China is a land of constant contrasts, and that’s not true anywhere more than than in Shandong Province. As a result, a return trip to that destination, more than 20 years after my first visit, in many ways resembled a back-to-the-future experience.
Automobiles now clog city streets that were built for pedestrians and bicycles. Billboards that not very long ago touted the benefits of socialism now advertise designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets. Vendors sell dumplings, noodles and unidentifiable body parts of animals off wooden carts which are parked in front of KFC, McDonald’s and other American-based fast food restaurants.
Like the rest of China, Shandong Province – perched on a peninsula which juts into the Yellow Sea southeast of Beijing — offers a study in contradictions. In its cities, modern skyscrapers stretch as far as the eye can see. Members of the “millennial” generation, many attired in the latest clothing fashions, are glued to their cell phones.
A short distance away the setting often is very different. Farm fields surround small villages where tiny houses line narrow dirt streets. Both men and women till the soil with implements not much different from those used centuries ago.
People strain beneath shoulder yokes attached to heavy loads at each end as their forebears did.
City of Springs
As the capital and transportation hub of Shandong Province, Jinan (pronounced Dze-nahn) is the logical starting point for a tour. Overseas visitors to this region of China usually land in Beijing, then take a plane or train from China’s capital city to Jinan.
The major claim to fame of that large, bustling metropolis is its reputation as the “City of Springs.” More than 100 natural pools grace the setting, many of them embellished with gardens and pavilions. In keeping with the Chinese penchant for colorful names, they include the Five Dragon, Black Tiger and Racing Horses springs.
In Qufu (pronounced Chew-foo), the birthplace of Confucius, sites associated with the life of that venerated philosopher and teacher also serve as a magnet for tourists. The Temple of Confucius, which was built in 479 B.C, two years after his death, occupies the site of the modest three-room home where his family lived. It has been constantly expanded over hundreds of years to now include 466 rooms that sprawl over 46 acres.
The adjacent Confucian Family Mansion, on which construction began in 1038 A.D., is almost as vast. Comprising 152 buildings, it has served as home to senior male heirs of their famous relative. The third major Confucian site is the largest family cemetery in the world, where the tombs of more than 100,000 people said to be descendants of Confucius surround his modest grave site.
Another popular destination is Mount Tai. For at least 3,000 years, it has been a place of worship in both the Taoist and Buddhist religions. Ancient emperors traveled there to offer sacrifices. Elaborate pavilions, towers and inscriptions carved on cliffs cover the 5,069-foot high mountain.
Chinese Cities with Appeal
Other cities also have their unique attractions. Qingdao (Ching-dow) is home to the best-known Chinese beer, which is sold as Tsingtao in the United States and throughout the world. Qingdao also was the site of sailing events that were held during the 2008 Olympics in China, and a museum overlooking the water recalls that proud moment.
A different beverage is the focus in Yantai (Yan-tie), known as “the city of grape wine.” Archaeological findings indicate that wine was used during sacrificial ceremonies in China as long as 9,000 years ago.
Modern production began in 1892, when the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company was established in Yantai. Today about 140 of the estimated 500 wineries in the country are located in Shandong Province.
Village life in Shandong Province, China
Not far from Yantai, I delved into China’s fascinating village life, and the past. I strolled into the tiny hamlet of Hanqioa (Han-kwee-au), smiling at villagers who stared at me with curiosity. Men and women of all ages were preparing corn to be ground into meal, and breaking tree branches to serve as fuel for heat and cooking.
In villages like Hanqiao, life has changed little from many decades ago and often much longer in the past. Introductions to intriguing historical tidbits stretching further back in time are available at outstanding museums in Shandong Province, as well as throughout China.
A Mélange of Museums
With an 8,000-year history of pottery making, it’s natural that Shandong Province is home to a Museum of Pottery and Porcelain. Displays include fine chinaware that serves as both functional items and art. Equally appealing is a whimsical collection of more than 3,000 clay pieces which depict people engaged in every aspect of pottery making as it was practiced a century ago.
Another museum is as interesting for its location as its contents. Workmen constructing a highway came upon the underground burial place of a dignitary. He was laid to rest some 2,600 years ago with chariots and horses, which were buried to transport him to the next life.
The carts and horse skeletons were left intact where they were found, and the highway was completed overhead. This collection also includes chariots from throughout history that were used in more ways than I could have imagined.
Given the increasing popularity of wine in China, the Changyu Wine Culture Museum in Yantai is another favorite stop. Never before had I visited a wine cellar that has been in use for more than a century, or seen such an extensive display of primitive vessels used in ancient wine making.
Wine production in China has spanned some 9,000 years, and is but one of countless activities and attractions that serve as bridges between the past and present. Exploring that country’s history and experiencing current developments provide a fascinating tableau of contrasts. Shandong Province offers much that the country has to offer in a compact area.
If you go. For more information contact the China National Tourist Office in New York at (212) 760-8218 or cnto.org. Given the language and other challenges of traveling in China, many people prefer to go there with a tour company. An excellent source of information about more than 500 group trips offered by over 100 companies is available at stridetravel.com.
Authors: Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block are a husband-wife team of experienced travel journalists who have gallivanted throughout the United States, and to nearly 80 countries around the world, and written about what they have seen, done and learned. Their articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and on websites across the Internet, and they each have won numerous writing awards. They love to explore new destinations and cultures and uncover off-the-beaten-path attractions. Read more of their work at The Rambling Writers