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
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
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.
|AND OF COURSE ... THE BEER|
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
|WHERE TO STAY|
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.
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.
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.