This is not so much a day by day detailed travelogue as a random selection of observations I made whilst staying with my wife’s parents in her hometown of Qing Dao. I wrote most of it at the time during Summer last year, but forgot about until now. Bear in mind I spent a lot of my time in the regular parts of Qing Dao that most foreigners will likely never experience. I got to see some real Chinese, not the dressed up tourists areas. If you visited as a tourist, your own experience will likely be drastically different from mine. If I sound a little negative, bear in mind I married a Chinese girl and plan to live there at some point too, so I do feel somewhat connected.
Her parents come to meet us at the airport. She assures me we’re still in the countryside, thats why everything is so dirty around here. The drive to her place is terrifying. The lane markings on the road mean nothing; cars drift out in front of us, even in front of trucks ten times the size of them, without a second thought. Add motorcycles into the mix, with no one wearing a helmet and often riding 3 or more to a single bike. The sound of the horns blasting is constant. I really thought I was going to die before we even reached her apartment. As we got closer into the city, the bikes mostly disappeared – they’re actually banned within a certain distance of the city centre, though I can’t imagine why as their driving is no worse than the cars and trucks. Curiously though, we only passed one accident on the way in – a bus had piled into the back of a car. The traffic around the crash had no intention of slowing down though and there were no accident and emergency crews blocking the way or anything. After about the tenth time seeing a mother and their small child in tow running across the highway, I went from feeling terror that someone was going to die to finding all it all quite hilarious really. It certainly made me appreciate driving in Japan a whole lot more.
Later, when we were talking about weddings and such, my wife explained that when a brightly decorated wedding car is on the road, other drivers will actually take care driving and be respectful. This is the only time they will ever drive normal, ever.
The stairs up to her 7th floor apartment where her parents live is covered with what looks at first glance like grafitti, but it’s actually sprayed on calling-cards for plumbers. I think some of them should put a little more effort into their designs, like being crazy and writing in blue or something.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS:
Eveything in China is broken. I’m not joking, and that isn’t some broad-sweeping ignorant rant of a racist westerner – everything really is broken. The central tourist areas are looked after properly to show a nice public face, but it’s all a lie. Over the course of visiting every family member in various levels and stages of their life, some rich and some poor, every damned apartment block we went to was dirty and broken. None of them had lights in the hallways, presumably because no one would pay the bill or if a lightbulb was put there, someone would steal it. The communist types might tell you that public property belongs to “everybody”, but the reality that results from this thought process gives more of an impression of it belonging to nobody. In Japan, there is an infuriating cultural attitude of “let’s clean up together, everyone” – in schools, offices, community areas; in China, the opposite is true – “let’s not bother at all”.
There are nice places, granted – as we walked around the more pleasant areas of town by the coast, we found quite a few expensive houses and clean looking apartment-blocks. And you know what? They all belonged to government or military officials, or were for the exclusive use of military personnel who come to Qing Dao for their all-expenses paid vacations. When a high-ranking official comes, my wife tells me that the surrounding areas are totally closed down and no one is allowed access – tourists or locals. Presumably they’re afraid someone might try to kill them, which isn’t too wrong I suspect. The disparrage between the social elite and everyone is was quite overwhelming. My idea of communism was obviously wrong.
Everyone we visit has toilet’s that don’t flush, and there isn’t one bath in sight. Buckets are strew around their bathrooms to catch water from the shower and use to wash the waste away. While this irks me at first, I soon realise this is actually a great water-conservative idea that we could try at home if our toilet and shower weren’t deliberately built in different rooms. Why is it that western cultures insist on washing away our sh!t with sparkling crystal clear water when second hand shower or bath water would suffice? Don’t be fooled though – people don’t save water here because they think it’s environmentally friendly – they do it because water is bloody expensive. It just has the additional effect of also being “eco” (sorry, that’s my Japanese-ness that makes me think it’s ok to shorten any big word you don’t feel like fully pronouncing down to 2 or less syllables).
My wife scolded me for nearly throwing an empty drink bottle in the trash can. I didn’t see any recycling bins though, so I couldn’t figure out why she was so angry! Apparently, you collect the bottles (and cans, and paper scraps) and sell them to the recycler. In fact, a lot of really poor people can eat a meal or two a day on the money they get from walking around collecting recyclables. I forget the exact numbers, but around 10 metal cans, 15 plastic bottles, or 10 glass bottles can be exchanged for 1 gen. About 5 gen will get you a decent bowl of ramen. Pretty much everything in China that could possibly have a monetary value to it, does, including the trash. It’s a good way to keep the street clear of bottles etc, but it also means there’s a large number of homeless who live next to the trash cans and search through them daily for the anything resembling metal or paper. I cannot help but feel this society is utterly broken. I get the feeling I may have lived quite a sheltered life, and for a brief moment it makes me truly appreciate my life situation.
The government and private contractors decide when your property is old enough to warrant being torn down and replaced. At that time, you are offered a reasonable sum of money, calculated according to the value of land, the value of your property, and the number of residents in your home (so a family house would get more money than a single tenant). You take the money, and go find somewhere better. You are free to refuse the offer, but the harassment that ensues is apparently not much fun. Eventually, hired thugs (triads) will come and brick your windows, throw feces on your floor, and generally make your life a living hell. If you survive this, the construction company may offer you a slightly larger sum of money. My wife told me a childhood story of a small triangular house that once existed in the middle of a highway that ran through Qing Dao, near to her high school. As students, they would go to watch and wonder at the curiously triangular building; in which lived an old man who adamantly would not leave. Before the highway was constructed, he was offered money, and harassed, and offered more money – but he still would not leave. Eventually the construction company ignored him, knocked the rest down, and built their highway anyway, literally leaving his house in the middle. Sadly, the house no longer stands (I did ask).
We journey out to an electronics mall today, as I promised to upgrade her family’s PC. The parking garage is underground, and there is literally zero artificial lighting, the only hint of light creeping in through the exits to the world above. The escalators joining the garage to the street above are broken and rusting. I trip and curse on the way up. Inside the mall – more just a collection of independent stalls and booths – are mountains of what I would call “e-waste”. Everyone is stripping old computers, motherboards are stacked; there also seems to be an abnormally large number of cheap USB-powered gadgets like fans with LED lights that whir and hum pleasantly to give the user a tacky light show. Of course, I bought one! We find somewhere to buy the extra memory I want too, but the older stuff that we need is more expensive than the faster, newer memory because no one makes it here anymore.
We head next to her uncle’s house. The apartment is in the central town area; the outside looks dilapidated and trash is piled everywhere, but the inside is remarkably modern and nice. Still no flushing toilet, mind. A large and frankly scary looking guy greets us. He is excited to meet me. Despite my promise that I would not drink today (the night before was a little rough on me), he forces can after can of Tsing Tao beer onto me, and I graciously accept (:P). Somehow, I end up playing a traditional Chinese card game that I’ve seen being played at night by pretty much everyone (At night, local residents generally sit around in groups out on the streets, fervently playing this particular card game and bantering about everything). I have no idea what it’s called, but it involves 6 players and 4 packs of cards mixed together. It’s basically a set winning / trumps / first to get rid of all your cards wins kind of game. An impromptu feast of Chicken bits (including feet and other things of unknown origin) is called for. Chicken feet are not entirely disgusting, I find out, but they aren’t exactly tasty either. I ask my wife why they eat the feet when the regular meat isn’t expensive – apparently the feet are a delicacy, not merely another part of the chicken that they don’t want to waste – the feet are actually more expensive than the rest! Uncle’s phone rings constantly. He’s quite a busy man it seems, which is strange because I’m sure my wife said he doesn’t work. She says he “used” to be in the triads, which is why he knows so many people, but he isn’t anymore. He is on the phone for a half hour continuously in another room before we decide it’s time we head off. He sounded rather angry on the phone, the subject of which is a friend who has gotten himself into jail *again*, and who keeps asking uncle to get him out. Not this time it seems. I manage to say goodbye, thank you, and see you again in Chinese, confident in the knowledge that this guy is probably good to know.
We tried to order train tickets last night for a visit to Beijing, but we got a phone call today saying they were denied, sold out. Apparently, the tickets aren’t easy to get. You can only purchase up to two weeks in advance, and they usually sell out within a day or two. It was looking like our Beijing excursion was cancelled. We mention this to uncle before leaving and he says he’ll see what he can do.
Later in the evening, we go to visit another brother of her fathers. He has a huge apartment in a newly developed area of town, though the apartment complex is pitch black from lack of bulbs. We make it to his door safely only by using the light of our mobile phones. I’m forced to watch 2 hours of his sons wedding video, and my god is it cheesy.
I also learnt my first words of Qing Dao local dialect today – “be do to le” (~”bu shuo le” in standard chinese), which roughly translated means “shut up and do it already”. Some example usage might be when you’re trying to make a stupid foreigner eat chicken feet for the first time, or when you’re girlfriend is “too tired”!
After a bit of light shopping we meet up with the parents and the mothers side of the family in a traditional Chinese restaurant. This involves a huge round table with a revolving platter in the centre upon which dishes are placed. You turn the platter and take what you want.
I quickly learn the etiquette of toasting – stand up when someone comes over to toast with you, otherwise sitting is fine; “shu-e” (?) means “drink freely”, while “kanpei” means down it in one. The eldest brother, the most important at the table, gives me a big thumbs up and says I have made a wonderful first impression. The Tsing Tao beer flows freely, and toast after toast are held welcoming me to Qing Dao, asking me to take good care of my girlfriend (now wife), and wishing us lots of happiness and children. As we open the upteenth bottle, we get a phonecall – best get some sleep , we’re going to Beijing on the bullet train tomorrow morning, first class seats. Big brother came through for us it seemed.
DAY 5 – BEIJING:
One of the family from dinner last night comes to pick us up in the morning and take us to the station. They have a friend who will meet us in Beijing, find us a hotel and some tickets back too. We take a giant crate of fresh shrimp as a gift to the friend we’ve never met.
Our first visit in Beijing was to the people’s palace – a curious name since it only ever housed the emperor and his 3000 sex slaves as well as numerous eunuchs. The entrance is a sea of litter – obviously such an esteemed national “treasure” as this place is not worth hiring a few cleaners for. Once you pass by the crowd of beggars, thieves, horribly persistent tour guides and Chinese male tourists who are habitually compelled to spit on any open surface, you’ll see some mildly impressive traditional Chinese architecture. Inside the vast complex are some more open spaces (though considerably less litter) and some big temple-like buildings, each much the same as the last one. If you manage to see over the undulating mass of tourists scrabbling to take pictures of the interior, you’ll see that each building has a little throne in the center. One temple is for changing, one for meeting with advisors, and one for choosing which girl you will bed tonight. I ask how the emperor was to choose from so many, and my wife assure me that a fair method of picking by cards was used – though inevitably this meant that some girls in his harem would actually never get to be with him due to the laws of chance.
Give the people’s palace a miss, people – seriously it just isn’t worth it.
That night we went to see Tiananmen square too, but sadly the area was fenced off, no doubt due to the recent civil unrest with the Urumqi people (one of the many ancient civilizations assimilated under duress into the great Chines empire); or perhaps some more students had decided to non-violently voice their opinions about their broken society, only to be slaughtered.
Later we had some rather tasty Peking duck.
Headed out early in the morning to visit the “great” wall. Despite being thousands of kilometers long, everyone in China it seems goes to see the same kilometer stretch. The wall itself is quite impressive and perfectly preserved, except for every single square inch of it being vandalized with graffiti engravings, mostly from chinese tourists. Way to protect your world heritage site, China. Certainly worth checking out if you enjoy walking up extreme inclines in a confined space with a million or so other people.
Spent the afternoon in the famous silk street shopping mall; famous for it’s brand name goods. Absolutely hilarious, and quite a fun time if you get into the spirit of things. Here’s a little advice for haggling though: state your price, haggle a bit, then walk way. It’ll keep getting lower and lower. Then find another trader, tell them the price you were just offered, and if they won’t go lower than that, go back to the other place. The haggling is quite fun sometimes. I was shocked to find a cute young girl with in a hardware and games booth upstairs where I’d spied some special Nintendo DS carts I wanted and she seemed to really know her stuff. She also spoke decent english and understood Japanese – so she caught us out when I was consulting about prices with my girl. I ended up getting a really good deal though. We got utterly scammed on a pair of jeans, though – the first thing we bought there. We were after a decent set of satin bed sheets too, as anyone who knows me will know I enjoy a nice luxurious pimp bedroom. We found one stall, and they had a fairly nice dark red set with some kind of print of it, but it wasn’t really what we were looking for – still, if the price was good enough I could have been convinced. Starting at over 1000 gen (~13,000 JPY), we eventually got it down to 400, then decided we’d walk around a bit more, just in case. As we walked around she starting shouting lower and lower prices at us, down to 250. We figured if we couldn’t find anything better we’d come back. Around the corner we found a perfect set of sheets, but they told us 800 gen! We mentioned the store around the corner had offered us the same sheets at 250 (a total lie), she told us these were better quality. Hah! We must have really looked like suckers. We walked back towards the other store, and sure enough after a little hesitation she shouted 200 at us. We turned around and got a gorgeous set of quality sheets for just 200 gen, a little over $20/¥2500!
The summer palace was nice – basically a huge garden with some towering pagodas. I thought a walk around the whole garden would be a good way to spend the afternoon, but it ended up taking about 3 hours just to walk 1/2 of it. Exhausted, we left by an unknown exit and spent the next 2 hours trying to find a bus and being patently lied to by my iPhone’s GPS locator.
Honestly, I didn’t like Beijing one bit. I was horrified by the child beggars who are used by their parents to scam money off tourists, shocked at the appalling state of the great wall and the sea of litter, and it all left me feeling rather bitter. My wife was equally disappointed, and all we could do was meander back to the hotel and get an early night in anticipation of our return trip the next day.
BACK TO QING DAO:
With less than a week left I Googled “touristy things to do in Qing Dao”. Not a lot, it seems. I did find an interesting place called the “hill fort ruins” on “Qing Dao Hill”, but her mother said it was a boring location and no one would want to go there. I insisted none the less. Turns out it’s a fascinating underground abandoned military installation and probably the coolest thing I’d seen in China yet. Built by the germans, the cavernous base of operations has since gone to disarray as the chinese couldn’t be bothered to keep the air conditioning on and so everything is now wet. Part of it was closed off due to the danger of electrocution from the damp, and some more areas were open but with no lighting, making it impossible to see more than a foot or so in. It quite a scary place, but a wonderfully cool break from the summer heat and definitely an experience I’d recommend. It’s just a shame the government aren’t taking care of it properly, though I’d hazard a guess it’s because they want to erase that particular part of their history.
One morning we wake up early to visit the morning market. On the way, we pass through a local park, and I’m stunned to find a horde of old men and women working out using this array of weight-training machines that are placed in the park for communal benefit. All the equipment uses body-weight of the user as a counter-weight so there’s no fiddling around with adding weight and safety pins etc. Why on earth don’t we have these in Japan, or anywhere else? We also find my mother-in-law amongst a big group of old ladies, practicing a strange korean dance-workout using what I’m fairly sure was a frisbee. They crowd around me and the questions (as well as touchy-feely hands) come flying. Waaa~
For all that is said about the great chinese firewall, it isn’t all that effective. While Facebook and Twitter etc are indeed blocked on regular internet usage, the 3G mobile phone network is wide open. Apparently technology is moving a little too fast for the government to keep up. I mostly tethered my Macbook Pro to my iPhone and took the hit for extortionate data costs while roaming.
As for internet speeds, most households have an ADSL line which is rather slow in comparison to Japan. Strangely, they have fibre-optic cables for TV, which can also handle internet, but the government disallows such practices as it would be unfair to the ADSL companies and would encourage competition. Wha~?
I’ve come to realise that China and the people that live there are two entirely different entities; so I’m comfortable insulting the country and not the people (though really, they can’t drive and have zero manners). As a country, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as some corrupt third-world dump, but the people themselves are much the same as anywhere when it comes to family and friends. I had a wonderful time meeting all my wife’s family, and it was an incredible cultural insight that not many people can claim to have experienced. There’s so much that I haven’t written about. As for the country, she assures me that things are rapidly changing, and it won’t always be so third-world and broken. In a short time, China has steam-rolled itself to being a great superpower, but frankly it has done so by wringing the blood from it’s citizens.
We hope to live there for a year or so in the near future. In the meantime, her parents are coming to stay with us in March for 3 whole weeks, so I better get back to practicing my Chinese.
zài jiàn ~