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East Asian Immersion: Dalian part III


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I normally fit about two days of travel into a blog post, sometimes three, so it's strange to find myself working on my third blog post about the four days we spent in Dalian. I never expected there to be so much worth seeing and so many opportunities to take great pictures in this unheralded city. I'm not usually a history buff but I was motivated to look into Dalian's past to try to understand how it became such a unique place. I learned that thanks to its strategic location on the Bohai Strait, Dalian passed through a number of powerful hands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The British, the Russians, and the Japanese all controlled the city between 1858 and 1945. There are still some architectural remnants of these occupations in the city, but I couldn't see how that distant past had much influence on the fascinating landscape of modern Dalian. Fortunately I have the best research resource a traveler could ask for, my Chinese-born wife, who could provide more insight into this recent transformation than a hundred hours on the internet.

Dalian's location and history of occupation probably made it a mildly interesting city to visit in the 1980's, but its captivating skyscrapers, squares, and parks are a much more recent development. Essentially all of this can be laid at the feet of one formerly illustrious mayor of the city, Bo Xilai. Bo was a scion of a prominent Communist Party family which was purged during the Cultural Revolution. He emerged from a labor camp in the 1980's and worked his way back into the Party, now that the pendulum had swung in another direction. Despite an apparent lack of connection to Dalian or Liaoning Province, Bo was assigned to a government position in the area and worked his way up through party ranks to become the mayor of Dalian in 1992. He oversaw the construction of Xinghai Square at the site of the former city garbage dump and was also responsible for the creation of Labor Park and several museums. In 2001 Bo became governor of Liaoning and in 2007 he ascended to the highest level of the Chinese central government. Between 2007 to 2011, he was the most prominent rising political star in China and many assumed he was on his way to being president. All of that ended in 2011 with a murder scandal that led to uncovering of widespread corruption and eventually life imprisonment. It seems that during Bo's few years of enormous power he decided to make Dalian a showplace of modernization, likely intending to use the city as a staging ground for a run at the presidency. Once he was a member of the Politburo, Bo likely diverted domestic financial resources to Dalian and also was involved in numerous foreign investment deals which led to the enormous number of skyscrapers that are still being built. Whether the city can sustain its growth now that its benefactor has been disgraced remains to be seen. It seems impossible that there would be enough wealthy citizens and businesses to fill all the new skyscrapers, so perhaps Dalian is destined to become a futuristic ghost town. I feel fortunate to have been able to see the city in possibly its greatest moment.

We kicked off our last full day in the food court of a Chinese department store not far from Eton Place. I'd seen how China was developing these food courts along the model of Japan and Korea two years earlier in Mudanjiang, but the size and sophistication of this display was quite impressive. There was a mouth-watering selection of produce, delicatessen items, and freshly-prepared fast food that was fundamentally Chinese but had enough international spin to generate a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just as striking was the liveliness and amount of foot traffic in the food court despite the relatively high prices. Ten years ago a scene like this would have been hard to imagine outside of Shanghai.
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We had a long bus ride through the southern part of Dalian to the Laohutan Scenic Area. This part of the peninsula is filled with stocky little mountains that have residential communities packed into the narrow valleys between them. It wasn't unusual to see apartment buildings jammed up against steep hillsides and I wondered how safe they were from landslides.
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The bus dropped us off in front of Laohutan Ocean Park, an expensive theme park that contains an aquarium and a coral museum and features live performances with marine mammals. We had one of the world's most renowned aquariums coming up soon in Osaka so we gave the theme park a pass and walked across the bridge over the Ziyou Canal towards the famous sculpture that gives the area its popular name of Tiger Beach. The enormous marble tigers seemed to be leaping through the evergreens at the base of the hillside. A couple of souvenir vendors were demonstrating a styrofoam model plane and didn't seem to mind when the kids took it over. From the hill above us cable cars were transporting tourists across Laohutan Bay to the aquarium.
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Close to the tiger sculpture is the entrance to Bird Singing Woods, which is part of Laohutan Ocean Park but has a much more reasonable entry price as an individual attraction. This is a quite impressive bird park housing thousands of birds on a steep hill covered in netting. There are apparently 150 different species of birds in the park, but the most prominent were guinea hens, spoonbills, and peacocks. Feeding the birds was encouraged, naturally with the birdseed that was on sale inside the park. The birds were quite experienced and aggressive and our kids were no match for them.
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Most of the visitors stayed at the base of the hill but we followed the path to the top where the peacocks were clearly in charge. Even with their tails closed, these are incredibly beautiful birds and there were an amazing number of them perched on branches and railings. The netting filtered and diffused what little sunlight made it through the clouds and it was easy to forget that we were in a bird sanctuary and not atop a mountain far from civilization.
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Back on ground level we were just in time to catch a show with parrots that were trained to fly into the crowd and ferry bank notes from the audience back to their handler. The combination of entertainment and con-artistry was quintessentially Chinese and I was happy to contribute all the small denomination currency I had to the endeavor.

The coastal drive through the mountains along Binhai Middle Road is supposed to be another highlight of Dalian, but we didn't see anything remarkable from the windows of our taxi. Eventually we found ourselves back at Xinghai Square, where we ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant and let the kids have another round of entertainment in the amusement park. It was a much foggier evening than our previous visit and the skyscrapers seemed like ghostly apparitions in the mist.
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On our first visit to Xinghai Square we'd missed the evening light show at the fountain. As the moment approached, people began streaming to the center of the oval where there was an enormous circular pool. The water jets had already started to shoot into the air, illuminated in vivid colors and accompanied by haunting violin music. I tried to hold the kids back, expecting the crowd to become too dense for safety, but they were able to get all the way to the front. As the fog slowly lifted, the sparkling, disembodied cables of the Xinghaiwan Bridge came into view behind us.
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We had finally worn the kids out and by the time we had found our way back to Zhongyuan food street for a late snack the older two were out cold. In the morning we went straight to the airport for our flight to Qingdao. Mei Ling stopped briefly at a cosmetics counter at the mall in Eton Place where the salesperson's T-shirt provided us with an optimistic farewell from one of the most fascinating cities I've ever visited.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 21:46 Archived in China Tagged travel china liaoning dalian travel_blog laohutan xinghai_square tony_friedman zzlangerhans Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part II


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We awoke on our second morning in Dalian highly energized to continue our exploration of this dynamic and unpredictable city. We'd already seen the major municipal produce market, but we found a smaller one in the opposite direction from Eton Place. I don't think I could ever get enough of the colorful celebration of our earth's variety of fruits and vegetables that a Chinese market presents. We've embraced that variety at home as well as when we travel. Fortunately in Miami we have access to probably 90% of the common edible fruits and we have about thirty of them in our regular rotation. One special attribute of China is the huge selection of green vegetables that gives every meal an individual imprint, and that diversity was on full display here as well.
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We had a lunch of barbecued lamb in a Uyghur restaurant incongruously located on Dalian's famed Japanese street. The street itself was a rather unimpressive collection of seedy bars with Japanese-style fronts, but the food made the detour worthwhile.
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Labor Park, or Lao Dong in Chinese, is the largest city park in Dalian. I enjoy taking the kids to parks when we travel because they're beautiful places where we can join with the locals in recreational activities. Labor Park was a real stunner, carefully maintained with colorful landscaping and intriguing paths. One of the first paths we came to was a beautiful, striped golden walkway that I tried to convince the kids was the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Cleo is too old now to be tricked so easily and quickly noticed there were no bricks. The lush vegetation was complemented by the diverse and magnificent skyscrapers that surrounded the park.
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Labor Park was magical in many ways. Aside from the glorious landscapes, we encountered many groups of locals engaged in various artistic activities purely for their own pleasure. In one pavilion a group of middle-aged people were dancing to traditional music and they were happy to let our kids join in. Just a short distance away another group was dancing with colorful silk scarves and they very amicably encouraged the kids to join them in that activity as well. Next were two very ordinary-looking guys performing a synchronized hip-hop style modern dance to Chinese music with very serious faces. Were they practicing for some kind of a performance, or was that just their way of getting exercise? One thing for sure they weren't doing was putting on a show for tourists, as we were the only Westerners we saw in the park that day and no one else was paying the them the slightest attention. These kinds of sights are common in Chinese parks but we've never encountered such a diversity of performances in one place as we did in Labor Park. It was great to see our kids having so much fun and at the same time having a completely natural immersion in one of their ancestral cultures.
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From the park we walked towards the center of downtown Dalian. On the way we encountered a seafood restaurant where we had the most delicious plate of boiled crawfish I've ever tasted, with all due respect to Louisiana. The garlic seasoning and the firm texture of the crustaceans were incomparable.
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We passed through Youhao Square where a giant spherical sculpture rests on five upturned hands, intended to signify the solidarity of five continents. I'm not sure if it was Australia or another continent that was excluded.
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The ultimate destination of our walk was Zhongshan Square, a major downtown hub that is representative of Dalian's evolution from a Russian outpost to a Japanese colony to a modern Chinese metropolis. The square was initially constructed by the Russians at the end of the 19th century, but most of the buildings adjacent to the square were constructed by the Japanese. These buildings have all been repurposed by the Chinese as banks and government offices, and sleek modern skyscrapers now form an interesting backdrop on every side.
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At one corner of the square a guy in army fatigues was selling packages of bird seed. The pigeons in the square were fearless and flew onto the kids' palms, shoulders and heads much to their delight. A group of young people arrived in the square for a modeling shoot and asked Mei Ling if they could include our kids in some of the photos. Spenser turned out to be a natural.
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We were still far from finished with the magic of Dalian. Little Venice is the popular name for a development that is officially known as Montage de L'Eau, on the northern shore of Dalian facing Dalian Bay. Little Venice seeks to provide the experience of Venice including copies of some of its most famous buildings as well as canals and gondolas. Foreigners often disparage the Chinese penchant for copying or mimicking Western monuments and landmarks, but I think it is an area where East and West simply fail to see eye to eye. The Chinese don't feel they have taken something away from its originators by copying it, but rather they perceive it more as a tribute. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if you will. As far as I'm concerned it's just something interesting to experience and I don't feel any need to make judgments about it. Montage de L'Eau was completed just a few years ago and is fairly unknown outside of Dalian. The bus dropped us off fairly close to the entrance where we were greeted with the familiar site of vast, shiny skyscrapers that were in the final stages of construction.
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If it hadn't been for the gondoliers and the knockoff of the bell tower for St. Mark's Basilica, I wouldn't have known that Dalian was going for a Venice impression at all. The feeling was more like any number of modern cities with canals or downtown rivers, like San Antonio or Chicago. Many of the buildings had a neo-Classical appearance but didn't look particularly Venetian, and they were set back from the canals rather than bathing in them. It was a very beautiful place on its own merits and we enjoyed crossing the bridges and exploring the canalside pathways.
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Of course gondola rides were on offer, and at a substantial discount to the ones available in the original Venice. The kids enjoyed being on the boat but the water was too still and the surroundings too tranquil for the ride to add much to the experience for me. Little Venice was a enchanting place in its own right but was in no way comparable to the breathtaking original.
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It tuned out there was much more to the area we were in than Little Venice. We exited on the opposite side and found ourselves on a wide, landscaped promenade that coursed along Dalian Bay. Little Venice posed gaily behind us in the shadow of the new skyscrapers we had seen earlier.
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We walked west along the busy promenade until we reached the end of Montage de L'Eau, where there were several other interesting buildings including an apparent replica of the Arc de Triomphe. We kept walking past the port until we reached Dalian's strange clam-like convention center.
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By now dusk was falling and it was time to head to our third night market in Dalian, back near Xinghai Square. It was pleasant enough but didn't have same energy as the other two we'd visited. Another exciting and magical day in Dalian had come to an end.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 13:01 Archived in China Tagged travel kids china family liaoning dalian travel_blog little_venice zhonghsan_square Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part I


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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 15:37 Archived in China Tagged travel china family liaoning night_market dalian travel_blog xinghai_square tony_friedman Comments (2)

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