Qingdao

Qingdao is a seaside town approximately half way between Shanghai and Beijing, so it makes perfect sense to stop off here for a few days on our way between the two. The fact that Qingdao is the home of Tsingtao beer and currently hosting a beer festival is a coincidence, Mr Beet assures me.

Qingdao has that slightly seedy feel common to seaside towns everywhere. It’s a former German concession so it looks very European – you could easily be in Brighton, if you ignore the shark nets.

Old man showing off on Qingdao pier
 

We concentrate on Qingdao’s most famous export, and visit the beer museum / brewery. You get to see the old and new equipment, taste free samples and learn why beer (and its “best mate” the peanut) are in fact health foods.

Col outside Tsingtao brewery

On our last night in town we visit the beer festival. The festival is enormous, and despite our suspicions that every backpacker in Eastern China would be there, we hardly saw any Westerners. In fact, Mr Beet and I are something of a tourist attraction and people ask for photos with us. The festival consists of huge beer tents, each with some kind of entertainment, plus a funfair. You can buy beer buy the glass, by the
pitcher or (Qingdao speciality) by the plastic bag.
Tsingtao beer festival - Hofbrau

Next stop Beijing!

parkrun on tour – 20 August 2011

Here are before and after photos of our parkrun in Shanghai’s Century Park last Saturday.  It was 35 degrees and for some stupid reason we ended up going out at 1pm.  Chris, our host in Shanghai, was persuaded to join me, and that meant that Mr Beet was socially obliged to join in on his first international parkrun so far.  Hooray!

We were the only runners in the park and were the object of some curiosity and amusement to the other park users.

I can’t access facebook in China, so if a parkrunner is reading this, perhaps you would be good enough to stick the photo of Mr Beet and me on the Greenwich parkrun facebook page.  Otherwise people will think I’ve been skiving.

Ni Hao!

*Apologies for the lack of photos, but they take so long to upload, it would be quicker to fly back and show you them on the camera*

So we have arrived in Shanghai and it’s a bit of a culture shock from Japan.  We stayed in a hostel the first night, and there was a half naked man sitting on the kerb outside the hostel sharpening a massive knife.  As soon as we left the hostel for a stroll down the Bund, two very innocent-looking Chinese girls tried to scam us with the hackneyed “tea ceremony” scam.  Welcome to Shanghai!  

We are being kindly hosted in Shanghai by my taekwondo friend Chris, who has worked here for about 6 months.  By the time we’d met Chris, we’d nearly been run over about a dozen times.  The traffic in Shanghai is completely bonkers.  The first time we saw a green man at a crossing, we strode confidently into the road, assuming that green man meant “It is now safe to cross“.  Turns out that in Shanghai, the green man means “You might as well try to cross now.  This is as good as it’s going to get.  Today is a good day to die.” The cars can turn on red, which is the same rule as in Japan, but crucially in Japan the motorists will give way to pedestrians on the crossing.  I’m not sure that the concept of giving way exists in Shanghai.  Then there’s the scooters, which go where they damn well please; on the road, on the pavement, against the flow of traffic.  This means that you can be nearly run over at any time, including when you think you are safe on the pavement, and from any direction.  Chris’ advice is to assume that you about to be run over at all times, and claims he was once nearly run over when inside a building.   

Chris took us out on Friday night and we had a little peek into his glamorous ex-pat lifestyle.  We had cocktails at a bar on the 88th floor of the Jinmao building. The views were spectacular, as you can imagine.  Even the views inside the building were pretty cool. 

Shanghai at night is like (Canary Wharf + Blackpool) x 1000.  After that we met up with an international group of ex-pats, and the talk was of pool parties, members-only clubs and recovery Sunday brunches where the waitresses dress up as nurses and syringe champagne directly into your mouth.  There might have been no language barrier, but this was a culture as foreign to us as street-level Shanghai. 

Anyway, we never got to experience the excesses of the ex-pat weekend as on Saturday afternoon, first me, then Chris, then Mr Beet fell ill.  This was bound to happen sooner or later, and thank goodness it happened while we were staying with Chris as it’s bad enough feeling poorly when you have your own space, but in a hostel dorm it would have been really miserable.  And, as you may have noticed, it gave me the opportunity to catch up on my blogging. 

We only really got to do the touristy stuff in our last couple of days.  We went to Shanghai zoo, which was pretty depressing and we quickly left, then we went to Yuyuan gardens which was much nicer (you’ll have to do a google image search until I can get my photos on here) but seething with tour groups.  My favourite thing was the trip to the theatre to see an acrobatic troupe.   It reminded me that “do the splits” is on my list of things to do before I’m 30, and I only have 9 months left. 

So we sort of run out of time in Shanghai; we stayed there the longest of anywhere yet, but saw a lot of the inside of Chris’ apartment and not much else.  We got the train (not sure if it was one of the new super-fast ones – it went over 300kph) to Qingdao, home of Tsingtao beer, where there’s a beer festival at the moment.  I’ll report back on that once we’ve explored.

East China Sea

So sayonara Japan, ni hao China!  We got the ferry from Kobe to Shanghai.  The ferry takes 48 hours and is more luxurious than I was expecting.  It has a games room, karaoke room, gym (actually a ping-pong table, but I suppose treadmills would be a bit of a liability on the high seas anyway). 

We are sad to see the sun set on our time in Japan, and a mix of excited and apprehensive about China.  Everything’s been relatively easy in Japan; there’s lots of English signs and English speakers and everyone is very orderly so it all feels very safe.  We know that China will be more challenging.  We get a little sample of “disorderly” behaviour on the first night on the ferry, as one of our Chinese neighbours decides that an 8 berth room is a suitable place for a prolonged wank.  I mean, we were all behind our little curtains, it’s not like he was doing it in full view, but still.  Mr Beet had his earplugs in, so slept through oblivious.  Although we’d had six weeks of Mandarin classes, I simply don’t have the vocabulary for “please masturbate less noisily” so I did the British thing and ignored it, until his girlfriend (yes he was travelling with his girlfriend) came back to the room and told him off. 

I woke up the next morning to rough seas and the accompanying sensation that I should under no circumstances try to leave my bunk or even sit up.  Mr Beet had taken travel sickness pills as a preventative measure, but I had decided to see how things went, and the answer turned out to be badly.  So I pretty much stayed in my bunk for 36 hours, less the 10 minutes it took me to have a shower to try to feel a bit more human.  After another night, we awoke to calmer seas as we were in the inland waters approaching Shanghai.

Japanese Cuisine

I was asked to blog about all the food I was eating, which so far I have singularly failed to do, so to catch up here is some of the stuff I ate in Japan:

Tonkatsu – breaded pork cutlet, usually served with rice and curry sauce, but also found with egg etc.  This is Mr Beet’s favourite so we’ve been to a lot of tonkatsu places.  In one place the waitress looked concerned and warned me that the curry would be very spicy.  She then served me up something along the lines of a korma.  She must have thought that the British only ever ate British food, and couldn’t handle a curry. 

Japanese-style hamburger – we had this a couple of places including on Mt Fuji as it is good mountain climbing fare.  It’s more like a giant meatball than a hamburger and comes covered in some kind of spicy sauce with bean sprouts usually. 

Chicken (and leaf) tempura.  We weren’t sure whether we were meant to eat the leaf.

Pork and a dandelion, from the same place that served us leaf tempura, we were similarly confused as to whether to eat the flower.  Note this came with one small tomato, quartered.  This is about the most vegetables we ever managed to get.  Mr Beet once had a beef curry / omelette thing which came with one pea and one kernel of sweetcorn.  We had to go to about three supermarkets before tracking down some fresh fruit and vegetables ourselves.  Probably an indication of the type of establishment we were frequenting, rather than Japanese cuisine in general.  

It being 35 degrees plus most days, my favourite treat was shaved ice.  Literally just a Mr Frosty-style crushed ice with some sweet flavouring, usually adzuki beans (in this picture the beans are hidden inside) and lychees. 

We have also eaten lots of ramen, tofu in its many forms and once, accidentally, noodles with tongue.  Plus the odd McDonalds, club sandwich and spaghetti bolognese from time to time.

Nara

After our few days in Kyoto, we headed out to the nearby town of Nara, which used to be the capital of Japan once upon a time and, after Kyoto, is the second biggest place for Japanese historical monuments.  We’d timed our two days here to coincide with the O-Bon Festival, which is a festival to remember the dead and is celebrated with lights and bonfires.  We arrived late afternoon, and after settling in and getting some dinner, it was getting dark and the festival of lights was well underway and looked really spectacular.  Unfortunately, neither of us are sufficiently adept with the camera to properly capture the spectacularness of it, so you’ll just have to take our word for it.

Nara Park is also home to hundreds of deer, who are far from the shy creatures that we are used to in the UK, and generally mingle with the crowd, pestering people for food and terrorising small children. 

This festival seemed to be like our bonfire night, and certainly didn’t feel sombre.  There were lots of interesting food stalls and we made a mental note not to have any dinner the following night, so that we could try some of the street food. 

The next day, we went out and did more or less the same sights by day.  Nara’s piece de resistance is a properly massive golden Buddha, which is kept inside the “Daibutsu-don” which I thing more or less translates as “Buddha Shed”, which claims to be the largest wooden building in the world, although I seem to remember somewhere in Kyoto making the same claim so I am dubious.  One of the wooden pillars inside has a hole in it which is meant to be the same size as the Buddha’s nostril.  If you can squeeze through you are assured of enlightenment, so the kids all line up to have a go.  Plus, there was one fully-grown (and rather chubby) tourist trying his luck when we were there.  We watched him huff and puff for a few minutes, but later on while we further away we heard a big cheer, so we think he made it. 

We saw all the shrines with their lanterns ready to be lit again that night.

 

We came back at night time and took our pick from the food stalls.  A lot was similar to what we had at home; candyfloss, sausages, chips.  Neither of us fancied octopus tentacle on a stick, so Mr Beet had a sausage and I had a cabbage – egg -bacon fritter thing, which was a bit like bubble and squeak. 

We watched some monks conduct some kind of religious service, then a dignitary of some sort carried a big burning stick over to light a bonfire.  When the moon rose over the hill, that was his cue to light his bonfire, which in turn was the cue for people on the hillside to light a big fire in the shape of the Japanese character meaning “big”. 

Even though there were no fireworks (I am a huge fan of fireworks), Mr Beet and I agreed that this was one of our favourite things in Japan.  It was also our last night in Japan.  The next morning we had to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get the train to Kobe, and then the boat to Shanghai.