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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Holiday Travel - Qingdao Olympic city

Western and local tradition are seamlessly juxtaposed in Qingdao, famous for its beer and host of the 2008 Beijing Olympic sailing events.

IF YOU stood at the top of Xiaoyushan (Little Fish Hill) in Qingdao and looked down over the city, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Europe, or to be exact, Bavaria. Except of course, for the crescent-shaped bay with a golden sand beach more reminiscent of Hawaii’s Waikiki.

Whereas many places in Asia are eager to rid themselves of their colonial past, Qingdao has chosen to preserve its quaint European buildings as a tourist attraction. Constructed when the outpost was a German possession in the first two decades of the 20th century, they give the city a distinctly western feel.

Qingdao (population 7 million) is not only Shandong province’s premier port and home to respected companies like Haier and Hisense, but it has also been chosen to host the sailing events of the Beijing Olympics later this year. The metropolis’ history and economic success have created affluent and sophisticated urbanites who have evidently absorbed lots of outside influences. But sometimes, local and western traditions are intermingled in the weirdest of ways.

One brisk late autumn morning, my friends and I were waiting for our coach in the warmth of a hotel lobby when the sounds of a marching band wafted in from the outside. We rushed to investigate and there, in the hotel driveway, life-sized versions of cartoon characters Mickey, Minnie, the honey-loving bear, Winnie, and a pink piglet were dancing to a tune played by a small marching band smartly decked out in red jackets and white pants.

That in itself was plenty bizarre but soon a white, impossibly long stretch limo pulled into the driveway. Jaws dropped. I counted six windows on each side. Our cartoon friends joyfully approached the car, making deep bows as a young couple emerged – she in a demure white wedding gown and he in a dark suit – then held hands and danced in a circle around the bride and groom. At the entrance to the reception area the dignified couple posed for photos with the two mice, the bear and the piglet under a red balloon archway topped with the time-honoured wedding symbols of a dragon and phoenix.

It was the middle of the ninth lunar month (late October), a particularly auspicious time for weddings, and over at the old colonial enclave of Badaguan, flower-decked cars lined the roadsides. Badaguan, with its grassy parks, tree-lined avenues and a mishmash of different styles of European architecture is an obvious choice for wedding photos. On that very cold day, brides in thin white dresses preened and posed against the stone-walled houses while assistants handed out lucky candy to well-wishers.

A bride hurrying towards her family lifted her long skirt to avoid tripping. A flash of red appeared. Beneath that white satin skirt she was wearing bright red tights and equally red shoes. Red, the traditional wedding colour, is auspicious while fashionable white is the customary colour of mourning, so the red stockings and shoes were insurance against bad luck.

The brief German occupation in Qingdao produced a world-famous beer whose name is synonymous with the city. Located at the site of the original factory, the newly-opened Tsingtao Beer Museum leads visitors through the production process, a history section, an exhibition hall, and finally, an eagerly-awaited tasting room set up like a pub, except with free beer.

The Museum has spared no effort in creating an educational experience but it certainly is not without a sense of humour. For just before the entrance to the Beer Hall we encountered a windowless box-like pinewood structure named, tongue-in-cheek, “Tipsy Room”.

Once inside, I found myself lurching all over its angled floor, desperately clinging to the railing on the side as I crawled towards the exit. That simulated state of inebriation was meant to remind those entering the next section – the Beer Hall – to be moderate. But judging by a group of shrill, excited ethnic Dai girls who broke into their melodious drinking songs with each toast, it is anybody’s guess whether the Tipsy Room made a difference.

It seems the crisp, clean taste of Tsingtao Beer comes from the pure waters of Laoshan, a hilly resort area less than an hour’s drive from the city centre. Laoshan also happens to be one of the oldest and holiest Daoist sanctuaries in China. Some believe Daoism’s founder Laozi came from there.

The road to Laoshan offers breathtaking views of the Yellow Sea. In contrast with modern urban Qingdao, innumerable ancient temples dot the mountain’s wooded slopes, maintained by Daoist priests in flowing blue robes.

An ascetic-looking “immortal” with black beard and topknot sat outside the door of a small vermilion building. Dressed in grey Chinese jacket, cotton pants and cloth shoes, he looked as if he could have stepped right out of the Ming dynasty. Then he whipped out his mobile phone, and at that surreal moment 21st century technology converged with 26 centuries of Chinese tradition.