As winter takes hold of Qingdao, the grey sky weighs down your spirit and the wind chills your bones, the warmth and relaxation of Qingdao’s spas and bathhouses beckon. Naomi Newell explores this age-old pampering tradition.

Hot springs, and in turn bath houses, have long played an important part in Eastern culture. China has numerous hot springs and was one of the earliest countries to make use of them. According to folklore, the Yellow Emperor (one of the legendary Chinese sovereigns) ‘bathed in the springs of Mount Huang and was pleased’. Throughout the Imperial period various emperors and literati showed a predilection for thermal waters and the use of hot springs evolved, from a place of worship, into one for medicinal use or convalescence. Li Shizhen, a Ming botanist and pharmacologist, wrote of the therapeutic properties of hot springs in his “Compendium of Materia Medica”, observing that as well as useful for boiling eggs, the springs could heal scabies, syphilis and even paralysis of the limbs. More recently, springs have been popularized as places of recreation. I have been exploring what Qingdao and its surroundings have to offer.

Close to Qingdao, and easily accessible by public transport, is the small town of Jimo 即墨: home to natural hot springs. Thanks to the high salt content, the waters have long been used to treat rheumatic diseases. There are various spas around the town, but one particularly popular choice is Ocean Spring 海洋温泉. An advantage of this resort is its proximity to the sea – a sandy beach lies at its doorstop. I was surprised to find the beach deserted but for a couple of girls taking selfies (possibly invigorated by a day at the spa). The hazy sky had dissolved into the diluted, blue-grey sea, to create a languid expanse, perforated only by two white dots from a lonely boat and the moon above. The grandiose exterior of the overlooking Arabian-style building was equalled by elegant interior furnishings. Entrance tickets include access to pools, relaxation rooms (with the option to stay the night at no extra cost) and free fruit. The large swimming pool is ideal for children, and the rainforest, pirate-themed decorations create a fun, lively atmosphere.

Following the oriental fashion, I decided to sample a bathhouse myself. In Qingdao. Mu Qing Tang Quan spa is favoured by many Chinese and Koreans. Upon arriving, I noticed how attentive the staff were, and continued to be so throughout my visit. The bathing rooms are separated into male and female, as the soaking process is au naturel. For a rather conservative Brit, at first it was uncomfortable, but after a few minutes, and aided by my short-sightedness, my inhibitions evaporated. It was indeed a relaxing experience. The pools bubbled away at a toasty 38°C and there were saunas and steam rooms for further purification A variety of different body treatments and masks were available, made from fresh papaya, banana and other exotic fruits which the masseuse would chop up. After soaking and rinsing, you are given warm pyjamas and are free to explore. On the second floor alone there is an internet room, crèche, gym, cinema and restaurant. The floors are heated, everything is very clean and the food is inexpensive. There are large areas for reading, relaxing and reclining. The spa is open 24/7 and you could certainly spend the whole day there. Another avenue you might wish to consider is Chinese massage. Like acupuncture, Chinese massage is based around the meridian channels 经络, a network through which the vital energy 气 circulates. Following a Chinese friend’s recommendation, I booked an appointment at 任青梅 on 金田路. In this area there are many massage parlours (including blind massage). Their bright neon signs flashing 推拿按摩(tuina, anmo) are hard to miss. In fact, there is a difference between tuina and anmo : the former being medicinal and used to treat injuries or muscle problems, while the latter is more for relaxation and rejuvenation. Cupping and scraping is also widely available and is believed to relieve pain by dislodging blocked energy. I was warned of the potential discomfiture beforehand, but had not realized the experience would be one of pain rather than pleasure. The masseuse’s technique was very thorough. Massage oil was said to be unnecessary as it made the skin too slippery, and it was true, through clothes the masseuse managed to maintain a firm grasp. A useful phrase to learn in advance might be, 请按得轻一点 qing ande qingyidian, which means “a little lighter please”. An alternative therapy for alleviating stress and fatigue is a fish pedicure, a practice that is now gaining popularity around the world. Fish spas originated in Turkey, a country renowned since antiquity for its health-giving thermal waters. However, more convenient to visit is 青青鱼疗fish spa in Taidong. The salon is clean, the chairs comfortable, the staff courteous and the price really cheap! A 40 minute session is only 20 yuan, and even less when you add their WeChat. After a busy day at work or school it is the perfect place to sit back and relax as the gurra rufa or ‘doctor fish’ nibble away. The fish had a good appetite and my feet felt and looked noticeably smoother afterwards. Taidong itself is an ideal place for a makeover as nail salons and hairdressers’ parlours are dotted around the streets. Manicures are reasonably priced, with a wide variety of styles. And of course, you can end the day wandering around the much-loved night market. If you don’t feel like the trip to Jimo, you can’t walk far in Qingdao without running into a massage parlour. As we burrow into the coldest months, and closer to Christmas and the New Year, arm yourself with a few useful words (qīng yidian “a little lighter please!”; zhòng yidian “a little harder please!”) and treat your body to some winter relaxation.

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