SHENYANG, the capital of Liaoning province and unofficial capital of the northeast, is both a railway junction and banking centre that's served as host to the Manchus, Russians, Japanese, Nationalists and then Communists. An hour's flight from Beijing, the city likens itself to the capital; any cabby here will delight in telling you that they have the only other Imperial Palace in China.
Shenyang does indeed resemble the capital, but only in its wide, characterless avenues walled by Soviet-style matchbox buildings and glassy bank towers. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Shenyang is that it isn't remarkable at all. All the ingredients for an interesting visit are here: China's other Forbidden City, constructed by Manchus before their takeover of the Ming dynasty; the tombs of two former emperors; architecture left over from Japan's occupation, including one of China's loveliest hotels. The list goes on and on. And a list is what Shenyang feels like, a collection of curios out of context in their industrial surroundings, with little to detain you for more than a brief stop.
Shenyang had its heyday in the early seventeenth century. The city (then known as Mukden) was declared first capital of the expanding Manchu empire by Nurhaci. He died in 1626, as work on his palace was just beginning, and was succeeded by his eighth son, Abahai, who consolidated and extended Manchu influence across northern China. When the Manchus, having defeated the resident Ming, moved to Beijing in 1644 and established the Qing dynasty, Shenyang declined steadily in importance. The city began to take on its modern, industrial role with the arrival of the Russians in the nineteenth century, who made it the centre of their rail-building programme. Years later, the puppets of the Japanese state also set up shop here, exploiting the resources of the surrounding region and building an industrial infrastructure whose profits and products were sent home to Japan.
From December to February, the town hosts the increasingly popular Shenyang International Ice and Snow Festival, which is held at Qipanshan, 17km outside town.
Shenyang, one of China's largest cities with a sprawling populace of over 7 million, reigns as the capital of Liaoning Province. Located about 100 miles inland from the Bohai Sea in China's northeast corner, it is best known as an industrial behemoth. Zinc, copper and lead smelting plants combine with heavy machinery, textile, medicine, chemical, transformer, and tractor manufacturing plants to mold the kind of powerful economic muscle that is emblematic of modern China. Especially when compared to nearby Dalian and Qingdao with their tourism mandates and accompanying infrastructure, tourism in Shenyang plays second fiddle to industry. If you find yourself visiting Shenyang, there is plenty to see and do here, especially if you have an interest in China's history, both ancient and modern. Major eye-candy is found at the Imperial Palace and the Shenyang Botanical Garden .
Shenyang's golden years occurred at the dawn of the Qing Dynasty (1624-1911) when Emperor Nurhaci chose Shenyang as the first Qing capital in the Manchu homeland of Manchuria. At the time it was named Shenjing, Mukden in Manchu. A major city needed a major building and in 1626 under Nurhaci's orders the Imperial Palace emerged as Shenyang's symbolic center. It featured more than 300 ostentatiously decorated rooms and 20 gardens, replicating Beijing's Forbidden City as both a symbol of power and grandeur. After the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, Manchu rule moved south and was established in China proper. The Qing court moved to the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) in Beijing. For the Manchu rulers, Shenyang remained the spiritual home of their dynasty through the centuries.
Despite consecutive war related occupations by Russia and Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Shenyang managed to increase its industrial might. Not even during China's Civil War (1948-1949) when Shenyang became the main battleground between the Communists and Nationalists did the city come to an economic halt. Today it is recognized as one of the greatest manufacturing centers in Asia.
Shenyang is comprised of the following six districts:
Heping Better known as downtown, this district sprung up around the South Railway Station, former hub of the Southern Manchurian Railway, is home to many of Shenyang's major sights, all within walking distance of each other. Zhongshan Square with its massive Cultural Revolution-era statue of Chairman Mao, whirls with human activity. The pedestrian Street Zhong Jie is one of the oldest commercial streets in continual use in China. Major hotels such as the Hotel InterContinental , the Sheraton Shenyang Lido and the Traders Hotel give visitors quick access to the Liaoning Industrial Exhibition Hall and shopper friendly Taiyuan Street . Mikado , a Japanese tepanyaki restaurant, and Lao Bian Dumpling Restaurant are two of Heping's more popular dining stops. The Liaoning Provincial Museum displays a mind-stretching variety of artifacts that includ some of the earliest forms of writing known to man. Northwest of Zhongshan Square lies the Xita Korean Neighborhood , where neon nightlife rivals that of Nanjing Road in Shanghai.
Shenhe Just east of downtown, this district is noted for harboring the Imperial Palace , Shenyang's most famous attraction, as well as the Shengjing Ancient Culture Street . The four star Gloria Plaza Hotel and the Times Plaza highlight its lodging offerings. Youth Park offers plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch your legs on a portion of the scenic Canal Walkway . Nearby five star Kempinski Hotel offers the Paulaner Brauhaus among its dining options. The peaceful Ci'en Temple is hidden off an alley along Da'An Street. Shoppers, get ready for the early opening of Wu Ai Market the largest wholesale market in Asia. Also worth seeking out is the Former Residence of Zhang Xueliang with its mixed architecture and fascinating story.
Huanggu Situated directly north of downtown, this district is best known for being home to the North Tomb , the burial site of the Qing dynasty's animal loving Huang Taiji in Beiling Park . Not to be missed on a stay in Shenyang is the Xinle Relics Museum located next to Beiling Park. Also in Huanggu are some Qing-era pagodas that have been turned into parks, the Sheli Pagoda and the Northern Pagoda .
Dadong The 9.18 Museum and the Old Longkou Wine Museum are the attraction highlights of this district located northeast of downtown.
Sujiatan Coined as the "Southern Gate of Shenyang," this district enjoys a huge reputation for its economic and industrial bent. Rice and corn prosper on its plains, while trees with medicinal qualities canopy its eastern hills. The mining of coal, iron and limestone also reigns large. Tourist amenities are few.
Xinchengzi Positioned about 20 miles north of downtown this district harbors the wildly popular Mount Qipanshan Scenic Spot . Its boating and swimming opportunities on Xiuhu Lake and fan of hiking trails in the surrounding mountains makes it a prime city escape. The Shenha Expressway lends for quick access to and from downtown Shenyang.
Tiexi The industrial heart of Shenyang is in the Tiexi district, directly west of Heping's refined urban center.Tiexi was the setting for Wang BVing's documentary West of the Tracks, a look at how modernization is changing the industrial areas of northern China.
Dongling Southeast of downtown is the expansive Dongling district. While it now houses suburban families, it is also home to the Fuling tomb of Nurhaci and his emperess, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In a city of seven million residents chances favor the diner in being able to locate at least eight or nine restaurants worthy of the tongue's attention. And while Shenyang will never be mistaken for being the dining diva of China, it does enjoy the luxury of variety. Local styles ranging from Cantonese (light and mild) to Liaoning (thick and spicy) are many, as are western, Korean, Muslim and more. The better restaurants, in terms of service and food consistency, tend to reside inside the hotels. In addition, they are more tourist accommodating by providing bilingual menus. For recommendations on independent eateries, query the hotel concierges.
For authentic Liaoning fare snatch a table at the Boat House located inside the Gloria Inn Shenyang. Its ever-changing menu adheres to the Chinese saying "we cook everything with four legs except chairs and tables" by offering smoked chicken, bear's paw, shark's fin, bird's nest, fried shrimp and more. Its spacious main dining room is bright and airy and affords spanning window views. VIP rooms are available for special occasions. Na Jian Guan honors the area's Manchu heritage with Manchu dishes featuring barbecued beef and mutton and plenty of stewed items. For the utmost in Liaoning cuisine, find your way into the Lao Bian Dumpling Restaurant. For more than an amazing 170 years its kitchen has been filling local bellies with jiaozi—dumplings packed with minced pork and various vegetables. Despite an absence of decor, this two-story dining legend's tables are always occupied. The service is poor on good days, yet that never deters the crowds. Next-door proximity to the Imperial Palace makes it popular with tourists.
Shenyang's glut of Cantonese restaurants has caused many visitors to presumptuously conclude: the author of China's Cantonese recipe book must be one very wealthy human being. Wealthy indeed. The city seemingly, by some arcane government decree, has a Cantonese restaurant on every street corner. Sifting the good from the bad is easy if you stick to the hotel restaurants. Shang Palace, located inside the Traders Hotel pampers diners with a regal setting of white tablecloths with dark red napkins. The five-star Sheraton Shenyang Lido Hotel's Celestial Court offers a five-star setting complemented by five-star menu. If the evening needs the stamp of being special, phone in a reservation to the Lin De Court. Located inside the four star Hotel Inter-Continental , its menu offers such Cantonese favorites as shark's fin, bird's nest, and a host of seafood options. The Times Plaza 's appropriately named Canton Restaurant also enjoys a favorable standing, especially with locals, as does the Holiday Inn's Cafe Asiana with families. Or for seafood splendor amble into the Gloria Plaza's Sampan Cantonese Seafood Restaurant. All the offerings are just-caught fresh and include everything from shrimp and oysters to sea bass and eel.
Mikado's, in the five star Marriott Hotel, represents Japanese cuisine at its delicious best. Besides the usual sushi and sashimi offerings, it is best known for its teppanyaki cooking. Japanese trained chefs dazzle diners with a dexterous display of flashing knives as they chop, dice, and stir meats and vegetables on a tabletop grill. Large groups especially favor this restaurant.
If the stomach grumbles for western fare try Traders Cafe in the Traders Hotel. Its fourth floor setting affords diners great city views while enjoying steak, pasta and a variety of other European dishes. The Hotel Inter-Continental's Lombardi Fine Pizza and Grill attracts a massive local following for its Texas-perfect steaks, heaping pasta dishes, and thick crust pizzas. Or for something more casual in a livelier setting hunker down in the hotel's Mulligan's Irish Bar. Sandwiches dominate its menu.
Fast food restaurants are a common sight throughout Shenyang's streets, especially in downtown. Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut lead the grab-and-eat list.
With close to 7 million citizens Shenyang can be aptly described as sprawling. Because of this, the city lacks a convenient central location glowing with an abundance of attractions. Visitors must travel blocks, sometimes miles, to gape at Shenyang's few, but impressive "Do Not Miss" sites. This especially becomes a problem when time is limited. An organized itinerary can best combat Shenyang's distance gaps and help save money on taxi costs.
Downtown Centrally located Zhongshan Square serves as sound starting point. Always bustling with human activity ranging from tai chi practitioners in the morning to soccer games at night it provides a good handle to the overall feel of the city. A massive statue of Chairman Mao, built in 1969, leers as the park's centerpiece. With arms raised many locals joke that the statue appears to be in permanent directing traffic mode. It is worthy of three snapshots, or four if ballroom dancers (a noted form of Chinese exercise) are traipsing about the park. Visitors in search of shopping can also use the square as a good stepping point onto Shenyang's famous Taiyuan Street. Full of department stores, chain boutique shops, and fast food restaurants it represents a classic example of east meets west.
From here wander two blocks southeast to the Liaoning Provincial Museum on Beisanjing Street. Deemed as one of northeast China's largest museums it packs more than 3,000 artifacts. It almost serves as an apology for Shenyang's museum shortage by parading a little of everything ranging from classic Chinese paintings and embroidery to massive dinosaur bones.
After exiting the museum follow Daxi Road northeast until it turns into Shenyang Road and look for the Imperial Palace on your left. Stunning, staggering, spectacular and wondrous are just a few of the many adjectives that aptly describe Shenyang's choice attraction. Built in 1625 during the Qing dynasty, it mimics a smaller version of Beijing's famous Forbidden City. Out of all of Shenyang's attractions, this one should not be ignored. Cameras, unfortunately, are not allowed inside. After touring the palace wander down Shengjing Ancient Cultural Street . Classic Chinese buildings fronted by red and green wooden beams and ornate eaves cast visitors back to 17th century China. Souvenirs are deep and varied.
Hail a taxi and wander north to the Northern Pagoda . While it will not numb the brain like the Imperial Palace , it stands as one of the best remaining pagodas in all of Shenyang. It, if anything, provides up-close insight to classic Chinese architecture.
After snapping a few photos board a taxi east to the 9.18 Museum . Named after September 18, 1931, the day Japanese forces invaded Shenyang, it provides detailed insight into the event and the subsequent Japanese occupation. The museum's anti-Japanese lean, however, tends to border on propaganda.
Cap this tour by again hailing a taxi, but this time northwest, to Beiling Park, Shenyang's largest. Pad around scenic paths, huff a paddleboat on a lake, or tour the vaunted North Tomb , built in 1643. And if time allows visit the Xinle Relics Museum just west of the park.
Southern Shenyang and Beyond Begin the tour in the visually harmonious Shenyang Botanical Garden . More than 1,000 varieties of flowers and trees mesh with a landscape of scenic ponds to create the kind of setting normally only found on the covers of home and garden magazines. While there wander into the Shenyang Steam Exhibition Hall . A train museum inside a Botanical Garden seems odd, yet somehow it works. More than 20 classic steam engines from around the world are displayed, including one from 1907.
Then rent a car or ride a tour bus about 40 miles southeast from here to Benxi Water Cave National Park . Hailed as one of the "wonders of the world" that dates back more than 5 million years, the cave is so massive that guide boats lead guests through a wild labyrinth of stalagmites and stalactites.