July 17th, 2009
After a thoroughly exhausting semester, what I really needed was a break. Not too long a break, but just some time out. My wife, who was feeling pretty much the same way, and myself have long harboured ambitions to visit Qingdao, legendary city-by-the-sea, home of China’s most famous beer, Olympic sailing venue, beaches, fresh seafood, city that everybody raves about. So we booked our tickets and a place to stay, and….
There and Back Again
A Kiwi’s Tale
‘Twas an early morning start on Sunday, July 12. We’d booked a taxi to pick us up at 5:30am and take us to the airport. We had an 8am flight- well, 8:15 as it turned out. We had to collect our tickets at the airport first. The taxi driver arrived early, we arrived before the ticket counter opened, check-in was a breeze, no hassles.
Well, the security check could’ve done better. The security staff at Beijing airport’s Terminal 3 that morning could’ve used some time in some of my classes: Speak clearly in complete sentences. But that was a minor hassle, we got through and got to the gate with a couple of hours to spare.
The flight, like all good flights, was totally boring. A little bit of minor turbulence, but otherwise, all went according to plan. That’s the way I like flights. A little scenery would’ve been nice, though, but the skies were a solid overcast. Before too long, we broke through the cloud cover and there was Qingdao spread out below us, verdant hills embracing the city. We descended over an industrial zone and landed at Qingdao’s small but very nice airport at Liuting. We collected the luggage and headed out in search of the bus.
I was a bit surprised by the age of the buses, but they were far from vintage, and there are more important things to worry about. We boarded and waited. Just as the driver closed the luggage compartment and climbed into his seat, a man with a thick Tianjin accent got up and started bellowing, “Oy, driver, when are we leaving? If we don’t leave now, I’m getting off!” I didn’t hear what the driver said to calm Tianjin Man down, but two minutes later, we left.
My wife had commented on the price of the bus tickets, saying “At these prices we might as well have taken a taxi.” As we were leaving the airport, I saw a taxi being driven at a manic pace in a manner patently absurd given the conditions only narrowly escape being clobbered by a Ford Transit. And although I’m sure he’d disagree with me, I find it hard to believe, given what I saw, that his escape was due to the taxi driver’s skill. Not much further on we saw the results of a recent collision between another two cars. I was quite happy on the bus, in other words.
But here’s about where we started wondering just what we’d let ourselves in for. The bus took us back through the industrial zone we’d flown over on the way in. Normally that wouldn’t bother me. Airports, like train stations, railway lines, and ports, tend to attract such things. But this was Qingdao, the legendary Qingdao, and we were being driven along rough roads lined with shabby, run-down industrial compounds, streams of water washing mud onto the road, all with a generally industrial slum-like quality. And the rivers we crossed confirmed what we’d seen from the plane: Thick brown water, brown with mud, I hope. In one storm water drain people were washing a car and a motorbike in this mudflow.
In the midst of this rundown, shabby, muddy sluminess a Haier and an LG compound stood out like diamonds being filtered out of the slurry of a mine, but otherwise, the view out of the bus windows did not improve as we bounced our way over the hills and down into the city.
We’d booked a 家庭旅馆 (jiātínglǚguǎn, “home hostel”, a basically furnished apartment the landlord rents out to tourists for short-term stays- can’t be a bad way to earn a living, considering our 4 nights rent came to probably not far short of a month’s rent for a regular apartment in the neighbourhood. There may potentially be legal issues involved in staying in such accomodation, though), and so getting off the bus meant finding the landlord. After some confusion, we found each other, and he took us in his car up the hill, dropping us off at a weight-loss clinic he owned while he cleaned the place up. We were earlier than expected, you see, meaning he’d had to kick the previous occupants out earlier than they’d planned (like hotels, generally you get the place up to midday the day after the last night you’ve paid for). We took the enforced wait as a chance to figure out exactly where in the city we were, in both absolute terms and in relation to the places we wanted to see. Buying a map at the airport, or even better, before you leave, can have its advantages.
But here’s the rub: The city proper did nothing to improve our impressions of Qingdao. We found ourselves in a neighbourhood of apartment buildings that looked about 20 years old, but which were showing all the signs of that slow rot one sees in brick, concrete and stone buildings in a humid, coastal city, streaked as they were in rust stains, moss, mould, roof tiles lost or missing, holes patched roughly, paint flaking, and between the buildings muddy, wild, overgrown gardens.
Could this really be Qingdao?
Leaving, by contrast, was a far more pleasant experience. Oh boy, that sounds nasty. I don’t mean it that way, really. We got a taxi for one last manic ride over the hills of Qingdao then dropped down into the train station. The train station is one of Qingdao’s magnificent old German colonial buildings, and well-preserved too. And then we walked inside. One needs a train ticket to get in the station, but security was quick and efficient and entirely painless. Once inside, a quick glance around promised a beautiful, modern building. It wasn’t until we’d found our way down to our waiting hall and gotten a place to sit that I had a proper look around: Oh yes, this railway station is beautiful, modern, clean, sparkling and, at least to my inexpert eyes, entirely in keeping with the original architecture.
The time came and we boarded the D-52, one of the CRH high-speed trains. I’d never ridden a CRH before, and so I was curious and, based on our second-class tickets and past run-ins with hard seat trains, a little apprehensive. No need, the interior of the train was clean and comfortable and the seats amply spacious, like a plane but with room to move. And at least when we boarded in Qingdao, nobody with standing tickets trying to sneak whatever seat became vacant in the hopes its rightful owner wouldn’t claim it. Very nice.
A small jolt, and then we glided off smoother than any form of transport I’ve ever experienced, with the sole exception of the Dalian-Tianjin ferry, which was blessed with glassy-smooth seas the night we rode it, cruising at a stately 80 km/h as we rolled over the hills and through the suburbs of Qingdao, speeding up as we left the city and settled onto the plain that connects the mountainous peninsula with the mountains of central Shandong, travelling at 170 – 180 km/h most of the way, but hitting as high as 236 km/h on some sections. And yet the train accelerated so effortlessly and rode so smoothly that at no time did it feel like we were going fast.
We didn’t always travel so fast, though, and as we skirted the mountains from Weifang around to Jinan, we never seemed to go much over 180 km/h, with the Jinan to Dezhou section taken at 150 to 160 km/h, but a pattern seemed to be developing, and it would seem to make sense that the speed of the train was determined by the conditions of each particular section of track- seem to make sense? No, that much is patently obvious, but what was not obvious to us mere passengers was the particular conditions limiting our speed on any given section of the line. In any case, after Dezhou we picked up the speed again, cruising at 200 km/h into Yangliuqing, then up to 245 km/h for the run into Beijing South Station.
And there’s another beautiful railway station, Beijing South, from which our exit was just as smooth, effortless and painless as our entry into Qingdao Station.
And so now I’m thinking that all our future travelling, at least over distances of less than 1000 or maybe 1500 kilometres, will be done by CRH train where possible. It wasn’t just cheaper, but easier and far more comfortable than the flight, and the extra time taken does not outweigh those huge advantages.
That’s what we were there for, the seaside. As it turned out, the experience was rather mixed. Early in the evening of July 12, having recovered from the journey, we headed down to May 4th Square (五四广场) to check out the local scene. The sky had cleared, the sky was blue, but there was a distinct haze in the air which Qingdao never seemed to shake the whole time we were there. With the sun lowering over the hills and into the haze to the west, crowds of tourists and the hawkers and hustlers they attract, but a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere with none of the nonsense so often associated with such places, it felt good to stroll along the waterfront taking in the sea air. A young man in a crazy soldier costume with a toy gun and a bugle, the whole ensemble streaked in gold paint, doing one of those human statue acts, charged us 10 kuai for a few photos with him in crazy poses- that seemed to be how he made his living, or at least a bit of extra cash, and he wasn’t the only one plying this particular trade- but in the process, he told my mother in law, who was holding an empty water bottle, “Oh, just throw the bottle in the sea, it doesn’t matter.”
Yeah, that’s a real good look. And looking into the sea it was worse: Streaks of brown, quite possibly mud, but who can tell? Random bits of rubbish and refuse. Dirty, in other words. I thought Qingdao was supposed to be clean. I thought this was where they had the Olympic sailing competitions- indeed, the Olympic Sailing Centre was clearly visible just on the other side of the bay. So what could explain such filthy water or a young man, apparently a local, telling tourists to just throw their rubbish in the sea?
The next day was a heavy overcast threatening rain again, so having bought our train tickets home, we decided to get at least some beach time in before the rain hit. The taxi driver told us not to bother with Bathing Beach No. 3, which the map said was the closest, but to go to the Stone Old Man (石老人) Beach instead. After some discussion, he took us in the direction of the Stone Old Man, but dropped us off one beach early, at the Laoshan District Beach, where the disappointment continued. On the other side of a roughly-laid parking lot were two rows of cheap and nasty prefab buildings, between which was the entrance to the beach. On the beach were rows of tents, presumably for hire, some makeshift stalls, cheap and nasty fairground games, and a couple of places selling rides on quad bikes or speedboats. The prefabs housed a few restaurants, but it was too early for them to be open, and changing rooms. Off to the west was a squat, pink concrete building which charged 1 yuan for entrance to dirty, rust-stained, ill-maintained toilets. Business was not brisk for any of these establishments, it being a Monday morning of foreboding weather. Scattered along the beach was litter: cigarette butts and lighters, for the most part, but broken glass and bottle caps, too, even an old pair of glasses missing a lens. It was cleaner down where the waves were washing up onto the beach, but even so, we were careful where we walked- it was along the waterline, after all, that I fished that old pair of glasses out of the sand.
Nevertheless, we managed to ignore the litter and enjoy ourselves playing in the shallows and taking photos, then after an hour or so headed back up towards those changing rooms, looking to rinse our feet off so we could get a ride home without trampling mud through the taxi. 20 kuai to change one’s clothes or rinse one’s feet?! You have got to be kidding me! But no, there it was on handwritten signs outside each of the changing rooms written clearly: 20 元, and sitting behind desks were sour-faced attendants studiously ignoring our incredulity and scorn, waiting for the non-existent idiot tourists to cough up the money. The people at a drinks stall knew what we were on about: “You want water to wash your feet, right?” Yup, and they sold us water at something like a more normal price for bottled mineral water, and we rinsed off there in the carpark.
The next day dawned dull and damp, but it cleared up again about midday, and after lunch we headed back to May 4th Square hoping to catch a ride on a tour boat. There weren’t enough people, though, so they swapped our tour boat ride for a ride in a speedboat that just couldn’t quite seem to live up to the name. It was good, though, to get a view of Qingdao under blue skies (but still shrouded by that ever-present haze) from the sea angle, and it was quite an impressive view: Behind the promenade along the waterfront at May 4th Square was a row of surprisingly tasteful villas, behind which skyscrapers rose in front of steep, forested hills. Behind Bathing Beach No. 3 the old city with it’s colonial German architecture climbed the hills.
After our slow speedboat ride, we followed the coastal path around to Bathing Beach No. 3, and the disappointment continued: Murky water and a beach covered in litter. Fortunately, though, despite the litter, this beach had a much better set up: Permanent buildings that looked properly maintained along the top of the beach, lifeguards, shark nets, and plenty of people, locals and tourists, enjoying themselves. Still, it wasn’t crowded and everybody had space.
Off the coast a large freighter with words I remember as “China Ocean Shipping” in huge white letters on the hull was making its way into the harbour. It was hard to see through the haze, but there seemed to be some containers on deck, but it was a long way from carrying a full load, and it rode very high in the water.
In Search of Lao She
Towards the end of Tuesday evening’s wanderings we found ourselves walking down through Lao She Park, at the base of which is a statue of Lao She and his books. Naturally, I made sure to have my photo taken there. And marked oh-so-tantalisingly on the map are the former residences of so many famous people of the late 19th and early 20th centuries…. Kang Youwei’s and Shen Congwen’s places looked inviting, but Lao She’s was simply irresistible. Inspired by the statue in the park and the mark on the map, I decided a literary pilgrimage was in order.
And so on Wednesday morning, under clear skies but in heat and humidity that threatened to become oppressive, we jumped in a taxi and told the driver: “Lao She’s former residence”.
“Where?” came the reply in a local accent as thick as treacle.
“Daxue Lu”, says I.
“You sure? Isn’t it at [somewhere indecipherable]?”
And the discussion continued, none of us entirely sure where to go, me relying on the map I’d seen but left in the apartment, the driver relying on some vague memory, as we drove off in the direction of all these former residences in search of Lao She. We sped past Kang Youwei’s place too fast for me to pick out which of the spacious old villas was his, although the whole row looked quite nice, then circled around the Daxue Lu area, peering at walls seeking out the elusive plaque, stopping to ask locals for directions, none of whom had even the foggiest idea what we were on about. Eventually we stopped a safe distance from an intersection and my wife ran back to ask the traffic cop, who pointed vaguely back in the direction of Daxue Lu. We decided to set the driver free from his torment, thanked and paid him, and set off to continue the search on foot. A slower pace, after all, would give us time to examine our surroundings more closely.
Stopping to buy a couple of bottles of water and ice blocks at a store under the Daxue Lu Viaduct (a rather grandiose name- ‘overbridge’ would have sufficed), we asked again, “Where’s Lao She’s former residence?”
“Just up there” she said, pointing straight up Daxue Lu, “But it’s being renovated, you can’t get inside.”
Sweet, we’re nearly there, I’m thinking, but I noticed the look on my wife’s face: It’s being renovated, you can’t go in, why bother? But of course I still want to see the place, having spent so long on a wild goose chase. In fact, I never really cared whether I could go in or not, and half-expected it to have been converted into apartments, and I don’t need to see any recreation of his writing desk or description of his toilet habits. So we trundled off, inspecting every gateway for the sign we needed. Almost at the end of that stretch of Daxue Lu I saw a map hung on a wall on the other side of the road, and having not noticed a tiny lane heading up the hill just after the bridge, misinterpreted it to say that if we took the next left, we’d be right there….
….and after doing a big loop around the hill, we found ourselves wandering down a narrow lane, and there it was on the right just 20-odd metres up from where we’d started on Daxue Lu, rambling and broken down, windows gaping like eye sockets in a skull, gate filled in with what looked like bricks covered over in cement, and the two precious signs on either side of the gate announcing this indeed was the place: Lao She’s former residence.
The more informative of the signs (informative in Chinese only, though, which seems to be the pattern of things around Qingdao’s historic sites) announced that Lao She lived here from 1934 to 1936 when he was a professor in the Chinese Literature department of Shandong University, and that this was where he wrote Camel Xiangzi (《骆驼祥子》, also known as Rickshaw Boy). So I took the requisite photos, and that was that.
At some point about half way through this mission, the taxi driver told me I was a bit silly coming to Qingdao for cultural tourism. Qufu does that (of course, being Confucius’ hometown), whereas Qingdao just does natural scenery. I just grimaced a yeah, I know, and continued staring out the car window. There was no point in starting a discussion about Qingdao’s many obvious points of cultural and historic interest, and in any case, this pilgrimage was nothing more than an impulse brought on by a statue in a park and a mark on a map. I hadn’t come to Qingdao to track down anything of cultural or literary interest, just to get a few days of desperately needed rest from Beijing.
Churches and a Governor’s Residence
Before we left for Qingdao, I was a bit reluctant to check out any of the colonial architecture. After all, I grew up in a former colony, and I’ve seen the old British stuff in Hong Kong and Tianjin, so what’s the big deal, right? But of course, the colonial architecture in New Zealand and Hong Kong and that in Tianjin which had been restored when I was there was pretty much all British, and I found myself growing a little curious. And so late on Tuesday afternoon we piled into a taxi and told the driver to take us to the Protestant Church.
We were dropped halfway down a hill at the base of a bluff, up which we climbed, and there it was, a large, yellow, curvy structure looking out over the sea. Somehow its shape, but in particular its location reminded me of First Church in Dunedin, except that the German building was more relaxed and subtle, lacking First Church’s Gothic drama worthy of a Bram Stoker novel. We were late enough to not have to pay the entry fee, but too late to see inside, so after a quick look around and a few photos, we moved on.
Moving on meant moving down the hill and along to the right, passing across the top of Lao She park, up to the former governor’s residence, a huge, majestic building fronted by a well-tended garden. Thence along the hill and up slightly to the Catholic Church.
The Catholics certainly outdid the Protestants in church-building grandiosity with their enormous, imposing cathedral, but it was the same warm, inviting pale yellow colour as the more modest Protestant Church, and its western walls glowed nicely with a faint hint of pink in the setting sun.
Along the way we passed many other old German buildings, all of them more modest than the churches and dwarfed by the former governor’s residence. Some had become government offices, others had been taken over by businesses, and still others had been converted into apartments. Some, like the churches and the governor’s residence, seemed, at least at first glance, to be in a very good state of repair. Most, though, were more ramshackle and rundown, showing clear signs of that polite decay one sees in stone, brick and concrete buildings in this humid, salty climate, much like the apartment blocks around where we were staying. Indeed, walking around the back of the Catholic Church, we saw that it, too, had not been spared the vagaries of the weather.
And then on the way to the railway station I spied sitting on a hillside a red and very square church building, one I had not seen and which I can not find on my map. Of course, by that stage it was too late to jump out and explore, but there it was, on the hill, anonymous.
One does not visit a city famous for beer without sampling the local brew. I am sad to report that the regular Tsingtao Beer on sale in Qingdao is no different from that you can buy anywhere else in Mainland China. But of course, you say, why would it be any different? Because not all beers bearing the same label are the same all over the world. Guinness, I believe, brews its beers to local tastes, meaning the Guinness one buys in New Zealand or China is not necessarily the same as that brewed at St James’ Gate. More specifically: The Tsingtao I drank in Hong Kong had a significantly higher alcohol content and much maltier flavour than that we’re used to on the Mainland.
啤酒街 – Beer Street- forget it. What a waste of time and money. It turned out to be one long row of outdoor restaurants which seemed more geared up to people sitting down to eat than to the sampling of the local brew, and yet it was the local brew that had brought us there. We eventually chose a place to sit, the first in that section of the street where the staff bothered to pay any attention to us (and no, there were not many customers, most of the tables were empty), assured them that we were here for beer, not feed, and ordered a pitcher of their black beer. 45 kuai for a pitcher of black beer that might as well have been a very ordinary lager, only coloured black, and that tasted like it had been seriously watered down. In fact, as we poured it, its colour faded into something golden. Not wanting to waste 45 kuai, we finished the pitcher as quick as we could then left.
However, the supermarket beer aisles- fridges, if you’re lucky- are well worth exploring. I had a lot of fun sampling the selection in our local supermarket, and almost all the beers, the sole exception being Laoshan, were worth the effort. They were of varying qualities- Laoshan sitting at the Budweiser end of the scale, but the others ranging from a passable middling on up. King of them all was the Tsingtao Stout/青岛黑啤, which, although not quite as weighty as a real stout, had deep, dark, complex flavours and was a real pleasure to drink.
I can’t help but thinking that a large part of our poor impression of Qingdao was down to the climate. Most of our stay was under overcast skies and there was a lot of rain, some of it very heavy. But climate can only explain so much: The decay evident on the sides of all but the newest buildings; the muddy rivers and seas; the close, musty feel of the place and a good part of the ever-present haze. We were told by one that the summer had seen an unusual amount of rain so far, and by another that August would be even damper.
But the weather could not explain the litter on the beaches or in the sea- mud, yes, but not cigarette butts, bottles, bits of plastic and paper and even a sad, lonely sandle floating around. Nor could the weather explain buses belching black smoke or a local telling us to just throw our rubbish in the sea.
Even so, we were only there four days, far from enough to make any sound judgements, and the weather clearly did play a role in our experience of Qingdao. In fact, the city did become quite attractive when the skies cleared, even if it did retain a fair bit of the humidity.
Qingdao’s traffic is certainly not the worst of seen, but I’m struggling to think of where I may have seen more atrocious driving by taxi drivers. Call me crazy, but I don’t appreciate finding myself hurtling downhill with the car in neutral no more than a hundred metres from a queue of cars stopped at a red light, only for the driver to put the car back in gear and accelerate while he decides whether to stop in our current lane or change into one with a shorter queue. Speeding around blind corners on the wrong side of the road also tends to get my feathers a little ruffled.
Unlike the seaside, which seems to be chronically overrun with tourists in the evenings, Lao She Park was populated by the usual mix of people one finds in public spaces in residential China: Grandmothers with grandchildren, old men playing chess or cards, people walking dogs, and so on. One old man really stood out: with his big, wide, white hat and moustache like a scrubbing brush had been glued to his upper lip, slamming his cards down with such gusto he shook the ground his mates were sitting on, he looked like he’d just dropped out of a poker game in a saloon in America’s Old West.
From the time the bus carried us out of the airport, my wife and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with Dalian, and the comparisons never favoured Qingdao. Dalian’s gravelly beaches can’t match Qingdao’s soft sand, but we found Dalian to be cleaner, more developed, and generally more pleasant. Of those of China’s coastal cities I’ve visited, Dalian remains by far my favourite.
Four days is certainly not enough time to form a fully rounded, informed opinion of a city, but it is enough to form an opinion, however limited it may be. In fact, this is one reason I don’t actually like travel all that much. Other than all the waiting one does in airports, ferry terminals and bus and train stations, followed by more waiting stuffed in a tin can breathing recycled air with untold numbers of strangers, I don’t think you can really begin to judge a place until you’ve spent at least a year there as involved as you can be in the local community. I like being in new places, I strongly dislike the getting there, but what I like most is living there.
Nevertheless, one inevitably makes judgements about places one visits, even when one knows rationally that such a judgement can not be fully informed or rational. Qingdao strikes me as being a pleasant enough place, and I can see how in better weather the scenery could be stunning, but overall we were disappointed. Qingdao just didn’t live up to its reputation. The key test, though, is the simple question: Could I live here? On that test, Qingdao passes, although it’s far from a high score.