Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Not Quite Bavaria

I left Japan via Shimonoseki's ferry terminal, my port of entry to the country. It wasn't something I had wanted to do but there was no other option if I didn't want to fly. Not only was it my first and last stop, but the last person I saw in Japan was also my first: by chance I ran into my host from my first days in Shimonoseki, Seiji, who was seeing off another guest (a Mexican named Homero) who was also headed to China on the same boat as me. It was nice to have someone to talk to among the 24 other passengers (all of them, from what I could gather, Chinese working in Japan) on the 29 hour passage to Qingdao as entertainment options on the ferry were limited to a single channel of Chinese TV, a meagre onboard library of half a dozen foreign books, and taking long, hot showers and soaking in the public bath.

The ferry bathroom where I spent a considerable chunk of time on the crossing from Japan to China, simply because there was little else to do, and baths are a rare luxury on the road (figuratively speaking, of course), to be taken whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I was glad to get to China. Not that the passage had been rough or that I was eager to get away from Japan, but I have grown accustomed to China, how things work (or don't, as the case may be), what is expected, how to get around, and the little ins and outs of daily life. I also feel that my appreciation of a country is somewhat proportional to the availability, and affordability, of street food. As soon as I stepped off the boat I took advantage of fresh fruit, dumplings, and unidentified meat-on-a-stick, available on every street corner to make up for the self-imposed deprivation I had endured in Japan, and gorged myself silly.

A neo-Gothic church dominating the centre of the city is not what you'd expect to find in a Chinese city, but Qingdao has precisely that, thanks to its short-lived, yet defining, spell as a German concession.

Qingdao itself is an interesting place and quite unique in China. Most people know it for its Tsingtao beer, which is widely accepted to be the best in China. The reason being that it used to be a German concession during the dying days of the Qing dynasty. And although the Germans were there for only 16 years, Qingdao's current importance and prosperity are a direct result of that period - the city is one of the wealthiest in China and is home to two of China's biggest international brands: Haier and Hisense. The core of the old town, despite the current best efforts to create an identikit Chinese city, with boring skyscrapers and cookie-cutter shopping centres packed with international luxury brands (as well as obscure Chinese brands pretending to be upmarket), retains an unmistakable Central European feel, with town villas that remind me of my childhood holidays in Czechoslovakia: grand, but fraying at the edges. The old governor's office, in European palatial style, and a couple of churches (one Catholic the other Lutheran) complete the Bavarian charm. Nowhere in China has the imprint of the concession era remained as strong as here, and locals who cannot make it to Europe come here instead to soak up some of the European style. The area is also popular with young couples taking artful wedding and engagement photos. In one small neighbourhood alone I spotted over 20 couples - men in cheap, shiny polyester suits and the women freezing their asses off in impractical dresses - being seen to by an equal number of photography teams comprising make-up woman, driver, assistant and photographer. A rather surreal little circus that will be hidden in the final photographs, much like the shiny veneer that is on show in China's exuberant, modern cities, but which hides feet of clay beneath.

Another sign of China's new-found affluence is the increase in lavish weddings with all the trimmings, including the obligatory wedding photographs in idyllic settings. Since this is China there is a queue for the perfect snapshot.

Whether this is true as an allegory for the country as a whole I have yet to find out, but the contrasts of old and new, rich and poor, shiny state-of-the-art skyscrapers and decrepit, decaying hovels makes Qingdao, and China in general, a bracing place to explore.

The new, modern CBD area of Qingdao by the Olymic sailing centre.

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