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.
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Ji’nan’s secret spring
Ji’nan’s secret spring
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.