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Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

Lennon Bar Qingdao Shandong Province China

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“Well… this hasn’t worked out too bad… for us” I said, peering down from my top bunk. Down at the entrance door people were still swarming inside. I couldn’t help but be amused by their expressions as they realised there wasn’t anywhere for them to actually go. All the beds and seats were already occupied. Hence they had no choice but to sit on the floor in the painfully narrow aisle. Knees folded up to their chins. Some saw the funny side of the situation. Others did not, with bells on top. 

The driver spared not an inch of space as he ushered the last passengers inside. Moreover, he wore a wry smile, a look that suggested the proceeds of these tickets were going straight into his pocket. All part of a day’s work for a bus driver in China I supposed.

Overbooked bus from Shanghai to Qingdao China

One of these men did not see the funny side of the situation.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

A few minutes later we were underway, the neon buzz of the Shanghai evening fading into the distance. Lying quietly on my bed, the smooth rumble of the wheels proved soothing as I reflected on what a great time we’d had in Shanghai. 

From the moment we arrived it felt to me that we were no longer traveling, but suddenly on holiday. Just as we’d expected, Shanghai was an assault on the senses. A loud, overwhelming and ultra-westernised city of fifteen million people. A kind of Asian New York if you will.

Fittingly, we resolved to embrace Shanghai for what it was and loosen the purse strings for a week of excess. On our first night we treated ourselves to a lavish Indian banquet in the city’s gorgeous French Concession District. For dessert, a round of cocktails at a balcony bar overlooking The Pudong, Shanghai’s impressive skyline.

The Pudong by night Shanghai China.

The Pudong Skyline, Shanghai.

One afternoon we paid a visit to Yang’s Fried Dumplings. We certainly hadn’t expected the long queue of hungry customers snaking out of the restaurant, all the way down the street. Among the many other highlights, we crossed the historical Waibaidu Bridge, lit some incense sticks at Jing’an Temple and investigated the vast exhibition halls of Shanghai Museum.

Yang's Fried Dumplings Shanghai China

Shanghai’s famous Yang’s Fried Dumplings.

At some point, all the walking got so tiring we spontaneously checked into Peace Cinema to see the just-released Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Having regained our strength, it was off to the labyrinthine alleys of Yuyuan Gardens with its wooden walkways, traditional pavilions and glittering ponds.

Don't Let Me Down a short story from Shanghai.

Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai.

Photo courtesy of Peter K. Burian.

Now we were heading back to Shandong province and the coastal city of Qingdao. A return to real China so to speak. From the extravagance of my lofty bunk bed, I spared one last thought for the unfortunate aisle folk down below as glorious sleep swooped in to consume me.

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Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

The Old Observatory Youth Hostel was a fantastic little place perched at the summit of Guanxiangshan Park. Keen to settle into our Qingdao base, S and I headed straight there from the bus station. True to its name, the hostel had been remodelled from the shell of a former observatory. Its lofty location made for a fantastic rooftop restaurant, with amazing views across the city. 

The Old Observatory Hostel Qingdao Shandong Province China

The Old Observatory Hostel, Qingdao.

I found myself immediately charmed by Qingdao’s unique blend of European and Asian architecture. With a long and troubled history of German and Japanese occupation, the city definitely had a unique feel. We soon saw why some people call Qingdao The Switzerland of China when we arrived at a large European style square, dominated by the handsome Qingdao Catholic Church.

Qingdao Catholic Church Shandong Province China

Qingdao Catholic Church, aka St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Strolling through the square towards the church, we met what looked like a newlywed couple posing for a photo shoot. With sculpted hair, layers of makeup and a wedding dress straight out of a Disney movie, the bride looked resplendent. In fact, she was grinning at the camera so fiercely I feared her face might split in two. Her sombre husband meanwhile, sporting a Sinatra dinner suit, merely gazed off into the distance as if he were contemplating the answer to world peace.

Wedding photoshoot St. Michael's Cathedral Qingdao Shandong Province China

Outside St. Michael’s Cathedral, Qingdao.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

S and I watched them for a bit before continuing down the square. Surprisingly, we came across two more sets of couples doing exactly the same thing! What the heck was going on? Was it wedding season in Qingdao? When they were finally done with their photos, the foursome took a timeout on some stone steps, gamely posing one last time as I took their picture. “Congratulations!” I called, but they didn’t understand. It was only several weeks later that we learned how in China these photography sessions typically take place months before the actual wedding. 

Wedding photoshoot St. Michael's Cathedral Qingdao Shandong Province China

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

With an incredible seven hundred and thirty kilometres of continental coastline, Qingdao is famous all over China for its six bathing beaches. While millions of domestic tourists flock to the city every year, nobody had thought to feed the public’s imagination by giving the beaches some decent names. Instead, you’ve got Beach Number One. Then there’s Beach Number Two. And… well… you get the picture.

Beach Number Six, Qingdao.

The first stretch of sand we arrived at was Beach Number Six, the city’s most central strip. It runs either side of Zhan Bridge, a lengthy stone pier extending out into the bay. The entire beach was horribly overcrowded and, in all honesty, staggeringly unimpressive. 

Beach number 6 Qingdao Shandong Province China

Qingdao’s amazingly “meh” Beach Number 6.

So we bypassed the sand altogether for a walk down the pier. It was a sweltering afternoon, which meant I received several blows to the head from the sharp points of various umbrellas. At the end of the pier we reached the eight-sided Huilan Pavilion, but had zero appetite to fight our away inside.

Thus we made do with forcing ourselves into a free spot along the railings. Peering out to sea, I attempted to enjoy the moment as Chinese tourists gathered around us to stare. One particularly annoying guy had no qualms whatsoever about sticking his camera right into my face.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

Back at the beach, we decided to follow the promenade that forms a u-shape around the bay. It was a peaceful walk that took us through several pretty parks and out onto the unadulterated insanity of Beach Number One. The place was positively seething with bodies! And yet, against our better judgement, we threw ourselves into the mix, walking along the coarse sand down to the seaweed-infested shoreline. 

Beach Number 1 Qingdao Shandong Province China

Beach Number 1, Qingdao.

Whilst not exactly charming, it was fascinating to observe Chinese beach culture in action. The first thing I noticed was that nobody was sunbathing. Rather, people seemed more than content with castle building and burying each other in the sand. Here and there, mothers and daughters dipped their ankles into the water, as groups of boys ran about collecting shells.

Beach Number One, Qingdao.

Most Chinese people, we learned, can’t swim. Those who did venture into the water came armed with large inflatable armbands and giant rubber rings. And while we in the west usually consider a good tan as the holy grail of a week on the beach, the Chinese invariably want to be whiter. To protect themselves from the sun, many people remained fully dressed. Others doused themselves in whitening cream and hid under giant umbrellas.

Crowded Beach number 1 Qingdao Shandong Province China

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

Moving tentatively through the melee, we had a giggle at the general standard of beachwear. A lot of men, from teens to elderly folk, pranced around in the skimpiest of skin-tight Lycra shorts. For the women meanwhile, there wasn’t a bikini in sight. Further along, we stumbled upon Qingdao’s answer to Muscle Beach, a community of ripped men playing volleyball, doing press-ups and swinging back and forth along rows of purple monkey bars. They took themselves very seriously.

Monkey bars Beach Number 1 Qingdao Shandong province China

Qingdao’s answer to Muscle Beach.

With our stomachs rumbling, it was definitely time to check out the nearby market streets. It wasn’t long before we put our feet up at a low-key barbecue joint on Hunan Lu. The bony old guy manning the grill treated us to a multitude of tasty meat sticks and grilled flatbread. Everything was great, with chicken, pork and eventually octopus finding its way onto our plates!

Street seafood Qingdao Shandong Province China

Street seafood, Qingdao.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

Fed, watered and reenergised, we strode back down to the promenade. This time our walking route led us to the once magnificent but now sadly derelict Royal Club. It was a huge, golf ball of a building formerly home to Qingdao’s premier boating centre. We got there around dusk, its curved form reflecting onto the water as the last traces of daylight sank into the Yellow Sea.

The Royal Club Qingdao Shandong Province China

The Royal Club, Qingdao.

Invigorated by the plummeting temperatures and a cool sea breeze, our explorations took us to Badaxia Park. This, it seemed, was the meeting place of choice for Qingdao’s active elderly community. Laughing in the face of any grim reaper notions, Qingdao’s oldies played badminton, engaged in ballroom dancing and performed communal stretching. All to the backdrop of traditional Chinese pop blaring out of a large sound system. 

Positioning ourselves on a vacant bench, we sat soaking up the atmosphere. Nearby, I noticed a middle-aged couple training their pet poodle to dance. It was quite a sight, the wife performing a variety of rhythmic handclaps while her doggy bopped to the beat. Up on its hind legs, tongue lolling out. 

Dancing poodle Badaxia Park Qingdao Shandong Province China

Badaxia Park, Qingdao.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

We hadn’t anticipated the rain. It was coming down hard when we woke up the following morning and ended up lasting the entire day. Consequently, we decided to stay at The Observatory playing cards and ordering ridiculous amounts of food.

It was here that we met Fergal, a leggy Irishman with jet-black hair, geek-cool glasses and a pervading indie vibe. Joining our card game, Fergal exchanged a few travel stories with us. Then, just for the hell of it, we took a taxi to the restaurant street of Yunxiao Lu. Every single restaurant we looked at was bursting at the seams, so in the end we made do with an outside table at a dive joint. Luckily, the owners loaned us a couple of umbrellas. 

Yunxiao Lu Restaurant Qingdao Shandong province China

Dinner with Fergal on Yunxiao Lu.

S and I hadn’t really had a night out since our arrival in China. Now, we felt, the time was right for some bar hopping. Our first stop was the boisterous New York Bar, situated on the ground floor of a featureless business hotel on Hong Kong Lu.

Packed with middle class businessmen and suspiciously available women, we ordered a round of beers and turned our attention to the venue’s eccentric live act. That night, it was a Filipino pop-rock band, the female vocalist belting out a selection of classic hit singles interspersed with the occasional Toni Braxton dirge. Bizarrely, the guitarist felt it necessary to disguise himself with a massive mask of Elmo from Sesame Street.

The New York Bar, Qingdao.

New York Bar Qingdao Shandong province China

New York Bar, Qingdao.

From there we stopped by Honolulu Café, but the place was deserted. Except that is for the one hundred and one bored waitresses hanging on our every move. One of the girls was hovering so close behind, I could actually feel her breath on the back of my neck. “Let’s get out of here” said Fergal with an arched eyebrow and we duly complied, swiftly downing our drinks.

Next up was a place I’d been salivating about for almost a year, since I’d discovered it in the Lonely Planet listings. Unfortunately, finding Lennon Bar wasn’t a straightforward process. Tucked away on a quiet side street across from Qingdao Eye Hospital, we almost missed it altogether. With its gloomy, faded exterior and blackened windows we initially thought it was closed. But then, approaching the door, I heard the muffled vocals of One After 909 and the three of us filed in expectantly.


Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

Just as I’d envisioned, Lennon Bar turned out to be a cavernous (no pun intended), dimly lit space decked out in Beatles memorabilia. There were about a dozen people sat at the tables and American diner style booths. Up on stage, a three-piece Filipino band had moved into the intro of I Saw Her Standing There.

Fergal and S picked out a free table while I hurried off to the bar, with its Paul McCartney beer mats and gold-framed Let It Be poster. Returning moments later with three Tsingtao drafts and a bowl of salted popcorn, the three of us kicked back as the band knocked out raucous versions of Eleanor Rigby, We Can Work It Out and Fixing A Hole.

Lennon Bar, Qingdao.

Lennon Bar Qingdao Shandong Province China

Lennon Bar, Qingdao.

“Hello I’m Steven!” announced the man who’d suddenly appeared at our table. “Welcome to Lennon bar, where are you from?” A handsome man in his early forties, Steven had a friendly smile, kind eyes and silky, shoulder-length hair. Dragging a chair over to our table, he treated us to a complimentary round of Tsingtaos before telling us about his life travels.

He’d certainly been around, with extended trips around South America, Canada and his native China. A certified Beatles fanatic, he’d also made a pilgrimage to Liverpool, which gave him the inspiration to open Lennon Bar in his home city. “I’ve been looking forward to coming here for over a year” I said, which forced Steven into a dry cackle. “I hope you’re not too disappointed” he replied. 

Drum kit Lennon Bar Qingdao Shandong province China

Lennon Bar, Qingdao.

When the band finally stopped for a break, we got chatting to them at the bar. The singer-bassist was a short, plump guy who called himself Paul Ramon, one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles pseudonyms. Then there was Georgie Harry’s Son, the grungy, longhaired guitarist who explained how his father Harry had schooled him in the fab four. Last but not least, the drummer was Bingo, a quiet, constantly-smoking dude in a plain white T-shirt.

“So what are you going to sing for us?” asked Steven.

“What?” I responded. “Name your song” coaxed Paul Ramon, as Fergal and S pitched in with encouraging noises. “Do you know Don’t Let Me Down?” I asked. Georgie Harry’s Son merely grinned in reply, before motioning for me to follow him. Onstage, the modest audience before me looked on in curiosity as I took the microphone from Bingo and cleared my throat.

With the band suddenly launching into the opening bars, we were underway and I had no time to think. It was an exhilarating experience storming through one of my favourite songs backed by a proper band. The guys could really play, which definitely helped balance out my somewhat shouty vocals. 

 “And from the first time that she really loved me…”

Live music Lennon Bar Qingdao Shandong province China

Living out my rock star dreams at Lennon Bar.

From there the night rapidly descended into a half-remembered blur of beery contentment. I recall Steven singing a painfully off-key but heartfelt rendition of Yesterday. We also met a Chinese guy called Michael who spoke excellent English and claimed to have worked as a fitness therapist for Everton football Club.

“That Wayne Rooney… he used to make the tea for everyone, but always got the sugar wrong!”

Lennon Bar Qingdao Shandong Province China

Fergal digging Lennon Bar.

At some point S hijacked the bar in order to help the somewhat clueless teenage girl with her pouring technique. Meanwhile, Fergal regaled me with some hugely entertaining tales from Japan, which sparked my first interest in visiting the country. Well into the morning, the three of us were so sloshed we ended up buying Lennon Bar T-shirts, much to Steven’s visible delight.

Don't Let Me Down a short story from China.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from China.

“Leighton,” whispered S with a nudge. Under the covers, my head pounding, I could only murmur in response as I realised that, somewhere along the way, the night had ended and we were back at The Observatory. “How did we get home?” I queried, wincing at the knives of light that stabbed at me as I attempted to open my eyes.

Don't Let Me Down, a short story from Qingdao.

Don’t Let Me Down, a short story from Qingdao.

Taxi” she replied, a faraway voice from another dimension. “Do you remember trying to drive home in a model second world war motorbike!” “Get out of here” I countered. But unfortunately, as I was soon to find out, there was a photo to prove it.

‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is the seventh tale from my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Memo

    I just knew we would hear more about karaoke. Thought you looked more like John than Paul and the video clip confirms it.

    August 14, 2020 - 10:31 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Delighted to hear that, as I’ve always leaned more towards the Lennon side.

      August 14, 2020 - 10:38 pm Reply

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