The Shandong capital of JI’NAN (济南, jì’nán) stands on the site of one of China’s oldest settlements – pottery unearthed nearby has been dated to over four thousand years ago – but is today a bright, modern and youthful place with wide boulevards and gleaming towers. It is famous throughout China for its natural springs, clear blue upwellings that are set among several urban parks and must rank as some of the cleanest water available in any Chinese city. Baotu Spring is the most famous, though similar delights are on offer at Wulong Tan Park; most notable, however, is secluded Wangfu Chizi, an open-air pool which gives visitors a rare chance to bathe amid grey hutong architecture. There are also non-watery sights available, particularly the provincial museum and the steep hillside at Qianfo Shan, both at the city’s southern limits and a good way to fill in time in transit.
Ji’nan is justly famed for its springs, but very few outsiders are aware of the quirkiest one in town – possibly the best-kept travel secret in the whole of Shandong. You won’t find Wangfu Chizi (王府池子, wángfŭ chízi) on any tourist maps, and the pool’s location at the centre of a labyrinthine tangle of alleyways makes it doubly difficult to track down, but your efforts will not go unrewarded. Edged with grey hutong buildings, this is essentially an open-air swimming pool, and the fact that it remains such an integral part of local life makes for quite a spectacle – lines of elderly men bob up and down on their daily laps, housewives engage in casual conversation while semi-naked and local youths whoop and holler as they scrub themselves clean on the western bank. The water quality isn’t superb – spit, cigarette butts and ice-cream wrappers are inevitable – but it’s hard to resist the temptation to join in the fun, even more so when being persuaded by a gaggle of bronzed and finely chiselled pensioners. There’s also a bit of history in the air – as may be inferred from its name, which roughly translates as “King’s Abode Pool”, Wangfu Chizi was once the property of a local prince, and the family still living on the north bank are descendants of former royal bodyguards. The pool maintains a temperature of around 18oC throughout the year, making for an ethereal effect in the winter, when mist rises from the waters and makes silhouettes of the swimmers. It’s also worth dropping by in the late evening, when locals drain draught beer on the south bank while listening to the gentle lapping of waves.