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.
We’d been hanging out in Qingdao for just over a week when S and I decided on a change of scenery. Not that we were getting sick of the place; quite the opposite! By now we’d uncovered the best beaches on the outskirts of town, taken a major chunk out of the restaurant scene and were pretty much part of the furniture at The Lennon Bar. “Where you go?” whined Paul Ramon, affable lead singer of the pub’s resident rock band. “To Yantai!” I replied excitedly. “Just for a break… we’ll be back in a few days”. “Ok, ok” he hummed thoughtfully, “Yantai is ok… but be careful about jellyfish… they fucking everywhere”. Smiling politely, I couldn’t work out if he meant that a) there were lots of Jellyfish, b) loads of them having sex or c) both.
Yantai was another Shandong Province beach town a four-hour train ride from Qingdao. We’d booked a room at the International Youth Hostel, which had looked like a decent choice when we discovered it online. But upon arrival I quickly realised it was a run down dive where the word international had obviously been included as some kind of joke. Indeed the disinterested teen moping around at reception spoke not a word of English, while all the information boards and notices were written exclusively in Chinese characters.
Then there was the farcical process of checking in! The girl claimed to have no record of our booking and blatantly tried to overcharge us for the room. Then, upon agreeing a new price, she revealed there was no change in the register. It would be another two days before we eventually got our money back. With no elevator, we traipsed up four floors to our room, which appeared to be some kind of mosquito breeding chamber. “No!” growled S decisively, grimacing at a section of blood stained wall.
Back at reception, we were begrudgingly given another set of keys. And while the second room was undoubtedly better, there were no towels; zero toilet paper and nobody had bothered to clean it since the last occupants left. “Míngtiān” (tomorrow) mumbled the girl, who was clearly beginning to despise us. With all the charm and ambience of a hospital waiting room, S and I resolved to bypass the common room altogether and head out to see what the city had to offer.
It didn’t take long to see that Yantai was a sleepy old place; its two and a half kilometres of beach much quieter than anything we’d seen in Qingdao. This made for a really pleasant day as we walked the entire length of Yantai’s golden sands, admiring the results of a local sandcastle competition along the way. Scaling the beach’s rocky pier, I befriended a local fisherman who handed me one of his rods so that I could help him with his daily catch. I even caught a few fish, before dropping them into his red bucket. “Blaaaargh!” he hooted with a wonky grin, which I took as an exclamation of approval.
The further we walked the quieter it became and for a while it was like we were the prince and princess of Yantai, revelling in the tranquillity of our own private kingdom. Even the beach attendants had somewhere else to be, which enabled me to hop up one of the ladders to an unmanned lifeguard station for choice views across the coast. “King of the world!!” Etc.
Despite Paul Ramon’s warning, I was still taken aback when we stumbled upon the first dead jellyfish, an unsightly pile of grey sludge brought in by the tide. And then there was another… a couple more scattered here and there. Then we spied a man in red trunks striding towards us through the water, a wide grin pasted across his face and a large silvery jellyfish clutched in his hands like some macabre trophy. Stopping before us, he fired off some speedy sentences in thick guttural Mandarin before posing proudly for a photo. And then he set to work, ripping off its tentacles until only the head was left, which he duly popped into a plastic bag. “Oh god he’s going to eat it isn’t he?” whispered S.
Back at the silly hostel we were amused to see that someone had brought us the towels we’d requested; two comical loincloths that in a previous life may have been porn film props. I figured I’d have to choose which part of my body to dry, perhaps the back of my neck or say my right foot. We also discovered a hilarious Self-Laundry Room, a poky, cell that was completely empty save for two rusty old sinks. As if the ‘self’ part alluded to the idea that should clients possess magical powers, one might succeed in conjuring up a washing machine. And yet the biggest head-scratcher of all had to be the supermarket in the lobby, a glass box with metal bars over its dusty door and windows. Eternally closed, from what I could see the only things for sale inside were a number of grimy-looking Buddhas. Epic fail.
Hostel nonsense aside, our Yantai days unfurled happily and uneventfully. Beyond the shopping malls, restaurants and street markets there wasn’t much to see or do, so we passed the days sunbathing, reading, swimming and hopping around dead jellyfish. For refreshments there was a sole beachside establishment, a wooden shack that simply called itself bar. It was perfect for our daily lunches, where we gorged on barbecued meat sticks. In the mornings, on our way to the beach, we’d stop at the same metal cart by the side of the road where a jolly woman sold slices of fresh watermelon. Her face always brightened up when she saw us approaching.
In the evenings we wandered through the street markets, invariably camping out at one of the plastic tables and chairs that lined the roadside. There were some really wacky dishes on offer, including chicken heads; octopus stir-fry and fried jellyfish noodles (freshly plucked from the beach I supposed). I sampled a little of almost everything, though the best meals were tried and tested old favourites like pork dumplings and Kung Pao Chicken.
One night, on our way back to the hostel, we came across a pool hall inhabited by a dozen or so serious-looking Chinese men. “Fancy a game?” I asked S with a grin. You could have heard a pin drop when we walked in and a couple of guys even stopped their game to watch us play. We were on our second frame when a floppy-haired teen sauntered over and began giving me tips as I was lining up my shots. Annoyingly, he seemed oblivious to the fact that a) I couldn’t understand what he was saying and b) I wanted him to sod off and leave us alone. But then he challenged me to a match and I was so desperate to beat him I accepted.
The mysterious white guy versus Yantai’s very own Paul Newman caused much excitement as the remaining tables abandoned their rivalries to gather round and watch. Disappearing into a back room, Newman returned a few minutes later with a can of coke, a professional looking cue and a Michael Jackson esque white glove, which he proceeded to put on with much care and attention. “International standard!” whispered one of the onlookers, leaning in close to my ear. Glancing at S, I was perturbed to see she had no words of wisdom, just a nervous smile and a pair of raised eyebrows. What had I gotten myself into? Chalking my cue with my own gloveless hand, I looked on as the waitress came over to rack up and signal the start of the game. Without consulting me, Newman broke off with a ferocious hit that smashed open the entire triangle and potted two stripes. He then sank another before crunching in ball four off about a hundred cushions! When he finally missed I managed to compose myself enough to awkwardly force one of my spots over a middle pocket and keep things respectable. But then I screwed up my next shot and had no choice but to sit down and accept that it was probably game over.
And yet… over the following few minutes… with missed ball after missed ball… I gleefully realised that Newman’s approach to the game was irredeemably flawed! All he had in his locker it seemed was an inflexible barrage of cannon blasting wallops, with no positional or safety play whatsoever. So I began picking him off patiently, tapping a loose ball into the bottom right and covering another pocket with a carefully placed shot that left the white safely against one of the cushions. The more I clawed my way back the more impatient and frustrated he became until finally, after a lengthy comeback, I defeated him on the black and a healthy round of applause echoed around the hall. Gracious in defeat, Newman praised me through his friend, the “international standard” guy who spoke a bit of English. “He want take you to food as congratulate” the man said, shaking my hand, “Do you like jellyfish?”
Yantai had been a fun distraction, but after four nights we decided to follow our hearts back to Qingdao. With The Old Observatory fully booked, a change of digs was in order, so we bedded down in the nearby Kaiyue Hostel. Our new home lacked The Observatory’s stunning location and terrace views, but Kaiyue did boast the amazing Old Church Lounge, easily the most impressive hostel bar of the trip so far. Stuffed with comfy sofas, modern furniture, intimate alcoves, a gaming corner and a movie room, we were so contented there that first evening it became a night in with pizza, pasta and beers.
Our remaining time in Qingdao sped by in an action-packed blur of sightseeing days and Lennon Bar nights. One day we hiked up Xin Hao Shan Park, a typical steep-hill-with-stone-steps setup complimented by a few kooky exhibits along the way. The most amusing of these was The Blockhouse, a simple timber structure dating back to the German occupation. It wasn’t much to look at, but luckily the accompanying information board more than compensated:
“The Blockhouse, built in 1897, is evidence of the crime of Germany invading Qingdao. Now it works as the educational base of patriotism and is telling our offspring not to forget the contumelious history of our country.”
At the park’s summit there were fine views from the rotating tower and the large Chinese family we met inside insisted on having their picture taken with S… one by one. Picture with the dad… picture with Auntie… Zhang… picture with Grandma Wu.
We also paid a visit to the bulbous Christian Church, probably the city’s most remarkable European structure. Built in 1910, the highlight was being able to climb the steps to the auditorium, a giant chamber capable of holding a thousand people! It was also the location for weekly language exchange meetings between expats and locals.
With the clock ticking down on our impending return to Beijing, we made sure to sneak in a visit to Qingdao’s famous brewery, situated on the lively Beer Street. The tour itself was amusing enough, with free samples; bottle-top artwork and an inside look at white-coated workers carrying out “quality control” tests in a white-walled laboratory. There was also a drunken house, where visitors get pulled around by unseen magnetic forces and… for reasons unknown… some statues of Lauren and Hardy by the exit doors.
It seemed only right to have our final Qingdao dinner on Beer Street itself, where our table overlooked a hulking neon sign and its claim that “Tsingtao beer can give you passion and happiness!!!” Below this dubious proclamation sat a massive portrait of Jesus floating among some clouds, flanked by a couple of funky looking jellyfish. Which at that point seemed logical enough.
Checking out of our hostel and hailing a taxi for the train station, our cross-country Chinese adventure was finally coming to an end. It had been an amazing four-week jaunt that had taken in Tianjin, Jinan, Zhujiayu, Qufu, Tai’an, Shanghai, Yantai and the wonderful Qingdao; a place we’d loved so much it was just starting to feel like home. But now it was time to return to the big smoke of Beijing, where teaching jobs of some description allegedly awaited us. We understood that a year in China’s bewildering capital was going to be a whole new experience, though at this point I was clueless as to just how many twists and turns lay ahead.