Dalian’s cheerfully cheesy Coney Island
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [email@example.com]