06/17/2019 - 06/18/2019
I was completely unfamiliar with the city of Dalian until I was on my eighth visit to China, so I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Westerners have never heard of it. Even after being to China so many times, the only way I came across Dalian was by studying a map to better understand my location when I was visiting the equally unknown city of Shenyang. Every time I visit China I become a little more familiar with its geography, but there's always another level of detail to investigate. While reviewing Shenyang's surroundings, I realized that the province of Liaoning had a rather striking coastline that resembled a closed hand with its index finger extended to point southward into the sea. About halfway along the index finger peninsula, a much smaller peninsula projected eastward almost like a wart on the back of the finger. Most of this wart was comprised by the only sizable city in the region, which was Dalian. I immediately felt an attraction to the city due to its remoteness from other metropolitan centers and its obvious intimate relationship with the sea. Mei Ling told me she had never been there, but Dalian had a good reputation in China as a vacation spot. I placed it on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit without expecting we would get there just two years later.
After we decided we would base ourselves in Beijing for summer vacation and visit nearby cities, Dalian was one of the obvious destinations. It is accessible from Beijing by train in about five hours or by plane in an hour and a half. Since our Airbnb in Beijing was at the doorstep of the Airport Express train, we decided to fly. Our Airbnb in Dalian was a significant upgrade from Beijing, a 23rd floor condo in a complex of massive skyscrapers in the center of the city called Eton Place. One of Mei Ling's oldest friends, Guo Guo, flew in from Guangzhou and stayed with us in Dalian.
Once we were settled in our Airbnb we set off for the closest night market we had researched. The supposed night markets had all disappointed us in Beijing and we were hoping for a better experience in Dalian. Our condo complex was surrounded by wide avenues with never-ending streams of speeding cars which could often only be traversed via underpasses. Our unfamiliarity with the location of the underpasses forced us off course and into new and fascinating discoveries. The most visually striking feature of the city was the futuristic skyscrapers, some of which were as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City. In fact they appeared even taller as they generally stood some distance from the other tall buildings, unlike in New York City which looks like a forest of skyscrapers. The most amazing were the tallest tower in our home base of Eton Place, currently the 42nd tallest building in the world, and Dalian International Trade Center, currently the 49th. The International Trade Center was useful as a landmark as it could be seen from practically anywhere near the center of the city. The five tallest buildings in Dalian were all completed within the last five years, and sixteen of the tallest twenty within the last decade. It was clear that Dalian had recently undergone a remarkable transformation.
Zhongyuan Food Street was the epitome of a Chinese night market with an enormous variety of food choices along a single colorful, throbbing street. The first restaurant we encountered boasted a large array of tanks with every imaginable type of seafood. The hawker at the front was eager to keep our interest and showed the kids around the tanks, eventually letting them play with a live octopus.
Sadly for the hawker, we weren't about to sit down at the first restaurant we saw. We gradually weaved our way through the crowd, marveling at the vast selection of skewers, small plates, fresh fruit, and live seafood restaurants that lined the sides of the street. It was a scene that couldn't be found anywhere in the world except China (and Taiwan).
We eventually settled on a live seafood place and gave our orders at the tanks. We decided on live octopus, blood clams and tairagai clams, an unfamiliar fish whose named translated to "young lady", and sea intestines. Sea intestines are a bizarre life form that bears an uncanny resemblance to human guts.
Mei Ling requested the octopus to be prepared raw, which meant that the chopped tentacles were still squirming when the dish was brought to the table. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean the octopus was still alive. However, the nerves to the tentacles still function for a while even after the head and brain are detached. Naturally it's revolting to many people but it's far from the most shocking thing I've eaten. We offered it to Cleo and Spenser but only Spenser could be convinced to try it.
In the morning we went to the main market within walking distance of our apartment. It was a large complex with warehouse-type buildings devoted to seafood, meat, and produce. The meat section was particularly overwhelming with dozens of stalls tightly packed together and the sounds of cleavers chopping through thick cow and pig bones. The smell of freshly slaughtered animals and offal was heavy in the air, and motorbikes and loading equipment zipped through the narrow aisles with wild abandon.
The outdoor sections were largely devoted to fruit and spices. At one point, a vendor good-naturedly lifted a corner of his canopy to allow a large SUV to turn the corner. We spent most of the morning in the market and the adjacent shopping center, where we engaged in a fruitless quest to locate a magnetic backgammon set. Another interesting discovery were small green melons that had been grown in Buddha-shaped molds.
In the afternoon we took the bus to Xinghai Square, a relatively new feature of Dalian that has been described as the largest city square in the world. Across from the bus stop was either a small park or a large lawn inexplicably adorned with the figures of a giant bulldog, a young Buddhist monk, and three enormous fish designed to look like hedges. None of us had any idea what the tableau was intended to signify and there was nothing around to provide any clue what we were looking at. Over the next few days we were going to become accustomed to these whimsical sights around Dalian.
Xinghai Square is a lot of things, but city square is not one of them. There isn't anything resembling a city near the enormous grassy oval, which is surrounded on most of its perimeter by tall, ultramodern apartment buildings and hotels. Despite the apparent housing for tens of thousands of people, the expanse between them was empty except for occasional pedestrians strolling towards the waterfront. Each of the many entrances to the oval was flanked by aerodynamic mesh sculptures of athletes engaged in different sports.
The south-facing portion of Xinghai Square is the only break in the ring of skyscrapers. Between the oval and the waterfront is an elevated, curved platform that reminded me of the roof of the Oslo Opera House. It's called the Open Book monument, although it looks a lot more like a skateboard ramp than a book. Furthering the confusion is a bronze statue of a skateboarder on one of the monument's staircases, although there were no actual skateboarders on the book and I highly doubt the security guards would have looked favorably on that kind of activity.
The waterfront area was quite crowded and fun. We admired the profile of the Xinghaiwan Bridge that crossed the bay while the kids chased a remote-controlled motorcycle around the concrete plaza. There was a good-sized amusement park adjacent to the plaza and we let the kids enjoy a few rides. Having a little time to process what I had been seeing, I was starting to realize I was in a very special and unusual place. This little corner of China was still too remote and insignificant to be of any interest to Western tourists, yet it was greatly appreciated by the Chinese and had acquired a peculiar hypermodern yet traditional aesthetic. I felt very fortunate to be witnessing this amazing transformation of a rural city into a unique modern metropolis.
On the eastern side of Xinghai Square a canal extends from the bay inward towards the city. On the far side of the canal were some particularly ornate apartment buildings and a beautiful Gothic castle which we later learned was the ultra-expensive Castle Hotel.
We headed back to the city and another busy night market for dinner. I learned how to get sea snails out of their narrow spiral shells and Cleo learned how difficult it is to pick up a quail egg with chopsticks. By the end of the night we'd already had more fun in Dalian than we'd had in five days in Beijing.