30 April 2018

Labour Day 2018: Returning to Suzhou, China!

Suzhou still had more to show me, with one full day left I was looking for another fill from one of China's prettiest cities! Without my friend in-tow I was still slaying those city sights with confidence, from temples to gardens I was onto the next in Suzhou during 2018's Labor Day holiday weekend. Alipay and WeChat donations accepted at a temple? For real! This is China!

Marred with a scene of craziness I arrived at Suzhou's Hanshan Temple, my friend had recommended me to visit that house of worship in his absence as he tended to a delicate family matter. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty I was prepared to have an open mind for what I was about to see. The crowds didn't drive me crazy, China second time round has taught me to get over that nonsense. Finding the main temple building I was chilled to get a photo that didn't reflect the madness that was happening in real life, I was impressed with the deep reds and browns that the temple was serving up to me! The weather was pushing thirty degrees, with such a lovely temple in my view I wasn't in a place to complain about those accelerating temperatures. Translating to the 'Cold Mountain' temple I wasn't feeling any corresponding weather matching with that term. Yes, the Puming Paogda was giving me life for certain SZ!

Finding one of the shrines, it led me to what looked like a gift shop that sold many beautiful items such as; prayer beads, Buddhas and other Buddhist purchases. In the many temples that I've been to in China there's always a customary shrine that worshippers can donate fruit or cash to the gods but if today's modern vista only has WeChat Pay or AliPay, they only needed to scan the QR code to make that donation to the higher power! Even though my friend had gone back to Nanjing I was making the most of the morning at Suzhou's Hanshan Temple, he had told me about it after all, despite the crowds making their appearance it was still a nice place to see, Suzhou was impressing me much with its many different shades of Jiangsu magic. I am still in complete disbelief that the shrine had a cashless donation option, China will surely be cashless in the future judging by Hanshan's mobile payment choice? Moving to the next phase the previous stresses of my eight day week vanished.

Suzhou had a plan, it had finally lured me to one of its world famous gardens, along with the canals those Oriental green spaces put this Jiangsu Province City on the tourist map! The Humble Administrator Garden wasn't on my radar, whereas the Lingering Garden was very much so! Finding the location without any issues thanks to my Baidu Map reading skills, fronted by the crowds yet again I got my sense together, I wasn't going to give a collective damn about those people, I only had one chance to see that garden! Conscious of the scene set on the ticket, I wanted to get that view, putting my best foot forward it was on! My first initial glimpses of the Lingering Garden gave me a Chinese garden view that I had longed to see, for that reason I paid no mind to the crowds, I wasn't going to be bitter! Overhearing an Australian tour group proclaim their disgust about the amount of folks, they needed to get over it! Now!

Finding a few unmarked twists and turns I found the view that I was hoping to see, looking just as nice as the photo on the ticket, I was very impressed by what I saw in that immediate area. Taking my snaps I made my way through what looked like a Bonsai bonanza, if Suzhou ever did the same thing as the 'Chelsea Flower Show' because the Bonsai's on display would have made an amazing feature to that potential 'Suzhou Flower Show!' Impressed with the sights shown to me within Suzhou's Lingering Garden I came to the end of my garden experience to find myself at the exit, near to a gift shop I looked at the children's clothes with all their Chinese style, taking a sly photo I found the same product on Taobao for 40 Yuan cheaper than what the shop wanted for in Suzhou! The day was pushing on, leaving the Lingering Garden and that overpriced tourist trap shop behind me, it was time for another blast from the past! Suzhou had shown me a lot, it felt appropriate if truth be told!

As I made my way towards Pingjiang Road I was  fronted with a few more flashbacks, it was a surreal moment! Bagging some freshly baked flatbread from a Muslim vendor I found myself getting a few cans of Suntory Japanese beer from another trusty FamilyMart, it was only right being my final afternoon spent in Suzhou! Finding somewhere to sit, I enjoyed my bread and beer as the crowds of people passed me by, they gave me some strange looks but frankly I was living, one group of young Chinese people toasted a beer with me, at least they had a sense of be able to enjoy a drink! Finished with my beverages I made my way further into the winding canal-side street that showed me a series of memorable nights out the first time I was in Suzhou, things looked pretty different, more tourist appropriate and in less of a backpackers style. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the views definitely took me back to 2015 for sure! Memory!

Eyeing a flashy hotel bar alongside the waters of Pingjiang Road, I crossed over for a fancy drink because I could! The whole weekend at that point had passed me by so effortlessly, even that second day afforded me to see quite a lot, from a temple to a former waterside haunt. Pingjiang Road still possessed its crazy nature, more food vendors were visible, it had a different feel to it because I was in a different state of mind with a different intent, it was all about sneaking out of the hotel with my fellow teachers in-training to have a few cheeky drinks, I have progressed a lot since that moment but those memories aren't beneath me compared to my Beijing life path. Suzhou had given me everything, I honestly felt that returning was the best decision even thought I had vowed never to return to cities after the initial visit during my time here in China. Returning to my hotel, the next days journey would be a long one, getting some rest had to be done! So, Suzhou's final chapter was closed.

Secondary Suzhou!

Joseph Harrison 

29 April 2018

Suzhou, China: Venice of The East!

Promising to return to Suzhou during our first encounter in June 2015, on the eve of 2018's Labor Day weekend fulfilled that promise as my night train departed from Beijing South Railway Station. Back to the canals is where I had in mind, oh and a few beers relaxing outside a FamilyMart had to be done! The Venice of the East called me back for a reason, I am certain SZ! 

It was a fine line whether my night train would pull into Suzhou Railway Station on time, sure as ever I sneaked past the ticket barrier with my Shanghai bound ticket in Suzhou, the seats were sold out to Suzhou so my ticket was for Shanghai, all good I found my friend Jia Ming by our agreed meeting point. Hitting up Shantang Street had to be done, getting there before the crowds did afforded us to have an uninterrupted view of the canal-side masterpieces. Only a short hop on the high speed line from the booming metropolis of Shanghai, Suzhou keeps it chilled with its period features and endless canals, it's definitely best described as the Venice of the East! So, maybe a little restoration and beautification has been given to Shantang Street and the immediate area, it was serving everything we had imagined it would have! Yes! Missing that street first-time in Suzhou was a fail! Contented with those views, it was holiday time! 苏州, it's OK!

I had been friends with Jia Ming for a while, we just hadn't found the time to meet due to me being in England then my Beijing location had kept me super busy! Jia Ming being from Nanjing meant he didn't need to leave his own Jiangsu Provincal region, those high speed trains made Suzhou the perfect meeting point for my returning trip, it was his first time in Suzhou so I wanted the trip to be the best it could have possibly been! I had friends who stayed in Suzhou longer than my seven days, they got to Shantang Street during the night, we preferred the morning. Leaving Shantang Street behind us it was time for some breakfast, the day had only just started, but we had a plan! Catching up over a breakfast that was definitely not Chinese it was crazy that it was our first real face to face meeting, that's what technology and social media has to answer for! Shantang Street done, it was time to get ourselves to Tiger Hill before those pesky holiday crowds got there before us! 去吧! 

After our bus trip we arrived close to Tiger Hill, feeling generous I got the entry fee because if you're a friend of mine I will treat you right, just don't do me wrong otherwise it's going down! Paying the crowds no mind it was onto the main attraction, dubbed the 'Leaning Tower of China' it stood to be another confirmation that Suzhou had that Italian nature to be dubbed the 'Venice of the East' even thought the 'Leaning Tower' is in Pisa! Regardless of those references I loved the twisting and turning paths within that Suzhou scenic area, it was a breath of fresh air to be exploring again after such a hectic eight day working week, Tiger Hill knew that I needed to take the time to enjoy its views. Catching the first glimpses of Suzhou's answer to a famous Italian counterpart gave us life collectively, getting a few snaps was enough for me, after taking in the views we took a walk round the immediate area to move forwards. Okurr!

Tiger Hill was something different, a pagoda nonetheless, it was another new sight snatched in a city that I hardly saw anything previously! We didn't want to do too much, catching a DiDi taxi to rest our feet or just to be extra we made our way closer to the hotel. The morning had been a busy one since our railway station encounter, checking in to the hotel had to be done, getting a major blast from the past those crowds were no walking trophy, get back in your rooms! Refreshed and sorted we had some lunch, getting my a good feed with the New Zealand steak, teamed with fried eggs, chips and a glass of French red wine it was a great chance to escape the mayhem of the tourist appropriate streets, catching up for the win it was great to talk about life and all that good stuff because queens in this country must stick together! Suzhou served prettiness in all the right areas, we were set for the next phase of our day but we decided to take an independent flow. Turning it back again!

Taking the underground from the tourist trap I made my way towards Suzhou's Central Business District, an area that had crossed my path more than once during my initial visit to that Jiangsu Province City. Staying near the Metro exit I took it was such a mind mess to see where my former hotel actually was, it had me fooled for certain! Looking for a certain FamilyMart store proved troublesome but sitting in the shadow of the areas biggest landmark I found a FamilyMart store that had the same outside sitting area, I bought my Suntory Japanese beer with haste, one of those seats became mine! Reminiscing about the days of my former English teacher training and all the shenanigans that took place, it felt like a full circle moment because so much had happened and against all odds I had made the journey back to the beginning. Shaking off those crazy moments it was a great feeling to be back amongst such memories!

I walked for awhile trying to the find the same complex behind the Orange Hotel that had been our hangout during that 2015 training period but with the majority of the scaffolding gone, something told me that the former corner of restaurants had been replaced by the look of the shiny city centre look and the newly completed skyline, I wasn't bitter because both times had given me different things and my life lay in a different phase with many opportunities that weren't present for me at that time. I sat thankful for that second chance, it felt very cathartic to return but to be in the same mode as Suzhou's CBD, somethings before weren't quite complete and that went for my status in China, it felt correct to be centred within Suzhou's shiny CBD if truth be told! Needing to find my friend again before our batteries gave up on us I boarded the metro to Moon Harbour, a stress that turned out to be! Making a mistake put us in the right direction, finding the way, we both got it right S!

Jinji Lake was worth the confusion, I never had the chance to see it first time round in Suzhou. The night was young, the lights shone across the waters that showcased a shiny new skyline, the whole circular shape of the lake served a 22nd century view with many futuristic shapes and colours. Another part of our Suzhou trip had been accomplished, another place bossed that I didn't get the chance to see first time round. By that time me and Jia Ming were getting rather hungry, making the most of the view of Jinji Lake was enough for us, the restaurants were quite expensive so we headed back towards our hotel for something that turned out to be Japanese. Leaving the lights of Jinji Lake was the right thing to do, after our evening meal we decided to pamper ourselves with some beauty treatments, it felt good to treat myself after such a long week, those eight days melted away as the weekend progressed. Relax S!

The day had been epic, from our early morning rendezvous at Suzhou Railway Station then moving to Shantang Street before discovering Tiger Hill, we were exhausted after our treatments! We had seen so much during that first day, we worked it out perfectly by going our separate ways for a few hours before we traveled to Suzhou's Jinji Lake. On a personal note it was amazing to revisit the CBD and to finally see the place that I should have seen during my initial 2015 visit! Would I revisit Suzhou for a third time? I went back to a place that I needed to but I feel content with what I saw, so it won't be third time lucky. At the midnight hour Jia Ming received some terrible news, he was left with no choice but to take the train back to Nanjing the following day, a shame but that's life! Through everything it was a perfect day, filled with nothing but good vibes, there was no time for negativity within China's Venice of the East! Seriously, FamilyMart needs to move up to Beijing properly!

Thanks, Suzhou!

Joseph Harrison 

15 April 2018

Changchun: Culture, Lakes & History!

Feeling a lot less human after the previous nights shenanigans, Changchun had many more things for me to discover. With one of the 'Eight Departments of the Manchukuo' and a certain flagship square I was alright with feeling delicate, no matter how bad I feel I always make myself feel horrendous during every trip! Going south, I wanted to see what a certain lake offered! 

Refuelling with a huge Burger King meal, that unhealthy sustanence gave me the life to keep on sightseeing, no lie the deviant behaviour from the night before wasn't going to stop my second day of discovery in Changchun! Half following my Baidu Maps as per usual, finding one of the 'Eight Departments of the Manchukuo' was misleading, I thought I was fronting that former ruling building but the first attempt happened to be a hospital, how the beverages hadn't left my body at that dinnertime moment! Housing the brains behind the Japanese governing occupation over Changchun and the rest of China's Nippon control zones. Something told me the buildings aren't kept well, judging by the shabby grounds that surrounded the grand entrance of that former government building. I was impressed by the fact I had seen something authentic from the 30's period of Japanese rule in China. Changchun was impressing much! Yes C!

Between Harbin, Shenyang and Changchun I felt quite accomplished during that second day of sightseeing within Manchuria, the fact I had reached my third Chinese far north-eastern provincial capital in the last year felt amazing! Each far north-eastern Chinese capital had a flare from their former foreign influences, putting Changchun in a league of its own for the sole reason that it was fronted by a puppet Emperor during that Japanese era. Getting it together it was refreshing to see the normality of Changchun's streets, no tourist buzz could be felt, that affirmed the whole reason why I always choose places that are undercover on a provincial scale! Remembering the statue outside the main entrance it did make me think, who was the guy out front meant to be? Did Puyi have anything to do with these eight buildings? Now, is that a question? Nevertheless, one-eighth of Changchun's former government departments set the tone for the day, expecting the unexpected for certain. 

Standing in the middle of Changchun's largest public square it gave me perspective, Culture Square stood as another reminder of the Manchukuo reign of Japanese power within the city. The vastness of the concrete area gave a me good look at the pint-sized skyline Changchun was serving at that time. I wasn't to sure what building stood in front of the main focal point of the square, nonetheless it gave the quiet square some substance. The wind was blowing a gale during that Tomb Sweeping afternoon, from every angle I could see elaborate kites flying within Changchun's own Culture Square. I recognised some sights around Culture Square from a YouTuber who vlogged about Changchun, I was feeling quite impressed with myself that I didn't need no tourist guide to help me along the way or that video either! The quietness of Culture Square was nice, life was mental so with some hush it felt good. Changchun served!

Reflecting on Culture Square and the Manchukuo building I saw that morning, I snatched those views and moved onto the next one because time isn't kind! Feeling very much content with the mornings sightseeing I stood in a reflective mood, I had hit my 33rd Chinese destination since June 2015 and that felt great! Changchun's unapologetic normality gave me life, I am not one for impressive tourist sites, shunning Changchun's main attractions I didn't pay them any mind. The things I had seen so far since stepping onto the platform at Changchun Railway Station consisted of everyday places that the locals might not pay any attention to, these cities aren't visited by international tourists usually, delving further into Changchun's colourful past it was clear to see the period of Japanese occupation has imprinted something intriguing, making Changchun stand out for some bone chilling reasons. Changchun brought me back for a reason, whatever reason that was I am thankful for us reconnecting.

Straight up I was done with that hangover, catching a bus to Nan Hu, I hoped the icy cold breeze from the lake side would cure me. Needless to say it was a piece of cake navigating the bus from Culture Square to the waters of Changchun's own south lake park area. Things were pretty quiet aside from a group of juveniles, I wasn't fazed by their foolishness. South Lake itself didn't impress me at first, I just couldn't get a nice photo or one that I was satisfied with so I kept on walking further towards the view I eventually found in the photo to the left. The cold temperatures began to grate on me, snatching my photos and appreciating that final view I was done with that part of the city, I was starving and going under. My trip to Changchun was coming to a close, I wanted nothing more than some good food and an early night! Telling the truth it was my early train the next train I didn't want to miss! I'm a bore!

Returning to Ren Min Guang Chang for my final meal in Changchun, I didn't want any surprises so I went to the same place I ate the previous day. Feeling less than with the programme I had my tea, got back on the metro to find my hotel room! That night was chilled before my high speed train the next day, I needed to be back in the Jing! Changchun's second day was a tender one to say the least, I had started it getting messed up at some club named after a Panda, managing to find a Burger King I salvaged my final day in China's former Japanese stronghold. South Lake had me walking for that perfect snap and Culture Square showed me something that showed Changchun's growing skyline. As I mentioned before it was an absolute pleasure to reconnect with Jilin's provincial city within north east China. I have no need to revisit the far northeastern corner of China because I have bossed those cities, well maybe a jaunt to Inner Mongolia's Grasslands looks possible? Yes, yes and yes!

Chilly Changchun!

Joseph Harrison 

10 April 2018

China: Changchun's Japanese Secret...

Changchun had been a place that crossed my path during a bullet train journey from Harbin to Shenyang, a feeling that I would return eventually filled my heart as that train stopped briefly at the city's West Railway Station in February 2017. Stepping onto the platform from my overnight Beijing train at the dawn of 2018's Tomb Sweeping holiday, I kept that promise!

Yet again the naysayers continued to pour out their worthless noise, I stood firm booking my train tickets and hotel to Changchun for China's 2018 Tomb Sweeping holiday weekend. Wedged in-between Heilongjiang Province to the north and Liaoning Province to the south it had been a place I had left behind those bitter temperatures during 2017's Spring Festival holiday week, I had a mission to revisit one of the key sights linking the historic and bloody Japanese invasion with its former puppet emperor to boot. Waking up with the rising sun, my overnight train from Beijing approached Changchun's main railway station, choosing to maximise time spent in that Northeastern city I left for the train straight after work the previous day. Hot on the heels of People's Square I was straight on the metro, it felt surreal to just have my rucksack basically packed, it definitely made me feel like I had forgotten something. Go CC!

The vast expanse of Ren Min Guang Chang gave me life, it was amazing to finally be in Changchun, another 'non touristy' city within China that was my 33rd city visited within Mainland China including Hong Kong and Macau. The early morning hour was apparent, the traffic wasn't so hectic, giving me a sense of a scene I had wanted to see for its Japanese past. Eyeing up the large headquarter like buildings that were anchored at each side of the huge square, it was easy to see the Chinese flag flying proudly over what looked like a government building. Deep down I was looking for one of the 'Eight Departments of the Manchukuo'. Looking for a caffeine kick I had to settle for breakfast at KFC because Starbucks didn't open for another 90 minutes, I was on a mad thing because it wasn't even 7:30am yet! Feeling charitable I bought breakfast for a lesser fortunate soul. Changchun's People's Square was simple but I appreciate its understated charm. I'll endorse the underdog! You, say less!

Going underground once again I got myself a ticket to see the Puppet Emperor's Palace, otherwise known as 'Wei Huang Gong' in Chinese. Stepping into a myriad of period features, each room within the many buildings of China's final Emperor's gaff certainly served something golden for sure! The former home of the Puppet Emperor, who was known as 'Puyi' being the final royal figure of the Qing Dynasty had a set of puppet strings pulled by the invading Japanese power. It was a lot of information to process as I made my way around the many exhibits in the nearby museum that schooled me about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the early 1930's, it was something of an eye-opening experience for certain! On a lighter note 'Puyi's' un-emperor like style portrayed him as hipsteresque chap with his circular glass and trench coat style, the Japanese weren't pulling the puppet strings when it came to his style! P!

The rich redness and glistening gold design of the stately rooms that were previously home to the Japanese masterminds served the imperialist rule of the Manchukuo, housed lavish settings with a piano room and even a swimming pool the last Emperor was something of a revolutionary for the time in China with a much higher life compared to the unfortunate souls that perished at the hands of the Japanese power. It was mind-boggling to see the impact Japanese rule had on the three Northeastern Chinese provinces, the fact Japanese was taught in schools and Chinese businesses and landowners were pushed out for Japanese nationals made the Nippon invaders appeared like a kind of Nazi regime? Regardless of those invasions and the injustices faced by the people of Manchuria, I had my eyes truly opened during that morning's worth of exploration in Changchun! Filled with knowledge of the Japanese occupation in Changchun I had clocked up six hours since my dawn arrival!

Taking refuge in my Jinjiang Inn hotel room, the early morning arrival and first throws of sightseeing had knackered me out, those night trains aren't that comfortable if I am honest! Fresh from my afternoon rest I headed back up to the area surrounding People's Square because the morning's view of Chongqing Road served a flashback to Newark's Broad and Market Streets from my New Jersey days, the bold signs and wide intersection captured my eyes, transporting me back to the mayhem of my times in Downtown Newark during 2012. Taken back to the bustling centre of that pint-sized Changchun city I was being directed to a cool Ramen place by my Dianping food app. Finally, I found that cosy Japanese themed noodle house, the photo looked slightly different than the actual physical location. My red chicken dish tasted almost like a stew from 'Mother England', those gyoza trumped 'Wagamama's' for sure! Bliss!

So, my cut price delicious meal would have cost a fortune at home, choosing the smaller cities allowed me to eat like a king for less than seven pound with a large bottle of Kirin Japanese beer thrown into the mix, yes that one beverage gave me the taste for what would follow! After a random discovery and a quick refresh with a new hairstyle thrown together I chose Mr. Panda Club, typically Chinese I wasn't bothered by that whatsoever! Fuelling myself with vodka after vodka it wasn't long before my inner trouble-maker was unleashed, judging everyone I got it right on the floor and the stage! Enjoying the audience I saved my money with free drinks from all angles, my inner KIA nature served it without any issues in Changchun! Not paying any mind I didn't have to deal with any fuss, it was great! Slaying till the early morning I felt content with my night out in Changchun, trust me to go large in a city that apparently didn't have any clubs! Good for a city that's not popular? Yes!

Chancghun Swicthed! 

Joseph Harrison