Vanishing into thick air

My biggest complaint about Beijing is the pollution. Nothing saps the energy out of me first thing in the morning quite like looking out the window and not being able to see a building that I could probably hit with a baseball. It’s depressing and bad for my health.

But I put up with it because I live near the heart of a booming metropolis. Public transportation is great. The food is cheap. And, when I need a respite from the congested streets and noisy shopping markets, there are plenty of art museums and well-maintained parks to get lost in.

I recently traveled to Tai’an, in the eastern province of Shandong, to climb one of China’s holiest Buddhist mountains with a friend from college. We left in the morning, on a high-speed train from Beijing’s South Railway Station. A light haze hung over the city. Continue reading

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The land of the emperor of beers

Growing up in a part of the world largely isolated from Asian culture, two of the things I associated most with China were fortune cookies and Tsingtao beer.

I quickly found out after eating a couple meals in Beijing that fortune cookies are not a Chinese tradition. But Tsingtao beer is to China what Budweiser is to America: the emperor of beers.

Tsingtao is brewed in Qingdao, a city on China’s east coast, which hosts an international beer festival every year. Since I rarely meet a cold drink I don’t like, I decided to go there last August to mingle with the country’s top beer connoisseurs.

I took a high-speed train from Beijing to Qingdao, a service that was only opened last summer. If you haven’t taken a trip yet on a high-speed train, you should. The ride is comfortable; it’s less bumpy than a jet and more spacious. I’m about 6 feet tall, and I have trouble getting comfortable on long flights between China and the US. But on the four-hour train ride, I could stretch out without digging my knees into the back of the person sitting in front of me.

One of the first places I visited in Qingdao was a boardwalk along the shore of the Yellow Sea, on the east coast of China. The sky was overcast, and the beach was dotted with couples posing for pre-wedding pictures — a popular practice among middle- and upper-class Chinese. A light breeze ruffled the brides’ white wedding gowns as the photographers and their assistants scrambled to finish before sunset. The air in Qingdao was clean and fresh and provided a much needed break from the stagnant, gray air I’ve become accustomed to breathing in Beijing.

Boardwalk along the shore of the Yellow Sea. Buildings in downtown Qingdao can be seen in the distance.

Couples and photographers maneuver for the perfect position on one of Qingdao's beaches.

That evening I went to the trip’s main event — the international beer festival. It was held in a huge lot that reminded me of some of the fairgrounds in the United States. A steady rain was falling, and the ground was muddy. Large tents had been set up for the “designated drinkers,” and people crowded inside to stay dry. Many of the tents had stages that featured singers and dancers, turning the beer festival into a sort of variety show. Every so often, a half-loaded man would spring from the audience and join in, drawing cheers from the crowd. Continue reading