Hello, Dalian! A Totally Impractical Guide to That City up by Korea

And by impractical, I really mean it this time. I have absolutely no information that might be of use to you here, unless you get sent up for work at the very last minute, as I did, and need to know where you can get really good sushi (*hint hint* the Grande Teda Mercure hotel at the edge of town really knows its sashimi but it’s only available as part of the dinner buffet so you’ll be forced to eat the dozen or so perfectly formed desserts as well, which possibly negates the nutritional and aesthetic benefits of the delicately sliced fish).

Why was I in Dalian? And where is Dalian anyway?

Well, let me tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t the long form version of Dali, so I definitely wasn’t down in Yunnan, smoking a ton of weed supplied by twinkly-eyed grandmas with dreadlocked backpackers. It also isn’t Dalyan, down in the lovely Muğla province in the South West of Turkey, near Marmaris and Fethiye.  No Lycian tombs for me, no ancient amphitheaters, no blue skies or access to decent meze and raki. Alas.

 

Screenshot from the Dalian wikipedia page

 

The Dalian (aka 大连) that I was shipped off to for a frenzied weekend of Super Secret Educatrix Work is the one up in Liaoning province on a little peninsula looking over at Korea, on the verge of being Dong Bei but not quite. It’s the northernmost southern port and the southernmost northern port. Or something like that.

It’s northern enough that the people are really huge (comparatively) and there are cabbages everywhere; however it’s still southern enough that I was getting by in just a cardigan at the end of October. It is apparently famed for its supposed warm water beaches and, if my students are to be believed, its modernity as exemplified by shopping malls and tall shiny buildings. From what I’ve gathered, it was the southern tip of the Trans Siberian Railway back when northern China was colonized by the Russians.

 

Ceci n’est pas Dalian. This is Harbin. Isn’t it awesome?

 

This doesn’t mean, however, that it escaped with an awesomely old-skool Russian onion-domed downtown core like Harbin. No. Dalian is pretty architecturally dull, actually, from what I could glean. Aside from a few anachronistic neo-classical public buildings and some older, walled houses that I passed by in the taxi from the airport, everything else was pretty much the usual low-key apartment blocks intermingled with generic boxy businesses. I’m sure there are a few traditional Chinese gardens tucked away in parks somewhere but, like I said, I was barely there.

Why was I up on that little peninsula way up North, looking over at Korea? Well, it has to do with my Super Secret Side Job– or rather, now that I’m unemployed- my Super Secret Main Job. The Beijing office was short staffed so last Thursday I got a phone call telling me that I had a flight booked for 9am on Saturday, returning Sunday night. Yes, I am a true jet setter in the nerdiest interpretation of the term.

I spent the entire weekend in about four places: the airport, the taxi, the hotel and (mostly) the university. I am now intimately acquainted with Liaoning Normal University (辽宁 师范 大学).

I am here now to give you my totally impractical tour de Dalian, educatrix-nerd style. Come join me as we explore the richness of Dalian that I was able to capture during my whirlwind tour!

Transportation from Shanghai

 

The 6:45am Maglev to Pudong Airport isn’t exactly bustling

 

My flight left at 9:10 from Pudong International, which meant I had to be out the door and in a taxi by 6am on Saturday morning. Although 6am is a brutally awful hour to have to be up and awake, it is a great time to get a taxi over to the LongYang Lu Maglev train station: a journey that normally takes at least half an hour if not longer only took 15 minutes.

The looping elevated expressways were deserted and my driver was able to make his wide turns across as many lanes as he wanted. Crossing the river over to Pudong, we shared the normally packed bridge with a diesel spewing moving truck and a motorized tricycle. I was at the Maglev station by 6:20am, which was really unnecessary as the first train to the airport didn’t leave until 6:45.

I had forgotten to eat breakfast at home because it was 6am and I don’t like to see food before at least 8am, so I figured I would eat at the airport or on the plane. At Pudong Airport, you have a few choices: the Acting Cafe monopoly after the security check, where a coffee costs 70rmb and a few rubbery dumplings are valued at 50rmb, or the KFC and Lawsons just as you exit the Maglev station, sandwiched between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2.

I briefly poked my head into the Lawsons and rejected the glass cabinet full of lukewarm steamed buns, the shelf full of spongey sweet fake bread, the refrigerator cabinet full of oversweet mung bean yogurt and wheat flavoured soy milk and yesterday’s fake sushi. I then briefly queued at KFC, studying their breakfast menu (congee, fried dough, dubious looking eggy meaty sandwiches) before deciding that now was as good a time as any to start a cleansing fast.

I checked in using the China Eastern machines, totally not grasping the intuitive touch screen interface with such regularity that the poor woman stationed there to offer assistance turned into my full-time check-in assistant. I don’t do well with computerized instructions at 7am.

My gate was one of those hidden gates, tucked away in the lower floors of the airport, reachable only by bypassing all the other gates on the main floor then going down a series of escalators into the bowels of the departure lounge. It was full of early morning travellers clearing out their phlegm and trying to sneak cigarettes when they knew they were not allowed to.

I found an empty end of a bench, pushed aside the overflowing plastic baggie full of orange peels and cigarette ash that had been occupying it, and amused myself by alternating between attempting to read a book on my Kindle (Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, if you must know- still subversive after all these years), sending out wholly lower case tweets using said e-reader’s wonderful firewall-leaping 3G powers, and watching a never ending loop of public service announcements on a flat screen television that was installed about two feet away from my left ear.

My favourite one featured a cartoon pig who had contracted H1N1 from his inconsiderate piggy girlfriend who had given him a kiss on the cheek through a face mask. He spent a lot of time rapping excitedly about public morality, clad in Qing Dynasty robes.  There was a surreal chorus of rapping bunnies with buck teeth, exaggeratedly slanted eyes and less elaborate pre-revolutionary robes, hands clasped in the manner of overtly racist WW2 American cinema.

The flight itself was uneventful, though for the first time ever, I was not fed on a Chinese domestic flight. The cleansing fast was definitely happening. I felt pure and light already.

Transport in Dalian

Dalian airport is quite small and simply laid out. You arrive and, well, you walk out and there’s the taxi rank. Are there public buses to take from the airport? Probably. I wouldn’t know. I had to get to a specific hotel at the edge of the city by a specific time in order to catch the shuttle to the university so I couldn’t be bothered with attempting the more authentic local option.

Traffic in Dalian heading out of the airport around 11am was pretty dire. My taxi driver kept himself amused by pulling off the highway every few hundred meters and taking shortcuts through the parking lots of car dealerships and supermarkets. I occupied myself by staring at the beer ad on the head rest in front of me.

 

Call 1-6666 Booze-Wants-Booze-Bar!

 

My inner linguistics nerd had latched on to a potential hidden pun in the ad and it wouldn’t let go until I had worked it out. If you look at the last four digits of the Carlsberg Chill phone number long enough, you start to realize that if you say it out loud it sounds remarkably like Booze Wants Booze Bar. Perfect for a beer campaign.

See?

  • 9 (Jiǔ 九)  sounds exactly like liquor/booze (Jiǔ 酒)
  • want (Yào 要) sounds an awful lot like the yao you use for ‘1’ when dictating telephone numbers. I don’t know which tone that one uses.
  •  9 (Jiǔ 九)-8 (Bā 八) sounds exactly like booze bar (jiǔbā 酒吧)

This is why I’m really not a good travelling companion.

Accommodation in Dalian

The Super Secret cabal I work for pays for my accommodation so I don’t really get a choice in the matter. I also know absolutely nothing about other accommodation options in the city. The folks I work for have immaculate taste in business hotels, however, so I can’t complain.

Thanks to them, I am a card carrying member of both the Hilton Hotel frequent-users club (Hello Hefei!) as well as the Sheraton’s Preferred Members club (Hi Nanjing!).

In Dalian, I was sent to the Grande Teda Mercure Hotel (or maybe it was the Teda Grande Mercure? I forget), which was on the residential outskirts of the city, nowhere near anything particularly interesting. It overlooked a rather pleasant hill on one side though. If you’ve spent as many years in pancake-flat Shanghai as I have, you too would be shocked to see such a pleasant landmass rising up outside your window.

 

I was shocked to discover a protruding landmass outside my hotel room window. I understand it is known as a ‘hill’.

 

I have no idea how much the rooms cost as I didn’t have to pay for mine. I can tell you, however, that the lobby is magnificent in a truly Liberace manner. I can also tell you that, much to my surprise, I ended up queuing behind a former colleague from Istanbul whom I hadn’t seen since 2005. It turned out he also works for the Super Secret Organization, whose name I cannot tell you upon penalty of death. It is a very small world.

 

The hotel lobby was a study in understatement and delicate taste

 

The rooms at the Teda Grande Mercure (or Mercure Teda Grande?) are quite decent, at least by the standards of hotels I probably couldn’t afford if I actually had to pay for them myself.  Big curtained windows, wooden desk, flat screen tv, slightly obscenely arranged fruit plate (that banana really should not be placed between those two apples like that), big bouncy bed with a bazillion overstuffed pillows, wide array of pleasingly scented toiletries, bathroom with both ergonomically designed tub as well as a shower stall with one of those lovely overhead raindrop-style nozzles. The usual. Oh, and a complimentary plate of petit fours.

Unlike the Hangzhou hotel I was put up in the previous weekend, however, this one did not have birds nest or shark fin soup available through room service. Which was perfectly fine with me.

 

An educatrix’s guide to gluttonous living

Eating in Dalian

Given that the hotel was in a desperately inconvenient location and I was pressed for time due to having to catch a service bus to the university within half an hour of checking in, I was limited to the hotel’s lobby restaurant for my lunch upon arrival. Their menu consisted of thoroughly un-Chinese a la carte options and a brutally overpriced business set lunch which I didn’t even look at.

This is what a Salade Nicoise Dalian-style looks like. They even had little whole wheat buns with butter!

 

Crappy phone photo, sorry

 

My former colleague from Istanbul joined me at dinner for their massive buffet, which was really quite impressive. However, I have no photos to show you as we were too busy stuffing our faces with sushi and sashimi and petit fours and egg tarts and attempting to catch up on six years of news and life stories to stop and take a picture. The same goes for breakfast, though for different reasons: 1. It was 6:30am on a Sunday morning 2. I mostly just drank coffee 3. toast and butter isn’t exactly interesting to photograph.

They had 3 choices of congee in the breakfast buffet, including a pellet-y millet one, and a wide array of congee toppings including a half dozen pickled or fermented veggies, dried shrimp, something cabbagey, and some deep red tofu labelled Chinese Cheese. There was also the usual steamed buns, dumplings, fried dough and all, but, again, it was Sunday morning at 6:30. I had a piece of toast and a coffee. Or rather, four coffees. With hot soy milk for a touch of regional authenticity– though, as noted by someone rather astutely on Twitter, bean juice in coffee is really weird.

Sights and Attractions

I know that Dalian is famed for its beaches and coastline and relatively fresh air. It also seems to have some pleasant hills and those aforementioned neo-classical public buildings. There may be even more things to explore but, again, I wouldn’t know.

I’ll show you what I saw.

Welcome, ladies and gents, to the grand tour of one particular building at the Liaoning Normal University, where I spent most of my weekend locked away in a small room. Let me take you on a photographic journey far beyond your wildest travel dreams…

 

This may look a bit familiar if you have ever been to Phnom Penh

 

Unlike Shanghai, Dalian can sometimes offer excellent natural light

 

As you can see, the light adds a lovely mood to the still life with potted trees.

 

How to make education feel more like prison: use bolted metal doors. This is where I spent my weekend.

 

Dalian is kind of pretty in Autumn. This was the view from my prison cell.

 

A typical university room triptych

 

This is what I am guaranteed to see in every room I am assigned. It seriously hurts my inner Virgo.

 

The ladies’ room. And yes, the stalls only come up to waist height. After all, it’s shoulder height when squatting.

 

I have an old skool wiring fetish. Please excuse this. This was in the hallway just outside my room.

 

I should note, with barely contained excitement, that this particular university was a hotbed of mop action. Yes! Mops are back! I thought I’d documented all possible permutations of moppery in Shanghai but Dalian proved to be a revelation of innovation.

 

For my own indulgence, here is the first in a series of Dalian mops.

 

Mops deconstructed, angled.

 

Closeted mops, with shadow and light

 

Returning to Shanghai

The only really noteworthy thing I have to say about this end of the journey was this. Did you know that you can buy live, bound crabs upon arrival in Shanghai? Yes! Right there at the arrivals gate as you step off your plane: crab kiosks! Dozens of them!

 

Crabs: You know you want one.

 

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.