Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Goodbye Beijing, Hello Qingdao!

It was tough to believe that we'd really been in Beijing for 11 days, and that the next leg of the trip was beginning. Every day in the northern capitol was so jam-packed with experiences, smells, tastes, sounds that it seemed like we'd already been there a month, but there was still so much to do!
But time does not stand still for even the precious sentimentalities of the traveler, and so grabbing a few pitas filled with roast lamb, lettuce, shredded cucumber and chinese barbecue sauce for the trip, we took the underground to the imposing Beijing train station and caught an overnight train to Qingdao. The trip was relaxing and low key: a few hours of reading (William Vollman's magnificent Europe Central- highly recommended!), a somewhat short night of sleep in the very comfortable "soft" sleeper car, and waking to watch the sun rise over the broad expanse of Shandong province. Flat fields of grain punctuated by stands of trees, huge clusters of (former?) collective farm buildings, and lone figures standing by large fires in the low-hanging mist sped past the window of the train.
After arrival (through a nasty industrial zone), and a convoluted cab ride (must get hostel directions printed in Chinese in the future...), we arrived at our hostel, dropped off our bags and took off to explore "The Pearl of the Yellow Sea."
Qingdao seems about as different from Beijing as is possible without leaving the country... think the difference between Chicago and Santa Cruz. A far cry from Beijing's flat grid layout and traditional Chinese monuments, Qingdao is a hilly maze of crazily winding streets, lined with a huge number of shabby old European buildings from the days when the town was a German concession. It's definately a tourist destination, but stray off the beaches and main drags, and you find streets and markets that reach levels of filth and smell that the relatively meticulous Beijingers would turn their noses up at. It reminds you of the considerable efforts that Beijing has made to shine up its image for the upcoming Olympics, and the extent to which the rest of China is still lagging behind.But don't let me give you the wrong impression... Qingdao is a great city. It is very laid back, and you can tell that the locals enjoy a slower pace of life. The weather was fantastic (as you can see from the pictures), the beaches are haunted by tanned locals exercising, swimming and tanning, and the air is full of dragonflies. Tiny seafood restaurants line the streets with your next meal swimming (or floating belly-up at the cheaper places) in a tank on the sidewalk, and on all but the busiest streets you can find someone with a tapped keg of the delicious local beer who will be happy to fill a plastic bag for you to sip from as you wander around. What better way to wash down a delicious meal of noodle soup filled with tiny clams and a hunk of barbecued octopus with a spicy, sweet, tangy barbecue sauce? Considering that all the above can be yours for about $2, Qingdao makes a compelling case for being heaven on earth.

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