The sons and daughters of the middle kingdom – Beijing, Qingdao .. a journey through modern China
They say that the worse time to visit a country is when it is on a public holiday. This statement could not be truer than in modern China, the world’s most populous nation, where throngs of people
greet bump you, once you step out on the street.
This happens even more frequently at the more popular destinations, with the exception of maybe only the interior highlands and the desert. I traveled between Beijing to Hangzhou for 2 weeks in August without knowing the summer holiday period was in full effect. The sons and daughters of China are released from their alma maters into the heat of summer, every year, between July and August.
Wherever you go, you will be jostling shoulder to shoulder with a local. Frequently, the pedestrian walking direction changes and you have to quickly adapt. Then, you have the hurried few who have no qualms on barging through your pathway, almost knocking you over, without apology, or a hint of remorse. Even if you shout or yell at your pedestrian perpetrator, you would be lucky to receive a glare. Yes, this is the best time to visit China, one of the cradles of civilization, the main manufacturer of global consumer goods, and the nation with the highest amount of foreign reserves in the world. While the middle kingdom is rich in history, culture, family values and mysticism, visitors new to China will often complain about the lack of courtesy and manners, as well as the overly glitzy and cheesy commercialization of key attractions.
While the Corporate China mixes English and Mandarin, the language on the street is still 100% Mandarin, plus some of the various different dialects. Bi-lingual directional signages often do not make sense and getting help from strangers can be frustrating. When attempting to communicate with locals, even if you have taken a Mandarin crash course, the different chinese accents are difficult to decipher. For me, the Beijing accent is particularly grating on the ear.
Welcome to our Hutong!
Hutong refers to ancient housing areas spread around Beijing
For me, the street food in Beijing, for the most part, was a pretty bad experience. Noodles arrive at your table drowned in either tasteless or overly salted lard broths that leave a layer of scum in your mouth. Unless you are willing to pay a lot more at an upscale restaurant, ingredients in any dish are miniscule. Chicken feet and gizzards that are cooked in different varieties, found in abundance, do not appeal to me. The dining experience here rapidly created in me, a longing for the great tastes and conveniences found in South East Asia. Even western branded fast food outlets in China are inconsistent with its international standards. KFC serves the tiniest chicken cuts I have ever seen, at exorbitant prices. Colonel Sanders would roll over in his grave. Several foreign students I met living in China had great expectations of fine chinese food when they first arrived, but now only laments on how unfulfilled their daily meals have been. I reckon that many chinese restaurants in western countries have been setup by chefs from southern parts of China where taste buds are more refined.
While one may be disappointed by the local food, the famous attractions that splash across tourist brochures such as the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, Tienanmen Square, and more, are still worthwhile visiting. Sure, many natural attractions in China have turned into commercialized ventures where old gravel paths have been spruced up with fancy walkways and lined with stalls selling all souvenirs sorts, but there is still that mystical enchantment in seeing the old artifacts and architecture – even though some of it has been re-built to look old. The public toilets in China are still as filthy as ever, as any visitor will recount. I am not alone in wondering why a simple procedure of spraying water 3 times a day and drying the floor off with a floor blower can’t be implemented.
There is a curious one-eyed cat at Mutianyu section of the Great Wall
Tired of sightseeing? You can stimulate your mind with a game of chinese chess with an ancient chinese guard at the Great Wall.
Or you can catch a nap at a corridor… sightseeing in Beijing can wear anyone down.
A father and daughter gives in to the summer heat and fatigue at the Forbidden City.
The girl above demonstrates the ideal pose of a fair chinese maiden.
In the ancient garden of the Forbidden City, even when signs state visitors shouldn’t climb trees or walk over the low fence, the locals can’t resist having a picture taken with a relic, or wanting to pat it.
At the mega sized Beijing Museum, you can spend hours inspecting ancient relics and modern art to understand more of Chinese history and culture. The artifact above makes you wonder where Walt Disney might have gotten his ideas or maybe, George Lucas’ Jedi warriors…
One of the marvels of modern China is the high speed railways. Without these steel horses, I would not have been able to cover my journey to the south which tallied over 1,800km of railway lines within 9 days, and yet still managed to catch some of its sights and sounds. The high speed trains tend to arrive on time, or earlier. Godsent.
China’s high speed railway has at least 6 tiers – G, C,D, T,Z, K. Each of the alphabets represents a chinese word describing the trains. The fastest and most expensive being the G train. The speed and prices trickles down the tiers unless you are taking overnight sleepers. As with anything else in China, your experience buying train tickets independently will be a harrowing one.
Firstly you have to search for the ticketing section in a massive modern complex with poor directional signage. The queues at all the ticket counters snake on forever. You need to have a bit of psychic powers to find the right queue and the one with the English speaking attendant. The easier alternative might be the automated ticket machine, which should be more convenient, but isn’t. The queues are here too and so are the poorly written help instructions. International credit cards will not work so you must carry Yuan/Renminbi. Fortunately the ticket offices are open 24 hours (which I only found out at my journey’s end) for you to deal with the frustrations.
The train stations in the cities are so large and open, you can pull up a tent and save on hotel charges
Having spent several days in Beijing, it was time to find a new destination. The summer holidays had messed my plans to visit historical Xian as all high speed trains were fully booked. Flights would be too expensive. The grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the vibrant cities towards North Korea, the cute pandas of Chengdu and the pretty tall girls of Dalian would make good additions to my exploration, but China is vast and my travel time limited, no matter how fast the trains might be. I thought about Qufu, the birth place of Confucius, but the appeal of a coastal town to catch some seafood, sun and beach fun seemed more attractive so I settled for Qingdao.
The not so sunny side of Qingdao coast
On the train, I met a friendly Chinese family from Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, who shared conversations, and tasty Mongolian snacks – spicy beef jerky and milk candy sticks. They were heading to Seoul via Qingdao where one of their daughters, Eva, studies. Eva and sister, Ivy, spoke good English as well as Korean and Mongolian. When we got out of the train station, they warned me of con-artists on the street selling rooms… or anywhere, for that matter
Toshiro Mifune, the late japanese actor, popular for classic samurai movies was born in Qingdao and he spoke mandarin. I did not know that. The beautiful actress and model, Fan Bing Bing, was also born here. The 2008 Olympic sailing events had been held here at the marina. Qingdao is a seaside city which has sea transfers and flights to South Korea, so it isn’t surprising there is a Korean community here. It also has a naval base, and German style architecture adorn many old buildings, influenced by its once German colonialists. And where there is German culture, there is beer so in Qingdao there is Tsingtao beer brewed since 1903, which is the other reason I was there, and it happened to be Qingdao International Beer Festival!
Near the Tsingtao Beer Museum
Tsingtao beer in Qingdao is apparently only made from the magical spring waters of Laoshan Mountain. Supposedly tastes better. Made between 2 to 3.6% alcohol volume, China beers are like soft drinks. Very good after long bouts of walking.
Sewer lids decorated with cartoon caricatures all around Tsingtao brewery
At a small youth hostel, I met Feng, a recent technician graduate who arrived early in the morning the day after I did. As he was a single man on a mission with several destinations planned (and me with no plans), I jumped at the chance to join him on his quest. Feng had been finding it difficult to secure a job under the current economic climate. He decided that a holiday would be better than to mope at home. Qingdao’s coastal attractions and Laoshan mountain would be his distraction… and then there was me, the laowai (foreigner).
Pre-selected seafood platter on display in a more expensive part of Qingdao
Live seafood markets were selling several marine life which I could not identify
Here is Feng proudly holding the Olympic torch at International Marina
While Beijing was hot and humid, Qingdao decided to be wet and cool. Under a constant drizzle, I followed Feng asking directions from strangers, walking and hopping on buses to the attractions he had set out to visit. As he learnt about the coastal city, so did I. It is with Feng that I first experienced the hospitality of a Mainland Chinese. The concept of face or ‘mien’ is important to the locals. It has been ingrained that a visitor should be shown the best hospitality in order create a good impression on host’s upbringing as well their family and ancestor’s name. Feng heard me complain so much about my local food experiences that he asked around for an area in Qingdao where really good, and affordable fresh seafood was served. Somewhere locals would go. Well, the place was Taidong Road area. We found our way there and yes it was cheap and tasty.
Part of the nice seafood dinner and beer courtesy of Feng. As he spoke the local lingo, he bought the fresh prawns, clams and a fish plus lamb kebabs at the wet market nearby and then had a street side restaurant cooked it for us. The ice cold Tsingtao draughts were a smash too. Each mug costs about RMB2, I think. Feng who said he doesn’t really drink, kept up with me glass for glass. Liar.
A neighbour’s table, obviously hungrier that us and probably a fatter wallet.
An assortment of fried and braised chicken feet and other animal parts. Lovely.
Beer take away in a plastic bag!
And this is what I like about traveling to a different land.
The opportunity to get out of my own skin, to lose myself temporarily and mingle with people from a different culture and mindset. It is the chance encounter with strangers that culminates in a positive engagement, even when both parties have to bid each other farewell eventually. These encounters allow me to re-examine my own character, and social interactions in my home environment. The kindness of strangers, even momentarily, always amazes me. It re-affirms the virtues of humanity is found in the unlikeliest of places. It reminds me that it is not such a cruel world, after all.
As I hop railway lines and walk streets towards Hangzhou, I discover more about the kindness of locals than I could never have imagined. I found that if you peel away the surface layer of a stoic, uncouth Chinese, you will find a warm friendly soul.
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