjin's reputation as an international port with its cargo and passenger offerings its a game changer for China's eastern coast. Beijing doesn't have a coast so most cruise ships dock at Tianjin outside of Shanghai, the opening of the Hai He holds the key to China's newest and most advanced shipping and cargo facility that has been something of a growing passenger cruise terminal. Moving closer to the city centre, I had my eyes peeled for Tianjin's very own! The Tianjin Eye stands as a focal point along the Hai He, it shined a pinky red glow, giving a vibrancy to the Ocean River that other eye's just don't have! China has shown me for certain that river matter, rolling on three of the Middle Kingdom's own worked! Wuhan's Yangtze amazed me, Harbin's Songhua River froze me and Tianjin's Hai He schooled me! Flow!

17 January 2018

2017: Something To Remember?

2018's here now but I would like to evaluate the final quarter of 2017, well to reflect on all of its craziness! My final month in Wuhan during July 2017 might well seem like a world away and the summer trips I took in England were great, it was such a blur that I want to recollect those memories. It's China time again but the last six months were utter madness! Go, go Beijing!

By the time July 2017 rolled around it felt like such a relief, I had been working in Wuhan, China flat out for two years without much of a break. Making my final month count I had a tick list for that sweltering summer month in Wuhan. Work felt strange, I was able to count my final after school lesson, my final outdoor activity and even my final lesson with each class. From a sightseeing stance I made my way back to Tanhualin, recapturing that same coffee street filled me with nostalgic vibes from my November 2015 visit, revisiting the market street served realness for sure even though the rain pelted down! Takinng my last trip on the Wuhan Metro felt bizarre, from Jiyuqiao to Guanggu for the final trip put my whole two year experience together in a series of mad moments. AllStars turned up the music, getting my life that night I made sure Wuhan knew it was loosing one of its best! How I was ready for takeoff!

My Wuhan to Shanghai high speed journey had been completed without any fatalities, meaning I hadn't completely lost my senses lugging two jammed packed suitcases and my carry-on luggage. To cut a long story short I arrived back onto British soil the next day on-time without any delay, reunited with my family felt great as it had been such a long time since I had seen them but a piece of me was missing. Home life was good, the honeymoon period didn't last for long because the bureaucracy with my visa process. Reuniting with Fiona in Sctoland was just the tonic that I needed, talking of tonic it seemed like a bright idea to get on the Buckfast! Getting back to Birmingham gave me a slice of Chinatown overness, turning the lights down low it was a night out to remember with my brother and his girlfriend. The withdrawal from the berserk nature of Guanggu's sqaure made Bilston feel like a ghost town. I have to be honest it was strange to be back but I had things to do! Those home truths!

My Chinese visa process started without many hiccups, the main set of my notarised documents and copies of my new passport had reached their Beijing, China destination within three workings days with a popular international courier service. It would be another two weeks before my next piece of paper would be released from the Chinese government, so with some time to spare I planned my Yorkshire trip to the cities of Leeds and York. Leeds was a random choice but it had many advantages like Megabus services from Birmingham for a fiver and from there I was able to get a cheapish train onto York because the return trains from Wolverhampton to that historic city made me shed a tear! Through that certain deviation I was afforded a great weekend of sightseeing, allowing me to escape from the turmoil of visa nonsense! York's Shambles impressed me and Leeds's Kirkgate Market served a Victorian charm. Yes!

After being home for two and bit months I was ready to move on! On the whole I thought I was set for my papers getting stamped, securing that visa back to the Middle Kingdom was the aim but life wasn't going to be so kind! Getting on with time at home I relished being able to blog about new places that I had been visiting, Leeds was something different and honestly the chance to see Chinese tourists in York gave me a good laugh, there's no other nationality whilst they are holidaying! Communication with my contact was good, getting the first set of bureau requirements fulfilled it was promising to get things in motion. I was deep down enjoying being back at home but the reverse culture shock had me craving the mayhem of everyday life in China. The final throws of 2017 kept me on my toes, little did I know things would be getting twice as hectic in the weeks to follow! I was feeling a third trip on the cards, I was getting cabin fever, my indepedence was much needed B!

My parents had recently spent a boozy weekend in Cardiff, inspired by their stories I booked a hostel bed and a return megabus from Birmingham to the Welsh capital for the weekend. Taking in sights like Cardiff Castle and Cardiff Bay I loved the constract between areas within the city, of course Bute Town bought lots of realness! When the sun set I donned by dancing shoes and headed down to 'The Kings' and 'WOW' but frankly I loved the cans of Strongbow I found at 'The Kings'. It was a case of getting merry again to cure the first nights hangover! Yes, that bowl of Welsh Cawl brought the flavour big time! Oh, I saw a former Welsh mine in the Valleys, during that hungover state it was an experience to say the very least! Cardiff took my stresses away for even a brief time, back to the real stuff I had much bigger fish to fry! Thank goodness for these little trips, they kept me sane and my blog going through 2017's ending!

Back from my Welsh trip it was back to home to deal with the next phase of my visa process back to the Middle Kingdom. I was planning to return on a different kind of document for a speedier arrival but with a change of management in the Human Resources department and the everchanging nature of China's visa policies it was back to the drawing board for the conventional teaching visa. My reason for choosing the other visa was driven to cost, having to ask my parents to help me out wasn't what I wanted but a private medical needed to be produced to the visa bureau for those all important visa papers. I was so stressed during that period of time because my heart rate test had shown that I had an irregular heartbeat, it was the rudeness of the receptionist on duty that made my blood boil if truth needed to be told! The international courier confused China with Canada, they snapped back into action so my visa could be finalised. DH whoever made me lose my sanity straight!

Both parties got it together at long last, I was ready for my visa already! To cut a long story short, I finally had the green light to book a visa appointment at long last back in November 2017. Staying at my paternal aunts house near London it was a nice week away, getting my visa in check and seeing family with two days in London for good measure. Flights could finally be booked, saving those coins before leaving China the first time meant I could splash out on a one way flight with Emirates from Birmingham via Dubai to Beijing on the Airbus A380! Saying my goodbyes to family wasn't easy but I was feeling very relieved to be returning to China! Being 'Beijing Ready' meant I hit the ground running with the intent to be super organised. With the help of my Chinese Principal it was easy to secure a new apartment and get my bank accounts sorted out during the first five days. Beijing made it all better!

Beijing life during the final six weeks of 2017 posed to be very busy indeed, settling into my new campus was easy because I finally had the chance to be in the same classroom for the whole working day. I do miss my Wuhan children but my Beijing children are just as cute, on a professional level things were great but with all this work didn't leave a lot of time for play! Christmas was downright strange and the workload has meant the weekends have been chilled for the most part. I didn't stress during December to see Beijing because the Olympic sites had been discovered before the year was out. I feel blessed I am finally where I want to be after such a long time waiting and waiting but its all so worth it. 2017's final quarter tested me to my limits but it was the training I needed for 2018. Wuhan may be a distant memory but Beijing stands in the light of the new year with many blessings. With my actual work visa in my passport now, I honestly hope the renewal will be stressfree! OK CN?

Goodbye 2017!

Joseph Harrison 

6 January 2018

48 Hours: Tianjin, China!

2018's eve gave me the key to unlock three days off from teaching, making my way to Beijing South Railway Station had to be done, that Tianjin high speed train wasn't going to wait for me! Choosing Beijing's little sister seemed like the right thing to do, only 30 minutes away from BJ left me with enough time to arrive before midnight on the 30th of January 2017. Get it, T!

Being a port city Tianjin has had a colourful past, my first port of call during that New Year's weekend trip was to the 'Five Great Avenues'. Built by British, French, German and Italian settlers, this international concession was leased to those western counterparts during the early 19th century, maybe the motive was money? Regardless of any remnants of its shady past I was transported home for even a brief moment, some of the buildings oozed a certain British style without a doubt! The pollution that morning was no joke, thankfully my up close and personal photos weren't ruined by the low visibility, sure with a breezy forecast a blue sky decided to make an appearance. It was funny to see the street signs only detailing the Chinese pinyin, usually a 'Chinglish' name for the street stands below the original text, was it in defiance due to the colonial reminders seen within Wu Da Dao? Well, I could read the signs T!

I had already been in Tianjin since the previous night, after clocking out of my kindergarten campus I made my way to the Beijing South Railway Station via Line 15 and Line 14 of Beijing's vast subway network. The New Year's travel rush for the weekend ahead packed the underground trains but Beijing knows how to handle that! Arriving into Tianjin Railway Station was no stress, finding myself on the wrong side of the station, the location of the exit had other plans for me. Scanning a MoBike I peddled to my hotel during the twilight, it was so peaceful for a huge city and that felt so refreshing. Fast forwarding to that colonial wonder I could feel the same relaxed pace even though it was a long weekend, taking my time I saw the regal buildings without fuss, well minimal because it wouldn't be China without a little bit of 'are you serious?' Tianjin didn't give me any reason to rush around, so I took my time during that morning, it was just after the morning because I wanted to sleep in. 

Foolish people were getting in my photo space and it was too damn cold to wait for their petty photos to be taken, scanning another MoBike I swerved between those passing cars and cursed at those bikers who looked like they were 'driving miss daisy!' Heading for the Porecalin House was the aim, yes a house ironically made from China in China, the middle kingdom is always full of surprises. Over the amount of selfie takers, getting into the Poreclain House took some patience that was almost lost but I always keep my 'ish together. Getting inside the Poreclain House showed me something that reminded me of Barcelona's Guadi offerings, that China residence could have well be a Chinese made love story during a possible Gaudi trip to Tianjin, China? Serving elements of 'Parc Guell' on a pint-sized and chaotic scale it could have been a Chinese Catalan offspring?! Apprently my Chinese was amazing but those selfies were not!

Most riverside cities in China have seen prosperity in more ways than one, Tianjin's own ocean river impressed me with its frozen frame, it felt so cold but the freshness blew those cobwebs away for sure! Boasting its own port that's home to Royal Caribbean Internationals cruise liners changes the game for China because now Shanghai isn't the only port city giant in China, no! I appreciated the riverside views because unlike Jinwan Square's architechure it looked like the real thing along the Hai He riverfront, the Chinese really need to see that reconstructed old buildings only work at Dudley's Black Country Living Museum, leave that remade nastiness behind because it's just tacky, some might call my tone bitter but I feel its just me being authentic with what sights I did see along my Tianjin travels. Soju corrupted me that afternoon, no open container law had me shamelessly sipping to view people's disgusted looks, no laws were broken T! MUSE sorted for my pre-pre NYE night! Slay!

Feeling rather tender the only cure for my drunken mistakes was a massive KFC to sort it all out, thankful my hotel was just a few paces away from one! Stomach and hangover tended to I was on the look out for Tianjin's ancient culture street, a usual sight that I usually avoid like the plague but since returning to China I want to give every opportunity the benefit of the doubt. Tianjin's developing underground system took me closer but another MoBike had to be employed, slightly hungover I peddled shamelessly to Tianjin's ancient street. Excusing the rebuilt overcrowded streets I found a side street captured to the left, it gave me something authentic and even Hutong like to hold onto. One of the street sellers dared to call me a 'Laowai' translating to 'alien' I used my Chinese language skills to shock him that I actually had a nationality as he did too! I didn't buy anything, though the incense burners looked nice! Oh, T!

Revisiting the riverside along the Hai He, something told me New Year's Eve was going to bring me something that would shake that hangover. Consulting my go-to APP the night before showered me with a monsoon of negativity about what nightlife that may have been in Tianjin I was willing to give those folk one more chance. As the freezing temperatures bit I received a message that took my New Year's Eve into another direction. Finding another kindred spirit from Hubei Province proved it is truly a very small world after all, leaving that cliche behind I found myself neck a scorching bowl of Lanzhou Noodles that weren't the best, I saw the golden arches and in that moment I would have done anything to change those noodles into a Double Cheeseburger! I knew I had to get it together because I wanted to see the Tianjin Eye before the clock stroke midnight! Finding that familiar path I was reunited with riverside, scanning my third or fourth MoBike I tenderly peddled alongside Tianjin's frozen riverfront. Tianjin had already shown me a lot, more than I had planned! Read between the lines T.

Managing to see those purple and red like dazzling lights, I had the Tianjin Eye in my sights. Currently the only 'Eye' attraction in China its something of an attraction in Tianjin but my bike riding view was enough for me! The coldness seemed to feel quite mild, peddling ever closer to the wheel I felt the first stages of 2017 close, I wasn't going to implement any New Year's resolutions because my goals were being scored in that moment. With work I am concurring those mini triumphs that will hopefully become long term realities, I am truly blessed! The chimes of 2018 wouldn't be in a nightclub that night because I was done from the night before, leaving the eye and all of its brightness behind me I walked and then some to the nearest underground station because I certainly don't do buses! Oh, Tianjin Eye please step up your entrance, I saw a hard candy style entrance, look to London for inspiration darling. Advice!

Darkened streets fronted me without any concern, Tianjin served safeness in abundance because China has to be one of the safest countries that I've ever been to in my life! Using Baidu Maps I made my way back onto the Tianjin Metro network, arriving back to the familiar sights of Jinwan Square took me back to the beginning. Ditching anymore alcoholic drinks I headed back to KFC for convenience to get a hot chocolate and two egg tarts because I was ready for my bed, I need to get back on that party animal real soon! Ringing in the New Year with a few messages it was back to business the next morning, leaving Tianjin Railway Station for Beijing South Railway Station I had my eye on the prize. Leaving one of China's five Municipalities behind me I knew the chimes of 2018 held big things for me. My snapshot quick weekend gave me great sights and a mad night out, making time for everything it set the pace for 2018 with many new things to experience. Tianjin knew it!

I Told You... Tianjin!

Joseph Harrison