When you’re 10 years old, the most important part of traveling is buying souvenirs for your friends, so we spent our first afternoon in Qingdao shopping. I wasn’t quite ready for Chinese public transportation, so I played rich foreigner and asked the hotel to call a taxi to deliver us to Atrium City, an entire city block under cover of a fake night sky, populated with shops and restaurants whose facades replicated famous Qingdao landmarks. Ten yuan ($1.60) later, we left the cab and entered a magical grotto. I was as impressed as my 10-year-old by the soaring painted ceiling, fake trees and replica buddhas at the entrance.
Unfortunately, the developer seemed to have learned the hard way that the old saying “If you build it, they will come” only works for baseball fields. At least half the storefronts were empty. At least half the rest were closed. Besides the two of us, the only people in Atrium City were staffing the street stalls that lined the empty buildings, hawking the same cheap crap we saw for sale on the beach. Even the XX was underwhelmed.
We popped out the back and ended up on Beer Street. Mobile keg-carts sold beer in front of rows of faux-German pubs and Chinese restaurants selling beer. I remembered that shopping areas bookended Beer Street, so away we went. Within a couple blocks we found the entrance to the Tsingtao brewery and museum. But the tour was adults only and my 10-year-old wasn’t interested anyway.
We followed Beer Street to its end, then followed a couple of university students to the Taidong Night Market. It wasn’t night yet, but the street was lined with food carts and retail shops. My daughter was looking for those embroidered satin dresses you find in Chinatowns all over the world that no one actually wears in China. Fortunately, her doomed quest was almost instantly forgotten when we passed a shop selling mall fashions and blasting Mandarin pop. They had no children’s sizes, but she tried on half a dozen XS dresses before giving up.
We passed an assortment of street stalls, wandered through underground shopping arcades and street level discount stores before stumbling on a Balabala children’s clothing store. The styles and prices were exactly what you would find in a similar store back home. We ended up spending an hour and $120 dollars there. The whole time a sales clerk followed us around doggedly. When their credit card machine refused to accept any of my foreign cards, he walked us around the block to a bank and waited while we tried three different ATMs until one worked. When we left the store, we found a completely different assortment of street stalls than had been there when we went in.
We bought fancy 6-flavor ice cream cones for dinner. While we sat on a bench eating our cones, the entire neighborhood transformed itself. People raced in pushing and dragging carts that looked like they should be carrying stage scenery. Pop up tents and merchandise sprouted from the carts like mushrooms and in minutes one row of street vendors became four. We agreed that the night market might be too much for us and decided we were satisfied with our mid-afternoon market experience. We walked away from the epicenter, casually browsing but not buying anything. It was probably a quarter mile before we reached a street where cars could get through, and we walked another half mile along rush hour roads (still lined with hawkers) before we were finally able to catch a cab back to the hotel.
More experienced shoppers might scoff, but we had a good time. The Taidong shopping area’s mix of tourist-friendly and mundane local products made it my favorite place to shop in Qingdao. My 10-year-old was enamored of a different shopping experience, however, and I never made it back to Taidong.