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East Asian Immersion: Qingdao part I

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After our great experience with Dalian we were energized to continue with another mid-sized coastal Chinese city. Of course, in China mid-sized means 5-10 million people which would be the largest city of most countries. These cities may not be well-known internationally but the sheer number and density of residents means that there are always interesting things to do and see. Qingdao is on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, which along with the Liaodong Peninsula to the north separates the Yellow Sea from the Bohai Sea.

Like Dalian, Qingdao occupies its own smaller sub-peninsula but is not anywhere near as isolated from the mainland. Aside from the roads leading north to the rest of the Shandong Peninsula, Qingdao is connected to the Huangdao District to the west by a tunnel and the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world. To the east of Qingdao are Laoshan Mountain and the surrounding national park, which is filled with Taoist temples, mountain springs, and waterfalls.

Once again our Airbnb was in an upper floor of a tall apartment building, and our views from the balcony were the best we'd had in China. To the east we could see past some interesting skyscrapers to Qingdao Bay and then Huiquan Bay. To the north were a middle school and the tall apartment complexes of the Badaxia residential district and to the south we had wide open views of Tuandao Bay and the Yellow Sea. The most interesting feature of the apartment itself was a hanging bubble chair in a sunny alcove of the main bedroom. The last thing we did every morning before leaving the apartment was to pry the kids out of it.

Meiling was able to find two night markets in Qingdao. Naturally we went to the larger one on our first night, even though it was a long haul by bus. The boys conked out as soon as a seat opened up for them.

As son as we got off the bus at Taidong it was clear that we were at a major evening destination. We arrived at a wide pedestrian street lined with boutiques and neon billboards and packed with people. We passed by a beer store where people were buying plastic bags full of beer from a huge keg. I won't even drink beer from a plastic cup, let alone a bag, so we compromised on a small plastic cask. I found the beer hard to drink as it was warm and had a strong fermented taste, not at all like the Tsingtao that comes in bottles.

The Taidong night market occupied two side streets off the main pedestrian boulevard, and it was a tour de force of Chinese street food. The number of vendors and variety of food were overwhelming, as were the dense crowds moving through the narrow lanes between the stalls. Fresh fruit and shellfish were especially impressive. The main challenge was making sure we didn't get too full before we were sure there was nothing else we wanted to try.

By the time we got back out to the pedestrian street darkness had settled but the crowds showed no sign of abating. One particularly interesting sight was the enormous and intricate murals painted on many of the apartment buildings that lined the street. The murals obviously represented some kind of coordinated municipal effort but such ostentatious decoration seemed quite out of character in China. I was reminded of the huge wall murals we saw in Spain or even the luftmalerei of Bavaria.

Our Airbnb in Badaxia was somewhat remote from the center, necessitating a bus trip to get to most of the Qingdao's attractions. Fortunately we were within walking distance of the city's largest municipal market, which provided an amazing array of produce and seafood within a cavernous warehouse.

The best part of the market was the food court, where we were able to bring our own seafood purchases and have them cooked to order. One thing that had changed from our last visit to China was that almost anything in markets could be purchased using WhatsApp. All that was necessary was a cell phone to take a picture of the vendor's QR code and a Chinese bank account, which we had access to through Mei Ling's family. Apparently the system is much less susceptible to fraud than using credit cards. We bought the most interesting and appetizing stuff we could find and the restaurant turned it into a delicious seafood feast.

There are several coastal areas which have been called the Chinese Riviera, but Qingdao is the only one that I know of in the north of the country. The southern coast of the city facing the Yellow Sea is composed of a series of semicircular bays that allowed the formation of long beaches. Since we live in Miami we don't travel for beaches, but our kids never get tired of them and it can be fun to experience the activity on the busy boardwalks. Qingdao has numerous beaches that are generally referred to by numbers, and I never bothered to figure out which was which. One of the most popular was the one on Qingdao Bay, just a short walk from the center of town. The sand was an uninviting shade of dark brown but there were a lot of people sitting on the beach in street clothes and dipping their feet at the shoreline.

At the eastern end of the beach is a long pier called Zhanqiao which projects into the center of the bay, and at the end of the pier is a traditional Chinese octagonal pavilion. People were lined up outside the pavilion for a historical photography exhibition which we passed on. From the pier we could see the island Xiao Qingdao (little Qingdao) which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Xiao Qingdao consists of a small park and a lighthouse, which wasn't enough to attract us for a visit.

The busiest road in central Qingdao is Zhongshan Road, which dives into the city opposite from the entrance to Zhanqiao. Several blocks north of the beach we spotted one of Qingdao's iconic landmarks, St. Michael's Cathedral. The cathedral is a remnant of the brief period of German control over Qingdao in the early twentieth century. Although the Germans lost their concession at the outbreak of World War I, several buildings with German architectural influence are still present in Qingdao. Construction of the neo-Romanesque cathedral was eventually completed in 1934 using Catholic diocese funds. The building was substantially damaged during the Cultural Revolution, the saddest aspect of which was the destruction of the 2400-pipe church organ. The cathedral was subsequently restored at the government's own expense after the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution in the 1980's. The cathedral is possibly the most beautiful sight we encountered in Qingdao. From Zhongshan Road a wide cobblestone street leads up to a low hill where the church sits in an expansive square. It's a very popular place for group photos and the toy vendors make sure the air is never free of bubbles.

Another famous building in central Qingdao is the former German governor's residence. This mansion is so opulent that the governor who ordered its construction was forced to resign after the Kaiser received the bill. Despite the rapid arrival of sunset we raced through the streets trying to find the mansion before it was too dark to see. Unfortunately I couldn't use Google Maps because of the firewall and Apple Maps ... well, the less said the better. I had a VPN but it wasn't compatible with the Chinese cellular service we were using, so we were reduced to getting directions from bystanders which ultimately led us to the wrong building. Still, it was an interesting walk through an attractive part of Qingdao.

It was now dark and we never found the Governor's mansion. However I pulled this aerial photo off the internet so that you can see what we missed. The website I took the photo from has a wealth of information about the brief German colonial era.

The other major night market in Qingdao was back on Zhongshan Road, although the entrance was so low profile we had some difficulty locating it. Pi Chai Yuan was definitely more touristy than Taidong, but the setting in narrow alleys with bright and colorful signage was more visually appealing. The food also tended to be more exotic than in Taidong, probably to be more alluring to the tourists and their cameras. One dish I hadn't seen before was blocks of tofu that were covered with a wispy white fungus or mold that had been allowed to grow on them. Eventually we came across a vendor selling various deep fried bugs and other creepy-crawlies, which brought back fond memories of Xingshun night market in Shenyang two years earlier. We settled on a large scorpion and a couple of squishy caterpillars, of which the scorpion was definitely the more enjoyable.

We had been going nonstop on our first full day in Qingdao and we'd seen some great markets and scenery. The best part was that we still had two full days to go and plenty of things left on our itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:36 Archived in China

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