Summer Travels I: Shenyang, Dalian, Changbaishan: 10 July - 20 July 2005

After my spring trip to Beijing I returned to Hohhot and continued teaching through the end of the semester in early July. While I did have some interesting adventures in and around Hohhot during that time, I was too busy and/or lazy to write them up. Perhaps sometime during the long Hohhot winter I'll put together a page on miscellaneous adventures around Hohhot. Meanwhile, I'll skip right to my current summer holiday travels while they're still fresh in my mind.

While I did sign a new contract to continue teaching at Inner Mongolia Medical College for another semester, my current residence permit expires on July 21 and rather than delay starting my travels while the school took care of the paperwork to extend it I decided to split my travels in two. This page covers the first leg of my travels, those from July 10 through my return to Hohhot on July 20 to get the new residence permit sorted out. I plan a separate page to cover my travels after that, plans for which are not yet certain as I write this.

Because negotiations with the school over the new contract took much longer than expected, I wasn't able to plan my travels as far in advance as I would have liked. By the time the new contract was signed and it was certain that I would be continuing at IMMC for another semester, only a couple weeks remained until the July 21 deadline to return to Hohhot to pick up the new residence permit. Therefore, I decided to try to visit two primary places: the Liaoning province coastal city of Dalian, which several of my students had described as a very clean and beautiful city, and the Changbaishan mountain and nature preserve in Jilin province.

As with my spring trip to Beijing, getting train tickets turned out to be problematic. Since there are no direct trains from Hohhot to any of the Changbaishan gateway towns, I decided to try first to head to Dalian. However, at the train station I learned that no through tickets were available for Hohhot-Dalian, and even the local teacher's travel agent friend who had found me a ticket for my trip to Beijing couldn't help this time. With so little time remaining until July 21, I decided instead to fly from Hohhot to Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province. Since Shengyang lies between Dalian and Changbaishan and has fairly direct train connections with both I figured I'd have a better chance of obtaining tickets to one or the other from Shenyang than from Hohhot. Also, my guidebook listed some interesting things to see in Shenyang itself so I figured that even if I still had problems getting train tickets from Shenyang at least I'd be seeing some interesting things in another part of China rather than waiting in Hohhot.

I arrived in Shenyang around noon on July 10 and decided to splurge on the relatively pricey Rose Hotel both because of its location right on the main pedestrian street and because my guidebook mentioned that the rooms had free Internet access which I thought would be very useful in planning the next stages of my travels. Here's a view from my hotel window. Towards the upper right you can see the red and black rooftops of the walled Imperial Palace - more on that shortly. After checking into the hotel, I decided to walk to Shenyang's Main Train Station to look into tickets to either Dalian or Changbaishan. The walk turned out to be much longer than I expected, taking me almost 2 hours each way, but along the way I was welcomed to Shenyang by this huge statue of Chairman Mao. At the station I found a helpful, English-speaking student who kindly helped me purchase a ticket to Dalian leaving two days later, leaving me one full day to explore Shenyang. On the walk back to the hotel I stopped and had dinner, then after people-watching on the pedestrian street for awhile I relaxed in the hotel and planned my sight-seeing for the next day.

The morning of Monday, July 11 I made the short walk from my hotel to Shenyang's Qing Imperial Palace, which dates from 1625 and was the inaugural site of the Qing dynasty in 1636. The palace is smaller but very reminiscent of the Forbidden City that is described on my Beijing page. Smaller, of course, is a relative term and Shenyang's Imperial Palace has no shortage of buildings (1 2 3), courtyards (1 2 3), and interiors (1 2 3) to explore. It must definitely have been good to be emperor!

After exploring Shenyang's Imperial Palace, I took a bus to Beiling Park, which, aside from being a large and pleasant park, also is the site of the Zhaoling Tomb. Shortly after entering the park, I was greeted by some interesting figures and musicians in Lotus Pond. On my stroll north through the park to Zhaoling Tomb I also encountered quite a few old and interesting trees. The tomb itself was again a walled complex. After entering the complex, you passed along a long walkway lined on either side by stone animals. After dry and dusty Hohhot, I was particularly impressed by the lush green forest in which the stone animals sat. At the end of the walkway was a large gate leading into another walled area containing several more buildings. Just past this area lay the still unopened tomb itself.

The next morning, July 12, I caught a train to the port city of Dalian, arriving around noon. Early in the semester, I had given some of my students an assignment to give a short speech recommending the best place for me to visit in China, and a couple of them had mentioned Dalian, describing it as a wonderful, clean city with excellent beaches. I must say that I was disappointed and did not much care for Dalian. Perhaps the students' speeches, very possibly taken from a travel brochure of some sort, set my expectations too high and perhaps my mood was fouled by spending so much of my time there trying unsuccessfully to get a train ticket from there to Tonghua, the next step towards Changbaishan, but I found Dalian crowded, hot, expensive, and appealing mainly to those who like shopping, which is definitely not me.

The one beach I visited during my two days in Dalian, at Xinghai Park, was small and crowded and there was garbage floating in the water. Apparently Xinghai Park was once a garbage dump that was covered, it would seem not deeply enough, with dirt excavated from Victory Square, an underground shopping complex downtown near the train station and the hotel I stayed in. There probably are other, nicer beaches that I didn't visit. At least I hope there are.

Dalian has changed hands several times and the city's architecture reflects that. More western style buildings surrounding the central Zhongshan Square, for example, include the Bank of China building and the Dalian Hotel. I'm guessing that the big black electronic billboard atop the Dalian Hotel is not part of the original architect's design.

When even the two separate travel agents I checked with assured me that there was no hope of getting any sleeper any time in July on the Dalian to Tonghua train, I decided to head back to Shenyang in the hopes of getting a train from there to Tonghua as more trains ran that route. I arrived late in the afternoon of July 15 and by foot from Shenyang's North Train Station I tried without success to find two other hotels mentioned in my guidebook that were less expensive, but neither one seemed to be where the map showed they should. By this time it was evening and I was close to the Rose Hotel where I'd stayed two days previously, so when it began to rain quite heavily I decided just to flag down a cab and head there for the night. The next morning I checked with the hotel's business center about a ticket to Tonghua, and they were able to get me a hard sleeper berth on a train leaving that evening. Interestingly enough, the train turned out to be number N185 which originated in Dalian, the very same train I had spent two days trying to book a berth on from Dalian. Go figure.

After sticking near the hotel until its 2 PM checkout time to give my laundry a chance to dry, I stored my bag at the hotel and took a bus to Shenyang's "9.18" Historical Museum that is named after the "9.18 Incident" in which the Japanese seized Shenyang on September 18, 1931 then went on to occupy most of Manchuria. The museum, which includes English captions, graphically summarizes the history of the period from the Chinese perspective.

After visiting the museum, I had a leisurely dinner, picked up my bag at the hotel, and caught the night train to Tonghua. Upon arriving in Tonghua the next morning, July 16, I was easily able to get a hard seat ticket on a train leaving within two hours for Baihe, the closest town to Changbaishan. I was also able to get a soft sleeper ticket on a train leaving July 19 for Beijing, the next stop on my return to Hohhot. I had hoped to get the Tonghua to Beijing ticket for July 18 to give myself more chance of successfully getting a Beijing to Hohhot ticket in time to arrive by July 21 when my residence permit expired, but none were available.

After a scenic but delayed and uncomfortably long 8+ hour hard seat ride from Tonghua, I arrived in Baihe the afternoon of July 16. I quickly met a girl whose name I have, alas, forgotten, but who seemed to be the only English speaker in Baihe, at least among those working the mainly tourist businesses near the train station. I wish I had written down her name, because she was very, very kind and helpful. Nonetheless, if you speak English but not Chinese and visit Baihe I'm betting you'll meet her very quickly upon leaving the train station, for it seemed that as soon as anyone I dealt with found out that I was an English speaker they summoned this girl, drivers generally by pulling up in front of the hotel and restaurant where she worked (on the far left of the building pictured, which is the first building on your left as you leave the train station) and honking their horns until she appeared. She helped me arrange just about everything I did during my time there and answered my many, many questions with the greatest patience yet refused to accept even the smallest tip.

Early the next morning, July 17, I went in a large car with four South Korean students and three other tourists who I believe were Chinese to visit the Changbaishan Nature Preserve. Our first stop was to see what is called the Underground Forest. After about a 15 minute stroll along a wooden walkway (only twice interrupted with large banners) through a pleasant forest passing several small gorges, you come to a steep drop off below which the Underground Forest goes out along the valley as far as the eye can see.

After the Underground Forest, we switched into two smaller four-wheel drive vehicles for the steep climb up Changbaishan mountain itself towards Tianwen Peak (2670m). As you can tell from the picture, there were quite a few jeeps carrying quite a few tourists to this summit, but even the fairly large number of people did not spoil the tremendous view. Changbaishan was actually a volcano, and in its crater below Tianwen Peak lies Tianchi ("Heaven's Lake"), a crater lake measuring about 5km from north to south, 3km from east to west, with a circumference of about 13km, and at an elevation of 2189m. The lake lies right on the border between China and North Korea and the far shores of the lake are in North Korea. I didn't have a tripod with me and couldn't fit the bottom part of the lake in the frame, but I put together this panorama of Tianchi as seen from Tianwen Peak which will nonetheless give you a pretty good idea of just how spectacular the view was. And for those of you who still doubt that I'm actually here, here's a shot of me on Tianwen Peak with Tianchi in the background.

After spending about 40 minutes at the peak, we rode back down in the jeeps and rejoined the larger vehicle that took us to the foot of Changbai Waterfall, which drops from near the shores of Tianchi. Above the parking lot below the falls vendors sold eggs and corn cooked in the water from nearby hot springs. To the right of the waterfall in the previous picture, you can see the mostly covered stairs that lead from the valley up to Tianchi lake. The walk up took me about an hour, including several stops to photograph the views looking both back towards the valley and ahead towards the lake. Above the falls there were still patches of snow despite the heat. Once you reached the shores of Tianchi there were impressive views in every direction. Again, I tried putting together a panorama that should give you some idea what it was like standing at the shore of Tianchi. The water of the lake was wonderfully clean and clear, though very cold as I found out standing in the lake while this picture was taken. Shortly after I reluctantly began heading back down, I ran into the four South Korean students (all studying in Beijing) who had come in the same car and were just on their way up. I was quite surprised to meet then since in the valley they had told me they weren't going to make the climb because they were too tired, but perhaps me hauling my fat 47-year old butt up those stairs shamed them into coming. It was already getting close to the time we were supposed to be back, but since I didn't think the car would leave with that many people missing and I'd rather spend more time on the shores of Tianchi than back in the parking lot waiting for them I turned around and headed back to the lake with them. There we posed for this group picture. When we arrived back at the parking lot, more than an hour after the planned time, we found out that we were wrong and that the car would indeed leave with 5 of its 8 passengers missing. Fortunately, the Koreans had a mobile phone and had gotten the driver's mobile phone number, so they called him and he, while apparently not too pleased, called another driver who eventually picked us up for the ride back to Baihe. We did as a result miss out on one other planned stop, apparently a smaller waterfall, but I suspect the extra time on the shores of Tianchi more than compensated.

Since I had another full day before I had to catch the train from Tonghua to Beijing, I decided to remain in Baihe and visit a couple other sites outside the nature preserve that were mentioned in my guidebook but not covered by the more-or-less standard tour I had taken the previous day. The girl at the hotel helped me arrange a driver to take me to them early the morning of July 18. First we stopped at Tiger Park, a small "Africa safari"-type park where the animals (tigers in this case) roam "free" and you go about on a caged walkway and in a caged bus. The park wasn't very large, but on the bus ride through (I was the only one on the bus, perhaps because it was still before 7 am) we did see what the guide told me was the largest tiger in the park, the second largest (who somehow doesn't look terribly happy about being photographed), and another resting tiger. I turned down the chance to feed the tigers live chickens or rabbits (I forget the prices) as well as to hold one of the baby tigers (10 RMB).

After Tiger Park we drove on to Fushilin Gorges, a moderately large (took about an hour for a leisurely stroll through), pleasantly forested park featuring gorges with oddly shaped rock formations (1 2 3 and a closeup). I also found these switchback bridges in one of the gorges quite interesting.

Since we had left very early and the tours of Tiger Park and Fushilin Gorges didn't take long I was back at the hotel by 9 am. After a short rest, I decided to walk to downtown Baihe, about a 45 minute walk from the train station. There I looked around a bit, found an Internet cafe to catch up on e-mails, and did some food shopping for the long train journey the next day. The downtown section wasn't large, only one main street lasting a few blocks, and most of the residential parts of town looked more like villages, such as this section near the train station. One interesting thing that happened each evening I stayed in Baihe is that shortly after dark some musicians would gather in the square in front of the train station and play music to which others, mostly but not exclusively women, would dance with colored fans and/or flags.

The next morning I caught another 7 hour hard seat train back to Tonghua, where I walked around the town a bit and had a meal before catching an early evening train for the 16 hour soft sleeper ride to Beijing. When I arrived in Beijing I found there were nothing but hard seats left for any train from Beijing to Hohhot for the next two days, so not relishing 10+ hours in hard seat on an overnight train I decided to fly instead. I arrived back in Hohhot about 11 PM on July 20, just before my residence permit expired on July 21. Waiting for me here was an e-mail from the college's Foreign Affairs Office telling me the PSB had promised that my new residence permit would be ready by Monday. I'm not booking any tickets until I have the new residence permit in hand, but I do plan to head out on another excursion shortly after the paperwork is completed, so stay tuned!

Footnote: Trains in China

Just a quick clarification about trains for those who may not have followed my talk about hard and soft seats and sleepers. There are four basic classes of train service in China, and during the trip described above I used each of them at least once.

Another interesting thing about train travel in China is the train stations, which vary greatly in size and modernness but, no matter what time you're there, always seem to be crowded and chaotic. Here's a shot I took while waiting in the Dalian train station, one of the more modern stations I encountered.



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