Mini Trip Report: Three Days in Yanji, Jilin, China

I just completed a brief 3-day trip to Yanji, an off-the-beaten-track small city located in China’s northern Jilin province. I have plans to explore all around dongbei (Northeast China) this winter 2017, and while most of my destinations are large cities dominated by ethnic Han-Chinese, I thought I’d change things up a bit by going somewhere a little different.

On paper Yanji sounds pretty interesting – it’s the capital of China’s “autonomous” ethnic-Korean prefecture (延边朝鲜族自治州) located right next to the China-North Korea border. Russia is also only a stone’s throw away. According to online statistics, roughly one third of Yanji is ethnic-Korean, while the other two thirds are of course overwhelmingly ethnic-Han. I was just in South Korea for two weeks last August, so everything about the country is still fresh in mind. Will Yanji feel like a little mini Korea, or rather yet another ethnic minority region in China that feels ruined by the encroaching Han majority? Let’s unearth Yanji and see what it really feels like on ground level.

First Impressions

Bilingual Shop Signs in Yanji, China

Doing a quick Google search about Yanji brings up essentially nothing. Admittedly, even I knew next to nothing prior to my arrival. Well I take that back. I do know that Yanji is located right next to where Asian-American reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee were ‘kidnapped” and detained by North Korean border patrol guards in 2009. Sounds a bit frightening, but I’m not stupid enough to get involved in any political matters on my trip.

The second I got off the train from Mudanjiang and stepped out into Yanji, the first thing I noticed was almost all the signs around me were written in two languages, Chinese and Korean. That makes sense, so no surprise there. I also noticed a few people around me speaking in Korean. And walking around the city a bit more, I noticed the occasional Korean decor. We’re off to a good start, but Yanji doesn’t quite feel Korean… yet.

The Ladies

One of the other things I noticed rather quickly was how many women were wearing Korean-style make-up and clothes. It’s quite obvious the girls in Yanji are heavily influenced by Korean pop media and fashion trends. Korean women are very easy on the eyes, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can’t help but wonder how many of the girls I’m seeing are ethnic-Han and how many are ethnic-Korean. Style is one of the easiest ways to set Northeastern Chinese girls apart from Korean girls, but in Yanji I hadtrouble telling who was who. There were lots of physically attractive women nonetheless, so an Asian lover can’t go wrong here.

The Locals

A Woman Plays on Her Smartphone at a Restaurant in Yanji, China

Other than so many of the girls looking oh-so-very-Korean, most of the average Zhous in Yanji seemed like your typical run-of-the-mill dongbei ren (Northeast Chinese). They had aggressive body language, they stared, they hocked up loogies, they tried to cut in line, and they did all of the other things that unfortunately stereotype modern-day mainland Chinese. I was a little disappointed in this regard, as most of the ethnic Koreans I know from when I was living in Dalian were generally pretty well-mannered and civilized folk. But I guess when they’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by the Han, you have to expect things to be done more in the Han way. Shucks.

But  their piss poor manners aside, the people of Yanji were still just as curious in me as a Westerner as any other Chinese from elsewhere in China. I got the typical “are you Russian” question that I seem to get asked everywhere else I go in dongbei. I find this rather amusing, as other than my white skin, I don’t even remotely look like or dress like a Russian. But I guess when I’m literally only a hundred kilometers or so from the Russian border, then people more or less just have to assume that any white person they see is from Russia.

The Food

Sweet Potato Tanghulu in Yanji, China

The food of Yanji was very typical of what you’d find everywhere else in dongbei – lots of kebabs, hot pot, soup-style noodles, and dumplings everywhere you look. And while Korean food is fairly ubiquitous everywhere in Northeast China, I didn’t feel it was any more common in Yanji than in say Dalian or Shenyang. I ate a couple of Korean meals while staying in Yanji – most notably a restaurant serving many different variations of toppoki – but I didn’t feel they were really any different than anything I’ve had in the past. Good, but nothing special. In other words, don’t go to Yanji assuming you’re gonna get top-notch Korean cuisine.

One thing that did surprise me about Yanji however, was just how many restaurants were scattered all over the city. Yanji is not really that big at all. In fact it feels like it’s only about the size of one or two districts from a much bigger Northeastern city like Shenyang or Changchun. But even though it’s so “small,” every street has restaurant after restaurant. Many of which stay open into the wee hours of the night. There were also a ridiculous amount of 超市 (grocery stores/convenience stores) scattered everywhere. Needless to say, food is very available and abundant in Yanji. One doesn’t need to look far.

The Weather

People Sledding on the Frozen Bu'er Hatong River in Yanji, China

I’m in Northeast China in early February, so it should come as no surprise that Yanji was very cold during my 3-day stay. Even though the temperature outside was pretty low (usually hovering around 10 – 25° Fahrenheit), it felt much colder due to the nonstop gusts of strong winds. Anytime the wind stopped blowing, everything felt much better. But once it fired up again, the cold was too much too handle, so I found myself indoors far more often than I would have liked to.

Although the weather outside was very frigid, it had a lot of wintry character, and that always makes for better photos. I was welcomed to Yanji my very first night by pouring down snow, which stuck around for the remainder of my trip. Snow and ice sculptures filled every public park. The Bu’er Hatong River that intersects the city was frozen, and people were ice skating, driving go-carts, and sledding on top of it. A common sight all over Northeast China in the winter.

But the good thing about most of Northeast China in the winter is that everywhere feels nice and warm inside. Most buildings have floor heating, which makes all the difference in keeping your room warm. Usually you don’t even need to bother turning on a heater.

Things to Do

A Korean Light Display at People's Park in Yanji, China

This is the worst aspect of Yanji – there’s just nothing to do. I’m not surprised considering the city’s small dynamics, but it was a bit of a letdown nonetheless. Every day I just walked around the frigid cold streets of the city center, occasionally snapping a photo or two and people-watching. Unless you’re into ice sports, shopping, or singing karaoke at Korean-style KTVs (which are abundant in Yanji), then you’re not left with much to do.

There was the occasional park or two as well, particularly 人民公园 (the People’s Park), but they can only do so much. Locals suggested I go hiking at some nearby mountains, but that sounded less than ideal considering the frigid weather. All in all it was a pretty boring three days in Yanji, and quite honestly only one day there would’ve been more than enough. It’s a stop-and-go kind of city.

Cost of Traveling

A Street Sweeper's Cart in Yanji, China

Surely the best part about Yanji was just how cheap of a place it is to travel to. This is pretty normal in Northeast China, and it’s always a nice bonus knowing you don’t have to spend a fortune to do anything like in Japan or Singapore.

My snail rail train ticket from neighboring Mudanjiang to Yanji was only 86 yuan for a hard-sleeper bed. The ride was 6.5 hours, so a 56 yuan ticket for a hard seat also would’ve sufficed. Each night in my Home Inn hotel was only 149 yuan. Almost every meal I had at any restaurant was only 30-50 yuan, with the highlight being an all-you-can-eat barbecue and hot pot restaurant that was only 36 yuan a person. Grab-and-go street food and food court meals were mostly in the 5-10 yuan range. Bus rides were only a yuan apiece, and most taxi rides to just about anywhere were only around 6-10 yuan.

After three days of being in Yanji, I might have only spent $100 for everything, if even that. These rock bottom prices are only comparable to other hyper-cheap Asian destinations like Vientiane, Laos and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I can’t complain.

Conclusion

A Pedestrian Street in Yanji, China

Yanji is a fairly small city with a population of less than half a million people, which is very small by Chinese standards. That said, it’s a pretty sleepy city with not a lot to offer Westerners. It’s got a hint of Korean vibes going on, which is pretty cool, but it honestly feels far more like a typical Han city than any city in Korea. The women are mostly cute and attractive, and my limited interactions with them were mostly positive and didn’t yield any red flags. It’s also a nice bonus that you’d have a steady supply of both ethnic Han and ethnic Korean women if dating in Yanji.

Yanji is blistering cold in February, which shouldn’t surprise anyone considering its far-north location in Jilin province. The food is good if you like typical dongbei fare, and there is a noticeable amount of Korean options available, albeit not exactly any more (or any better) than what you’d find in any other major Northeastern Chinese city. The locals are very typically Chinese and act mostly like the Han we’ve come to know, although I have a gut feeling that the ethnic-Koreans are better behaved. And last but not least, Yanji is a very cheap place to travel to (by Western standards).

Would I recommend stopping by Yanji to fellow travelers? Honestly no, not unless you’re just a skip away in neighboring cities like Changchun or Mudanjiang. I didn’t expect Yanji to be anything that special before my arrival, and after seeing it with my own two eyes, I can confirm that my intuition was correct. It’s not a bad place or anything, but it doesn’t exactly have anything going for it either. This is only amplified by Yanji’s relatively isolated and not conveniently accessed location. I say pop by Yanji for a weekend trip if you’re in the area, otherwise I’d give it a pass.

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