Called the ‘City of Springs’, Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, is known for the water that gushes into it. Some springs have been turned into proper tourist destinations, with artfully arranged ponds and pagodas, while others are hidden behind the walls of private houses. But one thing is certain: you’d be sorely disappointed if you think that they’re hot springs, or if you wanted to dive in and have a little swim.
Nowadays, you’re not allowed to swim in the springs. Not that I particularly wanted to, as it was a chilly February morning during my visit. But apparently the 72 springs of Jinan used to see more activity, serving as the lifeblood of the city. ‘Back in the day, we used to be able to swim in the moat and bathe in the various springs,’ said my driver Xiao Jun. ‘I remember seeing young couples courting each other in the springs.’
As romantic as this may sound, the government’s decision seems like a fair one. Years of residents doing laundry, bathing and cooking took a toll on a few springs, leading to a total ban from entering the water a few years ago. However, as you stroll along the moat, or better yet, get on the tour boat, you’ll see locals in their droves in all hours of the day, lowering their buckets to the various mouths of the spring, collecting water to make tea at home. If you’re brave enough, you can simply consume it from the source (just ask the water collectors for a sip); I found the taste similar to distilled water, and icy cold.
There are 72 springs – and you’re not going to see them all. But most of Jinan’s treasures reside in the moat, a near-square system of canals and lakes in the city centre. You should start with Baotu Spring, the most revered and alluring of them. It consists of three fountains where underground water gushes to the surface, sometimes reaching three feet high during the rainy season. And surrounding it are pagodas and houses dating back to the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. Baotu has been admired throughout history, with a mention in the Spring and Autumn Annals, a famed text dating back more than 2,500 years. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Emperor Qianlong switched his water of choice from a Beijing source to Baotu Spring after visiting the area. Nowadays, the vicinity is called Baotu Spring Park, where more than 30 additional springs of all sizes can be found, with one of them next to the former home of Li Qingzhao, China’s most famous female lyricist of the Song era.
As the tour boat passes Baotu Spring and the adjacent Five Dragon Pool – an impressive sight of five dragon statues pouring water from their mouths – I soon reach the city’s crown jewel, Daming Lake. The lake is a water wonderland created by the various springs, the only city lake in China formed in this way. It has long been a subject in classical literature and today is often seen in TV dramas. Emperor Qianlong built his summer mansion on an island in this lake, and nowadays the lakeshore is home to cafes, parks, a roller coaster, a tower with views of the city and a giant marble slab with texts written by Chairman Mao in 1929.
‘About five years ago the lake was not in the best condition, and tourists actually complained,’ says Calvin Liu, a local on leave from his cruise ship job. ‘The government finally decided to clean it up and combined Daming Lake and the other lake next to it to create a massive space. It’s definitely more enjoyable now.’ Part of that enjoyment happens on New Year’s Day, when the city plays host to the Daming Lake Winter Swimming Event, where countless daredevils brave the sub zero temperatures to race across the water. There are, of course, other ways to tour the lake, from paddling boats to speedboats, or simply with a stroll around the five-kilometre perimeter.
As my tour boat returns to the docks near Black Tiger Spring, a looming structure known as Liberation Tower stands nearby as a reminder of Jinan’s warring past. From the Warring States period (402 BC-221 BC) right up to the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949), Jinan has been a coveted strategic city as a gateway to Beijing. There are now various war-related relics dotted across the city, with the aforementioned tower built to commemorate the War of Jinan during the civil war, and Hero Mountain (Yingxiong Shan), where you’ll find a weekend market and a statue of Chairman Mao.
After the war, Jinan began to climb in status and has grown to become a metropolis with seven million residents. It is now a second-tier city, despite being eclipsed by Shandong neighbour, Qingdao. But Rene Wang, senior director of sales at the InterContinental Jinan City Center is confident of the city’s rise: ‘Ever since 2009, when Jinan hosted the National Games of China, the city has seen rapid change, such as the construction of a new district in the east. We’re also building an underground train system that cleverly avoids the spring water paths. I think it will become a fashionable city.’
The InterContinental, the only hotel within the moat, has recently undergone a renovation and reopened last year. It now boasts a beer garden on its roof, with stunning views of the city. High-end international brands have also arrived in the shopping malls next to the hotel, and you can feel an exciting energy as you walk on the streets.
But it still retains a laid-back atmosphere, something Wang says has to do with the teachings of Confucius, whose hometown Qufu is just nearby. ‘Family is the centre of his teachings and we simply live by that. It’s all about striking a perfect balance between the old ways of life and the new era,’ she says.
For now, Jinan is slowly waking up to trends that have been popping up in other cities. Art and cultural spaces converted from old warehouses have started appearing, but the most exciting project is the upcoming conversion of one of China’s largest steel factories, which will be transformed into museums, galleries and other lifestyle outlets. It’s a glimpse of what the future might hold.
Visit during high season, and you’ll also get Jinan’s postcard-perfect views. From April to September, willows on the banks of the lake, the moat and the beautiful, step-back-in-time Qushuiting Street are filled with verdant green, and all the springs come to life, gushing with water amid the cheers of the crowds.
And summer also brings about a local favourite pastime: bathing in the springs. It’s meant to be prohibited, but if you know where to look (Zhuoying Spring), you can easily join the locals for a quick dip and a cup of tea afterwards. Just don’t quote me.
InterContinental Jinan City Center, 3 Tian Di Tan Road
The only hotel within Jinan’s moat is walking distance to practically every attraction. Since opening last year, the hotel has become the city’s top choice, with rooms facing Daming Lake, and boasting a 24-hour restaurant. Ihg.com
Ping Quan Hutong San Hao Yuan, 3 Ping Quan Hutong
Jinan is famous for its Lu cuisine, its savoury dishes a staple among Shandong natives. There are six restaurants dotted across the hutong (narrow alleyway), with number 6 a hit among celebrities.
A hutong-esque enclosure offers street eats, music bars and live performances in the square. It’s also a great place to hunt for souvenirs.
Day trip from Jinan
There’s plenty more to see in close proximity to Jinan. Go for a drive or hop on a train and find yourself immersed in nature and historical beauty
1. Thousand Buddha Mountain
18 Jing Shi Yi Lu
Thousands of Buddha images carved out of the rock faces and free-standing Buddha statues have been gracing this mountain south of Jinan since the Sui dynasty (581-618). The temples in the hill can be reached by hiking up or by cable car, and a trip to the Buddha cave is a must. Here, you’ll find thousands of Buddha carvings and colourful murals decorating the deep caverns.
2. Jiuru Mountain
With its eight pools, nine falls, 24 springs and 36 peaks, the Jiuru Mountain area is a favourite for locals and visitors to get away from the city. Pack your hiking gear to tackle the peaks, which reach over 800 metres high. Take in the stunning canyons, falls and forest, and see what an AAAA-rated scenic area looks like.
A must-visit town if you’re a history buff. Not only is this the birthplace of Confucius, where you can tour his home and a temple dedicated to him, but it was also the capital of an ancient country and one of the first places to be designated a historic cultural city by China. Be sure to plan your visit as the sights close at 4.30pm.
One of the five sacred mountains of China, Taishan is significant in Taoist culture and was an important cradle of Chinese culture 5,000 years ago. The venerated mountain is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a place of worship at the top dating back 3,000 years. The tallest peak is the 1,545-metre Jade Emperor Peak.
5. Lingyan Temple
The 11th-century Pizhi Pagoda stands tall among other relics dating from the various dynasties. Remarkably, the temple was left untouched over China’s more tumultuous years. Its stupa forest, with 167 stupas built in different eras, is a sight to behold. Another AAAA-grade scenic area, this temple is the foremost of the Four Buddhist Temples of China.
6. Great Wall of Qi
China’s oldest existing part of the Great Wall network was built during the end of the Warring States period (402 BC-221 BC) by the state of Qi. It was built to defend against invasions from the Kingdom of Chu. It stretches about 600 kilometres, roughly the distance from Jinan to Qingdao, and most sections are still visible.