After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“Well… this hasn’t worked out too bad for us” I said, peering down from my top bunk. “Mm” responded S from her lower bed as we watched the situation unfold. Down at the entrance door people were still swarming inside and I couldn’t help but be amused by their expressions as they realised there wasn’t anywhere for them to actually go. All the beds were occupied, so they had no choice but to sit in the painfully narrow aisle, knees folded up to their chins. The driver spared not an inch of space as he ushered the last passengers inside. He wore a wry smile, a look that suggested the proceeds of these tickets were going straight into his pocket. All part of a day’s work for a bus driver in China I supposed.
A few minutes later we were underway, the neon buzz of the Shanghai evening fading into the distance. Lying quietly on my bed, the smooth rumble of the bus’ wheels proved so soothing I found myself slipping into an almost hypnotic state as I reflected on what a great time we’d had in Shanghai. But also how different it’d been from the rest of our trip. As soon as we’d arrived it felt like we were no longer traveling, but suddenly on holiday. A bright, loud, overwhelming and ultra-westernised city of fifteen million people, Shanghai struck me as a kind of Asian New York. Fittingly then, S and I resolved to let go and loosen the purse strings for a week of excess. There were cocktails overlooking The Pudong, Shanghai’s impressive skyline, and a lavish Indian banquet in the French Concession District.
Not to mention bag after bag of fried dumplings as we flitted between the sights. We walked across Waibaidu Bridge, paid a visit to Jing’an Temple and strolled through the vast halls of Shanghai Museum. We checked into Peace Cinema to see the new Harry Potter film and got lost in the labyrinthine alleyways of Yuyuan Gardens, with its wooden walkways, traditional pavilions and glittering ponds.
But now we were heading back to Shandong province and the coastal city of Qingdao, a return to real China. Drifting off from the extravagance of my lofty bunk, I spared one last thought for the unfortunate aisle folk as glorious sleep swooped in to consume me.
The Old Observatory Youth Hostel was a fantastic little place perched at the summit of Guanxiangshan Park, a winding hill with lush greenery and chirping birds. Keen to settle into our Qingdao base, we headed straight there from the bus and were totally out of breath by the time we rocked up at reception. True to its name, the hostel was housed in a former observatory and had a rooftop restaurant with amazing views across the city and surrounding countryside.
Marching back down the hill to explore the city, I found myself immediately charmed by Qingdao’s wide, open streets and its unique blend of European and Asian architecture, reminders of the area’s past under German and Japanese rule. Amusingly tagged The Switzerland of China, we soon saw why, arriving at a large European-style square dominated by the handsome Qingdao Catholic Church. As beautiful as it was, our attention quickly switched to a newlywed couple posing for a cheesy photo shoot. With sculpted hair, layers of makeup and a wedding dress straight out of a Disney movie, the bride held a bouquet of flowers in one hand, the other interlocked with her husband’s as she grinned so fiercely at the camera I was concerned her face might split in two. Mr. Man meanwhile, sporting a Sinatra dinner suit, gazed off into the distance gravely as if he were contemplating the answer to world peace.
S and I watched them for a bit before continuing down the square. It was only then that we spotted two other couples doing exactly the same thing! What the heck was going on? Was it wedding season in Qingdao? Each shoot was exactly the same, the happy couples like showroom dummies; their fake poses and stilted facial expressions straight out of a fashion catalogue. When they were done with their work the four models headed over to rest on some stone steps, gamely posing one last time as I took their picture. “Congratulations!” I called, but they didn’t understand.
With an incredible seven hundred and thirty kilometres of continental coastline, Qingdao is famous all over China for its six main bathing beaches. And while millions of tourists flock there every year, nobody thought to feed the public’s imagination by giving the beaches some decent names. Instead, you’ve got Beach Number One… then there’s Beach Number Two… and… well… you get the picture.
It wasn’t too long before we reached Beach Number Six, the city’s most central stretch that runs either side of Zhan Bridge, a lengthy stone pier extending out into the bay. The entire area was horribly, horribly overcrowded and the tiny, sludgy beach staggeringly unimpressive. Instinctively we went down the pier, but soon became overwhelmed by the scale of human traffic. It was a sweltering afternoon and I received more than a few blows to the head from the sharp points of various umbrellas. At the end of the pier we reached the eight-sided Huilan Pavilion, but had no appetite to fight our away inside. So we made do with forcing ourselves into a free spot along the railings. Peering out to sea, S and I attempted to enjoy the moment as tourists took photographs of us from all sides.
Back at the beach we decided to follow the promenade that formed a u-shape around the bay. It was a peaceful walk that took us through several pretty parks and out onto the unadulterated insanity of Beach Number One. Positively seething with people, the word crowded didn’t even begin to cover it. Against our better judgement we threw ourselves into the mix, walking across the coarse sand down to the seaweed-infested shoreline and its unidentifiable pools of black muck.
Whilst not exactly charming, it was nevertheless fascinating to observe Chinese beach culture in action. The first thing I noticed was that nobody was sunbathing. There were people building sandcastles and burying each other, dipping their ankles in the water and collecting shells. Most Chinese people can’t swim, so those who did venture into the water were armed with comically large inflatable armbands or giant rubber rings. And while we in the west usually consider a good tan as the holy grail of a week on the beach, the Chinese invariably want to be whiter. It was amusing to see so many people fully dressed, doused in whitening cream and hiding under their umbrellas.
Moving tentatively through the melee, we had a giggle at the general standard of beachwear. A lot of men, from teens to elderly folk, pranced around in the skimpiest of skin-tight Lycra shorts; an absurd look that made them all look a bit camp. For the women meanwhile there wasn’t a bikini in sight, those who weren’t fully clothed opting for a t-shirt and shorts combo. Further along we stumbled upon Qingdao’s answer to Muscle Beach, a community of ripped men playing volleyball, doing press-ups and swinging back and forth along rows of purple monkey bars. They took themselves very seriously.
With our stomachs rumbling, it was definitely time to check out the nearby market streets and sample some local chow. Putting our feet up at a low-key barbecue joint on Hunan Lu, the bony old guy manning the barbecue station treated us to a multitude of tasty meat sticks and grilled flatbread, with chicken, pork and eventually Octopus finding its way onto our plates!
Fed, watered and reenergised, we strode back down to the promenade for a route that led us to the once magnificent but now sadly derelict Royal Club, a giant golf ball of a building that was once Qingdao’s premier boating centre. We got there around dusk and the place was beautifully lit up, its curved form reflected onto the water as the last traces of daylight sank into the Yellow Sea horizon.
Invigorated by the plummeting temperature and a cool sea breeze, our explorations took us to Badaxia Park; the meeting place of choice for Qingdao’s peppy elderly community. Laughing in the face of any grim reaper notions, there were couples dancing ballroom-style to traditional Chinese pop while others actually worked out on an array of exercise apparatus. Stationing ourselves on a free bench, we sat soaking it all up until our eyes settled on a middle-aged couple and their dancing poodle. The wife, an exceptionally jolly woman in a red blouse and flowery skirt, stood performing a variety of rhythmic handclaps while her snow-white doggy performed like a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Broadway star. I couldn’t help but laugh as the little scamp twirled around in frenetic circles, then lay on its back; arms and legs flapping in the air before switching to a sanding pose on its back legs. And then it was the final curtain as the husband threw his dog a much-merited treat. Gobbling it up in a millisecond, it sat panting happily while S and I applauded.
On our way back to the hostel we came across a gathering of locals releasing paper lanterns into the night sky. With a bamboo and steel wire frame, each bulb contained an enclosed candle; while here and there a scroll of paper was added before take off. “Is for good luck and health” explained one of the men. “And the papers?” I asked, as a batch of lanterns set off into the air. “Maybe a poem, maybe a wish” he replied with a smile, “something important from the heart”.
We hadn’t anticipated the rain. It was coming down hard when we woke the following morning and ended up lasting the entire day. So we hung out at The Observatory playing cards and ordering ridiculous amounts of food. It was here that we met Fergal, a long-limbed Irishman with jet-black hair, geek-cool glasses and a pervading indie vibe. Joining our card game, we shared travel stories before hailing a taxi to the restaurant street of Yunxiao Lu. The eateries there were so heaving that after a fruitless search we had we make do with an outside table, Fergal and I holding umbrellas to shield ourselves from the rain.
S and I hadn’t really had a night out since our arrival in China. And having washed down our dinner with a round of icy beers, it felt like the time was right for some Chinese-style bar- hopping. Our first stop was the boisterous New York Bar, situated on the ground floor of a featureless business hotel in Hong Kong Lu. Packed with middle class businessmen and suspiciously available women, we ordered a round of beers and turned our attention to the venue’s eccentric live act. They were a Filipino pop-rock band dressed in uniform black, the female singer belting out a selection of classic hit singles interspersed with the occasional Toni Braxton and Celine Dion dirge. For some reason the lead guitarist wore a massive mask of Elmo from Sesame Street.
From there we stopped by Honolulu Café, but the atmosphere was dead and it was dreadfully overstaffed with bored waitresses hanging on our every move. One of the girls was hovering so close behind me I could feel her breath on the back of my neck. “Let’s get out of here” said Fergal with an arched eyebrow and we duly complied, swiftly downing our drinks.
Next up was a place I’d been salivating about for almost a year since I’d discovered it in the Lonely Planet listings. Unfortunately, finding Lennon Bar wasn’t a straightforward process. Tucked away on a quiet, non-descript side street just across from Qingdao Eye Hospital, we almost missed it altogether. With its gloomy faded exterior and blackened windows we initially thought it might be closed. But then, approaching the door, I heard the muffled vocals of One After 909 and the three of us filed in expectantly.
Just as I’d envisioned, Lennon Bar turned out to be a cavernous (no pun intended), dimly lit space decked out in Beatles memorabilia. There were barely a dozen people sat at the table and chairs and American-diner-style booths, while up on stage a three-piece Filipino band had just started the intro to I Saw Her Standing There. Claiming a free table, S made off for the bar with its Paul McCartney beer mats and giant gold-framed Let It Be poster. Returning moments later with beers and a bowl of salted popcorn, the three of us kicked back as the band knocked out raucous versions of Eleanor Rigby, We Can Work It Out and Fixing A Hole.
“Hello I’m Steven!” said the man who’d suddenly appeared at our table. “Welcome to Lennon bar, where are you from?” A handsome man in his early forties, he had a friendly smile, kind eyes and silky, shoulder-length hair. Dragging a chair over, Steven treated us to a complimentary round of Tsingtaos before telling us about his life travels. He’d certainly been around, with extended trips around South America, Canada and his native China. A certified Beatles fanatic, he’d also made countless pilgrimages to Liverpool, eventually opening Lennon Bar as his Qingdao retirement plan. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing this place for over a year” I said, which forced him into a dry cackle. “I hope you’re not too disappointed” he replied, as a couple filed past us and out the main door.
After a while the band stopped for a break and we got chatting to them at the bar. The singer-bassist was a plump little guy who called himself Paul Ramon, a play on Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles song Ram On. Then there was Georgie Harry’s Son, the grungey longhaired guitarist who explained how his father Harry had schooled him in the fab four when he was a kid. And finally there was the drummer, Bingo, a quiet, well-built dude in a plain white T-shirt.
“So what are you going to sing for us?” asked Steven. “What?” I responded. “Name your song” coaxed Paul Ramon, with Fergal and S pitching in with encouraging noises. “Do you know Don’t Let Me Down?” I asked and Georgie Harry’s Son grinned in reply, motioning for me to follow him. Up on stage the modest audience before me looked on in curiosity as I took the microphone from Bingo and cleared my throat. Suddenly launching into the opening bars of the song’s brief intro, we were underway and I had no time to think. It was an exhilarating experience standing up there storming through one of my favourite songs with an actual band. The guys could really play, and whatever my vocal performance lacked in quality was more than compensated by the group’s fine musicianship and overall awesomeness. “And from the first time that she really loved me…”
From there the night rapidly descended into a half-remembered blur of beery contentment. I recall Steven going up to sing a painfully off-key but heartfelt rendition of Yesterday. Elsewhere, there was a Chinese guy called Michael who spoke excellent English and claimed to have worked as a fitness therapist for Everton football Club. “That Wayne Rooney… he used to make the tea for everyone, but always got the sugar wrong”. At some point we’d switched from beer to Baileys and S hijacked the bar to help the teenage girl work on her pouring technique. Fergal regaled us with some hugely entertaining tales from Japan where he’d been teaching English, and we all ended up buying Lennon Bar T-shirts, much to Steven’s visible delight.
“Leighton,” whispered S with a gentle nudge. Buried under the covers, head pounding, I could only murmur in response as I realised that somewhere along the way the night had ended and we were back at The Observatory. “How did we get home?” I queried, wincing at the knives of light that stabbed at me as I attempted to open my eyes. “Taxi” she replied, a faraway voice from another dimension, “although you did try to drive home in a model second world war motorbike!” “Get out of here” I countered, but unfortunately, as I was soon to find out; there was a photo to prove it.