Qingdao: sailing city.

Qingdao is made for sailing. The coastal city boasts a long and attractive shoreline fringed by numerous islands which await exploration under sail. Summer temperatures soar into the 30s and invite days by the sea and refreshing swims in the ocean.

The city hugs the shoreline roughly halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, and successfully avoids the congestion and heavy air that besets so many other large Chinese cities.

Anyone who has visited China, and anyone who loves to sample imported beer, will know of Qingdao. They will of course know it by the name Tsingtao, which graces the labels of the most popular alcoholic beverage in China. The drink is made in Qingdao, and has been since 1903 when German migrants established breweries throughout the city. German influence is still evident in the architecture of various sections of the cities central districts

Tsingtao and Qingdao are different names for the same city. Simplified Chinese has used two different systems since it was first written using letters instead of Chinese characters. Tsingtao is the Wade-Giles system and Qingdao is the Pinyin system.

A city known for its beer has to have a beer festival, and it does. The multi-day festival focusses on beer, and the consumption of said beverage, but also includes amusement park rides for the kids and a number of other attractions to keep visitors entertained all night…so they stay and drink more beer.

An undeniable connection to beer explains the city’s unofficial motto: ‘He pijiu, chi gala’ – which roughly translates as:

Drink beer, eat shellfish.

Gold medals were contested in Qingdao in 2008 when the city hosted the sailing events for the Beijing Olympics. In recent years, the port city has hosted numerous rounds of the Extreme Sailing Series which showcases elite sailors on some of the fastest sailboats in the world. The marina of Qingdao offered an ideal setting for days of fast and exciting racing close to spectators and cameras.

Qingdao: a city for sailing.

Famished in Gulangyu.

I nearly went hungry in Gulangyu.

I was feeling rather peckish so I wandered into a local restaurant. It was full so I assumed it must be good.

I took a seat and perused the menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu contained pinyin and I could read the letters, instead of having to just guess at the meaning of the Chinese characters.

By this stage of my journey through China I had learned to point at a menu and say

“Wo yao Zhege”

“I want this”.

When I did this with menus comprised entirely of characters, I had no idea what I’d ordered and I was served some interesting dishes. To this day I still don’t know what I ate.

It’s one reason I sought out the Uighur restaurants in China. No, not out of political motives. It was because these restaurants served heaped plates of cheap, tasty food, and because they had numbered pictures on the wall which I could point to and say,

“Wo yao Zhege”

At one of these restaurants, the friendly young son showed me his homeland on a world map, and I showed him where I had travelled from. Then he explained that he didn’t actually speak much mandarin, as it was not his first language.

“Tha’s ok,” I replied, “neither do I”

At this particular restaurant in Gulangyu, however, I was confident that I would know what I had ordered and was about to consume.

Would I opt for jirou or nuirou?

It was normally a choice between chicken or beef, much like meals on a plane. At least, it was for someone as linguistically hampered as I.

Having decided on the chicken, I now had to get the attention of the waitress. I’ve never been very good at this and still feel a little uncomfortable doing it, no matter where in the world I find myself. But, my stomach was calling, so it had to be done.

I knew that it was uncommon to signal with the hand or a raised arm in China. I thus tried to meet her eye. This was hard in a restaurant full of hungry visitors who had her running this way and that, taking multiple orders at a time – and not writing them down. She raced between tables and to and from the kitchen and appeared to be the only staff member on duty. Most likely, she was the only family member on duty.

I tried to politely and subtly catch her attention and order my lunch, but it wasn’t working, and with every passing minute my stomach rumbled more impatiently.

Then it occurred to me. The only way to complete my order was to do what everyone else was doing – just yell it at her. Shout your order across the room, over the din of a busy restaurant, even with a mouth full of food. There is little time for niceties in a country of one billion people.

But how was I to do this?

How could I make myself understood with my rudimentary vocabulary and stunted pronunciation? How would she even hear me?

I was devising a strategy when she approached my table to take my order. I think she either felt sorry for the ‘weiguoren’ who had been sitting dumbfounded for at least ten minutes without ordering – or she wanted the table for someone else. After all, if I wasn’t eating, I was costing the owners money.

Thus she approached my table and frantically asked me what I wanted, while three other tables were demanding more food and ‘pijou’ – beer. I stuttered and stumbled through a few words of mandarin but she didn’t understand. She asked again and I couldn’t make myself understood any more clearly.

Then she walked away.

My third attempt was no better than the first two and she simply couldn’t wait. It wasn’t her job to guide me through my Chinese language learning journey with patience and understanding. It was her job to serve the surrounding patrons who were yelling orders at her with growing frequency and impatience.

Now what do I do?

Will I go hungry?

If I can’t order a meal, how do I eat?

Do I go to another restaurant and risk the same outcome?

Do I got to a corner store and buy a packet of biscuits or two-minute noodles? If I bought noodles, how would I heat them?

My mind was racing and my stomach rumbling.

Just then, my saviour arrived. A young Korean woman arrived at the table and observed my plight.

“Do you speak English?” she asked

“Do you need some help?”

Yes, clearly

So, a young Korean woman took my order in English then translated it into Chinese, and I did manage to eat. I also had some company for my meal.

I felt inadequate and embarrassed. Not just because I’d failed to order a simple meal, but also because I had to be saved by a Korean who used her second and third languages to order for me.

I enjoyed my meal because my new found friend had managed to order a particular sauce as well as the ‘ji rou’ and ‘fan’ – chicken and rice. On a previous occasion, I had ordered beef and rice, and had received just that – strips of beef and white rice. It was bland to say the least.

I didn’t go hungry and enjoyed a tasty meal in good company.

Without the language of the host country or region, it is possible to travel, but it does detract from the experience. If I hadn’t been saved by a friendly Korean, I think I would have found some way to eat – I hope so.

It did make me wonder, without a mastery of mandarin, what is one to do in Gulangyu?

One would most likely wander the pedestrian only island and admire the mix of Chinese and European architecture which distinguishes this small island from other cities in China.

Gulangyu was actually an international settlement and became a busy, open port in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars. Today it is more heavily populated with interntational tourists and locals, who pop across for a day trip or a weekend on the ferry from Xiamen.

The warm weather and salty air also lend the island a distinct atmosphere, and it is pleasant to wander around the island and watch the fisherman at work, and appreciate the role of the sea in supporting the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

An ascent to one of the lookout points affords a view of the island back to the skyscrapers of Xiamen.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is steep. Surprisingly steep. We all know the wall for its length, its historical significance and the fact that it can be seen from space, but its difficult to appreciate its steepness until you actually visit.

The winding fortification snakes its way over hills and mountains along China’s northern border and is traversed via paths and steps connecting each of its guard posts.

Walking up and down the paths and steps at the Badaling section of the wall is hard work, especially when northern China’s summer heat combines with Beijing’s famous air pollution to constrict the lungs. However, a leg and lung busting mini-hike is worth the effort because it allows the visitor to separate themselves from the hordes of tourists who descend upon one of the world’s most famous landmarks every day.

In actual fact, you don’t have to venture too far from the main entrance at Badaling to escape the crowds, and on a good day you may find you have the wall to yourself for a moment.

At this point you can contemplate the construction, appearance, history and significance of the wall.

Struggling up along the sections between the guard posts prompts visitors to wonder what it must have been like to have been stationed on the wall as a guard hundreds of years ago.

Would guards have lived in a constant state of fear of attack from enemy invaders? Somehow I don’t think this would have been the case at many sections of the wall. The topography alone would have thwarted any genuine attempt at invasion, and the height of the wall would have allowed the guards to see the enemy from miles away. The scale of the wall surely removed the element of surprise from most enemy combatants and this must have been a deliberate feature of its design.

It seems that boredom would have been a major threat to the guards. Staring into vast nothingness for hours and hours, day after day, and having nothing to do even when their shift ended – if it ever did.

I also wondered how they ate. If they were stationed on a remote part of the wall, were they provided with a set amount of rations sufficient to sustain them for the duration of their ‘shift’? Where and how did they cook? Where and how did they go to the toilet?

Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They did it in the guard towers, just as certain visitors are still doing today. Tourists left little reminders of their visit in most of the guard towers, which might explain the presence of this sign.

Regardless of how the guards fed and entertained themselves, or stayed sane, a posting to a remote section of the Great Wall was probably not a highly-prized assignment.

The guards fared better than the builders of the wall,, however. It is a well-documented fact that the workers who died during the construction of the wall were buried inside the wall.

The views are impressive and expansive, at least they would be if the haze of pollution cleared long enough to enjoy them. One has to wonder whether visiting in winter would afford better views as the summer haze would have dissipated. Either this or making the effort to visit other sections of the wall which a re further away from big cities and their choking pollution.

Other sections of the wall can be visited from Beijing. They are said to be in various states of disrepair, but are less crowded than Badaling. There are of course hundreds of section of the wall still standing along China’s northern border, and these could in theory be visited with time, money, a strong grasp of mandarin and a sense of adventure. Walking the entire wall required all of that and seemingly a solid grasp of logistics, because the wall is made up of many unconnected sections.

Would you do it?

All this for one family?

The Summer Palace in Beijing is a grand conundrum. It is an enormous private residence built for one family, in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.

Various emperors and royal families have occupied the site since construction began on the palace in 1153, and each ruler added their own personal touches to the area. The result is a tourist attraction that is large and interesting enough to occupy an entire day of exploration.

The lake itself, Kunming Lake, occupies 2.2 square kilometres and dominates the palace. These days, of course, it is not reserved solely for the royal family and visitors can enjoy the lake and the grand historical buildings.

Locals gather at the palace for recreation, relaxation, eating, drinking, socialising and challenging each other to games of chance and intellect.

Chasing the sun

A palace named in honour of summer should rightly be bathed in sun, but the severity of the air pollution in modern day Beijing means that the sun is rarely spotted in all its glory. A constant haze hangs over the imperial palace and makes rare appearances to remind locals and visitors that the earth’s life source does in fact exist.

The photo below indicates the first glimpse of the sun in Beijing since the Ming dynasty.

The palace is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world and it certainly invites contemplation and a picnic. It is a dream location for photographers who could spend, days, weeks or months capturing its natural, architectural and historical beauty.

Closer inspection reveals amazingly intricate detail and craftsmanship on every edifice which is painstakingly preserved.

Boating is a great way to experience the lake. Being so vast, the lake takes a long time to circumvent on foot, so numerous waterborne craft are available. Boat tours in elaborate boats with dragon motif are available, and tourists can hire small pedal-powered craft to carry them from shore to shore. Be advised that the lake is quite large, and if the wind picks up it can be hard work to get back to your starting point.

The famous marble boat is not going to set sail anytime soon.

History

A visit to the Summer Palace is a journey through history. Many rulers and their families have taken ownership of the site, including Kublai Khan, and their influence on the palace is documented in the archival displays found throughout the palace.

Winter wonderland

Somewhat ironically, the Summer Palace looks spectacular in winter, when the lake and the buildings are blanketed in snow and locals take to the lake with ice skates.

The Summer Palace, a fine day out in Beijing.