Despite total exhaustion after a 26-hour travel day, we woke early on our first full day in Qingdao. We were the first people in the hotel’s onsite Chinese restaurant for breakfast, where they hadn’t even put the sausages out yet. I am always delighted by the eclecticism of an Asian hotel breakfast buffet, and although I was sad the Castle Hotel’s lacked lychees, I made up for it with Chinese broccoli, hard boiled egg, dragonfruit, yogurt, and a churro. Plus about a gallon of delicious, German-style coffee. My daughter had corn on the cob, boiled prawns, three kinds of baozi, melon, toast, and apple juice.
Confident that eating again before dinnertime was purely optional, and knowing that jet lag makes you stupid, we had no fixed plans for the day. We managed to get lost on the grounds looking for an exit, then got distracted by bunnies and spent 20 minutes figuring out how to get to the hutch. When we did, the XX got shy, and wouldn’t approach them in case it wasn’t allowed. I decided not to mention that their presence was probably related to the German restaurant in the building across the courtyard from our hotel.
We finally managed to exit the gate and less than two blocks later stumbled on a film scene. Really. There was barrier tape, a crane, a boom, and a crowd of people quietly milling around with coffee cups in their hands while a young man carrying a brown paper sack ran the length of an alleyway and ducked into a gate over and over. We watched for a few minutes and headed down the hill toward the water.
XX was unnerved by how cars had the right of way on both the roads and the sidewalks. She jumped every time a horn honked and clung to my arm every time I dragged her into the road to walk around a parked car. We both squealed in terror as we crossed busy roads with no signal and no visible lane markers. XX trembled at the sight of a stoic uniformed guard with an automatic weapon standing at the gate of an imposing, historical building.
We passed an elementary school teeming with children at play despite the absence of any playground equipment. She stood and watched until someone inside the gate made eye contact, then ducked away, ashamed at being out of school on a Wednesday.
When we reached the waterfront, it turned out to be a giant parking lot filled with tour buses and crowds of Chinese tourists. Some kind of shopping mall or other huge complex lay underneath it, but it was empty and appeared to be under construction. A huge banner announced “fight club” with photos that implied a wrestling arena.
A group of middle aged women stood blocking the sidewalk, cackling and chattering like a flock of hens. They fell silent as we walked by. We walked on quickly and soon came to the actual waterfront. There a was a rocky beach with no visible means of access. It was crawling with people: old men fishing off the rocks, families with young children crouching before tide pools, young couples climbing the rocks in improbable shoes.
We spotted a metal staircase behind the guard rail. Some of the steps had rusted almost completely away. Now I was the cautious one, but after much cajoling, I ducked under the metal bar and followed XX down to the beach. She played happily for an hour before we climbed up the seawall and walked along the edge to the stone staircase midway between two stretches of beach. Here, the XX, who had gamboled like a goat on the rocks in the water, was afraid of the handrailless stairs and crawled up with her hands.
We stopped and played on the rocks at each stretch of beach until we got to the built-up plaza in front of the pagoda where people were selling jet ski and speedboat rides, sunhats, souvenir photos, and tiny turtles in the plastic cups we use for beta fish in the U.S. Men in military uniforms stood at attention to prerecorded marches and arias blasting from portable stereos. Upturned helmets served double duty collecting coins tossed in by passersby and holding down the corners of banners spread on the ground. These were covered in gruesome photographs of dismembered and disemboweled bodies. We guessed that they were collecting money for veterans’ charities, and I tried to remember what military action China has been involved in to generate wounded veterans requiring charity.
We walked down the path to the pagoda at the end of Zhangqiao Pier, passing thalidamide babies, now in late middle age, panhandled from their seats o the ground, while a blind man with a burned face sang karaoke. XX, a teapot on the boil all morning, became subdued and commented that her own privilege felt unearned. When we passed a woman holding a toddler half asleep on the ground, we shamefacedly dropped 10 yuan in her bowl, wondering if the amount was generous or appallingly cheap.
Once past the gauntlet of beggars and hawkers, XX regained her exuberance and ran around the base of the pagoda cluelessly photobombing hordes of provincial Chinese tourists. I forked over the 8 yuan admission fee to enter the pagoda, then facepalmed when we discovered the interior was a kitschy tourist shop. “At least the view is good!” XX tried to reassure me. “Yes,” I replied brightly, adding under my breath, “It would be if you could see the through the grime on the windows.”
Tacky souvenirs viewed, we made our way back out onto Zhangqiao pier. There was a stretch of sandy beach packed with more people who seemed to have no interest in getting in the water, but we were starting to feel overwhelmed by the crowds and retraced our steps to the strange abandoned/unfinished plaza.
We went to the Tianhou Temple and Folk Custom Museum across the street where we discovered that the temple was the museum. Instead of priests, young ladies in government uniforms sold votives and the Chinese version of omamori. Before we realized what was happening, XX had spent 100 yuan ($16) praying for our family. We left four pink lotus votives burning on a series of altars and took a pink omamori guaranteeing blessings for a family with daughters home with us.
Back at the hotel I discovered I already had a sunburn. It was not quite lunchtime, and there were more adventures in store for us before bedtime, but felt like we had spent a full day at the beach.