Thursday, September 2, 2010

July 27, 2010 Qingdao: Day 2

Today Jazz and I woke with the expectation that we would visit another site on Peggy’s list of must-sees: Lao Shan Mountain. Consultation with the online Qingdao guide last night had me very excited for this outing. Lao Shan reaches 3,500 feet or so above sea level (meager by CA standards, but much higher than anything near our current home in PA). The cliffs hug the sea, and the misty peaks have been considered a sacred home of immortals and gods since ancient times. There are three routes up this mountain, and its two lines of cable cars might work to bribe our two shorter-legged hikers if they were to start to wilt towards the summit. The mountain is dotted with teahouses and Taoist temples and crops of granite and dense forests reportedly inhabited by fairies. I was intrigued.

We approached the subject delicately with our wee-est one. My last hike with ZZ, at a remote site of the Great Wall a week ago outside of Huairou, had involved bush-whacking, through thorned brush, swarms of bees and oversized mosquitoes, near-dehydration under a blazing sun, and ZZ wailing and weeping that she hates this family and never wants to go on a hike ever, EVER again. We weren’t quite sure the promise of imagined fairies and a cable car ride would be enough of a sell. When our first suggestion that we had a special outing to a magical mountain planned for the day was met with harmonized groans by both girls we backed down. Take two: Underwater World, anyone?

But first, brunch at the best Chinese breakfast bar ever. We indulged in eggs, potatoes, fruit, homemade yogurt, great pieces of seeded bread and slices of hard cheese, pain au chocolat, and of course, fresh pineapple slices dipped at the chocolate fountain. Heaven. Lingering over our bottomless cups of steaming hot coffee, we were joined by two UPS pilots I had met over by the egg station. One was wearing a Padres t-shirt, which was my original reason for having engaged him in conversation. After preliminary introductions, it wasn’t long before we learned that he and his wife had been paper-ready for a China adoption, but the wait had become so long that they eventually pulled their file. He sweetly shared that he got pangs watching us with our daughters. I was happy to hear that he does have an eight-year-old boy at home, but I have no idea if he is a recent addition to their family or if they had been seeking to add to their family with a second child. In either case, the honest pain in his eyes of this lost adoption was poignant to me and I am holding the miracle of our family very close to my heart today. We invited him and his co-pilot to join us at our table and there, with prodding questions from ZZ, who leaves no stone unturned, we were brought into the fascinating world of piloting cargo planes, traversing the world at rapid speeds to satisfy the modern world’s demands for time and treasure.

When we finally exited the Crowne Plaza (called the “King Crown” by ZZ!) it was close to 11:00 AM. A spectacular day: bright, cloudless blue skies and a brilliant sun with cooling ocean breezes. We wound our way along the shoreline in a cab, noting all the restaurants, parks, and beaches along the way that might make appealing evening outings, before arriving at our seaside destination.

Underwater World (Qīngdǎo Hǎidǐ Shìjiè 青岛海底世界) was originally a public aquarium built by Germans during the 1930s, but has been expanded and modernized since to include a series of indoor tank exhibits, a hall with skeletons of sea mammals, a museum with samples of fossils and specimens of fish, a laboratory, and an underwater tunnel where one gets a 360-degree view of sea life. The first set of exhibits can be accessed with a 40 yuan ticket; the underwater tunnel (the best part of the exhibit) required a 120 yuan ticket. We purchased the entire 120 yuan package.

The location itself is spectacular, reminiscent for me of La Jolla, with cliffs overhanging caves and tide pools, and paths winding above the water. When we first arrived, we settled in at a stone table above the water and the girls drank coconut milk sipped from straws inserted into a coconut itself (a first for them). We then ambled into the cooler indoors of the exhibits, and the girls migrated from tank to tank and chamber to chamber, quietly settling into the relaxing world of darting fish in water.

And then we entered the cavernous tunnel, and the tanks that followed. What a treat! In the underworld globe itself we saw sharks of all sizes, enormous sea turtles and happy-faced stingrays. Circling around the various tanks we saw surgeonfish, triggerfish, batfish, squirrelfish, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish! At one point, the girls spontaneously got out their notebooks and began, in a habit acquired from our reflection exercises at summer camp, to record some of their observations. Carefully they penned in “sea angels” (tiny!), “giant spider crab” (the largest crustacean on the planet, which takes 36 hours to molt, 2 or 3 times a year!), “electric eel”, “flashlight fish” (very cool, like our Rutledge fireflies, except under water), and “sea horses” (with their unbelievably sweet and gentle faces). What we missed today in mountain magic we made up for under the sea.

Lunch at a terrific seaside shack of a restaurant, then a slow amble along the shore and down to Bathing Beach Number One, where ZZ plopped herself into the sand and fussed about wanting to stay at the beach. It was there, scanning the cove and realizing there were far fewer people here and strikingly less algae, that we planned our next day’s outing: A trip to Bathing Beach No. 1, complete with a table and umbrella rental. Back at the hotel, Jazz and I took turns working out in the five star fitness room and Jazz swam with the girls in the five star indoor pool. There were also showers and baths in our still palatial bathroom, before we headed for dinner seaside: we told the cabbie to take us to May Fourth Square (another Peggy recommendation). We had passed by there on the way back from the aquarium and spotted a good-looking Qingdao cuisine restaurant we wanted to try.

But first, a night market on the pier. The girls have never seen anything like this before. All kinds of local goods and crafts were being sold (pearls, gems stones, shells, medicines from herbs found in local mountains), as well as typical tourist junk (plastic shells, beaded purses, necklaces that glow in the dark, fake pearls and fake gem stones). After a bit of parental debate, we settled on giving each girl ten yuan to bargain with and spend at will. The girls settled on the tourist-ware: FF got a key chain, ZZ got a ring, and both girls got these strange squeezable plastic bulb animal toys that were a hit with the YingHua students the last two days of camp. The sea breezes and ocean sounds felt so therapeutic as we strolled along that I wasn’t the least bit annoyed by the glittery kitsch that had landed in the hands of my daughters J.

Dinner at the five-lantern Qīngdǎo Càiguǎn (青岛菜馆) was amazing! We ordered food upon entering the lobby, searching for dishes along a table of placards with pictures of the menu items (a Qingdao thing?), before we were seated at a large round table. Our meal included appetizers of candied walnuts (sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds) and fried peanuts. The meal itself included: a tofu and bamboo dish; a cold dish of soybeans and marinated greens (delicious!); a dish of wild mushrooms, sprouts, julienne-cut carrots spiced up with ginger and mustard (yum!), a tofu soup with rice noodles and bean sprouts, and two bottles of Qingdao lager beer (a disappointment). After dinner, we strolled to a nearby Starbucks where Jazz was happy to find a Qingdao city mug, then home in time for Jazz to get on a business call and an interview.

Back at the King Crown, ZZ fell asleep immediately, but FF and I snuggled up to our current novel, reserved for this trip: Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant. This is, perhaps, one of the finest novels we have read aloud together in awhile. It is an impossibly beautiful story about the power of hope, the mystery of magic and the redemptive joy of families being formed under unlikely circumstances. It felt like a fitting end to the delightfully unexpected arc of our day.

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