Following my short three-day trip to Yanji, I took the high-speed train west to Changchun, the modern-day grimy capital of China’s northeastern Jilin province, and the former capital of Manchukuo, Japan’s puppet-state in Northeast China from 1932 to 1945. I stayed in the city for five days, soaking in everything around me to try and form a solid first impression.
I’m no stranger to dongbei, seeing as I previously lived in Dalian for nearly three years, but in all this time I had never made it to Changchun… until now. And now having seen the city with my own two eyes, I can safely say that I wasn’t missing out on much. So let’s get this mini-trip report started so I can explain why Changchun ranks as my absolute least favorite city in China.
“I really don’t like Changchun. The food isn’t very good, the city is dirty, and it’s so boring here. Everything in Dalian is better.” – a quote from a Chinese female friend who used to live in Dalian but now lives in Changchun.
The moment I stepped out of Changchun Railway Station, my first impression was that it’s a pretty ugly and filthy city. The colors were extra drab, there was no scenery to speak of, all of the sidewalks were covered in muddy snow, and black footprints littered the inside of every building. I also couldn’t help but notice how much shit (whether from an animal or a human I don’t know) and spit bombs lined every street. Even though Changchun has the population of a solid second-tier Chinese city, it feels more like I’m in third or fourth-tier city territory, which usually spells bad news for me in mainland China. This is no-man’s-land China.
With each passing day, I got more and more confused as to where the city center is located. This is because every street I walked down felt like it was some unnoteworthy side street. Where were the big wide avenues and giant public squares that I have become so accustomed to in China? Why does Changchun not have any of these great things? Why do so many street feels like abandoned construction sites?
I also walked all the way down Renmin Road, which in most Chinese cities is a main avenue, yet in Changchun all I saw was a few faceless buildings and only a handful of people walking. This is odd for China, as main avenues are usually places with heavy foot traffic. And I eventually stumbled upon two traffic circles, Renmin Square and Xinmin Square, and they were some of the most boring traffic circles I’ve ever seen in China. Usually traffic circles are great places to get some urban photography in China, yet all I saw at these two circles was dead trees.
You know you’re not in a good part of China when the local ladies don’t make any eye contact with you, and that was exactly the case in Changchun. Nor did I even see that much eye candy regardless of where I went. There was the token cute girl here and there, which is par for the course in most of China, but I didn’t see many of the usual stunners and friendly types. No eye contact and very little eye candy – this is not the China I’ve grown to love.
And in the rare case I actually did see a stunner (which would be an 8+ in my book), nine times out of ten she had a scowl on her face, and/or she was standing in an obscure corner talking or texting on her phone. I’m guessing they were probably hailing a 滴滴出行 (Didi Chuxing, China’s version of Uber) to come and pick her up.
I’m a big fan of mainland Chinese women, but I think if I was a naïve Westerner who had only seen Changchun and nowhere else in China, I would’ve already written China off as a place to find any good or hot women. If you’re goal is to find a nice Chinese girlfriend, do yourself a favor and skip Changchun. The odds are way more in your favor in other better Chinese cities, as is the overall quality of the women.
As if Changchun doesn’t already sound bad enough, the locals also left a whole lot to be desired. Everywhere I went I kept getting weird and lcreepy stares from strange men. Yes I know, I’m in China and people tend stare, but the kind of staring I was getting in Changchun was mostly creepy and obnoxious, not the innocent and friendly staring I often get in other parts of China.
I also noticed just how hickish the population of Changchun looked. Go to cities like Dalian, Beijing, or Shanghai, and you’ll see lots of decently-dressed normal folks. But go to Changchun and you’ll mostly see inbred slack-jawed yokel types. It amazes me these dim-witted people can even manage to build and maintain a large city like Changchun. And understand that these are not the innocent and easy-going type of Chinese rednecks, rather these are the mean and aggressive type that leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.
Taking a taxi in China rarely presents any problems to me, but on my last day in the city I ran into one horse’s ass of a driver. My wife and I told him to take us to Changchun Railway Station, as that’s where we were catching the high-speed train to Shenyang, but the driver kept insisting we need to go to Changchun West Railway Station. Why would a taxi driver argue with where his passengers want to go? Just shup up and take us where we ask. But no, this driver kept acting like he knew better than us, and he demanded to see our train tickets to confirm he whether or not he was correct. Sure enough, we were right and he was wrong, so the driver begrudging drove us to Changchun Railway Station, which was only about three kilometers away. What followed was one of the most haphazard high-speed taxi rides I’ve ever taken in China. The driver was pissed off that he was wrong, so he made sure the ride was as uncomfortable for us as possible. What a douche!
I know that’s just one taxi driver, and taxi drivers all around the world have a tendency to be total pricks, but I feel this particular taxi driver was a perfect representation of the people of Changchun – dumb, rude, and arrogant.
The food in Changchun actually wasn’t that bad, but what was bad was the lack of variety. You’d better like Chinese barbecue, as that’s seemingly half of the food scene in Changchun. I actually quite like Chinese barbecue, but when I have to eat it five days in a row because there’s not much else available in the city, it starts to get pretty boring. In many other big northern Chinese cities like Shenyang, Dalian, and Beijing, it’s quite easy to find all kinds of cuisine from all around China. But in Changchun I felt the choices were sorely lacking. And don’t even think about Western cuisine, as it’s almost nonexistent in Changchun (unless you count shitty Pizza Hut, KFC, and McDonald’s)!
Even though the food scene as a whole is pretty bad in Changchun, there were a few noteworthy dishes. I particularly liked liang pi (凉皮), a ubiquitous Shaanxi-style cold noodle dish served with vegetables and topped with peanut sauce. Chao fen (炒粉) is also a ubiquitous local specialty which is remarkably similar to Dalian’s men zi (焖子).
The best place in the city to get cheap and good food is at the various food courts scattered all around the city. There’s a giant one at the top of Ou Ya Mai Chang (欧亚卖场), the enormous shopping mall on the western side of the city. And contradictory to the rest of the city, there are actually a lot of decent restaurants at this mall, too. There’s also a decent-sized food court at the bottom of Ba Li Chun Tian (巴黎春天), another shopping mall near Changchun’s South Lake.
I say get your Chinese barbecue food fix at the start, and then eat the rest of your meals at the city’s many food courts. The food in Changchun is actually decent, but if you just spend most of your time walking around the city’s streets looking for something good to eat like me, then you might wind up sorely disappointed. The good food is there, but you have to know where to find it.
Of all the places I have been on my trip so far – Dalian, Mudanjiang, Yanji, and Changchun – Changchun definitely felt the most frigid. Daytime temperatures hovered around 15 – 25° F, and nighttime temperatures hovered around 0 – 10° F. Make no mistake about it, it was cold. It was snowing half the time I was there, and muddy snow covered every sidewalk throughout my entire stay. Going outside to do just about anything felt like a chore, as trekking through the cold weather and muddy snow was less than ideal. The muddy snow also meant the inside of pretty much everywhere was covered in dirty footprints. Anywhere and everywhere in the city, both indoors and outdoors, just looked downright filthy as a result.
The one plus side to the horrendous weather was the opportunity it granted me to take wintry photos. Just like in all the other cities I’ve passed through, the lakes and rivers were all frozen, and people were engaging in winter activities like sledding, ice skating, and skiing. If any of those are your thing, then February is a great time to be in Changchun.
Things to Do
I’m unfortunately about to add even more fuel to the Changchun fire – there’s just really nothing to see or do there. The street life was boring and lackluster, the restaurants were repetitive and mediocre at best, the main avenues weren’t much to look at, and there just wasn’t jack shit to do as a visitor to the city. When I travel, I’m usually well-occupied by just walking around and snapping street photos, but there didn’t seem to be much worth taking a picture of in Changchun. The whole city was just an eyesore and pretty dull.
I suppose the most memorable day I spent in Changchun was the day I spent walking around Ou Ya Mai Chang (欧亚卖场). As I mentioned earlier, it has the best food in the city. But besides just that, the mall is enormous. You could easily spend an entire day there and not see everything.
The other memorable place I went was Nan Hu Gong Yuan (南湖公园), which translates to Southern Lake Park. As the name implies, there’s a lake at the park, which is of course frozen during the wintertime. This is the place to do those winter activities I referred to above. And while I was there, the entire park was filled with flashy and icy decorations for Chinese Lantern Festival. Not bad.
Cost of Traveling
Just like in Yanji and the rest of Northeast China, Changchun is a pretty cheap place to travel. It had damn well better be, considering how crappy the city is overall. My high-speed railway ticket from Yanji to Changchun was 115 yuan. I was staying at a Home Inn, a two-star Chinese hotel franchise, and that was about 120 yuan a night. Most snacks on the streets and in the food courts were roughly 10 yuan apiece. Meals at sit-down restaurants were generally about 30-50 yuan per person. Bus rides were 1 yuan, and my one taxi ride from my hotel to the railway station was only about 10 yuan.
After accommodation is paid for, I believe 100-150 yuan a day is a pretty suitable budget for Changchun. Seeing as there’s nothing to do, that also means there’s nothing to really spend your money on. Very bittersweet.
If you ever find yourself in neighboring Northeastern Chinese cities like Harbin, Shenyang, or Dalian, then Changchun is only a short bullet train ride away. But as accessible as Changchun is to these cities, I’m sad to say that I don’t even think it’s worth the relatively little effort it takes to get there. I’ve been to a lot of cities all over China at this point in my life, and I can confidently say Changchun is my least favorite of them all.
Changchun is filthy – the streets are muddy, grimy, and filled with trash and human excrement. The locals are very hickish, and I mean that in the worst way possible. And the women weren’t much better – practically any girl that was even remotely good-looking always had her face buried in her smartphone and/or totally avoided eye contact. And last but not least, Changchun is a cold, miserable, and boring place to be in the winter.
But on the plus side, the food in Changchun wasn’t half bad, especially if you like Chinese barbecue. The cost of traveling was also very low, as is the norm in dongbei. And if you’re into winter sports and activities, I can think of no better place to be.
But after it’s all said and done, I still had a pretty miserable seven days in Changchun. I couldn’t wait to get out. I’m dumbfounded as to why any Westerner would chose it over superior Northeastern Chinese cities, but I guess the fact that I didn’t see any Westerners there in my entire seven days speaks volumes about the city.
Unless you have some kind of bucket list of major Chinese cities to cross off, then give Changchun a hard pass. Totally not recommended. I’d take Yanji – a much smaller city in comparison – over Changchun any day. You can go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me, but don’t say I didn’t tell you so.