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I've reached the mid-point of my 40-day trip in mainland China - today is my 20th day here. So I figured it's about time I start writing a trip report to cover all of my experiences here. First a little of my background for you: I lived in Dalian, Liaoning, China from 2009 to 2012. I moved to Bangkok, Thailand in 2012, and I've been living there ever since. After this trip is over, I will return to Bangkok. I'm a white American guy in his upper twenties, and I can speak intermediate Mandarin. I'm already extremely familiar with China, its people, and their culture. However, prior to this trip, I had only been to Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces (both are in northeastern China). And finally, it's very important that I say I've been with the same Chinese girl, who hails from Heilongjiang province, for almost five years now (we now live together in Bangkok).
I'm going to break this trip report down into city-by-city coverage, beginning with Shanghai, which is where this grand trip all started. So far I've been to Shanghai, Dalian, Harbin, and Mudanjiang. I still have Beijing, Chengdu, and Chongqing left to see. To sum up my trip so far: China is a very unique and interesting place, but this country sure is hell is not for everybody, especially the less-traveled. It's very much a love-hate kinda country that will have you riding in an emotional roller coaster full of ups and downs. Okay, let's get started with Shanghai:
My first impression of Shanghai was that it's a massive city that's somewhat internationalized (at least "internationalized" to Chinese standards, which is generally further behind many other Asian countries). The buildings are super tall and modern, and the city seemed surprisingly clean. One of the first things I noticed was how clean and wide the sidewalks are. Bangkok's sidewalks are narrow and filled with discarded food and rubbish. Walking around the city by foot wasn't too difficult. Far more pleasant than Bangkok to say the least.
The weather was pleasantly cool during my 3-day stay in Shanghai (which was in mid-March). All I wore was pants, a T-shirt, and a light jacket. As for the air, it didn't seem all that dirty while I was there. The air looked slightly hazy, but I could still see some clouds and blue. On the other hand, after my first day in Shanghai, I developed what I like to call "China throat." This is when your throat is constantly filled with phlegm and you need to regularly cough or spit to clear your throat. I hadn't felt that feeling in over two years (that last time being when I lived in Dalian in 2012). That said, there is definitely something about China that messes with one's immune system.
The food in Shanghai didn't really stand out to me, but I noticed one striking difference between China and Thailand in regards to food. Cheap little restaurants can be found practically anywhere and everywhere in China, but if one wants cheap food in Thailand (or at least Bangkok), one tends to gravitate towards street food. Sure, there are plenty of cheap restaurants in Bangkok too, but no where near the quantity or to the extent of most of China. Cozy little restaurants in Bangkok sometimes have a tendency to be overpriced, whereas little restaurants in China are almost always very cheap. If you want cheap, good food in Thailand, stick to street food and food courts. If you want cheap, good food in China, stick to the small family-owned restaurants. I totally disagree with the old traveling adage: "if many people are eating somewhere, that generally means its a safe place with good food to eat." Sure, those places may be safe, but if Asia has proved anything to me, it's that really popular places are almost never the places with the best food. Not even close. Asians far too often choose restaurants based on pretentiousness and "good face," not great value and truly good food.
Some good news: there are practically no street sellers on the streets of Shanghai or many other Chinese cities! One of my biggest complaints about Bangkok is that there's so much bullshit lining its sidewalks, most of which is food sellers and people selling useless junk. In China, there are people called "Chengguan" (城管), and their primary job is to keep sidewalks clear of unlicensed sellers. The Chengguan have a bad reputation for often using excessive force, but I have to admit they get the job done. Back to food - local Shanghai cuisine is nothing to rave about, but with Shanghai being a more international city, that means it's pretty easy to find Chinese food from other regions (Guangdong, Sichuan, the northeast, etc). There's also way more international cuisine available in Shanghai than in most other Chinese cities. For most of my meals (when I ate Chinese food), I only paid about 10 to 20 RMB, but bear in mind I was mostly eating at little rinky-dink restaurants, which is just fine by me.
Walking around Shanghai, there was plenty of eye candy to be found. When I used the "Look Around" feature on WeChat, I had a steady flow of at least semi-attractive girls trying to add me to their WeChat contact lists. I found Shanghai fashion to be pretty decent, but I have to admit that Bangkok fashion is more colorful and to my tastes. However, all things considered, I find the average Chinese chick to be way more attractive than the average Thai chick. Call me biased because I have a Chinese girlfriend, but I think Chinese women are almost as good as it gets when it comes to Asian women. If you're looking for a serious girlfriend, I don't think Shanghai would be the ideal place to go, mostly due to the reputation of Shanghai girls being bad girlfriends. However, if you're just looking to play around, I imagine Shanghai would be an excellent place for just that. Surely good girlfriends can be found there too.
Now for the bad - Shanghai is super-crowded, and this is no more apparent than on the subway. Riding the subway at pretty much any time of the day or night is a complete nightmare. And I used to think Bangkok's BTS skytrain is crowded - it's got nothing on Shanghai's subway! And remember, this is China, which means you'll be riding with other Chinese passengers. Mainlanders have a well-deserved reputation for being rude, aggressive, and pushy. Be prepared to be pushed, and I mean pushed HARD, several times while riding the subway. There are many times where I thought I was gonna fall to the ground from being pushed so hard. The subway system is also very cheap in Shanghai, which means there's some good and bad news. The good news is you save money, but the bad news is this cheapness allows people from all classes to ride the subway system - hence the mega-crowding. And I hate to say it, but many Chinese people on buses and in the subway smell very bad. Get ready to constantly smell unwashed clothes, bad breath, and many other foul smells while in China - they are everywhere. China is quite a crude country, indeed.
Shanghai's subway system is wide and extensive, but also confusing and extremely tiring to newcomers. Another constant necessity of riding the Shanghai subway is changing subway lines. The Shanghai subway has 14 lines and over 300 stations, while Bangkok's BTS and MRT systems combined consist of only 3 lines and have just over 50 stations. Changing BTS lines in Bangkok means making a 15-second walk to the other line just on the other side of the train platform. Changing subway lines in Shanghai often means making a 5 to 10-minute walk to a very far away platform. And during this entire walk, there is often not even a foot of space between you and thousands of other people. I mean this literally - there's a sea of people in many of the subway stations. Bottom line: you can get almost anywhere on the subway, but riding the subway sucks big time. So if you can efficiently and cheaply avoid it, I strongly recommend you do.
Conclusion: Shanghai is China's most internationalized city, and it has a noticeable foreigner population (though not to the extent of Bangkok). Being stared at is a regular part of being a Caucasian in China, but the staring is usually less extreme in Shanghai than it can be in other Chinese cities. Shanghai cuisine is mediocre at best, but there's plenty of other good Chinese food to be had for relatively cheap. There's also a decent amount of mid to high priced foreign cuisine around the city. The women of Shanghai are very appealing to the eyes, but they have a very bad reputation as the worst lovers in all of China. Shanghai has a lot of impressive looking skyscrapers, but since the city is still relatively young, it doesn't have all that many interesting tourist sites. The local subway system is extensive and cheap, but it's very unpleasant and often best avoided. If you're a fan of mega cities, you'll probably like Shanghai, if not, then you probably won't like it. Whether or not you would ever want to come to Shanghai totally depends on the type of person you are and what's on your agenda. Shanghai left a fairly positive, though not wonderful, first impression on me. I'm sure I'll be back in the Shang sooner or later.
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Nice trip report. Although having visited both Shanghai and Guangzhou I have to say that Shanghai is not too crowded.
Shanghai's metro was old and creaky, and I felt a bit scared down there to be honest. Guangzhou's is ultra modern.
Shanghai was a bit of a strange place and Shanghai folk are so much different to Cantonese. Cantonese like paper money, Shanghainese like coins. Cantonese love food, Shanghainese care more about where they sit in the restaurant.
My stomach was OK in Shanghai, but my Cantonese gf got sick. However, in Shanghai's Winter I got a terrible cold. I lost loads of weight, because there was nothing worth eating.
I didn't see that many hot ladies in Shanghai, but it was winter at the time and they were mostly wearing big coats. My first Chinese gf's mom was Shanghainese. She was tall and had skin that looked younger than the 20yo Aussie backpackers I saw in Bangkok. However, my gf at the time made it be known that her mom was very much the boss of the household.
One thing I found cute was that the Chinese babies all had red faces in Winter. Never really seen that in the UK.
Did you find the model of Shanghai in the museum place? It's incredible.
Also the Maglev is great even though it only goes halfway into town. The Thais should build one between Bangkok and Pattaya.
Shanghai disappointed me, although New Year on the Bund was great.
Guangzhou is the superior city, with loads of street cooking, hawking, markets where you can buy crocodiles and a phenomenally large network of metro lines and buses, even if they are so overcrowded that people fight to get on them/sometimes fall out of them. If you want weird and wonderful, it's in Guangzhou.
My biggest regret last year was not installing WeChat in China - shame as it was great in Bangkok.
I've been to Shanghai about 2 or 3 times. Never really looked around though. Yes the streets are cleaner than Beijing and there isn't as much smog. However, I've found the people in Shanghai to be extremely arrogant, short tempered, superficial, or just plain rude. My uncle used to be with a Shanghainese woman (behind my aunt's back, lived together for a while). On the surface she seemed alright, but she got upset over every little thing and turned into dynamite at the drop of a hat. RedMenace has confirmed how bitchy Shanghai women are because he dated one for a while.
Beijing women don't show their bitchiness/entitlement as readily as Shanghai women. During my 5 years staying here in Beijing, I've only seen one or two women yell at their husband/BF in public. They will first show signs by being sulky and distant when you aren't meeting their demands, then slowly build up for a confrontation if you don't start acting. They hardly use profanity, relying on manipulation and shaming tactics.
Neither city's women have that good of a reputation in China.
Dalian will always have a special place in my heart, because it is the first place in Asia I ever visited, and it the first place abroad I ever lived. Please forgive me if this post sounds a little overly biased towards Dalian. Dalian has a reputation for having some of China's most beautiful women. Many Chinese models hail from Dalian. I've heard this time and time again. In the past, my travel experience in China was very limited, so I felt I couldn't properly judge if this stereotype is true or not. Almost 5 years later and having been to several Asian countries, I can say that the stereotype is absolutely true! I don't any other places in Asia (that I've been to) that have a higher proportion of beautiful women than Dalian.
This time around, I stayed in Dalian 7 full days, and day after day I was just in awe of how many beautiful women walk the streets of Dalian. Dalian guys are very spoiled for choice in this regard. There are so many stylish girls with attractive faces and slender, lengthy bodies. Many Dalianese chicks age quite well and seeing well-dressed, classy looking middle-aged women is nothing out of the ordinary. So far, I've been to Shanghai, Dalian, Harbin, and Mudanjiang, and Dalian is the winner hands down. If you're looking for a hot Chinese girlfriend, Dalian has got to be one of the best places for just that. I've also heard this beautiful girl stereotype said again and again about Sichuanese girls. I suppose I will find out soon enough when I arrive in Chengdu.
Other than the abundance of attractive women in Dalian, the next thing I noticed was how amazingly wide and clean both the streets and sidewalks of Dalian are. The sidewalks and streets of Bangkok are the polar opposite of Dalian's, so it was hard not to notice this. Traffic flow in Dalian seemed fairly normal and healthy. When I lived in Dalian, people used to constantly complain about how bad the traffic has become, but I can say with 100% confidence that Bangkok's traffic is about 3 times worse. If you want to see some of Asia's (or the world's) worst traffic, look no further than Bangkok.
As a people, the Dalianese are very typically "dongbei" (northeastern). Somewhat rude, pushy, love to engage in senseless arguments in public, and very aggressive in practically everything they do. One day when I was standing by myself in a supermarket, a random old man asked me where I was from (this conversation took place in Mandarin). I replied that I was American. He promptly replied: "You go back home. China doesn't want you here." This whole conversation was entirely unprovoked by me. Ironically, that very same evening when I was walking back to my hotel alone, another old man asked me where I'm from (also in Mandarin). I told him I was American, and we had a 3-minute impromptu conversation about my life and why I'm in China. Overall it was a very pleasant and refreshing conversation, especially after my previous conversation. What I'm getting at here is the way I'm treated as a Caucasian foreigner in Dalian (and many other parts of China) is totally unpredictable. I'm a pretty introverted guy, and I mostly keep to myself and never behave rudely or aggressively. Some people wan't me to get the f*ck out of China, while others constantly offer me free food and beer and practically wanna be my best friend. I've found that the more Mandarin one speaks, the more one will understand Chinese people's true opinion of them. You WILL be stared at in Dalian if you're Caucasian (more so than in Shanghai). Anyone who says the Chinese aren't racist is completely delusional. They may be a different brand of racist than the American racists, but many Chinese are still severely racist.
Dalianese food, and northeastern Chinese food in general, isn't all that appealing to me. Dalian is a seaside city, so seafood is reasonably priced and can be found practically anywhere. I'm a big seafood fan, however, I'm not a fan of northeastern Chinese cooking methods. Most seafood dishes in Dalian are way to bland for my tastes. The best local food in Dalian is it's abundance of hot, soup-style noodles. Dalian has 7 months of cold, dreary weather each year, so eating some hot noodles is a good way to make oneself more comfortable. It's also very easy to find food from other regions of China in Dalian. So if you're a big fan of Sichuanese food like me, there's plenty to be found in Dalian. One doesn't need to look far.
Public transportation-wise, Dalian is mediocre. Dalian's subway system has been under construction for years, and God only knows when it'll be finished. It was under construction when I first arrived in Dalian in 2009. For the most part, one is limited to taking buses and taxis to get around Dalian. The good news is that Dalian's bus system is crystal clear, bus stop maps are provided in both Chinese and English at every bus stop, the bus system is easy for beginners to understand, and 90% of all bus rides only cost 1 yuan. Bangkok's bus system is a total joke in comparison. The bad news is that the Dalian's buses get absurdly crowded during peak hours (think back to what I said about the Shanghai subway system). Sardines in a tin can have more space than the average bus passenger during peak hours. Other than just the buses, Dalian also has an inexpensive light-rail train system (somewhat similar to Bangkok's BTS system) that has one transit line that stops mostly in non-central parts of Dalian. As a tourist, one would most likely never use this light rail system. There's also an old trolley system in downtown Dalian that one could ride just for the hell of it.
This might shock some, but Dalian is a great place for P4P if one can speak at least simple Mandarin and knows their way around the city. Bathhouses are seemingly everywhere around the city. These places are great for relaxation - sauna, hot tub, hot shower, a dude who'll roughly massage your naked body (not for me), and a relaxation area lined with recliners to take a nap when you're finished (think Rush Hour 2). It's in this relaxation area where scantily clad women will almost undoubtedly approach you to see if you want some "extra services" from them. As long as you stick to the mid-range bathhouses, there services almost never exceed 200 yuan for the full package. Even if you have no desire to pursue these extra services, bathhouses are still a great place to rest, warm up, and see a bit of Chinese culture in action. Dalian also has a couple of unofficial "red light" streets lined with what I like to call "pink light shops." There are also a few areas around central Dalian with streetwalkers.
From a tourist perspective, Dalian isn't very interesting. Just like Shanghai, Dalian's not a very old city. Some things Dalian has that are great is its massive squares, parks, and seaside views. Here's my to-see list for anyone planning to travel to Dalian: Xinghai Square, Binhai Road, Labor Park, Tiger Beach, and Zhongshan Square. While not popular with many foreign tourists, other than the occasional Russians, Dalian is very popular with Chinese tourists. From May to September (Dalian's warm season), there's a surge in tourism. Dalian also holds a mediocre annual beer festival every July.
Conclusion: Dalian is a second-tier Chinese city, and it very much seems like one. It's not very internationalized at all, but it's not necessarily the boonies either. Slightly overpriced and mediocre foreign food can be found with a little bit of effort. Dalianese women are practically second to none in regards to Chinese women (I'll soon see how the Sichuanese ladies fare). Men are absolutely spoiled for choice in Dalian. Dalian has an abundance of seafood, but I find the local food, and northeast Chinese food in general, to be far inferior to Sichuanese and Xinjiang cuisine. Dalian's rapid transportation systems are still in development mode, but Dalian's bus system isn't all that bad (assuming you avoid peak hours). Dalian isn't very attractive as a tourist destination, but it does have some pretty nice parks and squares to spend a lazy afternoon in. Dalian also has reasonably priced P4P accessible to those with a minimum level of Mandarin and knowledge of the city. Dalian generally has pretty atrocious weather with the exception of it's short warm season. Hazy, ugly skies are the norm in Dalian. Dalian also has fierce winds that make the weather feel much colder than it really is - a plus in the warm season and a major minus in the cold season. Overall, Dalian wouldn't be all that bad of a place to spend a year or two, and it's a superb location to find a high quality girlfriend for those who are interested in Chinese females. Dalian is nothing spectacular, but it will always be my second home. I could plop down in Dalian practically anytime and enjoy myself.
Thank you!! very very interesting.
I see no foreign visitors at all on those Dalian pictures. The 'exotic appeal' one can have in there must be great.
Can you add details/pictures of your accommodations? Is it an apartment?, how much are you paying? How did you arrange for it?
1)Too much of one thing defeats the purpose.
2)Everybody is full of it. What's your hypocrisy?
I'll start by saying Harbin didn't impress me much. I can safely say I'm not a big fan of Heilongjiang province, even though my girlfriend is from here. Harbin felt roughly the same size as Dalian - a solid second-tier Chinese city with a 5 million plus sub-provincial city population. According to Wikipedia, Harbin has a metro population of about 5.8 million, whereas Dalian has a metro population of about 3.5 million. Since I was in Harbin in late March, the famous ice sculpture festival was already long over.
The weather is Harbin was surprisingly pleasantly cool during my entire three day stay. Mudanjiang (also in Heilongjiang province) had awful weather during my entire 10-day stay (more on that in a later post). Harbin's skies were the same as most other Chinese cities I've visited - grey and hazy the majority of time with spurts of clear, blue skies. Harbin also lacks the harsh winds of Dalian, therefore the weather is actually more pleasant in Harbin than Dalian, even though Harbin is further north.
I have to say I didn't like Harbiners very much. Everywhere I went, I got lots of "zoo animal" stares and "sour face" stares. Let me make one thing clear: I'm very used to getting stared at in China. I did live here 2.5 years after all. But the Chinese stares come in a variety of flavors, and the worst two of those flavors are the zoo animal stare and the sour face stare. These are the kind of stares that make you feel unwelcome and like an alien in the country. I found the stares in Shanghai and Dalian to be mostly less intrusive, especially in Shanghai. I also got plenty of negative stares in Dalian too, but nowhere near to the extent I'm getting here in Heilongjiang province. I got a lot more of the "I like the way that guy looks" flavor of stares in Dalian and Shanghai.
As usual, I spotted lots of eye candy out and about in the city. This is China after all. However, the eye candy per capita of Harbin seemed far less than in Dalian, and even lower than in Shanghai. Three days is not really enough to gauge, but my first impression is that Harbin is nothing special in regards to finding a physically attractive Chinese girlfriend. When using WeChat's Look Around feature on my phone, I noticed I was getting far less add requests (from both women and men) than I was in Dalian and in Shanghai. In both of those two cities, I at least got a handful of reasonably attractive girls (and random guys) trying to add me each day, but in Harbin I was lucky to get even two. Note: I was staying in the heart of Harbin (near the Saint Sofia Cathedral), not some outskirts area.
One nice thing about Harbin (or at least its central area) is it's old Russian architecture and influence. The old Russian Saint Sofia Cathedral near downtown is an icon of Harbin. There's also a walking street with a nice street made entirely of bricks, and there are also several surrounding old Russian buildings. Overall, not a bad way to spend a morning or afternoon just walking around the area.
Once again, the local food in Harbin didn't leave a positive impression on me. Too many fried dishes and Chinese junk food for my liking. And once again, if northeastern Chinese food isn't your thing, and it certainly isn't mine, there are plenty of restaurants offering cuisines from China's other regions. I'm still convinced Sichuan and Xinjiang cuisine are the only way to go for Chinese food. Sure, northeastern Chinese dishes are edible and some taste okay, but I could never imagine myself craving northeastern food when I'm away from the area. I should also note that I never sought out foreign food during my entire stay in Harbin, so I cannot comment on its availability.
Supposedly Harbin has a subway system, but I never used it, nor do I even remember seeing any subway stations during my stroll around. I rode the bus a few times in Harbin, which usually only costs 1 or 2 yuan per ride. Taxis can also be found practically anywhere in Harbin or most other Chinese cities. Getting around via taxi is generally not too expensive. Traffic in Harbin seemed about the same as Dalian, not too great, but certainly not atrocious like Bangkok. I mostly just walked during my stay in Harbin, so there's really not much I can say about Harbin's public transportation. On the other hand, I did take the high-speed train from Dalian to Harbin. It was about a 5-hour ride and my ticket cost me around 280 yuan. Overall, it was a very pleasant and clean ride - certainly much better than taking a standard Chinese train. High-speed train tickets are mostly priced for the middle class, so there's not too many county bumpkins aboard like on the standard trains.
One other nice thing worth mentioning: Harbiners have an almost crystal clear Mandarin accent. This made communication for me a breeze during my stay, easier than both Dalian and Shanghai. This doesn't surprise me, because Harbin is a famous city for overseas students wishing to study standard Mandarin. It's very pleasant communicating in Mandarin with Harbiners because it doesn't have the added burden of trying to understand the redneck accent that so many other northeasterners tend to have.
Conclusion: Harbin has much more to offer tourists in the realm of site-seeing than both Dalian or Shanghai. By far the best time to go would be during Harbin's famous annual ice sculpture festival. Just like its neighboring cities, local Harbin cuisine was not really too my liking, however, other Chinese cuisine can be found practically anywhere. Naturally, because it's in China, there's plenty of stunners to be found in Harbin, but per capita, there seems to be much less than in Dalian or even Shanghai. On the plus side, there's a lot of large-framed, somewhat tall northeastern Chinese women in Harbin (if that your thing, it's certainly not mine). Cost-wise, Harbin is on par with most other second-tier Chinese cities, relatively cheap in comparison to a developed country's city, but not shockingly cheap either. Harbin is a city with lots of history and influence from Russia, yet ironically or unironically, Harbiners came across to me as even more xenophobic than the Dalianese or Shanghainese. And last but not least, Harbiners speak Mandarin much more pleasantly than most other mainlanders. After it's all said and done, I have no desire to return to Harbin unless I'm going there to see its annual ice festival. Those new to China would likely be far more interested than I was.
Note: I've been staying at the Home Inn (如家酒店) franchise of hotels during my entire stay in China (with the exception of Mudanjiang - more on that later). I just turned up at the hotels and asked if they had any vacancies (I usually didn't make any prior reservations). Sometimes they said yes, sometimes they said no. In Shanghai, I paid about 200 yuan per night for a shoebox room. In Dalian, I paid about 100 yuan per night for a shoebox room. And in Harbin, I also paid about 100 yuan per night, but for a standard-sized room. The very first night in Shanghai, I bought a Home Inn member card, which supposedly saves me 17% per night, and allows me to check-out at 3 PM as opposed to noon. Considering the length of my trip, the member card's been well worth its price so far. The hotels I've been staying at are nothing spectacular, but suitable for my needs as an unpretentious traveler. Very two or three-starish.
Last edited by Everdred on Mon Apr 07, 2014 6:05 am, edited 1 time in total.
Cool pictures amigo... We in Moscow? Looks alot like it!!!
Do China and Russia have close ties together politically and economically?
When I see those pics, I think of this:
Out in the world living the dream!
Harbin looks very interesting! Almost looks like a Russian city! Anyway, I couldn't live in Harbin for long. because as a Korean American, I'm kinda scared of all the North Koreans and North Korean agents living there; it would be bad news for me (I think) for people to find out that I'm a Korean American in a place like that...
Great photos and text, Everdred. Thanks.
"Pick a point and go to it."
-- Dr John Hunsucker, speaking about canoeing on Georgia's Lake Lanier, with its irregular shape, and 1000 miles of meandering shoreline
I spent 10 days in Mudanjiang, and I can safely safe it's not a city I like. The overwhelming majority of you reading this have probably never even heard of Mudanjiang, and rightfully so. It's a small city by Chinese standards with a metro population of about 800,000 (pulled that info from Wikipedia). It's located in Heilongjiang province and is only about 150 miles from the far-east Russian city of Vladivostok. The only reason I ever go to Mudanjiang is because it's my girlfriend's hometown, and her family still lives there.
There are multiple reasons I don't like the city: the people strike me as xenophobic, there's pretty much nothing to do as a tourist in the city itself, the city is drab and ugly, the weather is cold (even in April) and nasty, the local cuisine is not very appetizing, and the people are small-minded and unworldly. I could go on and on. I couldn't wait to get out of the city. Ten days is way too much. I feel a bit guilty to bash the city so much considering it's my girlfriend's hometown, but even she doesn't like it and prefers to keep our visits there to a minimum.
As a Caucasian in Mudanjiang, I got way more of the "what the hell is that?!" and freak show flavor of stares more than anywhere else I've ever been in China. This is kinda funny for a day or two, but after that it just gets old. Literally everywhere I went I could see eyes watching me. If I listened closely, I could hear people around me discussing my presence. If I waited for a taxi at the side of the road, I could see countless people in cars and buses gawking at me. These are not really friendly stares either, more like I'm a walking freak show kind of stares. I also found communicating with the locals somewhat awkward, even considering I was speaking Mandarin to them. Don't get me wrong, people weren't being complete dicks to me, but I could tell many people would rather me not be in their city. I could just read those vibes from their body language. I often felt I was being treated way more like an alien from outer space than an actual human being. I guess that's just small city northeastern China for you. Not exactly my cup of tea. Note to self: nothing smaller than second-tier Chinese cities from now on.
Even though I found 90% of the local food to be super unhealthy, not very tasty, and way too dishes being deep or stir-fried, there was still a healthy dose of other Chinese cuisines available. Luckily, this seems to be a pretty normal trend here in northeast China. I think I've made it abundantly clear that northeastern Chinese food is not my favorite.
Another thing I noticed is how horrendous the driving is in Mudanjiang. This is China, the driving is pretty awful in general, but Mudanjiang's is the worst I've ever seen anywhere on this planet. The roads are just a total free for all. Year by year, each time I visit this city, there are less people on bicycles and more people in cars. This is awful because Mudanjiang doesn't even remotely have the infrastructure to support that many cars. I was often riding with locals in their cars, and I can confidently say it was much better to just walk or take a bus to my destination. Riding with them in their cars made me nervous and antsy, and it was always a huge chore for them to park their cars. From the moment I sit in the passenger seat to the moment I get out of the car, I feel like cringing. And the jaywalking in this part of China is insane. People jaywalk everywhere in China, but once again, you haven't seen nothing 'til you've been to Mudanjiang. Every single road is filled with countless pedestrians jaywalking from one side of the street to the other. It's a miracle people don't get smashed by oncoming cars.
On the plus side, Mudanjiang is extremely cheap. Taking taxis pretty much anywhere in the city never exceeds 12 yuan. Eating at little family-run restaurants averages around 10 to 15 yuan per person per meal. Buses are everywhere which all cost 1 yuan per ride. I cannot comment on hotel prices, because I spent the entire 10 days in Mudanjiang at my girlfriend's family's home (no Home Inn on this branch of the trip). Another "plus": the city is small, so it doesn't take long to figure it out, and I personally never really felt overwhelmed, confused, or lost. One should pretty much have the city's layout all figured out in 3 days or so. And finally, there are plenty of hot women to be found, but way less per capita than all of the other Chinese cities I've been to. One has to look harder to spot the real beauties. I also imagine dating in a city this size would not be all that great as a Caucasian foreigner.
If for some reason one found themself in Mudanjiang, there are a few tourists attractions one could see, but these places all require traveling long distances (1 hour +). There's the Hengdao Siberian Tiger Park, where you can see tigers feast on live prey. There's the small city of Suifenhe (绥芬河), which is on the border with Russia, so you can stand right at the China-Russia border. There's also Jingpo Lake, which is pretty nice scenic area to capture some nice photos or just relax. I'm sure there are some other nearby attractions, but I'm not aware of them.
Conclusion: Mudanjiang is a small city that isn't used to interacting with foreigners from pretty much any country. Caucasians might as well be aliens in this part of China. By the way, people always assumed I'm Russian. Like any other part of China, hot women can be found, but the ratio of attractive vs. unattractive in the city isn't much. As a visitor, unless you have some kind of local guide, you would likely have very little to do or see. There's a couple of bland shopping malls, a few parks, and a handful of okay restaurants. Some so-so tourist attractions can be found in neighboring areas of Heilongjiang province, but they require a decent drive. Mudanjiang cuisine is mostly unhealthy, bland, and not very appetizing to internationalized palates. The weather in Mudanjiang is dreadful throughout most of the year, so I wouldn't advise going any earlier than May and no later than September. All in all, I doubt anyone reading this would ever even consider going to Mudanjiang unless invited by a local (most likely a woman). I don't know why anyone would ever want to go to Mudanjiang. It has very little to offer non-Chinese. 'Nuff said.
I've still got 5 days left in Beijing, so I imagine it'll be 10 or so days before I post an update (I need time to gather my thoughts about the city). A little preview for readers of this thread: I met both Bao3niang and magnum in Beijing! More on that later!
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