Qingdao to Beijing

I planned to have another chilled out relaxing day, taking the train up from Qingdao to Beijing and checking into the hostel.
A lot of the travelling I’ve done in the past few years has been rushing around trying to see as many deprived parts of a town as possible (urban geography fieldtrips) or rushing around trying to see as many ‘must see’ tourist attractions as possible (holidays with friends). I was having none of that on this vacation. This time, if friends ask “what did you do on holiday?” and I can honestly answer “not much, just chilled out and relaxed a bit” then I’ll consider it a success.

My train to Beijing departed at 12:08, so I had lots of time to amble around packing and having some breakfast at the hostel. Excellent. I like train stations, watching the world go by, wondering where people are coming from and going to. As I mentioned in my post about the day in Qingdao, I also really like train station architecture. St Pancras station in London is perhaps one of my favourite places in the world. I find the juxtaposition of grand old architecture and grand modern architecture really exciting, and I’d read that Qingdao’s train station was old and had been re-developed so I was eager to have a good nose around.

I went in the east entrance of the station, through the security that seems to be obligatory in major Chinese train stations, to see a gleaming marble hall. I went up the stairs to the overpass and to look across the concourse and tracks. The roof is a modern glass and white painted steel structure, sitting on top of the old Germanic buildings. It was quite tastefully done. As I was looking up at the building, I realised I was standing above a sleeper train with hundreds of people boarding. My Chinese is now at a point where I can recognise about 20 or 30 characters, and I noticed that the departure board said 西安, Xi’an.

As I waited in the departure lounge, I realised that my ticket for this journey was in the middle of the three seats across on the Chinese trains. I hoped I could do the same trick of playing the ignorant westerner and sitting by the window again, but when I boarded the train I found that the window seat was already taken by a fat sleeping man spilling over onto my seat. He had a single very long beard hair. How had he managed to miss shaving that one hair his entire life, surely he knew it was there? Anyway, close to departure I thought I might be in luck and the other seat of the three might be unoccupied, but just before we pulled out of the station, another fat man arrived, carrying a supersized bucket of KFC.

The train journey was very similar to the one from Shanghai to Qingdao. The train was modern and smooth, and had a little display announcing the speed. The fastest I noticed was 308km/h, although you wouldn’t know it unless you look out of the window. Squashed between two fat men, one of whom stank of KFC, I decided to bury myself in some TV on my laptop, and then do some writing. I watched the first episode of the new Armando Iannucci comedy, Veep (didn’t think much of it), another episode of Modern Family (excellent), and watched the new Tron movie again (excellent).

Arriving in Beijing, I had to buy a metro ticket to get to the hostel. Knowing the metro ticket machines in Xi’an, and how fickle they can be about accepting notes of different values and ages, I’d managed to keep a small selection when receiving change. But the machine didn’t accept any of my ¥10, ¥20 or ¥50 notes. I tried each a couple of times but to no joy. The person behind me in the queue was probably getting a bit frustrated at waiting, although he didn’t show it, and eventually offered the ¥2 I needed in coins. China sometimes feels like the friendliest country in the world.

At the hostel in Beijing I checked in and went to my bunk in the shared dorm. It’s a really nice hostel, with messages written on the walls from pervious backpackers. All the more amazing is that no one seems to have abused the privilege of writing on the walls – all the messages are nice. The dorm had 10 beds and was wonderfully air-conditioned.

It was already 5pm and I didn’t feel like doing anything in Beijing yet, so I headed to the hostel bar to do some more writing. I was definitely over my writer’s block by now. I also promised I’d call my best friend Jaine back in England, so found a spot with free wifi and tried to use Skype, but I couldn’t get through.

In the hostel bar a bit later I met some cool people that had spontaneously formed a group. About four of them lived in Beijing and the other four were passing through. None of us could remember each other’s names, but since we were all from different places and had different accents we called each other by places. I became ‘posh London’ since there was another Londoner, and we also had New Zealand, Ohio, South Carolina, Canada, Ireland, Iceland and Sheffield. We were all getting on really well, and it was turning into an interesting evening, but I was really tired. At about 10 I asked if they’d all still be there at midnight before heading out somewhere else and they said probably yeah and that they’d wait for me, so I went for a power nap. Clearly the power nap turned into a deep sleep, as I woke up the next morning at 8am.

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Qingdao

My day in Qingdao was very lazy, just as I’d planned it to be.
I had breakfast at the hostel then went for a walk. Qingdao used to be a German concession, and the architecture of the old city still shows this. The older buildings look very Germanic and the streets are consistently built to a human scale.

First I headed to the Laoshe Park, and wandered down the hill to the sea. In the park there was an old man writing traditional Chinese calligraphy on the empty base of a fountain. He had a big stick and a pot of black paint. He took time with each character, looking like he was putting a lot of thought into what character to write and exactly how to write it to express the correct message.

At the base of the park I came to the sea. The sea front was heaving with people, and there was very little beach, just a few rocks sticking out above the water line. I took a random decision and decided to turn left, heading north east along the shore, with the sea to my right. Along the sea front I walked, a lot of the time unable to see the sea due to the rampant commercialism along the shore. I went up a hill and found Luxun Park, so went in to relax and watch the world go by. The park is high on a rocky outcrop with good views of the rest of the shoreline. I sat on a rock with the sea lapping the rocks far below. The scent of the pine trees gave the setting a very Mediterranean feeling. As ever in China, sitting down for that long, I became an attraction myself, with people taking photos surreptitiously.

Tired of the attention, I left the park to go to Xiao Qingdao, a scenic island with a causeway leading to it. By the start of the causeway was a Naval Museum, with four decommissioned war ships and a submarine. Scattered seemingly randomly on the shore was a weird collection of helicopters, missiles, gun turrets and other military paraphernalia. On the island I found a tourist-tat shop, so bought little gifts for everyone back in the office. Further around the island I found a coffee shop, so stopped for about an hour while I drank a coffee and got my Kindle out to read another chapter of the book I’m reading.

Leaving the island, I wandered back to the old city centre, with the goal of finding the train station to see how much of the original German station has been retained and repurposed in the modern station. Expecting the station to be like a Chinese St Pancras, I didn’t have the opportunity to see it – the station was across five lanes of busy road, with no obvious way across. I tried to go around, but found myself half way back to the hostel in the process. The Chinese town planners “won” that one, and I headed back to the hostel to do some more relaxing and writing.

As I ordered dinner in the hostel lounge, the waitress accused me of coming to China and spending all my time on my computer. I countered by saying that I’ve lived in China for the past seven months, that I’m on holiday now so I’ll do what I want and that isn’t necessarily experiencing more of China, and (quarter truth) I’m a writer so have been doing lots of writing, not just surfing the internet. She seemed very impressed at my claim to be a writer and let me off the hook.

After publishing a few blog posts and receiving the same cold shoulders from other self-absorbed backpackers as I had on the previous nights, I headed to bed.

Shanghai to Qingdao

Another early morning. That makes three in a row. I’m knackered.
At 7am I slip out of my hostel room as quietly as possible, trying not to wake anybody. I sleepily head downstairs and through the hostel’s tranquil central courtyard filled with patterned shadows from the dawn light filtering through the lovingly tended trees. The night receptionist, not fully awake herself, pays me my deposit. The peace and calm is serene, and I almost whisper xièxiè so as not to interrupt the quiet.

Then I head out into central Shanghai. Bam.

The hostel may be asleep, but the rest of Shanghai is certainly awake. Along the couple of streets from the hostel to People’s Square I dodge delivery vans, children cycling to school, fat cats in big black cars, hundreds of commuters on electric bikes, workmen pushing wheelbarrows. The square itself is no better, thousands of commuters all more important than everyone else power walking to work.

Down into the metro and I already have the ¥4 in coins I need for the ticket to Shanghai Hongqiao railway station. Despite the masses of people, the ticket machines are deserted. Everyone using the metro at this time in the morning are commuters with pre-paid cards, the tourists normally clogging up the ticket machines are still sleeping. Somehow, as I’m almost carried along by the sea of bodies, I manage to help a pretty girl carry her ridiculously large suitcase down the stairs. Perhaps she’s the only other tourist at this time in the morning.

I reminisce living in London, commuting daily on an overcrowded metro system, getting annoyed at the pettiest things like backpackers or tourists with wheely suitcases slowing me down. “Damn it, I’m going to be late” I’d curse as if the 5 seconds lost were really going to make a difference when the train wasn’t due for another 2 minutes anyway. Being a part of the commuter rush, but somehow also on the outside looking in, puts things in perspective. I’d like to say I’ll never glare at another slow tourist again, but in reality, at some time in the future, living in the moment, I’ll no doubt get as caught up in the commuter rush as everyone else does.

At Hongqiao station, like at every major station in China, I have to pass through security. The queues are long but moving fast. There are 12 distinct lines, with people moving back and forth trying to choose the fastest. As a relatively tall person compared to most of the Chinese, I can see that there are only actually four security check points but somehow each has three lines that merge into one.

Inside the station I’m in awe of the scale of the building. I look at the departure board. My train will leave from platform 3, at the other end of the concourse. I start walking and what seems like a long time later look back to gauge my progress. I’m a third of the way. I reach my platform and realise I have an hour to spare. I look around for some options for breakfast. I see a KFC high up and think, sod it, I eat Chinese all the time, now I’m on holiday I’ll eat whatever I want.

The population of KFC is a 50-50 split between Chinese and westerners, with most of the westerners looking a little hypocritically disdainful at the others for indulging in KFC. With my KFC to go I head to the little supermarket to buy snacks for the journey – Orion Pies (like Wagon Wheels in the UK), some chewy sweets, and a couple of bottles of water.

Downstairs again I wait for the gate to the platform to open. Twenty minutes before departure people start queueing, and I decide to join them. I reach the gate and put my ticket in. It doesn’t fit. In fact, it looks different to everyone else’s ticket. Oh boy, this is going to be a problem, what if my ticket isn’t valid, then I’m stuck in Shanghai. I force my way through to the assistant, and she clips a hole in my ticket and lets me through. Boarding the train, I find that my seat is the middle of five across, next to the aisle and with no view at all. I decide to sit by the window anyway and hope I don’t have any seat neighbours. Of course, another passenger turns up and looks perplexed at finding a westerner in their seat. I point at the window and mime looking out of it, then look back at them and shrug in a way that I hope conveys that I’d like to sit by the window to look at the view, if that’s ok by them. Seven months of improving my non-verbal communication must have worked wonders and they reply “hao de”, meaning ok.

At 9:39am the train departs right on time and is wonderfully smooth. It’s a six and half hour journey so there’s lots of time for window gazing. Watching China go past the window, and having just spent a couple of days effectively on an urban geography fieldtrip, I’m in a reflective mood about China and where it’s going. While my thoughts appear in my mind randomly from every which direction, eventually they start to form a bigger picture. Before I forget them I get my laptop out to write an email to Tass, even though we just spent two days talking about China, there’s still more to the story.

While I have my laptop out I also write a dull blog post about maglev train technology. I apologise if you managed to read that one to the end!

Even though I’m peering through the window in the direction of the sea all the way to Qingdao, my first glimpse of it doesn’t come until the train has arrived and I’m walking to the hostel. There’s too much industry on the coastline to see the sea from the train.

The hostel, Kaiyue International Hostel, is alright. It’s in an old church and the building has lots of potential for creating a great hostel. But there’s something missing; it just doesn’t have any soul. The lounge is too big and there are too few people that you’re not forced into sitting near anyone. I take my laptop out to do some writing, and ask a fellow brit if he knows the wifi code. “It’s three ten times” he says curtly. I ask if he knows the football result. “Italy won”. Does he know the score? “Two-one”. Well, he’s a friendly fellow. I try to initiate conversations with a few other backpackers and get similarly curt responses.

Clearly this isn’t the place for socialising, so I bury my head in my laptop and find that my writer’s block seems to be over.

I have so much writing to catch up on that I don’t notice the hours flowing past. By 9pm I’m simultaneously knackered and hungry. I decided earlier that I’m on holiday from China, so I have no qualms ordering western food. A pepperoni pizza later and I’m ready for bed. Three early mornings and two days of Tass fieldtrip have done me in.

By 10pm I’m asleep in bed.