Usually on Chinese national holidays, I stay comfortably put in Shanghai and do not travel anywhere. The two major reasons for this are, Shanghai sheds itself of about 8 million people on National Holidays, no one wants to come here it seems, which makes the city almost peaceful and quiet. The second is that like Shanghai, many of China’s other largest cities also shed millions of inhabitants who end up in places you’d more than likely want to spend a holiday, like HuangShan (where 10,000 people were stranded on the mountain this year) or LaoShan in QingDao on China’s northeastern coast. This is where I went this year, and I am exceedingly happy I did!
We, my girlfriend and I, traveled to QingDao by high-speed train from Shanghai, a journey that took about 6 hours which was more or less comfortable and uneventful. The only issue we had is that we could not book tickets for our return trip as it was more than 5 days later. This restriction is apparently to inhibit scalpers, but from my perspective, it inhibits travel. After-all, who wants a one way ticket for a week long vacation? 99.9% of people come home after vacations, don’t they? Anyway, as far as inconvenience caused by attempts to clamp down on scalpers go, this was a relatively minor inconvenience as we were soon to find out.
Arriving at QingDao’s train station, the first thing we attempted to do was buy tickets for the return trip, which of course was sold out. From there we took a taxi to the gates of the “Scenic Spot”, LaoShan. These were not gates that the taxi could drive through; this was a huge staging area where everyone was herded from their cars and onto buses to various locations inside the “Scenic Zone”. It may come as a surprise to people outside of China, but anyone wishing to go to LaoShan or any of other of China’s “Scenic Spots”, an admission fee is required. In our case, it was 150rmb for 2 days in the zone. We also had to pay 40rmb for a “free” bus to our hotel inside the zone making this the most expensive free thing I’ve ever had to purchase. Of course, at is it was a national holiday, this process of buying tickets and boarding buses required queuing in long lines as can be expected anywhere at any time in China.
With tickets bought and stamped with a duration date (that turned out to be 1 day instead of the 2 we paid for), we made our way to the front of the queue hauling our bags behind us. When we got to the front we had to present our tickets, have a fingerprint scan to authenticate them to us and have our picture taken. This may seem like overkill at the very least, something you’d more likely expect when boarding an international flight then entering a natural tourist site, but in China such measures are required to prevent patrons and staff from ripping off the system and admitting people at a discount for personal gain. In China, even doctor’s appointments are scalped and traded on the black market for a profit, so precautions like those at LaoShan are indeed a necessity and perhaps something hospitals should also introduce!
Back to the trip… After scanning our fingers and getting our pictures taken I was waiting for the extraction of DNA to complete the process when we were hastily shuffled through the turnstile and bounded onto a waiting bus. No time to deposit our bags in the luggage compartment under the bus of course, so I got to enjoy the 30 minute ride and 30 minute traffic jam in the midst of it with two bags, weighing in at about 20kgs, in my lap putting my lower body soundly and painfully asleep.
Finally the journey was over and we exited the bus for a half kilometer walk along an ocean front boardwalk high on a cliff towards the next entrance gate where we had our fingerprints and tickets scanned once again. We were staying at a hotel inside the park. By the time we arrived at our hotel located low on the hill in a nice area next to a temple and discovered there was no elevator to our third floor rooms or internet access available, it was late in the day. Having set off from shanghai at around 7:30am, it was now approaching 5pm and the sun was going down on our first day of vacation. Having not eaten anything more substantial than a Snickers bar all day, we made our way to a “snacks” restaurant and filled up on steamed dumplings and beer.
After stuffing dumplings, which were homemade and more delicious than any I’ve ever had in Shanghai by the way, we took a walk around and decided we would check out the temple complex. This of course required more admission to be paid which, although not unexpected, was a bit of an annoyance as we’d already paid 150rmb a piece to enter the “scenic spot”, 45rmb a piece for the “free bus”, and now that we were actually inside the site we had already paid for, we had to do it again. Throughout our trip, I was to learn that the 150rmb admittance fee was less of a fee paid to go enter a tourist site and more of a fee you pay so you can pay more fees to enter the actual tourist sites. It was starting to dawn on me that the Chinese tourism approaches natural and historical attractions more like how a traveling fun park does than a tourism agency with the price of admittance being no more than the purchase of the right to spend ever increasing quantities of money for whatever you want to do once inside, but instead of riding a roller-coaster or Ferris wheel, we were entering a temple of hiking up a mountain.
Paying the third fee of the day, we entered the temple grounds. The buildings seemed old enough and I think the original temple area may have actually functioned as a temple at some point, but as we climbed higher on the hill it quickly became apparent that is this complex was more modern than I originally thought and perhaps no more than a tourist trap. My first clue came when gazing up the slope at a rather large building under construction being primarily built of concrete. The second clue was that there wasn’t a monk o be seen. At it’s base, the temple buildings crawling up the hillside were traditional and built of stone and wood, but just about everything beyond these was concrete, often painted to resemble wood or faced in thin granite to replicate stone construction. Other than that, it was a pleasant hike around the grounds which provided a chance to take some excellent photos… Unfortunately, I inadvertently switched the auto-focus off on my near fish-eye wide angle lens and failed to notice leaving some photos blurry and disappointing. Still it was a nice stroll.
Heading down the hill at about 7pm as dusk closed in around us we were surprised to find the place basically deserted. All the little shops and stands selling snacks and meals were gone as were the buses and the crowds they delivered. With barely a soul in site and no other options for sustenance, we made our way to our hotel’s restaurant. Located in the basement of and adjacent building, we arrived to find it in darkness and clearly startled the one lone worker who had been hovering near the door. “Is it open?” we inquired and were told that it was, but they had not relieved any customers. Turning the lights on, we were presented with a large vacant room full of 6 or 7 large round tables with a rotating platform in the middle clearly designed to seat parties of 12 or more.
Sitting down, just the 2 of us, at a huge table we asked for the menu which turned out to be a photo-copied sheet of paper with about 10 dishes on it. My girlfriend ordered and I waited patiently for a cold bottle of beer. When it came, it was 2 bottles of warm beer already opened. “We don’t have any cold beer”, the waitress announced. I thanked her for the warm bottles and poured thimble sized cups of warm Tsingtao beer for me and my companion.
As we waited for the food, a couple other patrons arrived and my worries about what we might actually receive for our meal began to ease a little. The waitress returned a moment later and informed us that at least one of the things we had ordered was not available and we were forced to make another selection. The missing ingredient was pork of all things, the most common meat in China. “Do you have any beef?” I inquired and was assured they did, so we ordered a beef dish. When our food arrived about 10 minutes later it was anything other than delicious. The beef and potatoes dish may have contained parts of a cow, but no pat that I could identify as meat. One piece I took out and very nearly placed in my mouth looked to be the inner ventricles of the heart or lungs or some other organ, but definitely not beef. I searched through the bowl tentatively looking for something that might be meat. Spying a chunk of something I mistakenly took for meat, I plopped it into my mouth… No, not meat. I swallowed and decided to dine on potato, the other half of the ingredients presented. Then broccoli came, and I had a bit of that, the toughest broccoli I’ve ever tried to chew.
Being less than gastronomically satisfied, I drank my warm beer consoling myself that I’d have some snacks later. The other diners were digging into their feasts with gusto as we rose to exit the restaurant. Either their dishes contained actual meat instead of unidentified animal innards, or they didn’t realize what meat actually should look, feel, and taste like. Back in our room I curled up with a good Bill Bryson book and waited for my girlfriend to finish her shower. I was already getting hungry and there were no more snacks in our luggage.
After her shower was complete we ventured out into the night to find at least a snack machine to tide us over. The night was pith black. There wasn’t even a street lamp to illuminate the dangerous holes and ruble that could potentially kill a wayward walker in the night. Luckily we forgot our flash lights making it an extra dangerous journey. We walked from one end of the docks to the other, with hope filled hearts imagined that the lights we did find gleaming from a building was a dumpling restaurant or some other type of establishment providing food for those stranded here, but no, it was a public toilet. So with nothing in our bellies and the hope drained from our hearts, we returned to the hotel to ask if they had a snack machine or some chips or candy bars hid behind the counter which of course, they didn’t The one good thing about our unsuccessful foraging was that we could see the sea at night and experience the sounds and view of the ocean without a million other people, but that was it.
So back to our room we went and settled down for a good night’s rest on a rock hard mattress with laughably thin pillows. Come to think of it, a folded up bath towel would have made a better pillow then what we had… Oh well, it wouldn’t have mattered as we barely got any sleep at all anyway. The reasons for our poor nights slumber are many. Besides the poor beads and pillows, all the hotel room doors automatically shut with a thunderous bang. Even rooms 2 floors below could be heard having their doors slammed shut. But 2 floors below was not the problem. Next to us and across from us there was apparently one group. One group that went from room to room, yelled at each other from the convenience of the hallway outside our door, and repeatedly set of the alarm that sounds if you attempt to leave without taking your and that acts as the doors electronic key. At the early hour of 9 o’clock, this was disturbing enough, but as the hours wore on and mid night approached it was positively maddening. Fortunately, the next morning as soon as the day started to brighten, sometime around 5:30am, a goose, a dog, and a bunch of workers outside my window started yapping and my night of fitful slumber was brought to an end.