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

The City and the Village Part II a short story by Leighton Travels

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

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


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. I hadn’t even known, for example, that Jinan is known as The Spring City. A reference to its 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.

A bakery in Jinan China.

“A bag of your finest peanut cookies, please sir”.

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!” giggled 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. Jinan’s beauties and beasts, if you will.

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

Mother and daughter Jinan China.

Meeting the locals, ‘somewhere’ in Jinan. 

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

Baotu Spring Park in Jinan China.

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

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 huge, dense green pool. Apparently the city’s deepest artesian spring.

Five Dragon Pool Park.

Five Dragon Spring Pool.

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

Photo courtesy of Rolfmueller.

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. Dad, delighted with his son’s performance, 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. 

Kids fishing at Five Dragon Pool Park in 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 in Jinan.

Baotu Spring Park, Jinan.

Much like the first park, Baotu 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?”

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

Father and son Baotu Spring Park in Jinan

Baotu Spring Park, Jinan.

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

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 right 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 in front of me, 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. 

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

Solitude and tranquility in Zhujiayu China.

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 it 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 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 ($9). 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.

Return to Zhujiayu.

Stepping back in time at 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, I 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 arrives in Zhujiayu China.

Solar power, baby!

Nightfall hit the village rapidly, like someone had literally flicked a switch. We took 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 woman, 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 China.

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

Breakfast was a big 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!”

DIY laundry in Zhujiayu village China.

Laundry fun in Zhujiayu Village.

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 walls serving as our navigators. Here and there we paused to admire the modest brick homes, most of which were in a state of disrepair. Others stood altogether derelict.

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

Peace and quiet in Zhujiayu

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.

The City and the Village Part II a short story by Leighton Travels

Sittin’ doin’ nothin’, Zhujiayu style.

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 unable to move, 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

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, though I admittedly found myself a touch curious.

A plate of fried grasshoppers Zhujiayu village China

Fried grasshoppers.

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. 

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

Eating fried grasshoppers in Zhujiayu 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

Kuixing Pavilion, Zhujiayu.

In the afternoon, we revisited the beautiful Kuixing Pavilion. Just as I’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. 

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

Rural scenes in Zhujiayu China.

Views over Zhujiayu Village from Kuixing Pavilion.

“100 Yuan?” I gasped, 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 end-of-stay 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 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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  • christinenovalarue


    April 19, 2023 - 1:55 pm Reply
  • Anna

    Dont know about those grasshoppers! I am so not adventurous when it comes to food. I just got back from Japan and even there I wouldn’t try urchin or eel! Im such a wimp!

    April 19, 2023 - 2:09 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Not sure I’d have gone for urchin either, Anna. Eel I have tried once or twice and… yeah… not sure I ever need to go down that road again. Thanks for dropping by, hope you had a great time in Japan.

      April 19, 2023 - 2:49 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Yup. Its like all the gawkers are longing to say….Yeer not from around these parts err ya, padnuh? or some Chinese version of this. There seems to be no rule about staring in many Asian cultures. They also like to shove their young children in front of Westerners to practice their English or pose for photos with the local novelty. In Japan, the process is a bit more polite, at least. I hate squat toilets. That rough hole in the floor one looks the S—-. Another great adventure Leighton. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    April 19, 2023 - 4:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      It took me a few weeks of that first trip to get used to the staring. And then I just kinda phased it out to the back of my general awareness. Squat toilets are indeed absolutely awful, I mean the indignity of it all. Nevertheless, they say that it’s actually healthier for you if you can believe that. Thanks for reading the latest instalment, Allan.

      April 19, 2023 - 5:02 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    I would be too afraid to try the grasshoppers, and use that bathroom. At least it was a steal haha!

    April 19, 2023 - 4:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Maybe someone should bring the Zhujiayu experience to NYC 😉 Grasshoppers, squat toilets, pork dumplings for breakfast, a self service laundry pond. How long do you reckon such a restaurant would last on Times Square?

      April 19, 2023 - 5:12 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    It’s always refreshing when a huge city provides lovely green spaces like the parks in Jinan. They look lovely and inviting. It’s interesting about the curious onlookers; my mom and I had a similar experience in Hong Kong years ago. Makes you wonder what’s going on in their brains. Well done for trying a grasshopper! Well written and entertaining as usual; I’m looking forward to reading more about your adventures in China.

    April 19, 2023 - 4:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Tricia, they do urban parks very well in China. No matter where I went, even 3rd, 4th tier cities and off-the-beaten-track towns, there is invariably a gorgeous green space. Always meticulously maintained. Jinan’s spring parks are special sights, didn’t come across another Chinese city with such a claim to fame.

      April 19, 2023 - 5:10 pm Reply
  • Stan

    zhujiayu really came through on your second visit leighton, so glad your persistence paid off. that old gentleman on the wall is priceless, i hope he survived covid and is sitting there still. your storytelling is top notch, i eagerly await the next story and destination

    April 19, 2023 - 5:20 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Much appreciated Stan. I guess wall-sittin’ man must be real old now. Assuming he is, as you say, still around. I’m left wondering how much, as such an isolated village, Zhijiayu was affected by COVID.

      April 19, 2023 - 5:33 pm Reply
  • anoush

    I love how numerous and beautiful are the parks of Jinan. The mother and daughter duo are lovely and what a great shot with the bricks stacked up in the background. The second village visit was definitely more auspicious than the first one. You experienced a real rural homestay with all its delights and inconveniences. I hope your hostess had and perhaps still has a very successful business.

    April 19, 2023 - 5:21 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Anoush! I would love to know if that guesthouse is still going. I don’t even know what its name is/was and suspect that it may not have even had one. Certainly not an English one anyway. I might actually have a poke around online to see what guesthouse options there are and if any of them look familiar.

      April 19, 2023 - 5:37 pm Reply
  • Memo

    I don’t think we ever were in non-touristy China. The touristy part was challenge enough. I’d forgotten about the dreaded squat toilets. Not sure I can say thanks for the reminder. I’m proud of you for trying a grasshopper. They really aren’t bad but the ones we have in Mexico are better. They add spices. Great story and such a contrast to the first attempt.

    April 19, 2023 - 6:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I look forward to trying Mexican grasshoppers one day, Memo. With spices sounds better! Thanks for checking in, see you in Tai’an!

      April 19, 2023 - 6:56 pm Reply

    Terrific story unfolding here, Leighton. Loving it. How often somebody has said the same to us…”you’ve seen more of my country than I have”. Grasshoppers are good…well the Mexican version is anyway. Look forward to the next instalment.

    April 19, 2023 - 7:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I shall have to try Mexican grasshoppers one of these years. Thanks for reading!

      April 19, 2023 - 11:54 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    What a beautiful place to recharge. I love the tucked away stone buildings and the pavilion rising over the green hills. The holes in the floor bathroom, doing laundry in a bowl, and showering at the neighbors certainly added some interesting flavor to your visit…speaking of flavor- fried grasshoppers use to be a standard at any state fair and I remember the dares back and forth between classmates on how many we all could eat. Sometimes it would get really fancy and they would have chocolate covered grasshoppers but the chocolate just couldn’t quite cover up the uncomfortable crunch. 🙂

    April 19, 2023 - 8:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah I really need to experience a U.S. state fair one of these years. The stories I’ve heard of the foods there… would try a chocolate grasshopper, for sure. Thanks for keeping up with this China series Meg 🙂

      April 19, 2023 - 11:56 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    I’m glad you got to see more of Zhujiayu and in better weather 😀 I’m enjoying all your encounters with those curious locals in particular!

    April 19, 2023 - 9:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for the mini catchup Sarah!

      April 19, 2023 - 10:05 pm Reply
  • bronlima

    Your fascinating tales of the East remind me of a good old English football team. Guess which one? …………Leyton Orient F.C. hahaha.

    April 19, 2023 - 11:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Boom boom! Thanks for checking in, Geoff.

      April 19, 2023 - 11:57 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    We have grasshoppers here..but they definitely saw them outside. Anita

    April 20, 2023 - 1:34 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Anita. I’m not sure exactly what you mean to say but thanks for your comment! The grasshoppers I tried in China looked awful but the taste really wasn’t so bad, a bit plain if anything. I would definitely try them in Mexico as several bloggers have recommended.

      April 20, 2023 - 8:40 am Reply
    • 100 Country Trek

      Yes we see them here now in Dominican Republic. .

      April 20, 2023 - 12:56 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    You definitely explored a lot more than what I’ve ever done in China! Looks like you really experienced the countryside here, from outdoor toilets to trying fried insects. Though it came with its set of challenges, you really got to learn about another way of living in a different part of the world. 😊

    April 20, 2023 - 6:13 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rebecca. This first stretch of cross country China travel was such an eye-opener and set me in good stead for future exploring around the country. Like anything it gets easier the more you do and the rewards are huge. Can’t believe this trip was 14 years ago.

      April 20, 2023 - 8:50 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Good call on staying an extra day to check out some of the hot springs, even if it meant that the tables had turned and you felt like you were one of the main attractions on display. It’s wild to hear how parents would just shove their kids in front of you. How brave to try a fried grasshopper! I probably would have passed.

    April 20, 2023 - 2:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      That was the first of many parent shovings. It soon became dull ha ha. Jinan and Zhujiayu were perfect slabs of authentic China. The next story focuses on a much more touristy city. But only domestically, barely saw another westerner. Cheers!

      April 20, 2023 - 4:21 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Never seen a Leighton before made me laugh. That park looks amazing, and huge, and to have mini waterfalls – wow. I’d have passed on the grasshopper but what an adventure 🙂

    April 20, 2023 - 9:49 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for dropping in, Han. China is always adventure for better or not worse, ha. Hope you enjoy the upcoming chapters.

      April 20, 2023 - 10:02 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    I know you like parks and what a treat it must have been to come across such beautiful parks in Jinan! Even if you were now the center of interest (while you enjoyed the parks, the locals enjoyed you) 😉. It’s great that your second visit to Zhujiayu was a much nicer experience. But oh my, the ablution facilities – I’m not so sure about that! And thanks, I’ll pass on the grasshoppers too (I’m sure your bill would have been half if it wasn’t for that 1 grasshopper)!

    April 21, 2023 - 11:36 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Oops, your message on this article apparently got lost in the mix! My apologies. If only I’d passed on the grasshopper, that bill might have been half price! 😉 As for the toilet, doing my business in that guesthouse is surely something that will never be shared with anyone but me, myself and I. And the world can be grateful for that.

      April 28, 2023 - 2:13 pm Reply
  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Jinan really is a beautiful modern city! Of course, I’m getting that from your perspective. The parks look amazing, as we have nothing like those around here. The village of Zhujiayu looks like a completely charming step back to not-so-modern. The guesthouse bathroom is awful. I can see why you hated it, but the owner sounds like a very nice lady who was just trying to make a living. Grasshoppers would definitely be a no for me.

    April 24, 2023 - 11:54 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Kellye, I think Jinan was/is beautiful in its own way. Part concrete jungle, but then with all these incredible spring parks breaking up the miles of concrete. Thanks for reading, I hope you have been enjoying your family time.

      April 25, 2023 - 12:04 am Reply
  • NortheastAllie

    The Baotu Spring Park seems like it was a refreshing spot to visit, even with the crowds of people. This area sounds like it was a fun adventure!

    April 25, 2023 - 11:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      The crowds are nearly always part of the deal in China. Only a select few places I visited (such as Zhujiayu) were genuinely peaceful. Thanks for reading!

      April 25, 2023 - 11:52 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Although I haven’t traveled rural China as much as you, I remember encountering those gross holes in the ground. The rest of Zhujiayu looked definitely worth exploring.

    April 26, 2023 - 10:41 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Squat toilets really are the worst. We had them at the last school I taught at between 2017-2019. Just awful. Zhujiayu is a true gem and among the fondest of my memories travelling the country.

      April 26, 2023 - 10:47 pm Reply

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