Tsingtaos in Qingdao

Due mainly to my inability to make up my mind, we ended up standing in the middle of the busy bus station parking lot in Zhengzhou (the capital of Henan), not knowing where we were going next. Our original plan was to head north to a small village, to get a taste of rural Central China. This plan involved at least two more bus transfers, a possible taxi ride, and it involved backtracking along the same route on our way to our next destination. The second plan was to go directly to Kaifeng, have two days there, then catch a night train to Qingdao on the East Coast. I think Yann and my dad seemed to be leaning towards the tougher option, but I convinced them that we should go directly to Kaifeng.

Apparently alot of other people were on their way to Kaifeng, only about an hour away. We waited as two extra large buses filled up, including standing room only. The Chinese are still just learning to queue and even the metal gates designed to keep people in lines didn't do much other than create a giant swelling mass, enclosed by metal gates. I stood with my arms outstretched, holding on to each side of the bars to keep people from getting ahead of me, but amazingly, it didn't stop them from trying. The moment when we were almost at the front of the line, an old man lept over the gates right where my dad was standing. Well, he tried to leap over the gates, but got my dad's elbow to the face instead. The three of us managed to get seats near the back of the bus, holding all our stuff on our laps. Shortly after we sat down, the queue-jumping little man appeared in the bus, apparently undeterred by my dad's elbow. He arrived to the back of the bus and had the choice between the vacant seat beside my dad, or a seat in the very back. He gave a long hard look at my dad, then sat down beside him. Once in Kaifeng we gave my dad the task of purchasing our onward train tickets to Qingdao for the next night. That didn't work out, the ticket lady informed us that there weren't any seats available for tomorrow, the next day or the next day after that. What was available were tickets for a train leaving at 6am the next morning and making the 14 hour trip during the day. With no other viable options (that we knew of) we settled for a day of noodle-cup eating. Kaifeng turned out to be a city with more character than expected. It didn't seem to have been hit as hard by the modernisation drives in other big Chinese cities. The rickshaw drivers that ploughed the alleys of Beijing only two years ago have almost all disappeared, replaced by shiny new taxis. But here, they were still around, with the motorbike version being the more expensive alternative. The streets were filled with street vendors and we didn't meet another (non-Chinese) tourists while we were there. We had time only to visit the city's biggest temple, The Temple of the Chief Minister and get mobbed by an adorable crowd of yellow-robed novice monks. A large intersection in Kaifeng's centre is taken up by stalls and foldable tables and chairs for the daily night market. Although it was really nice to sit and dine outside, amongst so many other people, we felt the pickin's were slim in terms of dining options. Too many kebabs and way too much stinky tofu, not much else. We settled for the boring but safe, dumplings and beer.

The next morning we hit the streets before sunrise to catch our Qingdao bound train. With actual berths in hard sleeper class, the 14 hours flew by and we were in Qingdao by late evening, well rested. At least we were pretty sure we were in Qingdao. The main Qingdao train station was closed for Olympics renovations and we could only buy tickets to 'Sifang', which we knew was close to Qingdao, but just how close, that we weren't sure of. Up until we left the station, and realised that the platforms were planks of plywood, and that we were standing in an industrial park, I did finally concede defeat to Yann and admit that maybe we hadn't pulled into the train station, a century old German colonial building in Qingdao's Old Town.

At most train and bus stations in China you have the legitimate taxis queued up at a taxi stand, somewhere nearby you have the less legitimate drivers trying to usher you into their taxis. Due to its temporary status as the main Qingdao station, Sifang was a complete mess, with taxis everywhere, no visible queue and drivers shouting at us from every direction. As we didn't know where we were, we didn't have much choice other than to get into one. All we wanted was someone who was willing to use his meter on, even if he circled us around town for a while, it wouldn't cost us too much. We finally found someone willing to take us, loaded the trunk with our bags and pulled off. He stopped about 10 meters ahead where his associate who spoke a bit of English quoted us a new non-metered price of 30yuan/person. Furious, I opened the door, told the driver to open the trunk and we began getting out. A group of taxi drivers were yelling various things at us, while the driver was trying to get us back into the car. I just kept repeating "meter meter" and they kept repeating "no meter no meter". The tone was becoming more aggressive and my dad was now a bit ahead of me up the road repeatedly giving the double middle finger plus verbal fuck yous to the drivers. Meanwhile (I only heard about this later), poor Yann was watching the scene unfold from the back of the taxi, where he remained locked in, trying to get our attention. He was finally freed by the driver only to be greeted by a chorus of "fack yuu, fack yuu" (these guys were fast learners). The three of us now continued walking up the road, into the darkness, realising that we might have burned our bridges with the taxi cartel. Then a driver pulled up, nodded when I pointed at the meter and had us at our hostel within minutes for 25 yuan (we thanked him profusely, but our gratitude couldn't really express our gratitude in Chinese).

The next day, with the taxi madness behind us, we spent the day visiting Qingdao's Old Town. Being under German administration for a few years has done wonders for the city's architecture (note, that we don't love white tiles and neon lights). From our hostel room window we had views of the red roof tiles, the Catholic church spires and the ocean behind. Around our hotel the old streets were filled with activity, food vendors (lots of live seafood), restaurants and general mayhem. For lunch we lined up with the locals to get our hands on the deliciously fresh, fried fish with cornbread. After visiting most of Qingdao's German heritage buildings, we headed to the Zongshan Park, where we managed to get lost in what is probably the city's last remaining square kilometer of forest. We were trying to walk up to the TV Tower for views on the city (we eventually backtracked to the cable car, that we were trying to avoid taking). Although we enjoyed our day in the park, (who doesn't enjoy fake-flower sculptures, cable cars and TV towers?) it didn't really compare to the city's more historical areas, or even the views from the waterfront. But we managed to make an afternoon of it anyways. But we saved Qingdao's best site for last: The Tsingtao Brewery. The German's longest lasting contribution to China, where your admission ticket comes with a pitcher of beer. The entire neighbourhood surrounding the brewery is a shrine to the famous beer brand, including beer bottle sculptures, beer bottle-shaped park benches and the cleverly named 'Beer Street'. There is an on sight museum with old brewing equipment, photos of the original brewery and viewing windows where you can watch the beer being packaged. We learned about the nutritional value of Tsintao Beer, as well as the four steps to appreciating beer: Look, Swirl, Sniff, Sip. And at the end of the highly enlightening tour we got what we came for, our Tsingtaos, which obviously tasted better in their birthplace, Qingdao.

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