Up early for the first tube of the day to the end of the line, Tianjin West Train Station. There are only four of us getting on so I’m surprised to see the tube full of sleepy people. We eventually rise above ground and through the window can see early morning mist or pollution. Through all the normal checks and after waiting in the main room we’re called through to the platform where I’m surprised and pleased to see queues forming at carriage numbers on the floor. We join queue eight and the sleek, modern train slowly pulls in. I’m taken back to the bullet trains in Japan which looked like this and the travellers politely queued like this. Three carriage attendants welcome us aboard and oh joy, no one is in our seats! Incredible!
Soon we peak at 299 kph and gazing out of the window we marvel at the amount of development underway. We have seen a lot of apartment blocks being built.
A young girl sits next to us and says hello. We chat in English for a while then an older guy comes over and asks “you’re travellers right? You want to know something?” The girl swaps seats with him and he explains that he used to be a translator. We chat and the conversation candidly opens up to include brexit, democracy, media influence, China’s increasing development and the BBC world service before we focus on the serious issue of food. He tells us without a hint of boasting that he is a good cook and he is pleased that we are enjoying Chinese food. We have found Chinese people honestly forthright without being rude and we both enjoy chatting to this intelligent guy.
We arrive at Qingdao and using maps.me navigate to our hostel in 10 minutes. The rooms are based around a central courtyard where goldfish swim in stone bowls and intricately carved chairs invite you to sit. We climb the wooden walkway and cross the terrace to our room and dump the bags.
20 metres from our front door is firewood court, a narrow alleyway of street food vendors. Techno music reverberates down my eardrums, people shout at us, meat skewers spit on charcoal which crackles and smokes. There are sea urchins, oysters, starfish, steamed buns, live fish in tanks, bowls of live molluscs and prawns and although I am very hungry I find the experience overwhelming and don’t know what to choose.
We decide to head down the high street to the seafront. Its a sunny Sunday afternoon and there’s a lot of people out enjoying themselves. The high street has seaside shops that would look familiar to British seaside tourists, selling shells, buckets and spades, model boats and souvenirs. We have to go through a subway to get to the seafront and we find a large underground food market. After a walk around we both agree on a dumpling stall where we get smiles and a plate of steaming fresh dumplings which we think were spinach, mollusc and garlic. On the steps out is a stall selling octopus balls with sauce and bonito flakes that we used to enjoy in Japan, so we order and gobble down a portion.
We wander further down the shore until things of interest run out and as its only 2pm we get out the guide book wondering what to do. Hmmm, Sunday afternoon, no work tomorrow, in Qingdao which used to be spelt Tsingtao.
Where do I recognise the word Tsingtao from?
Of course! Chinese restaurant beer. Well fancy that, there’s a brewery here. After a 30 min walk through a residential area we are paying our entrance fee.
Those who know us well will probably correctly assume we have done a brewery tour before. Not in China though! The brewery was founded by the Germans at the end of the 19th century and expanded by the Japanese when they controlled the area in the 1930s. It was the first state run company to be listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange when China began to open and if you believe the hyperbole in the museum you probably would prefer this beer to any other type of inferior tasteless lager.
We get two free not quite full halves.
There is a GameZone at the end of the tour which the Chinese groups are loving and we exit into a large beer hall which looks a scene of devastation with empty glasses and plates all over unsettled tables and nut shells covering the floor. By the time we emerge from the shop with a stout, white beer and strong ale, the efficient staff have cleared up and we sit down for our beer research.
The research goes well but we don’t discover anything to trouble Bathams or Titanic Brewery. I buy a half litre of IPA to complete the research which Brewdog would be proud of (if they haven’t made it). An extended family group sit next to us and we ‘Nihao!’ We watch in amazement as the family watch their youngest member, a boy of about 9, greedily gulp down half a lager. An elderly guy tries to get him to say Nihao to us but he is only interested in his beer. A lady asks where we’re from and we chat in English for a while. She gives me half a lager and goes to great lengths to explain that someone didnt want it so it is untouched. I gratefully accept and don’t bother to mention that I don’t care. They say goodbye and leave. The boy falls over. We both respectfully don’t split our sides.
Its dark now so we put our faith in maps.me and wander past the neon delights of beer street, through vegetable night markets, underneath flyovers and finally down a long street where every doorway was either a food seller or a tiny restaurant. The scenes were fascinating, floodlit laughing women peeled veg, old men sat on tiny stools drinking beer from plastic bags, huge chunks of meat hung on giant hooks bathed in red light with their sinister owner staring at us through clouds of tobacco smoke. It was life on an Asian street and endlessly fascinating.
Later we go out in search of a snack and begin where we started the day on firewood court but the techno has stopped and the food looks as tired as its sellers so we walk on. Our three rules for choosing a restaurant in China are:-
- pictures of meals, so we can point
- It looks clean
- Gut instinct (massively underrated )
We are not having much luck finding anywhere, which is one of the laws of travelling. When you are tired and hungry you cannot find a restaurant you like but when you have just eaten you see several nice looking spots.
We are hungry after the beer earlier and last chance saloon doesn’t quite satisfy rule 2 but it’s last chance saloon so we go in. A smiley girl appears and we point at pictures of dumplings and the beer fridge. After a while steaming black dumplings containing sweet pork and prawns appear. They are good. Then tofu and spinach dumplings appear which are also good. As we are the only customers, the girl fetches a bowl and makes more tofu and spinach dumplings, carefully folding and sealing the small parcels with practiced care. We are happy with our choice and head home satisfied with one last beer from the shop. After all, no work tomorrow.