China can be a daunting destination for any traveler. It is still the sleeping dragon just emerging from some 3,000 years of inscrutable history to greet 1.4 billion souls as well as cities of cranes and armies of coders and light-speed manufacturing capabilities.
Qingdao (yes, that’s the same Tsingtao of beer fame), is one of those cities making the great leap forward from its spot on the eastern coast of the country along the shores of the Yellow Sea. New non-stops from Los Angeles on Xiamen Airlines are making the city all the more accessible, although it is a mere 90-minute flight from Seoul and 4.5 hours by high speed rail from Beijing.
However, Qingdao has been on the map of Western business enterprises for more than a century. German and Austrian capitalists found it perfect for making beer from the plethora of artesian wells populating the geography. To date, Tsingtao remains one of China’s principal exports. A tour of the original factory tells a tantalizing story of European influence and the neighborhoods that lace the city still bare the neo-modernist touches of the turn of the last century with mansions and office buildings that look like chalets, and wide stone plazas set for Euro-style coffee sipping and gathering.
Those pockets of former European grandeur are complemented by centuries-old Taoist temples atop winding and narrow city streets that give view to the east of Laoshan National Park and then the calm, sheltered beaches of Qingdao. At night, Qingdao lights up like Times Square with high rise buildings and unusual sphere sculptures that turn into flowing canvases of LED artistry.
East Meets West
A Westerner could feel at home in Qingdao. Shopping malls with Starbuck’s, McDonald’s and pizza counters vie with stores selling New Balance shoes and Apple products. But Qingdao is very much a Chinese city of some 10 million people. Visitors will find a very vibrant metropolis that is as modern and contemporary as it is traditional, where tea houses abound and little English is spoken. For travelers who want to experience the city as a local, Qingdao is wide open. There are few foreign faces there, yet a westerner will not feel obtrusive. Rather, they will receive subtle respect and gain an overwhelming sense of safety.
The city is clean and fresh with a comfortable ocean breeze and a pedestrian walkway along the shore that goes on for miles and miles. Top points of interest around Qingdao include St. Michael’s Church, a circa-1932 Catholic cathedral built in classic neo-gothic tradition, where daily mass is still given.
The Bookhouse by the church is a great place to wander and think. It’s a former Baroque-style mansion that is now a bookstore, gift shop and comfortable mid-century showcase with a rooftop coffee terrace and a special room given over to walls of post-it notes with wishes on them.
From there, a visit to the Tsingtao Beer Museum is in order. It’s a multidimensional complex telling the history of the popular beverage with holograms and life-like dioramas, finishing up, happily, in the tasting room. The experience can be followed by lunch at the museum where onion rings, fries and burgers can be munched with chop sticks and downed with golden pitchers of Tsingtao beer.
Qingdao is the largest city in Shandong, but Shandong is a formidable province in its own right, one of 23 in the country, and one that has played a major role in Chinese early history along the lower reaches of the Yellow River. It was a location for the development of Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism. A visit to Qingdao should be complemented by travel to some of Shandong’s more compelling spots, such as the birthplace of Confucius and Mount Tai, a revered mountain for Buddhism and Taoist worship.
Geographically, the province rivals state of Georgia in size with nearly 2,000 miles of coastline. Close to Qingdao (a two- to three-hour drive or two-hour rail ride) is the “Fairyland Coast” of northeast Shandong, which juts from the coast between the Bohai, Huanghai and Yellow seas like a hand reaching out to Seoul, some 400 miles away. There, find the Penglai Pavilion that is considered one of the four great pavilions of China. It sits atop Danya Hill, covered by centuries-old Cyprus trees and overlooking the confluence of the waters. A guide will spin tales of the gods who inhabit the various pavilions. A massive gift shop at the end is a good place to buy area wines, carvings, exotic fruits and trinkets.
Or one can taste the wines at the source. Yantai, on the northern flank of the Fairyland Coast, has become China’s wine capital thanks to the work of Chang-yu Pioneer Wine Company, the country’s oldest and largest winery, in the late 19th century. The terroir of this region compares to Bordeaux and the “chateaux” of the region pour bottles of attention-grabbing cabernets, rieslings and chardonnays. While the tastes cater to more local preferences, the viticulture in China is catching on for tourism. A tour of the Chang-yu wine museum brings post-tour tastings and a chance to contemplate the new 1,000-acre $870 million Disney-style wine theme park in the works from the room-size model. It will bring a palatial chateau, a “wine scrapper,” a research institute, a wine production facility and a number of bars and restaurants.
Treasures of the Interior
Farther afield, but very much of interest, is the city of Jinan that can be reached via a two-hour, high-speed train ride from Qingdao (five hours by car). This is Shandong’s capital, a magical city of waters — geothermal mineral waters that bubble from deep in the earth. The healthy waters can be enjoyed from gurgling fountains, in tea, in the local cuisine and in spas around the city.
Xiamen Air is offering a complimentary roundtrip ticket to Jinan from Qingdao on China’s high-speed rail line to travelers taking the LAX-DAO nonstop flight. Business Class passengers will enjoy the rail’s 2×2 first-class car service. Coach passengers will ride in comfortable coach class on the rail line with seats in two by three configurations, a bar car, clean bathrooms (although squatting toilets), and continuous sales carts of food and beverage offerings.
Another day trip or circuit trip from Jinan is Qufu, about two hours from the city. Its importance stems from its backdrop as the birthplace of Confucius with the teacher’s family mansion, temple and family cemetery as the main attractions. This area, along with Mt. Tai and the Grand Canal, comprise the three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Shandong.
While getting to Qingdao is now easy, travel around Shandong might best be managed with through a knowledgeable inbound travel service. The best option is China International Travel Service, CITS. Visit http://www.discoveryqingdao.com/ for information on Shandong Provincial Tourism Promotion, Xiamen Airlines or flight deals to China. For those who are passing through but want to see the sites of Qingdao and even Jinan, it is possible to get a 72-hour visa at the airport upon landing.
Note: Various vendors included in this article hosted the writer, however this content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.
Lark Gould, a veteran travel writer, covers destinations near and far, mostly from the window seat. Check out eTravel.news for updates.