After weighing my options I had decided to fly to Urumqi, in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, from Hong Kong, then take the train from there to the Kazakh border. It is possible to go by train all the way from Hong Kong to Urumqi, but it involves stops in intermediary cities to swap trains and would take 3 days. As the price for the flight (HK$1700) and the train (¥1500) was around US$217, I decided to go for the faster option.
It was my first time flying with Shandong Airlines, a domestic Chinese carrier. The flight came with a one day stopover in the Shandong Province city of Yantai. I had never been there before and was looking forward to seeing a new city. On the 3 hour flight to Yantai no meals were served, only snacks. That seemed a bit weird, but they do things differently in China!
Yantai is a northeastern port city on the Yellow Sea about 750km southeast of Beijing. Even though it’s close to Beijing, it’s like a whole different world. For starters, the airport was shaped like a uterus and had potted plants everywhere in the arrival area.
The thing that really struck me about this place, is that besides the grunty security guard, everyone was really friendly. Like approach-you-and-start-chatting-to-you kind of friendly. In all my years of travelling to other cities in China, I’d never really encountered that before.
After purchasing my ¥20 (US$3) bus ticket to the city centre, I realised that a young boy was intensely staring at my hair. When I asked what he was looking at, he excitedly commented that my hair was very red and that he liked red. I asked if he liked purple too, then showed him the purple section underneath. He was totally enamoured. We ended up talking for 10 minutes about my bright hair and his favourite toys. I guess that’s how conversations with 6 year olds go in any language.
The bus ride was quite smooth, due to what looked like a shiny new highway into the city. It was a fairly empty highway, which is also not something I’d seen too often in other Chinese cities. Another thing I’d noticed at the airport and in the town, was a lot of directional signs in Korean. It must be a popular destination with Korean tourists.
When I arrived streets were fairly empty and eerily quiet. I put this down to the late hour, but the next morning things were quite similar. It seems that this town does things a little more quietly and slowly than other places, which was quite refreshing. It was a nice, clean city to walk around.
While walking around, I noticed they were going for an early 20th century feel with some of the street lights. There were also quite a few dockless bikes around, but I didn’t see many people riding them.
Possibly the best part of this city was the mountains surrounding it. One of them, Yantai Hill can be easily reached on a self-guided hike from the Zhifu District, near the city centre.
Like many Chinese cities, there were huge malls everywhere, but one thing that was different was that some of them didn’t have bathrooms. I only found this out when I drank too much tea at a cafe and had to walk a block to find somewhere to relieve myself. While in that cafe, I’d also had problems accessing the WiFi, so one of the lovely staff took time off her duties to help me figure it out.
Something that seemed to be unique to this city was moving repair shops. Some entrepreneurial souls had decided to put all their fix-it tools and know-how into vans and drive around town finding people that needed things fixed. If they found a place where they were doing particularly well, they would set up there for a while.
As I walked to the bus station to make my way back to the airport, some young guys approached me to try to sell me some miracle cleaning liquid. I was quite surprised by this, as normally locals wouldn’t approach foreigners in this way because they’d be afraid of the language barrier. I suspect they knew that I wasn’t going to buy, but it was an excuse for them to talk to me. It was kind of cute.
So I hadn’t really done much in Yantai besides walk around and chat to some locals, but it was lovely all the same. I’d definitely look into taking a longer break there at some point in the future. Back at the airport, I noticed many people carrying foam boxes full of cherries. It turns out Yantai is famous around China for its cherries and when people visit, they take as many boxes as they can back to their families.
The next leg of the flight was only 1 hour, but in that time a meal was served, even though only crackers were offered on the first and longer flight leg. One of the hostesses felt bad that I couldn’t eat the meal they served and came back with some dried fruit and crackers for me. The Shandong Airlines staff were quite lovely, but their English was either terrible or non-existent. I could understand them better when they spoke Mandarin!
The short flight was due to a technical stop in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei. I can’t say that I know what a technical stop is, but we all had to leave the plane and re-board an hour later. We were even given a special card by the Shijiazhuang Airport to present to get back on the plane.
I can tell you that the Shijiazhuang airport is very nice. It’s also very spread out and there isn’t much there besides gimmicky souvenir shops and designer stores. During the 1 hour stop there I walked around to see if I could find some food. I did, but the cook was out and they said it would be a half an hour wait. With the plane re-boarding in 40 minutes and a 10 minute walk to the gate, that would be cutting it a bit fine. Maybe a ‘fresh’ coconut from a dispensing machine would suffice?
Check out my next post for the trials and tribulations of crossing into Kazakhstan via Western China