In mid January I took a trip to Shandong province on a bit of a whim. I didn’t have much work to do on Monday and my friend Tom suggested heading somewhere on holiday. It seemed a good idea so I searched around online for flight tickets. The cheapest flight to a destination we were both interested in was to Qingdao. The flight cost just 250 RMB, so off to Qingdao we headed. I booked tickets online at 2.30 pm, the tickets were delivered to my apartment by 4.30 pm, and after a quick pre-departure cocktail (a Manhattan made with Jameson Irish whiskey), we riding the Maglev to the airport by 5.30 pm. The way travel agents in Shanghai deliver tickets to your door makes things very convenient.
The flight was delayed so we didn’t get to Qingdao until late. After riding the airport bus into town a taxi driver took us to a cheap hotel. The hotel was a weird place. It was very chilly inside, with narrow, elongated rooms spaced out along surprisingly long, gently curving corridors. The bathroom was separated from the rest of the room only by a glass partition, meaning you got to watch your roommate using the toilet and showering. Of course there was a curtain, but it was still an odd arrangement. Also, despite the drab nature of the place, rather than a television the room had a computer for surfing the Internet.
We dropped off our stuff and headed out to get something to eat and visit a bar or two. People in Qingdao are extremely friendly compared to Shanghai. The taxi driver dropped us off outside a bar he thought we might like. We didn’t like it, and when we came out a moment later and started looking for somewhere else the taxi driver insisted on picking us up again free of charge and taking us around the little bar district until we found a place we did like. It was very nice of him. We ended up in a Korean restaurant, then after some Bulgogi and Shoju we found a tired old Chinese style bar and went in there for a couple of beers.
Before long we were talking to a friendly but slightly unhinged Chinese guy. There is a certain type of educated Chinese guy that enjoys showing off by speaking to white people in a confused mish-mash of European languages. He started off in English, but after that flowed too smoothly for his liking he switched to Dutch, then Spanish, then Italian, then French, that back to English for a while, before settling again on Dutch. He responded to our inability to understand him by inviting the barman to jeer at our lack of education. It is nice to meet Chinese people who are genuinely interested in the outside world, but the whole “I speak six languages and you don’t” routine gets tiresome. At least the barman was disinterested in playing along with the game.
By this time I was losing interest in trying to talk to the guy and instead was just drinking my beer and letting him ramble. His upper and lower front teeth had what seemed to be a perfectly cigarette shaped cavity. As he rambled he chain smoked my friend’s cigarettes (a Shanghai manufactured brand not available in Qingdao), holding each one in this miraculous hole and smoking until the ash curved deeply under its own weight before letting it fall into the ash tray. It was oddly fascinating to watch. As he talked he kept flicking his long fringe back behind his ear. He had the air of what the Chinese might call an ‘old glass’ (???), which translates to something like an ‘old queen’ in English. His conversation got more bizarre as he started telling us about how he had recently enjoyed sex with a girl in the toilets of this very bar. I only half believed that story. Toilet sex seemed likely. Every other detail seemed dubious.
He eventually took offense at Tom’s invective sprinkled English, launched into a prima dona rant to the barman about how these two foreigners were “low class and not worth speaking to”, pinched Tom’s cigarettes, and flounced away to the other end of the bar. Tom tried to recover his cigarettes only to have the ‘old glass’ claim they were his, specially shipped up from Shanghai, and demand 100 pounds for them. When we settled the bill he pleaded with the barman to overcharge us since we were foreigners. The barman ignored him.
We headed back to the hotel to sleep. The next morning, seeing the place in the light, I realized what was so weird about the hotel. It was located inside a football stadium, and the long winding corridors followed the shape of the stands. Very odd.
The morning was reminiscent of Leaving Las Vegas. Tom is a major alcoholic. He had been drinking all the previous day and was still very drunk when I tried to get him up in the morning. For various reasons we decided we should switch hotels but he was simply too drunk to get organized. After a lot of effort I got him downstairs, but as I was checking out of our room he passed out in the foyer. Dealing with him was becoming a bit much and we ended up having a bit of a falling out and splitting up temporarily. I left him to contact a girl he was supposed to be meeting in Qingdao and went off to find another hotel myself.
I took a walk around Qingdao myself for an hour or so, then decided to head to the Qingdao brewery. Qingdao beer is China’s national brand. Set up by German investors when Qingdao was a German colony, Qingdao is also said to be China’s oldest beer brand. I am not sure if this claim is true since the Russian established Hapi brewery in Harbin makes the same claim.
Given the amount of Qingdao Tom drinks, the Qingdao brewery can probably be considered Tom’s spiritual home in China. Visiting the brewery without him seemed sacrilegious, so I gave him a call to check how he was going and see if he wanted to join me on a tour of the brewery museum.
The brewery tour turned out to be better than I expected. The brewery history section of the display contained some fascinating beer old advertisements. Some of the advertisements were from the period when the brewery was under Japanese control, and including a banner advertising a Japanese cider. Maybe this was a case of the wrong artifact ending up in the museum cabinet. I have never heard of the Qingdao brewery producing cider, or of Japanese breweries producing cider. The banner was in English rather than either Chinese or Japanese, which was also odd. It would be interesting to know more about this though. Perhaps the Qingdao brewery did once produce cider.
The display also included old production equipment and some discontinued products. It seems that at one stage quite recently Qingdao produced a beer flavored with bitter melons. Bitter melon is one of my favorite Chinese vegetables and I’m sure the beer would have been interesting. I was tempted to nick one of the bottles from the display, since there were a few dozen and nobody watching. I controlled myself though.
The final part of the tour led through the bottling and canning room. The volume of beer passing through the production line was ridiculous. It really put Tom’s alcoholism in context. I’m putting my money on the brewery to win that particular contest.
At the end of the tour we got a chance to sample the beers. Unfortunately the Qingdao dark beer was not available on tap at the brewery itself. The only beers available on tap were the standard Qingdao and an unfiltered Qingdao (called yuanjiang – ??). The dark was only available in bottles, which we could have bought just as easily anywhere else. The unfiltered Qingdao was impressive. It wasn’t exactly full of flavor, but it did seem to have softer carbonation than the standard Qingdao along with an interesting yeastiness.
During the brewery tour I met Tom’s Qingdao girlfriend, Shanshan. Shanshan was a slightly strange one. She was older than Tom but slightly immature, even by Chinese girl standards. She claimed to be one eighth Russian, and I suppose she did look a little non-Chinese. She was extremely talkative, but only seemed to be able to talk about her budding romance with Tom. Whenever we got in a taxi she spent the ride alternately addressing Tom as ‘honey’, ‘darling’ and ‘baby’ in English. She never actually said anything, just called these endearments out across the taxi at him.
After the brewery tour we checked out Chiang Kaishek’s house in Qingdao. Maybe he never actually stayed there. The attendants at the house itself contradicted one another about whether he had really stayed there and if so for how long. Never mind. It was a nice building with awesome views over the beach.
We finished up with a bad seafood dinner. None of it tasted very good and the sea snails tasted faintly like shit. The restaurant was the taxi driver’s recommendation and while the prices were OK the food was not good at all.
The next day we spent the afternoon checking out the German fortress overlooking the harbor. Approximately two thirds of the fortress had been blown up by the Germans when they handed Qingdao back to the Chinese. Even the remaining third was very impressive though. The fortress must have been remarkable when it was complete. The rotating observation turret was still in working order after nearly 100 years.
For dinner we headed back to the street of restaurants by the brewery and picked a place offering seafood with the ‘yuanjiang’ Qingdao beer. We tried the famous Qingdao ‘swimming dicks’ which Nathan had been telling me about for years. I should have photographed these things. They are some sort of local seafood that look exactly like swimming penises. I think they are called ?? in Chinese, meaning sea worms rather than sea dicks. They shrivel up a lot during cooking though, and once they arrive at the table they are unremarkable.
We had more of the ‘yuanjiang’ beer, which this time tasted sour but not unpleasant. It was almost like a very mild sour Belgian beer. I also tried the ‘yuanjiang’ at the restaurant next door and again it had the sour taste. Later I asked a few people around town whether the ‘yuanjiang’ beer could sometimes have a sour taste and everyone seemed to agree that it could. When asking people leading questions it is always hard to know whether they are telling you the truth or just humoring you, but perhaps there is a bit of a sour beer thing going on in Qingdao?
The restaurant tried to scam another table of customers, but were foiled by me stepping in to save the day. They had run out of dark Qingdao on draft, so they mixed up a jug containing bottled dark mixed with the cheap ‘today’s Qingdao’ (????). I noticed them opening bottles of dark Qingdao despite having a tap that was labeled ‘dark’. It seemed weird so I started monitoring what they were doing. Then I saw them mixing the dark stuff with the cheap stuff and asked what the story was. They told me the table had ordered a mixed jug. The story was plausible but somehow I didn’t quite believe it, so when the jug left the bar area I decided to follow it to see where it was going. The restaurant was the sort that was mostly divided into private rooms so I followed the jug along a couple of corridors until it reached a room full of middle aged Chinese guys. I asked them what beer they had ordered. ‘Dark Qingdao’ they replied. ‘Not half and half dark and light?’ I asked. ‘No!’ came the reply. I explained the situation. Then, my good deed for the day completed, I disappeared as the waitress started making her excuses. A few minutes later the Chinese guys came past our table to thank me. It was fun to stop the restaurant scamming them.
The next day we headed off to Qufu, the birthplace and home of Confucius. As often happens the train ride was a bit of a mission. We could only get standing tickets for the five hour journey. Luckily though we managed to grab a table in the dining car and sit there for the entire trip. The fact that the train was full of standing people yet the dining car had free seats was strange. Maybe we got lucky, maybe most Chinese would rather stand all day long than eat a China Rail lunch, or maybe most of them are too tight to fork out for the pricey dining car food.
Shanshan did the overprotective Chinese girlfriend routine at lunchtime, loudly accusing the dining car workers of trying to cheat us on our lunch and forcing them to replace a couple of the dishes. It was vaguely embarrassing. Railway food in China is universally bad. You expect it to be bad and chokes it down. If it stays down it was a good meal. I don’t think anybody in the history of China Rail had ever complained about the food before. In any case since the prices are standardized there is no question of the dining car staff cheating specific customers. It wouldn’t surprise me if they earned pocket money by selling some of the company supplied ingredients on the side, but is a slightly different thing and not something you can resolve on the spot by complaining.
The remains of a bottle of spruce vodka I bought last year in Harbin helped the journey pass a little quicker. It mixed well with coke. After the vodka was gone we had a little rum.
Eventually we arrived in Yanzhou, the closest railway station to Qufu, and hopped on a minibus to Qufu itself. The bus trip looked likely to turn disastrous as we ran into a traffic jam on a bridge. The bridge was structurally unsound and signs had been erected telling heavy traffic to stay off the bridge, with concrete barriers added at each end to enforce the point. Chinese collectively act on the basis that whatever rules exist apply only to others. Thus predictably, a truck had tried to cross the bridge despite the barriers and ended up firmly wedged between two massive blocks of concrete at our end of the bridge. The truck could go neither backwards or forwards. The situation was so clearly hopeless that even the driver of the truck had given up and vanished. Meanwhile, with the path between the barriers blocked, all other traffic was also prevented from using the bridge.
Of course the fact that the structurally unsound bridge was now impassable did not stop traffic crowding onto it from the other end. I watched as gesticulating Chinese guys and their trucks swarmed onto the bridge. The scene seemed destined to disappear in a cloud of dust but didn’t. Trucks started inching off and onto the bridge on the outside of the concrete barriers. Their wheels were partly on the bridge and partly off it as they did this, but it was just possible to squeeze past. Eventually our turn came and we got over the bridge and completed the few kilometers to Qufu.
Qufu looked quite pretty at first. The entire town has been restored in a historical Chinese style. However, as you looked more closely you realized how fake the restoration was, and that the whole place was more or less a giant tourist trap. There were hotel touts all over the place. In an interesting indication of how Confucius is more revered in Korea than in China, there was Korean signage all over town.
We found a hotel, more like a family guesthouse really, and Shanshan did her complaining and bargaining routine and managed to knock 10 RMB of what had appeared to be their last price. It wasn’t pretty to listen to but I was impressed with the end result.
We then wandered around town looking for some dinner. The night market had interesting offerings, including a dog meat stall that made extensive use of dog skulls in its advertising. The hygiene seemed very suspect though and in any case sitting outside would have been freezing cold. We checked out some of the local restaurants instead but found them to be either charging obscene prices for ‘Confucius Family Banquets’, or offering two menus with different prices for locals and westerners. Wherever we went the waitress or owner would ask Shanshan if she was our guide and then offer her a cut in bleeding us. Nobody was the slightest bit embarrassed when myself or Tom questioned the ethics of all this. They either lowered their prices or asked how much we were willing to pay for a dish.
In the end we settled for a popular beef hotpot restaurant, part of a national chain. Something more local would have been interesting, but sometimes you just don’t feel like haggling with con artists just to get a meal.
The plan for the next day was to check out the three big Confucius associated sites, the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion, and the Confucius Cemetery, then catch a bus back to Shanghai.
There was a bit of stress about finding a place to dump our bags. The hotel refused to let us leave luggage for a few hours unless we paid them 10 RMB per bag. Normally there is no charge to do this in China. In fact a friend of a friend once walked into a hotel he had never been a guest of, talked the receptionist into allowing him to leave some luggage under the desk for a day or two, then came back four years later to claim his stuff. Remarkably nothing was missing. Destitute Bolivians may have an advantage in pulling something like this off. In our case they may have been either trying to recoup the 10 RMB Shanshan’s bargaining had cost them the previous day, or reacting to her bitter complaints about the breakfast. Whatever the reason, Shanshan’s haggling got so heated that the hotel owner eventually just refused to take our bags whatever we paid. At that point we were more or less thrown out of the hotel. It was nice to know that other Chinese people could also get annoyed by Shanshan’s complaining, but having to find somewhere else to leave our bags was annoying. In the end we found a shop that looked after our bags for a more modest charge.
The three big Confucius sites are touted as having some of the best Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture in China. I suppose that is true, but somehow they are not that interesting. The Confucius Temple was an impressive size and filled with atmospheric old trees. One of the outer courtyards contained a large collection of commemorative stele set up by various notable visitors, including past emperors. The main hall itself seemed to have recently been heavily restored though. Of course it was hard to tell for sure. There was a celebrated set of dragon carved pillars which were wrapped in silk whenever the emperor visited to prevent imperial jealousy. I was slightly disappointed by them to tell the truth, but then I guess the story about the silk wrapping elevated my expectations too high. A couple of other interesting details included a courtyard kitchen where animal sacrifices were prepared, and a wall where the works of Confucius were said to have been hidden to escape a book burning drive by a previous emperor.
The Confucius Mansion was a vast and rambling Chinese style house. Architecturally there seemed nothing special about it to me. Apparently women and junior family members were barred from huge areas of the house. Even water sellers were not allowed to enter the house itself and delivered water by pouring it into a trough in the wall. One of the only points of interest was a woman selling some stuff that looked like Turkish delight. We asked if we could try a piece (the smallest bag contained 250 gm or so) and were told no. I bought some later at another shop and it tasted very average so I guess her sales strategy at least fitted the product.
We took a break for lunch after finding an honest restaurant offering Confucius family food. The lunch was cheap and surprisingly good. We had some kind of pine kernel type things (??). They were the priciest dish but the least tasty. They tasted sort of like sweet beans cooked in yellow goo. The other two dishes were much better. One was a Confucius family tofu and the other was a Confucius family chicken stew with herbs. The tofu was unlike any other tofu I have had. The tofu seemed to have been semi toasted, giving it a smoky taste, and was cooked in a broth with chunks of very smoky ham and some greens. The intense smokiness of the dish made me think more of German food than Chinese. In any case it was absolutely delicious. The chicken stew was thick, heavily flavored with medicinal herbs, and also good.
After lunch we quickly checked out a nearby Confucian theme park. The park contained a recreated historical village, which was actually well done. On the way to the park we passed a street of wedding shops, all with big cannons outside them. The pedicab driver told us that local wedding traditions involve hiring these cannons and using them to shoot fireworks. It would have been interesting to see that.
The final site was the Confucius Cemetery. Hundreds, probably thousands, of Confucius’ descendents are buried there, and the size of the place means that people hire bicycles to get around. We hired a couple of bikes and cycled to the main Confucius tomb.
At the tomb a persistent female ‘guide’ demanded 10 RMB to look after our bikes (which had only cost 10 RMB to hire). We ignored her, left our bikes, and went on in. Tom was sensible enough though to duck back and check what she was up to. Sure enough she was riding away on one of our bikes. We ran her down and she explained she was ‘borrowing’ the bike. After taking the bike back off her we left it with another woman who was sitting near the entrance collecting bottles. Tom was drinking a beer as he cycled and had several more in his carry basket so there was potential for building a mutually beneficial relationship by supplying her with empties in return for her help with the bikes.
The Confucius tomb itself was a simple mound of earth with a commemorative stele. Outside of the walled area containing the Confucius tomb were hundreds of other stele commemorating his descendents. We rode around the place for a while before getting bored and heading back to the entrance.
Having seen all the sites there was nothing much to do except take a stroll round town and find a restaurant to have a snack and a drink while waiting for our bus. We found a place serving fish head stew and went in. The man at the next table told us that he was a strong believer in world peace, and that China, unlike the United States, had never fought an aggressive war with another country. It was too much effort to try and explain to him that China had in fact fought numerous aggressive wars, and that though his belief in world peace was admirable it was best nurtured separately from his Chineseness, so we just waited for the conversation to flow onto something else. At least he didn’t try and sell us on the virtues of Confucian philosophy. That would have been far more annoying.
After saying our goodbyes we went and found the bus back to Shanghai, a sleeper bus that took 12 hours or so. By the time we arrived at Shanghai Railway Station it was already 6am the next morning.