Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Flying High... Hainan Airlines!

Concluding my Christmas holiday, I boarded my Hainan Airlines direct flight from Manchester to Beijing on the 28th December 2018. Having flown with China Southern on the outbound leg of my journey to Delhi, I was excited to see how Hainan's hospitality would rival its Chinese airline cousin. Of course, more direct routes need to be opened between China and the UK!

During this second part of my Beijing living I am on the flight path next to Beijing Capital International Airport, being so close I see Hainan Airlines fly their beautiful white, red and yellow liveries across my Shunyi community. Flying back to Beijing, China without having to change planes was a welcome change! Unlike Cathay Pacific Airways' flight to Hong Kong being at their own covered jet-bridge, that freezing December morning saw us being bussed out to a remote stand for boarding, why? Nevertheless, it was like any other boarding for a Chinese airline with a predominately Chinese clientele. How were these people sending WeChat voice messages in England? I need to get myself another SIM card for those trips home! Our Airbus A330-300 stood ready, I had been waiting for quite a while to fly directly between England and China without needing to entertain one of the London airports! Birmingham, step it up!

Hainan leads the Chinese aviation market alongside Air China, China Eastern and Southern, but I had faith in Hainan. Relaxing into that familiar red airline seat reminded me of my domestic flight I took with Hainan from Beijing to Shenzhen during China's 2018 Spring Festival holiday. My second time in the skies with Hainan Airlines would be from an international stance, I was looking forward to seeing the difference between the two services this famous Chinese airline rolled out. Announcements were predominately in Chinese, some were in English and unlike China Southern it was great to see a non-Chinese crew-member in the cabin as the pre-flight checks were being carried out. I much preferred the two-four-two seating configuration and with mine being an aisle it was going to be a nice 9 hours back to Beijing Capital. The flight time had been slashed by 30 minutes, I am guessing the winds were good? Regardless, I was going back to China after my holiday with a good flight ahead.

Leaving the British Isles behind us, flight HU7904 soared higher during its direct course to China's capital. Refreshments were being served by the beautiful female Hainan crew members, the male crew members were very handsome indeed! Mine was a red wine, the crew asked their passengers in Chinese mostly but their English language skills seemed better than their other Chinese airline competitors. I was fortunate enough to keep the conversation in Chinese, they appreciated that very much. Lunch/Dinner was served soon after we had taken off from Manchester, menus were passed around the cabin to us passengers, I decided the pork with potato cakes and vegetables was the one for me to choose. The selection was very good, with the menu presenting all options in Chinese and English, it was a truly bi-lingual experience. Needless to say it was a stress free flying experience so early on! 谢谢 H!

I chose to watch Mamma Mia 2, it was one of the international Hollywood movie options that appealed to me the most. I had watched a Chinese title on the way to Delhi, I had already paid my Chinese film watching dues for that holiday. Sipping my wine, enjoying my food and with the hits of ABBA showcased in 'Mamma Mia 2', it was a whole round relaxed flying and dining experience at once. Hainan Airlines was impressing me effortlessly with its warm Chinese hospitality as we swooped through the skies, it was going to be an on-time arrival back into the capital so I had no qualms. It was easy enough to get a refill, the crew refilled my wine during the first part of the flight before I switched to water or juice. Not long after the main meal was served, the cabin lights had been dimmed as the majority of the passengers slept soundly as most Chinese people do. No negatives, every penny spent was proving to be well spent judging by the service and friendly nature of the 海南 cabin crew.

海南 impressed me with its simple but personal flight amenity kit for its economy class passengers. I personally don't use eye patches but they were a nice touch, in actual fact I find it very difficult to sleep during long flights, especially in economy class. The detail on the eye patch was practical and in both spoken languages by our onboard crew. It's not common for a Chinese airline to supply such simple yet effective free amenity to their passengers, that addition to the flight was appreciated. Need I be so careless to not mention, Hainan's rear galley served snacks throughout the flight, I enjoyed some for sure! Before making our descent it was time for breakfast, I chose the western option. Served with a choice of hot drinks it was just enough before our flight made its descent into Beijing Capital. Throughout the flight the atmosphere in the cabin was calm, that's extremely rare to find on a Chinese airline. Yes H!

If truth be told I didn't want the flight to land because everything had been so good, but all flights have their destinations. It felt natural for me to allow the bustle of the cabin to pass me. The Chinese passengers thought the flight was going to push back once more from Beijing, as usual they jumped up before the seatbelt sign disappeared to frantically grab their personal belongings, the crew seemed well versed with this behaviour and beforehand advised the passengers to remain seated for a few moments longer. I live a very short distance from the airport and in real life terms a few more moments waiting to collect my hand luggage wasn't going to cause the world to end! Hainan Airlines showed me a Chinese airline can offer international service with a bilingual speaking cabin crew that communicated well with their guests. Without question I would travel with Hainan Airlines again in the near future, with their direct connection to Tel Aviv I will plan my holiday to fly with them! OK H?

Hooray For Hainan!

Joseph Harrison 

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Flying High... Air India!

Air India, a flight that almost didn't take off to its final destination due to a breakdown with ATC one Central Asian country. With its original departure pushed forwards twenty-four little hours compared to the original date, it felt like one almighty miracle to finally touch down at Birmingham Airport. Bollywood movies, curried stews and chilled crew! It was an experience!

After spending seven days in India it was time to board my flight that would take me to my home airport, Birmingham doesn't have many direct flights so this connection had to be made to make a surprise Christmas. Catching the stomach bug known to all other stomach bugs I donned by best Indian suit from Chandni Chowk. I wasn't playing when I was told to get flight confirmation from the Air India desk because my Chinese phone had no signal to allow me access to the terminal building at New Delhi Airport, not the fault of the airline but with the way I was feeling it wasn't something I wanted to deal with in that moment. Having previously worked for a British airline that served a lot of New Delhi connectors, I was hopeful that my slightly overweight suitcase would be accepted without any issues. With my passport and boarding card in-hand, I was stamped out of the country as my luggage was on its way!

Rewinding back the clock two months previous things were in a different place regarding my travel plans with Air India. Without any explanation my departure date was pushed forwards to the next day and the once direct routing to Birmingham saw my new confirmation detail a brief stop in Amritsar before proceeding onwards to BHX. I had booked that Air India flight along with my outbound flight from China with a third party operator, both flights had changes that altered my schedule. The outbound connection to Delhi from China didn't change my plans but I needed that Air India flight to land before Christmas Eve to surprise my Grandparents, it wasn't good what went down but in the same breath the extra day in Delhi gave me the chance to see the Ganges River during my visit to Garhmuktesar. Do great things happen in strange ways? At the time the alterations happened I was feeling some kind of way but because all went smoothly after making it home I wasn't so bitter AI.

Our Amritsar flight was slightly behind schedule but with the short-hop to India's City famed for its Golden Temple, I wasn't stressed about that! I liked the small snack box and the orange juice carton that was served to the cabin by the friendly and smiling crew members. Flying high towards our first calling point of the day, I was more looking forward to the Bollywood movies and red wine on offer before I would be reunited with my family for the Christmas period, it was going to get slightly eventful. Touching down into Amritsar was fine, it was planned for passengers to disembark and for other to join our Dreamliner onto Birmingham, passports were checked without any issues, cabin bags identified it seemed like that was all that needed to be done? Really? The jet-bridge pulled away from the aircraft, for the bulk of the passengers it was a sign we were finally on our way after being slightly delayed. No AI, it got real!

Being the weekend Uzbekistan airspace had closed their zones and weren't responding to ATC at Amritsar, being on a very sensitive border with several Middle Eastern countries the mapping for the route to Birmingham took considerably longer to be cleared. The Indian passengers were chilled out considering the time we spent sat on the plane at Amritsar Airport grew longer, I was getting considered that Birmingham's airspace would be closed by the time our flight was projected to land. The pilots and ATC were still deliberating and creating a viable flight plan it decided the main meal would be served before takeoff. I had watched part of a Bollywood film about a typical love story, the twist was that the bride to be had ambitions to work and be successful rather than just a hen-pecked housewife. Lunch was nice, I went for the curried stew that served with rice and some Indian sweets. The crew remained calm and the majority of the passengers complied as well. Was it home time?

The eventual departure time for the Birmingham sector had to be pushed back, so the actual moment the doors closed for the final time felt great! Finally departing made me feel tremendously relieved to be on the way home to Birmingham Airport! Enjoying a few red wines helped me relax into the long flight from to Birmingham, the whole experience to that point had been seriously eventful and quite interesting in the same breath. I had chosen Air India to fly on their Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking away from the delay and rerouting it was great to experience the quieter engines compared to other Boeing aircrafts operating before the Dreamliner was put into business. The B787 Dreamliner had a more relaxed feel with the mood lighting that the crew changed throughout the flight, it was something new for me to witness during a long-haul flight. So all in all, the service was very good once we were on our way! 

Yes, If I truth be told I didn't watch as many films during the flight, but the stomach bug knew that it needed to wait during that flight. No, literally! The food tasted good, the crew served enough drinks and were helpful when passengers including myself went to the galley for extra drinks and snacks. The extra two to three hours added to the flight really made the journey from New Delhi seemed a lot longer than it was scheduled. Having my flight changed and having to stay in Delhi for the extra night worked out for the best. Arriving into Birmingham Airport before the airports curfew felt amazing, I really felt that the pilot and the first officer worked really hard to make the new route work out for us to reach our destination without any harm being caused. The crew did their best, considering the situation resolving itself with the hardworking nature of the flight team I would choose Air India again. I managed to spend Christmas with my family and see my Niece's first Christmas! 

Oh, Birmingham!  

Joseph Harrison 

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Delhi, India: Chandni Chowk, Rickshaws & Paharganj...

My final day in Delhi was thankfully at my own pace, the whole week had been so intense but I won't be bitter as I look back at my time spent in India's capital. Making the most of Chandni Chowk Market had to be done, the craft shops were amazing, perfect for tasteful Christmas presents and for gifts to myself! Those chilled yet crazy evenings spent in Paharganj were great!  
Taking my first rickshaw in Delhi from my Prime Balaji Deluxe Hotel had to be done, I wasn't going to leave India without riding dangerously through the streets, no! Ready to spend up my final thousands before flying home for my surprise Christmas visit, it was my mission to find a full tailored suit! Finding a place that looked less than a fortune was a task but I learnt that Chandni Chowk is a wedding favourite, those prime jewelled garments were selling for a grand old price! One tailor's that looked practically British caught my eye, it wasn't a wise decision to buy an Indo-Western suit because I wouldn't have many opportunities to wear it, whereas a Western suit would serve me well during my upcoming trip to North Korea. It wasn't just a suit that I was looking to spend my money up, I wanted incense sticks galore, in one of the best countries for them I wanted my suitcase to be impossible to carry! It was a money morning!

Getting my measurements all sorted, the tailor told me it would be two hours before I would be able to collect my purchases. I asked the guy if he knew where I could find some incense sticks, he wrote down one place for me, to find it was an absolute experience as I went through many different alleys that took me almost next to the Jama Masjid. Sidetracked by some divine wooden carvings, I bought an elephant carving for my Sister-in-law and for myself I bought a lovely wooden incense burner come holder. Those incense sticks got me berserk, buying about twenty boxes or so definitely had me rearranging my suitcase for the gods! Chandni Chowk was insane with people going about their shopping business, tourists were at a minimum, keeping it that way was appreciated! Going back to the tailor's was easy enough, Chandni Chowk had one Main Street that looked like a building site, remembering where the chaos lay I was fine. Through the madness Chandni Chowk served it was all to me!

Delhi was selling 'Bodega Market' Realness after I found a roadside shop just around the corner from my hotel, selling anything and everything I bought the entire stock of Dabur Red toothpaste! I loved the cosy look of that Paharganj store, next to it serving some seriously delicious Indian sweets was 'Aggrawal Sweets', buying the store out of its sweetest treats I devoured them with much enjoyment! I have loved Indian sweets since finding them in England within my hometown of Bilston and during my day trip to Leicester because Britain is proud of its British Asian culture and foods! Going hungry on a daily was a no, no! I didn't need to be bitter because Paharganj served me some insanely good Butter Chicken, roti and sweet chai tea. Eating at places where foreigners weren't advised to had my hearing fail because I still went ahead but when I saw a rat slink into the kitchen I pushed that sight out of my head! India challenged me!

It wasn't going to be a hostel trip during my Delhi stay, not a chance! Staying at the Prime Balaji Deluxe Hotel like my parents, aunt and uncle did during their stay in Delhi had to be the one! The rooms were clean and the quiet feel of the hotel gave me a welcomed sanctuary that shielded me away from the crazy atmosphere on the streets outside of the hotel. The hotel staff were friendly and helpful, assisting me with money transfer from Chinese Yuan to Indian Rupees without any fuss. The breakfast was the best, hot chai in the mornings could be enjoyed with beans and cheese on toast, living in China meant I hadn't eaten beans for what felt like an eternity! Stepping out of the hotel was fine, but having your wits about you is necessary because as a white foreigner I stuck out like a sore thumb! Paharganj served me a vibe that was down to earth, some places charged tourist prices but I scratched beneath the surface to find a local flavour. Yes, giving props to Paharganj!

Rewinding back to the evening that I arrived in Delhi, the airport was already crazy but as my transfer passed by New Delhi Railway Station I was bowled over by the sheer pandemonium that was occurring, the sights and lights almost blinded me! I lived in a very questionable part of New Jersey, gathering that experience I ventured down to the Main Street outside the Railway Station after my taxi tour on the first full day of my Indian holiday, I was beyond curious! Seeing the sights and then some wasn't difficult, my senses were on high alert during that moment! Trying the local cuisine was the first thing, going for a very local looking place was the right thing to do, I was hyper aware of my belongings and self because it was madness! The food was good, the place where I ate was on another level for its local feel, no tourists in-sight during that Delhi moment. Going for a cut-throat shave afterwards freshened me up!

Captured above to the left was the view from the place that I ate at, it was so busy down on street level, during the first night there was some kind of celebration that brought a colourful and loud procession through. Buses barged past and rickshaws dangerously weaved through the traffic, it was pure madness and I loved every second being a part of the that crazy! Staying inside ones comfort zone makes an individual very boring, I can be predictable sometimes but during such moments its key to that risk because goodness knows my Newark and Birmingham days got me out of my bubble into the Realness! Chandni Chowk gave me life because my purchases were exactly what I had wanted, better still I still had money to spare! Rickshaw rides had me holding on for my life and bartering in a rather salty fashion, I wasn't playing with those prices offered, jog on friend! Even though I caught the stomach bug from hell I had an amazing time in Delhi! Delhi, I was so fragile!

Chandni Chowk! Take My Money!

Joseph Harrison 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

India's Ganges: Rollin' On The River!

Rolling on another river, it was time for me to check out Utter Pradesh's section of the sacred River Ganges. Washing my hands in the river was the closest I was going to get to that Indian waterway, others bathed with a mission to be blessed but each to their own. Reincarnation was in the air as I made my way around the riverside town of Garhmukteshwar! Ganga, go!

I had literally just returned to Delhi the previous day before leaving for another trip, refreshed and ready to see a branch of the holy Mother Ganga the next morning. Booking my trip by chance, my Air India flight was rescheduled without any explanation to the following day. The world works in strange ways, because of the flight change I was able to make another Indian dream a reality. After seeing a three part documentary during 2017 about the mighty River Ganges, I really wanted to see it for myself. The drive out of Delhi took away the crazy, the driver and guide wanted some breakfast, getting myself organised I made sure I had mine at the hotel because history wasn't going to repeat itself, I needed to be calm not salty at the Ganges of all places! So, the expressway turned into country dirt tracks as the traffic towards Garhmukteshwar was apparently getting bad, I wasn't mad though. I was ready for the Ganges! 

Passing small settlements and more cows in the roads made my Indian dreams come true, it was a raw view from the car and that was what it was all about for me, to see local sights and people getting on with life. The morning fog hung low but it only added to the mystery of that part of UP, getting closer to the River Ganges was a good thing, I wasn't up for another long stretch on the road after my Golden Triangle tour to Agra and Jaipur. I didn't have enough time before leaving Delhi to visit Varanasi but during my pre-trip research period I read that Garhmukteshwar's being fashioned into the next Varanasi due to its close proximity from Delhi. I was smug that I had chosen the right time to visit this Ganges side settlement before the bang causes the boom! Regardless of those facts I was excited to see what the spiritual reasons people revered the Ganga, not understanding much about reincarnation I was intrigued to see if the practices alleviated the way people dealt with grief. OK?

Arriving at a colourful tented market catapulted me into a moment of uncertainty, I was told not to make eye-contact with anyone, especially the street kids who were looking for outsiders to give them money. The market area proved interesting, I picked up a few bangles that I could potentially use for as part of a language material and a framed picture of a goddess I can't remember the name of. Catching the first glimpses of the River Ganges took me back to seeing the 'Sue Perkins' River Ganges documentary, people were swimming in the river and many people had had their heads shaved, offering their hair to the local temple for some religious reason? Would I be swimming in the questionable waters? No! However, others were more than willing to soak themselves within the waters of that sacred Indian river as part of a religious ritual. I'm not Hindu but as I heard about reincarnation, things sounded like a renewal.

Paying the equivalent of a few pounds for a boat to take us out along the sacred river had to be done, I then found out that people travel from all over to India to bathe in the River Ganges, the Mother Ganga really plays an integral part in a Hindus life. Crossing to the opposite side, away from the action was a sandy inlet that magically wasn't submerged by the river, stopping for a cup of chai had to be done. It was really nice to hear enough about the river that wasn't exhaustive because sometimes tour guides go overboard with their script. People were bottling the water for themselves, I was fine with the restrictions at the airport regarding liquids but even still I wanted to just take in the experience from a visual aspect. On the way back it was great to catch glimpses of the clocktower and the banks of the river with the boats moored to the rivers edge. Garhmukteshwar was just enough to digest. Leaving lunch for later, I was advised not to eat the local oily foods. No G!

People don't take the dead to Garhmukteshwar for a party, that part of the River Ganges was no different to the others as cremating the remains stood as a steady form of commerce and religious procedure near the waters of the Mother Ganga. Being respectful at all times, I was cautious when taking photos, I even asked the tour guide if it was allowed in the first place. I didn't see any cremations take place during my visit to the Ganga but the procedure and the feel of the environment gave me a sense that even though the families must go through turmoil, they are releasing their loved ones into the waters of a holy river and the act of reincarnation can fully take place. In saying that I didn't see any bodies float past me as I walked past the riverside, its believed that not every religion believes in cremation before entering the Ganga. In the Ganges it's fine but would a floating body get the same reception in the Thames?

My visit to the Ganges was almost over, having washed my hands in the sacred waters I wanted to have a little walk around the shops and find some more Indian sweets, getting that done it was nice to see a small shrine next to the main square. Being what seemed like the only foreigner in the whole city made me stand out even more than usual, with the tour guide it was all good but when it comes down to foreigners its all about the local peoples curiousity. Leaving Garhmukteshwar behind was a nice feeling because I could say in that moment I had visited the River Ganges, throughout that short week trip I had seen some serious sights during the time I spent in India, I believe I tried my best to see as much as possible within the closest regions surrounding Delhi. Being able to see the Ganges was an amazing experience, I look forward to seeing another part of that holy Indian river in the future. Yes! Shunning another expensive restaurant, I decided to eat near Delhi Railway Station!

Meeting Mother Dearest!

Joseph Harrison