It was near 2 a.m. when I stepped out of the cab 120 yuan poorer on a dark street in downtown Qingdao. I’d spent the day running around Beijing on work-related errands, and now, finally, all I had left to do was find my hostel and I could get some rest before my Labor Day holiday started.
The street was unlit except for one giant business hotel. Not it. I walked past a doorway cluttered with old bicycles, wagon wheels, lanterns, and who knows what else. Inside, light by a half dozen tiny lights sat a graying Chinese man so hemmed in by clocks, tools, clothes, and other antiques, he could hardly move.
Can’t be, I thought.
The internet listing said the place had multiple levels and even a swimming pool. I walked up and down the street. Nothing else was open.
Guess so, I thought.
I clamored over a mini folding bicycle while trying to keep it from rolling off the step to reach the door and knocked on the glass. His eyes lit up, and he scrambled for the door, banging into various rusted knickknacks.
“I’ve been waiting for you!,” he said, his wispy, grey beard swaying. “She (Jordyn) told me you’d be here about 1:15. It’s so late!”
I apologized and told him I didn’t know the airport was so far, then I waited for him to show me to my room. I started to wonder how there could even be “rooms”; the “reception” area looked an awful lot like the tiny living room of a junk hoarder. And there were ticking clocks everywhere. At least a dozen in the living room.
“Sit, sit,” he said motioning to a stool at his old-style wooden table, it too covered in trinkets and lamps and half-eaten clams. Then he handed me a plastic bag of beer.
“Yours. Drink,” he said. “You drink beer. I’ll drink baijiu,” he said motioning to a half empty bottle of Chinese infamous sorghum-based spirit. He poured himself a cup and motioned for me to do the same with my beer. I looked at him confused. He shuffled over and showed me how to pour it out of the bag without spilling.
“In Qingdao, we get beer in a bag,” he said, then added in English and with a cackle: “Very cheap, very fresh!”
As I started to pour he whipped out a camera – antique of course – and asked me to pose, mid-pour, for a picture. It was the first of perhaps three dozen pictures he would take over the next hour with at least three different cameras. He adjusted his lamps for light for almost each one of them.
Jordyn had warned me about this hours before, so I was somewhat prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extend of his obsession. In between snapping picture of me pouring beer and drinking beer, we toasted to one another and his pointed to a TV screen behind his head.
Behind me were two TVs: One old, one – surprisingly – not. The old TV was playing a soundless nature documentary about giant river fish. The new TV was playing a loop of what must have been thousands of pictures of my host with various Chinese and foreign guests. Thousands. And as the loop progressed, so did the clutter of the living room. I looked around and saw that some of his pictures, many of them of him and a black cat, were blown up and pasted to the walls.
Meanwhile my host talked up the great cheap seafood and “Fresh!” beer available just out back. He talked about his many foreign friends. About Qingdao and its special dishes. He had me try some kind of green. It was bitter and salty, but delicious. Then he told me about that for a while. It’s good with baijiu, he said. And baijiu, of course, is “good for your health!” (in English).
Soon I was out of beer. He refilled my cup, to the top, with baijiu. His bottle was almost gone. Chinese manners were about to get me in trouble.
“And you know what’s good with baijiu? Clams!” More trouble. He leapt up. “Wait 5 minutes,” he said, and swayed into a back room. He returned with a plate of hot clams, spilling some clam sauce on my legs.
Even if I weren’t a mostlyvegetarian, I don’t particularly like clams. He picked one up and with much ado, slurped – and I mean slurrrppped – it down.
The black cat I’d seen in the pictures sprinted into the room.
“Ah, xiaobai!” he said.
I was confused. The name meant “small white”. The cat was black. When he saw the confusion writ on my face, he broke out with another cackle.
“Xiaobai! It’s a great name,” he nearly shrieked, then in English. “Cat black, name white. Then muttered and chuckled again, “Xiaobai” before returning his attention to the clams and mine with it.
I decided to bite the clam, so to speak. I picked one up and swirled it in the sauce that remained in the dish rather than on my legs. I slurped it down.
“Not bad,” I said, then in English. “Very fresh!”
He laughed and motioned for me to take another one. Great, I thought, I’m in it now.
I picked up another one. As I lifted it up, xiaobai put its paws up on my legs and gently extended its claws. The closer the clam got to my mouth, the more it dugs its claws into my flesh.
My host looked at me expectantly. I gingerly tugged the clam meat with my teeth. The cat yanked my leg meat with all its might. The cat yowled. My host shooed it away. It went nowhere.
My host handed me another and looked at me expectantly. I tugged the clam. The cat shredded my leg. The cat yowled. My host shooed it away. It went nowhere.
And so we went until my glass of baijiu was empty, more than an hour had passed, and I was thoroughly sloshed. I was having a great time.
My host was interesting if bizarre. His home was interesting if bizarre. It was going to be an interesting, if bizarre, weekend.
Then, things got bad.
My host showed me to our room, taking a detour to the bathrooms, which were so small and low I couldn’t fit without crouching like a troll. He called the room “The Captain’s Room”, Jordyn said, and it usually cost more but since he had no other guests, he let us have it for the night.
The first thing I noticed when I entered were the clocks. There were nearly two dozen of them, wall clocks and grandfather clocks alike. Half of them weren’t working, it seemed, but the other half were doing what clocks do: Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. None of them in sync.
In the following moments, my horror grew as each crowed at different intervals its own, unique cry. Some chimed every 15 minutes, and some rang. Some tinkled every 30, and some shrieked. And none of that in sync either.
I crawled into bed, knowing it was going to be a long night. Within moments, my eyes started to itch. Then my nose started to run. Soon my whole neck felt like I’d shaved with poison ivy.
I spent the next six hours starting at every clock squawk, scratching at my face and rubbing my eyes and wishing I’d had about three cups more baijiu.
When morning came at last, we packed up our stuff. If it were just the clocks, we might have been able to figure something out. But the allergies — and I don’t usually have them — were too much. Wanting to leave our hosts face intact, we decided not to tell him the truth. Instead we told him we had to change our plans and go up north and just couldn’t stay.
He looked incredulous. “You booked four nights. You only stayed one.”
“Zen me ban? – what can I do?”
He made us pay for an extra night. Zen me ban, indeed.
Every time we walked by his little hostel over the next three days, I peeked in the front door. And every time day or night, there he was, sitting in his living room, watching the pictures on the TV go by.