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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)

Hanging Out in the Holy Land: Tel Aviv and Acre

These days I don't think I would consider spending fifteen hours in transit each way to for just a week of travel, but back in 2014 we were feeling invincible after our successful first European road trip and the whole world seemed open to us. I was taking off as much time from work as I could and we were making a significant dent in the list of desirable countries we had never visited. One country still at the top of the list was Israel, an ancient and culturally diverse nation with a great deal to see despite its small size.
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We made it to Ben Gurion airport after two long flights with a changeover in Paris. For all practical purposes Ben Gurion is Israel's only airport for international tourists, serving both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Our original plan was to spend five days in Tel Aviv and three in Jerusalem, focusing on the major cities rather than attempting to cram too much into such a short visit. Tel Aviv is technically smaller than Jerusalem, although if East Jerusalem is not included then Tel Aviv is bigger. Israel's political situation is so complicated that one can't even determine what the largest city in the country is without running afoul of different interpretations of the country's borders. Irrespective of size, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are two very different cities. The former is one of the most illustrious historic cities in the world, packed with sites of critical importance to three major world religions. The latter is a much more modern creation that has become the financial center of Israel and a magnet for leisure tourism thanks to Mediterranean beaches and nightlife. We began our road trip in Tel Aviv partly because it was closer to the airport and partly because I expected we would like it more than Jerusalem.
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The logical place for tourists to stay in Tel Aviv is close to the long beach near the city center. Aside from the beach itself there's a high concentration of restaurants along iconic streets such as Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff. We had a room at an undistinguished Best Western a block back from the beach promenade. We arrived early enough in the day to take a walk along the promenade and give the kids a taste of the sun and sand. There were plenty of people out enjoying themselves but it wasn't one of the more beautiful Mediterranean beaches we've been too. The strip of sand was relatively narrow and the buildings along the promenade had a somewhat dilapidated appearance.
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All internet searches for street markets in Tel Aviv lead to Shuk HaCarmel. The market is a hundred years old and occupies a long pedestrian street just south of the center. It's a colorful and busy place with stalls full of produce and spices as well as some small restaurants offering Middle Eastern standards like falafel and hummus. It was also clearly a tourist attraction more than a place where locals would stock up on kitchen staples. There were a lot of places to buy souvenirs and travel clothing, and the food seemed to be geared more towards quick consumption than home cooking. We were fine with that given that it was our first day in the city but we made a note that there were probably more utilitarian markets hidden away somewhere that didn't make the guidebooks.
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Tel Aviv was founded in the early twentieth century as a Jewish suburb of the ancient port city of Jaffa. Tel Aviv grew rapidly and became an independent municipality before the two cities were reunited after Israeli independence. By this time Jaffa had dramatically receded in importance and is now best known as an Arab suburb of Tel Aviv. Having already seen most of downtown Tel Aviv we spent most of our second full day exploring the compact Old City of Jaffa. The main attraction here is the flea market where merchants have been selling second-hand items for almost a century. Between the displays of tarnished silverware and restored furniture are quiet cafes and fruit stores with stacks of the famous Jaffa oranges. Although we didn't have much interest in the various odds and ends for sale we enjoyed the palpable difference in atmosphere from bustling Tel Aviv. Here everything felt more languid and immersed in the past.
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By now we had realized that we weren't going to stay in Tel Aviv for the five days we had originally planned. The city definitely had its positive attributes but we couldn't think of much outside of the beach and downtown that we hadn't already done. Instead we decided to check out early and spend a couple of days in northern Israel before our stay in Jerusalem. We did have one mission for our final afternoon in Tel Aviv which was to find a real community market, if such a thing existed. Fortunately we encountered a local who claimed to know of such a place and directed us to the working class neighborhood of Hatikva far from downtown or any sign of tourism. At first we thought we'd been had as there was no sign of a market amid the utilitarian array of shops and low residential buildings but then we rounded a corner and suddenly found ourselves at the threshold of paradise. This was a huge and authentic local market which existed for the sole purpose of stocking the larders of the neighborhood inhabitants. Here were all the objectionable foodstuffs that might have driven tourists away from the Carmel Market: whole, bloody brains in styrofoam trays, lamb heads in various stages of dismantling, and every kind of animal viscera we love to find when we travel. The smell of butchery was heavy in the air. Of course, many stalls were piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as bread and dairy. My eyebrows lifted as Mei Ling busied herself purchasing an idiosyncratic collection of offal including chicken kidneys and rooster testicles. The rooster testicles were pale, bean-shaped objects of surprising size. I had no idea what we were going to do with this stuff given our lack of kitchen facilities at the total but I've learned not to object.
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After a few more minutes of walking around we came across the food court of the mall where there was a far greater variety of restaurants than we had seen at Shuk HaCarmel. One guy was cooking for his tiny restaurant on an outdoor griddle and Mei Ling immediately entered into negotiations with him. I thought he would wave her off but he seemed pleased and soon they were dumping the bags of offal onto the griddle. The cook picked up handfuls of chopped onions and peppers from his bins and began expertly stir-frying the unusual concoction. As I watched there was a loud pop and I felt a searing pain in my right eye. My eyelids clamped down and I staggered away from the grill holding my face in my hands. Even amid the fog of pain I could sense the ridiculousness of what had happened. A testicle had exploded on the griddle and sent a jet of boiling rooster juice into my eye. Regardless, if I ended up in an Israeli emergency room half-blind there wouldn't be any humor in the situation. Our vacation would be over. Someone took me by the arm and guided me to a spigot which released cooling water over my closed eye. Eventually I was able to open it just a little and the water streamed over my seared eyeball. I gradually got my eye to open more and more and after a minute I realized the pain had receded and I could see again. I even took out my contact lens and replaced it to make sure it hadn't melted to my cornea. By the time I'd recovered it was time to participate in the meal Mei Ling had created with the restaurateur. I took my revenge on the rooster testicles with gusto, filled with relief that our journey could continue.
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The next morning we departed Tel Aviv with only a vague plan to drive north to Acre, an ancient port city with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs. Although Acre is the official name of the city it is commonly referred to as Akko for reasons we never understood. We only visited in the old city which occupies a small peninsula at the southern end of the town. The maze of narrow alleys filled with bazaars made the ancient sector of the city seem much larger than it was. The souks felt more authentic and intimate than what we had experienced in Jaffa, as far fewer tourists made it up here close to the Lebanese border.
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We enjoyed the atmosphere in Acre so much that we decided to have dinner and spend the night there. Of course, we hadn't reserved any accommodations and this was before the time we had travel phones with internet access. We found a main street with several large hotels but surprisingly none of them had any availability. It was well after dark and starting to get chilly when we made our way back into the souk and found an enchanting small hotel where we were welcomed and spent a very comfortable night.
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The next morning we had plenty of time to browse the colorful bazaars of Acre. Bags of aromatic spices lined alleys that were paved with flagstones. Most of the arcades were covered to protect shoppers from what must have been frequent rains, but we only experienced clear skies. I found a small barbershop and got a rather military-looking short haircut. Once we were sure we'd perused every corner of old Acre we regretfully took our leave and began our drive east to Galilee.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:59 Archived in Israel Tagged israel tel_aviv jaffa family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman zzlangerhans hatikva Comments (1)

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