From a rainy but beautiful and cool Qingdao, I took an easy express train inland to Ji’nan. This was my favorite of the cities I visited in China. The least touristy, the most friendly, a little off the beaten path, but I felt well worth the couple days I spent there. It is the actual capital of Shandong province, even though Qingdao is a much more modern, and I believe, much bigger city.
I started the day with some great street food. They make amazing breads heated on a griddle, sliced in half when they start to puff up, and this stand was putting shredded potato, carrot, cabbage, a cut up hotdog of specious origin, and an egg inside. A man waved me over to use his little stool so I wouldn’t have to sit on the curb and was fine trying to talk to me and laughing even though I didn’t buy any of his intestine on a stick.
From there I checked into a Lonely Planet recommended hotel behind a gorgeous neighborhood park. The name of the hotel has changed, and I forgot to make a note of the new name (it starts with a Z), but the rates are the same. I had to haggle with her a bit, but it was well worth it and comfy.
From there I headed out to the Muslim quarter where there is an old Chinese style Mosque as well as some smaller Persian style ones tucked into the streets. It was really a gorgeous little refuge. The folks there were extremely welcoming and had no problem with a western woman hanging around and even let me stay and watch the five o’clock prayers. I was trying to stay out of the way and be respectful, but it turned out I was sitting on the steps of Imam’s quarters and was quite embarrassed when he came regally down the steps when the bells started. He just laughed and motioned for me to stay where I was. The singing was stunning.
Chinese Muslims are known for being the most liberal. The kebab street lined with meat shops and stacks and stacks of beer would prove this. Women sitting down and throwing off their head scarves while everyone passes around the Tsingtao. I’m sure that’s not everyone, but it’s quite a large street. The young men I bought some kebabs from and shared a beer with were Buddhists, and my hosts was more than happy to show off his extensive tattoo, as well as the three scars from knife fights he has on the other side.
They taught me the numbers and hand signals for one through ten which proved extremely useful the rest of the trip.
Jin’an is famous for its natural springs, which are lovely, and really just large parks you have to pay to get into.
Thousand Buddha Mountain
This is a lovely park, but I was just too tired from all the walking of the last two weeks to take full advantage of it. I did wander a bit, and stayed on the low level instead of climbing the stairs. I’m not a huge fan of the chubby Buddha who is the focus of this park. It seems he misses the point of the middle way somehow.
The highlight for me was the Ten Thousands Buddha Cave. It’s a mite bit constructed, but it was chilly, out of the sun and had some beautiful as well as creepy examples of Buddhist art.
Qingdao is a small enough city that I could do something that I normally don’t have the guts to do. Just get on buses and see where they go. Except for the first bus I got on which doubled back and negated the hours I had already walked, this worked out highly in my favor. I discovered the 31 bus goes to beach #1, and the 302 goes to beer street where the Tsingdao brewing museum is, and the number 1 makes a loop around the west part of town to all the stuff you would want to see.
Getting back to the side of town where my hostel is prooved to be a bit more difficult. But two school girls who were sitting next to me on the #15, which ended up going nowhere near where I needed to go, asked me where I was from, and then helped me out. The girl had perfect tape-recorder English. I asked if she learned at school from a foreign teacher, and she said she’s never had English lessons at school, she taught herself at home. They got off the bus and insisted on walking me two blocks away to the correct bus number, saying things the whole way like, “please turn left. Now go straight.” Maybe she is practicing tapes that train people how to be GPS voices. They were really delightful.
It’s been funny how many people have tried to hand me chinese language menus. Unlike Korean, which is brilliant, logical, and relatively simple where most people learn how to read and write before they learn how to speak, I know people who have spoken Mandarin for ten years and barely touched reading. One boy at a bus stop asked why I didn’t just read the sign, when I said I couldn’t, the light bulb went off behind his eyes, “of course!” and he bounded over to find the number I needed.
Even in the rain this place was really hopping. I don’t know if it was a special holiday, or if there are just so many people in this area that it’s bound to be packed even on a Wednesday morning. There was so much incense being lit and thrown in the pyres that the sticks were lighting, causing a flame and ash was pouring out the bottom.
South of the temple on the road running perpendicular to the park, I ran into what is going to be a great new venue. A shop called the Instrument and Coffee Shop where a really hip young lady is opening up a music store/coffee shop/bar/music venue. I wish I could be more specfic about the location, but it was within close walking distance after I left the temple. Bus 314 also passes it. She’s not opening for two more weeks, but it looks like it will be a fantastic place.
And one more thing, this hostel, the Big Brother II, which was the only one not booked when I checked way back in July charged me 3 yuan for toilet paper for my room. TP is a hot commodity here.
This morning I shared my pomegranate with the lady at the front desk. She’s been all smiles and really helpful. She seemed really shocked when I shared my fruit with her, and when I came back this evening she had bought a moon cookie for me. So sweet.
For the dozens upon dozens of times I have travelled with absolutely no snags, plenty of time to grab a coffee before boarding, and all the time in the world, my self-confidence in travelling finally caught up to me. Thinking I could roll into Incheon airport an hour before my flight on a busy Tuesday business morning was not the best move.
Thanks to all the work folks who came out to dinner, and especially to Adam, Dan, Tyler, and Jon for a final beer soaked conversation at the tables outside the Family Mart. It still cracks me up that the tables outside of a convenience store are equally as legitimate a meeting and drinking spot as a bar. After a couple of hours rest at the sauna, I jumped on the subway to the airport to find that it both takes a lot longer to get around the magnitude of that airport, and that it was packed. I missed my flight by a good half-hour by the time I could talk to anyone, but they very graciously bumped me to the next flight to Qingdao for no charge (China Eastern Air).
When I checked back in again, I was told that my visa was not renewed in the fashion that I was lead to believe it was. Because I’m past my initial year, I had to go to the immigration office and get a re-entry permit, even though I was under the impression that my visa and everything was renewed and good to go. That wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except no one would tell me what to do in full. I get a ticket. The first lady says I need to fill out a form “over there.” I fill out the form. Get a ticket. The second lady says I need “permit stamps” to go with the form. Well why didn’t the first lady tell me that? I go to get the permit stamps – which are really just those, three nice stamps. I’ve already changed all my money to Yuan and US Dollars though, so I have to go to an ATM, get more Won, come back, buy the stamps from the lady who is doing Korean yoga in her seat and trying to ignore me, and then: get a ticket.
I don’t know what they do with those lovely stamps. All I know is that they didn’t end up as nice decoration in my passport.
After a final bulgogi bibimbop and some coffee, I make it without further snag onto the plane, and pass out for the brief hour and a half ride to Qingdao.
So far things are going well, and I am extremely grateful that people here are so helpful. There were no maps of the city to be found at the airport, and without the bus drivers prompting, there would have been no way for me to know which stop to get off at. The first thing I notice is that the visibility is horrible. Probably less than 1km. Another thing is the diversity in cityscape compared to Korea. To me, every Korean city and town essentially looks the same. I don’t know if one major developer has dibs on the entire country, or if all the developers build in the same style, but really, the whole country is a carbon copy of itself. Here there are the same highrise apartments in clusters, but the style of each cluster is a little different. The skyline is diverse with some unique buildings, and there is a much more liberal use of color here that doesn’t involve neon signs.
Instead of being a coastal industrial town, Qingdao has taken the route of making money by attracting people to the coast with beaches and parks along the water. It’s really nice, refreshingly clean, and a super friendly city. I’m going to hang out for an extra day and relax. The downfall is that I’m having trouble figuring out where the buses go, and other than taxis, there isn’t another form of public transportation. I have an aversion to taking taxis, even when they are cheap, unless absolutely necessary as a budget backpackers and exploration rule.
Last summer when I took the bike tour to the southern coast, I passed through a town that I thought was Gonju. It was this gorgeous mountain town with little mushroom houses and an amazing view. I know now that it wasn’t actually Gonju, but one of the national park towns on the outskirts. Gonju itself is a pretty typical city, but seemed a bit more rundown.
In Gonju I took the 7 bus to Magoksa temple. More than half of the buildings are under renovation, so now isn’t the best time to see it, although the Pagoda is a Tibetan style and is supposed to be one of three left in the world.
I wasn’t that impressed with Gonju on the whole, but I had a bus driver who made my day. It’s funny how one interaction with someone can change the perspective. I was ready to hightail it out of town and head to my next destination, but this guy was so helpful and kind that I stuck around to have some more adventures.
From there, my guidebook, said I could use the same bus #7 to get off at Seonggoksa, but was very vague about the bus stop, and how far away the temple was. The driver helped me figure out where to get off, but warned me that it was a hike. Here is the bus stop for anyone wanting to do the same:
From there it’s a 4km hike down the road and up a mountain. It really wasn’t that bad, and it was a gorgeous day. The temple isn’t so much a temple, but a shrine/statue park. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful with a few waterfalls. There was almost no one there on a weekday, and the views were great. Sometimes I really can’t help but wonder how much money went into all these statues though, and how many people that money could feed out of Buddhist generosity. But maybe the statues inspire people to donate more that can be used for those purposes?
Again, I was warned about the walking involved in getting to Tapsa, a temple made by a monk who stacked huge piles of rocks into carns around the temple. I just wanted a lift to the entrance, but the cab driver took me around to the back of the park, and right to the entrance of Tapsa. This made my job easy, but I think I would have been more satisfied if I had done the hike around and had to work for it. There are supposed to be buses that go the front entrance, but early on a weekday morning, I didn’t find such a thing.
From there I hiked back over the mountain to the front entrance. The long hike everyone was warning me about is a mere 1km. The stairs are steep and many, but it doesn’t take long. At the front entrance at this time of the morning there wasn’t a shop open, a bus to be seen, or a taxi to be found. I ended up walking back to Jinan, which was really close. Maybe a 30-40 minute walk. If you like walking, you could do the whole trip without taking transportation at all.
Well, mostly bussing it, but walking quite a bit as well. Not quite as much as Simon Winchester did though. He started in Jeju Island and walked the entire length of South Korea, and then part of North Korea (highly supervised of course). Bybee reminded me how much the western male falling prey to the wiles of Korean women came into that book. I had completely forgotten about it, but now that she read it recently and brought it up, examples from the book keep seeping into my mind. Winchester epitomizes the different experiences that men and women have living in Korea. Living in Asia has taught me nothing if not that the vast majority of western men prefer having a relationship where they don’t actually have to talk to their partner as long as she looks hot and is the right amount of needy. Simon Winchester is normally an extremely intelligent and insightful travel writer, but even he was reduced to drooling in his beer and going on long winded rants that had nothing to do with the rest of the story when offered the attention of a gorgeous lady. Korea is a place where men get distracted to the point of losing their minds.
Somehow I avoided going to PC rooms the entire time I’ve been in Korea until today. They are every bit as disgusting and sleezy as I thought they were. My first attempt was foiled when I walked into what was labeled as a PC Resting room – which actually meant private booths with I’m not sure what all going on behind closed doors.
While the rest of Korea is getting hit by a monsoon, I’m in a sunny haven in Jeonju. But inside the PC room, there is nothing but cigarrette smoke, dark lighting, and games. I thought I’d take a minute to share a little travel tale while I checked to see if my flight to Jeju is cancelled. So far it’s not, but I’m not sure it’s worth going to typhoon island this weekend.
I started the weekend at bookclub in Seoul, which got an invite that I took full advantage of to go to Sinchang and stay with Bybee for a couple of days. She lives in an apartment complex in the middle of nowhere that is crawling with foreigners and we had a great night watching TV and eating western food at her friend’s house.
From there I went to Gongju, which overall is not what it says it is. It was the same, albeit dingier, as the rest of Korea, and except for the fortress doesn’t have much to show for itself. The map the info booth hands out shows a quaint, pretty town with a gorgeous river flowing through it. Really it is a dirty, run down place, with a trickle of water down the middle lined by the seediest of love motels. I did do some interesting things here, but since this PC bang has let me think it is uploading pics for the last hour, when really it hasn’t, I’ll have to save the walking stories for another day.