Thursday, 4 April 2013

Across Asia With a Lowlander: Part 2a: Qingdao

world-map qingdao


This week’s posting is a day early since I’m off to Walsingham this weekend and so I need to be away from the computer for a few days. However, whilst I’m with Our Lady, you can be reading all about the time that the Lowlander and I sailed to China…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna




Master Potter does Fine China

(Or the accounts of a Midlander in a Middle Kingdom)

18th July, 2002 – Qingdao, China

Early morning afloat revealed a surprise. Opening curtains to our little porthole, we saw not the endless expanse of ocean that we'd expected, but instead a nearby shore, lined with skyscrapers and other lesser structures.

qingdao01 Chinese dawn

“But we're not meant to arrive for another two hours,” said the Lowlander.

“Perhaps the boat follows the shore for some distance, and this is not Qingdao?” suggested I.

But no, this was our city of destination, and half an hour later we were descending the staircase towards the dry land of China, a little unprepared and ahead of schedule.

china visa

Going through the customs and in the taxi into the town, I scanned the passing scenery eagerly, anxious to register my first impressions of this vast country. More than most places that I've had the good fortune to visit, I was curious. What exactly is China like? Rich, poor, totalitarian and oppressed, or free and easy? Considering its vast size we do hear remarkably little about it, but there again, perhaps that is intentional? All I knew is that it had been very poor but is now supposed to be getting very rich, very quickly. This wealth however was not being spread out too much, the cities of the Eastern Seaboard doing very well, whereas the West is lagging behind. Or at least that is what the sages in the world's current affairs periodicals tell us. Well, Qingdao being a port, definitely falls into the Eastern Seaboard category, but even so I knew not what to expect. Is it rich like Japan or South Korea, or just rich when compared with the Third World? And rich in what way? A brash, bold and untidy wealth, such as unbridle capitalism tends to produce, or a regimented, sterile and ordered prosperity such as old Mao would approve of? I was eager to find out.

My first glances told a mixed story. The port, with its grand yet shabby customs facilities was something straight out of the Eastern Bloc, yet as we drove into town in our Volkswagen taxi, we were in a city more akin to Seoul than Sofia. Brash advertising hoardings and boastful towers of commerce sprung up on both sides, and the pavements were peopled by men and women as smart and fashionable as their counterparts on the streets of Pusan and Osaka. Yet at the same time, this wasn't Korea or Japan, and underneath it all a redbrick and concrete block uniformity that smacked of Stalin was omnipresent. No, this was no Korea. That's because it was China.

The taxi dropped us and our baggage off as requested in the large square by the city's railway station. We'd decided beforehand to book our tickets onwards to Beijing first, and dump our baggage in the left luggage at the station, before embarking of the coastal city unencumbered and with a firm knowledge of how much time we had. Actually doing so however, proved to be far more difficult than we'd anticipated, as it soon became obvious that in China one cannot just turn up at the booking office and purchase a ticket for the next train.

“To Beijing? No, it's full.”

“What time is the train with free seats?”

(All this was being done, by the way, via phrases from the guide and phrase books, jotted down in the KFC across the road, before we'd entered the confines of the station).

“Nine at night.”

“Ok, two soft sleeper tickets.”

(In China there are two classes of sleeper, hard and soft. We thought that the latter sounded better).

“There are no soft sleeper tickets left.”

“Ok, then two hard sleeper tickets please.”

“No hard sleeper tickets left.”

“Oh. When is there a train with sleeper tickets?”

“Two days time.”

“Ok then, two soft seat tickets please.”

(Like the sleepers, you can get hard or soft seats).

“No soft seats.”

“Two hard seats then.”


Hmm, that would mean travelling through the night to Beijing, (which was thirteen hours away), on a hard seat; a prospect that sounded far from inviting, but there was nothing for it. And looking on the bright side, at least we'd be saving money.

Tickets done, we went to stow our bags which would hopefully be an easier task to accomplish. Before committing my rucksack to the nice man at the left luggage counter however, I moved over to a dark corner to take out my money and guidebook. About to put my bag down, I was halted by a loud “Stop!” from the Lowlander.

“What?” I asked, somewhat perplexed.

“Look at the floor!” I did as commanded, only to find that every corner or niche, including that where I was about to put my bag, was covered with spittle. It was truly a most disgusting spectacle.

“I heard about that habit before I came here,” spoke my Dutch comrade in travels. “They spit in every corner they find.” Flob-covered baggage avoided, I moved to a more open place, and extracted my essentials, before committing the bags to a day of confinement in a metal locker, and heading out into the open, ready to explore the great Chinese metropolis of Qingdao.

Whoa! Wait a minute! What's this about a 'great metropolis'? Qingdao? Never even heard of the place myself; it can't be that great, surely? And to be a metropolis, well, you have to have a fair few people I reckon. We too, it must be admitted, had never even heard of the place either, yet a quick look at the guidebook told us that we perhaps should have. Qingdao, population 6,954,400. Wait a minute! That's seven million, that's bloody huge! That's bigger than any city in Europe barring London, Paris, Istanbul and Moscow! It's bigger that virtually every city in North America too, and far surpasses anything that Australasia has to offer. But there again, that's China; a country that the modern Westerner knows so little about, that a metropolis of seven million can be easily missed. In fact, who reading this can name more than four Chinese cities? Not many I imagine, and I doubt not that twelve million strong Tianjin is not in the list that you came up with.

Qingdao is not only big however. To the Chinese it is also very famous as an urban holiday resort and the home of the country's favourite brew Tsingtao, (an old spelling of 'Qingdao'). Its main claim to fame however, is not as a centre of Oriental ale production, but instead that during the nineteenth century, it was Germany's Treaty Port on the Yellow Sea, ( it was them that established the brewery by the way), and more than a few Teutonic traces remain, particularly in the city's architecture, making it the ideal place for those Chinese who fancy a bit of European culture to head for.


China… or Germany?

And indeed, sampling it they were. Large parties of schoolchildren were being assembled into orderly lines by harassed teachers who were anxious that they notice the railway station's Bavarian flavour. We however, had come to see China, not Hanover, and so we didn't stay around to watch, instead heading towards the bank to change some money.

qingdao02 Schoolchildren on a trip to Qingdao

We got our yuan without any hassle at an extremely plush bank and then set out, not for the tourist sites, but rather strangely, the post office. But there again, perhaps not that strangely. After all, we’d arrived safely in a new country, and were now deep within the scary unknown red bosom of the People’s Republic. Was it not right to tell the world that all was not evil and that we were safe and sound? That’s what we reckoned anyway, plus getting rid of some of the junk that we’d acquired in Korea might not be a bad idea too, so that’s what we did, and I must admit rather enjoying trying to get across to the friendly postal staff what we wanted to send and where we wanted to send it to.

Qingdao, despite being a hugely popular tourist resort, is not over endowed with sights to see, or at least, not sights of a non-German origin, most folks coming purely for the beaches. Well, that’s the impression that we got anyway as we passed bathing beaches numbers six, one, two and three, (Oh, how romantic the Chinese are with their names!), in our taxi en route to the only site that interested us; Zhanshan Si, a Tiantai Buddhist temple with, (according to the guidebook), twenty monks in residence. Not that it is that remarkable a place mind, it was only built in 1934, and so can hardly be listed in the ‘ancient’ category, but this was China, and in China seeing temples is a tourist must. Besides, I’d never been in a Tiantai, (whatever that means, I never found out from the visit), temple, or indeed any temple in China before, so why not?

Actually, Zhanshan Si turned out to be quite interesting. Incense fragranced the air, and although the buildings were of brick and unremarkable, the place did have an atmosphere, and the greenery that surrounded the complex was a welcome change. I bought a few of the smelly sticks and offered thanks, before marvelling at the wooden effigies of deities in the pavilions and then returning back to the city centre.


Zhanshan Si

Now Qingdao may have almost seven million residents, but like Incheon before it, you’d never have guessed from visiting the place. In fact, from walking around the city centre, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that there was more than a million there, so tiny was its central business district, being no larger than that of Wolverhampton or Groningen. Perhaps we never did find the true heart of the city, or perhaps out-of-town shopping has taken off in a big way in China, I know not, but the place had the feel of some provincial town, now an enormous metropolis on a par with Berlin. Still, that meant that wandering the streets was not too taxing, and we two enjoyed it, purchasing a new pair of shoes for myself, a meal for us both, some English language books and stumbling on a fine Bavarian-style Catholic church where I acquired a rosary and small crucifix, (I’d figured we’d be needing all the help that we could get further inland).


Qingdao Cathedral

Walking back to the railway station, the Lowlander and I decided to look upwards, not forwards, and entered into a discussion on the towering new buildings that dominated the modern centre of Qingdao. “The thing is though,” my sage Dutch friend commented, “they spend all this time designing nice new buildings, that are really smart and everything, and then screw it up with the air conditioners.” It was a wise observation. The appearance of each building, pristine and shiny, with straight lines reaching towards the skies, was completely ruined by the addition of air conditioning units fastened to the outsides of half the apartments or offices, destroying the sense of symmetry and design. It was in a way, perhaps a good indicator of the situation of modern China. The country is rich and getting richer, yet only two or three decades ago it was very much a Third World state, and in its rush forwards, some of the short-sighted and ill-thought out practices, common to the Third World, had not yet eradicated themselves.

We had some time to wait before our train departed so we headed into the McDonalds on the main square, (they have decent tea, ok), and drank several cuppas whilst continuing our mammoth backgammon competition, a session just favourable to myself, ending at three games to two in the Britisher's favour. As we looked out of the large plate glass windows onto the illuminated beach, whilst listening to the keyboard player that the kind management of the shop with the yellow 'M' had employed to entertain diners, we agreed that Qingdao was indeed rather a pleasant city and our introduction to the People’s Republic had been a favourable one.

It was dark when we boarded our train, a vast snake of seventeen carriages hauled by a mighty monster of a diesel locomotive. Hard seat class we found to our dismay was very much that, with the passengers being crammed in and the seats themselves having extremely annoying vertical backs. We asked about upgrading, which is possible on Chinese State Railways, but alas it was not on this service. It was high season, and Qingdao was a tourist resort, and every seat in every class was taken. So, we sat down with no option of seeing out the trip in a degree of discomfort.

qingdao06 All aboard the night train…

But it wasn't all bad, since travelling proletariat-style does mean that you are thrown in with those said people, and our fellow travellers did turn out to be not only friendly, but also English-speaking. They were a student from a town in Inner Mongolia called Homrue, and a jolly fat guy called Cheung Yan, who were returning from an enjoyable vacation in the German-esque resort. We chatted for a while, and then I finished Colin Forbes's Precipice, and when I had perused all its predictable pages, I handed it over to the student so that he may learn the English vocabulary connected with the World of European Espionage. And that done, and the lights turned out I snuggled down into my seat as much as was possible and drifted into a light and uneasy slumber.

Next part: 2b: Beijing (I)

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