I do like to be beside the seaside

Like many (most) kiwis, we identify strongly with the beach. We both grew up able to walk to the sea, our major childhood memories are of being at the beach during the long summer holidays, we holidayed with our own children visiting grandparents who lived on or near beaches and other beautiful New Zealand beach spots, and for the last 30 years we have chosen to live in houses with a view of the sea. Nothing evokes ‘home’ to me as much as a picture of a pohutukawa tree, golden sands and blue ocean, or a photo of the Porirua Harbour, the Cook Strait and Mana Island, or the Pauatahanui Inlet – the three stretches of water over which we have looked for the last 30 years.

So, I wasn’t sure how I would go living 2,000 km inland, without a glimpse of the ocean.

It turns out – absolutely fine.

We did choose to live in an apartment with a beautiful view of a lake, river and surrounding park, which feeds my soul each morning when I wake up and look out the window. And none of it even pretends to be natural. Parks spring up almost overnight here as dirt, trees and grass are brought in and large teams of machines and gardeners recast the land contours, erect full-grown trees with metal or wooden supports, and lay the green carpet. Some, but not all, trees also get a ‘life support system’ – a little bag with needles into the trunk that we assume provides nutrients to help it until it has adjusted to its new home. There was an unusual freak wind (nothing special to a Wellingtonian) in our first month here and many trees blew over because they do not have to grow strong roots to hold themselves up. Within a few days they had all been put back in place or removed and replaced.

We have developed a new appreciation for how unnatural our water view is as we watch truckloads of dirt being brought in and spread out to change the direction of the river either side of the footbridge we use to go to the market across the river. This activity has exposed concrete walls built by an earlier team of moulders and shapers, which the present workers are using as a base for the next construction project. Such activity would horrify me in New Zealand where I prize natural beauty, but, to my surprise, I do not mind it here. This artificial beauty, and the mind-set behind it, seems a natural consequence of living in a place that humans have been taming for over 5,000 years.

However, I was excited to be going to Qīngdăo, a seaside city of about six million people, to attend the Sino-New Zealand TVET Forum Sunday to Tuesday this week. We decided that Raymond and I would spend the weekend there together.

We arrived mid-morning last Saturday and hopped on bus 701. I had read online that our hotel (Huìquán Dynasty) was at the end of this line – one of the main reasons I had booked it. I guess this was factual – but they omitted to say there is a 90-minute walk afterwards.  That explained why the woman at the airport, checking at which stop we would get off so the driver could pack the suitcases in the right order, had still seemed unclear when I smugly waved our hotel name in front of her. But, we had our trusty phones, so used the Ctrip app on one phone for a map of where our hotel was, and Du (Chinese equivalent of Google maps) to follow the blue dot as we walked around the coastline, our suitcase bumping over the promenade paving. It was a beautiful sunny, but crisp (high of 8 degrees) day and we could soak up beachness. And we had nothing else to do all day but arrive at our hotel. We fortified ourselves en route with roasted chestnuts (a new experience) and candyfloss (40-year-old memories).

As always, people watching was interesting, particularly the young couples taking wedding photos at the beach. We have seen this phenomenon at several locations – as tourists we tend to be at beautiful places. Apparently, the photo taking is on a different day to the wedding, which I can see would have some advantages, and some disadvantages to the kiwi approach.

After checking in to our hotel room, and enjoying the stunning view, we returned to the beach and continued walking following the coastline. Because China has one time zone, and we were there in winter, reasonably north, over on the east, sunset was about 5.30pm. We perched on some west facing rocks and watched the sun go down, taking a few photos, but wanting to make the most of the beauty of it all. Raymond’s school’s cultural session commented on how Chinese enjoy beauty through their cameras, whereas westerners tend to enjoy the moment. Two young women near us, validated this theory, taking turns posing for ‘millions’ of photos through the whole sunset. However, a few local couples around us also sat enjoying the moment, and a few fishermen had other priorities again – as they do in any culture.

The next day we caught a bus to the Zhànqiáo pier – landmark for Qīngdăo because it is on every Tsingtao bottle of beer. And, as we learned in the mini-museum in the pavilion on the end, it has been important strategically over its 120 years of existence. The first iteration was built during the Qīng dynasty, the last dynasty before the Republic of China, so that the emperor could come in his large ship to visit what was then a small fishing village. In 1891, this emperor initiated development of Qīngdăo as a defense base against naval attack.

The Germans liked the idea of a naval base here near the Pacific, occupied the wider area in 1897, and controlled the area until 1914. They invested heavily in transforming the fishing village into a city, so we could see German inspired white two storey houses with red roofs from this period dotted over the hills by the sea. In 1914, the Japanese took over control, until 1922 when the Republic of China took it back for the Chinese people, letting the US use the area for their military operations at the end of the second world war. In 1949, the Peoples Republic of China gained control of the pier and region.

Bathing beach one, or Huìquán Beach, by our hotel had swimming lanes set up that shrunk as the tide went out. Outside our hotel and by the pier, you could see people (mainly about our age) swimming – even though it was 6 degrees with a cool wind. I took off my gloves to dip my hands in the sea, thinking maybe the water had retained its warmth from the summer, but no, it had not. However, I am glad we went in winter. The two photos below, which I tripped over on the web searching for the correct pinyin for Huìquán, show a different side. I guess if you like actually swimming, winter is the time to do it.

We also saw divers who were stripping off their diving outfits and selling a Qīngdăo delicacy, sea cucumber. We were not tempted. Raymond recalled how, down at the Picton foreshore, he and his friends used to throw them at one another, saying how disgusting they thought they were, never contemplating that across the ocean others were selling them for a vast profit because they were so sought after. Chinese people coming to New Zealand must be thrilled that their favourite foods are such a bargain, just like we are pleased that chicken breasts are cheaper per kilogram than chicken feet.

A highlight of our hotel was the revolving restaurant. We had breakfast up there and spent our last couple of hours before Raymond had to fly back to Chengdu and I had to go to my conference, having a drink up there. We enjoyed the stunning beach views and watching a dozen locals in the park behind the hotel flying kites phenomenally high, well above our 25 floors.

Raymond flew back Sunday night, and I followed him two days later having learned more about vocational education in China, met some locals form western China who I will follow up with to learn more, and hung out with kiwis – previously known and newly met.

So, I love the sea and look forward to living looking at it again one day. But now I know that I can live happily without it.

While I already knew that I am a glass half full person, I have learned over the last few months just how much I focus on the positive of my present situation. For example, some of our friends are struggling with the winter air pollution and cloudiness over the last few weeks – today my weather app says ‘unhealthy 195’. But Raymond and I are fine. It turns out we can live without blue sky too. We are choosing to listen to our bodies rather than monitor the data (except when blogging about it), and our bodies have not yet told us that they mind. Recently, one evening, I walked out of the office and, for the first time, thought ‘I can smell the pollution’. Then I realised the slight burning smell was because a man was cooking sweet potatoes on a small fire behind me (a common sight here).

I can see that my unbridled optimism, and Raymond’s go with the flowness, make it much easier to enjoy living here.

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