Sunday, October 14, 2007

Qingdao to Shanghai

We awoke early yesterday, and since the weather was the best in the last two days I took an early morning dip in the Yellow Sea, swimming out to the farthest shark net on bathing beach 1 (about a half mile). The water was mild and refreshing, but accidentally swallowing small amounts nearly made me yack up my potato pancake breakfast.

After packing up and checking out of our hostel, we had a light lunch of delicious Shandong steamed dumplings, sat and chatted with the beer lady of Sifang Lu while getting some beer for the train, then caught a cab for the train station. Although we had been warned that the train from Qingdao to Shanghai was particularly long (20 hours) and not especially cheap compared to flying, we have both enjoyed taking the train... this time was no exception. Since our time in China is being divided between cities with anywhere from one to nearly four times the population of Oregon, the window of the train is our only exposure to the rural conditions in which the majority of Chinese people live.

The sights from the window only further deepen the complexity of impression that China leaves on the passing traveler. Lush, wild watersheds dividing huge agricultural fields, themselves split into infinite plots of grains, vegetables and flowers. Large-scale, mechanized agriculture was not strongly evidenced, and the conical sheafs of corn and small groups of workers in the fields were more reminiscent of rural scenes from 50 years ago, then anything you'd see in the American midwest today. But like everywhere else in China, time in rural Shandong and Jiangsu provinces does not stand still. Beside abandoned cinderblock collective farm buildings which look like they had never been inhabited by humans, the flashes of welding torches shone through the gathering dusk. Even as evening faded to night, lights illuminated huge construction sites, as workers toiled through the darkness. The contrast between the gaping, hollow window openings of old buildings which seemed to never have been fitted with frames or panes and the rising skeletons of new buildings were as incomprehensible as the piles of garbage directly next to arduously cultivated fields. If I ever come back here, I will have to spend far more time in the countryside.

The rythmic vibration of the train lulled us to sleep in our comfy bunks, and gently woke me again feeling refreshed... subtract what a hotel would have cost, and this train thing actually turns out to be a hell of a way to travel. As we approached Shanghai, the canals and waterways of Jiangsu province provided a new glimpse of life in China: ancient looking houseboats, homes opening directly onto the water and groups of men fishing from the riverbanks using poles and huge nets. Quickly the small homes and quiet canals gave way to ever higher and higher apartment blocks, and before we knew it, we were in Shanghai. We took the subway to our hostel (a much better ride than Beijing's metro, but less english and pinyin signage), checked in and then took the tube downtown to explore the City.

I don't want to pass too quick a judgment on Shanghai, but the hordes of fellow honkeys, aggressive street hawkers, poseur veneer, and generally frantic pace was a little off-putting after quaint, sleepy Qingdao and friendly, down-home Beijing. But, we've got plenty of time to discover the joys of mega-city life, and already the cheap food and abundance of shopping options are pointing the way. Still, I hope we can get out of the city at least once to wander the intriguing countryside which so confounded me from the train window.

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