Tuesday, 26 August 2008
We were told by the receptionist that our reservations had been screwed up so we would have to stay in the hostel's most basic lodgings, everything else was fully booked. The receptionist grabbed a torch and lead us down a series of labyrinthine, outdoor, concrete steps (with no banisters) in almost complete darkness. The 'room' was situated at the very bottom of a dark path and occupied half of a semi-subterranean breeze block building the entrance of which was a huge steel door which the receptionist seemed unable to operate due to the rust surrounding the lock. Upon finally entering the room we were instantly met with a fairly challenging, two pronged, olfacto-visual attack. On the one hand we could see 18 beds crammed together into a room - although the term bed is a little kind - burlap sacks nailed to wooden benches is a little closer to the truth. What little paint remained was peeling off the walls and dank silken leftovers indicated that even the arachnid residents had given up hope of pursuing a worthwhile life in these surroundings. In addition to this there was an overwhelming smell of human excrement, the reason for which became immediately apparent upon opening the door to our 'en-suite' facilities. In lieu of a toilet there was a soiled pit in the ground, a pit which, rather efficiently, not only served to carry away fecal matter but also the water from the shower which was located directly above it. Never before has not showering made me feel so clean.
In spite of all this, the hostel made up for its lack of room based amenities with its awesome rooftop bar. It turns out that the hillside locations of observatories make for awesome views onto the cities that they overlook. This photo gives you an idea of how outrageously sweet the hostel's location was:
To top things off, the bar had seating that appeared to be made out of the World's most luxurious beds, huge, foot thick sponges which were perfect for crashing out on, should burlap sacks on wood not really be your thing.
On our first full day in Qingdao we wandered about with not much of a plan at all. We saw a series of German buildings, including a variety of incongruous churches, all remnants of German occupation. The town is primarily famous for its main export Tsingtao (Qingdao spelled the old fashioned way) beer, which was created by German occupants, desperate for a fix of their favourite hops based drink. The local method of serving is somewhat different to that found in Germany - or pretty much anywhere for that matter - as street vendors prefer to pour fresh beer into giant, heavy-duty, plastic bags the majority of which become filled almost entirely with foam. We saw more than one person walking down the street with a 2 kilo sack of beer, the side of which was pierced with a straw while the contented owner guzzled back the frothy liquid inside.
This, however, was by no means the most unusual sight we encountered during our time in Qingdao.
Unusual sight 1
Right on the pavement, in the middle of the city, huge rows of fish split open and left to dry amongst old pieces of chewing gum, chocolate wrappers and, most deliciously of all, dog shit.
Unusual sight 2
Like some fundamentalist Christian's rapturous fantasy, we saw a pair of shoes who's owner had seemingly disappeared mid stride, stood before a pedestrian crossing.
Unusual sight 3
Whilst standing in the queue to buy a ticket to the Qingdao aquarium, a seemingly endless series of ever more irrelevant shops punctuated by some token fish tanks - the first sold dried fish products (which we were in no hurry try) and stuffed animals of sharks, the last resorted to selling tea and model ships in order to empty the hapless patron's pockets of their last remnants of cash- a juvenile praying mantis somehow appeared on my bottle of coke. A bottle of coke which was in my hand, far from the ground or any trees which could have housed such a creature.
Unusual sights 4, 5 and 6
By some stroke of quasi miraculous luck we managed to bumble our way to a bustling food market, serving a range of tasty foods from throughout China to all the locals.
There we were first greeted by 8 Muslim men in full on Muslim clothing selling kebabs and naan bread whilst dancing with passionate and jubilant force to European, hardcore techno. Fair enough, considering the kebab vendors next to them had a man with inexplicably large hammer, hitting dough whilst topless save for an incomprehensible red oval - also to music, as their marketing tool.
If I were to tell you that there was a dog on one of the diner's tables you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was the unhappy ingredient in some Chinaman's delicious lunch time feast. What actually happened was this: a woman decided that rather than eating alone, she would take her inexplicably small and stupid looking dog to lunch, holding it in her left hand while she fed it with the chopsticks in her right. Of course it's altogether possible that she was merely taking the dog out to fatten it up with her favourite food with the idea of eating some weird and extravagant favourite food within another food amalgam at a later date. That way we're both right. Hooray.
We didn't tuck into a platter of piping hot canine parts (on this occasion) but we did still manage to rustle up a rather more interesting concoction than what one might usually enjoy for breakfast. We started off with stir fried aubergine with peppers and onions (top) descending rapidly into boiled starfish (left) and pan fried silk worm larvae (right) served with a Gatorade bottle cap filled with a dried spice dip (centre).
After this nutritious breakfast we felt ready to take on the World and were sure we'd be able to face anything that Qingdao could offer us. We were wrong, we could have eaten the heart of Pegasus served on a bed of mandrill faces and not been ready for...
Unusual sight 7
Unusual sight 7 involved one of those moments in life where a combination of disbelief and unpreparedness leave you unable to truly comprehend the magnitude of what you have just witnessed. As is clear from the photo taken at the rooftop bar, Qingdao is a large and vibrant city which houses a number of skyscrapers and the various financial institutions and high level shopping boutiques that come with them. It is in the heart of the commercial district where we stumbled across an unusual couple, firstly there was an elderly Chinese gentleman wearing shorts and a simple shirt along with a plain looking hat, a man that could easily blend in at any seaside town. That is, if he wasn't travelling with his unorthodox companion; a boy of about 12 or 13 in a plain white t-shirt, unassuming enough save for the fact that he was naked from the waist down. A sight which George described as "a party sausage sewn to a lychee".
That's right, at some point in the day the child's parent or guardian had decided that this boy was ready to leave the house. Its not like this was some destitute kid surviving on the streets either, the fact he was wearing a clean, new t-shirt was an indicator that his family could afford clothes, it's just that they had decided to funnel all of their resources into clothing that all important torso region of the body whilst leaving the lower body exposed. The weirdest thing is that nobody walking down this busy shopping street found this unusual, the kid didn't look happy or sad to be devoid of trousers he just looked oddly at peace, maybe this aura of authoritative, calmness is what made his parents allow him to leave the house that way. "Hang on you forgot your shorts", "No mum, I won't be needing those".
It was with the memory of Unusual sight 7 fresh in our minds that we boarded our ship to Korea, a short 24 hour voyage from Qingdao to Incheon. We would be leaving the country of China behind although only for a few weeks; plenty of time, we hoped, for the people there to purchase a set of rudimentary britches.
Wednesday, 6 August 2008
The first impression that Beijing makes nowadays is very different to the one that it cast as little as two years ago, on my last visit to the city. It seems that in preparation for this summer's Olympics Beijing has undergone a significant transformation. In the airport all the signs are in English, the floors are a polished marble and even the escalator hand rails shine with an overwhelming cleanliness.
Our, super-new, air conditioned, lcd screened shuttle bus to the city centre lead us through a series of ultra wide boulevards lined with monolithic shopping complexes awash with neon. In contrast to this our hostel was located in one of the city's hutongs - a series of seemingly never ending alleyways filled with 3/4 size houses and market streets. Although some of the hutong houses have been renovated by upwardly mobile Beijingers the majority of them still have no internal plumbing of any kind, the streets' public toilets serving as common bathrooms for hutong residents to chat outside, playing cards until the early hours of the morning.
The hostel itself (Red Lantern Hostel) was pretty special, like something out of a kung-fu movie. Open balconies facing onto a zen garden courtyard with a restaurant serving Blue Mountain coffee for 10RMB (80p) a cup, as illustrated by George below.
With a couple of days to kill before we could get down to some BJJ we decided to go and visit the sights. It turns out that Beijing indeed has some sights. The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace are all on the UNESCO World Heritage list, no mean feat considering most countries don't manage that many entries. The hyper-opulent Temple of Heaven, an ancient complex of sacrificial altars and temples set in an enormous park in Beijing's centre was particularly impressive despite being dwarfed by the other World Heritage sites in the vicinity. Seeing as its taken so long to get the photos up, here's another to show you how awesome the temple is:
As impressive as the sights were, interacting with the people of Beijing was also a fairly entertaining experience. You tend to forget that a quarter of the World lives in China and that as such a lot of internal tourism takes place. Beijing's tourist attractions are filled with people who travel there from far-flung rural regions of the country, places where they have only ever seen Westerners on TV. It seems that no matter how outrageously magnificent our surroundings were, for some people George and I were the main attraction. At the Forbidden City one girl stopped dead in her tracks after seeing George and began strafing sideways whilst looking at him, half shocked, half aroused managing only to utter the word "how?" over and over again in Chinese. Not five minutes later a large group of school kids asked to have their photo taken with me and immediately copied the obligatory jiu-jitsu hang loose sign that I threw out for the camera. Somewhere in Anhui province those kids will all be greeting each other that way for the rest of their lives.
Finding Beijing jiu-jitsu club was a fairly arduous task. If you're clever and get a map off the website it is probably really easy. When you write the address down on a scrap of paper in the hopes that you'll somehow shamble your way there, things get a little harder. It turns out that most buildings in China don't display their numbers on the outside, even when they do there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the numbering. Things become even harder when the place you are searching for is within a series of tower blocks which all have the same road number along with a 'sub number' for each particular tower.The entrance to the club (once we found it) was awesome, the place is located a few floors up in a skyscraper, through a set of glass doors with the club's MMA organisation logo cast onto the wall behind. Once again our hosts were in the luxurious position of not only having toilets but also showers and changing rooms. Something we don't see much of back home. The place also had the feel of a trendy magazine editorial office to it, a few students were hanging around on chairs reading and a large desk with a computer filled one corner of the main room with a water cooler and a large set of coloured plastic cups next to it. The view from the window was somewhat more awe inspiring than Subway down in Bedminster as well, giant illuminated skyscrapers looming in from all directions through the wraparound windows on two sides of the studio. I think there may have been aircon, but as we found throughout our travels aircon is not made to deal with tons of sweaty people exercising in a confined space in countries where the nighttime temperature barely drops below 30.
The instructor, Pedro Schmall a Carlson Gracie black belt, lead a fairly different class to the ones taught by our Pedro back in Bristol. There was a far greater emphasis on stretching than cardio, with particular care taken to work the fingers and toes to prevent silly injuries that could sideline you unnecessarily for a week. In terms of size the class was pretty similar to what we're used to, around 15 students, although here the majority were white belts.
The class we attended was on a Friday and as such was a review of the week's positions. This particular week the class had focused on escapes from the mount. Pedro gave really detailed instruction on how and why each escape worked and taught in a 'decision tree' style where each mount escape followed on from the next as a reaction to your opponent's possible responses.
After drilling for a while we went onto positional sparring. Everything was going well until I went up against one particular guy who seemed to have a particularly strong resistance to my Ezekiel choke. I had rolled from the mount into a high guard in order to add pressure when suddenly the guy's eyes started rolling into the back of his head, Pedro quickly jumped in having spotted the fact that his student had lost consciousness. I have never actually had someone go limp like that whilst rolling with them and the experience was unusual to say the least.
I felt like a complete horse's ass for turning up at the club and doing that to one of their students but I spoke to the guy after and he was very cool about the whole thing. He said that he knew he should have tapped earlier and I apologised as profusely as possible for the whole thing, we actually sat and spoke for a while, discussing the finer points of choke mechanics.
George was even less fortunate with his time on the mat. During the positional sparring he jarred his knee while mounted on top of his opponent, re-aggravating an old injury and quite possibly sidelining himself for months. Pedro and Andy Pi (a purple belt who owns the club and who previously trained in Torrance with Royce and Rorion Gracie) were really helpful, grabbing some ice and getting some mats for George to elevate his leg on. Pedro kept telling George, who even in this condition wanted to move around and kick his leg about to keep it static and to always elevate an injury above the heart so that blood won't flow to it. A sound piece of advice which seems to make a lot of sense.
After rolling with one of the club's MMA fighters, a short, heavy Mongolian followed by Andy, one of the strongest purple belts I've ever rolled with, I got my ass completely handed to me by Pedro. The combination of fatigue, heat and lack of consistent training mixed of course with my general inexperience lead to him asking me in a concerned voice "Are you ok? You aren't resisting at all." A humbling experience for sure, but after seeing George bust himself up I wasn't about to go home tired when I could be getting some decent training in.
If you're ever in Beijing I would emphatically recommend stopping by, the atmosphere is great and it seems that there is a large contingent of regular students here who are all eager to learn and more than happy to leave their egos outside. The club also has several pro MMA fighters under its wings who train full time and whose fights are featured on a 50 minute, weekly TV slot that Andy has secured to get MMA the mainstream exposure it deserves in China.