GSO in China, Days 6 & 7: At the edge of the Bohai Sea

Posted on January 26th, 2008 by

seashore.jpgFriday, January 26, the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra rolled out of Tianjin and headed to Qinhuangdao. We travelled through a lot of farmland, with the predominant local produce ranging from wheat to corn to rice to bricks. The region nearest Qinhuangdao is corn country, and the locals store livestock-quality ears of corn on their roofs to dry (the roofs are flat, needless to say). Corn is harvested by hand, leaving the stalks standing in the fields. These are later cut and stacked into substantial shocks, and then transported for a variety of uses from fuel for fires to windbreaks for green vegetable crops to thatch—sort of a generally handy thing to have around. So how does a farming family get along if they can only have one child (see “Day 4”)? Another exception to the rule: farm families can have two children, and if both are girls, they may have a third in hopes of getting a boy.

pigeonpark-gazebo.jpgWe rolled into Beidaihe, a seaside resort just south of Qinhuangdao proper. Or should I say THE seaside resort. Apparently this is the place to be in the summer. However, in January it is mostly shuttered. Some members of the GSO strolled through town past closed shops, but if they were seen by the proprietor within, the doors were quickly flung open and services eagerly offered. We are staying in the generously named Seaside Garden Hotel, a mere ten-minute walk from the beach. It is a nice place, though, with a cool lobby. We toured Olympic park, which is a public park glorifying Chinese Olympic achievements—complete with hand and footprints of former champions—and Pigeon Nest Park, a public garden set beside the sea. This garden boasts a tall promontory of pitted rock overlooking the Bohai Sea, as well as one of the few remaining statues of Mao, which is surrounded by painted concrete penguins. The view from the top looks across a mostly-frozen bay to Qinhuangdao’s harbor, from which container ships form a dashed line on the horizon.

In the evening the GSO journeyed into Qinhuangdao to a hotpot restaurant. Hotpot is a very common style of family meal here. A setup much like a stainless steel fondue set with a daunting flame heats a pot of broth to boiling. An equally daunting array of items are offered for cooking in the pot, from very thin slices of lamb and beef (think proscuitto) to whole shrimp, whole heads of blanched garlic, mushrooms, greens, seaweed, noodles, tofu, and on and on. You concoct your own dipping sauce using ingredients such as chile oil, garlic oil, fermented bean curd, and soy sauce. So it goes like this: make your sauce, drop an item or two into the boiling pot, agitate it a little with your chopsticks until it looks edible, then fish it out, dip it, and eat it. Repeat until nearly stuffed. Both tasty and entertaining. After dinner, our guides sang for us. Dinner and a show—what a deal.

first-pass.jpgSaturday dawned bright and clear for our trek to the First Pass Under Heaven, a militarily important outpost on the Great Wall guarding the most geographically prudent route for invading China from the north. The Eight-Power Allied Forces pretty much destroyed this section of the wall in 1900, as well as many other sections all the way to the Bohai Sea. In 1984, the Chinese rebuilt this outpost and other damaged sections as part of a national pride program.

dragon-head-web.jpgretail2-dragon-head.jpgWe then travelled 5 km or so to Shanhaiguan (shan = mountain, hai = sea, guan = pass), where the Great Wall meets the sea. The Chinese call the Great Wall Old Dragon, so Shanhaiguan is the Old Dragon’s Head (the tail is somewhere in the Gobi desert). Some members of the GSO managed to find a retail opportunity tucked into the fortifications, and frolicked in a model military maze in a reconstructed army training camp. A very small section of the original—and I mean original—Great Wall is preserved at Shanhaiguan. The ancient construction is a kind of earthworks, made from a mixture of sand, earth, limestone, and glutenous rice soup. Yep, rice soup. But the stuff is tough. The ancient portion here at the Dragon’s Head sat under tsunami waters for three days and kept on tickin’.

After detouring around unannounced road construction, we drove into downtown Qinhuangdao, where we spent a little free time visiting a supermarket and clothing mart. What a glimpse at the culinary culture. You can get virtually any part of an animal in the butcher shop, or choose the convenient bulk packs of frozen chicken feet. This item also available cooked in a variety of flavors and vacuum-packed, located right beside the similarly prepared pig snouts in the potted meats aisle. The GSO stocked up on gifts for family and friends (I hope I didn’t spoil any surprises), and we headed to the concert hall for rehearsal. A snapshot of China’s developmental contrasts: Across the street from tonight’s venue—a modern music hall less than six months old—is a high-rise construction project: a multi-building complex more than 30 stories tall. On the building site, two men were moving portions of concrete forms using two-wheeled carts pulled by mules.

The mayor of Qinhuangdao and other local dignitaries hosted a dinner for us. After speeches and renewed friendships (Maestro Friesen and the GSO visited here in 2004), we were treated to a meal of nearly twenty courses, including a whole roasted chicken dish. Check back tomorrow for tales from those adventurous enough to eat the head.

handstand-at-dragons-head.jpgThe GSO played to a packed house tonight. The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was particularly well received, and soloist Brian Buckstead had his hands full signing autographs after the concert. Tomorrow, we roll on to Tangshan.

Note from January 28, 2008: You may have noticed that the days have been renumbered. Some say that during international travel all the days seem to blend together, and in this case two really did. Apologies.



  1. Gayle Petersen says:

    Thanks again for the fascinating updates from China! Hope everyone is having a wonderful time. Wishing you continued safe travels.
    Love you, Caitlin!!

  2. Leanne Linn says:

    Hotpot dining…I believe I would have needed a burger! Appears as though you did well, however! 🙂

    We are so appreciative of all of the information sent. THANKS so much!
    What a wonderful opportunity…ENJOY!
    Happy Birthday Alexandra Linn!!!!

  3. Bill, Julie, and Alex Normand says:

    We are really enjoying the updates. Looks like everyone is heaving a great time. Wishing you continued safe and healthy travel.
    Love you, Sarah! Hope you are enjoying the food!

  4. Lynn Brown says:

    It’s great to hear from you again. It was a sad 2 days without any news. 🙁 The history presented in your reports coupled with the video and still pictures has made me feel like I am a part of your trip. Thanks, and say hi to the Brownkowski’s and Andy for me.

  5. Kim Mehlenbacher says:

    Thank you for the pictures, text and video. Its wonderful to see what the GSO is doing on a daily basis and see what a great time they’re having. It is comforting to see my daughter in some of the photos and know that she is well. Say “Hi” to Erin A. Enjoy this fantastic trip!

  6. Hello,
    We have enjoyed your wonderful blog with all the information, pictures and videos. Than you so much for letting us feel as if we are there watching you. Katie we hope you are feeling better! We love you and are so happy you could make this wonderful trip!! Best to all of you, enjoy and stay safe.
    Mom and Dad – John and Sue Patterson

  7. Laurie and Joel Noennig says:

    Thanks so much Sharon for the wonderful daily updates of the GSO in China. What an adventure of a lifetime. We hope you are all doing well and are able to keep all of your instruments in tune with the cold weather. Have a great week and enjoy every second. If someone reads this please extend a hello to Blake Noennig and tell him that we love him! Laurie and Joel Noennig.

  8. John Stevenson says:

    It is 7PM Sunday here, been cold with a little warming today. We enjoy your reports. Take care,

    Linda and John

  9. Bob Brooks says:

    Thanks for all the great news, pics, and videos. We’re really enjoying them! All the best to Amara B. and everyone on the trip.

    Amara, Stefan was fabulous in Bye, Bye, Birdie last week. Lauren J. was also great.