I remember thinking that all my Christmas' had come at once when I realised that the Qingdao beer festival was taking place during my most recent trip to China. Although, I hadn't planned to go anywhere near the coast on this trip I couldn't resist booking a flight and making a detour that on some continents would span several countries. It turned out to be quite an eventful side trip.
Having spent a week seeing the pandas, eating hot pots and admiring giant buddhas I caught a taxi to what is called Chengdu airport. Perhaps being the only foreigner in the building I expected different but I have seen bigger garden sheds and less chaotic Boxing Day sales. We were bundled onto a bus to take us the 30 yards to the plane where in true Chinese style the other passengers (who all had reserved seats) scrambled to be the first up the boarding staircase. I've never known if all airlines are obliged to repeat the safety announcements in English but I felt particularly welcome with China Eastern Airlines when after the natives had been briefed, the translated message over the tannoy began 'Good morning Mr. Fletcher, welcome aboard this flight to Qingdao...'
After I had made my way to the hotel and establishing the location of the festival, there was no stopping me and I jumped into a taxi. Lesson 1 of any Chinese language course will tell you the importance of using the correct tones when speaking. Whereas 'Jié' means festival, 'Jiē' means road, and being misunderstood I was taken to several local drinking streets before finally making it to the festival. On arrival, I felt like Homer Simpson in Duff-land! I made my way to the main beer hall, bought myself a coke (only joking) and sat myself strategically near a large family who had lots of food in front of them. This tactic worked and within 5 minutes I had been offered a crab (yes, a crab), an apple, a bowl of nuts and a meat thing I later found out had been described on the menu as 'special duck organ'. I thought the chances of this being testicle was slim, but in hindsight if I was a duck and had to name an organ special...!
It turned out that there was one girl in the family that spoke as much English as I speak Chinese and both our bilingual skills deteriorated as the beers continued to flow. I was spotted by a reporter from the China Daily newspaper and asked to give an interview for the paper about beer festivals - a topic I happen to know a lot about! I invited the reporter to stay with us for a while, if only to act as a translator for the family, before she had to leave. I also made my excuses (as best I could) and wandered off to a different bar.
Restaurants in China often have separate rooms reserved for VIP's or large parties and I managed to stumble across a large shut off bar area that turned out to be the festival’s equivalent. Two young girls who were working there smiled as I walked past so I decided to try my luck. They spoke good English and claimed to be impressed at my poor attempts at tipsy Mandarin before inviting me inside to my own private table. 3 of their friends turned up and I spent the rest of the evening with the 5 of them, eager to practice their English, a complementary shellfish buffet and a bottom-less glass of beer. And people think sitting on a beach is the best way to spend your holidays!
On leaving the beer festival I walked down the beach for some sea air and up the pier to the pagoda featured on the beer bottles. Having spent 3 weeks in crowded landlocked provinces, I was hit with a surreal sense of freedom, realising the next person in that direction was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Before attempting to swim to San Francisco I went to look for a taxi.
Any westerner visiting China will tell you of the benefits but there are also downsides. My taxi driver home didn't take a shine to me and after giving him my hotel card (after the Jié/Jiē mix up, I didn't fancy attempting pronouncing the address) he bombarded me with aggressive shouting and demanded I leave. Having waited ages for him, he would have had to drag me out of his cab and I didn't (nor did he it turned out) fancy his chances. Plan B for him was to pick up a couple of local guys, charge them for their section of the journey and then charge me for the entire journey again. As I realised this scam I practiced over and over in head (remembering my intoxicated state) the Chinese for 'No mate! They paid you for half the journey, I'm paying you for half the journey! Thank you very much!' Sure enough, as the 2 guys left us and we arrived at my hotel he demanded the full amount. I spoke my first words of Chinese 'Bu yao! Tamen gei ni ershi yuan, wo gei ni ershi yuan, xiexie!' He looked surprised and muttered 'ni hen (you are) congming (clever)'. I proudly walked into my room before thinking again about the use of tones in mandarin, I don't remember his pronunciation but after checking my dictionary 'congming' could also mean 'from a moths larva'. I'll never know if he was impressed or raged with me!
The next day on a train to Beijing, I was nursing a Tsingtao headache and reflecting on my short trip to the coast-it seemed like I'd dreamt it. Only my email inbox being filled with pictures from the friendly family and the VIP bar girls, my salt water smelling shirt and the knowledge that my interview was somewhere in the mornings paper made me accept it was a real experience. I would say that if you like seafood, love beer and can speak a little Mandarin, this is definitely the town to visit! Back home, every time I drink a bottle of that particular Chinese beer I look at the pagoda on the label and think of that night.