Last weekend we took an overnight train to Dalian to visit our former boss at SIT Study Abroad, Linda, and her husband, Stephen. With a population of over 3.5 million, the city is located in northeastern Liaoning Province (one of the three provinces that formerly comprised Manchuria), at the convergence of the Bohai and Yellow Seas, and is merely the 27th largest mainland city in China.
In a country steeped in many thousands year old history, the crazy thing about Dalian is that it’s only a bit over a hundred years old. A former fishing village, the Russians gained control of the area in 1899 and held it for a few years until the Japanese wielded control of it for the next forty years, during which time it developed into an important port city (now it’s the northernmost port in China that never freezes). Since its return to China, it’s continued to grow and, with its wide avenues and low pollution, in recent years has been named among China’s most “livable cities” (for the record, Beijing has never made that list!). If it weren’t for the protests (in China!) against a petrochemical plant that put it on the map two years ago, it’s probable that a lot of people outside of China wouldn’t even be familiar with the city of Dalian at all.
As a new city in China, sightseeing options are more limited than places with a great depth of history, but we managed to do some pretty cool things while catching up with Linda and Stephen and attempting to keep the kids entertained. We visited four parks, tried Dongbei cuisine (the “East-North” food of the Manchus), rode amusement rides on the Coney Island-style boardwalk, took a taxi ride along the coast, visited an active Chinese Buddhist temple-cum-flea market, checked out the fantastic market where Linda and Stephen get their extremely fresh seafood and veggies, saw architectural fantasies manifested in many different forms, etc.
One of my favorite aspects of our visit was hearing about Linda’s six recent trips to North Korea. It was fascinating to hear about life inside this country shrouded in secrecy. Her work for the American Friends Service Committee has helped to improve farm techniques within North Korea, giving the population expanded opportunities to produce its own food.
Dalian is actually very close to North Korea (you can see it, Sarah Palin style, across the Yalu River from nearby Dandong) and both Russia and Korea (more likely the southern variety) influence the city. Seeing Russian tourists (often looking a bit on the rough and ready side) with many restaurants and tourist attractions catering to them reminded us that we weren’t in Beijing. A mecca for the prized sea cucumber (there are about ten high-end shops in Linda and Stephen’s neighborhood selling the expensive delicacy), we were often similarly reminded that we were close to the sea. Thanks to our great hosts, we had an insider’s perspective on the city, definitely the best way to visit a new place, I think!