Raising a Toast to Qingdao, China
It's not that I wasn't attracted by the prospect of another boozy weekend in Beijing, just that my time in China was limited to a fortnight, and I felt the urge to explore a little further afield. Enlisting a feckless wingman, we set about perusing a map of China to seek out a suitable weekend retreat. After a brief deliberation we settled upon Qingdao, home of the nation's favorite beer: Tsingtao.
But Qingdao is a popular destination - all they could offer at short notice were tickets for the slow train. Not keen on starting our break with a 12-hour journey, we splashed out on flights (China Eastern Airlines, 800 yuan per person, one way).
There is accommodation in Qingdao to suit all budgets, but we ended up checking into a splendid little hostel in the old town called the Qingdao Kaiyue International. The accommodation is set into a converted church and boasts a beautifully decorated living area with a well-stocked bar. At 100 kuai a night for a twin room with en-suite bathroom, it was also exceptional value for money.
Culture by day
Qingdao was ceded to the Germans at the end of the 19th century, but their influence still shows today. Although large swathes of the city have undergone extensive reconstruction, expanding its population to over 7 million, the old town remains refreshingly quaint.
In fact, at times it felt like we were holidaying in a European seaside resort rather than the Shandong Peninsula. Then a bitter wind reminded us that the Chinese winter remained in full force, and we hastily found shelter in a peculiar octagonal pavilion at the end of the Zhan Qiao Pier.
The bizarrely named Billowing Back and Forth Tower is Qingdao's most famous landmark and adorns all bottles of Tsingtao. Inside one can find the usual array of trinkets stalls, Chinese calligraphy merchants and, frankly, the worst aquarium I've ever seen, tragically home to a baby crocodile drowning in coins enthusiastically thrown at it by chuckling Chinese tourists; it didn't look amused.
Sleaze by night
Our cultural experience for the weekend safely over, it was time to sample the Qingdao nightlife. The next 48 hours were spent traipsing through a succession of drab expat bars hosting the usual collection of middle-aged English teachers and balding factory managers leering desperately at Chinese waitresses.
Convinced that Qingdao must have more to offer, we approached a portly German to enquire where the real action could be found. He listed a number of boorish bars we had already visited. After telling him we were looking for something a little more lively, he replied,"Ah, I get it: you are emergency horny, ja?" and pointed us in the direction of local nightclub Ye Chao.
We soon arrived and found ourselves to be the only laowai in the village. Consequently, we attracted a fair amount of interest and soon got chatting to a pair of locals. Daniel, it turned out, had visited the UK and indeed had worked as a "salesman" in Sankeys Soap, a well-known techno club I used to frequent in Manchester, regrettably. Daniel was not as well connected in Qingdao as he was back in England, so we had to make do with yet another round of Tsingtao.
Several games of dice later, and very much the last men standing, we were turfed out, still eager for more action. Our newfound friends were confident that karaoke was our only hope, but a whistle-stop tour of the obvious venues revealed that, even in Qingdao, the KTV bars close at 5 am.
In true Chinese fashion only one option remained - holing up in a restaurant for some early morning food. Things quickly degenerated into a drinking contest. Mei Ping, a delicate little thing who certainly didn't appear to be a hardened drinker, challenged me to a Tsingtao downing contest. One bottle each. Confident I had her number, I upped the stakes a little, to two large bottles - each. Nearing the end of my first bottle though, I realized that I was well and truly beaten. I spluttered through the remains of the second, while Mei Ping, henceforth known as the Monkey Queen, was already rejoicing in victory.
Thoroughly humiliated and already nursing the beginnings of a raging hangover, a slightly drunken Mei Ping asked me if I had ever been to a love hotel. I told her I hadn't and she invited me to "take a look." Experiencing racism for my first time in China, the first love hotel would not let me in as a mere foreigner. It mattered little, as my Monkey Queen seemed quite the darling of the love hotel scene and simply whisked me away to another.
The room was as you would expect of something called a love hotel: small bowls of every accoutrement a lover could need and, the clincher, mirrored ceilings. Embarrassingly, the Tsingtao was more effective than I realized, so I became possibly one of the first hotel guests to sleep soundly the whole night through, much to my Monkey Queen's frustration.
Gathering the very little dignity I had left, I quietly re-clothed and started my journey of shame, boarding the bullet train back to Beijing a few hours later (fast train from Qingdao to Beijing, 275 yuan per person, one-way). Nursing my head and bruised ego, I reasoned to myself that in a city dedicated to brewing lager, I'd been culturally obliged to drink a good deal of it - that's my story, at least, and I'm sticking to it.
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