Saturday, 30 June 2018

Flying High... Sri Lankan, Aeroflot & Emirates!

Short haul flights don't impress me much, after experiencing a lull I was fortunate enough to take three long haul flights within two and a half years! Jetting to and from China I will look back at those Asian and European bound flights. How was the food and in-flight entertainment? Were the cabin crew fabulous? Did those long-reach flights land on-time? Come on, let's fly! 

Checking into my Sri Lankan Airlines flight kickstarted my 'China Dream', after bidding farewell to my parents it was time to process the delay and the possibility of missing my Shanghai connection in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Boarding was something that reminded me of my Virgin Atlantic days, those Sri Lankan elders had me thinking of those VS300 connectors. Taking off felt like an epic relief, relaxing into my seat it was time for the evening meal. I dined on a fabulously delicious curry dish, served with Ceylon tea. I loved life as I watched 'Meet Me In St. Louis' on my setback television screen. So far so good, Sri Lankan Airlines wasn't my first choice, it was my moms because it was cheaper than other shorter or direct routes to Shanghai, China from London Heathrow. That flight saw me start my 'Flying High...' blog series, revamping previous flight blogs, so I've built up ten instalments from my long and short haul flights.

Venturing to the galley I asked one of the crew members about the connection time in Colombo, several other people were on connecting flights and by the looks of it, Colombo had been called to hold the flights. She assured me that we would arrive with plenty of time and with Colombo being such a small airport it was going to be fine. Plucking up the courage I asked two female crew members for a photo, they accepted and this helped for my first seriously assembled long haul flight blog. Night turned into day, the first twelve hours of my journey were over because it was time to touchdown into Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport. Rushing through security it was a race against time to reach the Shanghai gate, as soon as I arrived at the gate it was time to board, it felt great to have had made that connection! The flight onwards to Shanghai was smooth, the food was fine and the crew were friendly, the long journey and lack of sleep had me tired! Landing was surreal, it felt great! 

Upon leaving Wuhan I took a high-speed train to Shanghai to board my Heathrow bound Aeroflot Russian Airlines flight via Moscow. Booking Aeroflot was purely for the budget price tag, Wuhan had no reasonable flights back to England, taking a chance on Aeroflot had to be the one! Boarding slightly late in the dead of night at Shanghai Pudong it was a miracle Svetlana got me an aisle seat, the passengers on my original row were not cooperative and I didn't have time for their pettiness, that Russian crew member got me my aisle seat within five minutes or so, it was great! Hospitality onboard my Moscow bound flight was surprisingly good, the cabin crew were attentive and gave me life when they started to talking Russian to the local passengers who didn't understand English, their direct way of service impressed me much. No, those passengers didn't give the crew the easiest of flights! манеры! резкий! Translate it!

I nearly crossed my heart and said ten 'Hail Mary's' because the pilot made a shock announcement that we had to land at 10,000ft! No abrupt mid-flight landing needed to be made but it wasn't something I wanted to hear! Considering the reviews online had been dreadful I was pleasantly surprised the food was tasty and the in-flight entertainment was plausible for a medium haul flight. Speeding our way to Moscow it was a comfort to be on my way home, transferring was an experience after a heavy touch down into SVO. Flashing my British Passport I was allowed to board without a visa check onto the Heathrow flight, I had never seen such stringent checks at a boarding gate outside of the United States! Arriving safely after a short hop from the Russian Federation it was a blessing to see the legendary views of Central London and the River Thames! Aeroflot got me back in one piece, no severe turbulence was felt and connecting to my London flight in Moscow was fine. LHR!

Becoming an English teacher in China happened, whilst becoming a flight attendant for Emirates didn't. Fulfilling another long haul flight dream I banked my coins from my last China pay-check to secure my seats on an Emirates flight from Birmingham to Beijing via Dubai International. Stepping onto that mega Airbus A380-800 was insane, it was mad to think that super jumbo was actually going to takeoff with all of that body! Smoothly I departed Birmingham to a three course meal with a generous flow of Bacardi Rum for the win! The crew members in the nearest galley were so gracious, agreeing to pose in a photo with me for my Emirates blog feature made me happy! One of the crew members happened to be from Coventry, she was so sweet and made sure my cup was filled with Bacardi and Coke throughout our conversations in the galley. I spent most of the flight chatting with the crew and other passengers at 30,000ft! EK!

Touching down into Dubai International bang on-time, I made it off my flight with complimentary feedback for the crew members who made my flight so special and yes I bagged a self with the Emirates hat on! Dubai International shone bright like a diamond, seeing those Arabic signs made me feel like I was in a National Geographic airport documentary about the airport that I had watched to the series entirety! Finding the gate for the Beijing flight with ease, I knew I was going to the right place because everyone had hot water and instant noodle pots! The second flight was really quiet, the crew stayed in the galley once the service was over, still getting my beverages for the win it was a chance to relax before touching down into Beijing Capital. Without a doubt I would fly without Emirates again in the near future! Sri Lankan helped me make my Shanghai connection, Aeroflot told it like it was and Emirates served it right! Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific is next! Yes, A350!

Water, Coffee, Tea?

Joseph Harrison 

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

On The Metro: Beijing's Line 14

Onto the metro once again, Beijing's vast Subway network got me acquainted with Line 14 the day after I arrived in China's capital city! Making stops at Wangjing, Wangjing South, Chaoyang Park and Beijing South Railway Station showed me this rapid transit line covers some serious distance across Beijing. Being the first line I used in BJ, Line 14 is my connection into the city!

Arriving in Beijing during November 2017 saw me spend my first few days on the doorstep of Chaoyang Park, boasting its own Line 14 station I made use of both the park and the Subway before moving to the outlying suburb of Shunyi. The first few days in Beijing had me crazy busy, I opened a new bank account and changed cards for a second account, having some spare time the day before heading up to my new apartment I checked out Chaoyang Park for myself. Feeling like I was in a Chinese Central Park, the towering structures of Beijing's CBD stood in the vista for me to marvel at. Chaoyang Park Subway Station saw me buy my first and so far only Yikatong travel card, basically functioning on all the official modes of transport in Beijing meant I had unlocked the key to seeing the city during my free time! Looking back, Chaoyang Park was my first sight in my new Chinese City! Oh, Beijing's Line 14 had more for me!

Transitioning from Wuhan to Beijing wasn't bad, being in a more developed city had pro's rather than cons when its concerned public transport. My first Beijing Subway post may have been about Line 15 but Line 14 showed me a more organised side of underground travel compared to that of Wuhan! The morning rush hour was no joke during those first Chaoyang mornings, making my way to Shunyi was fine once the packed trains quietened down. Back to Chaoyang Park, that slice of Beijing parklife gave me life, no stress could be felt in the air and it was a cut above Wuhan's Zhongshan Park in the respect the locals knew how to behave themselves, not spitting on the floor or seeing kids urinate in the bushes was a comfort compared to my previous Chinese City! It was so refreshing to finally be in Beijing, the road had been rocky but Chaoyang Park welcomed me! Walking more than I thought I was going to, I took Line 14 back to Chaoyang Park Station from Zaoying because I could! Go 14!

It took a lot but Beijing's 798 Art District was my lucky star, getting me out of an unhealthy pattern of laziness teamed with my current hectic schedule, I got back on Line 14 to see what was good! Getting off at Wangjing South had to be the one, Gao Jia Yuan hasn't been opened yet so I scanned a MoBike and peddled in the right direction, was it even the right direction? Catching glimpses of what looked like an abandoned industrial plant I knew I had reached Beijing's 798 Art District, keeping away from the booze the previous night had all been worth it! I had only seen bits and pieces about this Beijing reinvention project, saved by art galleries and arty installations I was interested to see how much the area had really been gentrified as reports have heavily suggested. At first glance, I thought I was in a working power plants with overhead water pipes standing above me, that wasn't so. Getting out of my rut felt great!

Taking it easy, walking down the crisscrossing pedestrianised roads gave me a sense of what I had really been missing, my schedule had kept me busy without realising where the time had gone by. Even if I didn't see the more notable places that the tourist websites advertise wasn't a problem, taking my time was just the ticket! I found a little shop that sold a beer with my name on it, literally it was waiting in the fridge for me to buy. Listening to the music pumped out from a van just opposite selling cd's set the summertime mood, not a care in the world I had and the beer tasted great! For what I saw it didn't make any difference that they weren't on the tourist map, for me it was all about taking in the sights and to see somewhere new in Beijing. Line 14 had a plan to get me back out into the city and that wasn't just out for a crazy night in Sanlitun because the metro doesn't do Destination! 798 Art District was what I needed, biking back to Wangjing South, Line 14 took me towards SY.

Beijing South Railway Station currently stands as the eastern terminus of Line 14, a little bit more track needs to built to connect the existing two branches of this Beijing Subway line. Getting to Beijing South Railway Station was a breeze but it was like a maze once I had swiped the ticket barriers from the underground. Firstly, I took the high speed train to Tianjin from Beijing Nan then I was off to Suzhou a few months later, by my second time I was fine navigating the crowds. Arriving back into Beijing South Railway Station from Changchun on the high speed line had to be done, the metro ride might span two lines to reach my current Shunyi home but with Beijing South Railway Station being a current terminus I have continuously been able to bag a seat! Grasping the enormity of this Beijing transport hub took some time! It's a far cry from Wuhan Railway Station, I'm not bitter about those Wuhan train journeys.

I definitely believe that Line 14 gave me that connection to the city along with Line 15 from Shunyi, living in suburbia gets a bit boring sometimes so that Wangjing stop between Line 14 and 15 has given me the opportunity to see 798 Art District after my sightseeing hiatus. Chaoyang Park Subway Station welcomed me to Line 14, guiding me through those first five days around certain parts of the city, linking with a new friend at Dawang Road Subway Station around the corner from Beijing's Central Business District. Buying my first Yika Tong gave me the opportunity to begin my Beijing Subway journey, its still a learning progress but throughout my time in Beijing so far I am trying my best to ride on all of them. Line 14 will see me coming back for more, getting into the city is something I need after this crazy Montessori journey, I know it's all going to be fine. Beijing South Railway Station, I know that I will be seeing you and your Line 14 stop! Line 14, get your Wangjing rush hour sorted out!

Thanks, Line 14!

Joseph Harrison 

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Beyond The City Wall... Datong, China!

Fresh from the Yungang Grottoes, things kept on moving during my second day in Datong, China! The weather in Beijing was bleak but Datong served nothing but sunny skies and warm temperatures, I was in the right place! Still expecting to see four more places before my China Highlights tour concluded, I was ready for whatever Datong had to show me! D, got it together!

Arriving at the Huayan Temple after the grottoes I had no patience for rebuilt or rebuffed temples or monasteries! Asking my tour guide to skip that ridiculousness it was to the far back Mahavira Hall because it was all original, well most of the figures and painting stood in their honest state. The five carved Buddhas were authentic, dating back to the Ming Dynasty I was impressed with that find! Taking in the deep red design from the outside I was impressed and even let some passerby remain in my photo, I was being generous during that Datong moment. I have come to a point where I can't tolerate rebuilt ancient Chinese temples or places of historical significance, I am nearing my third year here and it just feels dishonest! Regardless, the Huayan Temple had something nice to show me during that Dragon Boat Festival holiday weekend. If truth be told, Datong was packing a punch, so much to see in such a small city! Work it!

Moving on from Huayan to Shanhua Temple, set within a serenely quiet garden it was just the antidote needed to get over Huayan's unnecessary crowds. Designated as a museum, Shanhua Temple doesn't get the crazy like other sister temples, getting it together I found the Pixuan Pavilion. One of two pavilions within Shanhua's walls it happened to be the original one, of course I shunned the rebuilt one because it didn't give me the looks that I live for! Well, certain modifications have been made to the Puxian Pavilion, for reasons not caused by a certain class of cultural issues so I can relax those views there. Datong's efforts to show me two temples impressed me, it was the second day of tour and the major sights had been seen, I was open to see some smaller and lesser know places after the grandeur of the grottoes and the heights of the hanging temple. Completely trusting China Highlights throughout and they consistently served something that justified the price. Yes!

The penultimate site during my second day in Datong was the 'Nine Dragon Wall'. Closed off in a small courtyard I had front row tickets to see this Datong point of interest. This colourful screen had something to do with the ruler during the time it was built, but I can't quite remember the details. I heard that the other Dragon Wall sits within Beijing's Beihai Park, some place I must get down to see! The green tones symbolised the earth, blue signified the sky and the gold or brown stood for the dragon? Seriously I listened to too much information during my two day trip I cannot remember for the life of me! That's it, the wall was built by the regime of the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, something as a protection barrier against rival tribes? Being the barrier that protected the residence of an imperial prince, Zhu Gui. D's Nine Dragon Wall was something of a grand battery ram? Nobody's messing with the dragons D!

I had to take a second to stop, to stop and think about my whirlwind trip to Datong that was nearly over! I had taken a huge chance on such small unknown city, paid for an expensive tour to see the far out gems in a short space of time. Had it all been worth it? Even though I was dog tired from working and teacher training I saw what I needed thought my naps and China Highlights tour, those naps helped and the minivan was definitely a comfier addition to the tour. From the first greeting at the airport to the Nine Dragon Wall I was impressed and well informed throughout the tour, given in-depth information about all the sights seen it justified the price tag attached to the tour! I tell a lie, the Shanhua Temple wasn't the place after seeing the Huayan Temple, it was actually the Nine Dragon Wall then it was Shanhua to the almost original Puxian Pavilion. Datong itself wasn't bad, it's a city that's been lost within its industrial past. Psyched by those nine fierce dragons, it was nonstop! Oh!

Finishing my tour at the newly renovated Datong City Walls, I climbed to the top after giving the clerk a piece of my mind, we think they just want  to see an international passport? Climbing to the top I was given a direct flashback to Xian's City walls but the pollution was no where to be seen in Datong during that summers day! Taking things slow, the stroll along Datong's City Walls gave me the chance to see the city masterplan for myself. The ancient flare coming from the newly restored homesteads showed me the new frontier of faux-authentic ancient Chinese apartments for new tourists to the city. The new vision is to have the centre city within the walls as a former reflection of what Datong looked like in its previous light. Walking further round the newer sections of the restored City Walls, I saw a motorbike exhibition, something that could be future earner for Datong? With a High Speed connected soon it's on D!

Bidding a fond farewell to my tour guide and driver I returned to my Datong hotel room, I was beyond tired but fulfilled with my tour. I bagged a fine abode, a former Holiday Inn property it had a soft bed that messed me up compared to my firm mattress at home but the former Holiday Inn hotel was comfortable. Hitting up Walmart once more, I really noticed the realness going on, if I had just arrived in China I would've been horrified to witness a child urinating in the street or even at bottom of an escalator that I caught before finding Wal-Mart for the first time! Aside from the third city vulgarity I found Australian cider in that American supermarket, that impressed me much and more because I don't live near that supermarket. I guess Datong brought me back down to earth from my Beijing bubble? No, Datong had a plan for me and it showed me just what it needed to, I loved it! Datong showed me so much during that time, it was enough! DG has something beyond its wall!

Datong, Done!

Joseph Harrison

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Datong: Shanxi's Ancient Trophy!

Jetting away to Shanxi Province to see one of its famous cities, going for the ancient delights I was excited to experience my fifth China Highlights tour in Datong during 2018s Dragon Boat Festival! The Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes were on my top list, I was ready to embrace everything! With more sights thrown in for the win, it was a very busy weekend! Yes!

Taking to the skies for what felt like the shortest time ever, I arrived into Datong's Yungang Airport with Air China bang on time! Greeted by my China Highlights tour guide I was whisked away in my own minivan to the first stop on my two day tour of Datong City, China. After a little drive we had arrived at the Hanging Temple, a place that I had seen featuring on many historic China documentaries, I had a front row panoramic view of that delicate looking temple for the win! Hailing back to the days of the 5th century the Hanging Temple became the worlds only temple with room for three religions, welcoming Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists within its walls. Originally built into the side of the Hengshan Mountain so the temple wouldn't wash away from extreme rainfall, it's definitely a marvel of architecture for its time. Crafted with mainly fir tree wood for lightness, so the Hanging Temple can bend but not break! So, who knows?

Legend had it that Hanging Temple was used as a sanctuary by pilgrims who made their way from Beijing to Wu Tai Shan because Datong happened to be the half way point, that was certainly news to me! Having only seen the mountain-side temple through the glare of a documentary film it was more than amazing to be centred in that moment with the real think above me, built into the Hengshan Mountain I was more than satisfied with that delicate looking view. A smattering of renovations had taken place but according to my guide it wasn't anything that compromised the integrity of the temple. The Dragon Boat Festival crowds hadn't made their mark at the Hanging Temple at that point, deciding against going into the temple it was time to move onto the next point of interest. I was feeling my early morning alarm call, sleeping once more during the journey from the Hanging Temple to the next place had to be done! Had I really started from Beijing that morning?

Driving for what felt like an age, my minivan arrived outside a rather strange Chinese tourist street, something told me the area was manufactured for tourism? Stopping for some food it was an experience to say the very least, the food wasn't for the faint hearted but China doesn't faze me anymore! Having a lukewarm rice noodle dish was the one, accompanied by a Rou Jia Mo (Chinese Hamburger) and a Zongzi because it was Dragon Boat Festival weekend after all. The Yingxian Wooden Pagoda was my second point of interest during my first day in Datong, previously sceptical about this part of the tour I kept an open mind. The area around the original wooden pagoda was pretty empty, things hadn't been well preserved so that explained the sparse setting. Marvelling at the fused wooden joints that kept the pagoda standing together I was impressed that structurally no nail had been used. Really?

Dubbed as China's 'leaning tower' I was in two minds because Suzhou's Tiger Hill Pagoda claims to hold that title, maybe it's the battle of the pagodas? Keeping the soldiers safe during the dynasties conflicts, the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda gave refuge to those men within its secret floors that can't be seen from the pagodas exterior. Essentially used as a watch tower it put into perspective why China has so many pagodas, like every Chinese City has two or three pagodas! Stepping inside the only accessible part of the pagoda on the ground floor I saw the Buddha, such a large and magnificent version like many before but the face and hands had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution! Aside from that shady defacing and the sparse setting I was impressed by Datong's Yingxian Wooden Pagoda. I wasn't going to be bitter because the pagoda surprised me! Saying no to a 2013 replica of a temple at the rear of the pagoda it was time to find my hotel! Datong was serving me everything! Let's go!

Checking into my hotel was such a relief, after being on my feet since the early hours it was lovely to find my ex-Holiday Inn hotel was up to standard with a bath and a queen size bed for the win! Datong's city centre presented itself to be concrete and quite down-to-earth with a small city feeling, I definitely wasn't in Beijing anymore! The night ahead was a relaxing one with some goodies from the local Wal-Mart, where I found some imported goodies to enjoy. Rested from my sound nights sleep it was time to experience Datong's Yungang Grottoes, my second day in Datong was about to be turned up, from the sensational sights given to me from the Hanging Temple and the exemplerary memory surrounding the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, I was ready to see one of Datong's most famous historic relics! Starbucks had breakfast in the bag, meeting the tour guide and the minivan on the dot of nine it was on DT!

Not wasting any time it was my main priority to see the main grottoes, the smaller ones weren't on my list! Snapping the photo thats displayed above was an amazing moment, the detail in the main grottoes were out of this world, crafted and preserved in such a way the original charm of these 5th century wonders looked amazing! The tourists littering up the place tested my new found Chinese language skills, using the right words I got my photos but kept things cute at all times. The grottoes that I saw had the Buddha everywhere, I really felt blessed in that moment to have seen such a sight! Shunning the rebuilt parts I only endorsed the original grottoes that gave me such beautiful images, I have been in China long enough not to tolerate places that have claim to be 200 years old, but rebuilt in 2013. I had only been in Datong 24 hours till that point, it had been such a great experience with three sights seen my Dragon Boat Festival weekend wasn't over yet! Datong, No shade!

Only in Datong!

Joseph Harrison