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Following the footsteps and teachings of Confucius in Qufu

Unsuspected surprises often lie just around the corner. Although this may not be the case with the vastness of China a few destinations have popped up on the radar, which are within easy reach of the capital Beijing and the metropolitan glimmer and glamour of Shanghai.

It is time to explore one of these ‘surprises’, venture beyond the trodden paths, try out something not on the local tourism radar, has not reached the mass tourism market but has gained fame under the UNESCO World Heritage Site flag and is the hometown of Confucius (551 B.C.- 479 B.C.), one of the world’s leading teacher, editor, politicians and philosopher in Chinese history. I am talking about Qufu (pronounced as Shi Fu), and I am taking the high-speed train to follow in the footsteps of this great Chinese sage.

Qufu’s location, pitched perfectly between Beijing and Shanghai, is one of the main centres in the country dedicated to the works of Confucius. The city was once the centre of wisdom, providing guidance and advice for renowned emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties (around 500 BC) with Confucius playing a prominent role.

Although Qufu is one of the smaller cities in Shandong province with only 650,000 inhabitants, what it lacks in size is made up by its importance as one of China’s famous historical and cultural cities.

The city also misses a proper airport but with Chinese highly-evolved high speed railway track carrying trains running at speeds of up 300 kilometres per hour, taking a plane there is not even a consideration. The train ride from Beijing is just two hours, arriving at the grand Qufu’s railway station – a massive, white-tiled building of almost Armageddon proportions – and receiving a welcome of the same grandeur from my guide Kevin.

The contrary, however, is true of Qufu’s downtown area that is constructed around its new district with Shangri-La Hotel Qufu as a prominent landmark, small businesses, a few Chinese-market orientated hotels and a somewhat dilapidated department store. But the actual soul of Qufu rises right along the main road marked by city walls with four main entrances and inside the old town where the spirit of Confucius comes alive.

Qufu is literally the Old Town where one is suddenly transported back in time walking through a maze of small streets with ‘mamma and papa’ shops selling everything under the sun, retired Chinese men playing mahjong with a large crowd standing behind them giving them advice on their next move and trying one best to avoid the large number of electric bikes, horse-drawn carriages and tricycles when crossing the streets.

It is very pleasant to walk around the Old Town with its hard-to-miss fortification walls. This is a place where hardly any English is spoken, and where one truly gets the feeling that Qufu IS the Old Town. It has a total area of six square kilometres and is home to the UNESCO protected Confucius Temple. Bear in mind that this is actually not a temple but the residence of the emperors, with smaller temples and religious sites on the very large site. The whole temple complex comprises nine different sections, and visitors are free to roam around and take pictures. It takes a good 1.5 hours to see everything and learn the detailed story of the works of Confucius with my excellent guide leading the way.

The same entrance ticket grants access to the residence of Confucius that is directly connected to the temple complex, following the long line of souvenir shops. It comprises a mix of residences, libraries, praying and teaching halls that complement the 2.5-hour tour of the most prominent sites of the well-worshipped and highly-respected sage.

A few good restaurants right at the exit of the Confucius Mansion, which seats up to 60 guests each, show that lunch addresses are also covered for western tourists. However, during my 36 hours in Qufu I have not seen a single non-Chinese person, so I have to take the word of my guide on this.

From the temple guests can opt to take a horse-drawn carriage, a tricycle or one of the shuttle services to the final burial site of Qufu, which is worth visiting and definitely a must on the bucket list of anyone interested in the moving stories around Confucius. The place where he is buried has hit the record books as the largest in the world. We are talking 260 hectares (!) of cemetery grounds for both the man himself and those privileged to be one of his direct descendants. The site where he is presumably buried lies around 15 minutes’ walk from the main entrance but, in good Chinese fashion, there are many golf carts to take visitors to his ‘expected’ burial site. I say ‘expected’ as it still remains a secret, as well as a mystery, where Confucius is actually buried on this vast compound as a protection against grave robbers. For those interested to circumvent the whole cemetery to see the other main and lesser important sites it takes one hour by golf cart and four hours to walk.

Travelling to Qufu on your own may be a challenge, but a very rewarding one if you are interested in the life and importance of this great Chinese philosopher and educator. It is a true depiction of China where the English language is almost non-existent among its residents, where there are hardly any western shops and restaurants and where you get a feeling of what upcountry China really is. For me, Qufu is an authentic mix of a slowly- progressing China with strong roots to its very interesting past and holding tightly, yet not letting the hunger for modernisation take over the city. The feeling of what Confucius has done for Qufu is so engrained in the DNA of the local inhabitants that it simply gives them a strong sense of belonging.

Qufu is a perfect one-night stop when travelling by high speed train –
actually the only functional means to get to the city – between Beijing and Shanghai as there are ample trains leaving and arriving on a daily basis from and to the city. Travel season runs from April/May until September, as it tends to be rather chilling during the winter months to enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage Site in its finest form.

Apart from Shangri-La Qufu, the city’s leading property located in the newer part of the city and less than five minutes by car to the Old Town’s southern entrance gate, there are only a few suitable hotels of a decent 3 star level. The local government has announced a further expansion of hotel rooms but did not indicate when, how and who would enter Qufu.

In terms of food, one has to take into consideration there is hardly any western restaurants particularly in the Old Town that has the most visitors spending a lot of time there. So for tourists it is dining on Chinese food all the way, and this is an absolute delightful experience for those wanting to try something new and exciting. The local restaurants do take into consideration that not all can eat traditional Chinese food; it may be modified to cater for taste but the essence of its cuisines remains in place.

Guided services are almost a must (English-speaking guides only, other language-speaking guides have to come from either Beijing or Shanghai), or else one will not be able to capture the essence and the inspiration of Confucius’ teachings and philosophy.

For tour ideas, one ideally leaves either Beijing or Shanghai in the late morning, arrives 2.5 hours later in Qufu, spends some time exploring the city before enjoying a dinner at a local restaurant. The following morning visit the magnificent well-maintained UNESCO-protected sites in Qufu’s Old Town before taking a 20-minute transfer back to the city’s train station in the afternoon to either Beijing or Shanghai. There are a few other options to fill in the afternoon around Qufu, but this does not really enrich the essence of what Qufu stands for.

Qufu is the absolute pinnacle in China for the Confucius-minded, a joy to venture into the heart of Shandong province and to explore what was once the capital of the Lu State. This city has shown that China has more than enough hidden secrets, away from the well-trodden tourism paths, waiting to be discovered.