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