Heading to China in the year of the Dragon? Seek out Shandong – steeped as it is in myth and supernatural allure
Ticked off the Terracotta Warriors? Had your fill of Yangshuo’s karst landscape? This season’s hot shot – and a magnet for those who are much traveled and looking for something extra special – is Shandong.
The secret to Shandong’s undeniable appeal? Simple. The province knows how to pack it in. There’s something for everyone from culture and history (Shandong is home to the Apricot Pavilion where Confucius is said to have taught his students) to mystical mountains (step forward Tai Shan, where Qin Shi Huang first proclaimed the unity of China), brilliant beaches (take a bow Qingdao) and gastronomy (Shandong, aka Lu cuisine, is considered the most influential in China) – and nothing in moderation.
Here are just a few of the unique experiences you can try… Adventures abound all over but as a first port of call, Jinan is as good a starting point as any. The birthplace of celebrated screen goddess Gong Li, founder of traditional Chinese medicine, Bian Que and the founder of Chinese public libraries, Zhou Yongnian, Shandong’s prosperous capital is known as the ‘City of Springs.’ There are 72 to visiting total but, if you’re time poor, check out Batou Spring and Black Tiger Spring. Spending some time strolling around these wonderful willow filled parks offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of locals: expect to see residents singing Chinese folk songs, practicing Tai Chi and chewing the fat over endless cups of green tea.
Tempting though it is to while away hours relaxing in the spring parks, it’s worth venturing into the town where a wealth of historical sights – including the Guandi Temple and Hui Mosque, a delightful Chinese style mosque dating from the 13th century – await. Jinan is also home to a myriad of museums, but the best is Jinan Museum where you’ll find a cornucopia of calligraphy, ceramics, and statues of Buddhist figures from the Tang dynasty. In the evening, aim to watch the sun do its incredible sinking thing while enjoying a boat cruise around scenic Daming Lake.
When you’re weary of walking around Jinan, escape to Tai’an where the magnificent Dai Temple – the site of sacrifices to the god of Tai Shan
– with its hidden courtyards, makes for a peaceful place to unwind. A delightful portrait of traditional Chinese temple architecture, Dai Temple rewards a visit en route to the sacred slopes of Mount Tai Shan. Worshipped since at least the seventh century BC, sacred Mount Tai Shan is truly a photographer’s dream and anyone who’s anyone in China has climbed it, from Confucius to Chairman Mao and Qin Shi Huang. Scaling the World Heritage listed Tai Shan isn’t easy, but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with air so fresh it will make you feel giddy, and views so glorious your heart will sing.
The two main routes up the mountain are the central route and the western route which takes in an array of bridges, trees, caves, calligraphic art, pavilions, temples, and rivers, but experienced climbers could consider the lesser known Tianzhu Peak route up the back of the mountain. The scenery here is mostly pines and peaks, but it does offer the chance to escape the crowds – and explore and enjoy Tai Shan without tonnes of tourists.
When night falls, it’s show time! Be sure to catch China Tai Shan: the worship of heaven and earth. This 120 million RMB outdoor extravaganza depicts ancient emperors paying homage to heaven and earth against the backdrop of the ancient mountain, and put simply is spectacular.
From Tai’an it’s a hassle-free, one hour journey south to Qufu – the hometown of the great sixth century BC sage Confucius who believed that everyone, not just the aristocracy, had the right to knowledge – that should rank high on every visitors itinerary. Confucius Temple (used for worshipping Confucius in ancient feudal dynasties in China), the Confucius Mansions (where the direct descendants of Confucius lived liked kings) and the Confucius Forest (the private graveyard of Confucius) are the main draws, but be warned: don’t skimp on time. The old walled town itself maybe small, but the San Kong (Three Confucius) are gargantuan – and serve as a testimony to how important Confucian thought was in Imperial China.
All told, seldom does a travel destination satisfy the blurbs that shout ‘something for everyone’ but Shandong genuinely does. Whether you’re there to climb a mountain, get an insight into China’s imperial past or fill your boots on the local Lu cuisine, this underrated province will leave you clamouring for more. And with so much on offer and accessibility greatly enhanced by the new high speed train from both Beijing and Shanghai, it can only be a matter of time before the province gets packed.