Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cyclone, Typhoon, Monsoon Rain…

… I survived a hurricane.

Early text message: Gary informing me of the incoming typhoon. He was still in Shanghai. It hit there first, battering its way up the coast. I was as worried about him as he was about me. We stayed in constant touch via text message during that whole ordeal, till my phone ran out of money.

Last day in Qing Dao. Under leaden skies, waves at high tide pound the beach angrily. Women sweep wind whipped hair from their face while holding their flowing skirts down. Natives batten down the hatches. Few vendors set up their carts. More established concerns cover their outdoor displays. No festive umbrellas deployed, no leisurely pace. People scurry about purposefully. Buses are nearly empty.

The typhoon is coming.

Qing Dao, up the coast from Shanghai, would see its fallout much later in the day: somewhere around 6PM. I was due to board my train at 3PM for a departure thirty minutes later. I should be safe but I did worry what the punishing rains would do to travel time.

In the meantime, the heralding winds and grey sky made a fitting backdrop to my last few hours in the city. With roughly 5 hours to kill before the train I decided to visit the May 4th Memorial.

The May Fourth Movement was a student cultural and political event that took a strong anti-imperialist outlook. The entire movement was spurred to life by the weak stance of the Chinese government at the time of the infamous Treaty of Versailles (1919). Under treaty stipulations German-occupied land in Shandong province, where Qing Dao is located, was to be handed over to Japan rather than back to China. This stirred strong nationalist feelings amongst Chinese students that led to protests erupting nationwide. The square was constructed in order to commemorate the protests of the students. The most iconic part of the square is Wuyue Feng (pronounced Woo You-a Fong), literally ‘May Wind’, a sculpture dedicated to the event.    

I didn’t visit in May but it sure was windy. Still not quite over my breathing woes, and carrying my loaded bag to boot, I only walked up to the square to get a picture of the sculpture. I figured I could read about it online. Walking into the wind back to the bus stop was an ordeal. I was grateful to get a seat on that near-empty bus in spite of the fact that I was going to have to sit on the train for twenty one hours.

That’s right: 21 hours. Longer than the flight from China to America. And I would sit the whole time because there were no berths available. School will be starting soon and all the students are migrating, some with parents and others without. I was lucky to get a ticket at all. 

Having already checked out of my hotel, and not anticipating passing by it again, I was carrying my bags on this last sightseeing jaunt instead of leaving them with the concierge. During that trek from Wu Yue Feng sculpture back to the bus stop, bending into the wind I finally acknowledged that I’m soon going to have an emotional parting of ways.

My faithful travel companion, that black leather shoulder bag that has been all over the world with me, that I had to rescue from a malevolent mold attack last year (see Death of a Companion, posted July 2011), whose leather skin I clean and maintain lovingly… that traveling companion is injuring me.

It being a shoulder bag does not allow me to center its weight on my frame. I bear its load one sided, to the detriment of my posture and spine. The problem is exacerbated if, as is often the case, I acquire more things to carry. Walking into the wind on that blustery day, bent forward and trying to keep the bag positioned on my hip, I finally conceded I will have to buy a backpack. One that will snug closely to my frame, keep the load centered and not pendulum on one side or the other and disturb my sense of balance.

I’m not getting rid of my faithful bag. I’m just retiring it from service. I’ll still use it as a carry-on or personal item on flights, or on trips where I don’t anticipate hiking. I’ll still oil it every month to preserve its leather. One day it will be something I pass down to someone dear to me: perhaps my beloved nephew Matthew, to inspire his journey through life. Or maybe my little Ben? I haven’t decided yet.

Back at the train station now and only one hour to kill before boarding time. Just enough time for a quick bite to eat, a nod farewell to this beautiful, intriguing city, and its back to Wuhan for me.

As presumed, the train was full of students. I resumed my ‘I don’t speak English’ act. Gary sent me one last frantic text message that I was unable to reply to, my phone now being completely out of money.

Just as the train pulled out of the station, rain pelted down.    

What’s Not to Understand?

I’ve said it before: traveling with Gary is a blast. He the best traveling buddy anyone could ask for. Not only is he fun, but he takes care of securing lodging and food and gets one-on-one with the locals to find out what is particular to the region that a couple of backpackers should experience or see.

Traveling alone I find that I am more than able to manage on my own, from a practical perspective. Extra bonus: doing so helps my ever-developing language skills. It does have its downside, though. As a foreigner traveling alone, I’m more likely to be cheated. My destinations, lodging and food choices are limited. I am restricted to tourist venues, not everything any given locale has to offer. It is assumed, by my very foreign-ness that I am only interested in major tourist attractions so, even if I ask for help from a native of wherever I’m at, I am directed to monuments and memorials rather than to minutiae.

I’d rather travel with Gary. However, traveling alone is better than not traveling at all. It all works out in the end.

When I first came to China it was my pleasure to speak English with anyone who so much as said ‘hello’ to me. Since then, it has gotten to be really tiresome. By being everyone’s pet foreigner I am left with little time and energy to enjoy my outing and take in the sights. Even when out and about in Wuhan, a city filled with students who have all been instructed to latch on to any foreigner they meet and work their language skills, I get fed up. How to find balance?

As I see it I have an obligation to help my students, or, more broadly, the students at my university learn English. I do NOT have an obligation to help every single person in China develop their language skills, especially if it detracts from my own peaceful, pleasant outing.

Last time Gary and I traveled I hit upon a solution: tell people I speak French. We got to try it out, but only met with minimal success. This time I meant to work the French Connection with a vengeance.

As I see it, if I approach someone in Chinese, I should be responded to in kind. Remember my assertion in the Speak Chinese entry posted January 2011 that I agree with the sentiment of most Americans: once you migrate to a country speaking a language other than yours, you should adapt to that country’s speech and customs after a reasonable adjustment period. Thanks to the help of friends, my students and a whole lot of studying on my own, I’ve made great strides in being able to communicate in Chinese.

The only thing that is confusing to me is that some people understand me from the get-go and others can’t make out what I’m saying. I put that down to the visual phenomenon: I look foreign, therefore I must be incapable of speaking Chinese. That theory has borne out several times. When talking on the phone, or if the person I’m speaking to does not look directly at me, there are no comprehension problems. One particularly memorable time came while interacting with a vendor selling wallets. As I approached I could see her nudge her coworker and nod in my direction while saying ‘waiguoren’. After selecting a wallet I asked her how much, and so the bargaining ensued. Upon completing my purchase she expressed her relief at my being able to communicate in her language.

So, I find it doubly irritating when I speak Chinese and get a response in English.   

Two occasions of note during my sojourn in Qing Dao, the first being that restaurant I ate noodles at – First Noodle Under the Sun. I walk in and inform the hostess in Chinese I would be dining alone. She asks me, in English, how many people in my party (not that eloquently).

“Shen me? (What?)”

“How many people with you?”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” I exclaim, with the light of understanding dawning on my face. “I am French. I do not understand English.”

Apparently not grasping my meaning, or possibly thinking I must surely be joking, she seats me and proffers a menu written in English. Remember: I approached her in Chinese and informed her I don’t understand English. I don’t know how I could have made myself any clearer.

Perhaps she thought her English skills were so deficient that she could not make herself understood. She called a waiter over who again offered up the English menu. Again I explained that I do not understand English because I speak French. Finally the message came through loud and clear that, no matter how many waiters assault me in English I would not understand. I was then offered a menu in Chinese, made my selection and asked that it be packed to go.

I heard the waiter explain to his colleague as they walked away that I did not speak English.

Instance #2: looking for Snack Street. In Chinese, I asked those youths on the bus what stop to get off at. One of them answered, again in English, that they too are tourists and thus could not help me. Again: “Excuse me? Oh, I’m sorry! I’m French. I don’t understand English.”

Responses to my ‘French assertion’ range from confusion to discomfiture, with confusion taking a definite lead. The boys on the bus were embarrassed. I felt bad for deceiving them.

Am I being cruel in practicing that small deception? I don’t think so. By looks alone I could be German, Turkish, Hungarian, Latvian, Russian, Polish… any manner of nationality, even French. How does my being Anglo-Saxon guarantee that I must speak English? For some reason, all foreigners in China are assumed to speak English. That bothers me. Besides, my little fib is not an outright lie: I was born in France and do speak that language fluently.   

I feel that there is a lesson to be learned here and I’ve taken it upon myself to teach it.  The more China opens to the west, the more diverse their foreigner population is likely to become. The sooner people open up to the idea that not all foreigners are English speakers, the broader their language and culture studies will become. For a nation that loves to learn, that can only be a bonus.

Aside from all that, I too had a lesson to learn. I should not assume every person who is Chinese in any given locale is a resident of that area. Maybe they too are tourists, and would not know how to arrive at a certain destination. Now I now preface my questions of direction with: “Excuse me: are you indigenous to this area?” On their affirmative I then ask: “Can you tell me how to get to…”
To a limited extent I still maintain the ‘celebrity foreigner’ act while at tourist draws – posing for photos with people I’ve never met and who have no interest in me personally. But usually I only do it when I’m out with a companion. Mostly, when I travel alone I duck that obligation altogether. Not only does it guarantee me the freedom to enjoy my outing but it does give me a chance to polish my language skills, both Chinese and French. 

Not the Best Day

In spite of – or maybe because of my abortive attempt at finding German food and, by extension a satisfying meal that didn’t involve seafood, I greeted this new day determined to find Snack Street. Here we go, to City Center.

Oh, wait! Rain is in the forecast today. I’d better go back to my room and get my umbrella. OK, now I’m ready to go.

The tourist map I bought was very detailed in what attractions to see and what there was to do in Qing Dao. Among them was listed Snack Street. Though admittedly most of the restaurants listed on the map were seafood restaurants there were two barbecue houses advertised. I thought barbecue would be an adequate substitute to a Wienerschnitzel, or some other German dish.

Finding Snack Street was a challenge. It lay along the 501bus route. That bus originates at the train station, so I had no problems… once I got there. By now, my third day of exploration, I had the bus system pegged. All I had to do was take any bus that goes to the train station and I have a vast network of transportation options.

Ah, here comes bus 8. Its marquee advertised the train station as a final destination. With no qualms at all I board. There are no seats available but that’s OK. The train station is just 5 stops away.

Wait a minute! We’re supposed to take a right turn here! Instead we went through a tunnel several kilometers long that I later learned conveyed passengers under the bay and into the new development area. The train station is nowhere near.

KK (AKA Kathy Krejados - me), I don’t think we’re in Old Town anymore.

What went wrong? Bus 8 proclaimed the train station as its destination. Undaunted and still believing this was an opportune day, I crossed the street and boarded the next Bus 8, headed the way I had come. I had to return to the stop in front of my hotel. Bus 8 took me nowhere near the train station.

Not a great start but the day is still young. I am getting pretty hungry, though. There being no place to eat around my lodgings I reasoned I would hit up a vendor stall for something light in anticipation of a substantial meal on Snack Street. Having spent the first 2 hours on a bus, you can imagine how my stomach was growling.  

OK: lets forget that false start and get on the bus we know will take us to the train station. Once there I’ll get a little something to snack on to hold me over till I get a decent meal. Everything will look so much better then. Except…

Except I had gotten cocky. You see, my allergies were finally under control. So much so that I thought I did not need any Benadryl. Being ever afraid of addiction to what is considered a narcotic – the active ingredient in Benadryl is the same as in most sleeping pills, I reasoned that if I did not exhibit any symptoms of allergy I should not take any medicine. I had not taken any medicine the day before and had even taken the bottle out of my purse. Boy, was that a mistake!

My allergies were not under control. I had enough antihistamines built up in my system to make it appear as though I were not suffering from allergies. On this not so good day, right around the time I should have arrived at my destination my histamine blocking capabilities had run out and my allergies started manifesting themselves again. Not slowly, either. From the time I felt that first tickle in the back of my throat to my lungs being constricted was only about an hour and a half. I had already been out for over an hour.

According to the map I should be close to my destination. Unfortunately no one said where along that bus route one should get off to get to the tucked away, elusive Street. I asked some passengers which stop to get off at. The first people I asked were also tourists. No help there. Come to find out I had overshot Snack Street and had to double back. By this time I’m ravenous and very conscious of my increasing breathing difficulties. Another course reversal, another fare.  

Ah! Now we’re finally at Snack Street, and not a moment too soon. At that point I didn’t know what was worse: hunger or allergy symptoms.

I thought, by the way this tourist attraction was detailed on the map that it would be crawling with people. It wasn’t. It was closed. That is, most of the establishments were closed and hardly anyone was out and about. After walking up and down this so called Snack Street I asked a few locals if they could tell me where the barbecue houses listed on my map are. They didn’t know. Nobody knew. The way my luck was going those restaurants probably didn’t exist.

Oh, good! Here comes the rain!

Luckily I had gone back to get my umbrella. At least that went right. Except for, since the last time I used it, it got rusty in the humid Wuhan air and wouldn’t deploy. And then, it did deploy but wouldn’t stay open. I managed to force it to stay open by repeatedly slamming its locking mechanism in place.

Now I’m hungry, allergic and wet. But I do have an umbrella.

Lets keep walking. There is bound to be somewhere to eat that doesn’t serve seafood exclusively.  

I never did find either of the barbecue restaurants. I settled for the first restaurant that advertised non-seafood dishes.

There were few diners, and all of them were eating seafood dishes. Still clinging to the belief that I could order something other than anything from the sea because of the pictures on the wall depicting stir fry and meat dishes, I decided to check out the menu. The waitress was surly, absorbed in the television program playing on the unit mounted over the bar. Repeated calls finally brought her to my table, albeit reluctantly.  

The menu was written all in Chinese, rather unusual for such a tourist destination. Nearly every other restaurant I have ever been to in China had menus in both Chinese and English, complete with pictures. There were no pictures in this menu. Scouring it brought more confusion. It was all written in traditional characters. I can only read modern (simplified) characters. I broke down and asked the waitress for her recommendation. She tore her eyes away from the TV long enough to suggest a particular dish, boasting that many foreigners order it. I capitulated without any idea of what was about to be set in front of me. She shouted the order, demanded payment up front, snatched money and menu and took off, resuming her post in front of the bar. While waiting I thought: “With my luck she’s going to bring me deep fried squid or something equally grotesque.”

The cook brought my food. It turned out to be sweet’n’sour pork. No veggies and rice was extra. It looked good, it tasted good. I ate half of it. The serving was too large to eat in one sitting. The rest I took with me.

Back on the rain spattered streets. No need for an umbrella now, the deluge has stopped. My allergy attack hasn’t. All explorations were done for the day. Time to head home.

But not before I load my cellphone. I believe I’ve told you before that cellphone service is prepaid in China. There are 2 major providers: China Telecom and China Mobile. Come time to recharge minutes it is a simple matter of going to your provider’s outlet, wave a bit of cash around and Presto! you have phone minutes.

Except this time I was told that, because my number did not originate in Qing Dao I could not load my phone. Never ran into that problem before. That’s not good. I’m almost out of minutes. What if I have an emergency and need to call Sam?

Matter of fact I was having an emergency right then. My lungs were so constricted I was panting for breath while standing still. SERIOUSLY time to get back to the hotel. Nearly there, I fished my room key out of my pocket, dreading the idea of having to climb to the 3rd floor – no elevator.

No room key, either. Frantically I went through my pockets. I KNOW I put it in that side pocket of my capris, just like I’ve done every time I’ve left my room. It simply wasn’t there, or anywhere on my person, nor in my purse. I had to get the front desk to open my room for me. I reasoned that I had the key card when I returned for my umbrella. I must have laid it on the table in my room and forgot to grab it on the way out.           

The poor desk clerk thought I was going to die on those steps. After climbing one flight I was wheezing audibly. By the time we got to the 3rd floor I was gasping. I did make it all the way to my room at the end of the hall, but only just. I spent the rest of the day there, popping Benadryl every 2 hours and answering the door. The desk clerk insisted on making sure I was all right. Cost of the missing room key: 60Yuan. I never did find the stupid thing.

I ask you: does that constitute a bad day or what?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Qing Dao City Overview

During the 1800’s China was a divided country. Russia, Germany, Great Britain, France and America, among others all came over, first as opportunists, next as missionaries and finally educators to settle and civilize what they considered a nation of natural riches, unfortunately full of heathens and savages. I believe they didn’t quite realize who or what they were reckoning with.

After years (Centuries!) of exploitation and occupation, the Chinese had enough of all these strangers impressing their way of life and enslaving their people. There ensued a rebellion, The Boxer Rebellion, during which the Chinese forcefully evicted all foreigners. After this nearly completely successful expulsion, China closed her borders and didn’t let any foreigners in for the next eighty years. Of course, she had her own power struggles within, culminating in the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, ruled by Mao Ze Dong and governed by the Communist Party as we know it today.

Prior to the Boxer Rebellion, Germany had taken over a large part of coastal lands and established itself in the religious development of the country, as well as forming a Naval force and in the shipping industry. The German stronghold was the coastal city of Qing Dao (pronounced Tsing Tao) and radiated out from there.

I originally became interested in Qing Dao because of a movie I watched called The Floating Landscape, situated in that city. Not only is the story gripping and real but the backdrop to the story, the old part of Qing Dao haunted me. I wanted to walk those very streets. While watching the movie, still in the States, I vowed I would make it to Qing Dao one day.

And, there’s another reason: architecture is not the only thing the Germans left behind. Their monks had taught the Chinese how to brew beer and now Tsing Tao beer is famous worldwide. You can buy it in select stores in the States. I was introduced to it when I came to China the first time in 2008, with the International Scholar Laureate Program, a delegation of students interested in archeology and anthropology.

That trip/group is where I met Debbie, the one I wrote about in the Looking Back entry, posted November 2011. She and I are still friends, of course. By the way: she just graduated from law school: Congrats, Debbie! Or, could I say, tongue in cheek: Contracts, Debbie!!! LOL (Yes, she does read this blog).

In our sporadic communication over the years, Debbie has often said she would thirst for a Tsing Tao beer. I thought I would pay tribute to her and visit the brewery. You already read about that, 3 posts back.

Qing Dao is divided into 3 distinct parts: Old Town, City Center and New Developments. I focused my explorations mainly in Old Town. There was so much to see and do there! I only ventured to New Development once, by accident (I’ll tell you about that next post), and City Center twice: for Snack Street (see previous post) and for the May 4th Square. I’ll get to that in a post or two. 

Qing Dao Old Town is pleasantly walkable, reminiscent of San Francisco, only less steeply hilly. The streets are laid out randomly, as opposed to the grid patterns one is used to seeing in established municipalities. Green abounds everywhere; indeed the name Qing Dao means ‘Lush Island (or Green Island)’.  There is certainly a feel of Germany in Old Town, as its skyline is dominated by the twin spires of its Catholic cathedral, set upon a hill. The train station, the city’s transportation hub, is only about 100 meters from the beach. From there radiate buses that crawl all over town. Of course I made ample use of those buses.

Everywhere I walked and everywhere I rode showed something else of interest. I do believe I hit the highlights during the 5 days I was there but I’m certain there are things I missed. It would not hurt my feelings to go back.

Could I live there? Only 2 problems: food, and possibly the weather. Qing Dao’s culinary specialties being mostly seafood, the very smell of which sickens me would make it hard for me to stay longer than a few days, or to enjoy dining excursions. And remember: I was there during the height of summer, when the weather was fine and people were out en masse. What about in the dead of winter, when that cold ocean wind blows in from the coast? It might be a completely different town: no festive lanterns hanging, no gaily colored vendor umbrellas, no relaxed pace or resort like feeling.   

I was pondering the ‘Could I Live There’ question while walking down a shady street past the Christian church, under the watchful domes of the Old Observatory set on a hill and headed toward the mansion of the former German Governor when, to my right a quiet voice piped up: “Excuse me: do you speak English?”

My normal inclination is to respond to the negative. I would have done so, until I looked at my interlocutor: a petite woman with red hair and a pink blouse, a large camera slung around her neck. She seemed harmless enough so I did aver that speaking English is within my repertoire. We stood in the road talking for maybe twenty minutes before I invited her to have a sit down and a cup of tea somewhere close. I had been walking all morning and the temps were climbing, as was the humidity. It seemed like a good time to take a break.

We found a nearby tea shop, decorated in Victorian style all but for that telltale plastic tub with turtles swimming in it, indicating we were still in China. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting like old friends. Nan was bitten by the China bug some twenty years ago, when she came here with her husband and son. Having recently laid both of them to rest, Nan continues her love affair with China, albeit on yearly rotations. She is no longer able to obtain a worker’s visa so she buys a tourist visa and stays till it runs out.

What tales she has! This woman is fascinating! She was here in the time when China and the Chinese were not necessarily as kind and open to foreigners as now. Nor was it as capitalist a country as it is now. She told me of her trials and travails, and gave me opportunity to share my experiences with her as well. While we swapped stories, enjoyed tea and nibbled cookies the afternoon gave way to evening.

Come time to part company I offered to pay the bill. I had gathered the idea that my companion was on a fixed budget and besides, I had invited her, no? Unfortunately that charming tea house became the scene of our rape: we were charged 65Yuan for two cups of tea and a small plate of cookies! Even my complaining and bartering efforts would not reduce the price. And here I was, wondering how the place managed to stay afloat with no other customers all afternoon besides us. While Nan visited the restroom I returned to our table and took the remaining 4 cookies, stowing them in my bag. I had paid enough for them, why leave them behind?  

You can visit Nan’s website at You can see a picture of us here.

And, if you get a chance to, please watch that movie: The Floating Landscape. It is about a young woman who seeks a landscape her lover painted just before he died. So in love were they that she was seeking every connection to him she could find, even after his death. She traveled to his hometown, Qing Dao, and boarded with his Aunt while trying to find the panorama of his dreams. She meets and keeps running into Lit, a postman and aspiring artist, who helps her navigate the city and ultimately meets her at the site of her past lover’s dream. Destiny? Serendipity? Who knows… but the movie does irrevocably indicate that Fate played a guiding hand in bringing Lit and Maan, the female protagonist, together.

A beautiful story for a beautiful city. Let’s keep exploring it, shall we?        

The Day After Teachers’ Day

I’ve confessed before that I do go back and read my blog entries. Sometimes for continuity – especially if I’m writing a series linked by the same topic. I also go back and read them to marvel at the magic, and even the terror and uncertainty of my early days here. Recently I’ve been sending select entries to Gary, who is currently working in Shanghai. He appreciates the diversion and the reading material. In order to decide what to send him I review past posts.

If you’ve been with us for any amount of time, you should know that September 10th is Teachers’ Day in China. You can read about my first celebration in the September 2010 archive. As with the two previous years, my phone chimed off the wall from morning to night with tributes and well wishes. Even students that have already graduated sent their greetings.

Wow. I know I am more confident leading a class than I was 2 years ago and I know that the students all enjoy my class but to receive such an outpouring… Just… WOW.

And that’s not all, folks! Remember my very first class, Monday mornings at 8AM? I do. Teaching Building 2, on the 6th floor… that I didn’t know how to get to. That group is now Seniors, set for graduation next June. They came by this evening to bring me a bouquet of flowers, reminisce and catch up. They’re very busy filling out job applications and writing resumes nowadays, and looking tremulously toward their future in the real world. Still, they took time to remember their old English teacher. WOW.

They’re not the only ones who play that memory game. Every time I pass Building 2 I look up at that window and think of them. I think, next year it will be harder on me to do that because those kids will be gone. Gone from this school but definitely not from my heart.

Here is another thing that is not gone from my heart or memory: September 11th, 2001.

I venture that everyone has a day of infamy: one of those catastrophic events that lives forever in our mind. We remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. Rock Hudson has AIDS. Elvis is dead. Truce/cease-fire in Vietnam. Nixon resigns. JFK shot. MLK shot.

My day of infamy is September 11th, 2001.

I was holding my then 6-day old grandson when the phone rang shortly after 9AM. My son, estranged for some months was crying: “Mom, turn on the TV! Turn on the TV! Oh my God!!” To my panicked shouts he only repeated “Turn on the TV”. I did.

That moment is burned in my mind for eternity.

There I stood, in the living room of my safe suburban home, holding this gift of life in my arms and witnessing such devastation. Time stood still as newsreels showed, over and over again, those planes flying into those buildings.

How could that be? How could I be holding a miracle while witnessing such horror?

All that day radio stations played Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. CNN reported the escalating body count. Phone lines, both cellular and landline were jammed. That night, driving to work the skies over Dallas/Fort Worth showed nothing but stars. No planes circling around, waiting their cue to approach and land.

No planes flew over any cities that night, and not for several months. It was nothing but a sign of the times. How eerie it was to not see something you take for granted will always be a part of the landscape! Or, in this case the sky-scape.  

As I scan the news these past few days, reports are full of Convention coverage, campaign and poll updates and, inevitably, football stories, along with the usual smattering of what Tinseltown stars are doing. I’ll admit my American news scanning resources are somewhat limited in China but nowhere have I seen anything talking about any tribute of 9/11, as I have in the past 2 years.

Maybe that’s the right thing to do. Maybe looking forward, or focusing on today is more important than memorializing and remembering something that happened a mere eleven years ago. Maybe only a select few care. Maybe, like those who make their annual pilgrimage to Graceland to commemorate Elvis’ death, there are those to flock to where the twin towers used to stand and pay their respects.

And then there are those who, while still a world away, remember what it feels like to hold a days-old baby while witnessing airplanes being used as missiles. 

If we must forget the horror, let us not forget those who gave all, either as victims of circumstance or as a part of the rescue teams. Let us not forget those who were there firsthand. Let us not forget those who worked interminable hours in abominable conditions, hoping to save just one more life. Let us not forget those who lost family members.

And, most of all let us not forget our Service men and women who have fallen in the line of duty and those who, still today are overseas, trying to right that monumental wrong done to Our Nation 11 years ago.      

What to Eat?

My first night in Qing Dao I enjoyed less than spectacular fare: a bowl of Ramen noodles and a hard boiled egg, both bought at the 7-11 close to the hotel. But then, I was tired and hungry. I really didn’t care what I ate. After that initial slow start I planned to incorporate forays into the local gastronomical specialties, as I always try to do when visiting a new town.

I was stymied by 2 distinct problems: local gastronomy specialties are all about seafood, and I was traveling alone.

I loathe the very smell of seafood. From the time I was a small child, any type of fish or seafood has passed my lips only a handful of times, and always under duress. Well… duress might be too strong a word. Let’s just say I’ve never ordered anything seafood on my own. However, if it is served in the course of a meal and I can’t get around or avoid eating any, I will take a bite or two, but never enthusiastically and always with the fear that I will be sick afterwards.

Here’s what happened: years ago, when I was about 7, we went to a seafood restaurant. We knew that the fish was no good. My sibs and I protested and complained in vain. Our mother informed us, in no uncertain terms what would happen to us if we did not clean off our plates. We did, and started getting sick within minutes of leaving the restaurant. I believe we were all sick for days afterward… I really don’t remember. I do know that the fallout of that experience has given me a lifelong dread and dislike of anything that even remotely has anything to do with fish or seafood, including fish sticks. Even the smell turns my stomach.

Yes, I do think of the nutritional benefits I’m missing out on. It is a good thing I am otherwise healthy and the absence of fish in my diet has not gravely affected me.

Healthy or sick, my disdain for seafood seriously impacted my sampling much of the local fare in Qing Dao. Traveling alone was the other factor.

When I travel with friends it is always easy ordering a variety of food. With several of us – or even just two of us we can sample various creations and not worry about leftovers. When it is just me, it is more difficult because it is still culturally difficult for lone diners, especially female diners to eat alone without being stigmatized.

Since I’ve been here I’ve only snacked. A bowl of noodles, street vendor food and the like. Once, in desperation I even ventured into KFC. After the beer I was ready for some real food. Seriously disappointed about not having any German food available in the German part of town around the brewery, I made do with a bowl of noodles from a chain restaurant bearing the humorous name: First Noodle Under the Sun.

I could whine but what is the point? There are more entries to write and more things to see and do. I sucked up my noodles and went back to my hotel room, determined to find Snack Street the next day.

So get your rest. After a brief commemoration we’re going to not have a good day. See you then!      

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Qing Dao Beer Museum

In spite of my misadventures getting to my destination I had no problems once I got there. The train pulled in a little after 8PM, which gave me ample time to secure lodging and scrounge for food before falling into bed.

As with other cities I venture to by myself I had no hotel reservations in Qing Dao. My modus operandi has not changed. It is somewhat akin to blindfolding myself, jumping off a cliff and seeing how things come out once I land. So far things have turned out very well. This time I chose the very first city bus I came to – bus 303. By stroke of luck it wended its way down Hotel World, a stretch of road with one hotel after the other.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the chain hotels within my price range were all full, with the exception of one whose computer system was down. I had to go to a high-end hotel and ended up paying over 350Yuan for that first night’s accommodation. At least I know I was not the only one getting overcharged. Another guest, a Chinese man also complained about the high rate.

As long as there are not two fee schedules: one for foreigners and the other for Chinese. I don’t mind paying the same as everyone else, even if the price is exorbitant. If I had had more energy, or if there’d been more time (it was already quite late), I would have gone elsewhere. As it was, my eyes were closing on their own. I figured I’d better put up for the night.

The next morning, fully rested I set out to find more affordable quarters. Also, I had to secure a train ticket back to Wuhan pretty quickly. With the school year starting soon, students would be traveling, thus guaranteeing that train tickets would be a scarce commodity. Both tasks were taken care of in short order and I spent the rest of that first day just meandering around the beach, the shoreline and generally around town.

The next day, with heat peaking in the mid 90’s and humidity right about 70%, I thought that would be a perfect time to visit a museum. Again serendipity shone on me: bus 217, that stops directly in front of my hotel, will take me straight to the Qing Dao Beer Museum!

Note that I said ‘serendipity’, not ‘dumb luck’. I noticed that disturbing trend of saying ‘by sheer dumb luck’ a few posts ago but then figured that luck has not much to do with my wanderings. Serendipity, a fortunate accident fits the bill so much better.  

This was one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It is divided into 3 sections: Part A was One Hundred Years of Beer Brewing History. The coolest thing I learned there is that people used to buy beer in a bag straight from the factory and drink it through a straw. So that’s why I saw people milling about outside the museum with clear plastic bags of beer! Pardon me but at first glance, all those bags of beer held at thigh level looked like waste bags that catheterized people wear strapped to their leg. I thought I had stumbled into a tour group of infirms, out for the day.

The second, and by far the coolest part of the museum was the old brewing house. Virtually unchanged since its inception over 100 years ago, therein displayed were huge copper kettles, vast vats, dimly lit chambers extending into the distance. Adding to the effect were several wax figure workers fingering the hops, standing by control panels, bending over troughs and pens.

Tell you the truth, the old brewery creeped me out with its low ceilings, dim, incandescent lighting, echoing chambers, tiled walls and huge, silent machines. I was not a part of any tour group but ahead of me as well as behind I could hear the chatter and laughter of groups as they went through. Their ghostly voices added to the effect, ramping up the creep factor by at least 10. Here and there were wax mannequins looking so lifelike as they bent to their tasks that I was actually scared when I came upon one. Honestly: I would have liked to linger and take my time through this exhibit but it was simply too creepy. I rushed through. 

The third coolest thing was that, included in the price of the entrance ticket you get free beer and peanuts. Not as much as you want but still: that is a pretty neat bonus. Between the old brewery and the modern facility is an antique bar where you are served a glass of ‘raw beer’ and a small bag of honey roasted peanuts before venturing into the modern plant.

SMALL SIDESTEP: some people who read this blog know me personally. Others have no idea what I look like, so I thought this would be a good time to include a picture of myself. To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I include a picture of me in this blog.

The first picture is me enjoying my free beer and peanuts. The second picture is me after having enjoyed my free beer and peanuts.  

WARNING: I am a mean drunk and a cheap drunk. Especially on an empty stomach. You see, I figured I would find something to eat on the way to the museum. I didn’t, and by the time I got there the heat of the day and the thrill of adventure had robbed me of my appetite. I didn’t reckon on getting free beer and peanuts.  

Of course I didn’t have to partake of beer or peanuts. But who am I to refuse free stuff? And, its not like I drink beer every morning before breakfast. Nor is it every day I tour a beer museum. In short: these being extraordinary circumstances I forgave myself the beer. The peanuts were less of a problem. Luckily I was able to restrain myself and not make anyone a victim of my attitude, so, all’s well that ends well and the tour continued.

Part C was the modern brewing and packaging facilities. Having worked in production line type food factories before I recognized almost all the machinery and systems. First came the large, stainless steel brewing kettles, systems monitored by electric/electronic control panels. Lone operators were responsible for huge sections of the production floor and, in fact as I walked the catwalk over the production area there were no workers visible.

The next part was more active: the bottling and canning portions of the production line. To the left canning and to the right bottling. That is where I recognized most of the machinery. At one point, two women responsible for quality control sat in front of a fluorescent light panel gauging the clarity of the beer in the bottles. Their job was to stop production if the beer was in any way discolored or contaminated. Other workers also milled about, their responsibility being to make sure nothing stopped production. Their work made me flash back on my days as a production worker. My heart reached out to them. I hope they enjoy their work and that their spirits are not crushed beneath the mind-numbing monotonous repetition of their job.

At the end of the tour we were treated to another glass of beer, chilled and coming straight from the production floor. This beer was lighter in color and had a more polished taste than the raw beer.

All this beer made me crave German food. After all, the brewery was located in the heart of German Town and the streets and sidewalks were cobbled in the style of streets in Germany. It would be reasonable to deduce that there might be a German food restaurant somewhere close… right?

WRONG!!! Qing Dao being a coastal town, standard fare is seafood and more seafood. Not a single restaurant in the brewery district served anything but seafood, the very smell of which turns my stomach.

All the free beer didn’t help matters there, either.    

Sixteen Hours? No Way!

When I decided to take on my new adventure to Qing Dao I consulted the train schedules and fares online, before even leaving the house. There is a direct train to my destination city but it would take me sixteen hours to get there.

Sixteen hours on a train? Even if I got a sleeper bunk that is a long time to spend on the train. Surely there is a better way to go. I contemplated going via Beijing, and then cutting across either by train or by long distance bus. Not only could I get a sleeper car ticket to Beijing for two days hence but it would only take me ten hours to get there. Much better!

After making notes of train numbers and departure times I headed to the train station to buy my tickets. The lines were nowhere near as long as I had experienced in the past. Soon enough it was my turn at the ticket window and with little fanfare I became the proud owner of two train tickets: one to Beijing and the other to Qing Dao from Beijing. The fare to Beijing was 265Yuan and to Qing Dao 115Yuan. There: now that’s MUCH better, right?

Except that I was going to have to spend about fifteen hours in Beijing, and I would end up in Qing Dao somewhere around 2AM. That’s not good.

Not only do I not like Beijing but, if I got to Qing Dao at 2AM buses would not be running and it would be hard to find a decent hotel at that time of night.

No problem: once I arrive in Beijing I’ll just exchange the Qing Dao ticket for an earlier one. There’s bound to be an earlier train. Satisfied with travel plans at last, I went home and packed.

Overnight train ride to Beijing: only OK. I did get a top bunk, which I always seek but, for some reason I did not sleep well. Tossing, turning, waking up every so often… I consoled myself that I would have a rare (for me) cup of coffee when the train pulls into the station.

Why don’t I like Beijing, do you ask? That city is too big, too cosmopolitan and too Western for my tastes. The people tend to be very rude and the city is dirty. I do like the way they manage their bus system – people queue up for their bus instead of shoving their way on. There are bus monitors who oversee the boarding to ensure it is done in orderly fashion. However there are always those that cut in line and then, the monitors have their buddies who get to move ahead of everyone… It just seems that, in Beijing it is every man, woman and child for him/herself. A far cry from the peaceful, harmonious atmosphere of other cities I’ve been to.

So you can understand why I didn’t sleep well and, once off the train felt harried and rushed. I immediately headed to the ticketing window to see about exchanging my ticket. Apparently I was at the wrong window even though the signage indicated that any window could/would exchange tickets. By this time the ticketing office had filled up. I called it quits when a man cut in line in front of me and refused to go to the end of the line even though I told him that I too was waiting for my turn. See what I mean about rude?

Time to go find that cup of coffee. There’ll be time enough to exchange tickets after something to eat and a bit of a time out. I’m stuck in Beijing for fifteen hours as it is.  

After breakfast, resuming my place at the ticketing window – the correct one this time! I did find out there was an earlier train to Qing Dao: the high speed train that leaves from the south train station at 3PM. Ticket price: 317Yuan. I forked over the difference (202Yuan) and walked out of the station contemplating what I would for 8 hours in this city I detest.

Ride buses. That is what I do in every city. It is a cheap and fun pastime. Added bonus: Beijing has ‘accordion buses’. A bus and a half, with an accordion extension joining the two. One boards at the middle door and pays the conductor, and exits at either the front or back doors. The fun part is standing or sitting in the accordion portion of the bus and getting spun around when the bus goes around a curve.

Beijing is so large that it has no less than 6 train stations. I came in at Beijing East train station but needed t get to South train station. After asking the bus monitors which bus to board in order to get to South Station and being misled no less than four times, I finally boarded the right bus for that destination. I consulted the bus route map to find out which station to get off at. Nowhere on the route map was ‘South Train Station’ indicated. More rudeness: I asked a fellow passenger which station to get off the bus to get to the South train station. He told me to talk to the conductor. I asked the conductor. She told me to sit down.

“Will you tell me what stop to get off at?”  No response. I sat down.

Two stops later she instructed me to get off the bus. Still nowhere is a train station indicated. I asked some uniformed women at the bus stop where this maddening train station is. They were quite helpful and told me exactly where to go.

Once I found out where the train station was and ascertained it was in fact the correct train station I went bus riding some more. And that is when I got to thinking…

Fare from Wuhan to Beijing: two hundred sixty five Yuan. From Beijing to Qing Dao: Three hundred seventeen Yuan. All the bus fare I spent killing time while in Beijing: fourteen Yuan.

Between what I spent getting to Beijing – a city I loathe and then to Qing Dao, and all the bus fare and food money I spent while dallying around, I could have bought a plane ticket and gotten to Qing Dao much faster. And then, to add insult to injury: I spent twenty four hours in transit due to my so-called clever maneuvering, instead of the sixteen hours it would have taken me to go directly to Qing Dao from Wuhan.

Boy, do I feel bright.

Part of the problem is that I’m at the mercy of everyone from ticketing agents to bus conductors. As of last year people can go online to buy train and bus tickets. A certain number of tickets are reserved for online sales and the ticketing counter gets the leftovers. If online sales exceed their reserved number the system will automatically make more tickets available online. Counter sales are now the last option. Tickets are sold out days in advance. It seems that, if I wish to make the best traveling plans and decisions I need to learn how to buy tickets online.

Oh, Sam!!!