I just spent three days in Qingdao, a coastal city in Shangdong province, 550km (340 mi) southeast of Beijing as the crow flies. I wasn’t there as a tourist (I went to speak to a youth group there, more on that later) but I managed to notice the city a little anyway.
Initially, Qingdao looked like any Chinese city, although obviously not as big and busy as Beijing. But I quickly realised that Qingdao was geographically different, and well before I saw the ocean it sits beside. Qingdao has HILLS! Streets curve up, down and around natural hills. Low rocky peaks preside over various parts of the city. Accustomed as I am to the dead flat plain of Beijing, with its almost unrelieved grid of north-south and east-west roads, this was a fun change. I nearly wrote “a breath of fresh air” but that would have been a little off. Qingdao certainly suffers from air pollution; not as bad as Beijing, perhaps, but it seems that the past 6 months has seen some of the worst air long-term residents can remember.
I enjoyed looking out at the ocean while driving around, especially seeing the seaside boardwalk from Hai Kou Lu. It was strange, however, to watch an entire ocean disappear into a greyish smog haze. The sights of yachts in Darling Harbour was surreal – I do not associate luxury boats with China! And it felt so strange that the bay shares its name with a famous harbour in Sydney. A large set of Olympic rings was unmissable, and my hosts that morning also pointed out a huge replica of the Beijing Olympic torch. They said that normally scores of flags from around the world are hung around the harbour. I guess no one in Qingdao is allowed to forget its moment of Olympic glory, hosting sailing events in 2008.
One new-to-me sight was large squares of pink paper covering drains and concrete bollards around the housing complex in which I stayed for the weekend. It is a wedding tradition I’ve never come across before. Fireworks are a big part of all Chinese wedding celebrations; traditionally this was because fire and loud noises were thought to scare away evil spirits that might otherwise curse the new family/home. In Qingdao, the tradition extends to pasting these pink papers over man holes and other things. Someone told me it’s supposed to be related to the same traditional concept of evil spirits, but that she wondered if it wasn’t mostly to keep the debris of fireworks and explosive glitter (yep, that’s a thing) out of the sewers…
Another new sight were certain sculptures all over the city. In most parts of China it’s common to see a pair of lion sculptures outside important buildings and businesses. In Qingdao I saw only one pair of lions; the rest were different creatures, that looked to me like a combination of lion and horse. Turns out these are qi lin (麒麟). Technically, the qi is the male and the lin is the female, but no matter. Traditionally it has the head of a dragon, a gravity-defying mane, the body of a horse (or deer), cloven hooves, scales like a fish, and may also have antlers or a single unicorn-like horn. It is related to the element of fire,and may therefore be depicted with fire or smoke. The qi lin is one of the four special animals in Chinese culture (along with the dragon, the phoenix, and the strangely non-mythical tortoise) so I was very surprised by my lack of familiarity with it! Although once I started looking into it I realised I have seen qi lin sculptures before, but they were different to the very distinctive appearance of the Qingdao qi lin.
Back to why I was actually in Qingdao. I was invited by the international church there to speak to their teens, specifically at a special event for the high school girls. I was the guest speaker for that and for two other events, plus did a few individual appointments, and attended their regular Sunday morning service. It was a busy and tiring schedule but very well organised and I would love to return and visit the students again before I leave China.