Location is essential, as my current trip to Northeast China has only proven once again. One minute you’re in a dump like Changchun, but take a train only 180 miles southwest to Shenyang, and things start to look bright again. After enduring nearly four weeks of boredom and frustration, I’m rewarded in the end with a city I waited eight years too long to see.
So what exactly was it that made Shenyang so much better than neighboring cities like Changchun, Yanji, and Mudanjiang? They’re all Northeastern cities after all. Well just about everything was better in Shenyang, and this trip report will cover all those fine details about why. So let’s get this trip report started and find out what the capital of Liaoning province is really like.
The second I stepped out of Shenyang Railway Station, I could already tell I was in a much more modernized place. This can sometimes be a bad thing when you’re traveling, but in the case of China, it’s a change I welcome with open arms. The environment was more aesthetically pleasing than Changchun, there was way less mud, grime, and filth, and it just felt like I was in a big city again. Tall buildings filled the skyline everywhere I went. Both Changchun and Shenyang have a sub-provincial population of almost 8 million, but only Shenyang has that distinct big city urban feel to it.
But with big cities comes lots of decisions. In Changchun I felt underwhelmed, yet in Shenyang I feel overwhelmed. Where do I even begin? Which subway station should I get off at first? And the more I walked around, the more I noticed that Shenyang actually has a bit of a historical feel to it, which is something most other Northeastern Chinese cities greatly lack. The old mixed with the modern – this reminds me a lot of Beijing.
Whereas in Changchun I mostly felt invisible to good-looking women, in Shenyang I could immediately tell things were a lot different. Everywhere I went I could see women locking eyes with me and giving me a second (or even third) glance. I also noticed the amount of eye candy I was seeing per capita shot up enormously. Shenyang gives Dalian, another city in Liaoning province with no shortage of eye candy, a run for its money. If it’s good-looking Chinese women you seek, and you happen to be stuck in Northeast China, then look no further than Shenyang and Dalian. Neighboring Northeastern cities like Changchun, Harbin, and Mudanjiang just don’t compare.
In cities like Changchun and Mudanjiang, really good-looking and fashionable women aren’t that common, so the few that actually are have very inflated egos, which shines through in their arrogant personalities and body language. But in Shenyang and Dalian, good-looking women are a dime a dozen, so their personalities are a bit more mellow and humble. Sure, you could find plenty of bitches if you really wanted to, but that’s true for any urban area on Earth. All in all, I was impressed with the ladies of Shenyang, and they helped remind me as to why I’m such a fan of Chinese women (and of course why I ultimately married one). Not all Chinese women are equal, so picking the right city to find one in is critical. Location is paramount.
Whereas I was getting those mean glares and dumbfounded hick stares in both Changchun and Mudanjiang, I was getting harmless curiosity and inviting looks in Shenyang. Considering the city’s modestly large dynamics, I assumed I would’ve been the least noticed in Shenyang. But actually the opposite turned out to be true – I stood out the most in Shenyang, at least more so than in any other Northeastern Chinese city I’ve ever been to. Very odd.
The people also felt moderately easy-going, which was yet another surprise. When I’m taking pictures in China, I usually have to be very sly and discreet, because so many Chinese people have a stick up their ass when it comes to having themselves or their property photographed. Asking for permission to take a photo in China more often than not results in a firm “不拍” (you can’t take a picture). Yet whenever people saw me taking a photo in Shenyang, they seemed mildly cheerful and enthusiastic, sometimes even encouraging me to take more photos. This is not the China I’ve come to know, so this behavior threw me an unexpected curveball. A very welcome change I say.
And almost anytime I walked around alone or ate somewhere alone, random people would ask me the typical series of questions they ask every Westerner, like where are you from, what are you doing in China, etc. I also got invited by complete strangers to go eat and drink with them. It really is amazing how differently you are treated in one Chinese city to the next. I must say once again, location is paramount in China. There are a lot of rat holes in the country, but there are also a lot of decent places.
Just like in Dalian but very much unlike in Changchun, there’s actually variety in the Shenyang food scene. I’ve discovered that the more hickish a Chinese city is, the more the locals will only prefer to eat their own local cuisine. But vice versa is also true, as is the case with Shenyang. I saw lots of Sichuanese fare, Chongqing noodles, Chongqing hot pot, Chinese barbecue, Chinese dumplings, and dongbei restaurants. Shenyang is one of the better cities to be in if you actually like Chinese food.
There was also a relatively small, but noticeable foreign food scene. There are many foreign consulates located in Shenyang, particularly in the Nan San Jing Street (南三经街) area, so the area surrounding them is littered with little foreign restaurants and bars. I saw Swedish, Thai, Indian, and Japanese restaurants just in that one little area alone. I also saw plenty of Korean restaurants all over Shenyang, which is the norm in most of Northeast China. I did enjoy most of the foreign food I tried, but I can’t really say any one meal stood out among them all. Certainly nothing to write home about, but it was nice to have the choice to eat something not Chinese (or even not Korean) for a change.
Shenyang’s weather seemed like it just couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. One day it would be sunny, unseasonably warm, and all clear skies, yet the next it would be frigid, miserable, and hazy. There was even snow on a couple of days. Temperatures ranged anywhere from 15-45° Fahrenheit, so it was hard to plan what to do each day. But one thing was always consistent – it would get freezing cold and windy at night, so I found myself rarely going outside after the sun went down.
Considering it’s Northeast China and I was in the city in mid-February, I knew going in that Shenyang’s weather wasn’t going to be very pleasant. Yet on the days when the sun could somehow break through all the haze, it wasn’t that bad. Nevertheless, wearing a thick coat, a thermal undershirt, thermal long johns, a scarf, and gloves were all needed for me to make it from one day to the next.
Things to Do
This is where Shenyang really shines compared to Mudanjiang, Yanji, and Changchun – there was actually something to do from day to day. I’ll list the three places that made the most lasting impressions on me:
The first is Zhong Jie (中街), which simply translates to “Middle Street.” This is a large pedestrian street area that has lots of shopping malls, entertainment, and street food. It’s a pretty busy and semi-upscale area with lots and lots of people passing through. The whole area also has a pretty nice vibe and a good flow of energy, so I found it fun just to walk around, soak up the vibes, and take photos. You could easily spend an entire day in this area.
The second is Shenyang’s Forbidden City (沈阳故宫) and the surrounding area. Yes, Shenyang has its own Forbidden City, but I have to admit that I didn’t even go in. But it and the surrounding area have a more traditional, cultural, and old feel to them, which is something you don’t often see in Northeast China. There’s also a giant traditional gate called Huai Yuan Men (怀远门). Once again, if you like taking photos, this is another good place to be. It unsurprisingly reminds me a lot of Beijing.
And finally there’s the San Hao Bridge (三好桥), which is a modern-style bridge that overpasses the Hunhe River. You can walk over the bridge itself or walk along the edge of the river for quite a ways. I enjoyed doing this in the freezing cold weather, so it would probably be even better during the summertime. And once again bring a camera, as this is a pretty scenic part of Shenyang.
There were also a few other places of interest I noticed, but never got around to seeing. Most notably the Liaoning Broadcast and TV Tower (辽宁广播电视塔), which has an observation deck at the top, and Qing Nian (青年公园) and Wan Quan Parks (万泉公园). The big Mao Zedong statue at Zhongshan Square (中山广场) was also worth a gander.
Cost of Traveling
You would think Shenyang would be much more expensive to travel in considering it’s such a large city, but I actually did not find that to be the case. The prices were more or less the same as Dalian and Changchun, and only marginally more expensive than Mudanjiang and Yanji. I don’t think I ever spent more than 100 RMB a day total on food, transportation, and recreation. And my twin room at a Home Inn was only 120 RMB a night.
Street food and snacks were usually in the 5-10 RMB range, meals at regular restaurants about 30-50 RMB, bus rides 1-2 RMB, and taxi rides generally about 10-25 RMB. All that said, Shenyang can still definitely be classified as a “budget destination,” and that’s great considering the city’s large size.
Shenyang was a welcome change after all the backwardness of so much of Northeast China. Besides Dalian, it is one of the only cities in Northeast China worth bothering with. The women there make firm eye contact, the locals are noticeably more easy-going than in neighboring cities, the food scene is diverse by Chinese standards, it’s relatively cheap, and there’s just lots of things to do to stay entertained.
But on the downside, the weather in Shenyang is pretty awful in the winter, and the city has that ugly “concrete jungle” feel to it. And of course Shenyang is still China, so along with that comes lots of unpleasantries and inconveniences (rude behavior, censored internet, overly oily food, etc).
But all in all, I still think Shenyang is definitely one of China’s more noteworthy cities, and I waited eight years too long to see it. If you ever find yourself in neighboring Dalian, I think it’s well worth the two-hour bullet train ride to Shenyang. I’m glad I finally saw Shenyang, as it restored a bit of faith in China for me at a time when it was rapidly disappearing.