Dalian’s cheerfully cheesy Coney Island

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Dalian’s cheerfully cheesy Coney Island

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One of the most striking landmarks at Dalian’s Xinghai Square is this large half-pipe. By Hannah Bae

Many news media, this newspaper included, have reported about China’s grim pollution in the past weeks. But while smog chokes cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, just a stone’s throw from the capital lies Dalian, a seaside city that often comes up in a Google search of “cleanest city in China.”

On a recent visit to Dalian, the city lived up to its reputation with blue skies and abundant greenery - although the rain that grayed the skies on my first day surely contributed to the pleasant ensuing weather.

The days after the rain in many cities reveal clear skies and fresh air. So call it serendipity that I just happened to have splendid weather on my trip to what many Chinese call their country’s “most livable city,” but Dalian as I saw it was indeed quite beautiful, and the best way to enjoy it is outdoors.

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The monument to the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty back to China in 1997, located in Xinghai Square.

Part of the city’s beauty is attributable to its location on China’s northeast coast. There are a bunch of beaches around the city, however cheesily named, such as “Rhythm of the Sea.”

Given its seaside location, Dalian also has a smattering of tiny amusement parks a la Coney Island, New York. The first I encountered was at Labor Park in the city’s center. Although I visited in the early afternoon, I could imagine the park being a nice location for a summer date with kiddie rides, a goldfish-fishing pond and carnival games. There’s also a giant slide that allows you to take a ride down one of the park’s hillsides for about 40 RMB (6,000 won, $5.85), but take a look at the Westerners in the promotional photographs and you’ll notice that they’re all about to crack a yawn. There’s also a tower from which visitors can get an aerial view of Dalian on one of its many clear days.

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A fruit vendor sells her wares at night in downtown Dalian.

It seems Dalian likes to distinguish its outdoors areas with weird statuary, and Labor Park’s are a giant red-and-white soccer ball and a large golden Buddha. Rumor has it that the soccer ball received center stage in the park, displacing the Buddha, in honor of the Beijing Olympic Games.

But among Dalian’s parks, its crowning jewel is Xinghai Square. Dalian residents boast that it’s the biggest square in all of Asia. But if you want to go by hard facts, at 45,000 square meters, it’s much smaller than Beijing’s Tiananmen, which, at 100 acres, is about 10 times larger.

But whereas Tiananmen is essentially a giant concrete slab, Xinghai is resplendent in greenery only you can’t touch it. The wide lawns of Xinghai are off-limits, keeping them in pristine condition.

Dramatic statuary features here, too, in various forms. Visitors approaching the square on foot will first notice the slightly abstract athletic sculptures of pole vaulters, runners and the like. Then there’s the monument to the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997, which is ironically reminiscent of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, located on the concrete “square” part of the park.

But closer to the ocean, you’ll find the most interesting stuff. Right along the shore is a sizable stone half-pipe teeming with people. The sculpture creates a striking silhouette with the ocean, which touches misty mountains across Xinghai Bay. The popular activity at the half-pipe seems to be climbing one of its high sides, which is harder than it looks when you’re wearing impractical shoes. It gets slippery and steep at the top, and the only feasible way of getting down that I saw was sliding back toward the center feet-first on my stomach. Truly graceful stuff.

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The rather silly seals are one of the best attractions at Rhythm of the Sea park, located in eastern Dalian.

Adjacent to the half-pipe is a monument commemorating the centenary of Dalian’s founding, which consists of citizens’ footprints captured in a mold. The footprints range from the fascinating broken soles of women who had bound feet and just the regular type of peds.

From Xinghai, in the distance, you’ll see a Bavarian castle, but don’t get your hopes up of playing royal make-believe; it’s a seashell museum, and a pretty uninteresting one at that. Instead, it’s better to head in the opposite direction down the seashore toward yet another amusement park, Dino Land, which again appears to be a knock-off of Coney Island, only less depressing. The Dino Land area has all the usual games and rides, but also includes a number of souvenir vendors, most of which sell strings of pearls that they’ll make into necklaces. Of course, you’ll have to haggle with the help of a calculator.

But if it’s beaching you’re looking for, Dalian delivers. Just don’t expect the Western style of beaching involving stripping down to a skimpy bathing suit for sunning. China, like Korea, shuns the sun, and so at Dalian’s beaches you won’t see sunbathers frolicking in the surf.

The best beach is reportedly Bangchuidao Island, located about nine kilometers (5.59 miles) from the city’s center, east of Binhai Road. Bangchuidao is surrounded by green hills, which make the trip there a scenic drive. The aforementioned Rhythm of the Sea was also quite nice, if a bit on the delightfully tacky side. There’s a pirate ship that makes a silly photo opportunity, and the park is famous for its menagerie of giant animal statuary. Even so, its location next to a rock face adds to the scenery.

But if it’s real animals you’re looking for, head to Rhythm of the Sea’s seal pool, which gets entertaining at mealtimes. These marine mammals have been domesticated to be greedy, and when tourists buy buckets of chopped fish, the seals turn on their backs and slap their bellies repeatedly, as if signaling, “Me! Me! Me! Me!”

Should hunger strike you in Dalian, don’t try running around slapping your own belly. Instead, head to street food stalls, fitting eateries for such an outdoorsy city. A large collection of street food stalls can be found on the sidewalk at the corner of Tianjin Jie and Shanghai Lu in downtown Dalian, where you can get a 3 RMB bubble tea, a 5 RMB handheld omelette of sorts or something equally as delicious.

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At nighttime, one of the most delicious options is chuanr, pronounced “chwar,” which are street-fired kebabs. The best I had were at Bobo’s Bar (www.sonysfans.com/bobos, 133-3222-9982), located at the corner of Wuhan Jie and Yan An Lu. Here, aside from the usual meat on a stick, there are options like a delicious naan-like bread, a row of speared thin spring onions, mushrooms or tofu, all seasoned to perfection. I’d never known spring onions to be so delicious.

There are also the regular neighborhood joints, such as the place selling .5 RMB baotze, or large steamed dumplings, outside my friend’s apartment.

But if the sun, sea and street food have given you your fill of the outdoors, there’s always shopping indoors and underground. While Dalian doesn’t come close to Shanghai in terms of shopping potential, there are some wares to be had at the underground mall in downtown Victory Plaza. But for me, I’ll take greedy seals and the spray of the surf.


Doing Dalian right



Various airlines, including Korean Air and Asiana, fly directly from Incheon to Dalian. Flight time is generally about one hour and 20 minutes.

A ferry also runs between Dalian and Incheon. The 18-hour ride is leisurely, but not so comfortable for taller travelers. Call (02) 3218-6550 for details.

For multi-city trips, a better option for tourists from countries such as the U.S. with high visa fees, Dalian is accessible from many of China’s cities, including Beijing and Shanghai. For inter-China tickets, one of the cheapest options is to book on www.elong.net or http://english.ctrip.com. Flights from Beijing to Dalian, which generally run the same length as the Incheon-Dalian route, can be as inexpensive as 200 RMB (30,000 won, $29).

Tourists in Dalian often find the city to be a cheaper alternative to Beijing, with taxi fares starting lower and public transportation plentiful and cheap, about 1 RMB for most bus or tram fares. Unless you have a Dalian resident as a tour guide, public transport may be difficult to maneuver. For taxis, as in other Chinese cities, have your destination and hotel written in Chinese.

Interestingly, Dalian has a high population of Korean nationals, so those really hankering for a jjigae are in luck.



By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]
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