Dogmeat on a train and a roundabout route bring us to Qingdao, a German-built coastal town.
18.05.2007 23 °C
As we left Beijing by train, the urban landscape blended into countryside but only partially.
Eastern China, it seems, is never fully rural. Warehouses and factories spot farm fields, where laborers still till the soil by hand and by horse and plow.
We took "hard seats" on the train, as opposed to the "soft seats," a communist-era distinction that mainly comes down to space and comfort.
Instead of being assigned to seating based on Communist Party ranking, the almighty yuan is the determinate these days as well as available seating.
A hard seat buys a passenger a brutally straight seat and closeness to fellow travellers, an arrangement that despite a modicum of discomfort allows for a degree of comaraderie that lends itself to easy introductions and sharing of food.
This is how, in fact, we came to eat dog.
The train had pulled up to Ji'nan, and one of our seat-mates, a young man with an incessant fidget, hopped off a moment to buy fresh steamed buns.
He came aboard and handed the bagged buns to his buddy, who smiled and held the bag open for us. We graciously popped the buns into our mouths, remarking on how sweet the meat tasted and must be pork.
It was only later that Jacob informed us off-handedly that he was told the meat was dog.
We were to see dog meat again, though I did not have the psychological stamina to overcome my aversion. It was in an outdoor night market in Qufu, where skinless dog heads, canines exposed, perched on meat stands.
I always thought that eating dog meat was a stereotype of the Chinese, something told to scare away the curious from ever trying unnamed meat on menus. But we learned that in northern China, dog is a specialty. We didn't get so far in learning the details: which breed, what they're fed, and if dog farms exist.
As pets, dogs seem to be treated as beloved family members in China. They're usually the small, yippy sort and have much better standing than the mangy stray cats that roam the streets.
We've decided to make our way to Guangzhou in the coming weeks. This southern port, near Hong Kong, is a crowded industrial area, home to the country's first SEZ's (strategic economic zones). It's also where the food gets really interesting: snake, roaches, snails, and beetles. Not sure yet how far I'm going to push my palate.
The trains bring a delimma.
Up until this week, we've always preferred to travel footloose, flitting from one place to the next as the mood struck. But the Chinese train system prohibits this lack of itinerary. Seats routinely sell out days in advance. We wonder if this is intentional or ill-planned on the part of the state-run system, since it bars any last minute movement (although buses are still available).
In any case, we ran into a bit of a jam in Qufu (a smallish town south of Beijing whose claim to fame is the home and 2500-year-old gravesite of Confucious).
Seeking to get to the garden-city of Suzhou, just west of Shanghai, we were informed that the next train available would be in three days. No big deal. Lacking firm plans, we were flexible, and made our way on the (available) bullet train to Qingdao on the coast. We're scheduled for a 16-hour train ride to Suzhou today by sleeper car.
But the experience got us thinking. Two months in China is not so much time that we can afford to wait around for available train seats. We've started planning.
Bavaria on the Beach
Qingdao is not your ordinary Chinese city, though it does have the requisite soulless skyscrapers and one of the best night markets we've yet encountered.
Built by the Germans at the turn of the century, then occupied by Japan after World War I, Qingdao has an international flavor. Bavarian-style buildings with red roofs and half-timbered walls cluster in the hilly corner of town along with two churches which have become tourist attractions not because they are extraordinary in design but merely for being in China.
Qingdao is home of the internationally famous Tsingdao beer, found in most American Chinese restaurants. We've had many bottles (and drafts) so far over lunches and dinners, and though it's a bit watery ranks superior to other local brews we've tasted.
Leave it to the Germans to come to China's shore and create the best beer in the region, if not all of China.
The city cuddles around its coastline, though we don't believe the Chinese get beach culture (at least as we Westerners know it). Swimming is clearly for men only, and everyone else wades into the ocean with pant legs hiked up. Men sun themselves like beached seals, without towels.
The other major beach activities are clamming and wedding photography. By early afternoon, brides and grooms are competing for rock space, draping their skirts and coattails in graceful poses as if their matrimony was sealed in sand and surf.
Most pleasing (to us) was the active market. Qingdao, like many Chinese cities, really comes alive at dusk and with the lure of food and drink. Since Qingdao is on the ocean, seafood seemed to be the specialty, notably all manner of fried and spiced fish, clams, shrimp, and oysters.
Now, Suzhou here we come.