Never mind Beijing: several other Chinese cities are hosting Olympic events this year. Among them is Qingdao, one of the country’s most pleasant cities, and one that will soon be taking center stage as it hosts the sailing events in the atmospheric Fushan Bay. Qingdao is probably one of the many cities in China you’ve never considered visiting for a fun weekend away, yet it offers all the ingredients for a delicious escape from Tokyo. Despite its lack of fame, it is well worth your time.
Why? Shanghai’s French Concession gets a lot of press for being the most European urban district in China thanks to its occupation by les Français during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Far lesser known, but just as intriguing, is this former German territory, capital of Shandong Province, located between Beijing and Shanghai. In a country not known for its environmental integrity, Qingdao is as much a figurative breath of fresh air as it is a literal one. People here are far less harried than in Beijing or Shanghai; the calming presence of some of China’s finest beaches discourages stress and encourages conviviality.
History buffs and beer swillers alike will take Qingdao to heart. To this day, Qingdao carries on the German tradition of fine brewing. The city, perhaps more familiar to cosmopolitan beer drinkers as Tsingtao, hosts a popular beer festival to see out the end of summer.
The vestiges of Qingdao’s German legacy are visible all around its historical district—the German presence in the city’s Old Town is marked and well preserved in St. Michael’s Cathedral and its vicinity. You would be forgiven for thinking you had been transported back to Bavaria upon catching sight of the hulking Governor’s Mansion, a gorgeous villa formerly used as a guest residence for state visitors and now open to the public as a museum, providing an interesting glimpse of a China past in which Asian and European officials enjoyed a privileged existence.
Take a turn into the Badaguan area and instantly feel like you’re in the countryside. Here, unusually for urban China, big homes have big yards and big trees. Nearby is another of the monumental buildings of years gone by: the Qingdao City Art Museum, housing a considerable collection of Western, Islamic and Chinese pieces. To take the city in all at once, visit the top of Signal Hill for an impressive view. Also unusual for China, being outdoors is one of the city’s most appealing aspects. Beachfront paths rise to become cliff-edge promenades and continue along the entire waterfront.
May 4 Park is a focal point for outdoor pursuits. A vast expanse of greenery edging the water, the park sees activities of all types taking place within its realm; it’s a haven for youthful skateboarders, senior tai chi enthusiasts, and pedestrians alike. Very few tourists though; other than business travelers, there are surprisingly few international visitors to Qingdao, which makes a visit here all the more exotic.
So what were the Germans doing in China, anyway? As with other European powers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germany, too, was keen to have colonies of its own to exploit, though its assemblage of such far-flung outposts of Teutonic rule as Namibia and German New Guinea never quite matched the vast empires of the French or the British. A port was established in 1897 in the new German concession ceded by the Qing rulers, and the colony flourished until the beginning of World War I. Today, Qingdao is a peaceful city where the locals enjoy a high quality of life. German influence extended beyond Qingdao into Shandong Province, but Qingdao remains the finest example of extraterritorial German architecture in the world.
For a quick taste of home, Qingdao Shangri-la has the best croissants and pains au chocolat in all of China. Who knew? Do not under any circumstances miss the hotel’s Executive Lounge breakfast buffet, which will set you up for a full day of exploring this seaside town with a colorful past.
The massive Qingdao Liuting International Airport (www.qdairport.com) may be mistaken for a family of gigantic, clawed crabs rising out of the surrounding fields, but it is in fact one of the many new airport facilities being cut and pasted across the Chinese infrastructure landscape. With so much space, it is no surprise that the Qingdao facility has great air connections to Tokyo with All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, as well as links to other domestic and international destinations in and out of China. This year’s beer festival takes place Sept 19-Oct 5 at the appropriately named Qingdao International Beer City. For accommodation, those with the means should look no further than Qingdao Shangri-la (www.shangri-la.com), located a few short blocks from the waterfront, where the enormous May 4 Park is populated by equally enormous sculptures. The hotel can arrange a car, driver, and guide to take you around town, an efficient way to cover the area while being given insight into what you are seeing.
Owners of thinner wallets should check the wonderfully comprehensive Sinohotel website (www.sinohotel.com) for good prices on hotel rooms in Qingdao and elsewhere in China. Travel China Guide (www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/shandong/qingdao) is a helpful source for information about Qingdao’s many attractions.