The courtyard was deserted before breakfast, so I was doing my morning stretches there as there was insufficient floor space in our room. Flat on my back, legs locked and twisted in bizarre fashion, my quiet time was interrupted when I became aware of feet straddling my ears.
“Can I get some coffee?” an American accent demanded, her bellow echoing off the glass walls.
“Breakfast is served at eight.” I responded in low voice.
“Can I get some coffee?” she repeated, her face now leaning over into my roof-ward view. Did she think I worked here?
“Breakfast is served at eight.” I repeated, slightly louder.
She came to her knees her face now inches above mine. “What? What’s on the plate?”
Deaf as a doornail, I thought. “Breakfast is served at eight.” I repeated, now loud enough to wake our slumbering fellow guests.
“Oh.” she acknowledged, her face contorted in disappointment, lip curled. She stomped off into a room, slamming the door behind her. I heard her snarl “He won’t serve us until eight.” at some unfortunate companion. Sheesh. And I thought I was bad before morning coffee.
When I arose from stretching I noticed her room was jury-rigged with a heavy-duty chain and lock. Later over breakfast we learnt that she and her husband were Americans who had retired to the Dominican Republic some years ago. He was a burly man, quiet but needy, and she was determined to fill those needs, no matter what. Host Mark yielded control of his kitchen to her so the hubby could be provided scrambled eggs. I had to admire her gumption. We came to understand that, like the Australian concreter/schoolteacher couple, they, too, were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. The contrast of the two couples’ style and manners was remarkable.
I was feeling under the weather with a head cold, so went back to bed after breakfast. Frank Lee, a brave man, went out for a haircut at a nearby barber he’d spotted in the hutong. He returned with an unremarkable buzz cut befitting the rising temperature and humidity forecast for the day.
We took the subway to the Summer Palace. On the way we discussed the propensity of Beijing men, regardless of their size or shape, to draw their shirts up above their bellies in hot weather, with alarming results in a few cases.
The Summer Palace is exactly what it sounds like: a seasonal retreat for the Emperor du jour. It towers on a hill constructed of the earth removed to create the 2.2 square km lake it overlooks. Famously, in the 1880’s Empress Dowager Cixi expanded it by redirecting imperial funds intended for the navy. Predictably enough the Japanese, who always squandered naval funds on their navy, invaded by sea and sacked Beijing. The Japanese have a longstanding habit of such behaviour, so modern China spends far more on its navy than its palaces. I can’t say that I blame them.
It was a lovely place to spend a hot summer’s afternoon, even with a head cold. That is, until the skies opened up with a drenching rain as we exited the lake boat ride. We managed to score a couple seats in a tourist snack shop. There we sheltered with a beer and a hundred other dampened sightseers until the rains subsided to a torrent, whereupon we headed back to the hotel.
I felt pretty shitty, and we were both exhausted, so we had dinner at a simple family restaurant near the hotel. It was awful, but we ate it, and went to bed.
Wednesday morning I awoke feeling a little better, excited about the days bullet train ride to the seaside city of Qingdao. We boarded the train at 11:50 am, armed with a bucket of KFC, which we had promised ourselves as something of a treat. As always, it was awful, but we ate it.
The train, on the other hand, did not disappoint, cruising us in climate-controlled comfort at over 350kph (220 mph). It says something of the hugeness of China that we passed three cities I’d never even heard of (Cangzhou, Dezhou, and Jinan) with populations bigger than any Australian city. In between, through a choking haze, endless coal trains fed one power plant after another. It was fascinatingly dismal.
As the train approached Qingdoa, a major industrial centre, seaport, beach resort and sailing hub of about 9 million, we got a glimpse of the world’s longest sea bridge, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. Debarked at evening peak hour, first impressions were not great, the 3 km taxi to the Sea Garden View Hotel taking over an hour in a bumper-to-bumper crawl.
Yet Qingdao was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. Our room was in a brand-new wing of the hotel, still smelling faintly of fresh paint. The room was large and amply furnished with upholstered furniture, the balcony offering a sweeping view of the bay and the beaches.
The toilet was a thing of wonder, one of those Japanese-style hi-tech contraptions that sensed one’s approach from three meters away, automatically opening the door, lifting the lid, and commencing a pleasant swirl in the bowl even before one’s buttocks had met its heated seat. It completed all processes with similar efficiency without instruction. Using it overnight was a bit scary, to be honest.
To our astonishment, we were told that “as foreigners” we were permitted use of the Executive Lounge. A prompt inspection confirmed it offered an ample, free buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including beer and wine. Piling the food high while juggling a glass of red, I conjectured “We may never leave the hotel!” Frank Lee nodded enthusiastically.
That night, we didn’t!
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