With time on this outstanding itinerary and cruise experience on Windstar’s Star Legend soon coming to an end (though the land portion in Beijing and Xi’an is still to come), our last port of call was Quigdao, China.
But before then we had a relaxing, sunny, smooth sailing, day at sea…something unusual for this cruise but very welcome. I used most of the day to catch up on work.
We arrived in Quigdao to a brand new, huge, cruise terminal that was larger than most regional airports I have been to. As my private Food & Drink Tour was not to start until 11:00 am I took it easy in the morning…right up until a Chinese immigration person said I needed to clear immigration “now”, at 10:00 am because they wanted to close it. When I asked if I could clear immigration and then return to the ship, the answer was “no”. So my seemingly lonely and endless kilometer walk down gleaming granite and glass hallways to immigration was on…and then my efforts to go outside of the cruise terminal frustrated as I was only permitted to use the most distant exit door…so I could wait over half an hour for my guide to appear. In short, China has rules…sometimes very literal and sometimes very arbitrary…but you have to follow them.
I must note that Windstar only offered two tours, both of which went to Western churches (huh?) and the Tsingtao Brewery with little more than a panorama bus tour otherwise. Totally not for me and, to be honest, not a very good exposure to the culture of this large, but much quieter, seaport city. So for me my only choice was a private tour.
My guide and I finally met up and the wait was so well worth it. It was time to eat local! First up was Pichai Yuan, a “hidden” but well known street filled with vendors offering Qingdao’s famous seafood as well as other delectable.
We hopped out of our Buick minivan (the number of Buicks I have seen in China exceeds those I have seen in the United States!) and I stop at the first food stall I see…like a kid in a candy store. (Better known as Eric on a food street!) I see sea urchins filled with an egg custard, starfish, oysters, prawns, tofu and more.
|Sea urchin served with a smile!|
The sea urchin and oysters were definites, but the idea of eating starfish kind of made me hesitate. Not to worry, a complimentary starfish arm was thrown on the grill for me.
|Sea Urchin with Custard|
|Starfish arm and grilled oysters|
While I found the sea urchin’s flavors to be masked by the custard until you got your spoon right to the bottom (top, actually), the oysters were huge, fresh and delicious. After being shown how to eat the starfish, I found it really tasty. The best analogy is lobster liver but firmer. I would definitely eat it again. Who knew?
It was only steps to the next food stall: Octopus. A partially cooked skewer with a long tentacle cut into pieces was slathered in a sweet soy sauce, thrown on a hot grill and continually brushed with more sauce. Yum!
We strolled a bit more and BUGS! Giant larvae, mealworms, millipedes, cockroaches, beetles, giant winged green insects and more. I had tried most of them in some form before (tarantula in Myanmar is truly a favorite) so I thought I would be more “conservative” choosing giant spider and baby scorpion. Thrown into a covered pot of light oil and then dusted with some sort of subtle spiced powder there was a good bit of crunch and not a lot of flavor. A bit disappointing.
|Baby scorpions on a stick|
|Giant Spider on a stick. Crunchy but not much flavor.|
A little bit more of a stroll and I see small fresh water crabs coated in egg and rice flour. The woman slid them off the stick and dropped them into super-hot oil. I do love softshell crabs. However, these – although tasty – were not softshelled. They were full on hard-shelled but cooked so hot as to make them thin and crispy. And they were hot!
A little further along I see oysters in chili sauce with rice noodles. I had to try them. Oh, and there are snails…and I love snails. My guide suggested a larger snail with a twisted shell that I have never seen before. OK. And with that he suggested I try raw and unfiltered Tsingtao beer. (More on Tsingtao beer later!)
|Sucking on chili-spiced snails in Quigdao, China|
|Oysters with chili and rice noodles, Snails in chili sauce and raw and unfiltered Tsingtao beer|
After our sitting and enjoying our snack, it was time to walk a bit more
I tried two more snacks: Dumplings with fishballs and dumplings with sticky rice. Neither was new to me, but no matter how many times I have tried it, sticky rice isn’t a favorite.
|Dumplings with fishballs and Dumplings with sticky rice|
Taking a break from, but not being done with eating, I was taken to a giant hall where traditional entertainment is held and a huge selection of food for the kitchen to cook was displayed. Just underscoring how old and undeveloped this old portion of Quigdao is, there are large urns containing burning wood as the only source of heat. Perspective!
It was then off to a place I was really interested in, but my guide could not figure out why: The China Wine Museum. With China being one of the world’s top consumers of “fine” wines and also developing its own vineyards I was excited.
The museum is huge with seemingly never ending tunnels and alcoves. But as I started my walk I noticed signs on both sides of the corridor explaining the very basics of wine, including such seemingly obvious notes like there are grapes to eat that are different from grapes that are used for wine. Then a hall with bottles filled with a bunch of grapes of each variety encased in Lucite.
And then it hit me: The China Wine Museum is not an homage to Chinese wines, but rather to explain wine to Chinese. It is a Chinese tourist venue built for Chinese. I asked my guide why and he explained the obvious: Most Chinese do not drink wine, but beer and spirits. He continued that is why the museum was pretty much empty while the Tsingtao Brewery is always crowded. But with that perspective I continued my museum visit. It really is an incredible place where a tremendous amount of information on all international wines can be gleaned.
I then see a sign that gets me excited: China Wine Bank! This must be the place for my anticipated Chinese Wine Tasting. Nope. It is literally a bank of safe deposit boxes where people store they prized wines. Geez.
Eventually I wound up at the tasting room which had a long bar with wines ready for tasting at an additional fee. But as I look closer I say to myself, “Idiot! These are for Chinese to experience international wines, not Westerners to try Chinese wines.” But there was one Chinese wine…and marketed as pretty much on the Chinese can:
While the entire label is in Chinese except for Wine Museum and what appears to be a 2009 vintage, it actually says “since 2009”! Now I can only trust the China Wine Museum that the wine is actually made in China, it actually wasn’t bad and seemed to have Bordeaux blend sort of characteristics. And, of course, I was “fortunate” that of course only that day they were having a sale: Rather than one bottle for 180 yuan I could get two bottles! Hey, for about US$30 why not!
From there it was the seemingly mandatory visit to the Tsingtao Brewery. (It is actually pronounced Ching Tao and they are quite adamant about it…including having you watch an Australian television commercial where a guy could not meet a girl until he said it properly.)
My guide tried to give me the detailed tour, but I said, “Let’s walk quickly, grab a beer and then get some local food.” So we quickly went to the tasting room where you are given small glasses of two versions of Tsingtao beer: Raw and Pilsner. Raw is basically unpasteurized and pretty much everyone I spoke to like it better than the pilsner, which is what is served in bottles. The raw and unfiltered sort I had earlier was even tastier.
I did make a stop at the souvenir area and, as my 19 year old daughter pestered me to bring her back a (live) panda, when I saw a stuffed drunk panda holding a Tsingtao beer I knew I found the perfect gift. (Am I a good dad or what?)
|A Drunk Panda with a Tsingtao Beer is the perfect gift|
For my final stop we drove to a night market that was just getting started as it was a bit early, but then crossed over a bridge to “the other side”; a truly local area…and I was happy.
In a cross between shops and a parking lot there was a stack of beer kegs. We ordered a bag of beer. Yes, a bag. Essentially a plastic bag is hung from a scale, the beer tap is opened and you then purchase your beer by weight; not volume. (No issue with too much foamy head!). If you want to drink as you walk, a straw is supplied.
|Beer purchased in a bag by weight
A straw for drinking as you walk is optional
We did not opt for a straw because across the parking area was a very local restaurant. Our table has all the necessary accouterments: Beer glasses, napkins, a garbage can for your napkins and, of course, a hook for your beer!
|All the best restaurants have hooks to hold
your bag of beer!
The question I have been asked by so many on this trip is, “So how to do you pour the beer?” Fortunately, my guide clearly had great experience; not only failing to spill a drop, but literally squeezing out every last bit from the bag. Quite a necessary talent!
Oh, what to have with our beer? Maybe something light? Nope! It was a “Go big before you go home” finale. Pork with Vegetables followed by Pork with Cabbage followed by Pork with Noodles.
|Pork with Vegetables|
|Pork with Cabbage served with Rice|
|Pork with Noodles|
I admit it, I did not finish my noodles; close, but not quite. But what I did do is meet some very friendly locals albeit for just moments at a time, enjoyed the local cuisine from the mundane to the exotic and get a better understanding of how different China in many ways.
But my day was not done. The guide for my land tour of Beijing and Xi’an gave an introductory lecture before dinner. He is truly excellent and, apparently, regularly awarded the best English speaking guide in China award annually. He gave a very interesting “introductory” course on matters of politics to cuisine; most of which is probably best not discussed in detail in this article for a number of reasons…including that I am sure there is so much more to understand before I get too much into this topic.
But just as one matter of perspective: You purchase a meal for $5.00 and there is a huge amount of food. An American will probably say, “What a great value!” A Chinese person would probably say, “You know I cannot eat all this, so why haven’t you given me a more appropriate amount of food and charge me $3.00?” Another perspective given to me by a Chinese client many years ago: “A good lie is honorable.” Let that one swim around your head for a while!
With our final day being a day at sea, it will again be time to get some work done, spend more time with our guide learning about perspectives from a Chinese view and enjoying the truly friendly staff and crew on the Star Legend.
Next up: The land tour!
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