Thursday, September 13, 2007

Qingdao, somewhere on the yellow sea, China

My first true backpacker post in a while and somewhat of a test in itself. I am going to try to revert to my trademark collection of half-truths, snap judgements and silly anecdotes. Here goes:

Qingdao has been around for a while but the distinguishing feature of this place, historically speaking, is that the Germans tried to make it into their own little Hong Kong. Like many Teutonic attempts to emulate the Franco-British sport of colonialism it didn't really pan out though, to be fair, this was less disastrous than other affairs. Their legacy seems to be churches, quaint houses and beer.

Beer is omnipresent in China but here it is nearly revered. The Germans built the Tsingtao brewery which makes the only famous beer in China (ie: one of the few breweries who can produce something consistently fit for export). One difference between here and the rest of China is that the 60odd cl bottle is no longer king. Here draught beer is the norm. It's a bit of a shock as I am now used to wrapping my lips round the cool neck of the beer bottle with the same regularity of oral insertion as the scrawny chap done for tax fraud in a tough prison.

It is nice change though and it is not difficult to find a pint. The many small fag and snack shops in Qingdao's old town all have four or five kegs under an umbrella and you can just stop and get them to fill a mug or, if you don't walk around with a beer stein on you, a plastic bag. As trampy as it seems it is fun to drink beer out of a shopping bag with a straw. This was a bit unsettling until I saw someone get a refill as I thought the local hobby was to carry around bags of foamy piss.

Beyond silly daytime drinking the main things to do here are beach bumming and eating seafood. These two pastimes make the fame of Qingdao around China. My train from Beijing was full of people assuring me how great it was though very few of them had actually been there. I decided to take their advice and start working on my sunburn. The beaches are cleanish and the water not to murky. I took my first dip in the great brine pool in a while then watched Chinese chaps digging up the beach in search of crabs. It wasn't fantastic but I am making the most of it as my next swim in the sea will be in the Med and in 2008.

Seafood here is nice, cheap, plentiful and, unlike Changchun, doesn't transform your arse into a bladder. Particulalry of note are tiger prawns (local name) which don't really look like prawns at all but are much nicer. More like a yummy sea-dwelling centipede. Then again a lot of things are tasty after a few bags of beer.

I'll leave it there as this is just a post to get into the swing of things. The next bit is a recap of what I did prior to reaching this alarmingly clean city and a slightly wussy introspective waffle that I am writing down for my own sake.

I left Changchun and went straight to Beijing, the big BJ. I been there before and had no intention of seeing anything but was out to score a visa for Kazakhstan. This was the initial purpose of my stay in the increasingly charmless capital of China. I eventually got my visa and had my first encounter with member of a species that I suspect I am going to be very familiar with: The Lesser Powered Central Asian Official.

This was in the shape of a fat knacker who got huffy that my visa apllication from was a blatant collection of lies. Previous experience with visas is that you only need to let them tick the boxes. This man seemed intent on checking the crap I had written down and it wasn't looking good. I was looking at having to rewrite the form, get interviewed, cough up 55 dollars and wait for 5 working days (these exclude weekends and Tuesday which, in Beijing, seems to be some sort of consular Holy Day). I pointed out to the chubby fuck that his government might want to be a tad more accomodating if they wanted to develop a tourism industry and suddenly all things changed. Exeunt annoying lardy twat and enter smiling friendly woman. She took my form, drew a line through half the stuff the officious prick had scribbled, told me to come back the next afternoon and charged me the princely sum of 160 yuan. All this with a big smile.

I am not sure what happened but I am guessing I used the magic word: Tourist. For all his zeal the fat bastard had failed to check what type of visa I wanted and made me go through the hell they inflict on Chinese migrants or expat businessmen intent on corrupting Kazahk officials to grab some of the country's oil. Once they twigged I was just some dosser with no intention of stealing the manufacturing jobs of Kazaks by working for cheap I got fobbed off to the resident consular worker who still has a soul. Objective completed.

The other task that appeared in Beijing was that of re-adaptation. This came out of the blue and forced me to reconsider what my time in China meant for me.

I knew I would be a bit moody as I left Changchun and once in BJ I dealt with it in the time honored fashion of getting sozzled and showing off. I enjoyed passing myself off as a font of wisdom on all things Chinese, basking in the admiring gaze of young backpackers when accomplishing the tricky task of ordering food and getting unsuspecting fools to try Baijio.I doled out tips, anecdotes and warnings with casual confidence and got drunk untill I morphed into that beloved creature; the pissed wanker who stumbles into the dorm at 4am and wakes everyone up by trying to be quiet yet spends 20 minutes dropping stuff.

One evening I went to the common room and got started again. Suddenly I got tired. Tired and bored. I didn't want to introduce myself for the umpteenth time. I didn't want to go through the predictable Q and A again. I didn't want to resume the past 2 years of my life to a 10 second backpacker's soundbite. I didn't even want to pass myself off as some sort of Old China hand. I slunk into the chair and drank quietly watching my fellow backpackers and giving very short answers to any forthcoming questions. I then realised what was happening. I was homesick.

I had managed to convince myself that my time in Changchun was part and parcel of my little jaunt. I would pack my bag and up-stakes with the same ease I used to leave a guesthouse. I was, of course, wrong. Whether I like to admit it or not, Changchun was a home for me for more than a year. The patterns and habits, joys and annoyances, likes and dislikes, freindships and enmities I experienced there were not the ephemeral ones of the trail but the deep lasting ones that affect, influence, integrate and modify one's identity.

As I am back into the happy world of hostels and sightseeing I now have to admit that I have come back to the same mental spot when I landed in Jakarta what a long while ago. I am not a tanned and seasoned traveller but someone who has just left home. In a sense it is even worse as, unlike the friends and family in Europe I have to face up to the brutal reality that it is unlikely I will see more than a few of the Changers crowd again.

Hence my time in Beijing was also a period of acclimatisation. I had to enjoy myself when I was up to it and ride out the stroppyness when it occured. The real switch was when I got to to the unfamiliar town Qingdao as I had to go through the rigmarole of finding lodgings, getting settled and planning the next move. I am now backpacking again.

Next stop, the bejewelled and expensive whore of the Orient: Shanghai

Take care,



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