Of the Dongbei provinces, LIAONING (辽宁, liáoníng) has the most to see; there’s also a pleasing amount of variety to proceedings. The thriving port of Dalian sports cleaned-up beaches, a cliffside drive, and restored Russian and Japanese neighbourhoods. Whoosh north by high-speed train and you’ll soon arrive in Liaoning’s capital, Shenyang, home to China’s second Forbidden City – the restored Manchu Imperial Palace – and the tombs of the men who established the Qing dynasty. Head southeast and you’ll eventually hit Dandong, the country’s window on North Korea, which features a promenade on the Yalu River and a fascinating Korean War museum.
Few Western tourists make it to DALIAN, a modern, sprawling city on the Yellow Sea. This is a pity, since it’s an extremely agreeable place with swaths of colonial architecture, proximity to some good beaches, and some excellent seafood. It’s also one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities, partly because it has changed hands so often – in the years around the turn of the twentieth century, it found itself under Japanese, then Russian, then Japanese, then Soviet occupation.
The “foreign devils” are still here, though they’re now invited: Dalian has been designated a Special Economic Zone, one of China’s “open-door” cities, with regulations designed to attract overseas investment. Unlike most Chinese metropolises, the city boasts green spaces and an excellent traffic control system, both the handiwork of the high-flying former mayor turned national commerce minister and Politburo member Bo Xilai. Despite his leaving the city in 2003, locals still seem to admire him as much as they do the city’s football team, the most successful in Chinese league history; they also contributed six players to the country’s 2002 World Cup squad (the first, and so far only, time the national team qualified).
Once an obscure port tucked away in the corner of Liaoning province at the confluence of the Yalu River and the Yellow Sea, DANDONG is now a popular weekend destination for Chinese and South Koreans, who come to gaze across the river at the listless North Korean city of Sinuiju. Foreigners from further afield are also drawn to the massive memorial and museum dedicated to the defence of China’s communist neighbour against imperialists during the Korean War. All in all, Dandong makes a worthwhile weekend trip out of Beijing or a stopover while touring the sooty northeast, as well as a convenient departure point for Changbai Shan.
Dandong remains small enough to feel human in scale, and the tree-lined main streets are uncrowded, clean and prosperous. A strong Korean influence can be felt: vendors along the riverfront promenade sell North Korean stamps bearing slogans such as “Become human gun bombs!”, and North Korean TV is on view in Dandong hotels.
From 8am, boats set out from all along Dandong’s promenade, by the bridge, on 30min trips across the river (costing ¥50 in a large boat that leaves when full, or ¥70 per person for a zippy six-seater). The boats take you into North Korean waters to within a few metres of shore, where you can do your part for international relations by waving at the soldiers shouldering automatic rifles. Photography is allowed, but don’t try to snap anything vaguely military. If you’ve an interest in visiting, it’s best to check the current situation with Dandong’s CITS, though foreigners will almost certainly be forbidden from joining their North Korean tour; try Koryo Tours instead.
On foot, the nearest you can get to North Korean soil without a visa is halfway across the river, on the “broken” bridge in the south of town, next to the new bridge. The Koreans have dismantled their half but the Chinese have left theirs as a memorial, complete with thirty framed photos of its original construction by the Japanese in 1911, when the town was called Andong. The bridge ends at a tangled mass of metal that resulted from American bombing in 1950 during the Korean War. Several viewing platforms are on site, along with pay-telescopes trained on Sinuiju on the far bank. There isn’t much to see on Sinuiju’s desultory shore, save for some rusting ships and curious civilians.
Capital of Liaoning province and unofficial capital of the northeast, SHENYANG is a railway junction and banking centre that has served as host to the Manchus, Russians, Japanese, Nationalists and then Communists. The city draws domestic tourists from all over the north-east of China, and their primary focus is all too obvious: as any cabbie here will delight in telling you, Shenyang has the only other Imperial Palace in China. Constructed by Manchus before their takeover of the Ming dynasty, many visitors find it far more user-friendly than its (much larger) counterpart in Beijing.
Though you’re unlikely to need more than a couple of days in Shenyang, there are other notable sights dotted around this fast-moving city, including a stunning monument to Chairman Mao built during the frenzied height of the Cultural Revolution; the tombs of two former emperors; and architecture left over from Japan’s occupation, including a real gem of a hotel. You’ll have to time it right to enjoy another amusement: from December to February, the town hosts the Shenyang International Ice and Snow Festival – held at Qipanshan, 17km northeast of town, it’s lower-key than Harbin’s festivities, but increasingly popular.
Begun in 1626, the Imperial Palace is essentially a vastly scaled-down replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Entering from the south, you’ll first come across the Cong Zhen Dian, a low, wooden-fronted hall where the Qing dynasty was proclaimed and which was used by ministers to discuss state affairs. Beyond here, in the second courtyard, stands the Phoenix Tower, most formal of the ceremonial halls, and the Qingning building, which housed bedrooms for the emperor and his concubines.