Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Day 1: Over the Hills and Far Away

(To view all pictures from my trip, please follow this link: http://share.shutterfly.com/osi.jsp?i=EeANGTdu2ctmrDBA)

Waking up on Thursday, April 28, I was easily still drunk from the night before. Wednesday nights stand as poker nights, and the previous night's celebration was not only conducted in my own apartment, but also ended with me taking all the money. As such, a lot of Dewars was imbided.

Grabbing a Chinese burrito for lunch, I prepped to get ready to leave, jotting down some key Chinese phrases and getting a few last minute questions answered. At 1:30 my driver showed up to take me to the airport and the adventure had begun.

Getting through the airport was easy, thanks not only to my ever-improving language skill but also because I am not an idiot and have flown many times before. Flying in China is great, because 1) you can carry on most anything, which people do, and 2) you're forced to stand in lines. Most places of business in China are straight up mob scenes, so the order of waiting in line to get my ticket and through security was a refreshing reminder of Western order.

Soon enough we boarded and took off. The plane was nice, better than what I flew in back in 1997, though the Chinese don't understand the concept of headphones. This means as a program played on the front projection screen, the soundtrack was simply blasted throughout the cabin. If you wanted to sleep (like I, hungover as I was, wanted to), fat chance.

Descending, we broke through the cloud bank quite suddenly while right over QingDao. Banking around the bay, I was able to get a great view of the whole city. Even from the air the town with its neeighboring sea sparkled in the late afternoon air. It was obvious I was no longer in Harbin, nor was I in the China of years past. QingDao stands as a symbol of the new, international China. Clean, structured, and ready for investment.

The first real challenge, both of my language and my wits, came once I landed and needed to find a hotel. The system isnt the same here, very few people make hotel reservations and some hotels don't even take reservations. The practice is to simply find a place when you show up. This is also cheaper than making a reservation usually, as you can bargain with the reception desk. Being tired and having set aside a chunk of change for the trip, I wanted a place with a quality bed, by own bathroom, and well located. I gave a call to the ZhanQiao Hotel, which offered me a good deal over the phone. Making my way from the airport to the hotel by taxi (too tired to figure out the bus, let alone wait for it) I took my first ride through the city.

Almost immediately leaving the airport I was surrounded by low lying green mountains rising up everywhere. "ShanDong," the name of the province I was in, literally means "Mountains East," and from what I was seeing that wasn't a lie. Where we entered the city was where much of the newer commercial development was happening, so the architecture was very rounded with a lot of glass. A sharp contrast to the harsh corners and concrete predominate in most socialist architectural styles.

The ZhanQiao Hotel sat across the street from the sea in the older section of town. Sun YatSen, the man who worked to topple China's lasst emperor and establish the Provisional Republican Government of China in 1911, had stayed in this very hotel when he visited QingDao. Checking in, I got another 40 RMB knocked off my hotel room, when I quickly retreated to wash my face and put my bag down.

Venturing outside, the salty sea air hit my nose immediately as I walked out the front door. I love the ocean. I love the way it smells, I love the food, I love the energy it gives me, I love the sound of its waves. An incredible feeling of contentment hit me as I walked out those doors, and I knew this vacation was going to be awesome.

About a block down the road from the front of my hotel was the ZhanQiao, or Pier Bridge, which extended a few hundred yards out into the bay. Along the pier Chinese had lain out blankets touting all sorts of crap: bracelets, shells, dancing toys, tea sets, everything cheap and silly that one might by at the seaside. The pier ended with the HuiLan Pavilion, a famous symbol of QingDao. Pick up a bottle/can of the beer (improperly labeled "TsingTao") and you'll see a picture of this very structure. Standing here you can see a battleship or two in the distance, the lights of the city behind you, or Little QingDao, the nearby island that houses the local lighthouse.

Walking back across the pier, I headed to the local outdoor market. Picking out some squid and some fish, which were quickly fried and/or grilled, I sat at a small table overlooking the bay with its pavilion and enjoyed my first locally brewed QingDao beer.

It was good. Really good. Nothing like what you'll find back in the US. The beer that leaves the city is loaded with preservatives and at times altered. The local beer is always fresh, and always uses the waters of LaoShan springs, the local mineral water.

Stomach (and liver) satiated, I walked back to my room to rest up for my first full day of vacation. QingDao hinted at some great experiences, or at least some great food and beautiful seaside vistas, and I wanted to be well rested to enjoy it all to its fullest.


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