Do you remember the movie The Last Emperor (1987), by Bernardo Bertolucci?
The movie has made a lasting impression on me. The entire setting was simply beyond imagination: the Forbidden City, life at the court, a child being an emperor who ended his days as a gardener in Beijing after the communists had taken over. I also remember the part about Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and making the abdicated emperor head of their puppet state of Manchukuo.
When watching a movie, sometimes only (fleeting) images of a book or movie remain, however. Sometimes, however, they are enough to plant a seed. In this case, that seed of ‘Manchuria’ lingered some 30 years before it resurfaced.
When we wanted to travel from Mongolia to China it made sense to head for Beijing and the eastern part of the country. In that search, Manchuria came op.
Read More: How to Get a China Visa in Mongolia
Why Visit Northeast China?
We decided to focus on China’s northeastern provinces for a couple of reasons:
- It is one of the lesser visited regions in the country.
- Reason #1 makes it a great destination, particularly in the summer when vast crowds overtake the touristic parts of China.
- Combine #1 and #2 this with a pleasant climate and a diverse region with lots of nature and a rich history, and you have enough reason to add Northeast China to your bucket list.
And thus our itinerary was put in place. We traveled to Beijing, from where we took the bus and train to travel in the three Northeastern provinces, Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang.
Where to Travel in Northeast China
To fully appreciate the region’s beautiful and diversity in nature we should have brought camping equipment and hiking gear. We didn’t and we’ll keep that for another trip!
Instead we focused on the cities, which had much to offer. Former Manchuria was inhabited by the Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty in 1620. This dynasty is probably best known for the last emperor, Pyui, who ruled China until he abdicated in 1912. In the 1930s, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, installing Puji as their puppet emperor. But there is more history to visit and learn about, such as the influence of Russia.
We spent three weeks visiting:
Famous for its winter sports opportunities and snow-and-ice festivals, but since we traveled to Harbin in summer, we saw none of that. Harbin is rich in history, having been a Russian town around 1900 and becoming home to some 120,000 Russians. It had a large Jewish community as well, hence you’ll find synagogues.
But there is also much space to spend leisure time, like in the pedestrian zone, along the riverfront, and in the city’s surrounding parks. Street food, buskers, park benches, a place for kids to run amok abound. I think Harbin must be a pleasant city to live in (if you love cold winters).
In terms of city atmosphere we were the least impressed by Changchun but then, not all can make it to the top of any list. If you’re into the history of the Last Emperor, well then Changchun is on your list. Pyui lived here when he was the emperor of Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo and the Imperial Palace of the Manchu State is open to visitors.
After two big cities, Ji’an is a good place to get away from that hustle and bustle. Bordering North Korea you can stand along the riverfront and simply see that unreachable country on the other side of the river bank. It looks just as green, the mountains just as splendid. The riverfront a place to sit down, take a dip in the water, and contemplate on the idiocracies of borders.
Long, long ago, there was no border here. Of course there were others, but this region, on both side of the Wulie River, was part of the Koguryo Kingdom. Some of the beautiful ruins, among which tombs with mind-blowing murals are open to visitors.
The Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty apparently is a good alternative to the overly-visited Forbidden City in Beijing. I take the guidebooks’ word for it, having seen the craze house of summer tourism in Beijing. The size of the complex is doable to visit in half a day, we loved the architecture and the displays.
But there is more in Shenyang, such as the North Tomb amidst a green park, and the evenings are a good time to stretch those legs as well as your neck muscles gazing up the modern buildings that are marvelously lit.
History and beach in one. What a joy. One of the four-walled cities remaining of the Ming dynasty, visitors flock here in large number but we enjoyed the place despite the crowd. The small-sized old town with cobbled streets is refreshing after having visited the modern mega-sized cities. You can walk over the city walls, climb a tower, visit temples, eat street food. Or, take the bus and head for the beach.
Read More: Hiking the Great Wall Away from the Crowds
Our favorite place on this trip. A town, shaded, inviting, relaxed. History, a wide riverfront to go for walks. Famous for the Summer Place and a wonder of temples, among which a copy of Lhasa’s Potala Palace.
Recommended Reading & Watching
- Movie Tip: The Last Emperor, by Bernardo Bertolucci
- Guidebook Tip: Lonely Planet Shandong, Jinan & Northeast China
- Book Tip: The Japanese Invasion of Manchuria: The History of the Occupation of Northeastern China that Presaged World War II, by Charles River Editors
Transportation in Northeast China
1- The Bus
Buying bus tickets
- Foreigners can’t book bus trips via an app; you have to go to the station and buy your ticket there.
- Note that to buy an intercity bus ticket, ID is required!
- To take the local bus, within a city, no ID is required and you can just hop on the bus and pay there. Many locals have a local-transportation app and we found them willing to figure out for us which bus we needed to take.
In the bus
- Depending on the intercity bus line, it offers seated buses and/or sleeper buses. For the latter, don’t expect enough room for your legs when you’re tall (say 6 feet) but otherwise they are comfortable enough for an overnight trip.
- Expect noise: some buses play movies, in others passengers may be watching You Tubes (loudly) without using headphones, and expect snorers. Ergo: bring good earplugs! Coen found this ‘sleepbug’ app which helped to drum out the snoring with white noise. You can experiment until you find the right level and noise settings to keep out annoying sounds.
Food, drinks, toilet stops
- Regular toilet stops but do bring your own toilet paper and soap.
- Bring water and food.
- Coffee addicts: Don’t expect to be able to buy coffee anywhere along the way.
2- The Train
Buying train tickets
- Contrary to bus tickets, you can buy train tickets using an app from Trip.com, which is a great app for booking train tickets. You pay a fee for the service but it saves a lot of time and confusion at ticket counters. In China you can’t just hop on any train. Every train has a limited number of seats, standing places, and/or beds. Trip.com tells you exactly how many seats are left.
- There are different trains with each its own price ranges. Some lines have only expensive business trains that stop only in main cities. Others have only cheap trains that stop in every village. Yet other lines offer a combination of everything and you can take your pick: a seat, a hard sleeper, a soft sleeper, a standing place.
On the train/train station
- To get inside the train station, all luggage is X-rayed and you have to show your ticket with your ID.
- There is a highly sensitive issue about carrying knives in China and they may get confiscated, so you may want to leave your valuable pocketknife at home and buy something cheap instead. Particularly the trains to Beijing were heavily searched during our visit (but there was a summit in Beijing so this probably aggravated the situation).
- In all we found the train a super comfortable and very affordable way to travel.
Food, water, and toilet
- Of course, there are toilets but bring your own toilet paper and soap.
- Hot water is available for free (bring a thermos) and on long-distance trains are vendors with Ramen noodles and snacks.
3- The Taxi
- Taxis have a meter. Depending on the city, the meter starts at 5 to 8 RMB.
- In some cases, noticeably the tourist areas (e.g. outside the station of Chengde and in Ji’an), taxi drivers try to get away with not using the meter. If that’s your preferred method, great. If not, get out and search for another taxi.
One Last Tip: VPN
We have used VPN Unlimited for a few years now and it has been a great way to add overall safety when you depend on local WiFi. Not only will it allow you in China to access Google or your favorite social media, but it will also help you get cheaper airline tickets as well. This little cool video that will explain the benefits, especially if you travel to China.
Make sure you installed your VPN before you arrive in China.
If you are looking for a VPN with great service, we recommend VPN Unlimited. You will be allowed to activate up to 5 devices. Check it out and take it for a spin. VPN Unlimited is cross-platform and offers a 10-day trial for absolutely free.
We hope you find this Travel in Northeast China page useful. Let us know if you have questions in the comment section below. We’ll be happy to help!
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