“Mama, is there a medicine for homesickness?”- asks Sarah. If there was, I would need a double dose of it right now. Sarah has her blues, Nora misses her Suzanna, and my Wanderlust slowly but steadily gives away to homesickness.
After Volker departs for further two days of solo-biking to the coastal city of Yantai, we catch the daily train from Qingdao direction north. The only tickets still available are for a soft sleeper, converted into sitting space. Soft sleeper! After more than twenty years, the good old soft-sleeper not only still exist, but haven’t changed a bit. The same four-bed compartments, the same bed covers of blue satin, the same curtains and back-rest linings of white lace, even the same Chinglish.
As the kids make themselves comfortable on the lower berth, I am catapulted back to the early nineties and my backpacking days through China, when the soft-sleeper was unattainable luxury for a poor foreign student. I recall counting and recounting the rest of my yuan on a 60-hour journey in a hard-seat wagon from Gansu to Beijing, to muster the sum needed for six hours of comfort in a soft-sleeper. Or that kind conductor who allowed the foreign girls from the overcrowded hard-seats to stand for few hours in the corridor of the soft-sleeper.
After 6 ½ hours of train ride we arrive in Yantai and settle in the Machinery Hotel, inadvertently continuing the “journey back in time” theme. When built 25 years ago the hotel, with airline offices and business centre in the lobby, should have been at the forefront of modern tourism. Nowadays not only its name is depressingly outdated, but also its interior, with brownish velvet and gaudy green-pink flower wallpaper, soaked with two decades of cigarette smoke.
The next morning I hole up between the patinated walls and open a Grisham legal thriller, lacking strength to face the Chinese world outside. Suddenly all mental exhaustion of the last weeks falls over me. I have had enough of these impersonal hotel rooms – a different one almost every evening. I have had enough of identical new outskirts, of identical glass-concrete buildings and identical boulevards which could be in every place in China – in a big city or in a small provincial town. And I have had enough of the same questions, day after day, no matter in what province, city or village we are, no matter in what dialect they are asked. I might start screaming when for the twentieth time within a day I am asked whether Sarah and Nora are twins, who is the older one and whether their hair is dyed. And I really have had enough of these viciously sweet 3-in-1 instant coffees, to which I have developed a perverse addiction. I just long to sit in a café in Berlin, sip a real strong espresso, watch the world passing by, and for a moment be an unseen observer, not the observed one. Suddenly biking seems so liberating – on a bike you are quick enough to escape from the crowds and their questions.
In the late afternoon I force myself to re-enter reality again. After hours of fighting the bad witch, their favourite game those days, Sarah and Nora need some new input and above all fresh air. Down the large boulevard, among the modern buildings there appears a small island of green with curved rooftops – a former Daoist temple, now converted to museum. Right now, however, I don’t have any capacity to absorb a further dose of Chinese culture.
Next to it I glimpse another type of roof – Pizza-hut! And in the Pizza-hut we go, and I manage to explain what pizza Margherita (not on the menu) should be like. After 5 weeks diet of rice, noodles and fruits the children are in seventh heaven as they devour the thick, fatty pieces. “This is the best pizza in the world!”- shouts Sarah with a full mouth. “May we have it in Berlin too, please, please!“ The empty Pizza-hut is an oasis of privacy and quiet – we can eat without every bite being followed by prying eyes, and I can finish a sentence without being interrupted by questions from a curious neighbour.
A bit further down the street is the biggest bookshop in town. Under normal circumstances I would browse through the sections with Chinese art and Chinese literature, but now we head directly towards the fifth floor with children books. There Sarah and Nora are free to choose the biggest and most garish Barbie books with glitter stickers. While the girls compare their precious new possessions, I sink further in depression. What am I doing here? Is this the world I wanted to show to my kids? We travelled half the globe for what? – to introduce them to high-cholesterole fast-food and Disney-kitsch?
It is dark when we go back to the hotel. The dancing crowd in front of the bank next door has already dispersed, only two pairs still twirl to a popular Chinese melody – one waltzing, the other attempting a tango. We stop to watch, Sarah is pirouetting by herself, while Nora eyes a small boy. And then I realise how much I will miss all this in a month from now: the hustle and bustle of the Chinese streets, the smells and noises and the vibrant life in the small alleys, even most of the things I find right now annoying. My love-hate relation to China shifts towards the love phase again.
On the next day we move into the bluest hotel imaginable, with blue facade, blue rooms, blue carpets, blue ceilings, blue lamps.
We step outside and are right in the middle of the old quarter of Yantai, built in the 19th century when the town was known as Chefoo. Yantai was one of the ports opened for foreign trade in 1858 after China lost the Opium War, and housed the consulates of seventeen nations. The town was initially under British control, in the early 20th century was dominated by the Germans, and after WWI- by the Japanese. The various foreign influences that shaped the city are still discernable in the old lanes parallel to the seafront. On the peeling facades one can still descry the names of English and German merchant houses and inscriptions like Kaiserliches Deutsches Postamt, Hospital….
Most of the buildings bear plates declaring them to be architectural monuments under protection. However, few of them have been restored, some of them turned into hotels, bars and jazz clubs, suggesting what the future holds for the region. Meanwhile, life goes on as ever in the narrow streets, among the small eateries, fruits- and seafood vendors and barrels of draft beer.
In a back alley a small boy impresses Sarah and Nora with his dribbling skills, and soon the football game of the season – Germany against China,- is in full swing.
After half an hour, outcome undecided, we leave and reach the waterfront. The grey expanse of the sea blends with the grey sky, strong wind sweeps the long sea promenade, almost empty in the early evening, save for few joggers and grill-stands with octopus, fish and sausages.
In the evening the family is reunited once again. Volker is delighted to find beer being drafted on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and comes back with a full plastic bag.
The next day is Sunday and we promenade with the locals along the sea, this time under the bluest sky with soaring kites. Strings of islands hover at the horizon, and beyond them are the shores of Korea and of the Liaoning peninsular, to where we’ll be heading on a ferry tomorrow. The Wanderlust is back again.
We sit outside at a café under the trees, the girls indulge in their first hot chocolate in China, we sip real espresso, and watch a group of parents with small kids having a picnic on the square. Could be the summer festival of our Kita. A girl on inline-skates slides to our table and gives Sarah and Nora a balloon each. We have found if not the medicine for homesickness, then at least the palliative.