Out of China: A heady brew in the Beer Cultural Zone

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The Independent Online
QINGDAO - Arriving at Beer City, the question was where to go first: Beer Palace, Beer Plaza, the Beer Cultural Zone, Beer Hotel, the Beer Trade Mansion, Beer Street or the Multifunctional Beer Exhibition and Sales Center.

Beer City, on the outskirts of Qingdao in Shandong province, is the site of Asia's answer to the Munich beer festival. The official China Daily, in a special supplement, had promised 'exotic romance' within a Beer City park, 'greened with many different flowers and plants, reflecting the theme of the park - yes, you've guessed it, beer]'

The Chinese reporter had perhaps been inspired by the Qingdao International Beer City's promotional brochure, which pictures All-American couples enjoying skiing, before retiring to the beach to improve their tan. It also promises, mysteriously, 'natural scenery with manual finishing'. A closer look at these pictures reveals a number of discrepancies. The 'front door of the Beer City' was, in fact, the main entrance to the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium. The 'Outdoor Entertainment Garden' was in Munich, not Qingdao.

Beer City may eventually become 'the window for Chinese beer to go abroad and the bridge for overseas beer to enter China'. To date, both window and bridge are still under construction.

The beer pilgrim approaching the real Beer City finds two grey concrete buildings, topped with turrets hacked out of breeze blocks, paying homage to the festival's Bavarian inspiration. Three large tents, flapping in the wind, were all that existed of the Beer Palace Section. The Beer Hotel was a patch of wasteland. There was no park.

Lin Zhiwei, director of the Qingdao Tourism Bureau, sought to put these shortcomings in perspective. Beer City was only in its first phase of development, she explained, as we sat in the grassy Beer Plaza, which began four months ago. She was confident that they could raise the necessary funds - 2bn yuan ( pounds 155m) - to complete the development.

Was there a problem with the Peking government, which, in an attempt to reduce inflation, has called a halt to most construction projects? Not at all, Ms Lin said, Beer City was a tourism development. 'It's not treated as real estate.'

At this point the storm which had threatened all morning finally broke, and the party withdrew to the Bavarian castle. Outside, the Beer City visitors, who, according to China Daily, 'want to escape from the drudgery of office life, put on their holiday clothes and relax with friends', dashed between beer tents in the driving rain.

Ms Lin insisted that during the 10-day festival, the numbers had been spectacular: 70,000 in one evening; an average of 40,000 a day. In the Laoshan Beer tent, now sandbagged to keep out the floods, a young couple declared that the rain did not matter. They had arrived three hours earlier, and already sampled the Pabat and San Miguel brands. None the worse for the experience, they were looking forward to an afternoon trying Chinese beers.

At the Hofbrauhaus tent, German drinking songs were blasting out over the Tannoy. As the band played 'Roll out the Barrel', Madame Li and her twenty-year-old daughter, a student in computer science, said they had been at Beer City since 9:30 that morning. 'Go on, drink some beer', they insisted.

And then the rain stopped. By early evening, the road from Qingdao to Beer City was jammed with traffic, as perhaps 20,000 people headed for the grand closing ceremony. No precaution had been overlooked. An emergency ambulance, confusingly marked 'Dental', was parked behind the Bavarian castle to deal with over- enthusiatic beer fans. Fortunately, said the tourism bureau, 'most of the drunkards lie on the ground and go to sleep'.

On stage, the local television hosts were warming up the audience with a breakdown of the rules in the grand drinking competition. As the cameras rolled, beer rushed down the gullets of 10 young men hoping to win a 33in television set. Competitor Number Five drank his standard 640ml Chinese bottles so fast that he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by throwing up.