28 February 2018

Let's Introduce... Xiamen, China!

Trading Shenzhen for Xiamen was a done thing, I was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about a city that's hotel prices had risen to the same as Macau and HK's during the Chinese New Year Golden Week. A certain island gave me many problems but I dealt with that unfortunate happening and put it all down to experience. Oh Xiamen, what drama was caused! 

Located on the southeastern corner of China's side of the Taiwan Strait awaited the city of Xiamen, most definitely I was expecting something spectacular because that coastal city had ramped up its hotel prices, surpassing other places in China during the Spring Festival period. Arriving from Shenzhen by high speed rail it was an interesting pursuit to reach my hotel, from a metro to walking the rest of way there was no stalling because Baidu Maps didn't tell me any lies! Dropping my bag it was time to head for Zhongshan Road, being used to China during the Chinese New Year holiday I wasn't fazed by the ocean-like wave of people who had descended upon that Xiamen pedestrian street. Being a former British treaty port until 1930, Zhongshan Road definitely mirrored a certain colonial style. Shopping wasn't on my mind because other drama had just unfolded, I needed more than a minute to process my thoughts!

Honestly, I hadn't bargained for how busy the city of Amoy would be during the time I visited, nevertheless the questionable access to tickets for the Gulangyu Island ferry wasn't going to be the main focus of my trip to Xiamen. Non-Xiamen residents and foreigners had to get their tickets from the International Ferry Terminal, another surprise because those pesky China travel websites need to be seriously updated. Getting it togetheer I took the berserk energy of Xiamen's Zhongshan Road, the deserted avenue of Hua Qiang Bei in Shenzhen felt like it was a million miles away compared with that crazy Xiamen view. I had only been in Xiamen for three hours or so, getting straight out into the city had to be done, it looked like Xiamen was going to be a walkable city, I prepared myself for all of those steps. Feeling hungry I took a few unexpected turns through colourfully lit alleys to reach Taiwan Snack Street, truly it was an experience that took me away from the growing crowds. Go!

Having deep ties with the nearby island nation of Taiwan, I had hoped that this Fujian Province city would give me a small slice of something Taiwanese. Finding Taiwan Snack Street wasn't difficult, I knew I was in the right place because most of the Chinese writing on the restaurants and street vendors names displayed either 'Taiwan' or 'Taipei'. Choosing one place that prepared the snacks with full view I took a chance on a seafood omlette of some sorts, costing more than the other variation I had the Taiwan style omlette that had mussels in it. Surprisingly it tasted delicious, it had been a long day and the prospect of not being able to visit Gulangyu Island hadn't impressed me, thankfully the food saved the day! My Chinese skills helped me, making sure I was paying the right amount when using WeChatPay was crucial! For afters I had a passionfruit smoothie/juice, it was very refreshing because Xiamen was quite warm. 

Taiwan Snack Street could only serve a certain amount of Taiwanese food culture, I stood within the pandemonium, thinking to myself about going all international for the next Spring Festival in 2019 with a trip to Taiwan! So, 2019 better make it possible for me to spend Chinese New Year in Taiwan! Moving away from Taiwan Snack Street I headed for the ticket office at the centre ferry pier to see if I could chance my luck, confirming the only option would be to try again the next day at the International Ferry Terminal I gathered my thoughts together, trying to rationalise seeing the island from the city rather than actually visiting it. Returning to my hotel I felt exhuasted, Shenzhen had been filled with drama but I wasn't ready for more drama during the second part of my trip, something told I needed to get my game face on and be prepared for the unthinkable, China sometimes has a way within things, it really does! Xiamen was packing a punch and I was ready for battle!

Waking up bleary eyed I made it to Xiamen's International Ferry Terminal to chance my luck, I had reasoned with myself that it was the final chance to get a ticket before redefining my plan. Brandishing my passport and one hundred Yuan, it was a snapshot before the lady behind the counter panicked, not used to foreigners I guessed she had a colleague regurgitate her words, they apparently had no tickets for that day and they didn't sell any tickets in advance! How inconvenient of them! Furious and not keeping it together I disgracefully stormed off because the Chinese tourists weren't being denied tickets for that day! Not friends, Xiamen! Leaving that nonsense behind I scanned a MoBike for the win, peddling for some of the distance alongside the waterside it was lovely to see the busy waters during that early morning hour. I was going to see Gulangyu Island one way or another! Oh, I was done with drama!

Captured above I managed to snap a few stunning shots of Gulangyu Island, riding up and down the promenade on my rented bike I took pleasure in dodging the crowds, weaving in and out of those pesky tourists. The views from the city overlooking the island satisfied my longing to see the island, after speaking to one of the parents from my campus about his experience during his visit to the island I felt a sense of relief I hadn't actually secured a ticket, that's too many people for my liking! Taking things at my pace I tried to look at the bigger picture, I was still in Xiamen after all! Ticking the island off my Xiamen tick-list I had time to put things into perspective, seeking advice from one of my students family who were holidaying Xiamen, his mom told me about Xiamen Botanical Gardens and a few other places, keeping those in mind I grabbed a Starbucks and picked up the pace! Even with that unnecessary stress it was turning out to be a great morning, character building nevertheless! Yes!

Yes, my day was finally going in the right direction, it was plane sailing compared to the mornings shenanigans I say! Ditching the bike I jumped on the Amoy Metro to find Xiamen's own Botanical Gardens, recommended by the same parent I mentioned before who was holidaying in Xiamen at that time. Paying no mind to the queues I had to give an education to the person who was standing behind me, he wasn't going to get any further pushing each time the line moved, no! Thankfully inside the boundaries of the gardens it was a large enough space to have some quiet time, people were still piling in but I had my game face on, absolutely nothing was going to stop me from seeing the picturesque nature of the gardens. Xiamen showed me some pleasing sights within its own Botanical Gardens, getting my photos it was time to move on, I still had a lot to see during that first full day in one of Fujian Province's cities.

So far Xiamen had thrown a lot at me, the hotel prices had even surpassed some of the most expensive places to visit in China at that time and I had been refused a ticket to see a so-called historical gem! Finding a way through that madness I was able to channel a clear path from my first moments within the mayhem of Zhongshan Road, getting some nice Taiwanese food along a crazy street that had a whole lot of smells along it! The ferry business didn't impress me much but showing a defiant stance I saw the island from my own space and at my own pace, I didn't need to be surrounded by more people on a island when the city was busy enough! Hitting the early afternoon on the first full day Xiamen's Botanical Gardens calmed things down, allowing me to snatch some piece and quiet! Xiamen showed me a lot and constantly kept me on my toes during this first instalment. Walking through a restored train tunnel I embarked on the next part of my first full day in XMN! Next time X!

Gulang Yu, Who?!

Joseph Harrison 

24 February 2018

On The Borderline... Shenzhen, China!

In the zone from the previous day's sightseeing I was fired up for my second day in Shenzhen, China. Looking for a Hong Kong style Dim Sum breakfast was surprisingly easy, my Chinese map reading skills have progressively gotten better! Due to some outdated travel website I got into some hot water on the borderline, but life would be boring if everything was plain sailing!

Waking up early at some ungodly hour I was ready for my trip to Zhong Ying Jie, before that enlightening experience I consulted my Dianping restaurant APP for local Dim Sum breakfast suggestions. Navigating the quiet side streets only a couple of paces away from my hotel took me to a restaurant I didn't take the name of, it was early and being the only place open with people already eating it looked good. Getting past the Chinese only menu I ordered two Dim Sum breakfast dishes with some Hong Kong milk tea to start my day. It was all for a good price and it tasted mighty fine, I was set for the day and it wasn't even nine in the morning yet! I was almost taken back to my sumptuous breakfast experience that I had in Hong Kong in 2016 with my HK bestie, Kelly. Were things going too well? I didn't want to walk as much as I did the previous day but I was given another challenge that I shall reveal in time.

Taking the correct bus things seemed to be going really well, unspeakably well and that didn't feel right but I wasn't going to be negative because at that point things were smooth. Reaching the correct bus stop I saw the street signs guide me towards my so-called destination, I even had my passport ready! Zhong Ying Street being a popular Hong Kong shopping street had been managed by both British and Chinese forces and I had wanted to see what was going on, oh and to get some HK goodies too! Hitting the borderline I saw the street past a bridge, curious and not sure where to go I showed my passport to the China guards at the pedestrian access point for Chinese English Street, but that border didn't allow foreigners or even out of town Chinese people, or even Shenzhen residents who lived outside of Yantian District! A special permit had to be issued to those local Chinese people as smuggled goods posed to be the reasoning for the immigration restrictions. No, I wasn't best pleased! 

Slightly dismayed but not at all fazed that shadiness I got back to the city centre, finding my way back to the Luohu Border Port that was a hype with people crossing over to Hong Kong and back into China. The mix of Cantonese and Mandarin made such a contrast, I would even say I could tell by their different facial appearences who was a Hong Konger and who was from the Mainland. I stood for a few moments over-looking the border point, I had crossed over that borderline two years previous with such trepidation, the area seemed more open the second time round with less shadiness, I would have no issue crossing for a second time but my feet were staying firmly in the Mainland for obvious reasons, well the morning's goings on had decided that fact without a doubt. Making use of the close proximity to Shenzhen Railway Station I fetched my train ticket for the following day to Xiamen to be supier organised. Oh, what a day S!

Taking it easy I went back to my hotel for a little rest, after that refreshment I made my way back to the area close to my hotel where I had had my breakfast that morning. Feeling hungry for something Hong Kong once again I had already seen a closed Hong Kong restaurant, having opened I tried my luck to see if a little luck wanted to come my way. Having a spaghetti dish it was lovely to have something normal, it reminded me of an ordinary dish I could get at home in England. My lunch was served with the same delicious Hong Kong Style milk tea, because I really couldn't get enough of the stuff! It was lovely! The day so far had been hectic, I looked back on my morning and put it all into perspective that travelling in China can be unpredictable at the best of times and downright insufferable at the worst of times! Moving on to the next phase of my day I wanted to see something pleasing to the eye, thankfully that didn't involve any borderlines! O, Shenzhen kept me on my toes!

Stepping out into the early evening light I stood amongst a vast avenue of electronic megastores, calm and collected due to the Spring Festival holiday it was easy to roam around without any complications. Shenzhen's bread and butter has to be its electronics, from Apple to China's own brands like Huawei there's a lot to choose from along Hua Qiang Bei. I was not in the mood to purchase anything electronic because that wasn't on my radar but it was definitely worth to see a crazy place deathly quiet, it really was! Everything looked shiny and new, something told me a massive development project had not long finished? Hua Qiang Bei had been one of the places on my list, only a few stops on the MRT away from my hotel and even closer from Luohu, it made sense to conclude my Shenzhen trip surrounded by a hushed version of SZ's electronics hub. Yes, I thought what would Shenzhen have without its own Silicon Valley?

The ridiculousness of the the day didn't mean anything as I sat in a lovely restaurant having recieved some Lucky Money from a friend, well I tell a lie because it was from a previous parent from my previous kindergarten as I have a tradition of sending their son money for New Year and Chinese New Year and maybe Christmas if I am feeling generous, money back for me is never expected or asked for but it was lovely to have a little bit of extra money to enjoy a beer and a burger to toast my Shenzhen experience. As I returned to Shenzhen North Railway Station the next morning I was taken back to another 2016 Chinese Spring Festival flashback, that high speed station was so awkward to navigate then but in present 2018 time it was a piece of cake, even with the crowds of people who were also getting trains across China growing high speed network! From the moment I arrived on my Hainan Airlines flight to that early morning train departure there wasn't a dull moment at all! No!

Seriously? Shenzhen!

Joseph Harrison 

23 February 2018

Shenzhen, China: From Rice Fields To Riches...

During Chinese Spring Festival 2016 I saved my pennies by crossing into Hong Kong via Shenzhen, going over the land border at Luohu was an experience I won't ever forget but my time in Shenzhen flashed before my eyes. Wanting to revisit that Guangdong city had to be done, I had several questions to ask this former fishing village. So, Shenzhen had its second chance!

Leisurely flying down from Beijing with Hainan Airlines, I then effortlessly transferred to the Shenzhen MRT shortly after my slightly delayed arrival into Bao'an International Airport. My previous encounter with Shenzhen had been brief, I probably spent less than two hours there the previous time so I had unfinished business to deal with. Finally on holiday, it felt great to be in Shenzhen, China! Fast forward to the next morning, I was ready to see four places furing my first day in Shenzhen. Climbing what seemed like one thousand steps I reached the top of Lianhuashan Park, in-search for a bronze statue of Deng Qiaoping was the task. People were warming around the statue of the man who commissioned the building of Shenzhen's city frame. Much like the scene I saw in Changsha along the Orange Isle Park, but that was a statue of a young Mao Zedong. I knew which view I wanted to capture and I did just that! I wanted that view S!

With a Birdseye view of Shenzhen's Convention Centre and city skyline I was loving that Guangdong city moment, the sky might have been a bit cloudly with my my new camera I was able to use a filter that gave me a clearer photo. I loved Shenzhen's shiny skyline, being a young city it was one of the sights that I had wanted to see during my Spring Festival trip. Rising from a former fishing village on the border with the former British Overseas Territory of Hong Kong, Deng Qiaoping commissioned for Shenzhen to be crafted into a Special Economic Zone, such development changed those former rice fields into land for modern day towering skyscarpers. It's no secret that the Hong Kong economy boomed before modern Shenzhen was built, the view from Lianhuashan Park proved Shenzhen's mission had been successful from the amount of activity that had took place. Regardless of the hysteria surrounding Deng Qiao Ping's park statue I enjoyed that futuristic view very much!

Getting a bit lost helps me find my original destination in the end, losing track of museums I reached the Shenzhen Museum within good time. Arranged much like Wuhan's Hubei Provincial Museum the Shenzhen Museum opened my eyes to the development and history of Guangdong's second largest city, that after the megacity of Guangzhou. From the upper floors, an aerial view of Shenzhen was portrayed in a very elaborate floor map, the city itself looks utterly massive. Museums aren't usually my thing but being a city that grew from a fishing village I wanted to know more about the boom days of Shenzhen and the Hong Kong days after the territory was given British control after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking for the 99 years lease. For that reason Shenzhen isn't an international tourism destination, its known for its electronics market, dubbed more powerful than California's Silicon Valley. I was so interested!

Getting lost in the first exhibit about the British handover of Hong Kong and its territories I was amazed to the know the ins and out of the Treaty of Nanking and to see the other details of that 99 year long contract. Photo depicted the building of the Canton Railway, seeing the contrast between the local Chinese people and the British Victorian dignitaries posed quite a contrast of cultures and conflicting ideas. Learning about Zhong Ying Street made me want to visit that former British and Chinese controlled street for myself, I would find out some real life truth the next day for certain! I couldn't help but find some of the tone quite discriminatory towards the British rule in Hong Kong, it happened and in whatever way it was retold I kept those opinions in at the museum. Opposite exhibits pushed the ideal of Shenzhen fighting back to not remain in its then British ruled neighbour with fancy displays of the first factories and industrial advances that were made in during its growth.

Shenzhen's growing MRT system showed me the way to Shenzhen Bay Park, at first I thought I was in a construction site if truth be told! Following the crowds it wasn't difficult to find the waters that overlooked Shenzhen's Nanshan District, a waterside community that looked fit for a foreign or an Overseas Chinese person. People were in every direction but I didn't pay them any mind, Shenzhen's Bay had me transfixed on the outlying vistas. I caught the right time to take my photos, regardless of the crowds the warmer climbs of that bayside part felt much better than Beijing's bitterly temperatures, it was lovely to see the sea for a change. Sipping on my coconut juice that I had bought from a local street seller it felt like the perfect combination to have a lovely view and a cold treat to quench my thirst, it felt right. Why had it taken me such a long to see such things in Shenzhen, China?! Those whisperers were distracting me!

No, that's not a bridge?! Seeing a bridge edging over to the west I wondered if it linked the former British Overseas Territory of Hong Kong? Yes, after doing a little detective work I found out that Shenzhen Bay Border Point was introduced after 1949 to curb the amount of Chinese mainland immigrants who were infact classed as 'illegal immigrants' after free movement was halted between China and HK. Shenzhen kept on educating me, I knew deep down that I would return to Shenzhen in the future for a proper nose around, during my 2016 border crossing from Shenzhen to Hong Kong through the Luohu Border Port I may have felt the shadiness of the borderline but something stayed with me. People get harsh on Shenzhen being the located at the borderline with Hong Kong for all of its shady customs issues but the Bay Area astounded me with its understated views. The day was pressing on, finding my way to the same MRT station it was onto my final stop of the day. Run with me Shenzhen!

My fourth and final element of Shenzhen's exotic city scene I stood at the foot of what looked like a disused factory complex? Was it Shenzhen's answer to Birmingham's Custard Factory?! Almost, almost! The OCT Loft transported me to another place with its renovated art scene, pricey shops and exclusive eateries impressed me much, but I wasn't there for their price tag. Being the Chinese New Year holiday it was apparent to see most of the restaurants and shops closed but the deserted post-apocalyptic vibe gave me life regardless of that nature. Set within Nanshan District's Overseas Chinese Town, I wasn't and still I'm not too sure if the 'Overseas Chinese' part meant that the residents were Chinese but had been born outside of the Chinese Mainland? I'll put my hands up and say with conviction I don't know that fact, understood? Sure, it was a trendy hangout where I appreciated the quietness. By then I was tired S!

Tired beyond belief after walking over 30,000 steps during that first day of sightseeing in Shenzhen, I wanted nothing more to return to my hotel for the night to relax. I had seen exactly what I had wanted to see for that day, from the panoramic views of Shenzhen's growing skyline from Lianhuashan Park to the schooling I got from the British days in Hong Kong at the Shenzhen Museum, it was an education. The sweeping views of the Shenzhen Bay alongside that sweeping park area impressed me much and helped me forget the coldness of the country's capital that I was over experiencing. Shenzhen had been much more than the blur that I had previously experienced during my 2016 border crossing period to Hong Kong. The haters will always talk trash about Shenzhen but this former rice field has fashioned itself into a modern powerhouse, rising with its skyscrapers and grasp on the electronics, I gave Shenzhen my full attention! Yes, of course Nanshan's OCT Loft served industrial OCT realness!

Serving Shenzhen!

Joseph Harrison 

22 February 2018

Chinese Spring Festival 2017

Spring Festival is undoubtedly the new Christmas for me, after two in China I'm anticipating my third but before that Guangdong and Fujian moment I want to reflect on my sub-zero affair. Harbin and Shenyang saw me get my sightseeing, party and my freeze on during that February time. Incorporating Russian, Chinese and Korean elements to my trip I was so frozen H!

Taking to the skies from Wuhan on my China Southern flight, I was bound for the far northeastern city of Harbin. The Chinese Spring Festival Golden Week had just started, climbing over north China my elevated view looked like a colourful war zone, fireworks blazed and sparkled in every colour as far as I could see. The -25 degrees temperature didn't impress me but that was Harbin during that time and I wanted to see it all from a frozen point of view. A certain Russian flare could be seen across the city centre, stumbling upon the gorgeous St. Sophia's Cathedral proved Harbin was the Eastern Moscow. Once inside Sophia's place I was surprised to not see seats for the congregation because that former house of religion stood as the Harbin Architecture and Art Museum, depicting Chinese Russian life during the city's Russian heyday. Even though everything looked great I was just so very cold! Help me H!

Zhong Yang Dajie presented itself to be a blast from the past, fashioned with cobble stones it was another throwback to Harbin's Russian era. Central Avenue acquainted me with various Russian gift shops that sold traditional Russian dolls and a selection of chocolates too. I bought myself a Russian doll and a few bars of chocolate because in China the chocolate isn't that good, must be the milk they use? Anyhow, I was feeling rather hungry during that Chinese New Year exploration so I decided to choose Tatoc Russian Restaurant upon reading Trip Advisor reviews it looked good. The food was amazing and the warm air conditioning was even better, I loved the mashed potato and then for desert I had tiramasu, not typically Russian but something different compared to the usual foods I would eat. Exploring some of the side streets unlocked more Russian nature, the history just-off Central Avenue impressed me much even if it was slightly decaying. Oh and Russian beer is strong!

Moving away from St. Sophia's and Central Avenue I found the frozen waters of the Songhua River. No boats or water flowed along that river bend during that freezing February 2017 time but a whole lot of action was taking place. The ice looked bulletproof as hundreds of people enjoyed themselves at the many wintry activity stations, something I wasn't going to indulge in because the cold got even worse during the middle of the day. Children were tobogganing without a care in the world, it was like a true winter wonderland. Aside from the wintry goings on the river I noticed that I was standing next to the Harbin Flood Control Monument, I had seen one similar in Wuhan as both cities share rivers that saw serious flooding. Little did I know at that time the Songhua River flowed all the way through the Changbai Mountains and to the China-DPRK border! It wasn't just a frozen river it was an education! Yes!

Wrapping my Harbin experience I took a tour during my final day to the snow sculptures at the Sun Island Expo, those carefully crafted snow structures looked breathtaking and the detail was amazing to see! Moving onwards the Siberian Tiger Park was somewhere I had been sceptical about because animal rights in China seems to be a grey area but sure as anything the Tigers looked in good health and were so beautiful. No Chinese New Year would be the same without eating lots of dumplings, having a great lunch included in my tour package hit the spot during that freezing day of exploration. Topping off the day I was afforded the opportunity to see the majestic Ice sculptures at the world famous Harbin Ice Festival. China Highlights pulled it out of the bag once more, I went onto book another trip and had a great time! The tour was worth the money, I saw so much during one day and didn't have to think about a single thing, another trip, please? Oh, Harbin's frozen beauty looked perfect!

Leaving the unbearably freezing temperatures of Harbin behind me I boarded a high speed train to Shenyang in China's Liaoning Province. Liaoning's provincial city was my wildcard, I had peviously wanted to see Changchun as it was in-between Harbin and Shenyang but it was so cold I could only deal with two places during that Spring Festival break. Just before I found my hotel on Feng Tian Jie I noticed a Muslim food street that I had found on Trip Advisor because China travel websites are inaccurate, it looked like a delicious oppportunity. Hui Muslim food all around I was in food heaven, fed well and sleepy I returned to my hotel for the longest sleep. Waking up before the birds I had a random list of places to see in Shenyang during my first day. Beiling Park was nice and chilled, covered in a blanket of snow it was the perfect shade of white, Sheyang's pintsized city skyline added to the perfect vista. Go, Shenyang!

Before my Shenyang trip I had seen there was a TESCO or two in that northeastern Chinese city, hoping to find sone TESCO Value products I made my way from Beiling Park to the nearest overseas British supermarket. The signage and font was so similiar but it was all in Chinese, the international section wasn't too good but I did find some TESCO Value chocolate wafers, the packaging transported me home if only for a few seconds. I pressed onwards to see the former residence of Marshal Zhang Xueliang. It was quite busy but being a lesser known city I was able to get around that former property without much stress, it was interesting and had links to Taiwan so that impressed me. The night was approaching, I called into a Carrefour that was at the point where I started my day. Getting my drink I found Glasgow, a great little bar that forged a new friendship. The night got crazy but the cold still dropped down low, but so did my moves on the floor! But regardless of those details I slayed hard!

Waking up in with an awful hangover I made it back to my hotel, feeling less than dreadful I remembered why I was in Shenyang and got a grip of my hangover! Passing the Imperial Palace the previous day I knew the directions to that former place of royalty. Known as Mukden Palace I found it quite interesting but my photo was my main concern because I was feeling so bad. In a trance I moved onto Zhongshan Road to find a huge statue of the former Chairman Mao Zedong, that golden focal point looked as if he was flagging down a taxi with his hand in the air. I battled against how bad I felt, I won't ever learn and I don't ever want to be sensible because that would be straight up boring! No way! From the views of Shenyang during that February afternoon it didn't take long to see that much development was taking place, new hotels and metro lines gave Shenyang an edge within the NE region. I was badly in need of food!

I admit that the draw to Shenyang had to be its Korean connection, I can travel freely to South Korea but the DPRK is another story, a meal within Xita Street's Korean corner had to be the one. Seeing the North Korean flag it was a done deal, I gingerly pushed the door open to the Pyongyang Rainbow Restaurant because it felt strange but something I knew I had to do! The North Korean women waiting in the windows in their national dress the 'Hanbok' somehow reminded me of a certain Dutch city as that advertising was done by the ladies. Ordering a rice dish with some Kimchi seemed like a good idea, getting some North Korean beer had to be done to complement the experience. I happened to be the only person dining in the restaurant, I noticed state broadcast North Korean television was being streamed. My DPRK news viewing was interesting, it was all very bizarre if truth be told. Both Harbin and Shenyang had left me feeling bitterly cold, it was time to go back to Wuhan, Hubei.

The Rooster Year!

Joseph Harrison