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Traveling in China during the May holiday is absolute mayhem. No one can get anywhere because everything is crammed full of people exercising their one week’s worth of annual vacation to go home and see their families. Going to Qingdao was the real purpose of my May holiday trip. We went to Yantai first as a detour with guaranteed lodging since, of course, things tend to book up quickly during May. Chinese people are always raving about how beautiful Qingdao is, and supposedly the best time to visit is in late spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom (We didn't see any but nevermind).
From Yantai, we decided against the Horrific Bus Ride, and instead chose a Horrific Train Ride. Granted, it was less horrific than the bus, but horrific it still was. It was a hard seat, which meant we were crammed in with people on all sides and were left sitting, in a hard, upright bench chair with nowhere to run. Luckily, the tickets were half price. While at the train station, we'd tried to inquire about getting train tickets back to Hangzhou, or even Shanghai, but all we got was a resounding mei you - there are none. This is Chinese ticket agents' favorite phrase, especially during holidays. We figured we'd just sort out the ticket situation after we got to Qingdao.
Qingdao is hosting the Olympic sailing events for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so the city was under construction. This meant that we apparently arrived to some train station on the outskirts of town, rather than the old station right downtown. Tired and worn from the Horrific Train Ride, touts were coming at us left and right as we walked out of the station, trying to get us to patronize their hotels and taxis. My friend reached her boiling point and snapped and screamed at one of them, "NO. LEAVE ME ALONE." It was a great moment. Despite our disdain of the touts, we didn't have any accommodation and didn't know what we'd find, so we just hopped into a taxi and asked to be taken to a main road in the center of town, as the guidebook suggested we could find cheap motels on some back streets near there.
All the while, I had been coming down with an icky cold and not feeling so hot. I desperately needed to get to a pharmacy, but we decided first things first, and found a small, dirty, but decent enough hotel for an okay price, considering the holidays. After viewing the room and bargaining the price down a little, we agreed and paid for our stay. The laobanya (boss lady) offered to help us secure our tickets home, and said she'd call some travel agents to see about the train to Shanghai. Feeling more confident, we went in search of food and a pharmacy.
I managed to get myself hyped up on Chinese antibiotics (sold over-the-counter) and something called niuhuang xiaoyan pian, a drug I knew little-to-nothing about the origins of. I had been given this drug before and it worked miracles on sore throats in the past. This time was no exception, as my sore throat and symptoms were virtually gone in 24 hours.
There are pretty much 4 things to do in Qingdao. The first is to admire the areas of town once occupied by the Germans after the Chinese coast was opened for colonization in the late 1800s. There is a lot of interesting German colonial architecture still in existence, like winding cobblestone streets and small boutiques. There is also the St. Michael's Catholic Church, a relic that was all but destroyed when Qingdao was "liberated" in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. The church is patronized by Chinese tourists whose lack of religious education makes them fairly ignorant about church culture. Mostly, people were snapping photos of the tawdry decorations, or pictures of their spouses in "I'm praying" poses, and reading the government’s party line descriptions about the various saints and church stuff.
The second thing to do in Qingdao is "go to the beach." By and large, Chinese people do not get the beach. First of all, most of them (especially women) are terrified of the sun because they do not want to become tanned. Really, many just fear the out-of-doors in general, and they don't really know what to do with the beach. So what you have in Qingdao are just thousands of tourists standing on the small spits of sand that they call beach there, wearing leisure suits and, dare I say it, yes high heels. Some sit down on the sand, fully clothed and covering themselves up with anything they can find for shade - hats, jackets, coats, sunglasses, sweaters, newspapers, plastic bags. Others venture as far as the water's edge and stand there, looking befuddled like, "Yep, there's the water. Hmmm."
To be fair, the water and beach are so polluted I wouldn't touch them with a ten foot pole. In fact, I relinquished my desire to put my feet into every sea and ocean during my world travels, fearing the toxic sludge of the Yellow Sea makes it appropriately named. We were also amused to see several men standing around in tight, Speedo bathing suits, smoking cigarettes. There were a grand total of 3 swimmers and those didn't go farther than waist deep.
Along with "ocean sightseeing" comes the third thing to do in Qingdao, which is to enjoy seafood. All the small streets and sidewalks are adorned with tiny restaurants. Outside there are rows of styrofoam containers sporting clams, muscles, squid and all kinds of other strange and interesting seafoods. We had some lovely dinners, including spicy shellfish (most likely small clams), seafood soup and crab.
The fourth thing and final thing to do in Qingdao, and by far the most interesting, is to visit the brewery of the famous Tsingtao beer, the only brew exported internationally out of China. It is widely available around the world, and even before coming to China, I had always really enjoyed it. The brewery was started by the Germans, which isn’t surprising considering the quality of the beer. Supposedly, the tantalizing waters of the nearby Laoshan Mountain are used in brewing Tsingtao; however, I suspect that practice has long since been abandoned. No matter because the beer still rocks. For 50 yuan, you get to walk through two museums, one about Qingdao's municipal history, and the other the actual museum-ified remnants of the original brewery, tanks and all. Then, you traipse through a raised concourse where you can observe the actual bottling area and see Tsingtao bottles being filled, capped, and labeled. You also get two taste tests, one halfway through after you've learned the basic brewing process, and one at the end in the "World of Tsingtao Bar." It should be noted that Tsingtao and Qingdao are two different Romanized spellings of the same Chinese word, the former being an earlier one and the latter being the currently used one. The beer company still uses the older Tsingtao spelling.
After an afternoon of malty goodness, we couldn't help but explore the pijiu jie (beer street) outside the brewery. Much to our chagrin, the street was unsurprisingly vacant of pubs and bars, but was simply lined with restaurants and various people too drunk to cross the street. We ended up in a tiny three table restaurant that had fresh Tsingtao on tap, and also offered bottles of Tsingtao dark beer, a stout that tasted sweet and almost oatmeal-y. My friend suggested it tasted like soy sauce, which I had to admit, was kind of true. The brewery was definitely the highlight of the trip, although the whole city had quite a nice, quaint feel.
By the end of the trip, there were still no train or bus tickets to be had anywhere, so we weren't disappointed to find incredibly cheap flights the mere night before our departure. We booked them, even though the flight was to Shanghai, which left us taking a bus the rest of the three hours to Hangzhou, and then another hour-long on the bus home. China ain't easy, but it's worth it.