|"Hook it to my veins!" - Bags of Tsingtao beer|
We were whisked from Beijing to Qingdao in record time on the fastest train of our trip yet. 888km (they must have gone out of the way to ensure the track length, as the number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture) in less than 6 hours, with a maximum speed of about 250km/h. Our first Chinese train of the journey and we were very impressed, lots of legroom and comfortable airline style seats even in second class. Got lost trying to find the hostel, ended up getting a taxi but we had foolishly written the address down in pinyin (Chinese in latin characters) only, which it turns out most Chinese taxi drivers can't read. After the taxi drove us around randomly for a while we got out, at which point I realised that if I brought up my email on my phone, the address would be on there in Chinese. The wonders of modern technology eh? Eventually we arrived to the hostel, in what had to be the best location in the city. On top of a hill, surrounded by parkland, the hostel was a converted observatory, complete with telescope still present in the bar area upstairs. There was also a rooftop terrace, so in theory there should have been very good views but unfortunately for the whole trip there was a low haze of dust and pollution (an all too common thing in Chinese cities sadly). After some Chinese barbeque grub we headed out to the pier, which is recognisable as the logo of the beer of the city's namesake (although spelt the old way - Tsingtao). The beer was of course one of the reasons we were here, as well as sea. After winter in Siberia I think we were a bit too keen in getting to the coast, and while pleasant the weather wasn't quite warm enough. On the way back to the hostel we discovered a pretty cool local food market selling fruit, veg, meat, fish (sea-fresh, no fishy smell!) and barbequed goodies, and also a local 'pub' complete with resident blind cat. It was a pub in the truest sense, as in a public house, literally a family serving beer straight from the keg in their living room. There were a few locals watching the tea-time soap, enjoying some seafood and of course a pint. And a guy giving himself a close shave with nail clippers, obviously his daily ritual along with his pint. For about 25p a pint we quaffed a couple of fresh Tsingtao's and people watched, while of course the Chinese did the same with us (in China it's not considered rude to stare it would seem) but it was a pretty friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
The next day was beer day! After a hearty 'English' breakfast (consisting of fried eggs, hot dog sausauge, about 15 beans and some charred bacon) on the rooftop terrace we headed to 'Beer Street' and took a look round the Tsingtao brewery. In all honesty the museum part was pretty boring, apart from some amusing sections seemingly thrown together by some high school interns such as how to appreciate beer (swirling the glass, but not in public as you might look a bit poncy) and some half-baked environmental corporate responsibility guff. But the real highlight was the bottling line. That doesn't sound so thrilling, but viewed from a walkway above it was pretty cool to see the bottles whizzing around on the conveyour belt, getting filled with beer, capped, labelled and boxed up. The only active jobs done by humans were watching the bottles go past a bright light to check there is nothing in them and a guy loading the can tops into the machine every few minutes (you'd think that with all that machinery and technology they'd have figured a way to automate this process but apparently not!). After that we got a taste of the beer unfiltered, just a more fuller flavour really as they are mainly brewing low strength lager. The best part though were the free beer peanuts, seasoned with yeast, hops and chilli. So after eating them you couldn't really taste the beer anyway. Beer Street itself was pretty dead, and basically consisted of lots of empty seafood restaurants, so instead we headed to our new local and grabbed a couple of bags of beer. Yes, that's not a mispelling! For takeaway purposes they sell litres of beer straight from the keg into clear bags, the kind of bags you get a the supermarket to put your vegetables in. Pouring them is fairly precarious, but we were well prepared with plastic glasses and enjoyed them in the park near our hostel (cue strange looks from the occassional passing local, the Chinese don't seem to drink in public parks like us Europeans, and in Russia it's probably considered strange behaviour if you don't walk down the street with a beer in your hand!).
On our final day we took a walk down the extensive boadwalks along the coast around Qingdao, from the older part of town to the business district with the flashy highrises and the soulness feeling common in these places wherever you are in the world - especially China as these areas have been thrown up in a matter of years. The walk was very pleasant, but even though it was a nice sunny day the visibility out to sea was really bad which was quite strange. We also saw the area where the Olympic Sailing events were held in 2008. Well, we could just about make out the huge Olympic rings across the harbour in the low cloud. We also enjoyed a baked sweet potato, a winter staple in China, the sellers have a makeshift oven on the back of bicycle made from an old oil drum, sold by weight. On our walk we also saw loads of Chinese newly weds (it being a Saturday) posing on the beach for photos, we must have seen about 30-40 couples on our 10km walk!
And so, our time in Qingdao coming to an end, we booked our train tickets to our next destination, Shanghai!