Beyond the undulations of the Great Wall is a China waiting to be explored: the China of everyday life, far from the exhaust of the tour buses and the countertops laden with cloisonne' and stuffed pandas.

In eastern China, 200 miles south of Peking and 300 miles north of Shanghai, lies the province of Shandong. Here there are vast rural areas, lakes where fishermen send cormorants diving for their catch and the sacred Mount Tai Shan, where religious pilgrims still make the arduous climb up 6,000 steps.

It was in the heart of Shandong, at Qufu', that Confucius was born and is buried. Of course, the province has vestiges of the 20th century, particularly in coastal resorts such as Qingdao. But to travel in Shandong means to travel between centuries as well as between points on a map. And it is an area few Americans make the effort to visit.

Visitors to Shandong should plan on staying one or two nights each in Qufu', Qingdao and at Mount Tai Shan. While it is possible to fly from either Peking or Shanghai to Qingdao, or to Jinan, the provincial capital, it is far more interesting to take the train. From Peking the overnight rail journey to Qingdao takes about 15 hours; from Shanghai it is about 12 hours to Qufu'. There is no better way to see the countryside.

Qingdao ("green island") is a beautiful seaside resort built on a peninsula that juts out into the Yellow Sea. The city was a mere village when the Germans invaded in 1897, fighting to gain a foothold to protect their country's economic interests in the Far East. A naval base was established, and the city that grew around it has architecture that would seem more fitting in Hamburg or Munich. Even today, Qingdao retains a strong European feeling.

The seaside villas on the cobblestone streets lined with fruit trees make this one of the most pleasant cities in Northern China, despite the changes that time has wrought. Europeans from Shanghai once came here for their holidays, to swim, to enjoy the moderate climate and to stay at sanitariums that dotted the hillsides. Now these health facilities are used for vacationing workers and their families. The villas that once housed a single family now contain a dozen. But the beach is still clean, despite heavy use, and the Number One Beach boasts elegant pastel beach houses. The high-rise Huiquan Hotel is a western-style property with wonderful views over the beach out to the Yellow Sea.

Mount Lao Shan lies to the east, the source of Laoshan mineral water, which is also used to produce Tsingtao Beer, perhaps the best-known beer in China. The emblem of Tsingtao, a pier that juts out into the ocean, is a fine place to sit and watch the Yellow Sea and the islands in the harbor or look back upon the red-tiled roofs and verdant hills of Qingdao.

For centuries mountains have been considered deities in China, vested with naturalistic powers and therefore capable of being moved by prayer or sacrifice. Mount Tai Shan, which means "Eastern Peak," is a short train ride from Jinan. The tallest of all the mountains in eastern China, it has been worshipped as the greatest of China's sacred mountains since early in the Zhou dynasty (770 to 221 B.C.). Just over 5,000 feet high, Tai Shan affords breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, whenever the frequent mists clear.

Climbing the mountain is an obligation most visitors take upon themselves, one way or another. Pilgrims still make the arduous climb, as they have done for thousands of years, up the more than 6,000 steps that have been hewn in the mountain's side. Each ravine, rock and section of the path has a name and a string of tales to go along with it. There are Taoist and Buddhist shrines on the mountain, as well as a temple to Confucius.

This is China, however, and it would be a mistake to think of the climb as a solemn trek through another culture's most revered locale. There are ducks and geese crisscrossing the stony path, impromptu refreshment stands under canvas awnings where vendors sell warm soft drinks and a selection of the latest pop tapes from Hong Kong. There are small peasant huts and their attendant gardens that belong to families who have lived on the slopes of the mountain for years and serve as local caretakers. There are photographers waiting under their umbrellas, old women selling bamboo hiking sticks for the equivalent of about eight cents. Muscular young men carry everything from meat to cement in baskets suspended on their shoulders.

The tired and the indolent now have recourse to an aerial tramway that takes you from the halfway point (itself a hair-raising bus ride on a winding dirt road) to just below the summit. The tramway passes through the Southern Celestial Gate and onto the plateau that leads to the summit of Mount Tai Shan. Along the way are the Temple of the Princess of the Colored Clouds and the Temple of Confucius. Both are constructed of ornamentally carved wood, stone and tile; they are heavily weathered but still intact after hundreds of years, and house bronze religious statuary. The peak of Tai Shan is known as the Summit of the Celestial Pillar and is enclosed in a temple dedicated to the Taoist deity known as the Jade Emperor.

The plateau is also home to a small village of shops and hostelries that coexist with the restored temples. Visitors who wish to watch the sunrise along with modern-day pilgrims can spend the night at the Mount Tai Guest House, which provides no luxuries but has warm bedding. After being awakened at 3 a.m., guests don padded jackets to ward off the cold atop Gongbei Rock while awaiting the sunrise.

Though prayers may be offered to the Buddha at the temples, you are just as likely to see acolytes heaping bronze statues with offerings of paper money, Double Happiness cigarettes and pieces of moon cake.

After the holy mountain, the principal attraction in Shandong is Qufu', the town of Confucius. The great thinker lived and taught here and is buried in the nearby Confucius Forest. Qufu' itself is a small agricultural city with rows of gray brick peasant homes that have wheat and corn stacked to dry before their entrances. The town looks somewhat forlorn when compared with the 49-acre compound that comprises the Temple of Confucius and the Residence of Confucius' Descendants.

The Temple of Confucius, begun in 478 B.C., the year after the philosopher's death, was expanded and reconstructed in succeeding dynasties until it reached its present size of more than 400 rooms. Now that Confucius is officially back in favor with the government, the temple has been extensively repaired following years of neglect and the vicissitudes of the Cultural Revolution. The wooden and marble temple contains a single large statue of Confucius that is reached after passing through a series of interesting courtyards and pavilions.

The Kong Mansion, the residence of Confucius' descendants, is adjacent to the temple. This was the home of the philosopher's direct descendants and was then the largest and grandest aristocratic mansion in China, second only to the Imperial Palace. Most of the present structures date from between 1522 and 1567. The home of more than 70 generations, the wealth of the former inhabitants is still in evidence.

The last member of the Kong family lived here until just before the outbreak of World War II. The Art Deco furnishings that he left, along with examples of his ancestors' furnishings, costumes, paintings and ceremonial objects, are on display. Both the temple and the mansion are open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission to both is about 20 cents per person.

Part of the residence has been turned into a hotel. The guest quarters are modest but pleasant and give a sense of what it was like to be a member of one of China's most unique and privileged families.

A short distance from the temple, down a road lined with evergreens planted during the Han Dynasty, is the Confucius Forest. Confucius and nearly all of his descendants are buried here, in a vast, manmade "forest" surrounded by seven-foot brick walls. The trees are ancient, the grass overgrown.

You can wander along the narrow footpaths and see the amazing stone statuary protruding from the undergrowth. Life-size horses, fabulous griffins and solemn warriors flank statues of the great sage himself. You stroll past large and small tombs, past ancient gravestones that are patched with modern cement, stones that withstood a thousand years of turbulent history but not the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Today the forest is still and peaceful, an ideal spot for reflecting on the 2,500 years of ancestral history in this small portion of an impossibly large country.