Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Yinchuan: Mosques, Tombs & Sand Lakes...

Yinchuan, China had been on my radar ever since I was living in Wuhan, due to a lack of connectivity I knew the time would present itself in the near future. Leaving work after my after school class had to be done, Terminal 2 called me to catch my China Eastern flight westward. Halal feasts, a Chinese mosque and even a bizarre Sand Lake featured during my weekend! Go!

Touching down into Yinchuan's Hedong International Airport kickstarted my Chinese Muslim weekend experience. Rising the next day I found myself surrounded by a different dialect completely and an apparent Islamic style filled the air. After my breakfast pitstop I took a DiDi taxi to Yinchuan's Xixia Tombs, the area seemed desert considering it was a public holiday, I counted my blessings and then some! Standing at the foot of the grand Helan Mountains those imperial tombs served and then some within that breathtaking scene. I wasn't too clued up on the history surrounding the Western Xia Mausoleums but their peculiar shape gave me something interesting to admire. Coming from Beijing I was well accustomed to speaking in Chinese, the feel of Yinchuan's Xixia required me to speak more Chinese than ever before! Living in China's classical and government capital comes in handy for sure. Xixia has more to tell!

History and heroism aside it was amazing to take in the views that the stone tombs and their mountain backdrop gave me, the warmth from the sunshine and the quiet setting gave me the chance to chill out for a brief moment. The month of September has been a hectic one to say the least, it always nice to have a little break away from the business that is working life. I tried to take in some of the history regarding the tombs but it was hard because not much signage or information could be found in English. I would like to say the whole makeup of the landscape painted an elaborate and equally informative picture of what history Yinchuan's Imperial Western Tombs had served during previous days. Moving back to the city was easier said than done, that was sarcastic to the hilt because finding a taxi took effort. Bartering like the best ones I made it back to the city, no problem. All in all, Yinchuan's Xixia showed me a slice of northwestern Chinese beauty, it was really a good idea to go west!  

Being from the West Midlands in England it's not difficult to recognise a mosque's minaret whatsoever, so when Yinchuan came up on my China travel list, I had to see some of its Muslim charm. The city's Nanguan Mosque stood just around the corner from my hotel, the mosque was lined with Halal butchers to the left and a vibrant Halal food street. More about Ningxia's provincial place of worship, it was originally built during the Ming Dynasty from 1368 to 1644. Compared to Beijing's Niu Jie Mosque it looked remarkably larger with its five green domes and gold designs. There's a time and a place for a playful selfie, but seriously it's definitely not to be outside an official place of worship, fix up! Paying my donation to visit the courtyard area that stood in the middle of Yinchuan's grand mosque was a done thing! I reframed from taking any photos of the interiors because I have respect! There's a time and place! 

Adding to my Islamic experience in Yinchuan that afternoon, I found a great shop next to the mosque that sold hijabs and kufis. I managed to buy two of each in sizes that would fit the children in my class back in Beijing. Looking to bring a bit of Hui Min Chinese culture to our Montessori English corner I branded those items with the names 'headscarf' and 'prayer cap' to teach basic English vocabulary to my students and to ease the parents into the idea of islamic wear to be present in the classroom. Getting myself some prayer beads because goodness knows I have to use them from time to time, helps me to calm down when foolishness is going on at a certain place. I am really looking froward to the children's reactions to the new items for the classroom. The Islamic vibe in Old Yinchuan made me feel like I home almost, it reminded me of Turkey in a sense because the butchers were all Halal. Choosing Yinchuan to see its Islamic charm felt good because in Wuhan it wasn't possible.

Feeling more than fed up with my then current hairstyle I took a chance on a local barbers that was at the foot of Yinchuan's Niu Jie. The language barrier was a slight problem but I managed to get a plausible cut. The day had taken its course by that point, choosing one of the Halal western Chinese restaurants. It wasn't just the food served that was looking delicious but that's for another time and place. Ordering the 'Xinjiang Chicken' I was briefed it was meant for two to three people, that didn't faze me because the leftovers would go nicely for a late night treat or for tea on the second night. Wanting to try the local beer, it wasn't a bad brew  compared to other Chinese beers. The Hui Min local gentlemen folk had a different look compared to the majority Han nationality, that Halal food street showcased certain pleasing looks. Of course, Yinchuan wasn't just a place on my list to try the local foods! No!

Suitably stuffed, I battled through my Yinchuan meal after my first full day in north west China's Islamic City. Getting all the meat taken care of, the remainder of what I couldn't eat was bagged up and taken back to the hotel. Backtracking to that Niu Jie, I had been searching mad for some places to eat some authentic western Chinese food since my Yinchuan flights had been booked, clocking Niu Jie held the key to some top food and to some top views, the atmosphere on that chilly September evening may have been docile but it was fine for me. No party was needed that weekend, the whole trip was going to be productive without any hangovers to deal with. Retiring back to my hotel for a well earned rest, the day had been successful, the tombs had been bossed, I saw the mosque and had acquired some goodies for my English corner before getting some amazing Halal Hui Chinese food! I had bagged my transport for the Sand Lake the next day, my Xixia taxi negotiation sealed it!

Tracking down a Starbucks for the only coffee I consumed that weekend was the one thing my second morning needed! On the way to Yinchuan's famous Sand Lake I was given a second opportunity to see that Ningxia City was home to countless vineyards, boasting some of the most famous Asian Chateaus it was another reason why Yinchuan had to be ticked from my China travel tick list. Getting further out of the city took me once again closer to the Helan Mountains, my preferred destination would serve more outstanding views. Paying no mind to the other people exploring the Sand Lake I boarded one of the boats after arriving from the city, the contrast between the water and the approaching mound of sand painted such a bizarre picture, was it just a mirage? Standing at the foot of a massive sand dune gave me the challenge to get a stunning photo of the crystal clear waters and of the golden sands. Yin, that sand!

Making it to the top wasn't too much of a struggle, lets just say the sand nearly destroyed my camera!  Thankfully it was OK! The views were knockout fantastic, feeling once again transported to an Arabian scene I took some time out to soak up the sun like I did the previous day the tombs of Xixia. Seeing a line of camels walk past in the other direct and the sweeping sand dunes in the same view had me feeling some Middle Eastern vibes, no I was definitely still within China's vast mainland. The Sand Lake was well worth the journey out of the city centre, making all four points of my trip happen felt really good! The whole weekend had been what I had anticipated it to be, well the journey back from the Sand Lake was a bit chaotic for several reasons but it wasn't anything a bottle of Helan Mountain Ningxia red wine could cure. That Ningxia weekend has definitely fueled my love for western Chinese culture, it's looking like Lanzhou and Xining will be red hot contenders for 2019!


Joseph Harrison

Friday, 21 September 2018

2018: No Summertime Sadness!

With the autumn here and the winter setting in, I wanted to look back at the summer that has just passed. Was it filled with sadness or was it just tiredness? Through the trainings and early morning commutes, I tried my best to turn up during those 2018 summer months. If truth be told, Beijing's been salty but deep down she's had my back the whole time! Oh, Montessori!

July 2018 put the M in my Montessori teacher training course, we had been working hard during our weekends for a good couple of months when we found ourselves at the new home of the company operating the training. The commute for the weekend training had been in Shunyi at my then current campus but that July venue was a two hour commute in the morning and another two hours in the evening. I had other things going on at that point, believe me that pettiness was sorted within a second. The lectures were hardcore, running on little sleep and following a 6.30 am alarm call, it started to take its toll. #TeamNoSleep! It wasn't all tiredness and takeaways, actually I really enjoyed the brain development seminars that helped me understand the mind of a child. Those nuggets of information kept me going through that nonstop schedule. Yes, I was waiting for the culture, music and geography days!

I lived for the cultural lessons, learning about the different land and water forms definitely interested me. Getting in touch with the seven continents was amazing, learning about the different colours for the continents within the Montessori code wasn't new to me but it was great to have some clarity. The newest trainer hailed from the Philippines, one place that I have some great friends from, that shared nationality gave me a sense of something I missed. I had missed most of Practical Life, enjoyed Sensorial but Maths really wasn't something I enjoyed. Art during that months worth of training was great, the course wasn't long enough because we had such chilled and creative lessons with music on in the background. First learning about the cultural items opened up a whole new world of Montessori possibilities, whatever would happen after that month I was enthused about culture for sure! Concluding with the assignments and the reality of the program, I had some choices to make.

Weekends since spring 2018 were few and far between, only getting one or two free per month led me to go crazier than crazy! I made a new friend along Line 14, discovered a new club in Sanlitun and got to grips with a bit of drama, all healthy things to deal with from time to time. Getting into town on a Saturday for myself was such a rarity I took that chance with two hands and ran with it! Getting down to Tai Koo Li had to be done, my wardrobe was invalid for that summer period. H&M had me covered, getting some new threads I headed to Jing A for some dinner/tea, my livener and food had sorted me out big time. Too many hot toddies the night before had left my head feeling a little sore. My rare opportunity to get into town was well worth the wait, like I had been going into town for the last three weeks everyday but that was business, not for pleasure. The scenery was delicious, like I mean tasty!

Freshened up and with my new threads looking good it was time to hit the town. I had recently been shown a new place to get crazy at in Sanlitun, Kai bar had something more to show me because the previous time I had been at training for the whole that Saturday. Switching between Kai and Destination I allowed my night to take some pretty insane twists and turns. Arriving back home with the birds it had been an equally eventful early morning period, the less I reveal its for the best. That Saturday was full-packed and so was the Sunday morning but the rest of the day was a complete different story. The following Sunday I took a random trip to see the Peking Opera, staying away from the drink it was something to remember for a very different reason compared to my usual Beijing days or nights out. My social life may have taken a backseat, I had a certain feeling that my weekends would be making a comeback. Oh, I made things happen regardless-of having no free-time! It wasn't forever!

Before my summer holiday to Wuhan and then to England I spent a lovely day with my new class at Beijing's Science and Technology Museum. Before my summer training period I had spent two Fridays at my second Shunyi campus, it was a transfer that I had been looking forward to see happen. I would be reverting back to my English Specialist duties in August, once the training concluded and that was something I was really looking forward to. The day at the museum was great, it was a great chance to spend time with the children before I would be in the class with them on a full-time basis. It was a lovely sunshine day, something somewhere told me that however the training would fair I would have a new chapter waiting to begin at my new campus. It was a sign the previous months had not been for nothing, its was fate! The Monday after the school trip would be the beginning of the training, what a month B!

The summer of 2018 may have been filled with weekends of training and little time for me to see the city, but that time has passed and things are looking very different indeed. I managed to get down to my kind of party town once, twice well maybe more than three times because no matter how important something is career-wise, there's always a need to make time for getting down right crazy to deal with the stresses that life brings us. My training was a life-lesson, those snatched days and nights out were great but it was even better to meet my new students before beginning full-time in rainbow class. It may have been stressful and quite tiring but all of those things brought me a new found clarity, a sense that I had made the right choice during the previous winter after arriving in Beijing. My current destination wasn't the one I had envisaged a couple of months ago but I know I have made the right choices along the way. Absolutely, there was no summertime sadness! Beijing had it, OK!


Joseph Harrison 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Teaching English: Over The Rainbow!

My teaching life in China has taken some poignant twists and turns, none of the mentioned events were mistakes because everything has happened for a specific reason. The road continues to be challenging but the successes scored in class make the questionable situations melt away. After switching a few things up I know things will flow nicely for now. Oh you, Beijing! 

My summer training for a certain qualification had concluded, it was time to start teaching in a class that was named after seven collective colours. I had just took over from a fellow teacher who had become a good friend, she still is. There was no doubt in my mind that the children wouldn't be unhappy with their new English teacher, it was just a shear relief to be within an environment that felt positive. The previous few months had been tumultuous to say the least but in the same breath those experiences had been character building, some of those certain situations had given me clarity on the location I had just vacated from. Overall, August 2018 put the fun, creativity and energy back into my being to continue working as a kindergarten teacher in China. Not wanting to go backwards, I gave myself two weeks to make some real decisions that in all honesty had already been made in my head. Oh, life!

August was lovely, settling into my new classroom was not a problem. The new semester hadn't started at that point, finding some everyday classroom items gave me the chance to introduce my makeshift 'camping' lessons, it was a quick month because I would be jetting off to mother England before the start of the new term. The kids were and are adorable, we read some new English books during those first teaching days at that campus, acting out some dramatic role-plays they absolutely loved those classes, it was such a relief things were going to plan. The rest at home was like a blessing, the months training that I won't mention right now had left me at a turning point. Back in September with a strong plan to bring some serious diversity into the English Corner and curriculum within a certain Rainbow themed class, I changed camping into a crusade to teach Chinese children the many ethnicity's that the world is home to. So, after the storm, things seemed to be clearing up.

Starting my very own revolution, I restructured the two English Corner shelves that had language materials from the previous English teachers, we all have different styles and that's great, but it was time to breathe new life into that section of the classroom. Furnishing those shelves with brand new matching wooden trays the day my flight touched back into Beijing had to be done, the jet lag wasn't going to stop me one bit! Bringing in a few previously tested language materials into that area gave the children something new to discover. The Montessori training course that I had been on since March 2018 finally came in handy, applying those techniques to place the materials and make them in the correct Montessori method, keeping my own interpretation and the children's interest key it was going to be a new, positive and rewarding challenge within my Rainbow revival period! B, I was ready to let my colours shine! 

Most Chinese people have a complex that a persons nationality is over ruled by their race, being an English teacher with early years learners it seemed like the perfect thought-provoking topic to challenge a few things. Printing vivid real life flashcards of children from many different ethnicity's I introduced the continents with the Montessori geography boards to present things to the children for starters. We asked questions like "can I as a white European live in China?" to challenge their perspective of different ethnic groups who live in one of the worlds most racially homogeneous countries. The children's mind's opened as Septembers maverick module progressed, moving closer to home we looked at Asian traditional dress to break down nationality. I tried to dispel any sourness towards a fellow Asian nation, I wanted to foster some kind of cohesion and also awareness of Asia's  uniqueness through the medium of their dresses. The culture and geography from my training helped me! 

Bringing DJ to the new class was something of a random thing, the previous teacher used a pink dinosaur for the children to pass to each other after the English class during dismissal before dinnertime. DJ became so much more to the children, with advice from my mum who used to be an Early Years Practitioner in England, she advised me to make a book for the children to take home with DJ for the weekend. The first weekend produced an amazing set of photos and pictures drawn by one girl, her parents commitment to the project made all the difference because they were on board. Since the 'Adventures with...' programme started with DJ, its given me the idea to give DJ some friends and for more kids in the class to experience a great weekend with a friend like DJ! The reception so far from the parents has been truly heartwarming, I am putting my all into this class and the only way is up from now on. Yes!

Professionally things are getting back on track, I feel happier and in actual fact it has been great to not have to write a monthly plan for the class, to just worry about English has been great! The National Day holiday will be making an appearance very soon, it has been a whirlwind month with many different twists but I feel in-control of my work and the current status of my job role has grounded me, I don't want to punch higher than I need to, I feel fortunate for the last few months because they have been everything that they needed to be. I want to look forwards, even if I am only in Rainbow for one academic year or even more I want that time to be the best it can possibly be. My working journey in Beijing has been hectic but its shaped me as a teacher, making me more aware of situations and getting things in a clear state has given me the direction that I so desperately needed! I am looking at the positive things this new semester will bring, I'll be sure to slay everyday Bei! 

Are You Ready? 

Joseph Harrison 

Monday, 17 September 2018

Beijing: Houhai, Shichahai & Beihai Park...

A Sanlitun night was off the menu that September weekend, ditching the booze for a sightseeing day to remember within Old Beijing. Spending that weekend with a new friend it was a perfect chance to build new bridges across cultural in Beijing. Shichahai, Houhai and Beihai Park acted as the good idea I needed! Keeping a clear head, I gained some clarity that Saturday. 

Getting some money exchanged had to be done, but the main object of the day was to sight-see to death! Hitting up Shichahai's subway station a few months previous during the nighttime, I returned a lot earlier in the day with a new friend in tow. Looking for some Houhai realness that Saturday, we looked towards a slice of Old Beijing that promises something blue, beautiful and that glistening in the autumn sunshine. The hutong's passed us by as we made our way closed to Houhai, it had been a place in Beijing that I had set in my sights for a while. Staying away from anything alcoholic the night before was the perfect tonic for a different reason. The tourist both foreign and Chinese made their way within the Houhai/Shichahai area, we paid them no mind because the waters of a certain lake had caught our eyes. Beijing shone, the weather wasn't too hot because the autumnal season cooled it right down. Bliss!

Shichahai looked like a mash of brand new rebuilt building surrounded by historic finds that hadn't been beatified too much. Beijing that day was blessed, allowed to live for my weekends once again, it was an amazing opportunity to spread my wings within China capital city. Known as 'rear lake', we took a slow stroll around the waters edge, taking in the blessed views it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday in Beijing. Part of a historic area within the centre of the city it was amazing to see such a calm lake, minus the small boats gliding past it was practically still on the water. The willows swayed in the breeze with the same chilled vibe, the nearby hutong's buzzed with energy but the waters of Houhai impressed us much. Home to former famous Beijinger's, the area surrounding the waters of Houhai kept us captivated without staying away from the lakes guiding path. I had chosen the right time to visit Houhai, it was clear first time around Shichahai had wanted me to return. Ho, who? 

Beijing's definitely known for its Hutong's, so those surrounding alleyways served a mixture of tourist predictability whilst others impressed me more! I have become quite a fan of the older Hutong's since moving to Beijing, those weekend tourists had definitely all descended upon Shichahai that beautiful Saturday. From Muslim restaurants to tourist souvenirs, the Hutong's around Hou Hai's waters showcased either a rebuilt style or something more authentic looking. We paid those Hutong's some mind but kept it moving, the day wasn't going to last forever! The food options were galore, from meat skewers to sweet treats, but we had food near the Drum Tower. If shopping was my thing it would have been a problem! So, I had been before within those winding Hutong's a couple months before that sunshine visit, that previous jaunt was during the nighttime, it was a total different vibe entirely! Oh, Bei!

Commercial the Hutong's surrounding Hou Hai may have been, that essence of developed oriental chic impressed the masses that day. Not being a tourist in Beijing put a whole other spin during that Hutong moment, I didn't have the instant desire to spend the whole of my WeChat wallet on kitsch Chinese souvenirs, I appreciated the culture and the views from an observant posture. Maybe before my anticipated move to Shanghai I might feel different about such Hutong's? We spotted some shops that caught our eyes, ranging from Chinese red crafts to the aroma of chocolate that we could scout down, it was eventful even still! I had already been to other Hutong's before that September moment, in the here and now I have future ambitions to see what development has gone down near Dashilar Hutong. Bringing the time spent within the Hutong's, it was great to see such sights but due to the crowds and the sizzling sunshine it was nice to move onto our next stop. We wanted another 'Hai!'

Sealing the deal with that Saturday outing, we visited Beijing's Beihai Park to conclude our day of 'Hai's'. I am a sucker for anything remotely Tibetan or Buddhist, being the focal point of Behai Park I needed to see the 'White Pagoda' before making the journey back to Shunyi. Paying our entrance fee into the park, we caught a glimpse of a super cute group of Taiwanese guys, they looked absolutely delicious! Eye candy aside it didn't take us long to see the huge 'White Pagoda' as it sat on its own island. Being crafty, we took the freeloading route up the hill to catch a free glimpse of the heavenly looking pagoda. Making our way down from the steep stone path downwards we could hear some Turkic sounding music being played! A group of Uighur Chinese people were dancing to some great sounding music, to make up for not tearing up the dance-floor like a usual Saturday, I joined without shame! Obviously, I loved it!

Beihai Park itself stood as a beautifully arrange Beijing park, busy during that late Saturday afternoon period it didn't make any problems for us at all! Moving through the park towards the exit for the bus, we saw the main lake that anchored the park, definitely impressing us much to conclude our lovely day out right there. Trading a boozy weekend worked that time, seeing sights that I had been meaning to see was great, it helped my friend doesn't drink so I made the best of that period of sobriety. Hou Hai's blue waters glistened and then some in the September sunshine, the summer might be fading in Beijing right now but its still got its edge. The crowds in the Hutong's decided our next move to Beihai Park to conclude our day out. Getting my passport back before the end of September I will look to experience Beijing showpiece Tiananmen Square along with Beijing's National Museum of China. Beihai Park, please keep attracting delicious groups of Taiwanese guys, please? OK?

Hou Who?

Joseph Harrison