Shandong province, encompassing a fertile plain through which the Yellow River completes its journey, was once one of the poorest regions of China, overpopulated and at the mercy of the river, whose course has continually shifted, bringing chaos with every move. Times have changed, and it is now one of the most prosperous provinces in the land. Visitors may also remark upon the friendliness of the people, who are proud of their reputation for hospitality, a tradition that goes right back to Confucius, a Shandong native who declared in The Analects, “Is it not a great pleasure to have guests coming from afar?”
Despite Shandong’s new-found wealth, some of its most appealing attractions are as old as the hills. One actually is a hill, albeit a rather large one – Tai Shan, China’s holiest Taoist mountain, and a favourite with hikers and temple-hunters alike. Also popular is little Qufu, formerly home to Confucius, and where a magnificent temple complex stands in his honour. The coast is lined with colossal cities, of which Qingdao proves the most attractive to visitors, as much for its beer as its ferry connections to Korea.
As far as tourists are concerned, there’s little reason to stray from these areas, though other port cities offer ferries to South Korea and elsewhere in China, while highways are good and bus services frequent. The province is also home to new high-speed rail lines, which effortlessly zip from Beijing to Ji’nan, and thence south to Tai Shan and Qufu, or east to Qingdao.
There’s a lot to like about QINGDAO – and not just on account of its status as the home of Tsingtao, China’s most famous beer. This fresh, modern city enjoys a charming, windswept location right next to the famed Yellow Sea, where you can chomp down superb seafood, hunt down a nearby beach, or prise sea creatures from their shells at low tide. It’s also surprisingly cosmopolitan for a provincial Chinese city, the result of its former status as a German military base; take time to wander amid the red-roofed Bavarian architecture of the hilly old city centre. Modern Qingdao remains an important port, the fourth largest in the land; the city is connected by ferry to both Japan and South Korea, and is highly recommended as an introduction, or full stop, to a trip around China.
For all Qingdao’s colourful history, its progress is relentlessly modern. The 2008 Olympics, whose sailing events were held here, accelerated the rate of change, most evident in the skyscraper-filled new city sprouting to the east. For tourists, most places of interest are within the walkable, compact old German town; exceptions include a series of beaches dotted along the shoreline, and day-trips east to the famous peak of Lao Shan.
Many a Western traveller arrives in Qingdao with a nagging sense of familiarity regarding the city’s name: this is the home of Tsingtao, China’s undisputed number-one beer. The confusion stems from its non-pinyin romanization, which can be directly attributed to the brewery’s age; it was started way back in 1903 (when Chinese used the Wade-Giles transliteratory system) as a German-British joint venture, before coming under Japanese control during their occupation of Qingdao. The Japanese ramped up production and essentially transformed Tsingtao from a pumped-up microbrewery to a national success story. During the first decades of Communist control, Tsingtao beer was pretty much the only product exported from China.
As in the rest of China, bottles of Tsingtao can be bought all over the city. However, it would be a shame to leave Qingdao without buying the unpasteurized draught version, sold in plastic bags on the streetsides – getting the nectar into the bag without spillage is something of an art form. Tsingtao also takes pride of place during the August International Beer Festival (see thatsqingdao.com for information), which is held at the International Beer City, way out to the east of town.
Though it may, at first glance, appear to be little more than a small town in the south of Shandong, QUFU is of immense importance. Confucius (孔子, kǒngzǐ) was born here around 551 BC, and, having spent his life teaching his moral code – largely unappreciated by his contemporaries – was buried just outside the town, in what became a sacred burial ground for his clan, the Kong. His teachings caught on after his death, however, and despite periodic purges, they have become firmly embedded in the Chinese psyche. All around Qufu is architectural evidence of the esteem in which he was held by successive dynasties – most monumentally by the Ming, who were responsible for the two dominant sights, the Confucius Temple and the Confucius Mansion, whose scale seems more suited to Beijing.
Qufu is an interesting place to spend a few days, with plenty to see concentrated in a small, walkable area, mostly within the confines of Qufu’s flag-studded old town walls. As a major tourist destination, expect the usual crowds and hustles – especially around the end of September, on Confucius’s birthdate in the lunar calendar, when a festival is held here and reconstructions of many of the original rituals are performed. If it all gets too much, there are places to escape amid old buildings, trees and singing birds, such as the Confucian Forest to the north.
When the Communists came to power they saw Confucianism as an archaic, feudal system and an anti-Confucius campaign was instigated, which came to a climax during the Cultural Revolution. Now, however, conservatives frightened by the growing generation gap and the new materialism of China are calling for a return to Confucian values of respect and selflessness, just as their nervous counterparts in the West preach a return to family values. Confucian social morality – obeying authority, regarding family as the seat of morality and emphasizing the mutual benefits of friendship – is sometimes hailed as one of the main reasons for the success of East Asian economies, just as Protestantism provided the ideological complement to the growth of the industrialized West. As one Chinese visitor commented, “Confucius is the one Chinese leader who never let the people down”.
The status of the Yansheng Duke – the title given to Confucius’s direct male descendant – rose throughout imperial history as emperors granted him increasing privileges and hereditary titles; under the Qing dynasty, he was uniquely permitted to ride a horse inside the Forbidden City and walk along the Imperial Way inside the palace. Emperors presented the duke with large areas of sacrificial fields (so called because the income from the fields was used to pay for sacrificial ceremonies), as well as exempting him from taxes.
The Kongs remained a close-knit family, practising a severe interpretation of Confucian ethics – any young family member who offended an elder was fined two taels (about 70g) of silver and battered twenty times with a bamboo club. A female family member was expected to obey her father, her husband and her son. One elderly Kong general, after defeat on the battlefield, cut his throat for the sake of his dignity. When the news reached the mansion, his son hanged himself as an expression of filial piety; after discovering the body, his wife hanged herself out of female virtue. On hearing this, the emperor bestowed the family with a board, inscribed “A family of faithfulness and filiality”.
The Kong family enjoyed the good life right up until the beginning of the twentieth century. Decline set in rapidly with the downfall of imperial rule, and in 1940, the last of the line, Kong Decheng, fled to Taiwan during the Japanese invasion, breaking the tradition of millennia. His sister, Kong Demao, penned In the House of Confucius, a fascinating account of life lived inside this strange family chained to the past. Half of Qufu now claims descent from the Kongs, and it’s by far the most common family name in the city.
Tai Shan is not just a mountain, it’s a god. It’s the easternmost and holiest of China’s five major Taoist peaks (the other four being Hua Shan, the two Heng Shans and Song Shan), and has been worshipped by the Chinese throughout recorded history: the ascent is engrossing and beautiful – and very hard work.
Once host to emperors and the devout, Tai Shan is now Shandong’s biggest tourist attraction, a religious theme park whose paths are thronged with a constant procession of tourists – alongside a significant number of genuine pilgrims. There are photo booths, souvenir stalls, soft-drinks vendors and teahouses; halfway up, there’s a bus station and cable car. Yet Tai Shan retains an atmosphere of grandeur; the temples here – and the mountain itself – are magnificent enough to survive their trivialization.
Tai Shan looms at 1545m high, and it’s about 8km from the base to the top. There are two main paths up the mountain: the grand historical eastern trail, and a quieter, more scenic western trail. The ascent takes four or five hours, half that if you rush it, and the descent – almost as punishing on the legs – two to three hours. The paths converge at Zhongtianmen, the midway point (more often than not, climbers using the western route actually take a bus to Zhongtianmen, costing ¥30). After Zhongtianmen, the path climbs for over 6000 steps to the summit, though the sedentary can complete the journey by cable car (¥100 one-way, ¥200 return).
Officially, both path gates are open 24 hours; evening hikers should bring flashlights and head up by the more travelled eastern route while descending by the western route (the circuit explained in the account that follows). For the eastern route, walk uphill on Hongmen Lu from the Taishan hotel, or catch bus #3 or #9 along the way or from the train station. To reach the western route, take bus #3 (¥1) to its other terminus, Tianwaicun, or a taxi (¥7). Cross the street, ascend the stairs dotted with decorated columns, then descend to the bus park.
Whatever the weather in Tai’an, it’s usually cold at the top of the mountain and always unpredictable. The average temperature at the summit is 18°C in summer, dropping to -9°C in winter, when the sun sets by 5pm. The summit conditions are posted outside the ticket windows at the park entrances. You should take warm clothing and a waterproof and wear walking shoes, though Chinese tourists ascend dressed in T-shirts and plimsolls, even high heels. The best time to climb is in spring or autumn, outside the humid months, though if you can tolerate the cold, the mountain is magnificent (and virtually untouristed) in winter.
If you want to see the sunrise, you can stay at the guesthouses on the mountain – though prices are almost as steep as the trail – or risk climbing at night.
Taoism, after a long period of communist proscription, is again alive and flourishing at Tai Shan, and you’re more than likely to see a bearded Taoist monk on the way up. Women come specifically to pray to Bixia Yuan Jun, the Princess of the Rosy Clouds, a Taoist deity believed to be able to help childless women conceive. Tai Shan also plays an important role in the folk beliefs of the Shandong peasantry (tradition has it that anyone who has climbed Tai Shan will live to be 100).
Looking at the gleaming high-rises, wide boulevards and a modern maze of flyovers that characterize Shandong’s capital, JI’NAN, it’s hard to believe that this is the site of one of China’s oldest settlements, inhabited for the last four thousand years. Though regularly ranked among China’s most liveable cities, Ji’nan would barely register on the travel radar were it not for its natural springs, a series of clear blue upwellings set among several urban parks – some of the cleanest water available in any Chinese city. These springs are close enough to each other to be connected on foot, but these days it’s also possible to explore them by boat. Ji’nan has non-watery attractions too, particularly the provincial museum and the steep hillside at Qianfo Shan, respectively to the east and south of the city centre.
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 local youths whoop and shout 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 16°C (ie, pretty cold) 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.