"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

Old man Zhujiayu Village Shandong Province China

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“Gooooood moooooorning Jinan!!!” It was a blistering hot day of thirty degrees and S and I were in fine spirits. Life on the Chinese road was turning out to be great fun. Moreover, the city of Jinan had defied all expectations. We hadn’t even known, for example, that Jinan is known as The Spring City. A reference to a series of beautiful parks, home to over seventy artesian springs. 

Having decided to stay an extra day, we embarked on a lengthy walking route to check out a few of Jinan’s hot spring parks. Along the way, we stopped for a late breakfast at a bakery. Ordering a bag of peanut cookies, some bland sponge cake and passable coffee, we headed outside to devour our modest picnic at a streetside table.

Once again, there was no escape from Jinan’s relentless construction, the busy road partly blocked by a giant cement mixer and several banks of grey bricks. Thankfully, the bloody thing wasn’t turned on this time. I was scooping up the last crumbs of the cookies when a passing mother and daughter walked over to greet us. “Hello!” laughed the little girl, mummy pushing her forward with an encouraging smile. 

They were both gorgeous, with styled hair, elegant dresses and dangling accessories. Sadly, further communication proved futile. Hence I simply took their photograph, which they gladly posed for. A pile of bricks in the background providing an amusing sense of contrast. 

Mother and daughter Jinan Shandong province China

Meeting the locals, ‘somewhere’ in Jinan.

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

I’m not sure what I’d expected exactly, but when we arrived at Five Dragon Pool Park the sheer scale of the place left me stunned! It’s an impeccably landscaped garden complex with stone pathways, lush green lawns, weeping trees and meticulous flowerbeds bursting with colour.

Five Dragon Pool Park Jinan Shandong province China

Five Dragon Pool Park, Jinan.

The place was packed, although many of the locals appeared more interested in S and I than anything the park had to offer. The subsequent staring came thick and fast from all sides. Some people shamelessly standing inches away from me, open mouthed. I guess they’d never seen a Leighton before. Dominating proceedings at the centre of the park was a massive, dense green pool. Apparently the city’s deepest artesian spring.

Sitting down by the water’s edge on a platform of rocks, we watched the crowds taking lunch at a large pavilion. I’d completely zoned out when a young Chinese couple shoved their child in front of me, growling at the poor little guy with uncompromising instructions.

“Hello how are you?” he asked robotically,

barely audible, standing to attention like a little toy solider. I had just started to respond, but he was already gone, scampering off to a place of safety behind his father’s legs. His father let out a hearty laugh, whisked him up and took him away to a nearby gazebo, where kids stood casting rods and feeding the fish. 

Five Dragon Pool Park Jinan China.

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

Photo courtesy of Rolfmueller.

The afternoon heat was positively stifling by the time we reached Baotu Spring Park. On arrival we bought our umpteenth bottle of water from a drinks stand at the entrance. Grabbing two tickets, we ducked inside, hoping to find a good resting spot with some much-needed shade. Settling into a leafy corner by one of the springs, I was delighted to see the pool actually bubbling! Dipping my feet in, the water felt wonderfully ice-cold and revitalising.

Baotu Spring Park Jinan China.

Baotu Spring Park, Jinan.

Much like the first park, this place was groaning with people and unspeakably noisy. Once more, we found ourselves the subject of much interest, with endless gawking. “Have you even seen another westerner?” asked S, our feet submerged in the water, a fat fish swimming past my toes. “Nope!” I conceded, as a group of curious kids stole glances at us from behind a fountain “Great, isn’t it?”

Father and son Baotu Spring Park Jinan Shandong province China

Baotu Spring Park, Jinan.

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

On our way back to the hotel that evening, we passed through the immense Quancheng Square. It was every bit as lively as the parks had been, with picnicking families, joggers and teenagers performing daredevil tricks in a skateboarding park.

There was so much people-watching to do it was hard to know where to begin. In fact, I remember having a bit of a moment. A sudden and weird realisation that we really were in the heart of non-touristy China. Staying in this immense city most westerners had never even heard of. Just two inconsequential dots among the swarming masses.

Quancheng Square Jinan China.

Quancheng Square, Jinan.

I was also thinking about how the next day would bring great contrast. That our return to Zhujiayu Village would be a much more intimate affair, the ultimate rural escape. Lost in my thoughts, I smiled to myself as a baseball-capped teen skidded to a halt right in front of us, flipping his skateboard into his hand with a nonchalant flick of his foot.

Our return to Zhujiayu the next day got off to a great start! Certainly much better than our previous arrival. Jumping off the bus, this time it was positively beaming with sunshine. Furthermore, the ticket office was open and there was no sign whatsoever of the villainous archway witches. Having paid at the booth, we took a leisurely stroll up the village path, following the instructions the Dutch couple had given us. 

Zhujiayu Village Shandong Province.

Zhujiayu Village, China.

We’d met Maarten and Kim on the first leg of our bus trip from Jinan. “Oh, we were just in Zhujiayu!” Maarten told us. “We stayed at the new guesthouse… it opened just a few weeks ago!” The guesthouse, they told us, was owned by a middle-aged widow. They’d spoken so highly of her we decided to check the place out for ourselves. And it wasn’t long before we found it, set among a handful of buildings just a few yards from the village shop.

Short stories from China

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

The owner was both surprised and delighted to meet us! Through elaborate hand gestures, she welcomed us to her little guesthouse and led us to our lodgings. There were about six rooms in total. Ours was a spacious, first floor suite overlooking a courtyard with potted plants and a fish-inhabited pond. There wasn’t much in the way of decoration, just a large double bed and a brand new, cellophane-wrapped air con unit. Flashing a battered old calculator at us, the lady offered a nightly rate of 60RMB. This seemed so reasonable we didn’t even bother to negotiate and paid her on the spot.

Soon after checking in, the lady brought a hearty lunch of stir-fried tofu and runner beans. We hadn’t been consulted, thus we learned that meal times were a get-what-you’re-given affair. Luckily, the food was delicious and by the time we’d finished there wasn’t so much as a surviving scrap.

Zhujiayu Village China.

Zhujiayu Village, China.

It was late afternoon when a sudden burst of activity shook us from our lazing. Craning our heads over the balcony, we watched in amusement as a team of Chinese labourers invaded the courtyard with half a dozen giant boxes. Within thirty minutes the men had installed a fully functioning solar power station! Clearly delighted with their handiwork, the owner treated them all to tea and slices of chopped apple. All the while we sat watching from the balcony. And I couldn’t help but feel I’d just witnessed a key moment in Zhujiayu history.

Solar power Zhujiayu Village China.

Solar power, baby!

Nightfall hit the village rapidly, like someone had literally flicked a switch. We took our dinner down in the courtyard, our host serving veggie omelettes, crispy spring rolls and two bottles of Tsingtao beer. As we ate, a young Chinese couple checked in, taking a room a few doors down from ours. The girl, a law student from Qingdao, spoke a little English and was keen to converse. 

“You are first foreigner I speak with!”

she laughed, her serious-looking boyfriend furrowing his brow in bemusement. We chatted for a bit about our backgrounds and she asked us a zillion questions about our travel plans in China. “Oh my god” the girl said, head in hands.

“I think you will see more of China in one month than I ever have”. 

What had been a sound night’s sleep came to an abrupt end when we awoke to the vociferous call of the house rooster. “Wake up bitches!!!” My god could that thing make some noise. “Oh no, I need the toilet” I grumbled. This meant putting on a t-shirt and sandals. Then shuffling outside and down to the courtyard to do my business in the room with two oblong shaped holes in the ground. I hated it. 

Guesthouse toilet Zhujiayu Village China.

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

Breakfast was a huge disappointment. My stomach had been practically begging for coffee and a pastry. But of course it was another pot of tea and…. a plate of pork dumplings. Later, it was time for laundry, a fun process that involved a stainless steel bowl and a scoop of guesthouse detergent.

S undertook the actual washing, with me wringing everything out and hanging them up on the banisters by the side of the pond. “Be careful that shirt doesn’t…” “Oops!” I grinned, as it splashed into the green water below. “Might wanna wash that one again!”

Guesthouse Zhujiayu village Shandong province China

Laundry fun in Zhujiayu Village.

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

Having spent about as much time in the guesthouse as we could handle, S and I headed out for the exploratory village walk we’d been denied on our first visit. Veering off the main path, we wandered into a curious maze of winding dirt tracks. The ever-present stone wall serving as our navigator. Here and there we paused to admire the modest brick homes, most of which were in a state of disrepair. Others stood altogether derelict.

Zhujiayu Village Shandong province China

An afternoon stroll, Zhujiayu.

Quite unexpectedly, we came across an old man sat atop a section of the wall. He was staring off into the distance contentedly, a cigarette clutched between his bony fingers. Hearing me approach, he turned to greet us with a warm smile before gargling incomprehensibly. I gave him a friendly wave as we passed and found myself speculating on how many hours of his life he’d spent sitting on that wall. I’m guessing it was many. 

Old man Zhujiayu Village Shandong Province China

Sittin’ doin’ nothin’, Zhujiayu style.

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

What a shock I got when I turned a corner and found myself face to face with none other than Chairman Mao! The giant mural, erected in 1966, was much faded after decades of hard rains and burning hot summers. And yet, somewhat eerily, his grin continued to force its way through the blotchiness. “It’s creepy” said S, quickly moving on. But I found myself fixated by it. A bit like Cameron staring at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Chairman Mao mural Zhujiayu Village Shandong province China

Chairman Mao mural, Zhujiayu Village.

Back at the guesthouse, our amiable host was drinking tea with a friend. They were gossiping in hushed tones, while nibbling from a bowl of fried grasshoppers. The friend got all excited when she saw us and insisted that we try one of their bugs. S quickly declared her non-interest, but I found myself quite curious.

So I followed their demonstration of how to remove the wings before popping one into my mouth. It tasted like… an overcooked potato chip. Very crunchy and largely tasteless, though not entirely unpleasant. Nevertheless, I decided to politely decline their offer to sit and eat more. 

Fried grasshoppers Zhujiayu Village Shandong province China

Fried grasshoppers – one was enough!

The City and the Village Part II, a short story from China.

The following morning’s entertainment came with the arrival of more workmen with boxes. On this occasion they constructed a shower unit, installed next to the toilet. After a tea break (this time accompanied by leftover grasshoppers), the shower was hooked up to the solar station. 

It felt like the lady’s little empire was really coming together! Sadly for us, we learned that the shower wouldn’t be operational until after we’d left! Taking pity on us, the owner walked S and I to a nearby neighbour’s house, where we were able to have a proper clean up. That bathroom was absolutely filthy, but we got the job done. 

Kuixing Pavilion Zhujiayu Village Shandong Province China

Kuixing Pavilion, Zhujiayu.

In the afternoon, we revisited the beautiful Kuixing Pavilion. Just as we’d hoped, the views were far better this time without the grey skies and slashing rain. Gazing out across the lovely countryside, I spotted a narrow track running through the fields below. Spontaneously, we decided to leave the pavilion and follow the path for a bit. It was a wonderful hour or so of hiking, with wild flowers, butterflies, squawking birds overhead and a farmer herding goats off in the far distance.

Zhujiayu Village China.

Views over Zhujiayu Village from Kuixing Pavilion.

“100 Yuan?” gasped S, as I returned to the room with a smile.

We’d had five meals, endless pots of tea, god knows how many beers, soft drinks, laundry detergent, a shower at the neighbour’s house and 1 fried grasshopper. And yet somehow our final bill had come to the equivalent of ten Euros. Throwing in a generous tip, we packed up our stuff, bade Mrs. Guesthouse farewell and headed off to the bus stop beyond the witch-free archway.

Zhujiayu had been a fantastic experience. The perfect place to unwind, take stock and recharge our batteries for the next leg. As it turned out, we’d be needing all that energy for the challenge ahead. Because next on the agenda was the small matter of Tai Shan, one of the five great mountains of China.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

‘The City and the Village Part II’ is the fourth tale of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Mary Phillips

    Grasshoppers are a steady part of the diet here. In fact, a saying is that if you eat chapulinas (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca you are sure to return.

    November 20, 2016 - 3:27 pm Reply
  • Sally Gee

    Zhujiayu looks amazing!

    November 22, 2016 - 7:16 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    Such a great and historic area to visit..thanks for sharing.

    August 12, 2020 - 9:12 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      August 12, 2020 - 9:14 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Loving your China stories! Yes, the staring is one of the biggest shocks for foreigners when they go to China; I’m of Chinese descent, so I don’t get as much staring, but I can imagine it was very uncomfortable for you and S! Never tried grasshoppers, but it’s something I’d give a try! Jinan looked like quite the adventure, and I can’t wait to read more of your fun moments in China. 🙂

    August 13, 2020 - 1:00 am Reply
  • Memo

    It’s one of the first lessons we learned – just when you think you might understand China, you find out that you don’t. Fabulous description of that discovery.

    August 13, 2020 - 1:20 am Reply

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