24 October 2019

Singapore: Rollin' On The River!

Singapore took me back to the river, I knew that I wasn't looking for a ghost but remnants of S'pore's past motivated my visit! Taking certain colonial talking point into consideration, I embraced the waters of the Singapore River that October day. Keeping those British colonial vibes present, a fort like park had to be explored but all I really wanted was a Singapore Sling! 

Bright and early I made my way to S'pore's Fort Canning Hill to learn more about its early British colonial features and its later fortification. Perched on a prime piece of land, the height of Fort Canning Hill gave the British contingent the seclusion that was required during the early days of British rule after the Singapore Treaty had been signed. Home to one of Raffles former residences, I opted not to visit that lavish white building that was currently featuring the Bicentennial exhibition. Backtracking for a moment, the hike up to the top of Singapore's fort like park wasn't difficult because escalators made the ascent very easy indeed. The humidity hadn't quite reached fever pitch during that Singaporean October morning, I could sense the rain would be pouring on down. Captured to the left is the Gate of Fort Canning, if truth be told I wasn't worried about the finer details. The British Empire's issue, none of mine!

Making my way through the once fortified settlement, the park in modern day time served a lushness with its rich variety of plant life. Was I close to the Singapore River? Yes, after I read the exhibits further that were dotted around the area outside the southern side of the fort gate I learned that this now park has been inextricably linked to the Singapore River that flowed not so far from that lush location. Descending from the peak of the hill I stumbled across a sloped lawned area, it reminded me of a Victorian botanical garden. I would be telling a massive lie if I said I wasn't looking for nuggets of information about the formative years of Singapore as a British colony. Fort Canning Hill allowed me to see something that emulated the former rulers of this city state. In present day, Fort Canning Hill stands as a reminder but more importantly a park, the history only remains for Singapore has stood independent from Britain since 1963. Reaching lower land, it was time to find those waters!

Singapore's Downtown Core allowed me to see the contrast between its British colonial buildings that stood beside the towering modern structures that currently dominate the city states own skyline. After catching a glimpse of the striking statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, I knew that I had arrived at my intended spot. On the banks of the Singapore River that stood before me, Sir Stamford Raffles docked along that spot on the 28th of January 1819. With his English Victorian attire carved into such a striking statue, it was easy to tell that Raffles was a well to do man during his time. Personally as an Englishman I felt quite proud that I was standing in the same place that Raffles statue stood, as Raffles negotiated his first treaty during that initial ten day visit after his first landing along the Singapore River. I don't know the nature as to how Raffles handled that deal, leaving our nationalities as the only similarity.

The backdrop served an almighty contrast, with two story riverside structures that functioned as upmarket bars and restaurants that were dwarfed by a whole host of skyscrapers. History states that Singapore was a modest fishing village before Britain's Sir Stamford Raffles steered his vessel into the Singapore, amongst his contemporaries Raffles helped push Singapore into world renowned trading hub way back when. Don't quote me, I'm not a historian whatsoever! Nevertheless, the opening up of Singapura impressed me much with the many minds and cultures that helped shape such a powerhouse of diversity and flavour.  I had covered a lot of ground during that mornings pursuit, keeping things simple the super convenient street signs and GPS capabilities I was navigating my way around Singapore's Downtown Core without any issues. After the intermittent showers, the sky turned a beautiful blue shade that was very much appreciated! Singapore, I'm not religious but!

Set amongst the bustling Downtown Core, the land that St. Andrew's Cathedral stands on was always instead to house a house of worship. Set aside as part of Raffles's Town Plan of 1822, an Anglican Cathedral was first constructed in 1835 to conduct its fist service two years later in 1837. I'm not religious but the legacy and story behind St. Andrew's stood in that moment as the lasting legacy during the time of Sinagpore's time as a British Colony. I am no saint but I always respect photography within churches, temples and mosques unless rules permit photos, lets just say I wasn't surprised to see a certain group of East Asian tourists blatantly disregard that rule as I peered inside the entrance of Singapore's own Anglican Cathedral. Knowing I was being respectful I had a good look into the service that was taking place in that moment, respect is due in such places regardless of religious beliefs. So, was something from Coventry?

The first cathedral constructed wasn't going to last forever, St. Andrew's eventually was rebuilt with a gothic style in mind. The reconstruction was powered by the labour of Indian convict labourers under the laws of Singapore's British imperial rule. Here's where the Coventry connection comes into play, the 'Coventry Cross' that supports the pulpit was crafted from the three silver-plated iron nails from the ruins of the 14th Coventry Cathedral that was destroyed during World War II. During my visit to Singapore I was amazed to see houses of worship from four different faiths, ranging from Little India's Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple to Kampong Glam's own Masjid Sultan. Singapore's Anglican connection made my East Asian location feel as it did when I saw HK's St. John's Cathedral, another Victorian era place of worship. Singapore's religious diversity impressed me much, I'm not religious but all the same the variety was impressive to see. I wanted that S'pore Sling!

Now, my accommodation choice whilst I was staying was basic but worked for me perfectly. On the other price range, some prefer to stay at Singapore's world famous Raffles Hotel. Connected to the hotel I wanted to have a drink or two at the world famous 'Long Bar'. Famed for being the founding bar that created the Singapore Sling, a cocktail that I had to try for myself! Waiting in the queue, it didn't take a fool to see why Singapore's 'Long Bar' was causing such a damn commotion. Set within Singapore's famous Raffles Hotel it was the closest I was going to get to that premium world renowned hotel. I took my seat at the bar within Singapore's own 'Long Bar' to order the original sling to try all for myself! Upon first tasting my first Sling I loved the gin and cherry combination! Taking all of the views and busy pace of service in, I marvelled at the operation the barman executed to make those signature cocktails! Tasty!

Enjoying the monkey nuts I wasn't going to be one of those people who brushed all of the shells onto the floor, that's just not my style. The first drink turned into the second and with the gin hitting me a little bit I opted for a third and final Singapore Sling because when it comes to tasty drinks I don't have any self control! The service charge almost got me, thankfully I had enough money to spare for that third and final mixed Singaporean drink! My experience at Singapore's 'Long Bar' was brilliant, if not pricey I loved every sip of the world famous Singapore Sling within the very venue that it was founded. Backtracking a little bit before finding the 'Long Bar' at the Raffles Hotel, I had found Singapore's own Marks & Spencer's food market! A slice of England had me wanting more of those pig like treats! Getting myself a bag of Percy Pigs had to be done! The Singapore Sling wouldn't exist without the flowing movements of the Singapore River! Yes S, my morning of adventure was well worth it!

Singapore's Almighty River!

Joseph Harrison

22 October 2019

Singapore: Little India, Mosques & Hawker Centres...

Little India and Kampong Glam were in my sights during my second Singaporean day of adventure and exploration! During my pursuit that day I was able to find my first hawker centre, experience Indian culture once again and see a majestic mosque! With a pitstop interchange in Bugis, I found Ribena and saw real imported British cheese in an unassuming supermarket! Yes S!

Singapore's MTR system took me from Chinatown to Little India without any stress whatsoever. My hostel bite-size breakfast hadn't kept those hunger pangs away for long, hitting up Little India's Tekka Centre had to be done! Following the immaculately placed signs I let my sense of smell guide to the gorgeous food that was on offer. Choosing a curry plate set meal, I feasted upon a spicy yet flavoursome chicken curry that was served with rice, chapati with some okra on the side. If truth be told it was quite spicy for my palette but I enjoyed it all up, the immense feeling of Little India's Tekka Centre had me like I was in a vortex of culture and life. Choosing a masala chai as my decided drink was the perfect spice to add with my meal, it was such an amazing yet simple food experience! People were so utterly friendly, their manners were impeccable, so I felt removed from China! Oh, manners don't cost much! 

Leaving Little India's Tekka Centre I found myself walking along Serangoon Road, the blue skies worked perfectly well with the brightly coloured shopfronts that lined that busy street. I could hear Indian music and smell the familiar spices and incense just like I did when I was in India during December 2018. I was half expecting to visit Little India's own Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple but it was closed during that part of the day, it was a nice view from the outside of the temple, nonetheless. Stopping dead in my tracks, I saw the shop that has been featured above, the style of the shop reminded me of an ordinary Indian convenience store back from my time in New Delhi. I managed to get a good look before taking some sneaky photos. Little India's authentic nature didn't end there, I found some delicious Indian sweets in a shopping arcade that looked perfectly colonial in a British sense. Sure, Little India's vibrancy along with the food had bolstered my loved for diverse neighbourhoods.

Making a quick change at Bugis Junction along the MTR network in Singapore, I had the pleasure of being reminded that I stood a few good thousand miles away from mother England! Allow me to elaborate, feeling like I needed my thirst quenched I caught a supermarket come into my view as I walked towards the exit at Bugis Junction. Fridges filled with imported European goods, I saw actual mature British cheese! It's the simple things! Oh, that thirst, not wanting anything fizzy I amazingly found Ribena! Call me crazy but I'd have to do some pretty drastic things in China to get Ribena in that bottled drink form! Getting myself together, I found the road to Kampong Glam within a few moments but being in Singapore those humid showers poured on down without any warning. My interchange through Bugis Junction was short but it was most definitely very sweet! Yes C, Singapore made me feel very at home.

Another strand of Singapore's rich cultural make up smacked me in the face visually, that was in the form of Kampong Glam. Serving its Arabian charm and then some, I found Muscat Street as the golden domed opulence of Kampong Glam's Masjid Sultan came into view. Not feeling like looking inside I marvelled from the outside, the rich detail of that house of worship impressed me much! Dodging the tourists took some going, almost losing my last nerve I managed to capture Singapore's statement Kampong Glam mosque without going off! Food was the centre of my day, done with the mosque I found some equally Arabic scran! Watching the tourists float past and the nearby English teachers who were working in China talk their talk made me laugh! My Turkish meal nearly took every last dollar for that day but it was worth it for the rich flavours! It was feeling very touristy but the Arabian charm that Kampong Glam possessed left me wanting much more from SG! Serve it Singa!

Already staying in the third ethnic neighbourhood that I had on my radar allowed me to experience one of the many hawker centres in Singapore. Being a city that's known for its high cost, the hawker centres saved me a tonne of money! Resembling more like an elaborate and uncomplicated canteen-like dining experience I embraced Chinatown's Hong Lim Complex wholeheartedly. Closed upon my first attempt, their was a big clean going down that day so I waited patiently for the food vendors to reopen. Nothing reminded me of the mainland, I recognised signs that I had seen in Hong Kong with their Cantonese variations. Choosing the duck rice after finding an ultra clean takeaway style concession. The soup served alongside the duck rice dish was just amazing, additionally quenching my thirst I enjoyed an ice cold soy bean milk drink. Singapore's Hong Lim Complex served the goods, it was cheap with delicious finds S!

Without any doubt in my mind, Sinagpore's hawker centres hadn't seen the last of me! No! Food was not in short supply across two days, during both experiences at the hawker centres in Little India and Chinatown. The vibrancy of Little India had me instantly, transporting back to India impressed me much with the sights and incense on-point! Bugis Junction gave me a slice of mother England as I stood in a Singaporean land, of course Ribena is life! Yes, I saw a 'Poundland' style Singaporean Dollar store! Kampong Glam kept it chic, serving Arabian glamour with its opulent mosque! Combining the three neighbourhoods including Bugis, the time in Singapore had me questioning my actual geographical location! The historical facts, cultural gems and religious servings kept me on my toes! Singapore had me speechless yet again, leaving me wanting more for all the right reasons I called it a day after my experiences during 2019s Chinese National Day holiday. No, I just couldn't get enough of SG!

Hong Lim or Tekka Centre?

Joseph Harrison 

20 October 2019

Let's Introduce... Chinatown, Singapore!

Kickstarting my Singapore experiences I dropped my bag at my Chic Capsule Otel in the heart of the city's own Chinatown! Landing several hours earlier than originally planned, I wasn't mad because those extra hours added onto my first day in Singapore. Dog tired but the adrenaline helped me get acquainted with Singapore's Chinatown! Yes S, I was read to see it all! 

Being honest I really wanted to try Old Chang Kee's famous Curry'o after walking past their Chinatown, London bakery without paying it any mind, that was an opportunity shelved for the real thing! Singapore's Chinatown had an abundance of free wifi, making the right connections my iPhone GPS took me to the Old Chang Kee stand. My midnight airport pick up and pre-dawn departure had left me feeling less than energetic, ordering two Curry'o pastries had to be done regardless of my tiredness! Taking a seat within their revamped restaurant the humidity had got me and it had got me badly, I was practically melting! Feeling some kind of way, I tasted the obvious curry flavour but the pastry satisfied my tastebuds immediately, feeling like I was eating a Greggs bake I did! Why had I not paid Old Chang Kee any mind during my Chinatown, London visits? Yes S, I had made a very wise decision, staying Singapore's Chinatown felt right! 

Returning to my capsule hostel had to be done, I was dead beat tired and in desperate need of a nap. Thankfully I was allowed to check-in, with my forward thinking I had paid ahead of time to avoid the same confusion that took place in Dalian two weeks previously. Being an ex-British colony, all the Singaporean hostel staff spoke English perfectly, one reason why I chose to visit Singapore. Opting for a capsule bunk within a ten bed dorm, I was firstly quite apprehensive because I hoped the online photos of the room actually represented the real life result. My reasonably priced dorm room was worth the money and comfortable for me to sleep, Singapore's hotels were no joke during the booking process because the prices were sky high! Taking a little nap, I needed to recharge my batteries for the shenanigans that would take place that afternoon. Compact and conveniently located I planned ahead of time, reading the streets bilingual names I didn't have any mobile data in Singapore. 

The colourful shop fronts presented me with such a vibrant view of Singapore's Chinatown. Refreshed from my nap I was finally able to soak in the atmosphere with a level of consciousness. I wasn't attracted towards the gifts shops, the high cost of everything altered me that I had to be careful spending too much of my money. The food was another story, I was looking forward to trying some of the famous satay skewers but that was for another day and time. I loved that the Chinatown was concentrated around a couple of streets that all connected with each other, finding the Buddha Tooth Relic Buddhist Temple after a chance turning felt like I was winning until I was told my attire wasn't suitable, my grey H&M vest wasn't certified. I would try my luck once again before my A380 flight back to Beijing, China. I appreciated Chinatown's vibe, it still gave me a sense of my second home but with English widely spoken! 

One place in S'pore wasn't hard to find at all! So, as my first evening drew closer, I found a certain establishment that I had been intending to find. After careful research I knew there was no going back, I knew there was going to be a lot to enjoy whilst I was in the locality. Diversity, Singapore's wide array of cultures and nationalities impressed me much, it was something that I ensured attention was paid within the said venue along Pagoda Street. If I divulged such details of those Chinatown secret visits then I'd have to call the law, straight up! Keeping the those best secrets very safe, Singapore showed me some sights and situations within that said venue. Compared with my other East Asian escapades I didn't make the same mistakes, read between the lines. After spending a few days in Chinatown, it was evident that Singapore's got one of the best Chinatown's in the world! Shady places with a whole lot more on offer, it was a rich week in many ways! I should try Malaysia!

Waking up to my second day in Singapore, I planned to visit Little India and Kampong Glam. Before I boarded the MTR to reach those equally colourful neighbourhoods, I decided to try my luck a second time to see Chinatown's Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Opting for a simple t-shirt I able to walk freely into the temple without breeching the dress code policy. I usually don't take photos inside temples unless they are permitted because respect has to be observed in places of worship no matter the religious conviction people hold or not, that's my view anyway! Shimmering with gold and red tones, I saw an endless wall of god like statues, I didn't know what god was featured within the rich design of that temple wall shrine. The monks were reading a sermon from their chosen book, I didn't understand the language but it was so amazing to hear and to witness the goings on within the temple. S, it was amazing!  

The area surrounding Singapore's Buddha Tooth Relic Temple reminded me of Hong Kong with the elders playing mahjong and the Chinatown Complex giving me sense of the ex-British colony fusion vibe. Needless to say the new build temple impressed me much! After returning from my Little India and Kampong Glam day of exploration I took the MTR back to Chinatown, getting around the city state by MTR was an absolute pleasure. Considering it was the Chinese Golden Week the flow of people both local and visiting passed each other by seamlessly. The transfers between the MTR from Changi Airport to Chinatown breezed past, I had never seen such a clean and orderly transportation system before that Golden Week holiday! Returning to Chinatown that day allowed me to find those skewers at the Chinatown food street, they were just amazing! On the final night I went back for more to find the drinks stall sold Bulmer's Cider! There's no place like home? Who said that? Oh, Dorothy!

After my visit to that said Pagoda Street venue I went for some food before taking a chance on Dorothy's. Being a Monday night I didn't have any expectations, also being on my 20th hour or something stupid I saw a drink or two as the perfect livener. Greeted by rainbows and a life-size cut out of Judy Garland as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I felt right at home! Changing my beer for a Pina Colada I got talking to Rob, the owner of Dorothy's, also a Brit living in Asia he told me some amusing stories about the bar and expat life in Singapore. Jimmy, the barman made sure I had a drink filled to the top of the glass, those Pina Colada's were definitely flowing nicely! I tried my very first Singapore Sling at Dorothy's as I was advised the Long Bar wasn't the only place to mix the city states signature cocktail. Following Chinatown's own 'yellow brick road' I found myself back at Dorothy's sipping another few cocktails. Yes S, rainbows! 

I met some really nice guys during my time at Dorothy's, to have an actual conversation was so refreshing. In Beijing for me it sometimes get hectic in the rainbow venues because those queens can be damn shady, whereas in Singapore at Dorothy's people were approachable and it wasn't difficult to strike up a conversation that didn't involve justification of ones nationality and reason for residing in said country. Drama free, it was nice to not see people glued to their phones as they are back in a certain land. Heading out from Dorothy's after it closed its bar on the Wednesday night allowed me to see Backstage and May Wongs Cafe, I found cider and the Malay barman was absolutely gorgeous! People were just so friendly, it shocked me quite a bit! Dorothy's was definitely a surprise find that added to my uniquely Singaporean Chinatown experience! Chinatown, Singapore showed me the sights both during the day then night, I lived for the food but there's really no place like home! Bye!

Chinatown, Singapore Style! 

Joseph Harrison 

19 September 2019

48 Hours: Dalian, China!

Feeling a certain kinship for China's Northeastern corner I boarded my China Southern flight on the eve of 2019s Mid-Autumn Festival. The working week had finally concluded, allowing me to make my way to Beijing's Capital International Airport. Dalian, a port city within China's Liaoning Province had lured me to see its working docks and much, much more! I was ready! 

Arriving the night before the holiday weekend commenced definitely saved me time, after resurfacing from Holiday Inn Express hotel I was able to witness the first of many colonial reminders that exist within modern Dalian City life! Colonialised by both Russia and Japan, I was originally drawn to Dalian because those past foreign influences could still be seen within present day Dalian. Walking from my hotel I was lucky enough to see a restored Japan-era tram that passed through the streets, in China that's a pretty rare sight to see! Casting my mind back to my time in Hong Kong it was another reminder that a foreign entity had influenced transport within another Chinese City. On the look out for Dalian's Russia Customs Street I used Apple Maps on my iPhone to help me find my way. I caught a glimpse of a building that had a striking European likeness, I had arrived successfully! DLN, you knew I was ready to shop! 

I was particular with my shopping expectations as I made my way along Dalian's Russia Style Street, I was ready to negotiate the best price using my Chinese language skills! The first Russian dolls were offered to me at a criminal price, as soon as they realised I understood their figures in Chinese and that I was not going to fall for their chat it didn't impress them at all! Sharp with my Chinese bartering skills I managed to get a lovely wooden Russian style doll. Sniffing out the Chinese imitations in order to find a true Russian made headscarf took some going, using those language skills and my common sense I secured a fair price indeed. My eyes were firmly looking for a special brand of Russian milk chocolate that I had found in Harbin, getting my price sorted I had some gorgeous tasting Russian chocolate for the win! The chocolate brand that I had chosen had a little girl on the wrapper, she shared an uncanny likeness with her blonde hair and big blue eyes like my niece, Orla. Rain, don't do! 

Yes, I was very hungry, slightly disheartened by the lack of a Russian restaurant along that tourist trap street. I consulted my favourite restaurant app for some choices. Finding 'Friday Russian Restaurant' through the rain was such a relief, being such a short trip I refused to buy an umbrella! Ordering my food was such a treat, it was going to be a fulfilling meal for certain! Going with a Baltika 3 to drink, I ordered the freshly made 'Borscht' soup. For my main I got inventive, pairing a beef burger like serving that had a fried egg on top. Going for some gloriously rich mashed potatoes had me in food heaven! The meal tasted gorgeous and certainly filled a generous space in my stomach, it was just amazing! Wanting to catch a glimpse of a dockyard in Dalian I dropped the pin correctly on my Apple Maps guide once again. Located within a twenty minute walk I found myself at Dalian's Xianglujiao Xinhai Wharf. On it, D!

If truth be told I was supposed to meet up with a friend in Dalian, his lack of adventure and ability to think outside the box wasn't going to kill my current buzz. Securing an all important address, the communication between us ceased, it was for the best. I used my research and sense of adventure to find the wharf in Dalian that served a sense of 'Belfast/Liverpool port realness!' The cranes and industrial surroundings within the waters of that dock gave me a slice of something that I had wanted to see! I saw a mix of military, cargo and commercial vessels in one tight maritime space. The immediate area had been fashioned into a 'Liverpool One' like shopping complex, it was interesting to see such a regeneration project that oozed a western nature in China! Beijing being a landlocked city it had me feeling all kinds of memories from Wuhan because of the waters presented to me in Dalian, oh those waters! At that point I had seen quite a lot during a short space of time in 大连市!

Refreshed and styled for the night ahead, I didn't feel like getting a taxi to a certain bar that I had my sights set on. Walking the short distance from my hotel allowed me to be fronted with Dalian's Zhongshan Square. The nighttime had the square lit up with thousands of lights dazzling, I loved my life when I caught a glimpse of a billboard display that featured singer, Lizzo! Dalian's square reminded me of Changchun's People's Square but on a more tight knit scale with hints of Shenyang's own square also snatching certain likeness! I was ready for the night ahead, that nighttime skyline feeling had me walking all the way to the venue! Tucked downstairs I found the bar in-question, I ordered my drinks to find a quiet karaoke bar. It didn't take long before being invited onto a table where I joined some guys, one definitely caught my attention. That first night created the foundations for the following night in Dalian! Get it, D!

The next day saw me relax to the max, my hotel had cost me a small fortune so I wanted to enjoy my hangover in comfort. Making my own entertainment that afternoon, Dalian proved that certain delights are consistent with their healthy measures within China's North-east region. McDonalds was the chosen cuisine of the day, I relaxed until the sun had gone down. Dressing down in my vest-like t-shirt, jogger shorts and trainers, I headed back to the same venue as I did the previous night. There had been some shade thrown in my direction so I used an invitation at a nearby another table as the perfect ammunition that was needed. Dalian's underground Gay scene had me walking into a live Chinese cabaret show, complimentary beverages for me that night as I had a very nice new friend who covered my tab. The old proverb goes without saying, 'be careful what you wish for!' Boarding my flight the next morning with a headache of epic proportion it was time for my flight back to Beijing!

Devilish Dalian...

Joseph Harrison 

7 September 2019

Taiyuan's Little Secret...

For me to experience Pingyao's Ancient City I had chosen to spend the weekend in the nearby provincial capital of Shanxi Province, Taiyuan. Like when I visited Shijiazhuang, I smartly left work with my bag, making my way to the train station. Leaving after work on a Friday I headed for Taiyuan City, the speedy train got me to Taiyuan in under two hours from Beijing! 

Arriving at my hotel late on that Friday night saw me check into my room without any issues, with no energy left and with an early pickup the next day I bedded down for the night. Fast forward to being dropped back off at my hotel after my Pingyao trip that Saturday, I needed a short disco nap/rest before getting ready for my unexpected Taiyuan night out. Consulting my go to app for wisdom, I connected with a guy who was home from his students in San Francisco, USA. Giving myself enough time to get ready, looking and feeling fresh I headed out for to a food street that had caught my eye during my pre-trip research period. Mao'er Xiang (Xiang means Alley) presented some serious lights, smells and questionable traditional Chinese architecture, I didn't buy any snacks because I wasn't into them at all. Taking my photos it was nice to feel the energy and hype of Taiyuan's night scene. Oh T, 兰州拉面! Yes, Saturday!

That helpful soul from my app had changed his profiles tagline, asking for any recommendations for bars of a certain kind in the city of Taiyuan. That Chinese student had got into contact with a barman at a local alternative nightspot, securing me a WeChat number for that person allowed me to co-ordinate the location and to find further details about that elusive sounding venue. I was feeling cautiously excited! When in a new city, I believe that taking one risk or two gives me life for sure! Pausing for some sustenance I didn't want to waste my money nor time, so I chose to have some simple food at a Lanzhou Noodles no-frills restaurant. My delicious serving of 土豆牛肉饭 (Potatoes served with Beef) tasted consistently lovely, successfully filling a space in my stomach in-preparation for some evening beverages. Securing a taxi through Apple Maps allowed me to be on my way, I had somewhere to check out before that secret location. Of course T, I always live for China's smaller provincial cities!

Taiyuan's brand new looking skyline was beautifully lit up with a million lights, another city developing in the shadows of the China's large modern metropolis's. With an evening/night that I didn't to waste spending in my hotel room I had done further pre-trip research before heading to Taiyuan. Through Dianping, a restaurant and lifestyle app I found 'Joker Homie Pub' what was their previous location caught my eye, people had captured moments of them walking through a double fridge to find a dimly lit bar. To my surprise the location that stood before differed vastly compared with certain photos that I had previously seen on that app. Keeping an open mind I was far too thirsty to pass any judgement, that could wait till the alcohol had hit me. Looking more like a coffee shop, the staff posed with their aprons like Starbucks baristas, sure it was a bizarre venue! The drinks were fairly priced so it was fine.

My contact from the bar kept asking me about my arrival time, I wasn't in any rush because the cocktails at Joker Homie Pub tasted delicious and were too good to finish up any time before the clock would strike midnight! The manager of the bar had given me a free local rice wine shot, I accepted that potent smelling shot with thanks, downing it in one like a champ! Waiting in line for a taxi to the next location I was able to have one more Long Island Ice Tea for the road. Arriving at that location left me feeling confused, then out of nowhere this guy came running over to me, all was good! Settled at the bar once again, I quickly found out that the bar was for the LGB and T community, with the bar staff looking like incredibly good looking women with something extra special about them. Those ladies asked some pretty risqué questions, I supplied them with honest answers. Carrying on with the beers I didn't have to do much work in order to attract the right attention, I knew what to do!

Waking up before check-out time the next morning, the previous night had been a roaring success for many reasons. Collecting myself together I made my way to the closest Starbucks for a much needed caffeine fix and a croissant to boot! Getting a DiDi taxi to the banks of the Fen River I had a nice walk alongside the quiet yet fairly developed waterside promenade. Taiyuan had a lovely mix, it wasn't quite developed yet so catching the undisturbed vibe alongside the river that Sunday early afternoon impressed me much! I had some more to kill before my afternoon train would be departing back to Beijing's West Railway Station. Walking some more along the riverside park allowed me to find my next Tiayuan point. Ditching any form of public transportation I called upon another app hailed taxi. The caffeine had helped me keep things moving but the night before had been eventful, I was feeling delicate T!

Reaching the Twin Pagoda Temple was a relief, it would be my final place to visit for the trip and for the way I was feeling that was just fine with me in that moment. Paying my entrance fee I marvelled at the two pagodas as they fronted me alongside the main Chongshan Monastery, both views gave a me sense of calm during my post-inebriated state. I had a little look around, not wanting to entertain any climbing of any stairs then and there I hailed a taxi to take me to Taiyuan's South Railway Station. The add-on to my intended Pingyao trip had been everything and more, I had experienced such a great night out and a sombre yet functional afternoon before getting myself back to Beijing before the working week commenced. Trusting smaller cities always works for me when in China, Taiyuan presented itself well with a sense of life and friendliest. Dalian will be my next stop, I'm going to embrace another smaller provincial Chinese City! To reach Beijing was a blessing!

Terrific Taiyuan!

Joseph Harrison

4 September 2019

Pingyao, China: Shanxi's Ancient City!

Saving Pingyao for the weekend, I woke up in a different city on a beautiful Saturday morning in August 2019. Leaving Beijing the previous evening for the nearby city of Taiyuan, Shanxi allowed me to begin my Pingyao day trip. I had read mixed reviews about Pingyao but I was willing to see what one of China's ancient cities had to offer by myself. Travelling again? Oh, yes Bei! 

Intrigued by Shanxi's Qiao Family Compound I booked my day tour to Pingyao just after my summer holiday. Driving south from Taiyuan's City limits, I did not have one single clue about my first point of call. Baking hot in the summertime heat I made my way into the bustling compound accompanied by tour guide. Built by Qiao Zhiyong's father during the Qing Dynasty, the ancient compound symbolised one of the families that made their fortune through banking and finance. The labyrinth of stone buildings impressed me much, the workmanship crafted showcased such detailed architecture was wild to see. The crowds during that Saturday morning sightseeing rush didn't put me off my photography grind for this blog post, I took a deep breath and took my chances at every single opportunity. The empire had been built by finance and trade but I didn't need extra funds to enjoy the history of such a place! Those red lanterns!

The life led by the Qiao's brood was definitely a lavish affair, the many restored rooms allowed me to see the living quarters of the family's army of childcare staff! The hierarchy between the ranks determined which blocks the staff lived in from the main halls. One of the sons who descend from the famous Qiao had spent some time in America studying, certain influences from his former American life can be see in the door frames, round in design with a strikingly western looked compared with the traditional style carved into the other doors. The kitchens even had character, specific foods were only allowed to be prepared in such areas and at separate times. During the Japanese occupation the family fled for their safety, leaving the restoration to the next government that ruled the region. I had no interest for the newly replicated parts of the compound that the modern Chinese government had added on, I wasn't a fan of the rebuild. Qiao Family Compound was worth it! Go, go!

Pingyao's protected walled ancient city stood before me, along with my guide we made for China's first ever bank! Named 'Pingyao Rishengchang Bank' signified the beginning of a brand new sunrise as the banks name translated closest to 'Sunrise Prosperity'. Founded in 1823, formal transactions and state of the art banking methods were the first of its kind in the country. Rapidly this ancient bank had opened branches across China, using Pingyao as its hub I was fascinated to know. Pingyao stood as China's founding financial powerhouse, the training those bank clerks had to go through rivalled any training I had ever faced up to date in my career in general! No, I have never worked in a bank but in terms they had things dealt questionably and China has its moments. The summers heat continued to beat down, I was relieved to leave the bank behind even though it was so very interesting. Allow me to backtrack a little, P! 

I always have my suspicions during visits to such 'ancient cities' because certain events erased historical places in their original forms, but my first impressions of Pingyao's main city street within the walled city looked pretty legitimate. The original style buildings gave me real sense of Pingyao's nature, it was refreshing to see the photos from the internet actually appeared in genuine form for real. Lunch had to be soon, I was getting super hungry! Finding a centrally located hotel within the walled city served me my lunch, the local noodles were so blinding good! I had to listen close to the languages being spoken in my vicinity during that lunch time moment, actual French and Polish tour groups frequented the same establishment for lunch. Hearing English can sometimes be something of a rarity but hearing those Polish and French conversations definitely supposed me! Pingyao's small town nature had me feeling like I was in another world, it was nice to have a change of scenery. Oh, yes!

Climbing the few steps to access the city wall gave me a view from above the low level roofs that made up Pingyao's Ancient City. The views were lovely and the weather was equally as gorgeous, I had totally lucked out! Overall, I was very surprised by the manageable crowds, only taking photos at the bank had been challenging in Pingyao but I carried on like a champ nonetheless! I adored the views from the city wall, it was so nice to be away from the city of Beijing for the weekend to experience something new and really ancient in the same respect. The city wall itself was practically deserted, giving me the space to walk at my own pace with the leverage to take whatever photos I felt like taking, oh the simple things. After a short walk along the city wall it was time to take the steep steps down to find the final sight of the tour. For once the day was panning out nicely, nothing had gone wrong. Definitely meant to be! 

The final sight of the day was Pingyao's own Confucian Temple. Dating back from the Tang Dynasty, I loved the lush garden-like pathway that led to the temple's main shrine. I adored the red lanterns that were hanging within the garden area, only a stones throw from the busy Main Street I felt like had been transported to a lovely calm place. The views from the city wall had been traded for a darling temple, which showcased an array of rich golden tones and sent a wave of calm over my very being. The visit to that temple was nice because I was prepared to listen to the history behind it, I hadn't paid much attention towards the ways of Confucianism but it was interesting to find something new out. It was a lot to take in but worthwhile considering the location. Leaving the temple behind me, the car that had brought me from Taiyuan was ready to make the journey back to the city. The days itinerary had been worth every penny, I would highly recommend this tour! I needed a nap! 

Pretty Pingyao! 

Joseph Harrison 

1 September 2019

Turpan: Ruins, Minarets & Holy Water...

My final day in Turpan served to me four immensely interesting elements before my high speed train back to Urumqi. Beginning with a breakfast that wash promised to be very local I kept an open mind. The ruins of Turpan Jiaohe Ancient City put the cat amongst the pigeons for sure, it was vast! If truth be told, after finding a KFC coffee, it brought me back to life! 

After meeting my guide and the driver, we made it over to a local looking restaurant for breakfast. I had never seen so much meat on offer for breakfast, no breakfast sausage or bacon but lamb dumplings and even chops were being consumed for breakfast by the local Turpan people. As you do, I had some lamb dumplings and some soya milk. For that experience alone I gave that uniquely Turpan breakfast one chance. Fuelled by that bizarre start, making our way to the ruins of Turpan's Jiaohe Ancient City gave me a deeper sense as to how rugged and stripped back Turpan's former settlement. I wasn't too bothered about the history behind that first port of call because the views overlooking the former city posed to be more than enough for me. Walking to the top in the summer sunshine was something, being early on in the day it was so damn hot already! The heat was getting to me, I needed some water! 

Going back a few steps to the buggy ride to the foot of the ancient city, most of the domestic tourists got out at a building that looked authentic but according to my tour guide it wasn't an original feature.  If truth be told I managed to get some amazing photos from the top of the city's peak, the decaying stone remains making up the former Jiaohe Ancient City blended in with the rocked and mountainous backdrop. When I looked closer into the distance I noticed a small area of lush green trees and vegetation within the baron and dry land that occupied the former ancient city. I would find out in less than three hours as to why Turpan held pockets of lush vegetation within its harsh and hot terrain. The vast expanse of the Jiaohe Ancient City improved me much, the whole experience may have been swelteringly hot to handle but worth it in the end. Enduring the heat I need some caffeine to keep me going, I was struggling. How I didn't know the coffee was on the way! Go!

No grape attraction for me, the authentic roadside scene the day before had impressed me enough. Arriving at Turpan's Suleiman Minaret gave me views of a place that I had really wanted to see during my Xinjiang trip during the planning process. I adored the fact that such an islamic sight stood within China's Mainland due to the high presence of Buddhist, Confucius and Taoist temples. Down to the core, I'm all for religious diversity! The sky was so blue, the sweeping clouds slowed me to see such a clear and precise view. Getting to the top of the steps allowed me to see the minaret from an up close and personal point, entry wasn't permitted inside the minaret but each brick looked like it had been painstakingly laid into place by hand. Baking in the sun, in one way the chimney like shape of the minaret reminded me of a pottery chimney within the Potteries of Stoke-on-Trent! Stoke-on-Trent in China? No way!

Going inside the adjoining mosque had me embracing a higher love! I'm not religious but for the spiritual feelings that I felt I couldn't connect them to any of the previous feelings felt within any other Mainland place of worship other than those within China's Tibet Autonomous Region. The interior of the mosque showcased a harsh yet smooth stone surface, a small prayer room allowed me to see its heavenly sky light that supposedly had a direct link to the prophet. Did it though? Leaving any prejudices at the door, the visit to Suleiman's adjoining mosque chilled me in one respect because it wasn't a working mosque. Not asking any more provocative questions, well I did ask some more because my guide was more accepting compared with my Kashgar counterpart. KFC? Yes, leaving the Suleiman site gave me a caffeine hit that I had missed for nearly two week! A new opened KFC franchise served me the cup of Joe that I needed! The travelling grind was getting to me, I needed chill! Sorry, T!

Confused by the look by the final site to see before returning to Urumqi that day, I had no clue! The clues to this concluding place had been quite evident during my two days in Turpan. Being such a dry and hot place with hardly any lush pastures I had seen patches of land that were as green like oasis's, I was about to learn more about the science behind Turpan's clever Karez Irrigration System. 'Karez' meaning 'well' in the Uyghur language explained how the ancient underground structures acted as well to channel water beneath Turpan's scorching dry deserts and mountainous geography. Going further underground the whole place was a bit bizarre. Reaching what felt like the bottom of the Karez Irrigation System, I was able to see an opening to the water system. Adhering to the strict rules I was able to fill an empty bottle of water with the fresh Karez water. Yes, I saw a woman who looked European, she was Chinese!

The whole 48 hour experience spent in Turpan felt so authentic, the guide and driver were great and everything was on time and as planned. The Karez water system attraction impressed me but keeping away from those garish souvenirs I gladly accepted an arrival back to the train station before my Urumqi bound service. My Xinjiang trip was coming to an end, I wasn't feeling bitter about that trip ending because it had been unique and challenging. Even those passport checks seemed to make the trip seem worth it? It was something else compared with any other region visited within China before. Waiting for what felt like an eternity at Urumqi's well guarded train station, I managed to get to my hotel without any hitches. My restful night was fine with my takeaway meal delivered successfully. Urumqi, Kashgar and Turpan gave me the opportunity to see several sides of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. So being truly honest, Turpan turned up the party for that last day! Yes!

Truly Turpan!

Joseph Harrison 

23 August 2019

Turpan: Xinjiang's Desert Vineyards...

The final stop during my Xinjiang summer trip was Turpan, a grape famous city located two hours from Urumqi on China's convenient high-speed rail. I wasn't ready for the ruins or the grapevines because everything was so raw and unspoiled! Saving the best for last, maybe? It was very nice to not have any disruption with hotels! Yes, my first day in Turpan was full bodied! 

Done with the my previous Urumqi hotel fiasco, I made my way back to Urumqi's extra secure railway station for the considerably shorter journey to Turpan, I was thankfully not taking anymore night trains that trip after travelling to Kashgar! The landscape changed as soon as we had left Urumqi's City limits, my high speed train hurtled down the line for Turpan North Railway Station. The passport check at the exit of Turpan's railway station was intense, once again my Chinese language skills came in very handy indeed! I was feeling a little apprehensive as my taxi made its way closer to my then booked hotel, the right to host foreigners in hotels within Xinjiang was proving to be a recurring monopoly! With a stroke of luck I was able to check into my hotel and pay for the room without any issues. That evening I found a restaurant that served me some delicious local food, the pilaf was gorgeous and the lamb kebabs tasted amazing! 

The next morning I was picked up by the driver and greeted my the tour guide, Benny. Leaving the small city centre allowed us to find the Astana Caves, a small plot of land that houses several well maintained caves. Moving onto the first major sight of the day brought to the Ancient City of Gaochang, that was a place that looked interested from the off. Practically having free rein of the deserts ruins, the ancient city impressed me much with its expanse of rugged sand coloured remains that gave me a real sense of how the city could have looked like back during those ancient days. The heat was beating down but it wasn't humid, the dry heat was fine to deal with in Turpan. Initially built during the First Century within the harsh Gobi Desert, I later learned that Gaochang was used as a Garrison town. In the moment I wasn't paying attention to those details because the rugged views were too good to miss! Turpan had me at ease, being Xinjiang the odd security check was expected. 

Driving away from the ancient ruins allowed me to see Turpan's true claim to fame, stopping alongside the road where some local people were boxing some grapes for export told me everything that I needed to know. Looking like the rolling hills within the French countryside, that corner of Turpan had an abundance of vineyards. Known for its irrigation secrets, the otherwise dry and flamingly hot soil doesn't show much life aside from those key cultivated piece of land, crafted into money making grapevines that help Turpan's local people make a living. I had a look on Taobao to find many sellers that shipped grapes from the region across China's mainland. It was amazing to see the lushness of the grapes and the rich green shades that reflected in the sun during that super hot July afternoon. It wasn't Bordeaux but Turpan had an honesty with its grape, raisin and wine trade. Yes, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a sight!

As lunch time approached I was hungry for lamb kebabs, yes lunch was lovely because it was in a local establishment that wasn't flashy at all! The bread was soft and hot, whereas the grapes that had picked from the nearby vines tasted so sweet and fresh and those kebabs were amazing! I adored the area that surrounded that lunch hangout, people had bed frames outside because the dry heat meant no mosquitoes bit the local people so they slept outside during the summer months. Kashgar had tourist qualities but Turpan had hidden gems that impressed me much, in one sense I felt like I was in Turkey once again! It was time for the afternoons programme to begin, hitting the road once again had us stopping for a lengthy security check. Passports checked once again, I stepped into a deserted township that felt bizarre, still yet orchestrated I didn't know how to feel about it. The heat in Turpan had so far been bearable but with the flaming sun beat down, I was melting! So, hot!

As my car made its way closer to  Turpan's Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, we stopped to see the effects of the searing heat. Set in a mound of sand, the clever guy who was in charge had eggs cooking within the sand. Charging people for the pleasure to boil their own egg in the sand I passed that opportunity up. Catching a glimpse at a rather lush valley that didn't look like it belonged within such a harsh and heated setting, the irrigation of Turpan's land sure produced an oasis like view. Arriving at the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves showcased four tourist coaches, that sight didn't impress me much but I had faith in my guide Benny to show me all the caves had without the hordes of domestic tourist making too much of a noisy presence. After climbing what felt like one thousand steps I was front with the view that I exactly wanted to see! Yes, the contrast between the greenery, mountains and caves worked perfectly!

Snatching just enough time in between the loud domestic tour groups, the caves didn't deserve the speaker noise that the tour guide made. Blocking that momentary nuisance from the exploration of the caves it was fine, get it good and get in line because nobody has time impatience. I'm not being bitter, this is just realness! The story behind the caves rich history impressed me much, the French explorer sure had a bad reputation but what intrepid soul has kept a souvenir from their travels? The religious mix allowed me to see some of the carvings scraped away, the Silk Road drip dropped new influences that didn't go down well with the local inhabitants of the time. As mentioned before the stark contrast between the harsh stone caves with the lush pastures below had me believing I was staring at a mirage. I really liked Turpan's Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, they gave me a sense of the local movements and the backdrop was flaming hot! Sure, Turpan held the key!

Concluding my first day in Turpan was a drive by the regions famous 'Flaming Mountain'. Complete with its own flame like detail, the deep red tones and dry setting allowed for a knock-out photo opportunity! At the beginning of the day I had the chance to see the scorching scenery of Turpan's flaming mountains, thankfully time permitted us with a short stop on the way back to my hotel in the later part of the afternoon. The majority of the domestic tourists had paid an entrance fee to take their photos in front of a tacky sign. The sign looked rather tacky but each to their own I said in that moment to myself. The striking landscape was the icing on the cake, the day had been so hot and with such rich sights I lived for every moment! I was in totally awe-struck, the rugged terrain impressed me much! Leaving the flaming mountain scenery behind us, my car drove me back to my city hotel. Turpan turned the heat right up! Go!

That days dinner had worn off good and proper, not wanting to eat in a restaurant that evening I searched on my app to find something good to eat. Going across the road to a locally themed Uyghur restaurant allowed me to make an order for takeaway, going all out for my final night in Turpan I ordered the legal of lamb that had been baked within a rising flatbread. The restaurant was crazy business, all I wanted to do was to get my food then return to the hotel. Being famous for its grapes, I found a bottle of local Turpan red wine in an off-license downstairs from the restaurant. Returning to my hotel room I devoured the contents of my takeaway and finished the bottle of wine, not going to lie I wanted to drink another one! The day had been long but very enjoyable, the sights and sounds of Turpan for the first day had given me so much! An early night was the ticket because after the itinerary the next day I would be making my way back to Urumqi. So Turpan, over and out!

Terrific Turpan!

Joseph Harrison 

14 August 2019

Kashgar: China's Ancient Secrets...

My Xinjiang experience has had me roll over events from a previous day to the next blog post, with so much to see it leaves me without any choice to do the same right now. My first day in Kashgar had been full packed with a visit to the Id Kah Mosque and a huge walk around one side of the Old City. Yes, the evening saw me visit the night market with all of its lights. 

After seeing the Id Kah Mosque I decided to rest in my hotel for a little while, the overnight journey and days sightseeing in Kashgar had tired me out. Crossing the road from my hotel to the adjoining side of Kashgar's rejuvenated part of its Old City before the sunset allowed me to see the hustle and bustle begin. I already knew what I wanted to eat, lamb kebabs and bread all the way but it was a great time to people watch and to take in the whole environment. Many domestic Chinese tourists transcended upon the night market, for me to find a seat was almost impossible but low and behold I found one. Minding my own business I enjoyed my food and appreciated that cultural moment. The lights, smells and sights gave me life to no end. The feel of the night market left me questioning my mainland China location once again! I was all in it for the views and my taste-buds loved every second of it! Raisins!

My hotel stay in Kashgar included breakfast, finding the right floor just before the buffet opened was my plan. Executing things the right way up until a certain point, things were fine but I wasn't ready for the almighty stampede made by the domestic tourists! Not wanting to entertain their hasty nature towards that breakfast service I vacated that mess without a seconds thought! Things were only just opening due to the local observance of Beijing Standard Time, trusting the businesses within the nearby Old City served me a lovely breakfast that was quite unexpected. I had found some freshly baked bagels from the first bakery that I saw, then moving forwards a street side vendor selling camel milk because no coffee or tea was in sight at that point! To accompany my bagels I found some salted yoghurt that acted as the perfect treat to dip my bagels into. Looking back to the chaos of the hotel, I now feel so blessed to have had such a local breakfast in the Old City! Thank you, K!

Meeting my tour guide allowed me to find more about the other part of the Old City that I had been to the previous night. Met by a hoard of tourists at the main entrance gate to that side of Kashgar's Old City didn't impress me because it wasn't what I wanted, crowds! I had been to a Turkic kind of place many time before that morning, the music and ethnic attire wasn't  something that I had never seen before, I didn't share the crowds hysteria. Entering the Old City, I learnt that the outer stalls were famed for its terracotta works, the local merchants crafted their trade because they stuck to what they knew. Buying a beautiful dress and some jewellery for a friends little girl had to be done, the friendship meant a lot to me so I wanted to treat her daughter to some local Kashgar gifts. The mornings heat grew hotter, it was such a glorious dry heat unlike Beijing's heat and humidity! Kash, I was feeling the love for that morning!

I hadn't seen one single Starbucks whilst travelling in Xinjiang, seeing a place in Kashgar's Old City that remotely resembled a coffeeshop impressed me much. My guide recommended the 'Kashgar Coffee' would be a perfect choice as the coffeeshops signature drink. Set with a bedouin mud brick building, it felt as if I was lounging in an Arabian outpost with the soft furnishings that I had bagged. Choosing a walnut tart had to be the one, once the coffee had arrived I was so excited and intrigued to try it for myself! Brewed with a blend of local herbs and spices, my 'Kashgar Coffee' tasted a million times better than any Starbucks Coffee that I had ever tasted before! Opting to have another coffee with a Kashgar twist was the right decision, I lounged about in the soft and rich surroundings of that coffeeshop for some time, I wasn't bothered about the itinerary at that point. Funnily enough, I had been so relaxed I left my purchases on the sofa I was lounging on! It was blessed!  
Leaving the noise and tourists of the central area of the city, it was time to see something more authentic as far as the Chinese didn't consider. Adding an extra Turkic vibe to my final day in Kashgar, it was time to explore a market that wasn't touristy in any way shape or form. Locally known as Yeni Bazaar being the Turkish for New Market, how I felt as if I was at Fethiye's Tuesday market on the Aegean Coast of Turkey. I didn't buy anything at the market but to simply walk around to see the different things on sale was amazing, the lack of anything Chinese as such was quite frankly brilliant because I was loving the Uyghur style much more in that moment. The presentation of the stalls transported me once again back to Turkey, the local chat sounded the same with the surroundings presented in an uncanny way. Kashgar's new market showed me everything and more with spending any money! Kash, I loved it a lot!

With my flight back to Urumqi, we moved back towards the Old City to have one last meal in Kashgar. Dining at a Uyghur style house allowed me to taste some local food in a homely environment. I was suffering from really bad stomach ache, the weeks diet had been mainly lamb and bread and in the east of China its something that isn't the staple diet. I tried my best to enjoy the food but I was feeling the dietary change of the trip. The surroundings were lovely but the pace of the trip had hit me. Making my way to the airport, the car arrived at the airport terminal to find a very strict policy that only passengers could access the terminal building. The airport security was beyond and then some, it was such a relief to be taxing down the runway for Urumqi! The whole experience in Kashgar during the second day was just as good compared with the previous day. Yes, I was ready for a day in Urumqi before heading down to Turpan, Xinjiang was the gift that kept giving! Kashgar, I'm out!

Kashgar Done!

Joseph Harrison

12 August 2019

On The Borderline... Kashgar, China!

Travelling through the Taklamakan Desert from Urumqi to Kashgar on my night train was an experience to say the very least, no other night train provided such rugged views of such a harsh yet gorgeous landscape. The ancient city of Kashgar had been one place in Xinjiang that I was especially excited to discover! How I felt as if I was in a scene from Walt Disney's Aladdin! Go!

Boarding that seriously long Kashgar bound train felt like a different experience compared with other night trains that I had previously taken in China. Albeit the extra line that we had to make before taking the escalators down to the platform, we had to wait in line before the train pulled into Urumqi Railway Station at our designated platform. Settled in and with the first two hours reached, the landscape south of Turpan quickly changed from built up areas to a barren deserts mystery, as dusk turned the sky from day to night it was mesmerising to see the changes across the landscape. As the train approached the heart of the vast Taklamakan Desert the only reminder that I was in China was my phone signal, I felt like I was in the middle of an Arabian wilderness. I admired the changing views from my bottom bunk in the hard sleeper cabin on-board, whilst the people were so very friendly the views were gorgeous!

The vastness of Xinjiang really could be felt, the stations grew further apart from each other and it was reassuring to see the odd sea of lights when my train pulled into Korla before the cabin lights were switched off for us to sleep. I have to be honest their were some strange goings on during the twilight hours on-board the train to Kashgar but I won't go into detail because it could be seen as very sensitive. The dining options were very limited, I had my instant noodle pot and a healthy supply of local beer to get me through the journey. The extra can that I bought helped me get to sleep!  Night turned into morning, Kashgar grew closer and with no chance of a shower till after checking into my hotel, I wanted to arrive! The landscape maintained its rich red colour with a harsh mountainous texture, it was nothing like I had ever seen before that train journey. After more than seventeen hours since leaving Urumqi behind the previous day I was very relieved to finally reach Kashgar! 

Fresh from Kashgar Railway Station the first stop on the days itinerary was a brief stop at the Abakh Khoja Tomb. The outside of the main tomb was beautifully decorated with jade green and pearl white tiles with a splash of other colours for good measure. Learning fast that the tomb was home to the family of Abakh Khoja, a prophet revered so highly by the Uyghur people he's second to Muhammad. Abakh Khoja was believed to have brought Islam to the former region of Kashgaria, bringing the traditional Turkish text that became the grounding of the Uyghur language. I was very interested about the Islamic side of the history, funnily another nugget of information made it to me. During the Qing Dynasty, the Emperor Qianlong requested a beautiful Uyghur princess become one of his concubines, lovingly named 'Xiang Fei' meaning 'Fragrant Concubine'. Oh K, Emperor Qianlong definitely proved his love!

When Iparhan passed away in 1788, the emperor had a horse drawn vehicle bring his 'Fragrant Concubine' back to her hometown of Kashgar. Just to avoid any confusion, 'Iparhan' was Xiang Fei's name in the local Uyghur language. Leaving the mausoleum for the three mosques that were still standing gave me something worthwhile to witness. Juma Mosque stood out after the grandeur of the Abakh Khoja Tomb because the name meant 'Friday Mosque' in the Turkish language. Leaving the ancient stories behind in that protected area allowed me to watch a brief show about Emperor Qianlong's only Uyghur concubine. The sun was crazy hot and the umbrellas really didn't do anything for my viewing pleasure. Moving closer to the hotel I found out from my tour guide that Kashgar still attracts people from near and far for its huge Sunday Market, so much so that some shops only open on the seventh day of the week. I had been off the train for less than one hour, not bad at all K!

Freshened up, I then ventured out from my nearby hotel to one side of Kashgar's Old City. Being mindful that the old buildings had received some serious restorations by China's Central People's Government I wanted to keep an open mind throughout my visit. Grabbing some chicken and rice from an unassuming local looking restaurant started my 'foodie' journey just right. I went further into the older part of Kashgar's Old City to find a tasty lamb treat that I hadn't noticed whilst I was in Urumqi first time round. Using my Turkish language skills to blend in with the Uyghur folk I ordered five freshly cooked Samsa's, their taste transported me back to mother England because it reminded me of a certain high street pasty shop treat! That local Xinjiang snack tantalised my tastebuds, allowing me to further appreciate the beauty of the Uyghur culture and food. After Samsa's I explored more! The people were friendly, truly Xinjiang!

The feel of the Old City gave me a sense that I was exploring uncovered treasures as I walked through the alleys and saw the local Uyghur children play outside their front doors, the feel of the neighbourhood gave me a certain authentic feel. The relaxed nature of the Old City made me feel at ease, to roam around after such a long train journey felt amazing! The more lively streets contained more good food and a healthy serving of Kashi Water Ice Cream, something that I had saved for my time in Kashgar. Their was a strong sense that tea drinking was a thing like it is in Turkey, it was nice to see something familiar taking place within my Chinese location once again. I felt content with my visit to that side of the Old City in Kashgar, so much so I returned the next morning to find some breakfast because the hotel served some crazy goings on! The local establishments served me some freshly baked bread, salted yoghurt and fresh camels milk for my local breakfast. رەھمەت سىزگە!

First constructed in 1442, Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque stands as the largest mosque in China! I had seen this mosque on documentaries and Chinese tourism campaigns about Xinjiang, so I was very curious to see what was standing behind the mosques grand entrance. Being conscious that different countries view religion differently, I wanted to ask as many provocative questions during my brief visit to Kashgar's Id Kah Mosque! The quiet walled gardens gave me a sense of chill, a calm feeling transcended within that sacred space. I asked about the prayer schedule, the mosque has a function for the main Friday prayer with a key focus for the service to be special compared with the usual visit to a persons neighbourhood mosque. I was really happy to hear that people that the right to exercise their beliefs, to pray and to listen to the Imam read from the Quran. No, I'm not religious but others should have the choice.

Taking it easy for the rest of the day I returned to my hotel, being on the night train had disturbed my usual quality of sleep so I thought it would be wise to relax before going to the night market later on that evening. From my train passing through the mystery of Xinjiang's portion of the Taklamakan Desert, to learning about the involvement of Emperor Qianlong's Uyghur concubine it had been a fabulous portion of my trip. The fact prayer was still legitimately taking place within the Id Kah Mosque gave me a sense that normality for the religious ones in Kashgar could remain consistent for them. The buzz and charm of the Old City impressed me much, allowing me to use some Turkic language skills to order some seriously tasty Samsa's. I would resurface later on that day, the night market would be serving all kinds of delicious foods and I didn't want to miss on my only chance! Truly standing on the borderline, Kashgar showed me so much and more within its unique location.

A Whole New World!

Joseph Harrison

10 August 2019

Urumqi: China's Far West City!

With my first day in Urumqi so full packed I had to leave one element out of the first post, braving a freak rain and thunderstorm I tried my best to discover more during the first night. After returning from Kashgar, the two days that I spent in the city fared to be mental for a reason that was out of my control. Out of the crazy I saw some unforgettable sights! Go, U!

My first day spent in Urumqi was the gift that just kept giving, with my afternoon completed with the things I had wanted to achieve I needed a rest! Fresh from my short breather I bounced back, with a two hour time difference compared with Beijing I took my time. Making my way down to Urumqi's Erdaoqiao International Food Street had to be done, the following day would see me leave the city for Kashgar! The heavens opened good and proper as the majestic orange skies presented Urumqi with a gargantuan thunderstorm, it was spectacular to witness! Arriving at the food street after the rain had eased gave me views that I wasn't expecting to see. It took a few moments or so for the stalls to resume their business after the downpour, within about ten minutes orders were flying out of the stands as the mix of locals and tourists enjoyed the local Xinjiang foods. U, I already knew that I wanted some tasty lamb kebabs! 

Recovery from the rain was quick, the volunteers scurried around with bin liners to clear the rubbish from the tables. I found somewhere to sit, the rain dared to start once again but it was only a small shower. Feeling thirsty after my long day, I wanted to try some of the local beer and with a draft beer stall it was a done deal! The whole street looked very new but it was just what I was expecting to see, I loved hearing the different Chinese and Uyghur languages as people enjoyed their evening, a contrast in cultures once again. Throughout my first day in Urumqi, it had been manic but I was able to relax with my beer and delicious foods within that Xinjiang style food street! Did I want to try any Kashi Water Ice Cream? No, I would be on the night train the next day to that place, I wanted everything to be as authentic as possible! Content with the days offerings I started the walk back to my hotel, the streets were so quiet and if truth be told I felt so safe. A never-ending day concluded!

Rising bright and early the following day I put my best foot forward, finding myself at Urumqi's own Hongshan Park to find its famous red pagoda. I didn't know anything about that park but I was willing to walk up the steep hill to find the red pagoda. Leaving my hotel early doors, I flagged a taxi bound for Hongshan Park, the constant use of Didi taxis in Beijing had me feeling as if I was back in Wuhan, I just don't flag taxis in the capital! The security check was relaxed and the parks entrance stood still, that impressed me much because I loathe crowds. As I neared the top of the peak, a lovely vista of a growing city fronted me with a series of striking mountains as Urumqi's backdrop! Catching the first glimpses of the pagoda gave me another lovely view of the city and its mountainous backdrop, would I be climbing those steps to the top? No chance, URC! Admiring the view from a space where I felt comfortable was the ticket!

With my imminent departure to Kashgar that afternoon, I kept up the pace after I had caught a glimpse of Urumqi's Red Hill and Zheng Long Ta. Walking back to my hotel was just the thing, the city was waking up because it followed its own local time zone rather than Beijing's standard time. Finding a great place for lunch was a winner, chowing down on some lovely local Uyghur food satisfied those cravings during my Xinjiang holiday. Checked out of my hotel it was time to head for Urumqi's Railway Station for my overnight train to Kashgar, I wasn't ready for that train station! Getting my passport and tickets ready for another check, the train station security staff were baffled by my Chinese visa and British passport, thankfully I had some Chinese language skills to explain my legitimacy in China. I had a lot of time to kill but that gave me the perfect opportunity people watch, soaking in that new culture and language once again it was still amazing to be in China! The train was on-time!

Touching down from Kashgar allowed me to spend two days in Urumqi before my Turpan sector. I had booked a seriously cheap hotel that gave me some serious drama, more about that in a few moments. Leaving for Urumqi's Heavenly Lake brought up no issues, having a little sleep in the car was necessary. Getting past the security check I was narked by the procedures but the whole rigmarole to reach the banks of the Heavenly Lake was worth every piece of madness! The weather held out, only some cloud presented itself but it was cool enough for it not to be cold. I gazed into the distance, finding  my own secret gateway to paradise. The water lay still, the mountains shimmered with a green sheen, I was not bothered by the selfie sticks and the tour groups because the magnificent lake put me in a heavenly state of mind. I appreciated the view, sitting amongst the greenery whilst the hoards of tourists acted the fool! Go on!

Renting a private car and driver to take me from my hotel to the lake had to be done, I wasn't messing with any tourist buses. Being Xinjiang the heightened security checks posed more of a headache for me as an independent foreign traveller in a region of China that hasn't truly opened to foreign tourism, the fee for the car was well spent considering the nature of the place. Thanks to China's easy functioning apps and a good travel expert friend, it was all good! Rules and passports aside the landscape that surrounded the Heavenly Lake transported me to another world, the lush green pastures and mountainous scenery fooled me as if I was in Turkey. When all was said and done, the mornings visit to Urumqi's most beautiful landmark left me feeling very accomplished indeed! I wasn't going to miss those tourists but I would be missing those gorgeous Tianshan Mountains for sure! Acting like a boss I got myself a new hotel room, it was almost a disaster but I was savvy enough to sort it!

Fed up with having no running water and the general dankness of that awful budget hotel I snatched a full refund, consulting my go-to hotel booking app I managed to book another room and get myself into a taxi within no time. Arriving at my new hotel I was faced with some serious discrimination, something wasn't right because people were checking in and rooms were available! Calling my hotel booking company up, I stated they had a duty of care since I had a confirmed room within their booking system. I knew the situation before the hotel manager could spin any more fabricated chat, within five minutes the company had found me a nearby hotel that accepted foreigners, closed mouths don't get fed! The final hotel choice of that day was ten times better than my original abode, running water was found so I could relax! I wasn't going to let my drama impact on the evenings exploration time in URC! Get it together!

Feeling refreshed and blessed, I made it back to the city's Tianshan District for some Samsa and a haircut. I was in desperate need of a refresh, food came first because the day hadn't left me with anytime to eat. Embracing the buzzing Uyghur centre within Urumqi's Heping Road once again gave me life, children were playing out in the street and the infusion of foods could be smelt in the air. I devoured some tasty Samsa, they were like lamb pasties and they tasted gorgeous! Finding a Uyghur barbershop across the road allowed me to get my fresh cut for a bargain price compared with bargain soaring prices for a new do! That day had been bonkers, from the idyllic scenery of the Heavenly Lake to then being rejected from my rebooked hotel, things all ended well! Feeling content with my cut I revisited the food street for a less rainy view, grabbing a drink or two it was time for bed. Urumqi had served two unique days in its entirety during my summer holiday, oh it was complete madness!

Unbelievable Urumqi!

Joseph Harrison