Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cheers from the past: A visit to Qingdao

In “The End of History Illusion,” Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson measured the “personalities, values, and preferences” of nearly 20,000 people from the ages of 18 to 68. All “believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future.” Try as I might, I suspect that I likewise would’ve fallen neatly into this sample.

Ten years ago, I had never been to Mongolia or Aruba and couldn’t have imagined my current relationship to these two places. In fact, I spent most of my time editing math books and pitching travel articles! This post was originally sold to Rezoom, a relatively short-lived site designed for aging baby boomers . . . 

Cheers from Qingdao

Because we were never properly introduced, I called him “The Screamer.” Nobody else paid any attention to the guy, who stood facing the Yellow Sea, bellowing a full-throated challenge to the dawn. With his mouth closed, he would have been just another member of the early-morning crowd—the women in one-piece tank suits and bathing caps, the men in nylon briefs—most of them over 50 years old and exhibiting no concern with either the chilly October temperatures or the American obsession with body image. They fished, swam, jogged, played volleyball, practiced gymnastic routines. While he screamed. I’m sure there was a reason for all the shouting, but I couldn’t muster enough Mandarin to ask.

I hadn’t learned much beyond the basics before this trip, just the traveler’s bare minimum of nihao (hello), xiexie (thank you), and yingwen maidan (English menu). That’s probably insufficient for a visit to some of China’s so-called “second-tier” cities, but it seemed to work in Qingdao, the cheerful home of what might be China’s most widely recognized foreign export: Tsingtao Beer. Despite the current difference in spelling, the name of the city and the brand are the same. Literally translated, Qingdao signifies “green island,” although it also sounds suspiciously like a word meaning “to pour.” Fortunately for vacationers, both definitions apply.

Although Shanghai and Beijing capture most of China’s first-time visitors, a smaller city like Qingdao can provide a less overwhelming introduction to the mainland. Its history mirrors that of the other former concessions in China: colonized by Europeans (in this case, Germans), invaded by Japanese (twice), liberated first by Nationalists, then by Communists, and most recently, by Capitalists. There are no tourist destinations on the order of Tiananmen Square or the Bund, but the city does have a lively pedestrian market, a regional cuisine based on fresh seafood, a fine old temple that’s been converted into a museum of folk customs—and much better air. Our well-traveled, sometimes finicky family of four, including a 9-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, was never bored.

The most-quoted description of Qingdao goes something like this: “red roofs, green trees, blue sea, azure sky.” Not your typical jingle for an industrial city of 7 million, but stroll along Lu Xun Park’s seaside paths or hike to the top of Signal Hill and you will immediately recognize the aptness of this expression. 

There are still crowds, of course, but the density during our visit rarely surged past an entertaining level. I like watching people enjoy themselves—especially in China, where the faces are astonishingly varied and various: newlyweds posing for a photographer, formally attired in flawless white (except for the tennis shoes); grandmothers and grandsons, trousers rolled to the knee, netting crabs in tidepools; decorous old men airing their caged birds in a neighborhood square. As for the Screamer, who knows? Maybe he was really a cheerleader, practicing for 2008, when Qingdao hosted the sailing events for China’s first Olympic Games.

We stayed at the Huiquan Dynasty Hotel, for its strategic location—across the street from the No. 1 Beach. (From west to east, the city’s beaches are designated 6, 1, 2, and 3, in that order. The relatively quiet No. 2 became our family favorite.) We started each day with breakfast in the revolving restaurant on the 25th floor, then returned in the evening for foot massages, a few games of shuffleboard, or a bucket of balls at the indoor driving range.

Hotel restaurants in China can occasionally surprise you with good value and high quality. The Japanese restaurant at the Huiquan Dynasty served reasonably tasty sashimi, udon, and yakitori. Its Chinese counterpart, however, provided the sort of memories that will be forever accompanied by a rueful chuckle. The waitstaff alternated between staring and inattention. The dish we can’t forget was called “Laoshan vegetable,” after the famous nearby mountain. Intrigued by its spongy, almost fungal, texture, I made several inquiries regarding its source and preparation. All were in vain.

We enjoyed a much more satisfying feed at Chun He Lou (Spring Peace House), 146 Zhongshan Road. Although a plaque declared this “A Designated Unit for Foreign Tourists,” we noticed only one other obvious foreigner in the crowded, second-floor dining rooms. The house specialties included crispy chicken, crab with ginger and scallions, three-flavored dumplings, and chrysanthemum leaves with garlic.

West of Lu Xun Park, open-air seafood restaurants lined the road to the Navy Museum and Xiaoqingdao (Little Green Island). The day’s offerings were displayed curbside in rows of aerated tubs. You made your selections from this living, splashing menu, then chose the style of cooking. The best meal of the trip featured tender clams seasoned with small red chilies, scallops steamed in the shell, hairy crabs trussed with palm fibers, and several tall bottles of cold Tsingtao beer. All of that, plus a fine view of Huiquan Bay.

The Tsingtao Beer Museum traces the history of malt beverages from the ancient Sumerians forward to the contemporary Clydesdales. Between encounters with traditional fermentation vats and the “mystic yeast,” you could also pick up a few tips on beer appreciation, such as “serious swirling might easily be thought pretentious.” The 50 yuan admission fee included a souvenir glass, a taste of unfiltered brew, and a pitcher of draft. As the saying goes, “History is centuries old, but Tsingtao Beer will be fresh forever.”

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