he first thing that may come to mind when thinking of the coastal city of Qingdao is drinking Tsingtao beer by the sea. But Qingdao, in East China’s Shandong Province, has more to offer than its famous beer and beaches. Besides these qualities, there was something else about Qingdao that made me add it to the top of my ever-expanding China bucket list. Perhaps the fact that it is situated on China’s Yellow Sea coast? Or maybe that it is one of eastern China’s major seaports and industrial centers? Or maybe it had even attracted me with its impressive city rankings record, being named China’s most liveable city in 2009? Whatever the answer, I knew Qingdao was a must-see during my final tour of China before moving back to the UK. Qingdao had been on my list for years. After my first planned trip to the city didn’t work out in the first few months of my arriving in China, the city was clearly the winning choice for my first stop of four. I’d initially planned a solo tour, so what made the Qingdao part of my trip even more amazing was that two great friends I’d recently met had decided to tag along.
The train journey to Qingdao was quite an emotional one for me. I’d just packed up all my belongings and shipped them to the UK, celebrated my birthday and leaving party, and said goodbye to all my colleagues and friends. Whenever I look back at my final days in China, Qingdao will always be a bittersweet reminder.
Arriving in the city, our immediate impression was that it looked remarkably European. Qingdao was a German concession from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, which explains why Chinese media recently dubbed it “a little pocket of Germany in China.” The streets of Qingdao, featuring the iconic St. Michael’s Cathedral and Museum of the Former German Governor’s Residence, reminded me of Shanghai’s colonial-era architecture and its former French concession area. The next morning, my friends and I, like typical Beijingers, were craving some fresh air and nature. So we headed to Laoshan district in eastern Qingdao, where we found the stunning Mount Laoshan Scenic Area, heralded as China’s Taoism shrine and a photographer’s paradise full of ideal spots to watch the sunrise. With many sites to choose from, we got on the first bus we saw and let fate take us to our “wanderland.”
We ended up at the Statue of Lao Tzu by the Temple of Supreme Purity, a tourist spot that immediately took our breath away with its classic Chinese-style gate contrasting against a sandy mountain backdrop. It felt as though the wise-looking statue standing over us on the towering mountain was offering us his protection, like the Christ the Redeemer over Rio de Janeiro. Below his feet, we found a quaint two-story pavilion right by the sea to relax after all the trekking. The smell of fresh sea air and the tranquillity afforded by the surrounding nature, we sat there for a while, reflecting on our many precious memories made in China.
Back at the hostel, exhausted from the day’s activities, I was ready for a nap. But I was told there was no time to rest! My two friends had booked a surprise belated birthday meal at a “secret restaurant.” Located in a high-end mall, the restaurant overlooked the gorgeous Fushan Bay, its balcony serving as the prime viewing deck for the city’s spectacular night-time skyline.
From this viewpoint, it boasts a striking resemblance to Australia’s most famous city, with the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Center dominating as China’s version of the Sydney Opera House and the Olympic rings to the side offering a pop of color to the already-dazzling scene. To the right of our panorama, a row of high-rise buildings put on a stunning light show. Here, we undoubtedly got the best impression of China’s ‘‘sailing capital,’’ and that was complimented by the most delicious mushroom risotto and chocolate birthday cake.
Afterward, we went to the German Wine Festival being held along the bay. Stepping under the festival’s huge marquee, wine enthusiasts were playing drinking games, attempting to gulp as much as they could in the shortest possible time. At the bar, we ordered our favourite rosé then headed over to where a band was playing, cheered on by drunk festivalgoers trying their very best to use their two left feet to bust some moves. Rubbing shoulders with the local foreign community, although much smaller than Beijing’s, provided us with a clear sense of the city’s strong international appeal.
The next morning, thankfully with no hangovers in sight, we headed to the beach – a must when you’re in one of China’s top seaside resorts! We thought we’d hop on a share bike and cycle there. But Qingdao is a city of no share bikes, which on the one hand means it does not provide the same sense of convenience as the share bike haven of Beijing, but on the other it means the sidewalks aren’t clogged up with bizarrely parked two-wheelers.
After getting some vitamin D, the raw coastal scent had increased our appetites for some authentic Qingdao seafood. Outside the Tsingtao Brewery Museum, a working brewery and the second-largest in China, lay a row of inviting seafood restaurants. One enticed us with a free pitcher of the city’s best-known export, and of all the dumpling varieties I had tasted in China, I couldn’t resist its unique offering of mackerel dumplings. Our final lunch together before we went separate ways was made even more unforgettable with a toast, or ganbei, to lifelong friendship.
Before our final goodbye, we headed to the botanical gardens, which explain Qingdao’s literally translated name of “green island.” Back at the hostel, my friends, while encouraging me to be brave during the rest of the trip that I would do alone, gave me a big hug. A personal growth journey lay ahead, China was my oyster, and I was off.