Finally, our last stop: Dalian.
Last year, when we travelled the Yellow River from Qinghai down to Shandong, we gave ourselves a goal, something to really look forward-to at the end of our journey: Qingdao, a seaside town with a reputation for fresh beer and sandy beaches. As it turned out, the beer was still pretty lousy, and the beaches were a tad disgusting. But we still had a pretty good time. ; So this year, with eighty straight days of travel planned, some through rather less-developed areas of the Eurasian Landmass, we planned a similar finish – only this time it’d be better. Dalian, the famously high-end, environmentally-friendly seaside city in Liaoning Province, would be our Promised Land. Sitting on a pristine beach with an ice cream in one hand and a beer in the other, all those hours on bumpy buses and in dirty hotel rooms would just be memories to smile back on.
Well, now we’re here. And you know what? Dalian makes Qingdao look like a private resort in the Bahamas. The so-called beaches here aren’t sandy, or pebbly, or anything of that sort. They’re trashy. Trashy beaches – as in, what you walk on is trash. Chicken bones, broken glass, discarded underwear, McDonald’s wrappers, bottle caps, juice boxes, more chicken bones, toilet paper, and soggy half-eaten ears of corn. And as you’d expect, the beaches are also extremely crowded, of course. Picking your way across the trash, you also have to elbow your way through all the other people doing the same thing.
Both of these problems exist for mainly the same reason: almost all the real estate on the beach is taken up by big picnic tents, set up by touts who charge $60 for the privilege of sitting under one for the day. The result is that everyone, and all their food, and all the food scraps from the feasting families sitting under the tents, is crowded in the five-foot-wide span of beach being splashed by the incoming, trash-filled waves.
But everyone seems to enjoy themselves – we’re the only prissies with our mouths obviously agape in horror, anyway. This place has long been a favorite for Russian vacationers, and there are lots of them here, jumping in the waves and stretched out on towels laid over the trash. We see more than a few Chinese men taking sideways shots with their cameras, filling their memory cards with endless photos of dozing Russian women in swimsuits. Other Chinese beachgoers are here to fish, and they cast their hooked lines out into the surf, between groups of swimmers. They compete for waterfront space with dolled-up brides, who arrive with their grooms and entourages for lengthy beachside wedding photo shoots. Their high heels wobble in the pebbles and trash and slip on the seaweed. And then there are the swimmers, who arrive fully clothed, and only change into their bathing suits when they are two feet from the water. It’s a delicate balancing act, taking one’s workday clothes off and shimmying into a bathing suit, with only a wrapped towel for privacy – but they seem determined to show off this skill. Of course, when the public bathrooms are putrid and all the changing rooms collect exorbitant fees, this behavior makes sense. But not what comes next: the swimmers all make an elaborate, downright-comical show of ‘warming up’ before entering the water. Dozens – even hundreds – of neck rolls, arm waves, and thigh slaps are conducted, all with lots of deep inhalations and loud exhales. ; Then they place their hands together above their head, bend at the knees, and run forward into the surf into the surf like madmen, tripping into the first big wave and kicking forward. When the swimming actually begins, only the utterly-difficult butterfly stroke is used. We’re perplexed.
And again, Bayley and I seem to be the only people feeling any amount of dissatisfaction. Owen loves it here (look, Mom, a chicken bone!), and so apparently does everyone else. But we can only watch the scene a little while longer, then decide to go for a walk.
Well, welcome back to the 中国.