Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Shenyang, Dandong and Ji'an, China

It's a long way to go to visit North Korea for 4 days so I tacked on a few extra days to my time away and decided I'd check out a part of China that is often overlooked by western visitors.  What exactly does that mean?  It means that in the week that I was in the north east of China, I saw a grand total of 2 other western visitors (from a distance, and I can't even be sure they were tourists).  It means that while some parts of China are very much on the tourist radar and are seeing an ever increasing number of visitors (for good reason), I was struggling to communicate, struggling to buy tickets, find hotels and getting a lot of stares from locals.  In short, it was a return to the challenges of yesteryear, where not everything can be found online and you have to get a little bit strategic and a lot lucky to get by.
I'm not really recommending a visit to this part of China.  I'm not discouraging you either, but if you're going to China, visit the famous places.  There is so much to do and so many interesting places to see. My "to do" list in China is still long...  But I was stuck with limited time and intended to make the most of my location.
How to decide what to do?  Once upon a time, I asked a wise traveler that very same question.  His reply was "Usually if I need to find something to do in a place that I don't know much about I check to see what UNESCO World Heritage sites they have."  That is a direct quote from an email 10 years ago that I still have saved. (thanks Jake!) In the 10 years since, I've visited quite a few (over 200) learned a lot and rarely been disappointed.  They aren't exactly secret destinations but a good starting point for a situation like this and I found a couple to get me started.

SHENYANG

I flew in and out of Shenyang for this trip.  Most people probably haven't heard of it before but it turns out it has quite the history.  It's also a city of over 7 million people.  Funny how something that big can be overlooked and ignored in a country like China.  Turns out that before it was the industrial city it is today it was the site of the decisive battle between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang during it's civil war.  Before that it was a battleground between the Japanese and Russians in Manchuria (known as Mukden then) and a couple hundred years before that (the 1600's) it was the capital of the Manchurian Qing dynasty before they eventually moved to Beijing as China's final dynasty. This means that there are actually a few things to see in the area, depending on your interest and motivation, even though the city itself doesn't immediately feel like it has preserved any of its history and older character.  The scale of new Chinese construction is truly mind-boggling.  On the way from the Shenyang airport I counted 40 identical new 25+ story apartment blocks built in a giant square.  And that's just one little section.  Across the busy street from that might be another 30 buildings of a different style and even taller...

 View from my Couchsurfing host's apartment.

There are 2 world heritage sites in Shenyang though I only had time to make it to one in the end.  The one I didn't see is an imperial palace and the precursor to the Forbidden City in Beijing.  The one I saw is the Zhaoling Tomb and by "tomb" I mean mini walled city with many buildings used as a funerary complex and for other preparatory aspects to properly respect a deceased emperor.  They don't mess around.  The tomb is in the central portion of the huge Beiling Park which has many gardens, an artificial lake and many km of walking paths.  You can tell it would be packed in the summer.  The tomb section is a large walled-off section laid out on a north-south axis with a few gates to pass through with sub-buildings and statues along the sides before finally reaching the central portion where the tomb is and any ceremonies held.  Well worth the visit.

 The central tomb
 One of the gates into the central tomb complex

On my return to Shenyang I had a day to explore the more modern parts of the city, including it's other parks, monuments, underground shopping streets, temples, and a blocked off street acting as a food fair and celebration for the local holidays.

 Shifu Square
 There is always a Mao statue, Zhongshan Square
Golden week festivities and crowds


DANDONG

Dandong is essentially a border town and the hub of almost all trade with North Korea.  With increasing sanctions by China, the future of the local economy is in some doubt.  Almost all interest for a visitor to the city is in its proximity to N. Korea on the other side of the Yalu river.  It's biggest and busiest attraction is it's river walk area where people come to stare at the other side, take speedboat rides up and down the river (to get that little bit closer) or walk on the bombed out friendship bridge halfway to the other side.  The bridge is an important historical monument as it was "accidentally" bombed by the US during the Korean war in an attempt to limit Chinese support at that time.  The N. Koreans later dismantled their side of what was left and the Chinese turned theirs into an attraction.  A newer bridge is immediately beside it and is pretty much the only practical land entry into N. Korea, by train or vehicle.  The river walk was nice enough, with many Chinese and S. Korean tourists coming to see what it is all about.  There are supposedly a few N. Korean businesses and restaurants in town also, complete with N. Korean staff (like this is some kind of attraction) but in all honesty I couldn't tell the difference between anyone there. As I was actually going into N. Korea, Dandong didn't hold my attention for very long and I was only there long enough to sleep and leave the next morning heading in either direction.  Leaving Dandong for Ji'an (after my visit to N. Korea) the bus drove by another local attraction, the easternmost piece of the Great Wall.  It is a restored and detached piece but a piece nonetheless and far less busy than those around Beijing.

 Dandong along the river walk
 Looking into North Korea
 The modern bridge into North Korea and part of Yalu River Park
Looking back at Dandong and the end of the Friendship Bridge

JI'AN

Ji'an was always going to be the biggest question mark of this trip.  It was on my radar because there was another Unesco site in the area but as I tried to research further all I could find were some comments in passing on a few travel forums about how beautiful the area was and that the few sites scattered about town would be of limited interest to casual tourists. Even this limited info was a few years old and further searches yielded nothing more.  I'm convinced there is no English-language info about it on any Chinese or other tourism site and you can't book any transport or accommodation in advance.  At the rate I was meeting or even seeing foreign tourists (0 at that point) I knew this was going to be an interesting challenge.
There is one bus a day from Dandong to Ji'an.  It winds its way northeast through a hilly countryside on a 2-lane back road roughly following the Yalu River that marks the N. Korean border.  We passed through a couple villages, and I mean actual villages, not population 500,000 Chinese-scale "villages" but for the most part the scenery was very rural and agricultural.  It was beautiful. Being the first week of October, the hills assaulted the senses with bursts of every shade of yellow, orange and red leaves, and the valleys delighted with dried corn stalks so high they buried the farms embedded within.  I would've gone to Ji'an for that drive alone and the 6 hour ride passed in no time at all.

 On the way to Ji'an



Ji'an is a small town of a few hundred thousand people making it much more manageable and less polluted than most places I've been in China.  It appears to be in a state of increasing development and will eventually make good on it's tourism potential though no doubt at the expense of its tranquility.  With some difficulty, and battling a sudden rainstorm, I finally found a surprisingly elusive quarry, a budget hotel.  Pickings are slim on the ground and it was the national holiday "Golden Week" so it was much busier than normal with domestic tourists as well.  Street signs were in English but nobody spoke any.  Despite the initial setback I quickly found I liked Ji'an.  It is also on the Yalu river like Dandong, but has a much nicer and more organized river walk, again with views of N. Korea and numerous speedboats plying its waters.  Perhaps unsurprisingly there wasn't much to see on the N. Korean side other than the scenery and a few guardhouses, no doubt to keep people in as much as keep us out.

 Looking out at North Korea again
 Ji'an has a nicer river walk

 Morning market action.  Remains of the old city walls can be seen behind

Ji'an was the site of a former capital of the Koguryo kingdom, a Korean kingdom dating back nearly 2000 years and spreading well into northeastern China.  The base of the walls of this capital can be seen within the central part of the city.  2.5 km away, up a valley and surrounded by mountains was another, more fortified, capital, now known as Wandu Mountain City. This was the site I had come to see.  In trying to figure out transportation to get there, I learned that there is a well established tourist set up whereby taxis will take you to a total of 4 sites scattered about the edges of town so you can make use of the combined ticket sold at any one of them.  The total trip took 3hrs or so and I was back in town for lunch by the river again.
The first, longest, and by far most interesting stop was at Wandu.  It is partially preserved with the outline of it's walls and the base of the former palace, but the best part is the scenery over the valley and the autumn colors of the surrounding mountains.  Below the ruins on a flat ledge just above a small river are the remains of dozens of tombs built at a later time.  There is no tourist access to them but they look cool from above.


 At Wandu mountain city.  The limited remains of the palace are ahead
 Wandu Mountain City walls
Wandu Mountain City walls with the newer tombs below
 So many tombs

The remaining 3 sites were all quite small and didn't take long to see. One was a group of noble tombs that were earth mounds with the tombs buried inside.  One of the tombs was open for viewing and is known for it's wall paintings inside but the tomb is so busy and has been so poorly preserved that there is no longer anything to make out.  The second of the remaining sites centered around a large stele with hundreds of characters carved into it while the final remaining site was another tomb, this time in the form of a step pyramid.

 The stele is protected from the elements
 Step pyramid

As expected I was the only western tourist in Ji'an at the time and attracted quite a bit of attention while walking around, especially along the river.  I was stopped for a few photos, and it's always funny to see toddlers do the complete stunned stop when they see you while their families just laugh and wave at you.  It was another 6 hr ride on the bus back to Shenyang along a much busier road.  The first half of the ride was beautiful again though this time bumper to bumper traffic with all the local visitors trying to enjoy it as well.
Overall it was a successful and enjoyable off-the-beaten-path addition to my trip to N. Korea.  If you ever thought to visit this area, I'd definitely recommend going in the fall, but not during the Golden Week holidays.
Ammon

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