After several days in Qingdao checked out of the [Shangri-La hotel](/2007/09/02/shangri-la-qingdao/) and traveled to our next destination, Beijing. However, we would do so by train to see a little of the countryside. Since it’s quite a distance from Qingdao to Beijing, we made a stopover in Jinan. My host had gone to university there, and wanted to show me the city, and also had some business to attend to, so it was a very good and practical thing to do. But more about Jinan itself in a later post.
Qingdao has a central station that hails from colonial times; it was built by the Germans. However, the station is being renovated in anticipation of the Olympic games 2008, where Qingdao will host a number of maritime events. So it was closed, and all the trains departed and arrived at another station – in the bad part of town. It’s as bad as you get in Qingdao – There’s some factories there, but mostly it’s just simply rundown buildings, poor people, and dirt everywhere. The traffic is atrocious too; mostly because the area wasn’t designed to handle the traffic it has to while it serves as the main train station. Within second of arriving, an old shriveled up female beggar had spotted us and wanted money. Since she didn’t speak English she resorted to a lot of prodding. Unpleasant. I was warned to take care of my wallet and my pouch and my luggage, as there would be pick-pockets about. I had already surmised so much.
The station itself was crowded. I am not sure whether this was because it was early morning, or a normal condition. Reaching the platforms involved a lot of shoving and pushing. Interestingly, the platforms themselves were quiet and deserted, so I am not entirely sure where all the people were actually going.
The high-speed trains in China do deserve some notice for any travel geek. The Chinese seem to be employing a combination of technologies for their rail system, a [hodgepodge of foreign and domestic products](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail_in_China). The train we used was reminiscent of the [Shinkansen](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen). I’ll have to use the original some time, as the whole experience was decidedly anticlimactic. I had imagined something a little less basic. If you’ve ever been on one of the newer high speed trains, you’ll know they’re usually fairly comfortable. Not that our first class seats were really bad, but, it really didn’t feel “special” either. Of course we only paid something like 15 Euro per person for a 2.5h journey.
One fascinating thing I noticed was that the seats got turned around to face in the other direction after the train had arrived in Jinan. Most people prefer to face in the direction of travel, and I guess this reduces “unpopular” seats.
Sights of the Country
Out beyond the city limits were a lot of tiny settlements in a large wide open landscape. It didn’t really look all that different. But the settlements were different. Some were downright ugly. There was a lot of construction, and many rundown buildings, especially in smaller towns we passed through. However, I do have to note that, like Qingdao, the country seems to be lacking garbage. In Indonesia, people would just illegally dump their waste wherever they felt like it. In China, this doesn’t seem to be the case – or at least not within sight of the train tracks. I am guessing China’s pollution is simply more industrial in nature.
There isn’t really much to see on the way from Qingdao to Jinan (nor to Beijing, for that matter). I guess if you don’t really care to take a train ride for the experience (the train stations are an experience different from what we have here in Europe!) or you’re going somewhere you got to take the train… well, you might as well fly.
A quick hotel review: We are staying in the Shangri-La hotel, in Qingdao. The rooms are surprisingly expensive (I booked for 95 Euro/night plus taxes; 50 Euro more buys you a feather bed sheet and a view towards the ocean instead of the cityscape), but they are very comfortable. I liked them, including the bathrooms which are often lacking in other hotels. The location also seems to be okay, I think if you wish to stay in Qingdao, you can’t really go wrong by booking a room here.
12483Qingdao is a coastal city east of Beijing. It used to be a fishing village until the Germans arrived and set up a colonial garrison. One of my great-grandfathers actually volunteered to go to China with the Imperial expedition force to quell the boxer rebellion. Doubt he saw combat, but his wife married him upon his return because he “looked so sharp in uniform”.
A century later, his great-grandson would be the first family member to “return” to China. But I carried a box of chocolates and not a rifle.
The Qingdao airport is a small, simple affair. It’s almost completely not noteworthy. If you know the Hamburg airport from before it was fixed and renovated: That is the impression the Qingdao airport left with me. Not that I really cared what the airport looked like: What mattered was that I had finally arrived at my destination. Total travel time: 15h from my doorstep.
I got picked up and didn’t have to worry about taxis or such. The airport turned out to be quite far from the city; maybe 30-40 minutes by car.
The first thing you’ll notice about Qingdao is that the pollution is much better than in Beijing. In fact, it’s so low that it’s not really visible. The second thing you’ll notice is the construction: There are hundreds of construction cranes between the airport and the city proper.
And the third thing you’ll notice… is the traffic.
Now, the car traffic in Qingdao is light when compared to Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur (and Beijingl, as I would later find out). But what makes it so scary is how bad the traffic is. Pedestrians generally have no rights over cars, and have to be careful not to be run over (I doubt most Chinese drivers would actually stop for them). Drivers are constanly lane jumping, driving in between two lanes, and so on. It’s an organized chaos, an eat-or-be-eaten world of motorized transportation. My poor mother, considerate driver that she is, would never get from point A to point B in China. Bless her for her good driving manners.
My first reaction was of course one of fear. I think it mst have seemed amusing, to a Chinese driver, to see me cower in fear when a bus cut in front of us. My expression must have been one of continued amazement.
But later, when I thought about it, I realized that it’s really not that surprising. A part of the problem are probably bad traffic rules, and those could be fixed. But the deeper problem will likely go away in due time: Most Chinese drivers are utterly inexperienced at driving. They haven’t had much time to learn “good traffic manners”. And in China’s emerging semi-capitalism, egoism is probably very fashionable.
We survived the traffic and got to our hotel. We survived all traffic, but I think I have not gotten used to it in any shape or form.
The Air China flight to Beijing was very uneventful, if relatively comfortable. It arrived in Beijing on time. Even before the arrival, the airline prepares their passengers for the immigration formalities by handing out the appropriate forms and showing instructional films for them. It’s clear that China is not only a communist dictatorship, but can also look back on a tradition of thousands of years of bureaucracy.
I already had a visa for China. But I still had to fill out an Arrival Card, a Customs Declaration Form, and a Health Declaration Form. None are really complicated, and my neighbor on the plane told me not to be overly honest on the customs form. In the end, the few gifts I had brought would not remain, as the form put it, “in the territory”, as they would be carried on to Japan: so I told my conscience to go to sleep.
I wasn’t so surprised to learn that it was illegal to bring “deadly poisons” into China. I guess I should also have expected that it’s illegal to bring any printed materials, pictures, videos, or digital media into China that would be ‘dangerous’ to the country’s economic, political, cultural or moral well-being. Can someone please explain what that encompasses? All my belongings, including books, were apolitical, but could someone get arrested who carried a magazine that included an article critical of, say, Mao?
I hate dictatorships.
Another item I was surprised to learn was illegal to import into China: Used clothes. All of mine were fresh and clean, but is a returning Chinese really supposed to hand in his dirty socks at the Quarantine desk? I rarely come back to Germany with a suitcase full of clean clothes.
Anyway. The plane landed, and thus equipped with my filled out forms I entered China. The queue at the immigration check was insane. But, as predicted, nobody cared about my health form (empty) or my customs declaration form. They didn’t even pay me a second look.
I did have to pick up my luggage. And then check it in again. Beijing is not a transfer airport. It’s actually pretty easy to find all the required places, but it’s still a lot of hassle. I guess it saves them the customs / immigrations checks at other airports, but, well, it’s still very annoying, and I could imagine a big problem if you are in a hurry to catch a connecting flight. I seriously doubt the entire process can be done in less than 30 minutes (if there are no queues anywhere). Took me closer to an hour I think.
So I only had to catch the connecting flight to Qingdao. Waiting for it was interesting, because I was one of the very few European guys there. There were two or three people that looked like business travelers, and one small group of people consisting of a very fat guy with a really skinny Chinese girlfriend, and what appeared to be his two friends. Couldn’t help but wonder what she saw in him.
Boarding the flight to Qingdao meant going out on the airfield (a bus brought us to the plane). As I had expected, there was a haze all over the airport. No, not fog; Good old pollution. Yes, the stories are true, and yes, it’s worse than Jakarta. I would be back in Beijing later
So the big day came. I went to the airport – almost too late, because I had remembered the departure time incorrectly by 30 minutes. My taxi driver then drove me to the wrong terminal (I had told him quite clearly to drop me off at “Terminal 1B”. Terminal 2 doesn’t have a “B” area; something which I would expect every Taxi driver in Frankfurt to know) but I managed to arrive well in time.
When I boarded the plane, I was surprised to learn thatthe flight was an Air China / Lufthansa Code-Share. Surprised, because the Lufthansa agent had told me the ticket would cost 1600 Euros (yes, in Economy class) and I eventually bought the ticket from Air China for 800. Goes to show you that you can never trust an airline, and that shopping around for tickets is very well worth it.
I was lucky in that I got a pretty good seat: First row in Economy class. Not only did I had a little more foot space, but there were also no morons in front of me who could lean back all the way. I’ve never understood that, by the way: Sleeping in an airplane is still uncomfortable as hell, and you torture the guy behind you by leaning back. Maybe that’s the purpose of it.
So compared to my KLM flights to Asia, Air China already had managed to secure a huge lead. Unfortunately, that ended right there. The food was just as bad as on the KLM flights, and the service, well, what service?
There is only one thing I want to mention quickly: The in-flight entertainment. The movie they showed was a movie about ancient China; I didn’t follow it from the beginning and I am not sure what the title is. I think the basic plot is that the Emperor is trying to poison his wife, and various people (their sons and two women) attempt to save her. One of the sons even stages a revolt to accomplish this. Anyway, the notable thing about the movie is the violence level. We’re talking about a flight that has “all ages” in the audience. But in the movie, people got impaled, beheaded, cut down by swords, slaughtered by barrages of arrows, and beaten to death. The entire thing was very well filmed but I can not help but wonder how this got past the airline censors.
Well, yesterday’s [booking problem](/2007/06/13/china-2007-problems-before-departure/) was only temporary and I just bought my ticket. China, here I come! – Well, in two months.
My next trip will take me to China and Thailand. It’s scheduled for late August and early September – three weeks in total. I’ve made a rough plan, with enough details that I wanted to buy my plane tickets today. And it turns out that Air China can’t sell any tickets. My travel agency said they don’t really know what the problem is, but no reservations for Air China are “going through” at all at the moment.
Tried calling Air China, but of course all their lines are busy. The [Air China website](http://www.airchina.de/) isn’t exactly a masterpiece either, and it doesn’t have any kind of reservation system.
I’ll try again later, or tomorrow, but this is quite aggravating.
I have arrived back home safe and sound.
I had a lot of luck on the way back. I actually got a business class seat, while some other passengers had to stay behind – there had been a snowstorm on the east coast, and all the planes back to the Old World were overbooked. Enjoyed a nice dinner, several James Bond movies on the in-flight entertainment system, and arrived in Frankfurt half an hour ahead of time. Took a cab home – and the driver made it in under 20 minutes. Record time.
I’d like to extend a big “Thanks” to Joel, Corey, and all the other guys I met. Especially though to the two guys for putting up with me, I promise not to stay so long for the next live show, if I can make it anyway.
And by the way: My half-diet made me lose 1.5kg while in the States. Not too bad!
Last night was another radio night. This time I was taken to the ICP studio in south-western Detroit, where Psychopathic Records produces their online radio program, Wfuckoff Radio. Upchuck the Clown hosts a biweekly show called “The Funhouse”, together with his intern Andrea. I was to be a guest and see how that magic happens. This week, they had another visitor from Germany, as coincidence would have it: Hatchet Hans, a psychopathic serial killer on the run from Interpol. Scary looking dude, with tatoos all over, clad in black leather, and a large scar on the left side of the face.
The show was quite fun. After taking the first couple of calls Upchuck presented Andrea the intern with a slutty school-girl dress she was to wear during next week’s Tempest release party. Later on, Sampler X, a crazy 45 year old white rapper-wannabe from the ‘hood in Southfield called in. He was angry as hell that Upchuck wouldn’t play his songs. There were some other good callers too, like a stoned school janitor. Eventually Upchuck decided to wrestle Andrea in preparation to his fight agains the Corporal on Tuesday. Good fun, all of it.
Everybody at Psychopathic was really nice, and it was fun to sit and watch the show (except maybe Hans, who gave me the creeps). Thank you all, that was a good night.
_Update:_ The show is available for download [here](http://wfuckoffradio.com/archives/upchuck_the_clown_20070315.mp3) via the [WFuckoff Radio download page](http://wfuckoffradio.com/archives/download.php) (select The Funhouse from the drop-down list, it’s the March 15th episode).