On the road again, but in the air…

And now, it’s over. We made it back from Qingdao on Tuesday afternoon after another train ride with the Asian kids from hell. Then we went to dinner with a few of my colleagues at my favorite restaurant in Beijing – the Sichuan hotpot place near our apartment. Hotpot is kinda like fondue, but the kind I like has super-spicy broth. There also seems to be more of an emphasis on vegetables than in most of my fondue experiences. No cheese, no chocolate, just a broth for cooking meats and vegetables. Joh and I have been there about eight times during our stay and as spicy as it is, I’d love to go back for more.

After dinner, we went to my favorite place for a beer, which is an open-air Chinese barbecue place down the street. After a couple of beers and a few hours of talking, it was time to go home to the apartment for the last time.

Now, I’m sitting at gate E25 in Beijing Airport’s third terminal. It’s raining and there’s this annoying professor behind my talking the head off some poor woman about jazz chord progressions and jamming with Chinese musicians.

Excuse me while I put on my headphones…

I suppose now is when I should reflect on the experience and come up with some sort of lessons from China, but I don’t feel ready for that just yet. I remember first stepping into this airport 10 weeks ago and feeling nervous about being here – especially as a journalist. Now I’ve learned, yet again, that people are just people all over the world. Sure, Chinese people seem to spit more than people in other countries I’ve visited and it annoys me that I have to use illegal software to update my Facebook status here, but every Chinese person I’ve met has been an experience for me – from sweet Celine, my Chinese sister, to the extortionists we met near the shipyards in Qingdao.

Now the battery in my laptop is already dying so I will hide in the seclusion of my iPod. See you in North Carolina in about 19 hours.

A day at the beach(?)…

Well, another day in Qingdao. This trip really isn’t what I was hoping for. Today we found the “Strassen im deutschen Stil,” which, despite the name, weren’t very German-looking. We walked and walked and walked. Then we had no idea where we were anymore, but we knew it wasn’t where we should have been. We were near the shipyards so there were lots of workers, truck drivers, etc. They were all staring at us. Then, we passed by this kind of random restaurant on the side of the street. The one customer sitting outside stood up and started yelling at us.

“Hello! Welcome!” he said. He started gesturing to the open seats at his little table.

Joh and I looked at each other and decided this would be an excellent idea. We started walking over and the guy starts laughing. The waiter immediately comes out with a couple of beers and some peanuts for us.

“Tsingtao beer. Ok,” our table buddy said. Then he pointed down at the peanuts. “Goshi goshi. Ha ha ha. Ma farendsa.”

It took us a minute to realize “ma farendsa” was “my friends.” We still have no idea what “goshi goshi” is.

We sat there for a while, smiling at the guy and sipping our beers. After I had finished about 10 percent of mine, the waiter brought me another one.

“Tomorrow… you… ok,” the guy said to Joh. “Tomorrow… you… shippa shippa. Looka looka. Ok. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

I said to her that I was pretty sure this guy had been drinking for a while before we showed up at around 5:00. He heard me and just said, “Ha ha ha. Yes. Ha ha ha. Tsingtao beer. Ok.”

Well, after about two hours of talking about Tsingtao beer being ok and looking at ships, I saw a cat go by and tried to pet it. Then, the restaurant owner pulled up behind me and offered us a ride to see the port. So, we went. We did a few laps, looked at the incredibly communist billboards – “Hard work is good for the state and good for the soul” or something like that… – and then they took us to the beach. They pointed out to the water, which we had seen the day before and kinda motioned that this was the end of the trip. All I heard as I left, in broken English, was “Two hundred kuai.”

Those jerks.

I looked at Joh to see if they were saying what I thought they were saying, and they were. They had only done this nice trip for us to try to extort money from us. By then we were out of the car and Joh told them we didn’t have any money. They started opening the doors back up, saying they would take us to an ATM, which just made me more angry, so we just walked away.

The sun was behind us so I told Joh to keep an eye on our shadows, because I expected them to chase us. They didn’t, maybe because it was a very crowded area. Maybe because they realized there was no way we were going to pay them.

It was sad how quickly one of my favorite experiences in China turned into one of my least favorite. But it got worse.

We went out for another beer and then, for the second time in two nights in Qingdao, I got the craving for McDonald’s French fries. Random, I know. Well, we went and got some and on the way out we ran into some Americans who are studying at Qingdao University. We talked a bit and decided to join them for another beer. While we’re talking, it comes out that I was in the Army, which opens up a tirade of interesting comments and questions. One guy, who appeared to have been drinking since mid-February, kept asking me why we invaded Iraq with so few troops. I informed him that in my role as a military photographer I was rarely asked for my opinion on military strategy. I then listened politely as he talked about his job interview with “The Agency,” assuming that anyone who actually discusses a job interview with an intelligence agency with random strangers in China probably never went through such an experience. Then, I breathed a sigh of relief when he started walking home while we weren’t looking.

Qingdao – what a town.

Ch-ch-ch- Qingdao

The title isn’t clever unless you know that a q is pronounced as a ch in Chinese…

I don’t know what I’m laying down on, but it’s hard and it has springs in it. A boxspring maybe? I’m in the world’s smallest hotel room in a town called Qingdao on China’s East coast. We came into town on Saturday, the day after finishing our “last day” of work.

I put that in quotes because I’m actually working on a story right now. We had so much work to finish over our last week that I couldn’t squeeze it all in. These hamburger stories are very time consuming and all of them have at least one silly thing I screwed up that took forever to try to fix, without ever really fixing it. Story of my life…

So after work on Friday a few of us went to get some Chinese barbecue – one of my favorite things to eat here is mutton skewers – and a beer or two. Our train left early Saturday morning, so we didn’t want to get out of control. It was all going to plan until a young Chinese man who had just graduated from university approached us and asked us to join him and his friends because he had never met a foreigner. So we did, and they basically hazed me for a couple of hours while they kept telling me the one English phrase they all knew – “I like football!” Then I couldn’t respond with, “Me too,” because they didn’t understand that, so I had to say, “I like football!” right back to them. It was a pretty deep conversation. We had a couple of our colleagues there to translate all the more trivial exchanges.

We did wake up in time for the train, which was the bullet train to Qingdao. It was a five-hour ride in really comfortable seats, so we were able to catch up on some of the sleep we missed. Of course, we had to do it in five-minute spats because there was a five-year old Chinese psychopath on the train who couldn’t think of anything entertaining to do aside from just running up and down the aisle. I was getting kind of annoyed but Joh looked like she was about to eat the poor kid. If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that it is very dangerous to deprive Joh of sleep.

We arrived in Qingdao at about 2:30. This city is famous for having been a large German settlement. The German influence is apparent in a lot of the architecture, as well as the city’s most famous export – Tsingtao beer. I had images of a nice quiet city on the coast – kind of like a typical German town but with Chinese people.

No, sir.

There are six beaches in Qingdao, which might sound like a lot until you learn that each of them are about 60 yards long and so full of people they look like ocean-front anthills. The guys are walking around in Speedos, the women are wearing bathing suits and the kids aren’t wearing anything. It’s not exactly Hawaii…