China Travel Guide
Yellow River in the distance
South of the Yellow River as it makes its final thrust for the sea, Shandong’s capital is visited primarily by travelers en route to the popular sights of Tai Shan, Qingdao, and Qufu. It was known for its many natural springs. The most famous of these, the Black Tiger Spring, gushes out of tiger-headed spouts.
In the north of town, the park surrounding Daming Hu (Big Brilliant Lake) is filled with pedal boats, ponds, gardens, and temples, and is a good place for a stroll. To the southwest is the Li Qingzhao Memorial Hall, which commemorates one of China’s most famous female poets who lived in the 12th century. There is a statue of her as well as portraits and extracts from her writings.
In the southeast of the city, the slopes of Thousand Buddha Mountain (Qianfo Shan) are dotted with Buddhist statues. Several temples are situated on the summit, which is over an hour’s climb up the steps. A cable-car service is available. The earliest statuary dates from the 6th century, but many recent additions compensate for the statues broken by Red Guards. A short walk north of the mountain is the Shandong Provincial Museum. Its exhibits include Buddhist carvings, Neolithic pottery fragments (some from Long Shan nearby), and dinosaur fossils. Also on display is China’s oldest existing book made from strips of bamboo.
Near Liubu village, 21 miles (33 km) southeast of Ji’nan, the Si Men Pagoda (Four Gate Pagoda) is known for its antiquity and unusual design. This squat, one-story stone structure with four doors is topped by a steeple, and would have housed the remains of an important monk. The pagoda, erected in AD 611 is the oldest of its kind in China. Inside is a column with statues of Buddha.
Thousand Buddha Mountain
- 18 Jing Shiyi Lu, off Qianfoshan Lu
- 5am–9pm daily
Shandong Provincial Museum
- 14 Jingshiyi Lu
- lunchtimes weekdays
Having played a part in China’s earliest creation myths, Tai Shan (Peaceful Mountain) has held sway over the Chinese imagination for millennia. It is ascended year-round by legions of pilgrims and travelers, making it China’s most sacred and most climbed mountain. Despite the crowds, a super-natural presence permeates Tai Shan, best experienced via a slow ascent with plenty of pit stops at wayside shrines and monuments. Many tourists stay overnight at hotels on the mountain and watch the sunrise from the cloud-wreathed peak, which is where Tai Shan’s most significant temples can be found, attracting droves of devout worshipers.
- Tai’an, 45 miles (70 km) S of Jinan
- at Ji’nan
- near Train Station, 0538 827 2114
- Tai Shan Race (Sep)
- 7:40am–5pm; cable car: 8am–6pm
Climbing Tai Shan
Two routes lead to the summit. The Central Route is more popular, following the traditional imperial way and taking travelers past the most notable monuments. Despite having fewer historical sights and not being particularly well-marked, the Western Route boasts lovely natural scenery, including Heilong Tan. Many travelers ascend by the Central Route and descend by the Western Route.
- Shiba Pan
- Yuhuang Miao
- Dai Miao
Tai Shan’s shrines are not exclusively Daoist and this temple – with a typically Buddhist name (the Temple of Universal Light) – is easily visited if taking the Western Route up the mountain.
The last and most punishing part of the climb, the steep Path of Eighteen Bends is visible from Zhong Tian Men (the halfway point), and brings weary travelers to Nan Tian Men, the last gate on Tai Shan, but not the summit.
Dedicated to the supreme deity of Daoism, the Jade Emperor Temple marks the conclusion of the ascent at 5,070 ft (1,545 m) and houses a statue of the Jade Emperor and wall paintings.
Stone Sutra Valley
North of Doumu Gong is a further Buddhist contribution to this Daoist peak, a large flat rock carved with the text of the Diamond Sutra, one of Buddhist literature’s most important passages.
Hong Men Gong
This Ming dynasty temple, Red Gate Palace, is the first of numerous shrines dedicated to the Princess of the Azure Clouds (Bixia).
Mountain of Emperors
The most exalted of China’s five Daoist mountains, Tai Shan has been an essential imperial climb since the time of Qin Shi Huangdi. Emperors ascended Tai Shan to gain assurance that their heavenly mandate would be maintained; an abortive ascent could signal Heaven’s favor was in question. Several sights have imperial associations: Huima Ling (Horse Turns Back Ridge) marks the spot where emperor Zhenzong’s horse refused to go any farther and the ruler had to continue by sedan chair. Tai Shan's importance is further evinced by two other notables who clambered up its slopes: Confucius and Mao Zedong.
the Confucius Temple at Qufu
As the birthplace of China’s most revered sage, Qufu occupies a hallowed place in the minds of not only the Chinese, but also the legions of Japanese and Koreans who come here on pilgrimage. In September the town comes alive during the annual festival that celebrates Confucius’s birthday. Although the sage lived in relative obscurity, his descendents dwelt in the grand Confucius Mansion (Kong Fu) in the heart of town. Wielding immense political authority and wealth, the Kong family – referred to by the Chinese as the First Family Under Heaven – built a palatial mansion occupying over 40 acres (16 ha). Arranged on a traditional north-south axis, the mansion is divided into residential and administrative quarters, with a temple in the east and a garden at the rear. Most of the halls date from the Ming era. The Gate of Double Glory in the north was used for the emperor’s visits, while to the east stands the Tower of Refuge, where the family assembled in times of strife.
Next to the mansion, the Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) is a lengthy complex of memorial gateways, courtyards, halls, stele pavilions, auxiliary temples, gnarled cypresses, and ancestral shrines. Originally a simple shrine in 478 BC, the year after Confucius’s death, the temple grew gradually over the centuries before suddenly expanding during the Ming and Qing eras. Beyond the entrance stand 198 stone stelae, listing the names of as many as 50,000 successful candidates in the imperial examinations, during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Some are supported on the backs of mighty bixi, primitive, turtle-like dragons. A long succession of gateways leads to the 11th-century Kuiwen Pavilion, a triple-roofed building. Confucius instructed his disciples from the Apricot Pavilion, accessed through the Great Achievements Gate. On top of a marble terrace with columns that are elaborately carved with dragons, the Great Achievements Hall (Dacheng Dian) forms the temple’s splendid nucleus. Beyond, the Hall of the Sage’s Relics houses carved stone plates with scenes from the sage’s life. The Lu Wall in the eastern section is where one of his descendents hid his books to save them from Emperor Qin Shi (259–210 BC), who wished to burn them. The books were rediscovered during the Han era.
In the north of town, the walled Confucius Forest (Kong Lin) contains the grave of Confucius and other members of the Kong clan. The forest is mostly pines and cypresses interspersed with shrines and tombstones.
Not far south of Qufu, Zoucheng (now a city), is the hometown of Mencius (372–289 BC), the Confucian philosopher, second in importance only to Confucius himself. The tranquil Mencius Temple consists of 64 halls set around five large courtyards. As in Qufu, the philosopher has a Mansion and Graveyard.
- 8 am–5 pm daily
- 8am–5pm daily
The teachings of Confucius (551–479 BC), China’s most renowned philosopher, profoundly influenced the culture of China as well as other nations, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Born in the state of Lu during an age of uninterrupted war, Confucius (whose name was derived from his Chinese name, Kong Fuzi or Master Kong) was prompted by the suffering around him to develop a practical philosophy built upon the principle of virtue (ren), in the hope that rulers would govern in a just manner. Finding no audience among his native rulers, he communicated his beliefs to a body of disciples and embarked on a journey in search of a ruler who would apply his rules of governance. He died unrecognized and never recorded his philosophy in writing, but his thoughts were compiled by his followers into a volume called the Analects (Lunyu), and promulgated. Championed by successive thinkers including Mencius, Confucius’s philosophy later achieved predominance and formed the basis for the civil service examination system, a major hurdle to a career in officialdom right until the 20th century.
A world away from China’s drab industrial towns, the breezy seaside city of Qingdao is a colorful port on the Shandong Peninsula. Known to foreign nationals as Tsingtao, where its namesake beer is brewed, pretty Qingdao’s charms derive from its German textures, namely its cobbled streets, red roof tiles, distinctive stonework, and tree-lined avenues. Its German legacy dates from 1897, when the city came under German jurisdiction, but was returned to China in 1922. Selected as the host city for the sailing competitions of the 2008 Olympics, modern-day Qingdao is a clean, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking city, a kind of miniature Shanghai with high ambitions.
- 200 miles (330 km) E of Ji’nan
- Train Station
- Long Distance Bus Station, CAAC (buses to airport)
- Passenger Ferry Terminal, Local Ferry Terminal
- 9 Nanhai Lu, 0532 389 3062
- Beer Festival (Aug)
Qingdao city center
Qingdao’s many beaches
In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm took over Qingdao after two German missionaries were killed by the Boxers. The Qing court was forced to cede the city to Germany for 99 years, but it was returned to China in 1922, after eight years under Japanese occupation. The Japanese took over the port again between 1938 and 1945.
Wandering about at leisure is the best way to see Qingdao’s main sights, most of which lie in the German Concession in the southwest of town, that roughly stretches between Tai’an Lu and Xiaoyu Shan Park. The Germans built the imposing train station, equipped with a belfry, to mark the end of the line they laid to the provincial capital of Ji’nan. Reproduced on the label of Tsingtao beer, the octagonal Huilai Pavilion, which hosts craft exhibitions, lies at the tip of Zhanqiao Pier. The 1,444 ft (440 m) pier juts into Qingdao Bay off the frenetic No. 6 beach. The busy Zhongshan Lu running north is Qingdao’s premier shopping street. To the east is St. Michael’s Church, whose twin spires preside over an atmospheric part of town filled with steep cobbled streets and iron balconies. Southeast of the Catholic church is the charming Protestant Church, with its distinctive clocktower and white clock face. Built in 1910, its exterior has sandy yellow walls and red clay tiles, while the frugal interior is open to visitors. The 128-ft (39-m) clocktower is also occasionally open, and visitors can climb up its steep stairway. Farther east in Xinhao Shan Park is the former Governor’s Residence. This grand mansion once played host to Yuan Shikai and Mao Zedong. A short walk to the south, the Qingdao Museum is worth exploring for its collection of relics, including several huge stone Buddha statues dating to AD 500, and paintings from the Yuan and Ming eras. Visitors can stroll down Qingdao’s waterfront past its many beaches. No. 1 beach is the longest and busiest, while farther east, No. 2 beach is more attractive. Its clean stretch of sand leads to Huashi Lou, a stone mansion with a turret, that was once the residence of a Russian aristocrat. The genteel Badaguan area to the north is known for its villas and sanatoriums set amidst charming tree-lined streets.
St Michael’s Church
- 15 Zhejiang Lu
- 8am–5pm daily; services 6am, 8am, 6pm Sun
- 15 Jiangsu Lu
- 8:30am–5pm daily; services on Sun
- 27 Meiling Lu
An easy 25-mile (40-km) bus ride from Qingdao, the vast mountainous region of Lao Shan is a famous retreat with temples, waterfalls, and hiking trails. The area is steeped in Daoist lore and throughout the ages envoys were dispatched here in search of the elixir of life. The Song-era Great Purity Palace is located a third of the way up Mount Lao Shan. The palace was built by the first Song emperor as a place to perform Daoist rituals for the dead. From the palace, paths lead to the summit. Visitors can either climb the stairs located half-way up, or take the cable car for dramatic views. The area was once dotted with Daoist temples, but only a few survive today. The most famous is the Song-dynasty Taiqing Temple near the coast, not far from where the Shandong writer Pu Songling (1640–1715) lived. Many more temples survive on Lao Shan’s slopes along with caves, the highest and deepest of which is the Mingxia cave in front of Xuanwu Peak. Lao Shan is also known for its mineral water, an essential ingredient of Tsingtao beer.
Tsingtao, which swears by its magic ingredient of mineral water from Lao Shan, is China’s most famous beer (pijiu). Built by homesick Germans in 1903, the Tsingtao brewery is China’s largest, with exports to over 40 countries. Once the best (and most expensive) in China, Tsingtao faces stiff local competition as international breweries invest heavily in joint ventures in what is the fastest growing beer market in the world. Vast amounts of beer are drunk during the town’s Beer Festival in August. You can visit the brewery and receive free samples.
housed in a fine Qing-era guild hall
Formerly known as Chefoo and overshadowed by the dynamic port of Qingdao to the south, Yantai is a deepwater harbor town situated on the north coast of the Shandong Peninsula, famous for its clocks, fruit, and locally produced wine. The name Yantai, meaning “Smoke Terrace,” refers to the wolf-dung-burning beacons erected along the coast in the Ming dynasty to warn of sudden raids by pirates or the Japanese. In 1863, the city became a British treaty port and a substantial number of foreign merchants moved here, although its rise was eclipsed by the development of Qingdao at the end of the 1900s. The British were followed by the Germans, the Americans, and finally the Japanese. Despite its history as a treaty port, very little foreign architecture survives here, as the town never had a foreign concession.
Most travelers pass through en route to Penglai to the west, but the Yantai Museum is definitely worth a visit. Housed in a splendid Qing dynasty guild hall built for sailors and merchants, the museum’s exhibits pale by comparison to the building’s elaborate architectural detail and wood and stone carvings.
The impressive main hall, known as the Palace of the Empress of Heaven, was dedicated to Tianhou, the Empress of Heaven and Protector of Seafarers, by sailors from Fujian, who had taken shelter in Yantai during a fierce storm. All the component parts of the hall were designed by craftsmen from the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and shipped to Yantai where it was assembled in 1864. It is a fine example of the southern style, with a double roof decorated in mythical ceramic, stone, and wood figures. The entrance hall to the guild hall is elaborately carved with parables and episodes from Chinese literature and mythology, including the Eight Immortals who Crossed the Sea, battle scenes, figures, fabulous creatures, and several scenes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms . Arab figures playing musical instruments lie beneath the eaves, while the beams take the shape of a woman with her infant child. The temple has a garden and is equipped with a stage, employed for performances and events celebrating the Goddess Tianhou.
Yantai also has several parks, including the small and central Yuhuangding Park, and Yantai Shan Park, a hillside haven above the sea. East of here are Yantai’s two rather forlorn beaches. Both are a bit of a disappointment, and are surrounded by buildings and construction. The town’s waterfront, however, is a pleasant place for a leisurely stroll. Toward the eastern headland, fishermen can be seen repairing their nets or simply relaxing.
a Chinese pirate flag
The Empress of Heaven
The Empress of Heaven, Tianhou, is also known by the Chinese as Mazu, Niangniang, and Tianshang Shengmu. She is the Daoist equivalent of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion. In the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, she is worshiped as the Goddess of the Sea, and is the guardian deity of seafarers. She was supposedly originally a woman named Lin Mo, born in AD 960 on Meizhou Island in Fujian. From a tender age, Lin Mo was famous for helping sailors in distress, and after her death at age 27, her red-clothed apparition was seen by fishermen and sailors in danger. Confusingly, in Cantonese, her name is pronounced as Tinhau, and she is also known as A-Ma in Macau.
the Eight Immortals
The port city of Weihai was the site of the mauling of China’s European-built North Sea (Beiyang) Fleet by a Japanese flotilla during the 1894–5 Sino-Japanese War. Afterwards, between 1898 and 1930, the city was a rather unproductive British Concession and was known as Port Edward, but little remains of the town’s British heritage. Today, Weihai’s chief diversion is Liugong Island (Liugong Dao), 3 miles (5 km) off the coast, reached by ferry. Providing shelter for Weihai harbor, the island forms a natural stronghold and served as the base for the doomed Chinese North Sea Fleet.
The island’s main sight is the Museum of the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. The conflict between the two nations resulted in the ceding of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula (including Dalian) to Japan. Not far from the jetty, the museum functions for the “patriotic education” of Chinese visitors, with displays of photographs and artifacts salvaged from ships, as well as reminders of the island’s days as a station for the British Royal Navy.
The rest of the island is a pleasant place to explore, with several hiking trails heading off into the forested hills. Its International Beach is popular for its long stretches of sand and calm waters. Ferries connect Weihai with Dalian and Inchon in South Korea. No accommodation is available on the island.
Museum of the 1895 Sino-Japanese War
- Liugong Island
- from Weihai (20 minutes). Ferry back to Weihai: summer 7am–6pm, every 8 mins; winter 8:30am–4:30pm, every 30 mins
- 43 miles (70 km) NW of Yantai
- from Yantai
Associated with the Eight Immortals of Daoism, who drank wine here before making their mythical crossing of the sea without the aid of boats, the castle-like pavilion complex of Penglai Ge affords dramatic views out to sea from its breezy clifftop perch. Accessible by boat or bus, the pavilion dates back to 1061, though Penglai entered folklore when China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, foraged in the area for herbs that bestow immortality.
The imposing complex has a large network of buildings, pavilions, halls, temples, gardens, and crenellated walls. Many of the buildings are thickly covered in ivy and vines. Among its six main halls, which have been extensively renovated, the Tianhou Palace is dedicated to Tianhou, the Empress of Heaven, and enshrines a golden statue of the goddess. The statue is backed by a fine mural of dragons frolicking in the sea and amongst the clouds. The castle is at its liveliest on the occasion of the goddess’s birthday, on the 23rd day of the third month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when a lively temple fair is held. The goddess is invoked with incense sticks and prayer. The complex now has a cable car and a theater.
Penglai Ge is also known for the mirage that is supposed to occur here every few decades. Witnesses have described seeing an island, complete with buildings, inhabitants, and trees arising from the mist. Visitors can watch a video recording of the mirage in the Tianhou Palace for a small fee. Penglai is usually busy on weekends when large tour groups visit the pavilion. It is quieter on weekdays, and can be easily visited as a daytrip from Yantai.
- from Penglai (90 mins) every 20 mins
- daily. Last entry at 5pm