What was supposed to be quite a long stopover in China ended up short, as usual, after all the difficulties with the forestays and the unplanned stopover in Hong Kong. That meant we had to squeeze what had been at least a week’s worth of corporate work into a few days. Qingdao was the busiest stopover of the race - hands down.
It was also the best party of the race. Everyone stayed in hotels (too cold not to) - the same two hotels, right across the road from one another. And everyone went out the same three bars every night - Lennon Bar, Cafe New York, the Dubliner. Never mind that one of the hotels (the Intercontinental) had several bars down in the lobby that always had people in them. If you wanted to see people, all you had to do was head down to one of them. And then head out to one of the others. Safe to say there was nothing else to do in an enormous city given that we spoke no Chinese and they spoke no English. It was one of the best stopovers in terms of people from different crews mingling as well.
Between the corporate work during the day, and the serious partying at night, Qingdao was the stopover where I slept the least. Generally only a handful of hours a night. Just what you want before the toughest ocean crossing of the race!
We had two days of corporate sailing with Chinese bureaucrats sent sailing by the government. It’s all about the show. Unfortunately, they had no desire to go sailing (most Chinese people can’t even swim as it’s considered a poor man’s activity). We had no desire to sail in the cold, while seriously hungover. But sailing we went anyway. Apart from that we also had one day of boat maintenence (not even remotely enough to get the work done) and one day of school tours for children. I managed to get out of the tour day by going on a homestay instead - each boat had to send three people.
The homestay turned out to be the highlight of my time in Qingdao. I went with a crew member from Derry and one from Switzerland to the home of a really love couple. She’s an English teacher (so thankfully spoke excellent English) and he works for one of the big shipping companies. We had a fantastic day. First it was off to a tea plantation - which was weirdly in the city. Clearly the land had once been outside the city, but was just being built up around. It was part of this strange little mud village — right across the road from some brand-new glass skyscrapers. We met the owner and had a tour around the plants. I learned loads about how tea leaves grow, how they’re graded and picked an such.
Then it was off to the local market - the neighborhood’s equivalent of a supermarket. It was a huge building full of meat stalls and fruit/veg ones. Everything you expect about weird Chinese eating was here - all the various animal heads and offal and strange fruits I’d never seen before, let alone tasted. We picked up a couple of things before heading to their apartment. Only the very wealthy live in houses, given the sheer amount of people. Qingdao isn’t a city you consider one of the big Chinese ones, but it actually has a population of more than 8.5 million. That’s a lot of people. Seriously.
Anyway they lived in the little apartment with her parents - a mostly bedridden father and a mother that basically did the cooking and cleaning while they worked. Chinese cooking is a pretty serious business - most meals take hours to make, all from scratch. We met them both, as well as two of Christina’s English students, there to practice the language a little bit. We did a big exchange of gifts (a traditional hospitality thing). I brought a little baseball bat signed by all our crew members. They gave us all these beautiful paper cuts in the shape of each of the Chinese zodiac - I’m year of the dragon in case you were wondering (and don’t know me well enough to tell).
We had a traditional tea ceremony. It’s serious buisness and more about the relaxing ceremony than the tea itself. There’s a variety of teapots, glasses, bits and pieces. Then we learned how to make dumplings. I can honestly say I’m pretty terrible at it. There’s a very specific way to knead the dough, roll it out, and then fold the dumplings up. The grandmother was teaching us the folding. She kept swatting our hands away as we made a huge mess of things. All of us laughing away and cheering for the occasional nice-looking dumpling.
The meal we had was fantastic as well - a huge spread of traditional dishes both from Shangdong (the province with Qingdao) and around China. We learned a bit about cooking but much much more about eating. Hilarious times with chopsticks and strange bits of tasty treats. There was also glass after glass of homemade wine - not particularly pleasant but seriously lethal. There’s a tradition to down the whole glass in one after certain toasts as well, so you can imagine that things got a bit sloppy, especially with grandmother dumpling only knowing two words of English - one being “cheers.”
We went back upstairs for more tea-learning and lovely music from Christina on a traditional Chinese instrument very similar to a harp. I don’t actually know what its English name is. Our last activity was a bit of calligraphy which we were also all miserable at. Then it was back to the boats! Such a seriously fantastic day.
That day sums up my favorite thing about our Chinese stopover - the hospitality. People really did go out of their way to please and impress. Locals were very friendly despite hardly anyone speaking English. We had a whole succession of hilarous cab rides where nobody (including the driver) had much of an idea of where we were going but we all laughed and laughed.
As for the city itself, I can’t say I’ll be sad if I never return. It’s just very bizarre. Everything is huge - squares, building, restaurants, etc. For most of our stay everything appeared to be empty. Come the weekend though, there were people everywhere. More people than you can imagine. Everywhere.
This was the first stopover where I’ve actually stayed in a hotel, which was an amazing experience. I’ve always stayed on the boat in an attempt to save some money (this sailing business isn’t cheap!). So that was a lovely change. A real bed and proper shower. Even a bathtub! Sophie and I had a night in with trashy movies and room service - perfect.