9 May 2019

18 Months in Beijing, China...

Beijing life has been eventful, from work to travel its been another busy six months in the country's capital city! From teaching my students about Christmas traditions in both northern and southern hemisphere's to visiting one of the world's most secretive nations, North Korea! Spring has come round, I could finally enjoy my weekends this year! It's been eventful! Yes, B! 

November at school allowed me to teach the children about the Indian holiday of Diwali, through our discoveries it readied them for my upcoming trip to the Indian sub-continent in December 2018. They were so excited, it was almost like they were going to be part of my trip! Through the first two weeks we looked at Christmas cultural traditions in both the northern and southern hemisphere's. The children really grasped the concept that both Australian and British Christmas festivities lead to very different but fun paths nonetheless. Away from the classroom I boarded my flight to New Delhi via Guangzhou with China Southern Airlines. I was about to spend six days in and around New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur with a day trip to see the Ganges River. It was great to be spreading my travel wings to another Asian destination outside of China so soon after getting back from Seoul, South Korea. Blessed to the max! 

Arriving into India was like no other, it gave me the same panicky feelings that I had when I arrived in China for the first time! Not knowing what to expect I was bowled over by the sheer craziness and the pulsating vibe of the streets near my hotel. New Delhi was amazing, keeping me on my toes I took a taxi tour! Gandhi's House was so chilled and sobering and Huyamun's Tomb served elegance in the round. My tour to Agra and Jaipur brought many surprises but I was prepared for mishaps because India wasn't on the level compared to other Asian countries. Getting back to Delhi gave me some comfort, exploring the streets by my hotel allowed me to find the best Butter Chicken ever! Chadni Chowk Market hooked me up with one years supply of incense sticks for the win! Rolling on the river, no trip to India wasn't going to finish without having the Ganges as a part of it! India was cool but it was time for me to fly to Birmingham for Christmas week, there was a lot of flying during that holiday!

January was all about working, it was nice to revisit the twelve Chinese zodiac's in-preparation for the then upcoming new year. School broke up in February 2019 for the Chinese New Year holiday, after finishing my language materials before the end of the semester I attended my pre-tour briefing before flying into one of the world's most secretive countries, North Korea! Choosing Young Pioneer Tours worked out amazingly, arriving before the CNY holiday into Pyongyang kickstarted my epic DPRK experience! Seeing the city from one perspective was a mind-blowing experience that I won't ever forget! The showcase capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea definitely showed me that its southern sister city, Seoul both currently stand as polar opposites! Pyongyang Noodles weren't my thing but the Pyongyang Soju went down a treat with any kind of juice from the bar! Oh, those hangovers were bad! 

Pyongyang wasn't the only city that I saw during my DPRK Spring Festival tour, going on a desolate motorway took us to Kaesong. Staring South Korea in the face at the DMZ was something else for me to process, eating dog meat soup at a restaurant in the same city put me out of my foodie depths! Sariwon provided us with a hearty climb to the top of a mountain park viewpoint, the mix between concrete and Korean architecture was a treat to witness with our own eyes. Leaving the capital I was able to experience Sinuiju, the Korean border city with the Yalu River that separates the DPRK with China. Crossing back over to a life in China with phone signal gave me life, exploring Dandong for the last day of my CNY 2019 allowed me to see the North Korean border from the security of China's mainland. Due to the craziness of the trip I spent the rest of the holiday at home in Beijing, that transitional time was much needed! Thank goodness that March was a busy month!

The month of March was all about work, it was nice to slip into April with a little long weekend off work. Taking a high speed train from Beijing to Nanjing had me up in my feelings, that fellow passengers needed to get some manners! Reuniting with Chris after talking for an age over social media, we had finally met in person both as promised in Nanjing, China. Reliving my previous first time trip to Nanjing happened without warning, Chris happened to live in the next street by where I got horrendously lost with a pizza in hand! Going to a Korean Spa allowed me to realise the body I am in is the right one for me, it was a life-affirming moment in that distracting Spa environment. Getting ready, we scanned some bikes to find a secret whisky bar that the boys had told me all about. Concluding the first day with some drinks in Catherine Park, after the early start it was time for a well needed rest! Nanjing had more to enjoy!

The weekend was a scream from start to finish, we saw a killer view of the city from an ancient tower. Taking things slow, we thought it would be good to find some local Nanjing food at the tower that housed the InterContinental Nanjing, taking our number in the line from the restaurant we got situated at the top of the tower in the SkyBar with a bottle of bubbles opened! Leaving those original reservations behind, we bought another bottle to toast the young successes of that Nanjing reunion trip, we had big plans for the night ahead! Dining out on the finest McDonalds fare, eyeing the talent as they also made their fast food purchases, that Nanjing mister was looking more than fine with his real leather bag. I went to the trouble of searching for it on Taobao, it was lovely! When the nighttime arrived we got crazy at a local bar that was a trifle difficult to find, it was a boozy night for certain! Making it back to Beijing I wasn't ready for the next day to be Monday again! No, no, no!

April brought two brilliant Saturday's out that both ended with head-splitting hangovers on the Sunday! Bringing Beijing's 'Haus of Lily' together at 'Home Plate' in Sanlitun for their 'Mardi Gras' themed drag brunch was an event not to be missed! It was camp and kitsch from the word go, I was so shocked to see such fabulousness going on in the city that keeps China's conservative ways alive. Through the lip-syncing and the booze it was an amazing time had by all, well I had a brilliant time seeing the queens give life with their performances. Getting home that day I wasn't content with my consumption of dancing juice, going back to my then usual haunts had to be done after the sequins and campery of that Saturday afternoon drag brunch! How the headache hurt, but it was an amazing Saturday without any regrets! If truth be told, Beijing's rainbow scene is growing fast! Beijing brought the house down! DOWN!  

Showing my support to two friends that I have met in Beijing was a big part of the following Saturday in April 2019. Getting my ticket to Beijing's 2019 Black Expo had to be done, I had some love to show! Both colleagues from my company, both friends expressed themselves very differently with their talents, bringing unique things to the event. My friend Chanel was busy baking at her 'Suga Mama' stand, going in for an infused cupcake had to be done, oh and some cookies later on! That apple pie was on order for sure! Yes, I will always support 'Suga Mama's' magic! Liz expressed herself through pure poetry, standing up at the mic, she proclaimed her words about the girl with the 'baloney curls' with much passion! Spending my money up, I bought some ground Ethiopian coffee that helped very much the next day and some natural Shea Butter. Seriously speaking, I learned some very valuable lessons during my eighteenth month period in Beijing! To be present means the most! 

May, GTFO!

Joseph Harrison 

30 April 2019

2016-2019: China's Tomb Sweeping Festival

Sweeping tombs I most certainly haven't been doing, from 2016 to present its been a regular holiday weekend spent away from working. From my visit to Changsha in 2016 to my recent second visit to Nanjing in 2019, this Chinese public holiday has allowed me to make memories. With West Lake, tea plantations and a lovely temple, Hangzhou was the most beautiful trip! 

Winding the hands of time back to April 2016, I stood waiting for my then friend Andy. He had invited me to spend the holiday weekend in his home city of Changsha in Hunan Province. Coming from Wuhan I was expecting to see a city that was on the same second tier status, I saw exactly that during that Tomb Sweeping time. I had no expectations, allowing my friend Andy to take care of the sightseeing arrangements. Arriving at Changsha South Railway Station, the journey from Wuhan Railway Station hadn't taken very long, taking the subway to find my friend had to be done. After dropping my bags at Andy's we headed for Orange Isle Park. With a huge stone statute of Mao Zedong's head it caused the same hysteria that Cinderella's Castle does at Walt Disney Word in Orlando, USA! I couldn't see what the fuss was all about, but it was an experience to see such devotion. I was open for whatever the weekend would bring.

Breakfast brought us some Hunan Rice Noodles, they were really tasty and the setting caused some attention, two children said in Chinese that they could see an alien. I am most certainly not an alien but to those children I was definitely the only 'Waiguoren' in sight! After breakfast we made a swift visit to Changsha's Tianxin Pavilion, it was a dreary morning with rain forecast for that afternoon. Even though the weather threatened to rain on our parade, it was interesting to see a rather concrete looking cityscape that had tonnes of visible construction works going on. Huogong Palace had such a vile smell, it wasn't anything sinister, however the foul smelling 'stinky tofu' really packed a punch! Getting caught in the rain big time, we decided to get some bits from a local supermarket for the evening ahead, ditching our plans we had dinner at Andy's place, we watched a film as the weather deteriorated. Yes, Changsha was nice, it was a nice weekend away from the buzz of Wuhan!

Tomb Sweeping Festival just kept getting better, leaving Changsha for 2016 I traded it for Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Booking my second China Highlights tour after the successes I experienced in Guilin the previous year. Landing without any hitches, I found myself checking into my hotel with the staff freaking out over my visa! They needed to chill because I've always been legal! After biking along the busy streets of Hangzhou I caught a rather crowded bus to the Fei Lai Grottoes and the nearby Lingyin Temple. The grottoes were lovely, finding that yellow temple impressed me much with its pint-sized environment, it was busily chilled. Hangzhou was a buzz with people in every single direction, the spring weekend had everyone out in their droves! Wulin Square showed me nice light and water show during that evening, within that city square the security presence was quite impressive! Hangzhou was sure on fire!

The next day started early, meeting my tour guide and the driver allowed me to begin my private tour in Hangzhou. Hitting up West Lake took some going, the crowds were out once again during that public holiday, but those individuals could not ruin the epic views that morning of West Lake. Moving away from the lake it was time to have some local snacks at Hangzhou's Chenghuang Pavilion gave me views above the city, such effortlessly beautiful views fronted me! I am not one for museums but the Chinese Traditional Medicine museum schooled me about the weird and wonderful things that have been and are still used to treat certain health complaints. Concluding the day I arrived within Hangzhou's very own tea plantation, learning the art of tea pouring was interesting but actually having the chance to pick some fresh leaves broke the record! From my own self-guided day to my escorted private tour, I found two different dimensions within Hangzhou's idyllic capital. HGH served!

Changchun was 2018's hidden Chinese treasure by far, stopping at the city's West Railway Station during a high speed journey from Harbin West to Shenyang planted a seed that grew into a tree of curiousity. Taking a surprisingly comfortable hard sleeper overnight train from Beijing Railway Station saved valuable time. Stepping off the train I headed for the city's Museum of the Imperial Palace of Manchukuo. Learning about the Japanese ruling contingent that played their part in the Northeast's questionable Japanese rule. The final Puppet Emperor looked more like a 'hipster' fashion icon rather than an accessory to the ruling Japanese counterparts in the region. Making my way to the hotel I had already checked out the city's People's Square straight from the train, it had been a full on morning, checking into the hotel sounded like a grand idea. Changchun underground sense was showing me something different! Yes!

So, the past three years have been blessed during China's Tomb Sweeping Festival from Changsha to Hangzhou then in 2018 to Changchun. 2019 brought my fourth Tomb Sweeping weekend, choosing Nanjing wasn't really a choice because it was time to meet one of my fellow teaching friends that we had been speaking over social media. The whole weekend challenged my first experience in the city, I was reunited with the places I got lost around and made new memories in places I never knew existed. From prosecco at the Nanjing Inter-continental Sky Bar to partying in a tower-block cabaret bar, things got really random! Nanjing was an amazing city to rediscover and I know it hasn't seen the last of me! The train back to Beijing was thankfully quieter than the outbound, tricky passengers don't impress me! Where for 2020's festivities? Lanzhou, Gansu? I reckon I'll be revisiting that Northwestern Chinese City to build upon my pit stop transfer before I took my train over to Lhasa.

Holiday! Celebrate!

Joseph Harrison 

2019-2020: This Departure Lounge of Dreams!

Travel gives me life, back in February of this year I had the bizarre opportunity to experience selected locations within North Korea and the surrounding Chinese border city of Dandong. It didn't take me long once that trip concluded to have another trip booked! 2019 progressively became booked up! Yes, Britney B, I know I'm ready to make my Newark, New Jersey return!

July 2019 will kickoff my first Chinese summer holiday destination, I will be boarding a night train from Beijing to Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Hitting the ground running I have chosen to be busy from the moment my overnight train pulls into Baotou. Visiting the Wudangzaho Lamasery was an add-on to the trip, its on a par with Lhasa's Potala Palace. Acting as the wild card I will visit the Northern Weapon City, I am really not sure what I am going to see? Getting back on the road, leaving the city of Baotou will give me the chance to spend an overnight stay at the Erdos Grasslands, I wanted to stay in a traditional family yurt but the hotel version will do for me fine. It didn't take much persuading for me to accept such a payment, this tour will in-total take me four months to pay off completely. I don't think I'll repeat such an adventure so its all worthwhile. Yes, I'm very excited for Inner Mongolia!

Oh, no! Going back just a few steps, I will have a little time to explore the Dalateqi Sand Bay before I'll check into my very own Chinese Mongolian style yurt. Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region that possesses such a rich landscape, no matter the dent into my finances I have to see it all! After my overnight stay in the Erdos Grasslands it will be time to see the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan as that will conclude my Inner Mongolian trip. I honestly don't know what to expect, I am keeping an open mind. Choosing China Highlights for this Grasslands summer tour didn't take much thought, I always know things are going to be organised and most of all I don't mess with group tours, I will be keeping it all private! There's one more instalment to go, definitely paying my fees on-time! Will this Inner Mongolian adventure be my next trip in China? No, I have Shijiazhuang to make up and Dragon Boat Festival will take me to Guilin's Yangshuo County for that June holiday weekend! A summer sorted?

Giving myself just enough time to repack my hand luggage overnight, I will be jetting from Beijing to China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for the final week of my 2019 summer holiday. Sticking with China Highlights I will be guiding myself around the provinces capital, Urumqi for two days in-between my Uygur travels. Things at the moment seem to be cooking up in Xinjiang but I am not fazed by hearsay or a little bit of drama. My overnight train will take me to Kashgar, one Chinese city that borders with Pakistan as it lies within China's Far West region. I'll be looking for the Grand Bazaar and some hand pulled noodles that supposedly hail back to the days of the European explorers who lined the historic Silk Road? Like Tibet, China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has required planning, I know it will show me it all! Clearly, China keeps showing me more, its not just about Shanghai or Beijing! Oh, that Turpan!

Turpan will showcase to me the Gaochang Ruins along with the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Grottoes for the win! I am especially excited to be seeing the Suleiman Minaret along with a local vineyard because Xinjiang is famous for its grape production! High Speed Rail will help me get back to Urumqi before my Beijing bound flight, its going to be all about trains and flying because Xinjiang is huge! The itinerary is going to be mad with three cities but I am so prepared for this Far West China trip to take its full force! Urumqi will show me the Arabic Chinese city that I need in my life, Kashgar has been somewhere with an extra spice on my hit-list, whereas Turpan gets me fired up with its ruins and minarets! The two weeks spent between Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions will show me more! Moving to Beijing has made these trips possible, getting to Tibet from Wuhan was no joke, being in the capital affords those key transport links! I'll be Xinjiang rich!

So, National Day 2018 served me a nasty good trip to Seoul, South Korea but fulfilling a travel wish I emptied my account in January to book my Singapore Airlines flights for 2019s affair. Wanting to further expand my flight review blog series I wanted and got those Singapore Airlines flights! That Airbus A380 though! Spending three full days in Singapore has to be done without question! Staying in a capsule hostel style compartment in the heart of SG's Chinatown has saved me some pennies! Staying not so far from the lights of Marina Bay will secure those main attractions during my stay. Singapore's Chinatown isn't just known for its cuisine, no its got a perfectly formed Rainbow scene so when the sun sets it's definitely going to be nasty good! Getting those British colonial sites down, I am going to try at least one Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel because when in Singapore, darling it has most certainly got to be done!

Getting my Kampong Glam needs to happen! Singapore looks so vibrant and rich with so many colours! I am up for trying food in all of those ethnic and quirky Singaporean neighbourhoods! During my times in London's Chinatown I never got myself to 'Old Chang Kee's' for a colonially inspired Curry Puff Pasty, that foolishness will change without any questioning! Will I be hitting up Sentosa Island? I really don't know because I want to make my three full days count whilst in Singapore, for sure I want to boss Little India, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and be at one within the sparkling lights that surround Marina Bay Sands. Money isn't something that we can take with us, I want to make this trip work and if I paid through the nose for those flights then I'll be damned but I don't give a hoot! National Day 2018 got scandalous, with that said 2019 will be even more of a raucous affair! It's been a long time in the planning stages but with those Beijing links in place, I'm going to Singapore baby!

Nine long years have passed by, I am now in a place that's financially strong to make the journey back to Newark and New York City, USA! Even though this planned 2019 Christmas trip is in the planning stages things are pretty much already concrete in my head! I anticipate on touching down onto Newark Liberty soil from Beijing direct with United during mid-December. Eyeing up reservations at a hotel within Columbus Circle will keep me on the Subway and to be near Midtown Manhattan, I want to relive that life for a brief time if nothing else! I plan to make my Newark, NJ comeback with much gusto, getting down to the Ironbound for some Portuguese chicken, rice and beans needs no thought! The Downtown has big plans for me to witness, I am all about those simple things because a McDonalds breakfast at Newark Penn Station is in great need! It's been a long time so, World Trade Center guide me back to the PATH home! Yes B!

As much as this trip stands to be about reconnecting with Newark I plan to take the train up to New Haven, Connecticut for a chilled and slightly unplanned winter day out. I never made it to that state during my year stateside, taking the MTA New Haven Line from Grand Central will be the one. Feeling my Samantha 'KIA' James fantasy I will spend one night in Philadelphia, getting back to a mad city that I didn't see the half of during my first visit. Philly cheesesteaks from Ishkabibble's and cocktails and queens from Bob & Barbara's will happen! Of course, I want to soak up South Street and be horrendously hungover the next day! Returning to Newark Liberty once more to board my potential Birmingham bound flight for Christmas week will take me home, flying Aer Lingus via Dublin looks quite likely. To be part of the Christmas festivities with my brother and his growing family will be worth any jet lag! It's got to be right and I have waited long enough, no price tag will be quibbled over.

2019...  I'm Loving Life!

Joseph Harrison

20 April 2019

Nanjing, China: Ancient Towers, Sky Bars & Realness!

Refreshed from the long sleep, we had some breakfast then caught a bus to find one of the best views in Nanjing. The previous night out had been brief because I was so damn tired, we knew that it was going to be nasty good later on that night! I was open to pretty much anything happening that day, it was nice not thinking about plans! Nanjing slayed and then some! 

Bussing it to the foot of Nanjing's Yuejiang Tower kickstarted the longish hike up to the top, I am not good with heights but getting it together and directing my efforts to see the skyline of Jiangsu's top city kept me going! Me and Chris just chatted about anything and everything, making our way to the top allowed us to see an uninterrupted view of Nanjing's sprawling CBD. It was no Guomao but in its infancy it impressed me much with its new glass and steel megastructures. The sky was thankfully clear over the main city centre but in the other direction the smog from the paint and chemical factories littered the skies, it didn't impact our views, it only added to the contrasts that Nanjing was showcasing to us. Feeling all nostalgic, the tower itself resembled Wuhan's Yellow Crane Tower but with its own Nanjing edge. Complete with a Yangtze River view that gave me life for certain. It felt great to be near that familiar body of water! 

Nobody stared at us both for being the 'Laowai's', that felt lovely because we could go about our business, some school kids were so happy to see two foreigners but I shocked them by saying good afternoon to them in Chinese! The views from the top of Nanjing's Yuejiang Tower made everything make sense, we shared our feelings about the nearby Jiangsu Province city of Suzhou. Let's just say our experiences were different, one thing I haste to remember is a KFC Spicy Chicken Burger! Don't ask me! Making our way down the mountain at a slower pace gave us the chance to discuss about our experiences as English teachers in China, our approach to open the minds of the young people that we have the opportunity to teach English. Our jobs may be targeted towards different age groups but we had shared situations that we had both experiences with. Needless to say the gorgeous sunshine set the pace for the day, it was turning into early teatime! Nanjing had me falling for its charms! 

Walking the rest of the way from the bus-stop, we made it to the Zifeng Tower. Originally planning to try some Nanjing food we got our ticket but with the holiday crowds out in their droves it was going to be a lengthy wait for our slot, taking the lift up to the 78th floor within the Intercontinental Nanjing was the one! Making ourselves comfortable within the plush surroundings of the Sky Bar felt correct. With sweeping views across the city, we had the best seats in the city! Ordering the most cost effective bottle of Prosecco sounded like the best idea in the world! Toasting to finally meeting in Nanjing we decided after the first bottle that we needed another one, those dinner reservations weren't really important! Nanjing's Xuanwuhu Lake looked amazing from our view from up above as the sun started to set. Our conversation was getting real, the bubbly was flowing and it was a great time to be alive! Yes, NJ!

Hitting the streets for some food we weren't fussy in our boozy mood, calling McDonalds for our pre-drinking meal gave us such a beautiful view! Now when we noticed that Nanjing Nan Ren, no he looked like perfection with his designer leather satchel! Our eyes we definitely not deceiving us in that tasty moment! You already know that I was Taobao searching that bag, let's just say I was convinced it was real leather! Going back to Chris's on the underground brought us back to the pungent aromas of Zhangfuyuan, it was time to get our best threads on for the night ahead! Getting my Britney t-shirt ironed and my new blue denim jeans ready, it was set. The night ahead was going to be memorable! Well, with the drink we planned to drink after the bubbles at the Sky Bar the hangover would be the only memory! The day may have started later than planned but we enjoyed the crazy at the Yuejiang Tower, our drinks with a view to rival impressed us during that Tomb Sweeping weekend N!

Scanning two rental bikes we rode through the pulsating city centre, dodging oncoming traffic and passing the neon lit thoroughfares, it gave me life! I had heard things from Chris about the place that we were going to that night, approaching an unassuming tower block we took the lift up a few floors, transferred lifts to reach the 21st floor. Finding this sparkly underground Gay Bar in what was probably the space of an apartment rubbished any previous expectations. Star Club was going to bring the drinks and the entertainment that night, I had my 5 RMB notes from my North Korea trip so I was going to be handing tips out left right and centre! When the place started filling up it wasn't the most refined establishment that I had ever frequented but the vibe of the place was authentic. With our twelve breezer's on the bar, the drinking was well and truly on! I was ready for the entertainment to begin! Absolutely NJ!

The drag performers threw some shapes on the stage, working their choreography they played no games! Their lip synching was definitely questionable but their commitment to their art was undeniably true, for the location I was still shocked I was sitting in such a place on the 21st floor of an unassuming tower block in the heart of Nanjing! The drinks continued, we got talking to some guys and what skills I used couldn't possibly mentioned in this publication, let's just say I turned a few tricks! Making my debut on the karaoke, I smashed gave my best rendition of Britney Spears's hit song 'Everytime'. The night was everything and more, we drank and had a really great night out in Nanjing! I wanted to recreate some early morning chaos like in Seoul but we had our wires crossed when we rocked up to that shady location. Kicking off because I couldn't get a Jianbing, needless to say it was well and truly time for bed! Oh, how my Beijing train the next day wasn't fun at all! Oh, NJ!

Tips For The Queens!

Joseph Harrison 

19 April 2019

Nanjing, China: A Jiangsu Province Return!

Returning to Wuhan was an exception even though I had never vowed to go back, in saying that Nanjing South Railway Station saw me make my return in the same fashion! My Scotch friend Chris had flown his tartan homeland to teach English in Jiangsu's capital, we met through a mutual friend and with Nanjing on the cards, it was certain that we were going to meet! 

My travel plans were almost in tatters quite like this blog post was before my fast thinking got me out of a right mess, it wasn't pretty! The tone in First Class during that Beijing-Nanjing train was lowered and then some, thankfully my boozy breakfast gave my words an edge! After meeting Chris at Nanjing South Railway Station we went underground, now that wasn't going to be the first time throughout that trip but I meant in that sense we took the Subway to his ends in Zhangfuyuan. I was having all kinds of Nanjing flashbacks, back then I was living in Wuhan and was fresh to travelling in and around China. Leaving the station showed me something that reminded me of those older gritty food streets that I had frequented many times during my Wuhan days, it was like a blast from the past even though it was part of my journey it felt like it was meant to be! Arriving safe in the end, Nanjing was on fire! Trains are so boozy!

Catapulted into the heart of an area that had a curious scent, the streets allowed me to catch a whiff of cooking oil and the pace of ordinary life in a corner of a Chinese city that hadn't seen mass modernisation. Zhangfuyuan was a-wash with signs and street-side shop fronts that sold food that I hadn't seen for a hot minute, my suburban corner of Beijing's Northeast doesn't have that type of fare because its on another hype on my side. It was great to finally meet Chris in the flesh, we had been talking since October 2017, to finally meet after talking for so long! Chris works for a training school, one thing I admire him for because that professional calamity need not call me up again! My early morning alarm hadn't caught up on me at that point, away from the big smoke felt great because work had me on a mad thing! I was unknowingly ready to be reunited with a place that I got horrendously lost the first time! Going back to reevaluate things made everything feel correct in the end! 

Passing the front of a meat market gave me such a stomach turning nostalgic smell, no disrespect to my friend but I wouldn't like that scent on a daily but it transported me back to my first morning in China during that Shanghai week in June 2015. The local market sold everything edible, usually I wouldn't want to pass those places but for that experience it had to be done! Leaving the backstreets behind us, something hit me bang on in the face! I had got massively lost along Jianye Road, it was such mad feeling seeing the main road, the Qinhaui River and the same McDonalds that stood in the same place as before! I was stunned by the whole experience, that flashback gave me life! Scanning two rental bikes we took to the streets, swerving past traffic had my heart in my mouth but the experience was ace! Getting to see the city sights from a different point of view was everything to me! Go N!

We wanted pizza but places open and close all the time in China, we had to be realistic because Chinese food was not going to be on the menu that Friday teatime! Walking the streets for a little bit after our biking moment took us to the Paulaner Brauhaus, a German restaurant that served us just what we love! Beer and sausage for the win, the waiters in that place were all on fire! With my bangers and mash and litre beers doing what it promised to, the conversation got real whilst the scenery merged between German brewhouse to Chinese talent! Spa? Chris had said we would be going swimming, I was open to that but after meeting his friend Steven that prospect changed entirely! Baring all, I entered into a whole new Korean Spa situation but I cannot begin to retell the cakes that walked past me! Chatting and bathing in the hot springs put my fears at bay, excuse me I caught a glimpse of my reflection and I was like! After feeling a new sense of self love I said props to the Spa! Yass Bitch!

Going back to Chris's had to be done! Getting changed for some drinks was the plan, it had been a full bodied day, judging by the previous activity it was literally! Scanning our bikes, riding to a secret Whisky Bar took us to a bar I never knew the name of. Myself, Chris, Steven and Jiaming enjoyed a drink each in a cosy hipster kitsch environment. Going for a Long Island Ice Tea, it was a refreshing drink but if truth could be told it needed to be stronger! The chat was on-point, I recounted my time in Beijing getting up to the things I fall into to. Being in that boys club felt nice because I usually keep my ladies close by. The night was young but that day had been so long up until that point, I wanted to push forwards to see Catherine Park. Making it to Revolucion, I thought it was going to be like the underground Catina that I had found in Xiamen but it was more sobering than ever! NJ, I for one well and truly needed my bed!

From leaving my apartment in the dark of morning to reaching the end of the night in Nanjing, Jiangsu it had been a full bodied day for certain! I've said that twice! Going back to Chris's it was time to sleep till dinnertime the next day because it was holiday! Getting back to Nanjing was amazing, it was fulfilling not to plan anything for a trip like usual, to literally arrive and just for it all to fall into place felt like such a blessed thing! Nanjing had big plans for us the next day and then some but the first day had been filled with the right amount of everything! I had found a new freedom in the Spa and had out-witted a snotty nose passenger who freaked out when I took her charger out of the power outlet on the train from Beijing! I told her the world would still turn, the sun would still shine so her phone would still be sufficiently charged! Beer for breakfast has a lot to answer for! No, that stank ass attitude spoke volumes without that passenger even talking! Those tracks were on fire! 

Now Nanjing! 

Joseph Harrison 

31 March 2019

Teaching English: Springtime Renewal...

February was a quiet month at my kindergarten, even after my holiday the children were still enjoying their family reunions and foreign holidays. So far the Spring/Summer semester has been full of surprises, twists and turns but all of those have shaped the here and now. From flower arranging to Cadbury Creme Eggs, my International kindergarten duties give me life! 

So Bei, frankly speaking my Chinese capital city dream was challenged as soon as I landed, with time and a campus change, life has stabilised for certain. Moving up to Houshayu in November was something that needed to happen, I wanted to be closer to my new campus and the drama with my first Beijing apartment was no joke, queue another complete farce! In the here and now I am on apartment three and things couldn't be better, being in a less international environment has its moments but in the next breathe I am able to communicate better, maybe that's not a good thing sometimes but that's life as a foreigner in an area that serves more social disparity than a 'all you can eat' buffet serves food! Captured to the left is one view of my commute, biking it for the win I have made it more of a thing because early 2019 has brought a straight up harsh winter! Getting it together I had done my work before the new semester. 

Chinese New Year had been taught in January to ensure the children were schooled properly before their annual holidays. We learned about the family preparations and even incorporated maths into our work by counting money from a red envelope. I found some great Cbeebies videos from YouTube that followed the preparations of two Liverpudlian Chinese children, going about their business it gave the children the chance to see Chinese children of a British kind, children who shared certain elements of the Chinese New Year holiday. For me it was great to open their minds, they only see things from a certain angle within their China lives so it was something to see them conferring with each other whether the children on the video could be British and Chinese at the same time? With their hometowns and some heading for more exotic shores, the children gradually took their CNY breaks. I was about to set off for North Korea, it was all about getting things ready for the kids! Yes!

Material making could stop for a few weeks at least but little did the children know that the English Corner had many new things for them to learn with. My main focus for Rainbow's English has become 'culture' from a 'Montessori' perspective, taking the knowledge acquired from my time studying that learning approach has allowed me to apply to my new English corner area. With everything colour coded for the seven continents, I had big plans for the forthcoming semester. The new semester allowed me to work with 'Weather' and 'Body Parts' as the main English department theme, going out of the box allowed me to create some works that have really caught the children's attention and interest. Purchasing a wooden rain stick has allowed the children to learn about different forms of rain, it's a weather that we don't get much in Beijing. Skeletons and internal organs set the theme for the 'body parts' works. 

Writing has been the main focus, feedback from the parents has spurred me on to create a writing station with its own chalkboard. I found the original set up didn't interest the children, with a book stand to rest the language card has encouraged the children to get writing in English. I made seven continents worth of language cards that ranged from transportation to fun and festivities. Spanning the seven continents we have been able to look at vivid images of foods from Europe and indigenous cultures and customs from Australasia. I have an obligation to plan what works each child uses but with the confidence that the children have now, it's amazing to see where their own interest takes them and I am there to guide them so, it's all good. My second semester at my new-ish campus has been fruitful with the aspect the children are speaking in full sentences and have the confidence to express their feelings to me. The kids genuinely enjoy English, we can definitely try more things! Yes!

Since joining Rainbow Class in August 2018, the teaching team has had a few changes over time. With the motions of life, it has meant we said goodbye to the previous lead teacher as she was about to have her baby boy. The Spring/Summer semester has taken many twists and turns but the those magical moments keep me going through all of those mad times. The flower arranging morning gave the children and their parents or guardians the chance to get into the Springtime theme with all of those flowers. As March turned into April, I broke down the barriers with some English curriculum regarding Easter and St. George's Day because the children deserve to understand about my country's festivities and history. I keep things away from religion because China works in its own way, I respect that wholeheartedly with the knowledge the parents might not be hot on religion. Things are good, I don't want to change that! No!

With a new visa being renewed right now, I can breathe a sigh of relief that I will be able to toast my fourth year in China soon! It's been a journey since departing from the training school in Wuhan to finding my current kindergarten company. I feel like I am in a place that suits me right now and for the next few years, in actual fact I would like to say I will be here for a long time! I look forward to the summer months as the curriculum rolls round again, being my fourth year with the company I remember the themes as if they were a familiar dream. Getting ill cannot be helped but in the time I have been at my new-ish campus I have tried my best to keep my attendance to 99% with one day abnormal. I genuinely look forward to continuing my journey in China, wherever it will take me within its vast border I will continue to work hard. The children have developed so much, its been an absolute pleasure to see them grow! Shunyi has its moments but somehow it works itself out in the end! 

8 till 6? Work! 

Joseph Harrison 

27 March 2019

On The Borderline... Dandong, China!

Dandong had been a city that I had wanted to see before I found out travel to North Korea would be viable, the mysterious views from the Broken Bridge intrigued me to know more. Leaving the overnight train from Beijing to Pyongyang for the return leg gave me the opportunity to extend my 2019 Chinese Spring Festival trip. Liaoning's borderline city with the DPRK served it!

Crossing back over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge on the train from Sinuiju to Dandong felt bizarre that I had just spent six days in North Korea, after running for the immigration desks to be stamped back into China I said goodbye to Yuan, she was flying onto Shanghai and I was going to be meeting my Dandong tour guide, Jack that evening. The evening was brief with  some surprises but I was exhausted from the hectic itinerary that had been in Pyongyang, Dongrim & Sinuiju. Known for its borderline with the DPRK, Dandong shares its border with Sinuiju as the Yalu River separates the two nations and city's. I had seen on many documentaries that the contrast between Dandong and Sinuiju would certainly provide contrasting views for certain. The next morning I would get to see those striking views for myself, my Dandong extension would be the last day of my holiday. The first night back in China was sobering! 

Bright and early the next morning I met my tour guide and the driver, leaving the city limits we had arrived at the Hushan Great Wall. Climbing just a short way from the entrance allowed me to see the crisp and near desolate views of the North Korean perimeter with China. The lack of life stunned me, the freezing cold temperatures definitely added to the eeriness of the view. My tour guide explained to me that it was forbidden for any objects to be passed from the Chinese side over to the DPRK border, he went on to say that the Chinese tourists have to be monitored because they don't respect the rules, from the corner of my eye I saw a small guards hut that was used during the busier summer months to monitor those homeland tourists. I just don't get how people can't behave? Being a fractious border it really made no sense! To think that I had seen some rustic scenery between Dongrim and Sinuiju that painted the picture that stood in real-time right before me. Yes, it was deserted!

Jinjiangshan Park was the random mid-section to my day, after visiting the desolated views of the border from the Hushan Great Wall, it was time for short steep walk around that Dandong park. Being back in a real life scenic area felt nice, things had been staged managed for the group from the very beginning so those normal views within the park felt correct. I didn't take much in regarding the history of the park because to sight people going about their daily business seemed more interesting, the feel of my previous location didn't have a natural feel to it, so getting back to something that felt like everyday impressed me more than historical facts. Getting back onto the road allowed me to find more out about Dandong, previously a very simple city on the banks of the Yalu River, it had prospered in recent years and with the shenanigans from its DPRK it had become quite the tourism honey pot. Yes, Dandong's grown!  

Lunch took us to the Dandong North Korean Restaurant, the decor and costumes reminded me of those camp and colourful establishments back in Pyongyang. The stage was set for a show but during that freezing February afternoon it looked like there wasn't going to be any performance. Yes, the food that was served us sure tasted really good and I was able drink one more bottle of North Korean beer! Even though it was the early afternoon the restaurant had a steady flow of patrons, the smartly dressed servers who were either wearing business dress or in the case of the door host who wore a traditional Korean Hanbok, they were all flawlessly presented and undeniable beautiful! The group of ladies on the train back to Dandong the previous day were knock-out gorgeous and that's something out of character for me to notice. The day so far was going like clockwork but I patiently waited to see the Yalu River and the Broken Bridge in all of their glory! Sure, that beer revived me!

The previous day whilst on the North Korean side I saw the skyline and bridges that made up Dandong's showcase borderline that meets the Yalu River. Taking a river cruise from Dandong's tourist pier gave me the chance to see the Broken Bridge for myself, with an up-close and personal view it was a sight for sure! The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge looked tired, the new bridge needs to be completed in-order to give the Japanese repaired bridge museum status, or at least a damn good makeover! Dandong's waterfront was pint-sized but it was booming with business and many new tall buildings, whereas the Sinuiju side stood looking rather quiet and docile. My tour guide gave me the scoop about the shipyard that faces Dandong on the Sinuiju side, something told me by the quiet movements it looked mysterious enough. Looking back over at the view of the mild construction was bizarre from the Chinese side.

News from the DPRK suggests that Sinuiju is poised to be transformed into a modern border city, complete with a new railway that will make the current six hour journey down to Pyongyang into a speedy sixty minutes? Regardless, the experience along the Yalu River impressed me much! Back onto dry land it was time to have a walk along the Broken Bridge for myself, I had just enough time before heading back to the train station. The bridge itself came to an abrupt ending, complete with the concrete pillars in-view from the lookout point upon the bridge gave me a Birdseye view of the park that I had visited the previous day on the Sinuiju side. Stopping at a Sino-Korean gift shop had to be done, I wanted to see if I could get some more trinkets for my DPRK themed language materials. Boarding a god-awful night train to Beijing had to be done but why on earth had I not questioned the bunk type before the trip? Leaving Dandong, I could close the final chapter to my DPRK/China trip!

Thanks D!

Joseph Harrison 

23 March 2019

Sinuiju: DPRK's Pint-sized City!

My time in Pyongyang had concluded, with my bags packed and my hungover self back on the coach it was time for my train to Dongrim to begin my Sinuiju extension with Young Pioneer Tours. Enjoying a few beers on the train was the one, spending the last hours with the group was nice, the PY City tour had been so good! I wanted to experience more during that CNY holiday! 

The scenery changed pretty quickly, from the pint-sized cityscape of Pyongyang, the frozen countryside fronted us with a stark realness. Pulling into Dongrim Station allowed us to be greeted by our two new guides, onto the bumpy roads it was like driving into a world unfamiliar in the past, so quiet and underdeveloped. Arriving at the Dongrim Hotel presented a modern looking hotel, equipped with its own swimming pool I was open to the idea of having a swim later on that day. Settling into the hotel it was nice to relax, walking out to a waterfall that was completely frozen proved to be the days sightseeing. The fresh air and quiet surroundings felt good, the hotel was in a very secluded area, it was peaceful. Being DPRK the quietness wasn't no surprise to us, making the best of the amenities I went for a swim and had a massage, that spot of me-time was really nice and was so cheap as well! Dongrim served us! 

The rooms were modern, freshly designed with slightly firmer mattresses compared with the hotel that we stayed in Pyongyang, not a complaint but it didn't make any difference because a little Soju was consumed that evening. Resting in the room for a little bit gave me the chance to watch a bit of state run North Korean television, meeting my tour friend Yuan Yuan for dinner gave us the chance to experience a rather bizarre evening. I wasn't stunned by the quality of the rooms during my stay in the DPRK, the Dongrim Hotel impressed me. The food throughout the whole trip had been questionable because I hadn't indulged in any Korean during my Seoul trip, that evening in Dongrim challenged my taste tolerance for sure! Taking the to the mic, I found my voice in front of the whole banqueting hall, I loved the limelight, I really did! Going to the bar for a little while, the guests made their own party in their rooms, how I wanted to join but not when in the DPRK! Dongrim, done! 

Getting back onto the road the next morning, it didn't take us long before our phones pinged back into action! Myself and Yuan Yuan couldn't believe it, we could see the New Yalu River Bridge in the near distance so the close proximity with China gave us a connection with the wider world. Our first stop was at the Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory, it gave us the chance to see the factory that has a co-operation with Lancôme Cosmetics. Being a Sunday it wasn't so busy on the production line, people were still working and we saw some products sail down the production line. I usually don't bother with face creams but when in North Korea or the DPRK it has to be done! I bought two bottles of anti-ageing cream because even at 28 years old, it's always time to preserve those youthful looks I have. Let me get back with those reviews, yes I can say the moisturiser really keeps my skin soft and fresh. Silky soft Sinuiju!

Our guide told us that the cosmetics factory works with a lot of foreign companies, exporting their Korean made products to far-flung markets overseas. Being located close to China, their seemed to be more leverage with trade even though tight U.S sanctions are still currently in place. Sinuiju served itself as a small yet developing city, the cosmetics factory gave us an insight as to how the Hermit Kingdom is bucking a new beauty conscious trend. Getting more out of my DPRK experience had to be done, opting for a second extension in Dandong as well as Sinuiju because I didn't want to end my experience so quickly since the whole trip took so long to plan and pay for. Onto the next place, Sinuiju led the way to the North Phyongan Province Revolutionary History Museum. I got told off for chewing gum as another guide informed us about the different museum exhibits, the Korean War had become so familiar to us throughout our trip, I was exam ready! Did someone say Ginseng soap?

Sinuiju's skyline wasn't up to the standard compared with Pyongyang but word on the street was that Kim Jong Un announced a major expansion plan for the Yalu River City! Glancing at some rather vivid paintings gave me the only chance to freely take photos of the leaders without having the pressure of taking them at the wrong angle, it definitely wasn't stressful like it was in Pyongyang. Taking pint-sized to a new level, Sinuiju's central square could be seen in its entirety within a few seconds! Going for lunch gave us the chance to eat at the restaurant that was connected to a live power source that was fed from Dandong, China. Walking around a penned in park gave us an uninterrupted view of Dandong's skyline and the Broken Bridge. The park literally had its own perimeter fence, designed for Chinese shopping half day trips across the bridge made that small park extremely lucrative indeed. It was a lesson!

Having been a teacher at a kindergarten chain in China over the last three years has allowed me to see things aren't so different over in the DPRK. Before taking our train back over the border into China we visited one of Sinuiju's most famous kindergartens, seeing for ourselves that some of todays bright hopefuls were schooled at that colourful and kind looking DPRK early years centre of education. Some Chinese kindergartens like to put on a show to their parents, well I need to be careful what I am saying! The children were so cute, like really cute! Their clearly choreographed showcase gave me flashbacks to my first Children's Day performance, those kids smiled like their lives depended on it! The brightly coloured hallways and showroom like classes reminded me of my working life in China, but let us kept certain details vague. Sinuiju may have been small but it showed us more than we previously had expected to see! Onboard the train, China called us back to normality!

Singing Sinuiju!

Joseph Harrison 

21 March 2019

Pyongyang's Little Secret...

Every city beholds a secret or two, Pyongyang had some belters kept up its sleeve for our final day of sightseeing capital of the DPRK. Seeing a Mass Dance was a sight for sure, going underground showed us more and a certain department gave us a closer insight to DPRK everyday life. Rewriting the book, Pyongyang had more to show us on that final day! No, Soju! No, P-Y!

Breakfast was brief, we revisited Kim Il Sung Square to find a more lively version compared with the visit after myself and the flight-takers arrived in Pyongyang. It was still quite quiet compared to South Korean standards but there was a little bit more traffic and people going about their business compared with the first time. The ice cold breeze bite like crazy, finding the Pyongyang Foreign Language Bookshop was a blessing to find a spot of warmth. Yes, the previous night had been fuelled with copious amounts of drink as we stayed in the hotel once again after dark. I wasn't crazy about buying any books, posters or any kind of literature but the amount of languages that were on offer impressed me much. The other members of the tour bought what they wanted, being only a short stop it was back out into the freezing cold. Having no Internet for almost four days was something else, I had actually forgotten all about it! Oh no!

The visit to the bookshop wasn't one of the highlights of the day but things would improve as the day progressed. The last official day of our Pyongyang schedule had arrived, it had been such an amazing experience with many unexpected twists and turns. I was starting to get used to Pyongyang, it didn't seem like such an alien place when I compared PY with its southern sister capital. The many bicycles hoodwinked me into thinking it was normal not to see so many cars on the streets. The Soju might not had been as fruity as the South Korean brands but we made our own palatable versions, the nightlife itself gave us a sense the all singing and all dancing waitresses played a large part in our trips evening schedule. Things weren't normal compared with our daily lives but being within that environment gave us a sense that all eyes were upon us, it wasn't ever intended to be a normal holiday. Most of all the importance to ask if photos could be taken became such a normal thing. Yes!

Getting myself together still hadn't happened but the morning still had to be. Pushing through my state thrusted me back into the nail bitingly chilly temperatures outside the Fatherland Liberation War Museum. No photographs were permitted inside the museum, it was however fine to take photos of the captured United States vessel, U.S.S Pueblo and of the artillery and vehicles that were left behind since the end of the Fatherland Liberation War. I had seen on countless documentaries that the former US vessel strayed into North Korean waters on the 23rd of January 1968. Going inside the once operational boat gave us a true insight. Seeing the bullet holes on the interior walls painted a vision as to how the Pueblo was seen to be a threat to the North Koreans, well to the authorities who were managing the North Korean waters that day. I was glad to have some background information before visiting. P, just Pueblo?

Inside the museum it gave us untold amounts of grandeur, adorned with opulent designs and dripping with chandeliers from the ceilings, it was one of the most lavishly decorated war museums I had ever seen before! Kim Jong Un and his ruling relatives were painted for the gods, those portraits on the walls were the centrepieces amongst the many installations that told the peril and bloodshed the opposing side inflicted onto the Korea that was then ruled by Kim Il Sung. One installation acted as moving piece of theatre with flashing lights and a revolving platform that gave us a Birdseye view over the model version of the former Korean battlefield. That museum experience wasn't like any other, the commitment to the order of events was outstanding, recounting every single movement and justification for each action. I won't ever forget that museum, no word of a lie! Being a holiday in the DPRK that day, we vacated the museum for a special Party Foundation Day surprise!

I wasn't going to see the Mass Games but in second place I would be seeing a Mass Dance instead. Signalled to start by a voice from the stage, three hundred or so students commenced their fiercely choreographed circular dance routine in unison. Their timing was something to be proud of, no mistakes were made throughout our time that we watched the students dance. It was such a bizarre sight, being a holiday it looked like the students had prepared for this dance for sometime. I even got into the circle of dancers for a brief second, it felt so forced and the dancers were practically chained to a rhythm so I jumped back out again to rejoin the tour group. Going back to the coach was such a relief due to the freezing cold temperatures, I was looking forward to lunch because that meant being in the warm! Lunch refuelled our cold selves, it was time to visit a normal Pyongyang City middle school. I was so intrigued P!

OK, let me backtrack! We stopped by the Arch of Triumph for a little look around, going to the viewpoint gave us a nice vista of the city. Next to the Arch of Triumph was a football stadium that had been featured during one of the documentaries that I had previously watched, it was pint-sized! The sports shop was strange, anyhow I got some pretty bags for my language materials. Right, let's get back to that school! After digesting the schools trophy room we were taken to one classroom, being a teacher I felt it was a normal place to be but we were literally the main attraction! The confused students had their eyes transfixed on us, some of the group got asked questions but one of the boys asked me what my job was, they genuinely looked gutted that I wasn't their teacher! I was humble about their praise! Our final day in Pyongyang was almost over but we had seen so much, I personally loved the visit to the school. Of course, I was ready to go underground on the Pyongyang Metro!

Going down what seemed like the deepest and steepest escalator down to platform level of the Pyongyang Metro felt unnerving to say the very least. From the concrete streets to that platform acted as quite a contrast, the opulence of the chandeliers and the intricate paintings that brought the platform level to life amazed us. The vintage metro cars pulled into the simple yet elaborate station, no advertising was needed because the leaders had painted all the necessary eye-catching things on the platform walls. Boarding our very own compartment gave us a quieter experience compared to the other YPT experiences but if truth be told it gave the local people the chance to go about their business without cameras in their vicinity. Each carriage had their own paintings of the dear leaders, I don't think the Queen's portrait will be on the Tube anytime soon? No way! But both stations reminded me of Beijing's Line 2!

Our final day in Pyongyang was almost over but we had one more place to visit before our leaving meal. Leaving our cameras behind on the coach it was our chance to experience a real Pyongyang department store! Changing our foreign currency from Chinese or American tender to the local DPRK Won was insane, it wasn't something that was accepted for foreigners to carry so it was exciting to spend it all up! The Gwangbok District Commercial Center showed us a raw and everyday view of North Korean people in a shopping centre. Going to the food court made me feel I was in Xianning, Hubei because those local people had no clue about foreigners, they were so interesting and actually smiled back! The beer was cheap, the snacks were tasty and the supermarket downstairs was a visual treat! Enjoying our final meal had to be done before going back to the hotel for the final drink as a group! At the end of things, Pyongyang City had been utterly bizarre but amazing at the same time! Yes, P!

Pyongyang, DONE!

Joseph Harrison

21 February 2019

Pyongyang: Eternal Leaders, Juche Ideas & Good Times...

Getting stuck into our North Korean experience, we were in for another day in the DPRK's showcase city of Pyongyang! Dressed in our best and with the importance of the visit well communicated to us, it was time to visit Pyongyang's Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The day wasn't going remain with that beginning serious tone, no! Our second day in Pyongyang was full of extremes! 

The early wake up call required a few coffees and a snatched breakfast before boarding the coach, feeling fresher than usual it was no joke that all of us behaved well, the mornings itinerary was nothing less than serious! Dressed in our Sunday best for our visit to Pyongyang's Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the final resting place for the DPRK's former leaders who now rest in state for the North Korean people to pay their maximum heartfelt respects. We had been told that our scheduled visit was something to be thankful for, some other foreigners had been utterly careless with their words so the palace had to be closed to foreigners for a period of time. We were in full agreeance that our Korean guides requests were law during that morning visit to see such a place that holds such high esteem for the people of the DPRK. Stepping in our straight single file motion it was time for us to catch a glimpse of the NK leaders!

Leaving our coats behind we remained in our lines, passing through TSA like security screening had to be done, standing with our hands by our sides and not crossing anything was the order of events. Bowing three times from the front, left and right before the late leaders had to be executed with care and respect, we weren't about to get ourselves in trouble for the two rooms that housed the resting leaders were filled with high with emotion from the local people. We passed through vast rooms that acted as memorials for the honourary degrees and recognition the leaders had been given by countries from all around the world, following the same formation like the rest was important. We saw the exact miles that both former leaders had travelled by train and flight through their shared time as the DPRK's leaders. Dotted around every corner were those DPRK guards in those scarily sharp uniforms, well it would have been rude not appreciate the view! Oh, those icy winds were fierce!

Moving swiftly on to the next calling point during that frozen yet sunny Pyongyang February day, climbing up what felt like a mountain our coach dropped us off at the foot of the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery. Located at the top of Mount Taesong we had unspoiled views across Pyongyang's almost utopian skyline, it was such a view that transported me to the future or what we envisage the year 2070 to look like? The cemetery was set out with a very uniformed fashion, the bronze busts representing the deceased heroic icons of DPRK's past stood ready for us to learn their stories. The stories sounded gruesome and quite frankly awful, it was a swift visit during the A.M schedule, we were freezing at the top of Taesong! We were told our mornings schedule had a window of opportunity to see the formidable bronze statues of Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II. Buying flowers I wanted to embrace the experience! Yes, P-Yang!

Arriving to a frenzy of people who were visiting the statues of the eternal leaders ahead of a very important national holiday, we sped walked to the foot of the huge bronze statues to wait for our turn to bow before the two Kim's. People who had flowers were told to place them with the hundreds of others that had been laid down below the concrete foundation of the two statues. Bowing in unison, then we were allowed to take photos of the bronze statues, keeping in mind that our photos must display the entire expanse of the statues. Seeing the statues put me in my place, it was another key Pyognyang site that I had really wanted to visit! Dinner was really nice, we had our own hotpot creations along with a lovely cold beer and the conversation wasn't bad also! The morning had been hectic with protocol and rules in place, it was nice to take some time out to refuel for the afternoons schedule. The previous nights Soju had me feeling less than pretty, but queue those cold beers K!

Religion can be viewed differently across the world, treading carefully I observed the ways the DPRK views its faith from what my tour portrayed to me. Some believe in the big JC but in North Korea they stand with another type of J. Embracing 'single hearted unity' as the Juche ideals continue to guide the everyday DPRK folk. Visiting the Workers Party Monument allowed us to see the hammer, paintbrush and sickle that represented the three chosen trades within the nation that we were standing in. We had time to take some photos of that grand concrete monument that I noticed before dinner could be seen from the Mansu Hill Grand Monument where the bronze statues were admiring their city of Pyongyang. Those sub-zero winds were shockingly unforgiving but we were ready to view central Pyongyang from a higher view, up above from the Juche Tower! Wasn't no time for sitting down, we had to keep going! 

Burning up on the top of the Juche Tower stood a red flame, I had seen that Juche emblem all lit up during the first evening in Pyongyang! Cramming into the lift we ascended to the top of Pyongyang's Juche icon, schooled with the facts about Pyongyang's statement landmark. I am not one for heights but I knew that the eight storey high Juche Tower wouldn't be too high compared to the likes of NYC's Empire State Building, keeping it together I was able to marvel at the contrasting views of Pyongyang from the top of the tower! On the West side of the city it was all about the showcase sites, whereas the Eastern direction gave me all those colours! Our group snapped away at the top of Pyongyang's tower with much enthusiasm, sure the winds had a fierce bite but we fully got into the views! Descending back down to the bottom of the Juche Tower allowed me to find some cultural items for my students, always on the lookout for my kids! Oh, did somebody say Pyongyang Gold Lanes?

The seriousness of the day melted away as we arrived at Pyongyang's own bowling alley. Some of the group went next door to a coffeeshop, whilst me and five others played one game of bowling. It wasn't about winning, it was all about the experience in that moment. It was the perfect opportunity to people watch, to observe such a normal activity felt quite refreshing and for the price it was considerably cheaper to bowl in Pyongyang that it is in the UK! Regrouping in the coffeeshop it was time to find a beverage at the Taedonggang Beer Bar No. 3, it presented itself as a quiet place but we changed that for sure! Personally, it was a really good opportunity to speak with So Yon, who was our female Korean guide from KITC. The beers were flowing nicely, the conversation was free and we really had a great time at the beer bar! Back onto the coach, it turned into an impromptu karaoke session, I definitely belted out a tune! 

Tea was at a really nice restaurant, we dined on some really good food and at our tables the beverage kept on flowing and then some! The waitresses halted their duties, presenting themselves as the cabaret show for the meal! It was a full on show with tricks and the opportunity to get up and dance with them, I loved it! The group had been together since the Tuesday and being the Thursday we had bonded quite well, the vibe was really nice! We had stayed out a little later compared to the previous two nights, the previous night we were advised to sleep earlier because of our visit to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to see the resting eternal leaders. Returning to the hotel, we all descended upon the bar and this time we were all present to have a night fuelled with DPRK liquor and laughs! From our strict morning to our afternoon at the top of the Juche Tower, we ensured the night time was a lot more relaxed! PY, it was another amazing day in the DPRK with Young Pioneer Tours and KITC!

PY, Shine On! 

Joseph Harrison 

17 February 2019

DPRK: The DMZ, Kaesong & Sariwon

Suited and booted in our smart clothes it was time for the lengthy drive along the Reunification Highway from Pyongyang City to Korea's Demilitarised Zone, the journey would take us face to face with the peninsula's southern border. Passing through Kaesong allowed me to try something new for dinner and our brief Sariwon hike gave us a higher viewpoint! Korea, peace out!

The DMZ had been on my list of places to visit within the Koreas, but Panmumjom isn't accessible from the southern side so my ultimate trip to the DPRK had to be the one. Breakfast was a blur that morning but we all made it down to one of the restaurants for something to eat before we boarded the coach for the long journey to the borderline. Those North Korean roads made me feel just fine and dandy, it was going to be fine! Passing underneath the 'Reunification Monument' onto the highway that shared the same name kickstarted our journey towards DPRK's boundary with South Korea. After stopping at a bizarre gift shop/toilet venue beside a motorway with no traffic, it was something else to process in my head. Making our way closer to Panmunjom, soon enough we pulled into the city of Kaesong that sits on the DMZ borderline with Paju, Kae's southern sister city. Best believe, this was a borderline never to forget!

Word on the street, apparently the best propaganda posters were waiting for us as we arrived at the checkpoint with the DMZ? Grabbing a few things for my students before being briefed about our pursuit to Panmunjom was the just the thing that I needed! Stepping to the beat we were told to, we made our way back onto the coach to the place where the 1953 armistice was signed, halting the vicious Korean War. Accompanied by a selection of delectable soldiers, I reminded my nasty side where I was in that moment, but those uniforms were something else! The stillness inside the building where the United Nations mediated the signing of those important papers felt chillingly still, it was quite interesting not see the stars and stripes, apparently the folks who were representing the U.S forgot to bring their honourable flag? Our YPT group had the whole joint to ourselves for a little bit, we had enough time to take photos before a Hong Kong tour group rocked up at the entrance. Go!

Backtracking to Seoul for a few seconds, I honestly looked at visiting the DMZ from the southern side, but it was all wishy-washy about what days were available. In the present time on the northern side, we approached the viewpoint of those blue U.N huts and the south's sleek DMZ headquarters. We weren't allowed to take any photos of the northern buildings, that was fine with me because from where we were standing it was such a still and captivating view to even take a second thought. Our guides proceeded to point to the location that Kim and Moon had their summit meeting, we were able to catch a glimpse of that powerful borderline marking that the South Korean leader stepped over to begin those ground breaking talks between the two K's, For those of us with Chinese mobiles it was a moment to remember, our phones pinged back to life for a brief second with Seoul mobile signal! I didn't check WeChat!

It was amazing to see the borderline that gets talked about when both North and South Korea hit the headlines, to see such a still and calm situation gave me the impression tensions seem to be easing ever so slightly. Up until that point the morning's proceedings had been quite formal and had involved us walking in soldier-like formations, boarding the coach to leave the DMZ & Pamnumjom area allowed me to breath a sigh of relief. Learning about the signing of the 1953 armistice was fascinating, it was quite something to see the southern border with such clarity and stillness. The close watching soldiers who were on duty put the fear in me but at the same time they were quite the eye-candy if truth be told. I'm truly thankful that I was too hungover in Seoul to make reservations for a DMZ tour from the southern side, things looked much better from where we were all standing. It was almost dinnertime, heading into Kaesong City took things into a different avenue. Kae, DMZ done!

Stopping at one of Korea's oldest educational institutions of its time showed us something interesting, it was on a different level compared with Panmunjom and the DMZ. Known as Sungkyunkwan, during the late Goryeo and Joseon dynasties it was a very famous lecture hall with many other buildings, some of those that shown to us housed many historical relics that corresponded to the time period. Before leaving for dinner it was time for us to see a gift shop that specialised in DPRK propaganda postcards. I bought some for my English Corner, the children can't read Korean but the cards look extremely colourful and each tell their own story. Kaesong stood as a pint-sized city, the buildings were mostly painted very brightly with many hot pink and canary yellow tones served as we approached the restaurant. Like many places in the DPRK, it was a rare sight to see any cars because most people used bikes! On your bike!

During my South Korea trip during October 2018 I didn't eat any Korean foot whatsoever, so being in a place that wasn't commercialised allowed me to be more adventurous! I had read up about the golden bowl restaurant in Kaesong, that wasn't the restaurants name but what food was served to us was certainly present in golden like bowls. Many people assume that I have tried dog meat, people only eat it in China down in the southern parts of the country, during that Kaesong afternoon I had to try the sweet 'dog' meat soup to say that I had tried it at least once. I picked around most of the food, others weren't so keen but it was an experience not to repeated. Diving into the soup, I tried a few mouthfuls of the suspiciously sweet tasting meat. The dog meat had the same consistency as pulled pork with a resounding sweet after-taste, if truth be told I couldn't carry on eating it because I couldn't get the image of my late dog out of my head, Murphy was judging me! 오, 안돼!

It was time for us to slowly make the journey back to Pyongyang but those bumpy roads allowed us to experience a rollercoaster drive back to the big city! Stopping halfway in a city known as Sariwon, it served true pedestrian style as the apartment blocks served straight up realness, Amsterdam could take several seats because bicycles ruled the streets of Sariwon. Reaching a folklore park, it was time to climb to the pagoda that was nestled in a mini-mountain, dolled up in my best, those dress shoes made me look like a slippery hot mess as I climbed that mini-mountain so triumphantly! The views over Sariwon gave me two main flavours, one being Soviet with those concrete buildings representing for miles ahead and the Korean slanted roofs reminded me I was rooted firmly within the Korean Peninsula. Climbing down catapulted us into a sea of curious eyes and wandering youths, sure we foreign folk stood out!

Pyongyang was in sight, we all breathed a sigh of relief to pass near the Reunification Monument, it had been a long day and the drive felt like forever. Stepping out into the drizzle for a few moments allowed us to see a monument that the North Korean people believed would reflect their country's future, one whole and reunified Korea. We had made such good time the restaurant wasn't ready for us, going back for a little rest was the tonic we needed after such a long and interesting day out. Pyongyang Cold Noodles and a rendition of Korean 'Oh, Danny Boy' impressed us with a certain bewilderment, we witnessed a surprise spectacle that was full of signing and dancing! After dinner we managed to stop across the road from the shimmering yet unfinished Ryugyong Hotel, for that moment it stood as a light show with messages and imagery that we couldn't read, it was amazing to see though! Back at the hotel, it was time for another Soju filled night after another full day out in the DPRK!

Signal Near Seoul? Yes!

Joseph Harrison

15 February 2019

Pyongyang: The First 24 Hours!

Arriving in Pyongyang felt downright berserk, it had been a city that I had wanted to visit since I knew a life in China was on the radar. Stamped into the country it was time to begin my tour of the city with Young Pioneer Tours, for a person who doesn't do group tours I rubbished that mindset! Ryomyong Street was our nighttime destination, those power cuts though PY! 

Taking that overnight train to Pyongyang from Beijing? No, thank you very much darling! Touching down into Pyongyang Sunan Airport kickstarted my DPRK Chinese Spring Festival experience, I wanted to make use of my Shunyi address being only 20 mins or so to Beijing Capital International Airport. I would be taking the night train back from Dandong soon enough, my time would come through eventually. Clearing through immigration was something else, I work in China but I'm originally from England so that gave the immigration officer some questions, the uniform put the fear in me! Baggage reclaim at Sunan Airport was done properly, no scanners before the carousel because I caught a glimpse of a sizeable German Shepherd, was that canine worker a sniffer dog? Leaving the majority of my electronics at home made the final screening so much easier, but where was my boarding stub? Who was that lady? Yes, So Yon!

Reunited with my fellow Pioneers, it was time for us to be escorted to our coach that would transport us for the duration of our Pyongyang City and DMZ experience. Introducing themselves, our guides Jeong So Yon and Jeong Kwang Gwong welcomed us to the city and to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on behalf of their KITC brand. Moving closer to Pyongyang City centre gave us some immense views, I had watched about one trillion documentaries about North Korea, most feature on the showcase capital, I was getting all kinds of North Korean City sights! I stared out of the coach windows with utter bewilderment! Nearing Ryomyong Street we were shown a series of Pyongyang City sights before we had even made it to Kim Il Sung Square, the Arch of Triumph was giving all kinds of Parisian vibes in the heart of the DPRK's provincial city! In that moment I was looking forward to a lengthy break from social media, the sights and sounds of Pyongyang would entertain me! 

Stepping down from the coach as the afternoon turned into dusk we were fronted by the flaming icon of Pyongyang, being the Juche Tower I wandered away slightly but with Kwang Gwong's presence nearby. I was going to play by the rules so took my photos of the impressive Kim Il Sung Square with consideration and caution. I got my snaps! Yes, those white marks on the ground symbolised the places people would stand as they marched in the processions, we weren't going to see anything of the sort but it was amazing to see the Grand People's Study House with the two leaders in clear view, on the right I caught a supersize DPRK flag above the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. The rest of the group had retreated to a nearby coffeeshop, I followed not long after but I needed to soak in some of the Pyongyang feeling in the heart of Kim Il Sung Square. Keeping all of my photos looking O.K I joined the other Pioneers. 

Stepping into the Ryongwang Coffeeshop gave me all kinds of flashbacks from Michael Palin's recent DPRK investigative documentary, the very same coffeeshop had featured in that Channel5 programme. Taking a seat for a little while it gave us flight takers the chance to take stock of the flight and the first few hours in Pyongyang. We had all travelled from different places to make that YPT DPRK trip, it was a meeting of nationalities with Mexico, Australia, England and Scotland all at the table with North Korea in close quarters. Enjoying our hot and cold beverages it was out of nowhere when the power completely shutdown, I was aware that power outages can be a normal thing in Pyongyang but we as a group weren't expecting to experience one, being fresh off the plane too! Our guides found it quite amusing to see and hear our reactions to the sudden loss of light, they used their phones torches for us to see. Paying for our drinks, we headed for the train station. 

A series of blinding lights and traffic fronted us at Pyongyang's hectic railway station, I had only visited Seoul Station through the metro interchange so I had nothing to compare PY's rail terminus with its southern neighbour. Anyway, we paid 1 RMB to access the platform to greet the incoming K27 train that had travelled all the way from Beijing Railway Station via Dandong and Sinuiju Stations, stopping for the immigration checks after crossing the Sino Friendship Bridge in Dandong. We had guessed the train takers would be in a merry state, they had a lot of time on the platform to give them the perfect excuse to drink their poisons! Do I regret not taking the train from Beijing? Absolutely, not! I loved the contrast between Air Koryo's inflight experience compared to their southern sister, Korean Air. The train journey sounded long, my add-ons to Sinuiju and Dandong took care of the train business! Yes, yes PY!

Now, let me break this down! Some of those DPRK brothers were looking fine! Keeping my nasty side in check, I appreciated the view discreetly because I certainly behaved like a saint from then on during my North Korea trip. Seoul had offered me many midnight and morning delights of a certain kind but It was an absolute no-go within the DPRK! Even my mom warned me to remember my location, it was not going to be Korean sojourn like Seoul! Remembering my location, we were ushered to the platform to greet the incoming Beijing train to meet the rest of the Pioneers! Pulling in on time, it took a few moments for the train to make a complete stop, allowing our YPT guide Nicolas Platt and the rest of the gang to join the flight takers and our Korean guides. With the business of 'hello' and 'where are you from?' done and dusted it was time for us to head for dinner. Now, I like a drink but credit to the train goers, they had done a good job by the sounds of it! Well, what a station P!

For the flight takers, we were about to revisit one of the sights that had passed us on the way we took from the airport. Clocking the futurist towers of Pyongyang's Ryomyong New Town gave me a sense of Futurama for a few moments. The day had been long but a good bit of food was in order for us all, that questionable hamburger had worn off well and truly at that point in the day! Learning how to get used to stairs, we found ourselves in this sparkly new looking restaurant with two perfectly laid tables that already had our food waiting for us! Get me a drink, please! Toasting to the holiday I enjoyed a lovely teatime chat with Tori, a fellow foreigner from Beijing. Like a few of us in the group, both me and Tori worked in the English teaching/education game! It was a pleasant introduction to our first evening in Pyongyang, DPRK. We had all been on the move for a long time at that point but the night was still YPT young! 

Checking into our hotel, we found ourselves at the Nangang Hotel. Word on the street was that other Pyongyang hotels had seen their day and if truth be told the first impressions of our residence for the week were good. Getting those bags set down in the room it was down to the bar for a night cap or five! I had downed a fair few grapefruit flavoured Soju's in sizzling Seoul but Pyongyang's own Soju required some mixing, enter Tori she found the perfect mix between the local brew as she added some ice and lychee juice! Claiming that drink 'the Tori' for the duration of the trip it was quite an interesting first night. People were feeling the day, returning to their rooms before midnight it wasn't quite bed for me! I shouldn't be allowed anywhere near bar because things get down right unpredictable! The following days long drive to the DMZ allowed us to have a few more drinks before calling it a night! All in all, the first 24 hours in Pyongyang proved to be fruitful indeed! Oh, Lychee! 

Go Pioneers! 

Joseph Harrison