Trail of the unexpected: Froth and frills in the Far East

Qingdao in China is a hot spot for nearly-weds and lager lovers, says Harriet O'Brien

At 9am, Number Two Bathing Beach was awash with wedding couples. Sitting outside a beach hut at the edge of the golden sands I watched a stream of brides arriving in wedding-cake dresses. Beside them were grooms sporting crisp white shirts and black suits, although here and there a few rebelled in white trousers. Each couple was accompanied by a photographer who directed their poses beside the sea. Meanwhile, several breakaway groups clambered over rocks on a small peninsula to the east, and more photo opportunities ensued there amid the unfurling of brightly coloured parasols. The net effect was, weirdly, like an Edwardian seaside party.

Qingdao is one of the world's more intriguing destinations. Flying into the city the night before, I had been greeted by a young guide with good English who had adopted the name Jason for the convenience of foreign visitors. He drove me to my hotel, explaining, as I peered through the dark, that I was staying in Badaguan, the city's renowned beauty spot. And just down there, Jason had waved a hand, was Number Two Bathing Beach where he would meet me the next morning.

The scenes around me were so surreal that I failed to see Jason arrive. "Quite a performance isn't it?" he commented, to attract my attention. The couples, he explained, came from all over China to have their wedding pictures taken – many from Beijing, about 550km north, and Shanghai, some 570km south. They weren't actually married yet, he added – generally that ceremony would take place in a few months' time. For their Qingdao pictures, he said, they hired wedding clothes locally and had a great day out.

Quite apart from the bridal attractions of Badaguan, Qingdao is renowned in China for its six beaches and its beer, the Tsingtao brand name being an alternative transliteration of Qingdao. And last year the city came to world attention as the setting of the Olympic sailing events – complete with an invasion of green algae that was valiantly cleaned from the shores by local residents. However, I wasn't here for the beer, the beaches or the boating activities. It was Qingdao's architecture that had brought me to town.

In the 1890s German merchants developed a "concession" here, a foreign-run trading centre such as the British established with Hong Kong. A brewery was swiftly set up – hence the beer of today which is still a sort of German lager. Meanwhile, municipal buildings were designed in the prevailing style back home – the German version of Art Nouveau known as Jugendstil. I had read that the city still offered a remarkable number of these architectural gems.

So I asked Jason to take me to the best buildings in town. First stop, he said, had to be the Qingdao Guest House. This proved a modest name for a vast, 1908 mansion that was built as the German governor's residence. Looking bizarrely like a Bavarian castle, it became, after revolutionary upheavals, a lodge for visiting VIPs.

Mao himself spent a summer holiday here in 1957, slipping in a quick congress in the huge dining room. Today the property is preserved as a museum. Coachloads of Chinese tourists were arriving as we were ushered into Mao's bedroom, apparently unaltered since the Chairman's visit. The rest of the building was disappointingly bare, but the Art Nouveau fittings – doors, crystal lights, fireplaces even – were perfectly conserved.

Next: the Huilan pagoda. No trip to Qingdao would be complete without a visit to this landmark, Jason assured me. It wasn't exactly the Jugendstil architecture I wanted to see but, set at the end of a long pier, the octagonal pagoda is an iconic image that features on the Tsingtao beer label. It made a pleasant walk, mingling with more Chinese tourists and pausing by stalls selling good-luck charms and small turtles, symbols of longevity.

And now, said Jason, we would explore new Qingdao. As with most self-respecting Chinese cities, over the last 15 years massive development has taken place here and – whoosh – a huge new urban centre has sprung up alongside the old German town.

But when would I see more of the German architecture, I wondered. Jason was astonished. Why spend any further time in that antiquated neighbourhood when there was a gleaming modern city to discover? Besides, all the good restaurants had decamped there.

So a compromise was made. We headed to the new city for lunch and a quick tour of its broad avenues and sculpture parks. Then we returned to the old German district. And what a place it proved to be. At its heart is an imposing city hall designed in 1904 by Friedrich Mahlke and now housing part of Qingdao's Communist party. Adjacent are the Art Nouveau law courts, today containing the tourist office, while nearby the police station is set in a striking 1907 building. Best of all, though, is the large Lutheran church of 1908 that presides from a hill, complete with a bell tower and curvy nave.

Qingdao delivered a last twist that evening. I was told that a British pub had opened near the restaurant district of the new sector, so off I went in quest of a swift half before dinner. The King's Head has a bow window, a pub sign depicting Henry VIII and an interior that convincingly evokes England. I grabbed a stool at the wood-panelled bar, taking in the blackboard menu (featuring fish and chips that night) and the pool table and feeling very much at home. The range of beers, from Guinness to John Bull, was impressive. But I felt duty-bound to opt for the Tsingtao on tap.

Travel essentials: Qingdao

Getting there

Harriet O'Brien travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838 200; audleytravel.com) which arranges tailor-made trips to China: a two-week break including Qingdao and the iconic sights of Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin and Hong Kong costs from £2,750 per person. The price includes accommodation and flights on Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.co.uk), which flies four times a day from Heathrow to Hong Kong. The airline's subsidiary, Dragonair, and additional codeshare agreements provide connections to more than 20 destinations in China, including Qingdao.

More information

British visitors to China need a visa from the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, which has offices in London, Manchester and Edinburgh (020-7631 1430; uk.china-embassy.org/eng). It costs £30.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?