Once again, I’m binge blogging so get a packet of party wafers or Viennese Whirls on the go, prepare a cafetiere and make sure you’re sitting comfortably.
Chapter 1: Qingdao
I readied myself for the 17 hour ferry journey, arming myself with plenty of reading material, writing paper and colouring books to pass the time. I needn’t have. Having wandered around the boat, chatted to a few of my fellow passengers, found my bunk in steerage (60 bunks in blocks of six in one large room; there is a also a Japanese style dorm, essentially just a room of mattresses on the floor) and had a feed, I was ready for a little nap. Tiring journey to Incheon, see. There are no proper common areas on the boat so everyone socialises at high volumes in the dorm rooms, but even the most determined screeching of my cabin mates couldn’t stop me from drawing the curtain on the world and drifting into a nap. Which lasted 14 hours. Must have been the cradle sensation of the boat – it definitely wasn’t the bean pillow that they provide – but that’s almost 3 sleeps in one for me.
Lady Luck was on my side. Having done nil research pre-arrival, it turned out that Qingdao (Q is pronounced more like a ‘ch’ in Chinese) is one of the recommended stops on Chinese tours and the home of the internationally recognised Tingtao beer. Hurrah! Arriving, the first thing I noticed was an enormous shipment of coal being unloaded from a tanker, heaped on the quayside and divided into bitesized cars on a waiting train. The quantity of just one tanker was staggering and stark reminder that China is still coal powered (it’s the biggest producer and consumer of coal in the world), a fact that you’ll find hard to forget once you have spent any time in China’s choked air. Qingdao is famous, not just for the beer (Tsingtao, which anyone who has been to a Chinese take-away will have sampled), but also for hosting the sailing event during the Beijing Olympics. Only to make it windy and clear enough for the event, rumour has it that the government had to pay neighbouring factories to shut down for 6 months.
The second was a young kid being urged by his mum to do a poo onto a leaflet (hygiene first). On the newly laid-brick pavement, right outside a glittering new apartment block. I mention the surroundings because I haven’t seen such a public poo since I was last in India, yet by comparison, China is cleaner and more ordered. Though that is a pretty low benchmark.
Cleaning in China seems to me to be mostly superficial, rarely involving bleach or cleaning products. In one railway station, it consisted of shifting the sleeping forms by hollering in their faces, flicking water all over the floor and systematically pushing a broom full of sawdust around the floor. Sweeping often comes after mopping and, like the Arabs, the Chinese don’t believe in bins as much as skivvies to clean up after you. Filthy pigdogs, in the main.
That said, the poor cleaners are fighting an uphill battle with the ranko habit of spitting. Just after the above-mentioned sawdust clean had been completed, I watched – from the higher ground that I had sought – a local cover one nostril with a finger and snot onto the floor. I think, no, I know that I looked at him with disgust, whereupon he produced a tissue from his pocket. What? Do that in the first place, you ranko; there are kids playing here!
It’s been said before but I’ll say it again: In China you are never more than a few seconds away from the rasp of lung batter being summoned from the depths of even the tiniest, most delicate frames and gobbed on the street. Or wall. Or table. Or anywhere. They’re indiscriminate. Of course, the civilised will scrape it along the floor with their foot afterwards, a ‘spit and tap’ practice that was published in the Victorian issue of Debretts. I’ve seen people gob inside restaurants and onto carpets. It’s disgusting.
I know it’s a cultural thing (the Chinese consider it unhealthy to ‘swallow’), but on this I am right. Why? Why is considered ok?? It’s vile and the Chinese know it really; that’s why they had the spitting ban for the Olympics. It’s no coincidence that China and India have the highest TB rates. If any malicious genius has designs on streamlining the world population, they could do worse than to develop a virus that spreads by miasma.
I swear I was born into the wrong era. The 1920s and 30s would have suited me just grand.
Anyway, negotiated my way through the port and through to town, without the convenience of a guide book, map or any aptitude in Mandarin. People had, as usual, tried to scaremonger that a lone white female without so much as a scant knowledge of the local lingo would be up a gum tree in China. Not so. The Chinese are outward-looking and ambitious; most of them realise that life without English is hard in the international trade scene and as fast as Westerners are learning Mandarin, they are learning English. In fact, it’s a mandatory requirement in all university courses.
Found a hostel, map and feed and did some laundry, by hand, in the absence of a washing machine. For me, this is essentially a Febreeze job with water. I’ve had to wash my own clothes countless times on these trips, but I remain terrible at handwashing (another reason, along with disinclination to cook, that I’d make a terrible wife. Though I’m tidy and can sew a button, for any prospective suitors that might be reading). How the Indian women get their whites so sparkling when they wash their clobber in the Ganges with a stone, I will never know. Actually, scratch that – caustic soda is the answer. I must search out value-for-money laundry service. In the Philippines, I had the entire contents of my bag washed for just over a quid. That’s what we’re looking for.
Went for an explore and found a city that looks, well, a lot like Europe. They call it the Bavarian city of China and it’s pretty clear to see why, with all the German architecture still hanging on in there. It’s one of China’s best beach towns and along the seafront are lots of pretty little parks and beach distractions. My favourite was the jungle gym, populated almost entirely by old, leathery Chinese men in speedoes doing acrobatic exercises and weights. Like a far, far less glamorous Miami Beach.
Developed a bit of an itinerary after chatting to the locals and doing a bit of research and decided to head up to Tai’an mountain en route to Shanghai. You may have seen, but China is a pretty big place and it’s easy to get ‘eyes bigger than your belly’ when planning your itinerary. Don’t. Don’t do that. Tempting as it might be to try and see all of the highlights, from Tibet to Chengdu to Shanghai to Xi’an to Beijing to…, in a couple of weeks. It straight isn’t possible. So stop dreaming and bite off a manageable chunk.
Tai’an is one of the holiest mountains in China. Chairman Mao stood up the top here and declared ‘the East is Red’. But did the lazy pie-faced bastard walk up? Hell no. He was carried up in a sedan chair. I guess they don’t call him the chairman for nothing, boom BOOM!
Nipped on down to the train station one drizzly Saturday afternoon to get me a ticket. Good gracious, what a bun fight. Waited patiently in an unmoving line – the only one marked ‘English speaking counter’ – for half an hour before getting bored and wondering whether I needed to go get my passport to buy a ticket. So I played dumb tourist and barrelled to the front of the line, where some bloke was presenting 40-odd passports to mass purchase tickets from a lady who in fact spoke no English whatsoever. But the lady in no. 11 did. Went there, straight to the front and got me one of the last tickets on the last train that night. ‘Standing’.
I’m going to call it an experiment in Chinese train travel, but once you’ve gone ‘standing’ once, I don’t think you’ll do it again, certainly not deliberately. Essentially found myself sitting on my bag next to the disgusting squat toilet from which the scent of wee frequently wafted, in amongst the cloud of smoke that hung over the only bit of the train that you’re allowed to puff in. Echoes of the Polish train trip I took with Dr Wookey a couple of years back when we unwittingly booked for a bank holiday and found ourselves at 2am seatless, sitting on the steel floor next to the bogs with Polish school kids nipping along the compartments to pilfer booze for us under their teacher’s nose. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the Chinese State Circus get their contortionists from, look no further. You have never seen people wind themselves into such sleeping positions. I doff my cap at them.
Chinese trains are vast. Each carriage has about 100 people in it and I estimated that there were about 15 carriages on our train. I wondered how all the bods in the waiting room were going to fit, but fit they did. Out of idle curiosity, I googled how much revenue the Chinese Train Service is turning over. Have guess. <Dr Evil voice> One billion dollars. It quintupled in 2009 and I daresay it will continue to rise as the high speed rolls out (ain’t cheap, for China), providing the recent and tragic crash doesn’t put people off. They do need to sort out the power issues though. The lightening excuse might work once but those trains are always running out of juice, if you catch my drift.
Settled myself into a spot, sitting on my bag amid a staring crowd of Chinese gents. They amused themselves for the 8-hour journey by pointing at my boots, trousers, skinny arms and height, laughing at each in turn. Cheers. Still, it was very good humoured and you can’t grumble for £3.50.
Arrived at an absurd 2am and hung around in the station writing letters (as you do) until it seemed like an appropriate time to go in search of a bus to the mountain. Why climb a mountain fully rested? Nipping in to KFC for a coffee and cheeky use of the bathroom on the way, I was scooped up by two youngsters also on their way to the mountain, making life a little easier. Waiting at the bus stop, countless taxi drivers drove past beeping at us.
Now, the taxi-passenger relationship has been conveniently and internationally simplified. You, the taxi driver, have a ‘taxi’ light on your roof that is illuminated if you are available for hire. I, the passenger, have an arm which I may extend in a number of obvious ways if I’m on the look-out for cab transportation. So don’t fucking drive around beeping at every pedestrian within a 50m radius, especially those waiting as bus stops, k?
Fortified by coffee that tasted a lot like mud, I began the ascent. Which is merely a very long (7.5km) flight of stone stops, well maintained, very busy and studded with restaurants, tat shops and coffee shops. Entering the path, an old lady tapped her stick twice on the ground and flicked me the V. I was momentarily taken aback before I realised that she wanted intimating that the walking stick was for sale for 2 yuan. That’s 20p and if you’ve understood anything about the spitting propensity, poor aim and know how narrow the steps are in places, you’ll want to consider making a purchase if you’re ever there. Saves you putting your hand in a glob.
As usual, I got adopted by a family on the way up and found myself the subject of an English practice session, while myself learning the terms for ‘too low down’ (tai dee la; that’s in reference to the pitch of the umbrella, filthbags), ‘keep going’ (jai yo) and ‘let’s go’ (zo ba). Up the top, the family invited me to join them for lunch and dragged me in the direction of the Confucian temple. Where a 4* hotel and buffet lunch appeared out of the mist, with hot shower thrown in for good measure. Bonza.
The younger of the family asked me how old I was. ‘Guess,’ said I. ‘Ha! You’re joking, right?’ ‘No – you look about 18.’ If only. Mentioned this later to his uncle who told me that they don’t know Westerners very well and ‘you all look the same to him’. Cuts both ways…
On the way back down, Chinese weirdo no.1 made himself known. There being a lot of people in China who have never travelled beyond the borders and there being a diluted number of tourists outside the main hotspots, there are still plenty of people who haven’t seen a whitey before. You’ll find me featuring in a number of family photo albums now, so this long-haired chap was not unusual in asking for a photo. No, he was more unusual in asking for a waltz and trying to plant a smacker. Note the defensive boob position that I have instinctively adopted.
Parts two and three to follow. Didn’t wanna swamp yas.