On the Horizon

China’s ‘other’ Olympic City is a seaside retreat waiting to be discovered

By: Gary Bowerman

Beach culture in China? With great beer and wine? And German architecture as a backdrop? Surely some mistake. I rub my eyes a second time, but the view remains unchanged. The Bavarian castle-style former German governor’s mansion overlooks a crescent-shaped bay filled with windsurfers, swimmers and sunbathers. German church spires and red roof tiles define the skyline and smells of sunscreen, fried noodles and seafood fill the air. It’s hot, very hot, and day-trippers strolling the promenade carry umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Really, you couldn’t make this up.

China-bound clients with visions of great walls, forbidden cities and terra-cotta warriors may not initially think sun, sea and sand, but remember the name, Qingdao you’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the next three years. Meaning “Green Island,” Qingdao nestles in a picturesque corner of China’s northeast Shandong province (birthplace of Confucius) facing out across the Yellow Sea toward South Korea and Japan. The home of world-famous Tsingtao beer and the preferred holiday retreat of China’s rich and powerful, Qingdao is China’s Biarritz or San Diego. It is also host city for the 2008 Olympic Games sailing regatta.

But back to the German heritage. In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm annexed Qingdao for Germany and began constructing a European-style coastal city around its prodigious harbor. The German architecture was framed around the city’s meandering bays, and there remain six public beaches fringed by parks and coves. The giant brewery and its Tsingtao (an early transliteration of Qingdao pronounced ‘Ching Dow’) beer are further legacies of German rule.

Today, standing about 500 yards out to sea on Zhanqiao Pier, it’s easy to see the modern melding of old and new Qingdao. In front of me, a charming vista of hills. Teutonic mansions, hotels and townhouses are punctuated by handfuls of half-built skyscrapers. To the east, a modern business and shopping district has risen from former marshland. At the pier’s end is Huilan Pavilion, a wind-battered Chinese pagoda famed as the logo on Tsingtao beer bottles. As I try to photograph it, a small kid brushes past me on antique roller-blades munching a crab kebab (six skewered mini crustaceans). Opposite, an elegantly dressed woman is photographing her husband with the most compact digital camera I have ever seen.

History may have shaped old Qingdao, but the newer eastern part of the city is focused on one thing only: the Olympic Games of 2008. Olympic fever crackles in the air. The twin host city logos (Dancing Beijing and Qingdao: Olympic Sailing City) are visible everywhere and two giant Olympic countdown clocks help the city tick away time until 20:08 on 20/08/2008, when the Olympic flame will be lit in Beijing. In preparation, China’s favorite seaside city is undergoing a gigantic municipal makeover. A new airport and expressway system are complete, and hotels, shopping malls and new tourism facilities are in progress. Construction cranes and excavation machines are fast transforming the beautiful Fushan Bay harborfront into an Olympic Village complex, entertainment center and international yachting marina.

On the Boardwalk
The best way to appreciate Qingdao’s evolving charms, however, is to walk its coastline. As the late-afternoon temperature cooled, I set out from Zhanqiao Pier and headed east along the new 25-mile boardwalk, which carries walkers around the bays and beaches. Looking inland, the sloping streets of the old city are dotted with groups of men playing cards under shady trees.
Wending around the next bay, I chanced upon Luxun Park, a meticulously tended spot covered by pine and cypress trees offering both welcome shade and a place for locals to hang out their bird cages. I counted 19 swinging and singing in the canopy.

Ten minutes further along the boardwalk I hit my favorite spot: No. 1 beach (all beaches are named by number, which is practical if unimaginative), the largest and best in Qingdao and the ultimate place to observe the city’s unique beach culture. At the back of this broad curve of sand are wooden changing cabins redolent of Victorian England. Though early evening, the beach was still filled with bronzed Korean, Japanese and Chinese vacationers swimming and playing football or volleyball. Kayaks and yachts drifted on the gentle breeze and pre-sundown drinkers lined the terrace bar at the Sailing Club.

I headed up to the revolving top-floor restaurant of the Huiquan Dynasty Hotel to enjoy the city’s best panorama. A full circular revolution takes one hour and offers a camera-friendly context of the old city, beaches and Badaguan (Eight Great Passes), a historic mini-suburb of 200 stylish villas, tree-lined streets and a general air of decadence borne of another era. One waiter while serving me an ice-cold bottle of Tsingtao kindly pointed out a domed-shape building at the water’s edge. This apparently is a meeting center and private hotel for China’s political leaders and boasts its own small private beach. He also told me that Chairman Mao frequently stayed at the former German governor’s mansion spotted earlier.

As dusk descended, I finished my walk in Music Square, a new seafront plaza dominated by a red sculpture resembling a well-fed Tellytubby. It’s a popular spot for families, and I sat and watched the merchant ships pass over the horizon.

I looked up at the Olympic clock and smiled. As, I said, remember that name. Qingdao’s time is about to come.


Qingdao comes alive during summer (June-Sept.), and vacationers often visit just to enjoy traditional Shandong seafood. “New” Qingdao is the best place to head for dinner; the junction of Minjiang Lu/Yunxiao Lu (near the Crowne Plaza hotel) has scores of excellent local restaurants.
Wine consumption is growing fast in China, and the wineries around Qingdao produce some of the country’s best vino. Most restaurant menus offer decent-quality wine but, remember that whatever the locale, the Chinese love to drink ganbei toasts. Each time you raise a glass to your mouth you must follow the exact translation and “empty your cup.”
Beer is a Qingdao passion and each year its two-week-long International Beer Festival (this year Aug. 15-31) attracts around 3 million visitors to a specially built Beer City site on the edge of the city, near the Old Stone Man beach.

Olympic Sailing Info

General Qingdao Info


There are currently two internationally run hotels in the heart of “new” Qingdao, both located close to shopping, nightlife, Music Square and the new Olympic developments. The old town is a 10-minute cab ride west, and the Beer Festival site is a 15-minute cab ride east. Several new hotels are being built in close proximity to the Olympic facilities and around Old Stone Man Beach, near the Beer Festival site.

Shangri La
Located on the main Xianggang Lu shopping street, the hotel has 502 rooms and suites, including three floors for Horizon Club guests. In January 2005, it broke ground on a 16-floor second tower that, when completed in 2007, will add 190 extra rooms. From $90, plus 15 percent service charge.

Crowne Plaza
Also situated on Xianggang Lu in the heart of new Qingdao’s commercial center, the soaring Crowne Plaza has 388 rooms including 178 suites, three restaurants and a safari-themed bar. Located very close to Minjiang Lu/Yunxiao Lu dining district.