Thursday, October 22, 2009

Traveling in Dalian

Last month I spent a day walking around Dalian and came away impressed. I ended up writing a short travel article for City Weekend, which, at this point, may or may not see the light of day. I don't think they'll mind me posting it here:

Beijing is to gates and bridges as Dalian is to squares and plazas, or “guangchang,” hundreds of them that together tell the story of the city’s history.

Most visitors to this port of 6 million people will begin at Xinghai Square, or “Sea of Stars,” which is the biggest municipal square in Asia and well worth a visit. But for something less touristy, go to Zhongshan Square at the city center, a giant roundabout with 10 off-shooting avenues surrounded by some of the most impressive concession-era architecture this side of Shanghai. You’ll think you’ve been warped to a different time and place.

Dalian’s strategic location by the sea invited foreign empires at a time when it was chic to invade China, first the Russians in 1898 and then the Japanese in 1905. The Russians, enamored with French architecture, modeled Dalian after Paris, which explains all the traffic circles and why Zhongshan gives off vibes of the Arc de Triomphe. Ogival towers and Gothic buildings of large stones and narrow windows add to the mystique.

The Japanese, also under the influence of European culture, added several more buildings in classical European style to Zhongshan Square, including Yamato Hotel in 1914, now called Hotel Dalian, which is where to stay if you want to be immersed in history (4 Zhongshan Square, (411) 8263-3111). The rotary’s center island is dressed up with trees, park benches and pigeons, and at night it comes alive as locals of all ages gather to socialize and dance. Peering out from the center, you’ll see buildings of different shapes and styles standing sentinel on either side of the streets, leaving the horizon unobstructed – faintly reminiscent of looking down Chicago’s Michigan Ave.

Dalian is atypical of Chinese cities, as it’s fashionable yet understated, modern and clean. If you must get your tourist fix, hike coastal Binhai Road, visit Forest Zoo or either of the two water amusement parks. Otherwise, stroll through Dalian’s charming parks and outdoor markets or relax on the beach and soon you’ll see why the China Expat Association calls Dalian the most livable city in China.

I must point out that the most incredible part of the city, from my vantage point, was an outdoor market tucked behind Russian Square in the northern part of the city. It's not on any maps and may or may not have a name, but it's absolutely incredible, a labyrinth of stalls selling a veritable hodgepodge of goods, from noodles to DVDs, meat kabobs and eggplants to socks and phone cards, small cooked pigeons to sea intestines eviscerated in front of your face. Like so:

Had I visited the market a few hours before I did, I would have had the pleasure of seeing a lamb slaughtered on a three-wheel wagon. Mmmm.

Dalian, a hub of commerce and leisure, receives more than 10 million visitors a year, despite not having any one recognizable draw like Harbin's ice sculptures, Qingdao's beer or Hangzhou's lake. Relatively young (est. 1898), there are no ancient temples, allusive rivers or misty mountains. Yet thanks to former mayor Bo Xilai (who hasn't been doing as well in Chongqing), who made the city a model of cleanliness, Dalian constantly hosts festivals and conferences, like Summer Davos, held by the World Economic Forum in September, and the International Fashion Festival (videos from which will be up on this blog later this week).

The two water amusement parks are both tourist traps (though Forest Zoo is actually really nice) and the beaches are average at best, but Dalian is a city that doesn't need any big attractions. Go see the city for what it is, and see how tempted you'll be to remain.

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