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Full Circle

Day 56: Qingdao to Tai an

Qingdao, China 
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On-street massage, Qingdao.
Michael Palin - Full CircleWe turn off at an unpromising service area, only to find that a 'light lunch' consists of eighteen different dishes (and chopsticks). The Chinese may tolerate bad surroundings but they won't tolerate bad food. We snack on liver, pork knuckle, carp, raw crayfish, spring onions and mushrooms, jellied rabbit, shrimp, eggs, fish in lotus leaf sauce and rice pudding. Predictably I nod off after the journey resumes and when I wake up I notice Susan, one of our Chinese fixers, reading the copy of Jung Chang's Wild Swans which has slipped from my lap. She says that such a book would not be published in China.

In Jinan we take a sharp left on the broad banks of the Yellow River and head up into low and lifeless mountains. Stripped of trees during Mao's time, they are now being stripped of the rock itself. Quarrying activity erupts on all sides like an artillery bombardment. The bright sun of the coast has been reduced to an unhealthy orange smudge which barely permeates a waxy haze of pollution. The driving has begun to turn dangerous. There are very few private cars and the belching, overloaded trucks regard the road as little more than a conveyor belt on which to swing about as they wish. We scream to a standstill just in time to avoid colliding with a train of high, blackened wagons crossing the road where neither lights nor barrier work.

At six we arrive in Tai'an, birthplace of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, ex-actress and leader of the notorious Gang Of Four who, after Mao's death, took the excesses of the cultural revolution to a new degree of viciousness. For the Chinese, Mao is a cherub compared to his wife and most of his ruthless deeds have conveniently been ascribed to her influence.

Another set of minders awaits us here. Both are called Mr Wang. They entertain us most royally in a private room of the hotel whose table is dominated by a sculpture of flamingos, carved entirely from radishes. The staff, in national dress, explain the elaborate theatrical name of each dish. Fish and dumplings, for instance, becomes 'Dragon Eating Pearls'. One of the Mr Wangs proposes a toast to us all. He is delighted to have us here in his ancient city. The station has been specially cleaned for us and of course he hopes that we will find time to climb the sacred mountain of Taishan. It has steps all the way up, he assures me. Only the next day do I learn there are six thousand, two hundred and ninety three of them.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 56
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Tai'an
  • Book page no: 83

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