Meeting 2017 in Qingdao, but not how we expected to

We made it to China! We didn’t need a residency card to get a visa in Seoul, just lots of paperwork and patience. In order to get the visa, we had to drop our original idea of taking a ferry across to the Shandong province, so at the very end of 2016 we boarded a plane, destination Qingdao. An hour and a half later, we landed in a country very different from Korea. It reminds us a bit of Russia, with flaking paint, patched-up sidewalks, some similar architecture, more security personnel and a do-it-yourself attitude after the pampered experience in tourist-oriented Korea and Japan.

Like many cities in eastern China, Qingdao has seen some European influence during parts of its history. Germany took control of the town in 1897 and signed a 99-year lease agreement with the Qing government. However, the German period didn’t even last two decades before Japan occupied the town at the start of the first world war. Qingdao switched hands between the Chinese and Japanese in the following years, but finally returned under Chinese administration after the end of the second world war. The German influence is very visible in the city, which I thought felt very Baltic. I kept on thinking “that could fit in Helsinki” and “that really looks German” during my walks.

Figuring China would be full of temples like its neighbours to the east, we stopped by two churches for something different: The imposing St Michael’s Cathedral and the very Lutheran church on Jiangsu Lu. We also had a look at the former German governor’s house, completed in 1903 on a hill with a good view. Creaky floors, thick carpets and dark, wooden furniture – it all felt very familiar.

New Year’s Eve was a beautiful sunny day. Locals and (Chinese) tourists had gathered along bathing beach #6 (that name makes you dream, doesn’t it?) to take photos with the seagulls and look for clams, or some sort of animal among the rocks left bare by the low tide. Old ladies were selling snacks to feed the gulls and barbequed squid to feed the kids, men offered to take your photo for a few yuan.

This is where I was supposed to post a picture of Christophe and I celebrating the arrival of 2017 with some Tsingtao beer at a cool beach-front bar, but instead I have a photo of him eating pot noodles in bed at a cold and – let’s be honest – shitty hostel. I’m not allowed to make that one public. He started the new year in style with a flu, poor thing. At least we heard some fireworks through the cracked Wood around the windows.

The second thing we hadn’t quite expected was the air quality. I’ll probably talk about that later, so I won’t get into it too much, but it’s no understatement to say it was a shock. I thought we’d have issues in Beijing and maybe the northeast, not in a coastal town like Qingdao and not to this degree. While our first day in the city was fine, January started off very bad.

To stay indoors and because it’s difficult to miss when in Qingdao, we went to the Tsingtao brewery, founded by a British-German joint venture in 1903, and now China’s most famous beer brand overseas. One funny thing we learned was that the Qingdaoers often buy their beer in plastic bags as take-out. We saw it for ourselves a few times as well, people walking around with plastic bags full of beer on the streets. One way to cut down on packaging.

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