30 April 2019

2016-2019: China's Tomb Sweeping Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday! Celebrate!

Joseph Harrison 

2019-2020: This Departure Lounge of Dreams!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019...  I'm Loving Life!

Joseph Harrison

20 April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips For The Queens!

Joseph Harrison 

19 April 2019

Nanjing, China: A Jiangsu Province Return!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Nanjing! 

Joseph Harrison