Friday, 31 May 2019

Who's Calling? ... It's Shijiazhuang, China!

Life stopped me from going to Shijiazhuang first time round, due to illness I had to cancel my Labour Day weekend trip but two weekends later I boarded the right high speed train. Embracing a city that wasn't famous for international tourism was the gamble I wanted to take! After using my Chinese skills, I truly felt part of Chinese life! I so lived for that concrete jungle!

Plagued by horrendous levels of pollution, Hebei's provincial city isn't one of the top ten places to visit in China by mainstream standards. Infamous for its many concrete towers and high-rise residential buildings, I felt there was a connection with a familiar looking council estate setting in England. Shijiazhuang was giving me all kinds of 'concrete jungle realness!' Endorsing this underdog city was the only good thing to do! Arriving the night before to the city's main railway station felt like a mission accomplished due to the original trip having to be postponed due to a mysterious illness that struck me before the Labour Day weekend. I had never missed a holiday until that point, thankfully with being in Beijing it was easy to plan a future trip to SJZ two weekends later due to the close proximity from the high speed train network with a train from Beijing West Railway Station. Trust, I sure made the most of Hebei's SJZ! 

After leaving work bang-on the clock, I made my way to my local metro station to take the three transfers to reach Beijing's West Railway Station. Dodging the taxi touters in the main pick up point at the train station happened for sure, finding my way out to street level felt like relief because it was like a darkened rabbit warren. Catching a DiDi taxi to the city's Bei Guo area, the city itself looked like a huge construction site with the banners advertising new developments. My hotel check-in was fine, if truth be told it was a good job my Chinese skills were on-point because the staff didn't know a stitch of any other language. Choosing a centrally located hotel had to be done, not being a famous city allowed me to try something more comfortable for the weekend. Rising early the next morning I unknowingly found a rather concrete panoramic view of the city of Shijiazhuang on my way out. Without any expectations, I kept an open mind to give Shijiazhuang the chance it deserved.

So, everybody should know that China leans on the Communist side when it comes to the Middle Kingdom's party core values. After doing some pre-trip research for Shijiazhuang I found Xibaipo Village as a firm contender. Used as the former headquarters of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. No, I'm not a fan of communism but there's still some series love for the 'red' way of life in modern China. Taking a private return car trip from my hotel to this Pingshan County 'red' model village had to be done, I had booked a Chinese coach tour but after coming to my senses I asked my friend and travel advisor from a reputable China travel company to help me book a car with ease. The sheer hysteria of Xibaipo amazed me, such places don't exist in England and for that reason it felt like a good thing. I navigated my way onto a fast moving trolley bus that kickstarted my communist fuelled morning.

The area surrounding the former residence of Chairman Mao Zedong had a line of excited spectators, same like the line for the Princess 'meet and greet' does at World Disney's Magic Kingdom does in the USA! I was staggered to see soo may young people, more over they were so excited and enthused by the whole communist movement and the whole reason that Xibaipo stood as a memorial. I was stopped by a reporter who spoke impeccable English, being the only foreigner for a good ten miles helped me stick out like a pink plaster in the snow. I told the reporter that certain elements of that location didn't symbol a modern future, having lived in China for a few years that certain practices haven't exactly made space for China's LGBT community. The exhibits around the memorial hall oozed perfect patriotism, more importantly if someone wanted a selfie it was going to cost them a fee! If truth be told, the whole visit was bizarre but throughly interesting all at the same time! Yes!

Arriving back at the hotel left me with some time to kill, using some of it however the heavens I felt using it! Going for a wander had to be done, checking out the nearby Lerthai Center that was attached to my hotel provided some chill and retail therapy. I cannot pack clothes for toffee and the room didn't have an iron, let's just say Uniqlo saved the day for that momentary fashion fixer. Spending sometime that allowed me to chill out with a bubble tea whilst watching the local young'uns walk past. Let's just say the talent in Shijiazhuang proved themselves well. That afternoon was really nice, work as usual had been berserk and after being off sick it had felt like the last few weeks had been mayhem and then some! No bars or clubs were needed that weekend, checking out Carrefour secured the evenings beverages at a much cheaper price. Burger King for tea, I wasn't worried about proper food that weekend!

Returning back to the hotel for the night, I kicked back with some YouTube to watch the grand final of 2019s Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, Israel. Relaxing into that evening of wine, chocolate and Eurovision was the medicine that I needed whilst in Shijiazhuang! I didn't want a storming hangover the next day, maybe a headache would be acceptable but I was in no mood to frequent any nightclubs that Saturday night! For a city that supposedly had nothing to see, Shijiazhuang showed me things that I enjoyed. To be greeted with a new city shared concrete vibes like at home was nice to see, amongst other happenings that wouldn't be appropriate for me to mention. It was bizarre to witness the 'red' communist hysteria at Xibaipo that gave me a deeper insight into peoples modern day devotion. Shijiazhuang gave me a moment of space, it wasn't a huge city and it wasn't Beijing. I really need to make more weekend trips like I did to Shijiazhuang! Now Taiyuan and Pingyao are on the cards!

Shijiazhuang Saved!

Joseph Harrison 

Monday, 27 May 2019

Dare To Dream... Eurovision Song Contest: Israel 2019

2019s Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final touched down in style, Netta landed her own jumbo jet and Dana International brought back 'Diva!' After a hiatus I decided to watch this grand final after I discovered Netta's winning song for Israel, 'Toy' reignited my Eurovision passion! Tel Aviv showcased its many tourism sights, previous competitors and brought us Madonna!

It had been a few years since I last indulged in the campery and political in-correctness of the Eurovision Song Contest until I found out who won the 2018 grand final in Lisbon, Portugal! Netta's show-stopping hit had me hooked back onto Eurovision and funnily enough I was contemplating Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as my summer holiday choices! As momentum grew, the evening arrived for the grand final but being in China meant I had to watch after finding out what entry won, nevertheless the blessing that's 'YouTube' definitely helped me out! 2016s contest in Stockholm, Sweden had been my last dabble with Eurovision, but since the show isn't broadcasted in China nor I don't have a television. Netta's powerful and catchy beats brought me back into the ESC fold, bringing some kitsch and crazy Eurovision culture back into my life and yes those gimmicks! Yes, I expected the political statements and the UK finishing last! Come on, UK!

I didn't watch the semi final shows but I managed to catch a glimpse of Dana International's tribute to Tel Aviv's show and Netta's amped up version of her winning song, both performers brought their own Eurovision flare! A few days later after the final had initially aired, I waited patiently for  the full version to become available on 'YouTube'. Touching down into the Tel Aviv Expo, Netta brought in a plane full of participants for the grand final. The beginning of the show signified the tone of the event, Israel was cleverly marketed throughout, its prime beauty spots were showcased in such effortless ways their tourism campaign was on point! The best thing about Eurovision for me is that its a show without room for prejudice, embracing the fabulous and crazy sides of music today! I'm a lover of flags and especially the rainbow flag could be seen in the audience, flying for Europe to show the world that we own the Eurovision Song Contest! I'm never taking another hiatus again! No, no!

Malta kicked off the show with their colour changing 'Chameleon' number that exuded the sound of todays modern pop music. I was perplexed by Albania's dramatic performance, it wasn't my cup of tea or coffee. Whereas, Czech Republic's Lake Malawi bounced around with their 'Friend of a friend of a friend' catchy beat! Germany's sister style duo was definitely a live vocal, it really wasn't my Eurovision vibe. Russia's masculine talent posed as some serious 'eye candy', good song and use of LED screens but looks won that performance for me! Jean Paul Gautier was in the house! Denmark's call to not get 'too political' sent me to sleep. San Marino was a 'Na Na' no! North Macedonia's debut entry sine their 'FYR' days, it was a powerful performance, I couldn't help thinking it had a few shady remarks towards their neighbour, Greece? Usually upbeat, Sweden's song was soulful, for that it did the IKEA nation proud!

Slovenia's strange electro sounding entry freaked me out slightly! Far from their usual Cyrpiot beat, Cyprus brought a fresh and current flavour with their 'Replay' banger! The Netherlands left behind the usual catchy beats and the all important Eurovision in-place of a striped back 'Adele' sounding entry, it was a winning effort! The UK served once of its best live vocals in a long while! With a heavy musical tone, Israel turned up the 'gimmick' of being the host nations entry, it was dramatic in all right places with lyrics to match. 'Keiino' of Norway turned it up with a lovely Euro-beat tune, giving off vibes of Aqua crossed with a mix of Swedish House Mafia! Iceland's insane leather clad rock gig gave me life! France's bilingual equality anthem made my heart sing, it was such a lovely moment to see Bilal live his truth and slay the competition for the true Eurovision audience! I loved Italy's clap-back rap! Albeit a few dud entries, my favourites had to be Norway, France & Malta!

The interval kicked in with a big change, Conchita Wurst entered the stage but she was a little bit dressed down! Switching up songs Wurst took a chance on Sweden's 'Heroes' by 'Mans Zelmerlöw'. A few other switched up songs were performed until a Eurovision favourite of mine returned to the stage, Verka Serduchka! Ukraine's previous entrant smashed 'Netta's' own song 'Toy', it was by far the best choice! Gali Atari who won the competition in 1979 in Israel for Israel brought the entrants together with her song, 'Hallelujah'. Madonna, the Queen of Pop made a short appearance! Music truly makes the people together, yeah! Taking things towards a more Arabic feel, Israel's own 'Idan Raichel Project' conducted such beautiful performance, consisting of live vocals and full orchestra. My reasons for choosing Israel for my 2020 summer holiday were definitely cemented after hearing such lovely music! לך, ישראל! Go!

Netta had performed her winning hit 'Toy' during the open of the competition's second semi-finals, returning to the stage dressed in a striking yellow fluffy dress to serve it up! Killing the competition, she oozed empowerment and with her no-holds attitude I loved everything about 'Nana Banana!' Being an event that attracts a rather fabulous audience, we sat with baited breathe for the 'Queen of Pop' to make her Eurovision Song Contest debut! Rising from a dark part of the stage, Madonna brought back 'Like A Prayer' for us all to relive it for the 30th anniversary since its release! Quavo joined her for their duet, 'Future' where Madonna used lots of vocal trickery but I still loved the two songs that she performed. She might not be the best singer but she always puts on one hell of a show! It was time for the winner, revealing that the Eurovision gimmick might be a thing of the past proved that the Netherlands snatched the trophy! Vengaboys for the Dutch Eurovision interval in 2020?

Thank You, Europe!

Joseph Harrison

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Beijing's Qianmen Street & Hutong's...

The last time was no joke, getting it together was the only thing to be done! Venturing back into the city was the medicine that I needed, getting myself situated before the cabin fever took over! Not blaming it on the booze for once, I boarded that Line 15 train into Beijing's urban core. Going back to the beginning, I wanted to get things done my way! Yes, Qianmen! Go, B!

As mentioned before it was no joke the first time when I visited Qianmen Pedestrian Street in Beijing's Dongcheng District. I had some unwanted and rather annoying baggage with me the first time, I was not going to play during that second visit because my days out at the weekend are cherished. Taking the Beijing Subway from Houshayu to Zhushikou caused no problems albeit the two changes I had to make. Retracing those original steps, my feet were firmly back on  Beijing's famous Qianmen Street. Fortunately, the pollution had disappeared that weekend but with blue skies in Beijing it meant that the winds were pretty fierce! Back to the street, during my first visit I wasn't under any illusion that a large part of that former historic street had been either renovated or rebuilt, things just looked a tad too modern! Nevertheless, I saw a few older looking shopfronts along Beijing's Qianmen Pedestrian Street. Chill, Beij!

During the second visit I was able to walk at my own pace, being able to do just that allowed me to see things closer. Between the old and new stood a huge contrast, with traditional Beijing style windows and other features to the more than obvious new brickwork that could be seen in a rather unsubtle fashion. I am used to the mass renovations that Beijing has committed to its many main attractions, looking past those modern mistakes I was able to appreciate the China Post building and such places that have been captured above in the photo. No, I didn't eat any Beijing Duck that Sunday afternoon, quite frankly those tourist prices don't impress me much! If the truth be told the street was very easy to navigate, it was insane to see so many walking Chinese tour groups! As if I lowered myself to eat KFC during my first visit, I really need to try some more Beijing food but the whole scene gave me too much of a tourist vibe. Yes, Beijing had a funny way of showcasing itself to me!

If truth be told, I really loved the sight that's been captured in the photo to the right hand side. The weather had cleared up and the winds had calmed down by the time I had almost reached the top of Qianmen Street. The revamped street car was in view with the main Chinese style arch in the frame, taking centre stage. In the far distance of the view stood the Archery Tower of Qianmen, apologises to Beijing's history but I didn't have a single clue what the tower was called or its relevance was to the city! I need to do my homework! So, the Qianmen Gate served as the southern city gate of Beijing during the Qing and Ming Dynasties, boasting over six hundred years of history for this Chinese capital city. Continuing to take things at my own pace, I took as many or as little photos because it was all about me, myself and I! Choosing a Sunday, I know that Sunday's will be my fundays for sightseeing! 北京, 没有星期六!

During the first visit I had chosen to visit on a Saturday dinner time, now that was a mistake of epic proportion due to the crowds that filled the nearby Dashilan Commercial Street. Famous for its welcoming sign, it was another first sights for me to accomplish whilst living in Beijing but the buzz was enough to endure after a few minutes, knowing better the second time I made a route recalculation! I never expected to end up in a quiet Hutong alley considering the noise lay two second's away from that unassuming Beijing spot. The first visit was a lesson, only take days out with people who don't complain like a spoiled child does! Realising they there was more to see in and around the many sprawling Hutong's in around Qianmen's Dashilan area I did my research to find somewhere interesting for the second visit. All in all, I was extremely happy with my snatched view of the street car and the rest of another picture postcard view within the city of Beijing, China! Get it, get it!

My research took me to Soloist Coffee Co. Set along a lovely looking alley style road that had  aged and partially restored houses, businesses and some derelict spots that looked perfect for the surroundings. Getting myself a salmon bagel and a posh coffee to match, I took a seat within the rooftop area of the coffeeshop, the view was quaint, no crowds could be seen, it almost felt like I had the best view from above the rooftops. Sipping my coffee during that Sunday afternoon relaxed moment allowed me to overhear a conversation going on at the next table, the ladies sounded like were from Singapore? They surprised me at first as they were speaking clear fluent English, that always gets me because ironically I speak more Chinese when I am out and about in Beijing, things aren't so international in the big bad city after all! Anyhow, I loved the surroundings and the overall feel of the Soloist Coffee Co. A result, B!

Realising work beckoned the next day, I boarded my first subway train at Qianmen Station along Line 2, changing twice more to reach Wangjing with Line 15 to take me back home to Houshayu Station! The day second time round had been well worth it compared to the first time, I had my bearings and most importantly I called all the shots, visiting the places I wanted to without any complaints or drama! I am glad that I have done Qianmen, next I am looking at visiting Beijing's showcase Tiananmen Square during the summer months. My coffee and bagel were lovely, the backdrop was also lovely and the conversations going on were ones I could full understand for once! Beijing has been in my life for eighteen months now and for that I feel I have seen a respectable amount of sights for that time but its time to pick up the pace now! Dashilan wasn't what I expected it to have been, but I was able to find something less tacky, rightly so! Beijing, just get your English together now!

Qianmen Done!

Joseph Harrison 

Thursday, 9 May 2019

18 Months in Beijing, China...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May, GTFO!

Joseph Harrison