Wednesday, July 18, 2007

North of the Great Wall

From the first moment we arrived in China in late 2005 we had been planning to make a trip to DongBei, literally, “The Northeast” of China. The Chinese say “Dongbei”, much in the same way we say “New England”, to refer to the northeastern part of the country; the part that is north of the Great Wall and includes Manchuria, and borders North Korea and Russia. Here’s a map.

To go right to the photos click here (they all have descriptions).

We had many reasons to make the trip. One, visit the Wang’s. The parents of one of our good friends from Raleigh live in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province, and had invited us to visit them. Two, we had never been north of the great wall. Three, a trip in the summer would provide an escape from Shanghai’s sweltering summer.

A trip in summer 2006 did not materialize but the stars aligned in early June and we snagged a low round trip airfare to Shenyang. Here’s the report.

Friday June 09, 2007

Our flight on Shanghai’s budget airline, Spring Airlines left on time at 12:55 PM and we arrived at the newish Shenyang airport after a flight of about 1.5 hours.

I had a window seat, and just after takeoff was able to see the Tomson Shanghai Pudong Golf Club, a nearby windmill farm, and had a good view of the coast and the South China Sea.

They flight was uneventful except I’ll say that this flight on Spring was the most talkative one I’ve ever flown. Too much information over the PA: our partnership with Airbus, the cities we server; the weather, etc. All first in Chinese then in English. And in addition to selling food and drink, they hawk Spring Airlines memorabilia and souvenirs. Yes “hawk”. You would think the flight attendant is a street vendor. He must have spent 10 minutes describing his wares (all in Chinese). One can buy: the same green and yellow scarf worn by the female light attendants, a green metal water bottle, stuffed animals, model airplanes, etc.

However, thanks to Sun-Ling’s quick thinking, I was able to take a photo and shoot this video of the in-flight exercises. Yes, in-flight exercises.

In Flight Exercises - Spring Airlines

The Shenyang airport is about 15 kms south of the city and we rode the airport bus, 10 RMB each, to near city center, then caught a taxi (another 8 RMB) to the Shenyang Guesthouse, a hotel complex on the grounds of the former Russian Embassy. We stayed in the newer South building.

The room was basic: TV, small fridge, 2 beds, 2 chairs, closet, desk, master between-the-beds console with 17 knobs and switches, AC, plenty of hot H2O, shampoo, razor, etc. All for 278 RMB per night, about 35 USD.

Checked in, threw the bags down, took a quick stroll around the compound, and grabbed a taxi (11RMB) to Shenyang University’s North Gate and had a nice dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Wang. They are retired professors who have lived in Shenyang for many years.

Notable was the micro-brewery just outside the North Gate.

Sun-Ling’s family name is Shen, just like the Shen in Shenyang so we saw her name on lots of signs.

Saturday June 10: Plan for the day: Eastern Tombs (Dong Ling), Imperial Palace (Gu Gong), and Zhang Family Compound.

Up before 8 AM but not out the door until 8:30. First stop the Eastern Tombs (Dong Ling) the tombs of the first Qing Dynasty Emperor and wife.

The woman at the front desk not only gave us the best bus route to the tombs – bus #248 to bus #218 – but the practical details of where to catch each bus. The bus ride was cool: #248 around Government Square to the East Gate of the old city wall; then we snagged seats on #218 for the 45 minute ride to the tombs. Passed prison barracks where US troops were held during the Korean War.

Rode #218 to the end, about 200 meters from a mostly empty Dong Ling parking lot. Since we had skipped breakfast, we bought 11 RMB worth of snacks from a vender just outside the ticket office, but skipped the overpriced iced tea at 5 RMB. Good thing we brought our own water.

Tickets were 30 RMB each. The tomb of Nurachi, the first Qing emperor was pretty cool, although a bit run down, sloppy restorations in some spots, and the new rest rooms were closed. The old ones had zero running water – gravity only if you know what if mean. ;-)

On the positive side the tomb area was impressive. The 108 step entrance, the Square City, the stelea in both Mandarin and Manchu, the mound of earth that is the actual grave. It is deserving of UNESCO World Heritage status.

Dongling - Imperial Tomb - Shenyang, China

There were 2 Exhibition Halls with photos and diagrams explaining the common layout and features of all 15 Qing tombs in China, and even included a small section on Pu Yi the Last Emperor.

Exited, bought a cold tea for 3 RMB from a vendor near the bus stop and caught bus 218 back to town. Got off one stop before the East Gate at the eastern end of the Zhong Jie pedestrian shopping street. It was hot; at least 90 F and many folks were strolling. We walked the length, looking for a lunch spot; passed Pizza Hut, Starbucks, McDonald’s, before settling on Europaer, a Taiwan-style coffee shop where we had 2 Iced Coffees and a 10-inch Veggie Pizza, all for 51 RMB (about 7 USD) after getting a 15% discount for using our credit card.

Finished eating about 1pm – a good rest - and walked one block south to Zhenyang Jie to the Qing Imperial Palace (50 RMB each).

Just outside the Imperial Palace.
Three wheeler - Shenyang, China

We took our time – about 2 hrs – to really explore all 3 major sections of the palace. Some impressions:
-Good English signage, inside and outside, for the 50+ buildings of “The World Heritage Unit”.
-Very interesting central below-floor heating system.
-The western section’s mid-60’s restoration is fading fast. Lots of peeling paint.
- Too bad you can’t “go up” in any of the multi-story buildings.
-Good explanation the banner system
-Swords, guns, pikes, cannons.
-The older eastern section with Dazheng Palace, the octagonal building, is cool with many Manchu Dragons.

The throne room of Mukden Palace. Check out the dragons.
Mukden Palace - Shenyang, China

Then, a 10 minute walk to the Zhang Family Compound of the famous warlord (father) and patriot (son). 50RMB each. More good English signage. Cool early 20th century buildings: Chinese, Western, and Modern styles. The elder Zhang had 6 wives – wow - and they all lived in this compound. The bank and financial museum next door was also included the admission.

When we left in early evening, kids were practicing their inline skating around the statue of General Zhang in the small square just outside the compound.

We walked through the back streets, past an historic Art Deco middle school, emerging at the West Gate, were we had a delicious dinner at the Xing Long Xuan Restaurant. Liangpi (6) – 20 Jiaozi (11) and 2 beers (19) for a total of 41.The liangpi was sensational: mung bean noodles with cilantro, cucumber, peanut sauce and wasabi.

Left the restaurant around sunset 7:45 and headed to the hotel via Government Square. We were soon caught up in a mass of people headed to the square. It was rockin’ and all lit up. After the initial “Wow” of the 100 jump ropers (see video), my favorite sight was the harmonic band, conductor and all, which you can see at the tail end of the video below. Amazing.

Other “acts” included:
- 10 night kite flyers – kites have small lights on their edges
- 100 line dancers- (see video)
- 200 exercisers (following one guy)
- Square dancers
- Harmonic, drums, and accordion combo (with PA)
- Not to mention soccer, scooters, badminton, foot shuttlecock
- A guy handing out Herbalife flyers

What a happenin’ place.

A short 10 minute walk back to the hotel. – shower and crash.

Sunday June 11: Plan for the Day: Beiling Park and Northern Tomb, Tawan Pagoda, and Mao Statue.

Up at 7:30 AM and out the door just after 8 (checked bags at the front desk).

Picked up bus #220 right by the hotel, rode almost straight north for about 10 stops past the Train Station to the East Gate of Beiling Park (8 RMB each). The south entrance would have been a better choice. It was a 15 walk to the Tomb entrance (30 RMB), resting place of Huang Taji and know in Chinese as ZhongLing (Luminous Tomb).

This tomb has the same layout as the Eastern Tomb but is about 30% bigger and 50% better maintained. This tomb mound is covered with concrete and topped by a single tree. Cool. – quite an “image”.

Imperial Tomb - Shenyang, China

Since we came in by the East Gate, we missed all the vendors, hawkers, kite flyers, bicycle renters, etc. until the way out. Quite the cultural site, but not an single toilet inside. What’s up?

A word about professional kite flyers. In Beiling park we saw some retired guys best described as professional kite flyers. They were gathered in one spot. Their bikes were configured to carry all sorts of gear: several kites, a chair, lunch boxes, etc. They had kites for different wind conditions and various sorts of rigs to make reeling easy. I did not get a photo. Rats.

We bought some snacks, about 10 RMB, exited Beiling Park via the main entrance and caught bus #205 in the direction of "The Pagoda of Buddhist Ashes” (Tawan Stupa).

It’s a good 10 minute uphill walk from the bus stop to the pagoda entrance. The site, which is on a bluff above the river, will be magnificent once the cleanup of the surrounding area is finished. The pagoda, called “Tawan Stupa” on the English signage and “Pagoda of Buddhist Ashes” by the usual guide books, is octagonal and 33 meters high. The entrance fee is 10 RMB. There are some exhibits and it is not possible to climb the pagoda.

Tawan Pagoda - Shenyang, China

Grabbed a taxi (15 RMB) to Zhongshan Square, home of the famous Chairman Mao statue. The square is large, with the statue in the middle, and ringed with 1930’s building, including the Art Deco Police Station, banks, and hotels. The Statue of Mao is a weird brown color and he seems to be directing traffic. Around the base are statues of peasants, workers, and soldier, all in the socialist-industrial style.

Chairman Mao Statue - Shenyang, China

Streets radiated like spokes from the square. We walked down the SW spoke where we found the usual “affiliated” brands of Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s.

Headed west towards the old Post Office and Telephone buildings. The Telephone building was way cool – gothic deco. Ended up eating at Europaer again (different location of course) where we had 3 Iced Coffees, Ice Cream, 10-inch Veggie Pizza, French Fries – all for 98 RMB after the 15% discount.

Caught a taxi that took us back to the hotel to pick up our bags, and then to the airport, all for 82 RMB including toll. Arrived at the airport at 2:25 PM with plenty of time for our 3:40 Flight. That’s it. Thanks for reading.

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