Explore: A Journey to China

Riches abound in the ancient peninsula of Shandong, on China’s northeastern coast.

By Adam H. Graham

Those returning from China’s modern megacities are often disappointed that they didn’t encounter “old China,” the kind depicted by silk screens and ink paintings that have long captured the imagination of Westerners. Not here. This historic peninsula, equidistant from Beijing and Shanghai, remains pristine and is home to profoundly sacred spots, such as Mount Tai (China’s most holy mountain and the Shandong Peninsula’s highest peak) and Mount Lao (regarded as the cradle of Taoism), as well as myriad temples. As if that’s not enough, the ancient philosopher Confucius hailed from the peninsula, and so did the country’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who climbed Mount Tai in 219 B.C. and proclaimed China a unified empire. Today many consider Shandong the birthplace of China itself.

Capital City

The capital of the peninsula, Jinan, is nicknamed City of Springs for its 72 springs, some of which have been turned into public gathering places. Consider visiting Batou Springs (1 Batouquan Nan Rd.; admission, $6*) or, to avoid the crowds, Wangfu Pool (Wangfu Chizi; admission, free). The former is akin to a small lake set in a garden with pagodas and teahouses, while the latter is a swimming hole tucked off a residential alley where on hot days locals enjoy dipping into its 64-degree waters.

Just around the corner from Wangfu Pool, Furong Jie is the city’s main alley for food. It’s crammed with stalls hawking the region’s famed street food, noted for its crispy braised seafood and vegetables. You can choose among all sorts of noodle bowls, shaokao (barbecue on a stick) and salt-baked chicken; and Zi Wu Road Zhang Ji Rou Jia Mo (84–86 FuRong St.; dinner for two, $25) earns high marks for its braised-pork buns.

All of the area’s springs flow into Daming Lake (Daming Hu Rd.; admission, $4), where you can rent a paddleboat. Barbecue vendors, tai chi practitioners and calligraphy artists congregate along its willow-lined shores.

Some of the region’s most sacred temples are within an hour’s drive of the city. Driving in China can be challenging, so it’s better to take a taxi, which in this case will set you back about $50 to $70, or inquire with your resort about helping you book a train or a comfortable bus. Jinan Lingyan (Jinan Shi, Changqing Qu; 011-86-531-8746-8097; admission, $9), 50 miles south of the capital, is a 6th-century Buddhist temple that’s home to the towering beehive-like Pizhi Pagoda and the Thousand Buddha Hall, which houses a Ming dynasty bronze Buddha statue. Another 22 miles south rises Mount Tai (admission, $18), known locally as Tai Shan, arguably the most holy mountain in China. Confucius, Qin Shi Huang and Mao Zedong climbed it, as have several other leaders over the centuries. There are four routes to the mountain’s summit. The central route, with 6,660 stone steps, is the most scenic and passes bridges, rivers, temples and more (a cable car will bring you back down). You’ll want to get started in the morning before too many people show up. Along the way, you’ll pass the Red Gate Palace (Hong Men Gong; admission, $18), where the Cloud Step Bridge overlooks a misty waterfall. Many food stalls line the trail, but their prices climb higher as you do. At the top of the route, the restaurant at the Shenqi Hotel (lunch for two, $15) serves a simple but varied buffet and has rooms for those who missed the last cable car back down or want a quiet night on the mountain.

Thirty minutes outside Jinan is Zhujiayu (011-86-8380-8158; admission, $6), a hamlet in a farm valley that’s often used by film crews as a set for period dramas. A stroll along its charming dirt roads will give you a sense of China’s ancient past that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Shandong Suds

Qingdao is a modern metropolis with “only” nine million residents between the Yangtze and Yellow River deltas, with ferries serving nearby Japan and Korea. The city’s history dates back 6,000 years, with chapters dedicated to the Zhou dynasty (China’s longest-running) and to German and Japanese colonial occupations during the late 19th century. Qingdao was refurbished prior to hosting the 2008 summer games (the sailing regatta was held here), and the skyline is glassy and constantly shooting upward—however, the city center remains decidedly European, with red-tile roofs and cobbled lanes.

Credit for that is due to Hamburg architects who revamped the city in 1897. Coming upon Signal Hill in Qingdao’s Old Town, you can get a panoramic view of the city’s Concession-era architecture. One of the better examples is the Bavarian Governor’s Mansion (26 Longshun Rd., Deguo Zongdu Lou Jiuzhi Bowuguan; 011-86-8286-8838; admission, $3), where Mao once stayed in the 1950s and which is also known for its Art Nouveau interiors.

Nearby, the Tsing Tao Beer Museum (56 Dengzhou Rd., Shibei; 011-86-532-8383-3437; admission, $9), an active brewery built in 1903, still bottles China’s most popular brew. Its Tipsy Room has crooked walls and floors intended to simulate the feeling of having one too many. At the end of the tour, you can sample Tsing Tao in the tasting room. Qingdao is also known for its mineral water from Mount Lao Springs; and chardonnays and Rieslings from Huadong Winery (Jiulongpo, Nanlongkou, Laoshan; 011-86-532-8388-7168), 20 minutes away, are becoming increasingly reputable.

Like many coastal Chinese areas, Qingdao excels at seafood. At Yi Qing Lou (Cheng Yang; 011-86-532-8793-6777; dinner for two, $60), hosts lead diners to an indoor pond where they can choose among a selection of live crabs or giant prawns for the chef to prepare.

Philosophy Hotbed

Confucius, the beloved Chinese teacher, politician and philosopher, was born in 551 B.C. in Qufu, and the city, south of Jinan, brims with sites honoring him. The Kong Family Mansion (Qufu; admission, $26; includes access to the on-site forest and temple) is a good place to familiarize yourself with Confucianism, said by some to be a religious offshoot of Buddhism and believed by others to be an ethical philosophy and morality. The vast estate dates back to the Ming dynasty and was the residence of Confucius’s descendants. Just behind the mansion is Mu’en Lou (Houzuo St.; 011-86-537-448-3877; lunch for two, $30), which prepares dishes like beef with star anise.

Surrounding the mansion is the Confucius Forest, a 453-acre expanse filled with pine and cypress trees that is home to the tomb of Confucius and the resting ground of some 100,000 descendants. The Temple of Confucius is another must-see spot, with nine courtyards commemorating visits by emperors and nobles. And 20 miles away, Confucius Cave (Fuzi Dong; admission, $7) is said to be where the philosopher was born and raised by a tiger and an eagle.

Land of Water

The Laoshan Scenic District is about 25 miles east of Qingdao. Here, the otherworldly Mount Lao (admission, $19) rises from the sea. Once the site of more than 70 Taoist temples, the mountain has also drawn emperors seeking immortality. Its summit can be accessed by multiple routes. Opt for the south route—which involves passing a pair of 2,000-year-old cypresses and riding a cable car part of the way—or the more easygoing north route that zigzags past the Chaoyin Waterfall, which cascades in white ribbons down a rocky mountain into a pool. It’s a vision that could have been lifted from a silk screen, and a reminder that “old China” can still be found.

RCI® affiliated resorts in China include:
SRC @ Ramada Plaza Hotel Yantai A525

Modern spa amenities, including a sauna and a steam room. 10 Acuma St., Laishan District, Yantai City, Shandong
Member Review: “The on-site dining is great.”

Surf Plaza—Qingdao 4980

Enjoy the manicured sculpture gardens with a backdrop of the South China Sea. Surf Plaza 316, Hong Kong East Rd., Qingdao, Shandong
Member Review: “Comfortable accommodations.”

Days Hotel Frontier Yantai DB25

Thanks to a playground, pools and theater, entertainment is a focus at this gleaming high-rise. 12 Binghai Rd., Yantai, Shandong
Member Review: Not yet rated

SRC @ Best Western Sea View Grand Hotel Haiyang D673

Offers views of Haiyang’s golden beaches. Sea View Road Junction, Haiyang, Shandong
Member Review: “Quiet and away from it all.”

Weihai Dawu Sea Feeling Hotel 6785

This classic property is one of the oldest in Weihai and is a short walk to the beach. 147 Bei Huan Hai St., Weihai, Shandong
Member Review: “I’d definitely stay here again.”

Days Inn Qingdao Airport DB30

Well-appointed one-bedrooms with work stations for plugging in. 217 Chongqing Rd., Qingdao, Shandong
Member Review: Not yet rated

For complete member reviews (as member review has been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in China include:
Nishan Shuyuan Hotel

Airy individual villas surrounded by gardens. 199 Shengshuihu North Rd., Nishan Town, Qufu; doubles from $120 a night

Shenqi Hotel

Basic but comfortable, the Shenqi offers a quiet night on Mount Tai. 18 Tai’an Tian St., Tai’an; 011-86-538-822-3866; rooms from $130 a night

Shangri La, Qingdao

This 20-story hotel has sleek rooms and attentive service. 9 Xianggang Middle Rd., Qingdao; shangri-la.com; doubles from $230 a night

Silver Plaza Quancheng Hotel

A business-forward hotel in the heart of Jinan with a gym, a hot tub and a car-rental desk in the lobby. 2 Nanmen St., Jinan; doubles from $90 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2017