A Totally Impractical Guide to an Out of Body Weekend in Jǐnán



After a few months’ hiatus from my ongoing whirlwind Tour de Chine (the Academic Route), I’m back on the road, hopping trains like a nerdy hobo and wearing butt-shaped grooves into creaky university chairs all over this fine nation.

This past weekend, I went to Jǐnán. Have you ever heard of Jǐnán? No? That’s fine. This isn’t a test, unlike everything else I do in this country.

Until last December, I hadn’t really thought about it either,  but since my Super Sekret Linguistic Inquisition employers added it to our list of cities to be shipped off to, it’s now on my radar. It’s up in Shandong, about 75% of the way to Beijing on that super fast bullet train from Shanghai, the one that derailed and killed a lot of people when it was first unveiled. That one, yes.

And given that I have to get up at Ridiculous O’Clock to catch this train and that I go there specifically for a weekend of brain-numbing exam work, I’m frequently tempted to just stay on the train all the way to Beijing and have a nice, normal weekend doing fun, relaxing things like regular people do. Because, you know, weekends are technically the end of a workweek, not just a continuation thereof.

I’m a bit slow to grasp things sometimes. So far, I’ve been working at least half of my monthly weekends for nearly 4 years now. Like I said, I’m a bit slow.

It takes just under 4 hours to come up from Shanghai (from Hóngqiáo Zhàn) . This time, however, I was already in Nanjing for a few days of intensive pre-exam exams and so only had to endure a 2.5 hour trip from Nanjing (from the lovely shiny new Nánjīng Nán Zhàn) in order to complete the second half of my 4-day Nán’pallooza: Tour De Places Including the Word Nán.


nanjing nan

Even at Ridiculous O’Clock in the morning, there are hordes (though not as many as at other times)


Because I’d already been doing 2 days of meditatively repetitive speaking exams, I was in a rather precarious mental state and have already blanked out much of the journey.

This is why this series is titled A Totally Impractical Guide. Seriously. Mind like a sieve.

Anyway, this is where you can find Jinan (see map below*).

[If I was Sarah Palin, I’d happily claim to have been able to see North Korea from my hotel room window but I fear I don’t possess such powers of perception. I blame my LASIK surgery back in Istanbul for that.]


jinan map

*Here be dragons


I started my journey up to Jinan after compulsively downing 4 double espressos and deliriously live-tweeting my stupidly early hotel breakfast in Nanjing. I think I’d slept a cumulative total of six hours over the previous several nights. It’s still all a bit fuzzy.



Because I have nothing better to do at 6am on a Saturday


 Coming and Going


Because I’m travelling for work (and, frankly, am getting too lazy for crowded public buses in unfamiliar cities in my old age) I take fast trains and taxis and obsessively collect all fapiao, which I then keep in a massive envelope, all scrunched up and unlabelled, waiting to be submitted to accounting at some point in the future when I get my act together.

On my phone, for what it’s worth, fapiao gets auto-corrected to futility.



Now all I have to do is figure out what each one was for…


Here is a quick visual summary of all my train trips for the past four years, including the ones to and from Jinan. Insert also seatmate reeking of stale booze and cigarettes, sleeping at an angle that made me feel like he was staring at me for three and a half hours. Well, staring with his eyes closed, snoring lightly into my ear.


train sleeper

Wei? Wei? Wei? WEI?


Here’s one I took last time I went up to Jinan in December. She was distinctly unimpressed by the fact that we were going well over 300 km/h and were on the verge of breaking both the sound and light barriers. Living in the future, as we do, is no longer exciting in China.





One of the funny things about my job is the fact that I get shipped off to random 2nd and 3rd tier cities around China, often at the last moment, already exhausted from a week’s work and an early morning train, armed only with a pdf with the names and addresses of the hotel I’m booked into and the university where I’ll be working. I have no map, no guidebook, no sense of place or direction.

I’m the world’s most unprepared traveller, it seems.

I currently keep these spartan PDFs in my phone’s iBook app, which means they’re generally too small for the taxi drivers to read easily and we end up pulling over to the side of the freeway for them to haul out their reading glasses and squint at the characters, asking me rapid fire questions about which route I’d like to take.

The fastest one as long as you don’t kill me, I attempt to reply, though my tones are frequently baffling and a slightly panicked, confused look begins to spread across the faces of both parties involved (myself included).

Because I’m the world’s worst traveller, my language skills generally fly out the window under duress and I find myself answering the taxi driver’s Mandarin questions in panicked Turkish, which doesn’t help things at all.

This time, pulled over to the side of the freeway in an adorably and dangerously illegal way, I called the hotel and got them to tell the taxi driver to get me there quickly and non-lethally. The driver flashed me a broad grin and offered me a cigarette. I offered him a Mentos mint. I attempted to fasten my seat belt and he shooed my hand away. After all, he had promised to not kill me.

A few minutes later, he picked up a second passenger, who filled up the back seat with himself and his luggage, and they proceeded to engage in a rather spirited diagonal dialogue across me, talking at length about how that laowai chick in the front seat didn’t understand anything that was said. How odd it must be to understand nothing. The Shandong accent is a lot easier for me to understand than the Shanghai one and so I did understand them but felt too tongue-tied and Turkish to let them know. It was a bit like that guy in the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, except without the full body paralysis.

Sleeping and Eating

One of the things I really like about being shipped off to Jinan is that I get put up in the Hyatt Regency. I can now add that to my list of classy hotels in unremarkable Chinese cities: the Zhengzhou Sofitel (which, by the way, stocks fabulous L’Occitane bath products in the rooms and the Portuguese manager will kindly give you a goodie bag full of extras if you ask politely), the Hefei Hilton, the Nanjing Sheraton, the Fuzhou something or other, the Dalian fancy place with chandeliers in the lobby, etc.

The Jinan Hyatt was where I saw my first Christmas tree of the season back at the beginning of December. It was remarkably large (2 floors high) and shiny.


Jinan xmas



The tree was gone this time, it being mid-March and all. They did, however, still have a massive chandelier in the lobby the size of some of the flats I’ve lived in over the years.



Not big enough. Make it bigger.


I stepped out of my dusty, dilapidated taxi, fapiao between my teeth as I attempted to exit with bag and dignity. This being the Hyatt, a bellboy appeared and quickly relieved me of my bag. I always feel like I’m a bit of a disappointment to them, emerging crumpled and dusty, with hair like a deranged mop, carrying only a small, well-worn red duffel bag from Mountain Equipment Coop that, until I came to China, was more used to being flung onto the roof of Central American chicken buses than to being elegantly handled by Bellboy Neo from the Matrix.

I start to contemplate buying a classy hard-shell wheelie bag, if only for the dignity afforded.

And maybe a hair brush.

Neo from the Matrix accompanied me to my room, his sleek black-coat uniform juxtaposed with the tired red duffel bag he carried. It only contained a few spare pairs of undies, my laptop and work clothes and weighed less than a small baby.  I could have easily carried it myself but decided not to question his job description. He also kindly pointed out the emergency exits in the hall and the light switches in the room.

For some reason, they always give me the same room: a corner room on the 19th floor with a view of Jinan on 2 sides (see the photo at the top of this post for one of the views) and the bathroom on the third side.

In case you wanted to watch yourself bathe during out of body experiences or something.

After 3 or 4 days of doing speaking tests, this is not an unreasonable option.



Room with a view, as it were.


The last time I was in Jinan in December, I dined with a few of my colleagues in the hotel lounge- a fabulous ex CBC radio and television host and a brilliant ex prison psychologist, both excellent company- and we bravely explored the unique local delicacies over a bottle of Merlot: traditional Shandong Greek salad (with feta cheese!), pizza, onion rings, potato wedges.

A truly authentic experience.

The ex psychologist sang a few songs with the Filipino bar band and we retired to our rooms early enough to be not devastated the next morning for work.

This time, I was exhausted and so were all the other examiners, as we’d all been doing non-stop testing since Thursday down in Nanjing.

Exam work is weird in that it is almost completely scripted and repetitive and after 30 or 40 or 50 interviews in a row you start forgetting who you are, where you are or what’s been said. Out of body experiences are not uncommon. I have to start writing my name, the date and location on a piece of paper next to the exam book, as I inevitably will draw a blank with at least one of them per interview.

It’s a bit like chanting a mantra during a long period of meditation, except instead of pushing the sounds of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo through my vocal cords for hours on end, I’m asking terrified university students about fruits and vegetables and public parks.

In all, I did 63 interviews over 4 days and emerged back in Shanghai Sunday night with a glazed, stunned look on my face and an inability to complete sentences without referencing at least one of the exam questions.

Anyway, I was on my own for dinner on Saturday night because everyone had scurried up to their rooms to order room service after the intense afternoon session of testing. I had planned to do likewise. After all, I wanted to maximise my astrally projected bubble bath time.

However, there was no room service menu in my room, nor was there a directory listing for numbers to call to procure such a document. Thinking I might tide myself over with overpriced chocolate, I then found out my mini bar had been locked tight with a key.

I had to go out. Alone.

Which is fine, as I always travel alone. But sometimes, especially when both phone and Kindle are charging in the room and all you want is a bubble bath and a hug and a bowl of noodles, heading out into a Chinese Saturday night is daunting.

Around the corner from the hotel was a shiny new shopping mall. I could choose from a wide variety of authentic local treats there: Starbucks, KFC, Dairy Queen, Mc Donalds. There was a Bread Talk and I was tempted to just quickly buy a hunk of sweet bread dredged in shrimp fluff and mung bean paste and dash back to my bubble bath.

I ended up riding the mall escalators up and down between the basement and third floor for about half an hour, dazedly trying to find something I could be bothered to eat. The hordes of local young ‘uns gazed at me unabashedly, possibly uncertain as to what to make of this stunned and crumpled looking laowai (the only one in the mall that evening), riding the escalators endlessly.

I bought 2 egg tarts from a little kiosk, just in case I didn’t find anything else and would rather starve than cave to Mc Donalds.

On the 3rd floor was an Ajisen ramen joint, completely full but for a tiny table right next to the kitchen door.  They make a rather lovely spicy beef and bamboo rice with miso soup and vinegared cucumbers, so I caved and conspicuously made my way in, a lone diner in a room full of groups. Whilst waiting for my dinner, I reread my old Mandarin phrase book, trying to remind myself that I really did know what to say to that taxi driver, even though it had all come out in garbled Turkish.

I sometimes wonder what it’s like to live as an adult in a place where you don’t feel constantly incompetent.

By the time I got back to my room, I was too tired to run a bubble bath. Such is life.




Crikey. That’s a tough one.

Aside from the train station, the taxi route, the university and the mall next to the hotel, I saw very little. I can say that about a lot of cities around China. I’m an expert on their universities though. If you ever need a tour of, say, Dong Nan University in Nanjing or Shandong University in Jinan or wherever, I’m your go-to gal. I know where to get the best ròu jīa mó or particularly well-pulled Lanzhou lāmiàn down the backstreets behind Universities X, Y and Z. I know where the hot water machines are. I know which bathrooms are the least whiffy.



shandong mops

On the right, a water dispenser. In the middle, distinctly wide-bottomed Shandong mops, on the left, the entrance to the least whiffy of the men’s loos.


I’m also quite aware of which corners are outfitted with accidental art installations, like this one on the 3rd floor. When you’re locked in a classroom all weekend grilling terrified kids, they make for a lovely diversion during break time.

jinan mops

Still life with potted plants, radiator, socks and brooms.


I also know how to work the often surreal controls in the rooms.



This photo is not upside down. The dials are. The care and craftsmanship displayed always delight me.


As well, coming from freezing tropical Shanghai, regrettably south of the Huangpu river and therefore not requiring heated buildings, I thoroughly appreciate going north, if only for the central heating.


central heating

Double heating! Kongtiao AND radiator!


End Note: If you actually know Jinan and happen to be there the next time I’m shipped up, could you maybe please let me know where I can get dinner after a long, exhausting Saturday exam session so I can actually have a decent evening?

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.