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.

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