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[Outbound]: Qingdao

So fresh, so clean... Cheap beer, good seafood and merry, knife-wielding locals, it's all there in China's official happiest city, Qingdao.
2012-12-11 11:53:21

If you live in Shanghai for a while, you need to leave sometimes or you’ll go crazy. Not only that, but you may start to think of Shanghai as China, and China as Shanghai, and forget that life is way different in other cities — especially in the north.

A six-hour train journey landed us in Qingdao, a city in Shandong full of old European architecture, parks and public spaces, nice locals, surrounded by the sea and all its treasures, and boasting — most notably — cheap draft beer and clean air. Even in these cold months, it makes a fresh break from Shanghai.

Built on hills overlooking the Yellow Sea, Qingdao feels like bits of Hong Kong, Chongqing and San Francisco rolled into one. The city was a German colony from 1898-1914, so that’s a major influence on the architecture and, of course, the beer. It ranked as China’s happiest city in 2012 (Shanghai ranked number 99), and that was reflected by the folk we encountered. It’s the north, so women drink beer and men act like men. Locals in general are much, much friendlier than those in Shanghai, but you wouldn’t want to start a fight here because people will actually fight, not just talk shit. That said, we talked with lots of characters in town and found everyone warm and approachable.

If you’ve lived in China for a while and can speak OK Mandarin, you’re gonna be like “damn, these people are so chill.” All of them, across the age and class spectrum, have stories and opinions and are willing to talk about something other than housing prices.

Late Saturday night after dancing at Downtown Bar (100 NanJing Lu) to songs called Just The Tip and Wo Shouji Zai Nali?, we talked with a middle-aged business guy for hours at the seafood market over a giant grilled squid and an 8rmb pitcher of draft beer. He showed us where he’d been shot with a homemade gun as a kid, then told the story of a recent encounter on the bus, when he spotted a thief and alerted a potential victim, an ayi. Not one but four displeased thieves followed him off the bus and removed razor blades from their mouths ready to get even, so our dude pulled out his own knife with some “do you really wanna do this?” They didn’t, so that was that.

His most memorable line was “In America, when a person sees someone better off than them, they try to reach their level. In Japan, they try to exceed their level, and in China… they just kill them.”

Apart from the excellent people and the beer, Qingdao has incredible food. I never ate a shrimp until I was 17 years old, but Qingdao just converted me to seafood. The fish, oysters, squid, starfish, seafood wonton / jiaozi and sea urchin were so fresh and so cheap. We had a whole grilled hei yu (black fish, 36rmb) on our first night that tasted fresher than anything I’ve had in five years here in Shanghai.

We spent the rainy Sunday afternoon eating special food at a market called Pichaiyuan (Zhongshan Lu, Shinan District), which is like a small Yuyuan that doesn’t suck. We had starfish, a soup with pig organs and gelated pigs’ blood, plus sea urchin cooked with egg inside. You can try grilled silkworms there, too.

A jiejie selling seafood told us that once a laowai bought a grilled starfish from her, chewed up three of the legs, and then asked why it tasted so bad. She showed us how to crack open the star and eat the bits inside, which look like taco meat but don’t have much taste, really. Actually, we ate this huge seafood meal and then afterwards realized there was a tray of special spices we should have used. Major bummer. So look out for that spice tray because it’s probably good.

If you don’t like seafood, the regular dongbei and jia chang cai is dank, too. We hollered at classics like yu xiang qiezi (鱼香茄子, stir-fried eggplant with fish fragrance) and di san xian (第三线 地三鲜, potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers). The lamb kidneys were superb, but the standard yangrou chuan (羊肉串儿, lamb kebab) was meh. Paigu fan (排骨米饭, pork ribs in soup with rice) is a must-order. Pig organ soup with gelated pigs’ blood and five special ingredients (爆肚儿)? No really, it’s good, a thick soup with peanut sauce and ma la tripe plus cubes of blood that makes a nice way to warm up on a rainy Sunday afternoon in old alleyways.

Beer is everywhere and cheap. We had some amazing, almost creamy draft beer to pair up with the fish jiaozi, shrimp wontons and starfish. This was Qingdao Augerta, the flagship Qingdao beer, weighing in at 4.7% alcohol.

Thanks to some historic preservation, the downtown is full of beautiful old buildings, many covered in ivy and vines and some apparently vacant. Walking around the city was a pleasure so we didn’t use cabs often, but they start at 9rmb and increase slowly. There’s no subway yet, but it’s coming soon and the buses go everywhere; they have character and cost 1rmb. Compared to Shanghai, there are less tall buildings, more hills, better air, and a lack of big apartment complexes downtown. Public spaces and parks are everywhere. Hardly saw any litter.

In the summer, the ocean is a major pull, but even a cold beach in December is more fun that it sounds. Nice sunset, for sure. On Saturday evening we walked way out on a pier and heard this exchange between two young Chinese dudes: A: “Why is the ocean so wet?” B: “Because you fucked it.”

The only (mild) disappointment was Qingdao Music Square, which was not nearly as impressive as we imagined. Touted as “the biggest music square in China,” I was hoping for a huge ayi dance party like those in Fuxing or Zhongshan Park, but we found no such affair. Still, pretty cool, and we shot some BB guns at stuff and rode bikes around by the sea.

We spent our last hours wandering around looking at old buildings under a full moon and climbed the steep old steps to the Qingdao Christian Church (Jiangsu Lu, Shinan District), built in 1903. We didn’t want to interrupt the service to see the main room so we snuck up two tall staircases in the pitch dark to the top of the bell tower (open during the day for visitors over 6 and under 70 years old). The top was eerie; the only light beaming from an iPhone flashlight app.

On our descent, we heard a “Hey, who’s that?” and tried to hide, but the elderly clergyman with cat’s eyes had been in that church for longer than we’d been alive and he found us easily. He was upset initially, but then happy to show us around. The whole experience was a bit spooky, though, creeping around the top of this dark old church bell tower in the cold night and getting caught by ol’ cat eyes.

Qingdao isn’t a raging city, but if you want to escape to a clean, hilly land of old European buildings, parks, seafood, the beach and good people, it’s the spot, even at this time of year. I can’t speak for the summer months or beer festivals, which are probably rad, too, but on quiet days on the cusp of winter and fall, Qingdao was peaceful, memorable and simply different than Shanghai.

Better than Xiamen, anyway, which some rate as equally chill.

Getting There and Where to Stay:

The six-hour train from Hongqiao Station to Qingdao’s Old Train Station in the hills of the city center was 520rmb one-way (soft seat). Avoid the beef jerky — it’s covered in meat floss. The coffee is surprisingly decent.

The 1.3-hour flight back on Spring Airlines was 540rmb including everything. Tickets can be found for cheaper. Spring Airlines charges 5rmb for a water; still miffed bout that.

We stayed at Qingdao Old Observatory Youth Hostel (Guanxiang Er Lu, Shinan District), that gave us a private room for two at 120rmb a night. It’s atop a hill overlooking the old city, a nice place with friendly staff and a big white dog named Wilson, who is terminally chill but needed a bath (he got one on Sunday). Rooms were clean and warm. The rooftop restaurant with an amazing view serves 10rmb draft beer and Western food made by an affable cook who told us he went to find a 夜炮 (a one-night stand) the night before.

All pictures by Cecilia Chan