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Qingdao: beaches, beer and more besides

A day in Shandong’s tourism capital

3-3-3 Tour: Day 12

Qingdao panoramic from the roof of the Old Observatory Youth Hostel

Qingdao seen from the roof of the Old Observatory Youth Hostel

Beer or beaches? Hear the word Qingdao and the thought of one or the other will no doubt be the first that springs to mind. But Qingdao’s trump cards are not the only cards it holds. Regarded by many as one of China’s most beautiful destinations, Qingdao was named the country’s most livable city in 2011, and with an eye to future development to match the legacy of its colonial past, it seems unlikely the city will want to relinquish that honour any time soon.

Qingdao is a city built on history. But unlike such cities as Suzhou, for example, this isn’t a history that needs dredging through 500 years in order to hit its golden age. Qingdao’s historical importance is actually far more recent. Indeed, it could be said that the 20th century was the making of Qingdao. Captured by German troops in 1897, the city became a German concession two years later and grew from a fishing village of a thousand or so inhabitants into one of China’s most important ports by the end of the German occupation in 1914.

The Japanese arrived at the beginning of World War I and it wasn’t until 1922 that Qingdao returned to Chinese sovereignty (albeit briefly) under the Republic of China. Its colonial past, however, is still very much in evidence within the historic city centre and the plentiful German-style architecture that survives around the city. The Railway station and Protestant Church are perhaps the most famous reminders of this period. Though wandering any of the old town streets helps demonstrate Qingdao’s agreeably anomalous status amongst Chinese cities, and explain a little why the Chinese flock here in their millions every year to see it for themselves.

But we’d be kidding ourselves if a penchant for European architecture was the main reason for those visits. It’s the relative novelty of a Chinese seaside town that’s the real draw here. The way it’s sometimes written one would be forgiven for thinking Qingdao was the jewel of some kind of Chinese Riviera. But though when it comes to the seafront Qingdao is more Blackpool than Barcelona, more St Austell than St Tropez, the city’s beaches still remain insanely popular during the busy summer months.

I was witness to this insanity on my first day after arriving. I took a trip up to the No. 1 Bathing Beach. Reputed to be the largest bathing beach in Asia, it is another legacy of Qingdao’s German occupation, as well as being the beach closest to the city centre. The main upshot of this proximity, predictably enough, is people. During summer weekends (and it was on Saturday I visited) it is said that upwards of 100,000 sun-seekers can descend on No. 1 Beach. And if with proximity comes people, then with people, I’ve found, always comes a certain sadness. Sadness at the way in which the natural environment is so often considered simply “there” for us to use. Sadness at the way the sea is thought of as a dustbin able to remove with the tide anything discarded into it. And sadness at the way it sometimes seems such things will never change.

I clambered onto some rocks at the western end of the beach giving me a view along the full length. Those that weren’t taking up every available square-metre of sand seemed to have been driven into the waves. A sea of coloured inflatables and half-nakedness stretched into a critical mass of indistinguishable humanity almost a kilometer away. It was an impressive and slightly unnerving sight seeing so many people voluntarily submitting themselves to such high-density frivolity. It was only when I pulled my focus back from the horizon that I noticed all that lay about my feet – the crisp packets, the chicken bones, the empty beer cans and the plastic bags, all of which seemed freshly tossed.

The general consensus about Qingdao’s No. 1 Beach is that the water quality is not exactly the greatest for swimming. It wasn’t difficult to understand why. From my vantage point I couldn’t see clearly, but thinking of all those people and the litter I could see around me, it was hard not to equate the thought of taking a refreshing dip with the trash compactor scene in Star Wars – though that hadn’t stopped the thousands of people that had taken to the sea from seemingly enjoying the experience. I wandered down to watch the old guys playing volleyball and lifting weights for a while – 50 year olds, tanned and ripped, putting everyone else to shame – but I let myself get no further to the real shoreline action than that.

Like so many of the other cities I’d visited during my trip up China’s east coast – from Hangzhou, through Nanjing and on to Suzhou – Qingdao was another city in the midst of rapid development. The eastern part of the city, with its office towers, shopping malls and rather less historic shiny newness, has only existed since the early 1990s, but it had helped set Qingdao firmly on the path to becoming another of China’s powerhouse provincial trade hubs, attracting foreign investment and becoming the home of many well-known Chinese companies – such as the white goods manufacturer Haier, not to mention the continued home of the world famous Tsingtao beer – in the meantime.

In truth, Qingdao seemed a rather pleasant city after my first full day of wandering. It was crowded on the beaches, yes. But it was also the height of summer and what else could be expected? There was the trash and human idiocy of it all, but away from the seafront, wandering the old town with its jumble of streets and markets, stopping for a lunch of noodles and draught beer at a street-side restaurant, was actually quite a refreshing contrast to the usual pace and makeup of most other Chinese cities. There seemed to be a unique character to Qingdao. I only had two days to explore it, but I was already looking forward to seeing if the following day could continue the mostly positive trend of the first. I just needed to remember to stay away from the beach.

A group of Chinese men playing cards on the beach, Qingdao, Chin

And if in doubt … there’s always cards

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