Thursday, September 2, 2010

July 26, 2010 Family vacation in Qingdao

July 26, 2010
We had no idea what to expect from a vacation in the Qingdao. We failed miserably to book tickets to our dream destination—Xiahe, in Gansu province—home of the Labrang Monastery, one of the six most important pilgrimage sites for Tibetan Buddhists of the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa sect. It was hard to let go of our vision of spending a few days with the girls in Tibetan grasslands, surrounded by crimson robes, yak butter lamps, fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels. We had imagined a combination of adventure and spiritual renewal: hikes up the hills that rise around the monastic town itself, passing nomad encampments and ruddy-cheeked children, skipping through clear streams and herds of brightly decorated yaks; rising before dawn to sit in the shadows of prayer halls, watching and listening to the monks, seated on row after row of beautiful carpets chanting their morning prayers; walking a full circuit of the kora with Tibetan pilgrims, as the girls joined us spinning prayer wheels, sending blessings and good wishes out to all sentient beings. But there is a bike race going through nearby Qinghai province and it is the peak of the summer travel season. Tickets to our own personal Shangrila just weren’t to be found.

Rebounding from our disappointment, we scrambled for the first available and reasonably affordable tickets we could find. Our preferred general travel guide for China is still Lonely Planet, but our old dog-eared copy remains collecting dust on one of our bookshelves back in Rutledge, PA, along with our Chinese driver’s licenses that would have permitted us to rent a car. So we considered destinations from memory, and came up with a few options: we could give ourselves a bit of a mountain retreat just outside of Beijing in a nóngjiāyuàn’r (but how to get there without a rental car?); we could take an overnight train to Shanghai and stay at the Astor House near the Bund (but too crazy and expensive with the Expo in progress?); we could fly or train it to Hangzhou to see our friend, Si Meng and hang out at West Lake (but, alas, no tickets available there). On a lark, we thought of Qingdao. None of us have ever been there before, despite the fact that I teach about it every year when discussing the Treaty of Versailles and the May Fourth Movement with my Chinese history students. Historically, it’s important as a former German colony (hence Tsingtao beer, brewed in the city). It’s a port city (have we ever been to a port city we didn’t love?) with bathing beaches and bāozi and beer. And there were train tickets available: 275 yuan per ticket, per way, on a modern fast-moving rail. After fewer than six hours comfortably passing through China’s lush fields and a few scattered industrial towns (and occasionally topping 150 miles per hour) we would arrive at the Yellow Sea. Jazz booked our tickets by phone from Huairou and our ticket woman, Xiao Geng, dispatched a messenger to deliver them to the Yong’an Hotel in Beijing.

I don’t think I could imagine two happier children than our girls prancing through the modern Beijing South station, rolly backpacks in tow, on the way to Platform 18 and the train bound for Qingdao. They love the beach and have enough experience with spectacular beaches to qualify as connoisseurs. Plus, this was their first time alone together with both Mommy and Daddy for weeks and they were basking in our undivided attention and in the freedom and simplicity of being our small unit together, free of the cares of others and relatively fleet of foot.
If you want to get a visceral, one-shot sense of how rapidly and fantastically China has been changing, you need look no further than Beijing South station. I had never been to the old station, but Jazz had, and he couldn’t believe what he saw. He had remembered a small, old-school Chinese train station from a visit in January 1993, when he had caught a train out to Qīng Lóng Qiáo station to climb a scarcely-known section of the Great Wall. The new station is a perfect example of the slick, grand, clean and smooth architectural style that has been dominating the construction of China’s airports and train stations for around a decade now. No resemblance whatsoever to the squat, squalid structure of almost two decades ago. From this station dozens of trains depart each day for Tianjin, surpassing 200 miles per hour. People form neat queues when purchasing tickets and boarding. Clean shops and cafes rim the gigantic waiting hall. An utterly different world, in the blink of an eye.

The train ride was everything we had anticipated: gentle, relaxing, soporifically rocking. We sat in pairs of seats, split across an aisle. Jazz and FF worked through multiple-digit addition and subtraction problems, adding and subtracting totals into the billions, using the methods we learned in school as kids (carrying over and borrowing!), which Jazz is convinced is more efficient and accurate than the method FF learned in school using “Everyday Math.” ZZ and I read The Persian Cinderella, The Seven Chinese Sisters and Curious George no fewer than three times in a row, back to back, before ZZ finally dozed off and I entered a blissful world of iPod and passing countryside.

By the time we arrived in Qingdao it was 9:40 pm. After a great deal of haggling with taxi drivers we were able to finally hop into a cab with a driver who agreed to use the meter. The cab haggling felt very old-school; we haven’t had to do that for a cab in China in years and the girls were transfixed watching us throughout the playfully heated exchanges. Once we procured our cab, we clamored in as I issued warnings to the girls to keep their well-traveled shoes off the pristine white cloth-covered seats. FF sat in the center of the back seat, eyes fixed on the meter, skeptically studying every turn of the digits, determined to prevent us from getting ripped off! No worries, the fare was fair: a meager 35 yuan for our 25- minute ride.

The girls were in awe when we pulled up to our hotel: the five-star Crowne Plaza, which towers above the business district. I don’t think they have stayed in a place like this since we were in the White Swan in Guangzhou, processing ZZ’s visa after her adoption. We were a bit nervous about our reservations (we booked a discounted rate on Expedia), but everything was in order. The girls oohed and aahed over the statues, fountain, and 20-foot-high chandelier in the lobby while Jazz registered us and obtained our room cards: twenty-second floor! One look around the suite we’d be staying in for the next four days was all it took for the girls to unanimously declare: “This is the BEST vacation EVER!” After a bath in the palatial tub and a bit of territory-claiming and fort building-along the panoramic window sills, the girls were fast asleep by 11:30 pm.

There is nothing like a 5-star brunch when staying in China. We are avowed believers in a big and balanced breakfast, and this one did not disappoint. The presence of a chocolate fountain where one can dip one’s fruit using long silver forks catapults this particular brunch to the top of our list of favorite Chinese breakfast destinations. On our way back to our room to change into swimsuits, ZZ managed to drag me into the hotel’s diamond store. I apologized in Chinese to the saleswoman immediately upon entry, “Sorry, we’re not going to buy anything, but my daughter is going to imagine a world in which she might buy EVERYTHING and is going to be asking you a lot of questions!” The woman laughed, and then quickly shifted into fluent English, delighting ZZ who has been tiring of not understanding conversations about her! The saleswoman’s name is “Peggy” (although, much to ZZ’s amusement, she pronounced it something like “Piggy”). Peggy is a Qingdao local, and in the ten minutes we stood in her store she managed to write down five “must see” destinations while patiently answering ZZ’s rock-related questions. On her list was “Stone Old Man Beach” (Shílǎorén yùchǎng), which she explained was less crowded and more enjoyable than the more popular Bathing Beach Number One. After a brief detour to the neighboring department store, Jussco, to purchase three pails, three shovels, and four large towels, we were on our way to Stone Old Man Beach.

In all of my beach-going, I have never seen anything like this beach. As soon as we stepped out of the cab I was hit with familiar smells and sensory stimuli: the salty air, a warm and caressing breeze, the smell of fried foods, and the distant crashing of waves. I was immediately transported back to San Diego, my closest frame of reference for water and warmth, and I imagined myself standing next to the Star of India, the smell of fried clams from Anthony’s grill beckoning both locals and tourists. But this was not San Diego. As we approached the beach I could see a large, bright green blanket floating atop the slate grey of the Yellow Sea. I remembered a subject line I had read in an online search for all things pertaining to Qingdao: “large mass of algae approaching Qingdao.” This was a report from last winter, and I had simply disregarded it as old information in our quest for a vacation location. Clearly it was still pertinent.

But the girls and Jazz were completely undeterred by this blanket of green, and they quickly descended from the boardwalk to the beach below, settling on a spot a bit to the north. The beach was more dirt than sand and the place was CROWDED. After a bit of an inward battle I resolved I was going to learn to relax Chinese style, so after disrobing (noting that I was clearly the most scantily clad woman on the beach—a black tankini among bathing dresses!) and settling myself onto my green towel, I began to marvel at the magic that sand and water and sun can work on the human spirit. Everywhere around me, people were relaxing and enjoying themselves. I don’t think I’ve seen so many people simultaneously having such a good time since Jazz and I went to the ice festival in Harbin years ago, pre-kids. There were plastic tables and umbrellas for rent, and families clustered around these, eating lunches out of metal tins and plastic takeout containers, playing animated games of cards and drinking from large bottles of Tsingtao beer. There were also tents for rent and inflatable inner tubes for purchase in animal themes and pastel colors. These were being used, not just by children, but by adults who bobbed side-by-side in the algae-sea holding hands or splashing one another, gossamer veils of green sticking to their shoulders and hair. It occurred to Jazz and me that we have never seen so many Chinese willfully becoming “dirty”. We sat on towels, but many of our neighbors sat directly in the hot dirt-sand, burrowing out hollows of warmth to rest their limbs, grabbing handfuls of the stuff to rub onto their arms, legs, and chests. It struck me that there must be a perceived therapeutic or beautifying value to the sand that extended beyond my assumption that it is exfoliating.

The girls did what they do at every beach they have frequented: they built moats and castles; they ferried bucket after bucket of sea water to fill swimming holes they carved out deep in the sand; they darted boldy towards the rising face of the shore’s breaking waves, then squealed and ran landward, pursued by white caps and foam. Then they begged me to take them out to deeper waters, past the shore break, where they might dive under waves and float on their backs, rising with the swells. I tried to push aside my aversion to the bright green algae and entered the water with them, marveling at how soft and fine and utterly un-kelp-like this lacey sea algae was to the touch. It was actually pleasant against the skin, like a thin and cool silk shirt. Diving into deeper waters, it simply slipped away, pulled towards the shore on the crests of waves. We swam together in these open waters for quite a while, outside the reach of the crowds of bathers, comfortable in these chiller waters.

Back on land, I continued to watch the scene around me as Jazz took off for a run and to forage for food, and the girls once again played tag with waves closer to shore. There were a good number of naked children—boys and girls—older than you would find at most American beaches (even in San Francisco!). There were a fair number of sunburned men bare-chested, carrying man-purses, and women walking in floral dresses, carrying high-heeled shoes and fancy handbags. Twice strangers with cameras approached me, who asked me if I would pose with them for a photo. One set was a young couple from Fujian; the other was a young daughter and her father from Anhui. I tried to give my best Hollywood smile with my sunglasses and black tankini, while hopping from foot to foot in the hot sand.

I couldn’t get over the child-like play of the adults around me. Many held umbrellas to shelter themselves from the sun. There were some adults who sat at the shore where the shallow water meets the firmer sand, letting the water lap around their buttocks and then recede as I have seen many a baggy-diapered toddler do stateside. At one point, a grown woman in a dress stopped in front of my towel and sat down and began playing with ZZ’s sand castle and moat, picking up the shovel that served as a draw bridge and opening the side of the moat to build a small pool. It was the kind of gesture I would expect from an American toddler who had not yet been socialized not to touch other children’s toys and projects without first asking. The woman didn’t look up at me the whole time she was playing—it was as if ownership of the sand toys or the rights of the creator simply did not occur to her. We were in a playground and everything was a toy. I thought of our YingHua students sharing rooms with their Chinese roommates, annoyed with the way in which some of the Chinese students would touch or play with their things without asking. Having already processed this a week ago with our students helped me to resist the urge to protect my daughter’s creation from this woman’s poking with her shovel. And as it turned out, ZZ never returned to her castle until it was time to pack up and leave after a quickly rising tide nearly chased us all off the beach.

Back at the hotel, we took five-star showers and baths in our cavernous commode and then headed out for dinner. We cabbed it to an Indian restaurant we had read about in an online Qingdao guide, inspired by Muslim (Uighur) naan Jazz had found on his beach food forage. We weren’t disappointed. Outside of Delhi, some of our best Indian food we’ve ever eaten has been cooked by Indian chefs in China. The restaurant was nestled between winding roads and back alleys near our hotel and we opted to walk back after dinner, in a quest for ice cream. I kept my eyes out for a vendor with a Walls freezer where I knew I would most likely find one of my two favorite ice creams sold in China: either the Magnum or the kě’àiduō. Jazz and the girls were less patient (but perhaps more prudent?) and settled on Chinese ice cream early in our stroll. It was late, but I forced myself to slow down, walking more leisurely than I would normally walk on the darkened backstreets of an American city. There are no crimson robes here, no prayer wheels, and we’re not staying in the rustic Tara Guesthouse in Xiahe. Yet this is striking me as plenty full of adventure and an opportunity to slow down and welcome relaxation, and with it, the Spirit.

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