China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>
The lovely port city of Qingdao is known to many for its low-alcohol-content pilsner, Tsingtao Beer, China's most exported and mispronounced beer (in no small part due to poor Romanization of the city name courtesy of the École française d'Extrême-Orient). Once a Shandong city than its beer and annual International Beer Festival. The city's history as a short-lived German concession, beautiful geography and buzzing modern culture make for a trip with far more to it than drinking beer from a plastic bag (but you should probably do this). More after the jump....
Big Kaiser in little Qingdao
After two Opium Wars, several of the European powers held concessions among the treaty ports and in British-held Hong Kong. Germany (Prussia at that time) was looking to gain a naval foothold in China and took the murder of two German priests as pretext for action in Qingdao, previously a little fishing village that the Ming and Qing dynasty had fortified. Although they set themselves up with a 99-year lease on the city like the British with Hong Kong, their control would only last for 16 years ending with its seizure by Japan.
Despite length of time the Germans stayed in Qingdao, the remaining former German concession has had a large influence on the image of Qingdao domestically and abroad. New structures have also gone up in the spirit (some more accurately than others) of the remaining old German structures. Located near the No. 2 Bathing Beach, the neighborhood called Eight Great Passes (named after the eight great passes of the Great Wall of China) is dotted with German villas and mansions sitting along wide, tree-lined boulevards. Unfortunately, while this is a popular tourist sight, it's a lot like star tours in Hollywood—not everyone wants gawkers outside, so high walls surround many of the homes. Closer to the beach, however, the Granite Mansion is tourable. This massive beach castle with its lush gardens once served as the hunting and fishing villa of the German governor.
Luckily for modern tourists (and Chairman Mao when he visited Qingdao), one Qingdao German governor's taste for the extravagant went a little too far one what is today modestly known as the Qingdao Guest House. One of Qingdao's most standout pieces of architecture, the yellow and granite brick structure was designed by German architect Curt Rothkegel, who also designed buildings in several other Chinese cities.
Another Rothkegel design, the quirky Qingdao Protestant Church is located a short distance away. While not as elaborate inside as its Catholic cousin, the large St. Michael's Cathedral, the inner mechanisms of its clock tower can be viewed from within.
It's pronounced Qīngdǎo
The history of Tsingtao Beer follows that of the city—starting from the German occupation, anyway. Built in 1903, just five years after the concession was handed over to Germany, the Tsingtao Brewery Museum would go on to change hands to the to the Japanese when they took the city in 1914, return to the Chinese in 1922, get taken again (along with the rest of the city) by the Japanese in 1935 and finally return to Chinese control after the end of World War II. The brewery serves as part beer commercial and part history lesson, chronicling the city's history with a focus on the brewery. While the Tsingtao is not actually brewed there anymore, museum goers can enjoy one of Tsingtao's brews (they do in fact have more than one—including Tsingtao Stout) at the bar at the end of the tour.
Of course, you don't have to go to the brewery to find the city's famous brew—it's everywhere. Some restaurants in town even fill up plastic bags for customers with beer. It's not an ideal or even very good way to drink beer, but it's part of the experience.
Since 1991, each year in August the city holds the Qingdao International Beer Festival. More than just Chinese beer, however, the festival attracts a number of international beer brands (including beers from Germany, Japan and the United States). The Qingdao International Beer City gets loud, drunk and fun with musical performances, dancing, stage shows, bikini fashion shows and, of course, plenty of beer drinking. During other times of the year, smaller festivals take place on the fair grounds. Don't worry, the beer is never far away.
With its location right on the coast, Qingdao has a different feel than many of China's larger cities. Along its sheltered bays, Qingdao has many sandy beaches that make for good sunbathing, strolling or wedding photography. While the convenient location of these beaches also means you won't be the only one thinking it's a good idea for a day at the beach at the height of travel season, it also means that your day isn't bust when you arrive to find a crowd already there; other attractions are within walking distance or a cab ride away.
Numerous parks also dot the city, including the massive Zhongshan Park, which goes almost down to the water. Besides providing a green getaway, the park is also home to Zhanshan Temple, Qingdao's only major Buddhist Temple. At the northeastern corner of the park, the Qingdao TV Tower sits atop a hill providing panoramic views of the area.
Lao Shan, one of China's most important Daoist mountains, rises up 1,100 m (3,606 ft) at the western edge of the city. A very popular attraction for domestic tourists to Qingdao, parts of the mountain can get very crowded. It's large enough and easily explored enough to lose the crowds, however. Ruins of Daoist temples, along with the intact Great Purity Palace, can be found by those willing to do some exploring on Lao Shan.
Rocks and rocking
Lao Shan's convenient proximity has also given rise to a climbing culture. As Climbing.com attests, "Qingdao is becoming one of the most popular bouldering areas of China." The variety of climbing conditions facilitates a variety of climbing experiences for beginners up to more advanced climbers. While hiking and bouldering (for the more experienced) are easy enough to do it yourself, groups like Qingdao Adventures offer hiking and climbing tours around Lao Shan and other natural areas near the city for when you want to try something that requires a bit more equipment. Save that beer for after the climb, though.
Qingdao has also eked out a niche on the Chinese band tour circuit (as well as hosting its own Golden Beach Music Festival). For the latest on who's playing and where, check out the music page at QINGDAO(nese), the one of the city's website for news, events and op-eds in English.