"Big city? Not at all!" exclaims the Chinese businessman with a broad smile, "Qingdao by our standards is but a very small place, you know!" Well, we silently and heartily disagree. To call a city with over 2.5 million people small! Qingdao in recent years has been modernized and is now blessed with an amazing speed rail link with Beijing. With 250 kilometers per hour the white CRH train flies through the countryside and the journey takes less than six hours. Four hours less than the old train connection. The sudden rise of this metropolis had everything to do with the 2008 Summer Olympics: all the sailing events took place in Qingdao. A weird choice, because there's very little wind, and the coast is frequently being plagued by an explosive growth of green algae.


Ant Hill

QingdaoWe have chosen to visit Qingdao, as on our journey through China we also wanted to take in some seaside. It's high summer; on the beach we hope to find some shade. But let me reveal right away that Qingdao's beaches are nothing special... The beaches have been named "No. 1 Bathing Beach, No 2 Bathing Beach" and so on till number 6 - the beach in the old center. All six beaches become an anthill of bathing people in July and August and therefore are not very suitable to either sunbathe or swim in the sea. Rather, they present an ongoing show that begs to be observed. Indeed, I cannot take my eyes off of it.
Buses full of Chinese people that are all on holiday in their own country, from far and wide in search of the fresh sea air, have taken every square meter of beach. Amazingly many Chinese, because they cannot swim, float around colorful bands and do not go into the sea more than a few meters. The anti-shark net testifies of the cautious Chinese. Not very inviting, Qingdaobut a feast for the eye to watch from the upper promenade. Fortunately, the excess of Chinese holidaymakers are made up by the notable absence of western tourists: we see just three during our five day stay.

To have a real swim, one day we get on the bus to a remote corner of the city, Shilaoren beach, an hour's drive from the center. Shilaoren also lies at the foot of a forest of high rise flats, but the beach is much wider, there is room for everyone and the water is a lot cleaner. On the rocky parts, we see families bent over looking for something. Each stone is being lifted. They show us the contents of the buckets: tiny crabs inhabit the soil.

Least Chinese city of China

Another reason to arouse our interest in this city is the fact that Qingdao is reputed to be the least Chinese city of China.Qingdao The city could just as well be situated in Germany. Qingdao ("green island"), was just a small fishing village, when in1897 two unfortunate German missionaries were murdered. At a time when the Chinese empire was about to fall apart, this was reason enough for the German Emperor Wilhelm II to directly send troops to occupy the area. Qingdao was a refuge for the German fleet. Soon the were working hard to expand the city. There came a hotel, a governor's mansion and, of course, a brewery. Tsingtao (the way the Germans pronounced the city's name and thus the ancient name of the town) was brewed from a German beer recipe and is still today the most popular beer in Asia. But at that time, the beer was exclusively brewed for the tens of thousands of marine soldiers stationed in Qingdao.
Eventually the Germans were evicted in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, by the Japanese. In turn, the Japanese were put outdoors in 1922 again by the Chinese, only to get a hold of the city once more during the Second World War. With the arrival of the communists in 1949, Qingdao finally joined China again. During the Cultural Revolution, the situation got tough again. While the Red Guards of Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976 put in motion the total destruction China's own cultural heritage, the unique architecture of Qingdao was miraculously spared due to the simple fact that the guards were dead scared of the soldiers stationed here. The guards did manage to btear down the crosses from the towers of the Catholic Church, but the God-fearing people of Qingdao managed to rescue and hide those in the mountains.


Interesting piece of history

Although the modern city is gaining ground rapidly, and the endless rows of skyscrapers are increasing every year, the old town still presents an interesting piece of history. And the center is so small, you can visit everything easily on foot. Here you will not only find the beautiful old train station, but also the Catholic Church, the Protestant church, the old lighthouse and the pier with its graceful Huilan pavilion. Just outside the city on the edge of the extensive Xinhaoshan Park, is the Qingdao Ying Binguan, the eccentric German governor's mansion which looks more like a Bavarian castle. When Emperor Wilhelm II received the bill for the construction of this house, he was so shocked at the excessive amount that he fired the governor on the spot. Today, the beds in the bedrooms have not been altered since Mao Zedong stayed here with his family in 1957; the house was functioning as a state hotel in those days.
At the highest point in this park you will find Mógu Lou, an observatory in the shape of red mushrooms featuring a rotating platform with a great 360 degree view over the town. The city features many more parks. One of the best is hilly Taipingshan Park, where the largest temple of Qingdao can be found, the Zhanshan temple, a huge complex with an abundance of Buddhist statues, prayer rooms and prayer wheels.


A visit to the Tsingtao Brewery No.1 is a must. Here you can not only see how the beer was once brewn, but also you can walk through a glass corridor to take a look at the factory as it is still running. Traditionally, the beer is being brewed with the clear mineral water from the Lao Shan mountains. Since 1991 a beer festival is being held each year, following Munich's tradition. In the street, the Dengzhou Lu, you'll find plenty of cafes and bars, and this street is therefore called Beerstraat. Tsingtao beer is available around the world.
Besides beer, Qingdao has everything to offer in terms of seafood. In front of the many stalls you will find rows of colored plastic buckets on the sidewalk where different - strange and alien - creatures crawl until you come to pick them out for a meal. In the underground market in the old center people sell not only sea shells, jewelry, toys, fruit and slippers, but also various living creatures. Naturally, as compassionate Dutch citizens, we are in shock, especially when we see those cute little turtles sold by the plastic bag. And we wonder, will we ever get used to this?


Qingdao is a port city about 900 kilometers southeast of Beijing, situated on the Yellow Sea in Shandong Province. With the CRH (China Railway High-speed) train from Beijing you can reach the city in less than 6 hours. Book your train ticket in the high season well in advance. Qingdao We bought the ticket for the journey one day in advance and could not get seats - then there is nothing else to do but sink down on your backpack in the hall. The train leaves from the huge South Station of Beijing, which has the appearance of an airport. A single trip with the CRH train costs 275 RMB (Yuan), which equals approximately 27,50 Euro (in 2009).
Qingdao is served by many city buses, but traffic in the narrow streets of the center is a pain. Distances are long and a bus ride can be very time consuming. It is possible to sleep in the first hotel of Qingdao built by the Germans. The former Prince Heinrich Hotel is now called the Zhan Qiao Hotel and is beautifully located on the promenade of the old town.

© 2009 Monique van Gaal
The dutch version of this story has been published in Azië Magazine, June / July / August 2010.