Tuesday Trip Back in Time – Jinan, China 2010

Jinan is a Chinese city that  most people will not find reason to visit. It does not have the cachet of the more famous cities of China such as Beijing or Shanghai – in fact, Jinan has the dubious honor of being known as one of the most polluted cities in China! However, my husband was born in and raised in Jinan until he was 15, and his maternal family still lives there. Therefore, we made plans to visit Jinan and some other cities for three weeks – March 2-23, 2010.

This was pretty significant in our relationship because at that point we had been dating for about a year and a half and I was going to meet half of his family. Needless to say, I was a little nervous. Compounding my anxiety was the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin well at all! Or understand much either. My parents are from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, areas where they mainly speak Cantonese – therefore, it would be difficult to communicate well with his family. I was also a little anxious because in China, the one-child policy has caused parents to be extremely protective of their single child – even more so for a son due to social and cultural ideas. I was well-aware that I could be found wanting by his relatives – a non-Mandarin speaking and short Chinese girl. Apparently their family is proud of their height (my husband is 6’1″, in contrast I am 5’….). Already a few strikes against me!

the symbol of Jinan in Quancheng Square

Still, I was excited to visit China again. I had gone previously with my parents and then again with my friend just the year before, but that was more touristy and this promised to be significantly more “real” – we would be living in his mother’s apartment in Jinan and eating home-cooked meals, etc. Because we had three weeks to spend in China, we had decided a few side trips – Qingdao, Shanghai (where we would visit his cousin), and Guangzhou (where he would visit his high school friend). I’ll be focusing on Jinan in this post!

the three springs bubbling at Baotu Quan Park

Jinan is known as the “City of Springs”, due to various artesian springs around the area. My husband claims that they are probably all artificially maintained now but they are a definite city highlight. The blue symbol above is the symbol of Jinan and is a spring sculpture, representing the springs that can be found in the city. We would be visiting the famous Baotu Quan Park, Thousand Buddha Mountain, and Daming Lake, the three major attractions of Jinan. But mainly, this trip was a family one – for me to meet his family, and for my husband to re-unite with his family, whom he is very close to.

After a 13 hour plane ride to Beijing and then a 3 hour train ride to Jinan, I met his mother and grandmother at their simple three-bedroom apartment. His mother greeted me cordially and said to my husband about me, “不太肥也不太瘦” which even I could translate as “Not too fat, not too skinny”. Good first impressions I guess! It was late, so we didn’t talk much but prepared for bed. Because at this point we weren’t married, we would be sleeping separately – he would be sleeping in his old room and I would take his mother’s room, while his mother would share the bed with his grandmother. The Chinese favor hard beds because they believe it provides good support for the back – I grew up with this type of bed. But being in college and graduate school had spoiled me with soft American mattresses and now I felt like my spine was poking into me. It was a somewhat restless night.

the very simple two burner stove

Breakfast in China mostly consisted of mantou (plain Chinese steamed buns) or different baozi (steamed buns with different fillings), along with warm doujiang (soy milk). This is a northern style breakfast, southern style (where my parents are from) would be more like congee with condiments and youtiao, or even better dim sum! But that’s a whole different story. I didn’t really like the northern style breakfast (except for the yummy doujiang) but the mantou and baozi definitely fill you up and keep you warm.

I much preferred lunch and dinner, which his mother would often cook for us in her very basic kitchen. From simple ingredients she could create delicious meals for us, and she also hand-made her own dumplings.  His grandmother was also very adept at it as well – for a 86-year-old her hands were very nimble at folding together the dumplings. I tried it out too, but the results were extremely amateurish and just looked plain ugly! Although they kept reassuring me that it didn’t matter what it looked like as long as it tasted good.

Lunch could be steamed or fried dumplings, or sometimes fried lotus root box – 炸藕盒. Basically it’s lotus root cut into slices with meat and veggie filling in between, dipped into a batter, and then fried until crisp. Dinner usually consisted of vegetable dishes with some meat components like fatty pork belly for flavoring, and perhaps a steamed fish.

rolling out the dumpling skins

the pork and vegetable filling

Together these two combine in glorious harmony to become….

lovely neat rows of dumplings!

fried lotus root box = 炸藕盒

lotus root with filling sandwiched in between, dipped in batter and fried

crispy and delicious!

inside 炸藕盒

The apartment itself is a very simple 4th floor walkup. Each landing has a light that is sound activated – very useful to save electricity. Inside, there’s the main living room, with the kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms radiating from it. The largest bedroom is occupied by my husband’s grandmother, which also has a TV in it and usually serves as the center of gathering since it’s hard for his grandmother to move about. The other two bedrooms are small and each fit a double bed. The bathroom is probably the most jarring to American senses – although there is a normal flush toilet which is nice. However, the plumbing sucks so if you do number two you have to pour water in to slowly flush it down! This is not a fun job.

In addition, older Chinese apartments have a separate water heater in each unit for showering, which you turn on to heat up a little before you shower. The shower itself is not separated from the rest of the bathroom – basically you’re showering in a little area right next to the toilet and sink. It takes a little to get used to.

Here’s another thing too – the apartment is cold, so we all walk around wearing layers and sweaters. This isn’t too different from home, where my parents are pretty frugal so we don’t turn on the heat until it starts snowing! And it’s something that my husband and I do now – it’s hard to quit old habits.

There is family dinner a-plenty while we are back in Jinan and it’s time to meet all the relatives! My mother-in-law has a sister and three brothers – this is before the one-child policy was enforced. So we have Big Uncle, whose son lives in Shanghai (and we will be visiting later), Big Aunt whose son is married and has a child of his own, Second Uncle with a son, and Little Uncle with his daughter – and of course, all their respective spouses. My husband always bemoans the fact that our children won’t have any cousins on their paternal side since he has no siblings, and he really feels close to his cousins. They are the last generation to have cousins! It’s a sad thought.

Now it’s time for sightseeing. The first place that we visit is… the supermarket! This is actually a tourist destination for me because I love to see produce and also where people shop. It’s so reflective of everyday life! Not to mention it’s a good place to buy some edible goodies to bring back home.

inside the supermarket!

peanut oil is the oil of choice

this is like roast meat heaven to me.

a chinese sausage display. these are the best!~

adorable animal shaped buns

different types of suan cai = pickled vegetables as a condiment


snow fungus, used in soup, etc

different types of dried mini shrimp

mountains and mountains of rice!

some of the gaudy lanterns… ugh

We also did some more traditional sightseeing as well. We went on a family trip to Baotu Quan (Baotu Spring) Park, a park that contains several of Jinan’s natural water springs. They still had decorations up from Chinese New Year a few weeks ago in the form of decorative and kind of gaudy lanterns. I actually think it kind of detracted from the beauty of the park, but I’m sure at nighttime when the lanterns are lit they have a special effect.

Baotu Quan is famous because it was mentioned in classical Chinese literature and was even designated as the Number One Spring Under Heaven – 天下第一泉! That is seriously a lot to live up to. A lesser spring would feel crumble under the pressure, but rest assured Baotu Quan is quite lovely, even with the lanterns around.

The park also contains a memorial to a female poet Li Qingzhao, which I found very interesting because it was quite rare for a woman to become famous in those times. There is also the 10,000 Bamboo Garden, which used to serve as a residence for the governor of the province. Also, oddly enough, there is a seal in one of the springs!

learning more about the park

the three springs bubbling at Baotu Quan

there’s a seal in there. what?

lovely clear water and lots of fish in the spring

another view of the Baotu Quan pavilion

spring water fountains!

waterway next to traditional buildings

a plaque explaining the significance of the mountain

One of the other main tourist draws is the Thousand Buddha Mountain, located just outside Jinan. We drove out of the city and then down narrow roads bracketed by knobby pine forests, going on and up the mountain. I’m not sure if it can accurately be called a mountain, it’s more like a forested hill with pavilions and temples scattered throughout. Nonetheless, it’s a nice trip out into the countryside and provides some nice city views of a somewhat smoggy Jinan.

There are several temples with incense burning, which you can purchase to add your own to the pots outside. Also, there are several lookout points accessible by stone stairs which provide panoramas of the area and were very popular. Many of the trees along the path were tied with red ribbons – this is supposed to bring about luck and happiness. Within the caves of the area, you can find many Buddhas carved right into the cave wall – hence the name Thousand Buddha Mountain! And there’s also a large golden Buddha in the Maitreya Holy Yard but unfortunately we didn’t get close enough to take many pictures. It was a pretty cold and windy March day so we didn’t stay too long!

pavilion with a view of the countryside

buddhas framed in red, carved into the rock

view of the large golden Buddha and the city beyond

stone steps leading to a lookout

a sleeping buddha

Daming Hu – Lake of Great Splendor

Our last major tourist destination was Daming Lake, a scenic lake located within the city. The lake is fed by the same artesian springs that the city is so famous for and provides a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. The lake itself is fairly large and has nine islands scattered within it, some of which have pavilions and buildings that you can access by renting a pedal boat. Willow trees surround the lake and I can imagine that in spring and summer they look beautiful by the water, with their slender dangling branches  swaying gently over the water … but right now they are  more like sticks and it’s not quite as scenic! Also around the lake there are several buildings, food areas and souvenir stalls. There was even a bumper car attraction, which was so incongruous with the whole Chinese and being harmonious with nature theme. But I couldn’t resist getting in a few rounds in there myself!

vendors selling candied crabapples

That pretty much sums up the main tourist attractions of Jinan. Of course, there’s plenty more to see and do in the city that’s not necessarily touristy – like going to the main square and people watching or feeding the white doves they house there, or just roaming around and snacking on candied crabapples from the street vendors. One day we visited a local market that sells cross-stitch kits and spent hours haggling over them (I love cross stitch and the Chinese have great designs! Also their patterns are printed out in real color rather than random symbols…. I could go on and on about the superiority of Chinese cross stitch vs American.). Another time we went to a market that sells cotton and cloth in all forms, from loose cotton, combed cotton to finished cotton fabrics in all types of patterns. As a wedding gift to us, my mother-in-law made us wedding blankets in red satin with a phoenix and dragon design embroidered on it, using cloth from this market. It’s definitely a heartwarming gift, literally and figuratively!

Although we spent the majority of our time in Jinan visiting family, we also had some time to go to a few other Chinese destinations – namely Qingdao, Shanghai and Guangzhou. I’ll be covering these in future trips back in time, so keep a lookout!

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