Mention Tsingtao to any Thai and they’ll immediately know you’re talking about China’s best-known beer. Say Qingdao, though, and you’re likely to get a blank look even though it is from this city that the famed beer hails and its name is in fact a homophone of Qingdao.
Siting on the south coast of Shandong, a coastal province of the People’s Republic of China and part of the East China region, Qingdao is an attractive city, home to plenty of interesting architecture and oozing with European charm thanks its brief 16-year stint as a German colony. The climate too is European, and during my first visit earlier this month, I could feel the winter chill as well as admire rich autumn colours never seen in tropical climes.
The best way to explore Qingdao, one of China’s most beautiful and clean cities, is on foot. I start my visit by strolling around the German Old Town making my way along European-style streets and boulevards and eventually arriving at St Michael’s Cathedral, which stands at the top of a hill and is a reminder now, as it was then, of the strong German presence in Shandong in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Listed by the government as a provincial historic building in 1992, it is a much-loved destination for pre-wedding photo shoots.
Also popular with the soon-to-be-married is the Badaguan (Eight Passes) Scenic Area, which is characterised by the fantastic mixture of garden scenery and courtyard beauty. I’m told that tourists can see a pink sea of peach trees in spring at Shaoguan Road and soft lavender myrtle flowers in summer at Zheng Yangguan Road. For now though, the eyes can feast on bright yellow maples at Ju Yongguan Road and the majestic evergreen cedar trees that line Zi Jinguan Road. Badaguan is also known as an “Exhibition of the World’s Architecture” due to a wide range of architectural styles from more than 20 countries, among them Russian, English, French, German, Japanese, and Danish, the latter portrayed through the attractive dream-like Princess’s House.
From the Catholic Church, I walk towards Anna Villa, once a private residence and now the city’s first private bookstore. Soon I arrive at a local food street, Pichai Yuan, which was built at the turn of the 19th century during the German occupation of Qingdao and restored in 2007 to represent the original Qingdao culture. Stalls line both sides, offering a variety of local delicacies such as spicy grilled squid, starfish, sea urchin hidden under a layer of egg custard, and river crabs, priced at 10-20 yuan (Bt50 and Bt100).
My next stop is the former German governor’s residence, which is now a museum. It was constructed in 1903 in the style of a German palace at an incredibly high cost – 1 billion yuan in today’s money I’m told – because all the construction materials were imported from Germany. Its interior is characteristic of Jugendstil, the German arm of art nouveau, with some German and Chinese furnishings of the era. In 1957, it served as the residence of Chairman Mao with his wife and kids on a family holiday.
The following day I turn my attention to the sea and wander along the coast, arriving first at the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Centre. The sailing marina located on the former site of the Beihai Shipyard in Fushan Bay was constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics and hosted both the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events.
Nearby is May Fourth Square is located between the municipal government building and Fushan Bay and named after the nationwide protest May Fourth Movement that started in Qingdao. It is recognized by the spiral red sculpture entitled “Wind of May” though this is, unfortunately, undergoing renovations.
Zhanqiao Pier is another historic symbol of Qingdao. At the south end of the bridge is Huilan Pavilion, a Chinese-style octagonal pavilion, which is in complete contrast to European buildings in the background.
During my stroll I see several signs for public toilets around as well as closed-circuit televisions, both set up to make tourists feel comfortable and safe.
And there are many good reasons why tourists should come to Qingdao, among them the weather, the fresh seafood and plenty of Tsingtao beer. I sample the seafood at Steam Delicious, dining on steamed shells, big crab, and beef before finishing the meal with a rice soup. I also try mala, a soup so spicy it’s numbing at Dezhuang. The guide tells me that tourists also enjoy the dumplings at Chuange Fish Dumpling.
A trip to Qingdao wouldn’t be completed without a stop at the famous Tsingtao Beer Museum, which has created its own history and culture for the last 100 years. This museum is an Occidental two-storey red building constructed in 1903 by Germans and is one of a few typical Gothic constructions within the city. On the tour, I acknowledge its history through sepia and black & white photographs, cultural relics from both home and abroad, and Tsingtao beer from different eras.
Brewing ingredients like barley, brown malt and hops are also on display and the sculptures of staff in the workplace vividly represent the making process.
Visitors can also sample the various freshly brewed beers and buy a great variety of souvenirs.