Old Version
Outside In

Springs Eternal

The bustling capital of Shandong contains surprising pockets of tranquillity, with parks, gardens and stunning Buddha caves

By Michael Jones Updated Jun.1

Statues of Buddhas line the walls at the Thousand-Buddha Cliff Statues Park, Jinan, Shandong Province, December 29, 2017 (Photo by VCG)

Jinan is the capital city of Shandong Province, China’s second-most populous province with over 100 million people. Jinan is home to over nine million people, and is one of China’s major transport hubs, with a coach terminus that sees up to 92,000 passengers per day. The city lies on a major intersection of the east-west Jiaoji Railway and the north-south Jinghu Railway that connects Beijing to Shanghai. Jinan is also home to internationally renowned universities. These elements ensure that Jinan is a buzzing and lively city. Unfortunately, partly due to the famous springs that lie under Jinan, the city has only 40 underground railway stations, on just 3 lines. As a result, Jinan has found fame as having some of the worst traffic jams in all of China.  

Perhaps in part due to its heavy traffic, most international visitors overlook Jinan, seeing it only as a transportation hub. However, for those who venture into the city, Jinan offers a rather surprising opportunity for peace and tranquillity, especially on weekdays and outside of major national holidays. One source of calm and serenity comes from the many scenic areas that lie on the outskirts of the city, and can easily be visited on day trips, such as the magnificent Jiurushan Waterfalls, the autumnal leaves and grand lakes of Hongye Valley, and the fascinating Qi-era (323-221 BCE) Great Wall at Dafengshan. However, even inside the city itself there are relaxing locations to enjoy. 

Royal Approval 
Jinan is known as the City of Springs, as it is renowned for having 72 artesian springs. The most famous, Baotu Spring, is located within a large traditional Chinese-garden style park, filled with assorted rockeries, standing stones, streams, ponds, pavilions, walkways, courtyards and small halls. The Qianlong Emperor in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) labeled the spring as “Number One Spring under Heaven.” The spring is extremely historic and can be traced back further than 3,500 years. The extensive park includes several smaller gardens, many of which are memorials for poets and artists, as well as more recent historical events. Even when summer rainstorms afflict Jinan, the park is a wonderful place to relax, sheltered under the roof of a pavilion, embracing the refreshing breeze, and listening to the mesmerizing natural patter of rain.  

Another glorious attraction of Jinan is the central Daming Lake, and the extensive parkland that surrounds it. The park includes attractions for every interest, including silent forests, ponds covered in waterlilies, small historical buildings to visit, ancient city wall sections, a large lake that can be sailed upon, and a pavilion that towers over the city and can be climbed by the intrepid, revealing a grand view over the lake, park and city beyond. The park is free to enter and so many people choose to navigate the city by selecting routes that include walking through the park, or along the many canals that circle the historical heart of the city, featuring periodic pagoda style turrets, many of which can be visited and climbed. 

Karmic Collection 
Once a tourist has had enough of visiting springs, gardens and lakes, they should consider a trip to the Thousand-Buddha Cliff Statues Park, known locally as Qianfoshan. This mountain park is so large and green it is hard to believe that it lies within the center of a provincial capital. The most famous statue within the park is a gigantic golden seated Buddha. The Buddha is jolly to say the least, with an immense round belly that would make a sumo-wrestler blush and a smile reminiscent of cheeky child who knows that they have done something naughty and gotten away with it.  

The Thousand-Buddha name is not misplaced. There are Buddhas around almost every corner. Some of the larger statues include a large standing golden Buddha with a rather spaced-out expression, a tall dark zen metal Buddha, and a long sleeping Buddha that seems to regularly appear covered in a yellow blanket, as if he has been tucked in to sleep for the night. These larger statues dot the mountain in the company of hundreds of smaller deities.  

However, the most interesting collection of Buddhas is not to be found on the mountain or within its forests, but within the mountain, buried within an extensive cave network. China has many world-famous caves filled with Buddhist statues, and the caves of Qianfoshan deserve to be counted among the very best. The cave network appears quite limited at first, however each corner reveals a new surprise, with unexpected carvings that ever increase in their impact due to their sizes, settings, and curious artistic details. Unlike some other caves in China, the lighting scheme is delicate and modest, respectful of the religious context of the location and in line with the spirit of underground discovery. The network of caves finally emerges, after a good period of walking, at the other side of the mountain from where one enters, and, if anything, leaves one wanting more.  

The park can be explored by foot from the entrance, walking through a magnificent avenue of willow trees and statues, or alternatively by use of a cable car from the city center. The cable car takes one most of the way to the top of the mountain, where a beautiful temple complex can be explored. The very peak of the mountain includes a stone viewing platform from which great swathes of Shandong Province can be viewed.  

After a day or two exploring the sights in and around Jinan, every visitor will benefit from the final major selling point of Jinan, its food and drink. Shandong Province is home to Qingdao and its famous breweries, so it is perhaps not surprising that Jinan also houses several specialist local breweries, including one that makes Baotu Spring Beer, claiming to use water from Baotu spring itself. There is also plentiful access to international beers, including at the Malena Belgium Beer Bar. For those who prefer international food, there are a few restaurants available, including Bollywood Taco, Papa Randy’s Italian Restaurant, The Butcher Steakhouse, and Biscotti Italian Restaurant. However, it would be a shame to miss out on the great variety of local culinary specialities, including Tian Mo porridge, You Xuan thin pancakes, fried dumplings, and sweet and sour carp from the yellow river. However, perhaps the favorite treat for foreign visitors are Jinan’s steamed buns. The most famous restaurant selling them is Quancheng Da Bao. However, for a magnificent view over the city and a menu that features both local and international specialities, nothing can beat the rooftop restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Baotu Spring Park, Jinan, Shandong Province (Photo by Michael Jones)