Dalian – Incredible for Westerners
Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Hong Kong are important Chinese coastal cities, and each one is, you bet, flourishing. It’s a shame that the world is not much aware of Dalian, except for the locomotive manufacturing. May be the Chinese don’t want to endorse this close-to-their-heart destination. Dalian, if you don’t know, is a city that sets fire in your belly and the city lives over the waves.
In 1980, Deng Xiaoping gave called it by an apt name, “A Window to Northeast”. Justifiably the Chinese followed this nomenclature in spirit and have converted it into being one, a glamorous window. Being a vibrant and futuristic city, it attracts youth not only from the nearby locales, but also from Russia, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It took almost a hundred years to grow it to this high level of a tourist destination. Not only to the people, but also to its rulers of the past, we have to give a deserving credit. They supported a non-Chinese architecture in favor of the European.
My reserves as a tourist vanished within minutes, as I stepped into the famous Zhuang Shan square. The square lies close to the downtown area. Elsewhere, buildings or structures are replicas of Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg (Russia). Dalian is a city that combines and merges these architectures with the ancestral construction styles of China. All in one city. There is also a replica of Italian cities including the leaning tower of Pisa, in the port area of Dalian. And of course a Russian Area. I wondered if these structures were created for the locales to see without visiting foreign countries.
A few cafes, a resort and a few branded shops
The culture of pubs, cafes, malls and parks is writ all over the city, that makes it a modern city. It stakes claim on having intimacy with the Sea (Yellow Sea), and has a coastal length of 1900 kilometers with lavishness of innumerable beach resorts, forests and parks. I thought it wise to take up this journey in a few blogs, and explore many of its vicissitudes?
And how about starting with an emotion of “Over the Waves”, that we get when we cross over to the other side over this shown bridge. It is the yellow sea.
The bridge over the yellow sea
How does it feel – the first day?
Little did I envisage that my trip would start with an amazing day. Of course, every day was so. My expectations of new places, new people and new customs were a dream to be fulfilled. And I was ready to meet this challenge.
In the train, rather in my entire journey, I didn’t even find an Indian soul. Meeting them was indeed out of question. For example, Sikh, Malayali or a Jew who are generally reputed to be present all over the map, were dominated by their absence here. And there were no Indian students as well, as expected in countries like Russia, Belarus and China. The reason for their truancy, I guess, is primarily the difficulty in language. Will it be the same harrowing experience for me as well, I feared; or will I find some alternative and score over them?
It was my first morning in China. The fatigue of the 3-hop journey had taken a toll on my body and senses. I had hit the bed as soon as I arrived. To be let down by jet lag was not what I could afford, after making so many efforts to reach that place, which is really unknown to we the earthlings. I opened my eyes to a drizzly morning in the morning, like a wintery morning in the Himalayas. And what a welcome change it was from the heat and dust of Delhi, in these months!
Last night’s chill had alerted me to attend to my attire. And the morning, that was even more wintery and moist, took it deeper into my psyche. Being brave as I am generally, I saw the same quandary on the locals. They were dressed up in layers. Being an old man from India therefore was no shame. Buying a warm jacket popped up on my shopping list stack, pushing the hat that stood there as the most important one, until now.
But first, a cup of coffee deserved my attention, and I was ready for a different taste and flavor. It is the same distinctiveness everywhere; in the USA, Canada, UK, Europe, Russia, Belarus etc. I had a cup in the train which had set the tone for this expectation. Sitting in the armchair, I scanned the view outside my window. I was put up in a serviced apartment and I thought it was just the right place for a foreigner, close to the downtown area. It might and it did, give me a reasonable excuse to interact with the locals. And the coffee was really luxurious.
Looking out I saw a few elderly men sitting on three wooden benches. They were sharing jokes and were oblivious to a traveler watching them through the window. Four or five kids were playing. Most of them were no doubt early risers, even in the cold weather! Later, I came to know that most Chinese are so.
To sum up, the morning set my mood to just what it should be on the first day. I was ready to receive my hosts Natalia and Li Batao.
Children playing outside
A Russian, Chinese and an Indian
I saw them through my window, when Li Batao and Natalia were arriving. They looked smart and purposeful. Li Batao looked more enthusiastic than Natalia because it was the first time he was going to interact with an Indian.
Later I learnt that Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian traditions were on his inquisitive mind for a long time. How could he not make the most of it when I was around. Natalia had visited us in India and she was rid of the illusion that monkeys and snakes ruled the roast on the Indian roads. And I certainly didn’t wanna tell them about the cows thereupon, because our respect for cows as mother was utmost in their (more than in our) minds. Because, certainly, the cows deserved more respect than being seen looking for grass on the roads.
The words “Ni Hao and Dobroye Utro,” were exchanged as they entered the room. I ushered them in with a smile, but was confused about which language I must answer their greetings in. In fact, I couldn’t even get what the Chinese greeting sounded like or what it meant. Their prying eyes scanned the room from all angles. I thought they were looking for a snake or monkey ….
“Good Morning,” was the safe bet from my side; at least this they must be knowing since they were from the corporate.
“How was the night,” she asked in Russian.
“Well I slept like a log,” I replied smilingly and offered them coffee.
“That is understandable. It was a long flight. Three long legs,” stated Li Batao, participating in our discussion.
They refused the coffee offer, “We are done with our breakfast and let’s not waste time here.”
“In a moment,” I said, scanning at the attire they were in. Must I match it or chose my own options. They were kind of well prepared for windy, hot and cold weathers. So I did the same. I ensured that I will not be frozen as I was yesterday. And of course, I reminded myself that the first available opportunity, I’ll buy a jacket.
They perhaps had a plan, but what it was, they didn’t share. This usually happened on later occasions as well. They assumed that anything would be okay with me since I was new to the city, and in my position, I thought it served me as well. It could be a good surprise.
The action begins
We were starting from Yanan Lu, a residential-cum-commercial area in the downtown zone. The roads in China are called ‘LU’ and the streets ‘JIE’. What a pleasant view the road and surroundings presented. The sky was overcast, tall buildings visible hazily on the higher floors, roads washed in rain, and raindrops still trickling down the trees.
I excused myself for unpacking my Canon camera as I took the front seat in the car that Li Batao was driving. Natalie made herself comfortable in the rear and this became her standard position on all days. They welcomed my camera and demanded all photos to be sent to them as well. And I promised.
I took a few photographs but was not satisfied with the light. One of the photos that I clicked, and disliked on the spot, actually became one of the most cherished photos when I returned to Gurugram. Here it is
A government administrative office
The changed look on another day
We grappled and sailed through the office going traffic. The office goers and shop owners drove cars whereas probably the sales girls took to the public transport ie the buses. The wet roads drove the cars slower than the normal. Those who didn’t wanna risk driving were seen cheerfully waiting for the public transports. Ladies were seen struggling with the umbrellas turning inside-out due to the incessant strong winds. The scratch less buses looked new after the constant rain. And actually the rain didn’t matter. The transports were always neat. Raindrops formed a fuzzy screen on their large windows.
On the whole, the people looked happy due to what I expected, a good quality of life they led. This was the first casual impression of mine that day.
Rain muddled roads
The first leg of our drive
His Volkswagen Passat was 12 years old and he must have taken pains to save it from scratches or dents. Going by the safe driver that I am, he appeared to be a bit jerky in that disorderly traffic. May be everyone around was in similar hurry for the office. But in the end he mange well, and I say so because he didn’t jump any traffic lights or didn’t cause any juvenile sins. And no one did. But I had no business in judging everyone’s driving, as the situation on the road was not something that I was used to.
We were passing on the Zhongshan road when I observed a long stretch of trees with pink flowers kept running away from us. Some of the flowers were drooling over the brims of the roads.
“What do you call them,” I asked Li Batao, “they appear familiar to me.”
“Sakura, this is the season,” he broke out in English.
“I also saw white,” I inquired.
“Those are the Acacia.”
I knew that Acacia is a popular species in many countries. For example, in Cyprus and Greece it takes a bright yellow color. It is also used as a popular name for products, cafes and people. It was my good luck that I chose the month of May for my trip, rather inadvertently. This is just the time when the Japanese Cherries and Acacia florets bloom luxuriously. They cover the entire city. I suggest that you too chose this month for your travel.
Photos of flowers on roads
Do you like Sakura?” asked Natalia.
“Who would not, Natalia? Hundreds of grandiose Sakura take up the Google photos,” I reflected.
“Though we can’t see Google here, but you will see them in real by the millions,” added Natalia.
And she was right. For the next 5 minutes or so, both sides of the road and streets carried a barrage of them. They absorbed every foot of the streets. Perhaps the nature had descended to paint the city pink and white. Some places the sunlight fell on tree tops and at other places it filtered through the branches reflecting pinkness everywhere. I wondered why this city wasn’t named, “pink city”. It had the necessary natural ingredients; unlike that of Jaipur in India where pinkness is divulged by stones and paint.
The Olympic Square area
Li Batao continued to drive at a very comfortable speed and I kept clicking. The end of downtown was marked by the absence of tall buildings, that gave way to medium sized buildings and small parks surrounding these. We just passed the “People Square” plaza and a musical garden in its vicinity.
The Olympic Square
And lo! here comes the Olympic Square, as announced by Li Batao. It was an amazing display of well-crafted buildings.
“Is China hosting another Olympics,” I asked rather hesitatingly and naively. I wasn’t sure of my general knowledge.
“Yes, we are bidding for the 2024 Olympics. In 2022, Asian Games will be conducted here.”
“So why is this Olympic Square been constructed already?”
“No, no. This is an old construction. It was made for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.”
What a tremendous maintenance of monuments! Notice the 5 rings of the continents in the adjoining picture. It appeared as if it was painted just yesterday, although I think the last night’s rain took some credit for it. The sizes of these monuments were humongous and all of them had parking space for thousands of cars. I felt belittled as our Indian politicians were not the least worried about maintaining our glorious monuments and our people, worse. We are almost a century behind Chinese in this respect. Somebody must shake our politicians a bit.
I asked Li Batao the name of that road.
“It is Zhongshan Road,” replied Natalia, “It is one of the main roads in Dalian. It runs for miles.”
“Zhongshan” I repeated 5 to 10 times in order to remember and pronounce this name.
The “Golden Gate” Bay Bridge of Dalian
While I was in my daydreaming sequence of everything conceivable about the Olympics and number of golds won by the Chinese in that Olympics, the car took a sudden turn and we swiftly entered a tunnel. My dream sequence was disrupted. I rearranged myself on the seat bracing up to see what was happening around. The ambient light had changed from a bright sunshine to dim, but it was adequate inside the tunnel.
The tunnel was called ‘Lotus Hill’.
“A while later we would be exposed to a breathtaking view,” he added and smiled.
The traffic in the tunnel was flowing in both the directions, 4 channels each direction. The headlights were dimmed and all the cars moved like robots, probably aware of the police snoopers and videos around. No one violated the rules. In a while, we started seeing light at the end of the tunnel. We were going to approach a different spectacle as is customary in long tunnels. But things took a turn for the worse.
It was poles apart from what was promised by Li Batao. The other side of the tunnel opened into a buttermilk sky, shrouded in clouds and the visibility was nil. I wondered how Li Batao could drive under that handicap of the meandering road, thick clouds over the road and failing light. But other drivers too were under a similar impairment. They all slowed down a bit but a continuous speed of about 50 Kilometers was still maintained.
Our car was piercing forward with clouds brushing past like an aircraft flying through the clouds. The camera without the ambient light was like a numb stone on my lap. Nothing was visible through the windows. And this tenure of driving hazard continued for quite a while.
We started to sense that we were moving on a road that had pillars flying past us in the reverse direction. Were we on a bridge? It lasted probably 5 minutes and the pillars were still flying past us. We couldn’t see anything through them. So I posed a question to Li Batao, most hesitatingly, “You mentioned a change of scene, but where is the scene here?”
“Yes, Li Batao this is worthless. We can see just nothing. Let us go back,” Natalia suggested.
It was apparent that she hadn’t been here before and still, she was no longer enthusiastic about it. Li Batao couldn’t even take a reverse turn on an unending highway traffic. We all had to wait a bit longer for the halt. But this wait proved advantageous.
The clouds started to wander away and a better light emerged at a distance, and this wakeup was global. We could now see the silhouettes of tall buildings over the horizon through the front windscreen. And through the rear one some edifices started to emerge on the starboard side of the bridge. A beautiful scene was being manifested, as the car moved on.
“Look, on both sides, we are crossing the bay now,” and we started to see that we were driving over the waves of the sea.
“Yellow sea is on the port side of the bridge,” Natalia mentioned obliquely.
“Yes as we drive, on the port side is the yellow sea,” Li Batao added.
The suspension bridge looking at the starboard floating boats
When Li Batao reduced the speed to take a left turn, we realized we had just passed a suspension bridge and were moving towards a coast where heavy waves were pounding on the brinks from the sea. Even though our speed was low the light was still not enough for a photograph; and surely not for the capture of the distant town on the right side. Some parts were still covered under clouds.
One building though was conspicuous. It took me little time recognizing it. It was the luxurious Castle Hotel, that both my daughter and myself had seen on Google. And in fact, this very Google photograph helped us taking the decision in favor of Dalian for the trip.
Distant photos of Castle Hotel and Xinghai Square
Li Batao’s photograph
The change of the scene delighted all of us. We were simply excited, being close to North Korea. And away from the clouds and rain, simply over the waves.
I asked Li Batao, “Where are we now headed?”
“To the new embankment. We call it new Dalian.”
The clouds had thinned out and the view of the suspension bridge was firming up. It seemed alluring. “So why not first take a look at the landscape and the spectacle,” I suggested.
This prompted Li Batao to pull the car over. He parked it in an open uninhabited area. Freshly laid roads were enclosing this area. We all came out to breathe fresh, un-air-conditioned air, and certainly to relish a perspective and a panoramic view.
It is necessary to add here that on the starboard side of the traversed road was the famous Xinghai Square – the largest plaza in an urban area in the world, as I know it and the other side was the Yellow Sea. The Xinghai Bay Bridge, which I called as the Golden Gate Bridge in the heading of this text.
Wanda Sea Mansions – The newer side of Dalian
“Yonder there! Are the new Dalian residences,” his comment came with a kind of show off.
For me, the old Dalian was impressive enough. A more modern environment might have overwhelmed the locals, just because it was new or modern but as a tourist there was enough in the kitty in the older Dalian. Mind you, the older Dalian is not a small area, and the buildings by no means short or dilapidated. They are imposing hundreds of meters, as we will see in our next blogs.
My mind was not in the saddle for seeing new buildings. I wanted to engrave instead whatever I had seen for the last hour or so. But he seemed excited. Here are some pictures of the new Dalian environs.
The new Dalian environs
Li Batao then pushed us back into the car and continued traversing this beautifully constructed neighborhood. The leg started with “Wanda Sea Mansions” and other condominiums came on our way. The circumscribing road had all the required signage and was colorfully flanked by cobblestone roads for the foot walkers. We continued driving around those buildings and shopping areas. It was nice, peaceful and not many people were visible on the roads. Perhaps possessions were awaited.
I was reminded of an article that appeared in Yahoo in Dec-2015, describing the “Ghost Towns of China”. Could it be one such town? It did not seem though. There may not be many people residing here, yet, but the buildings were far from being empty. Many cars were seen on the roads and rich gentry was seen entering into these buildings. Chinese are reputed to be making high rise structures, and they are apt to it. They complete a high rise building with super quality in about 18 months. And their aim is not to project richness but affluence that is bourgeois.
I thought our trip must have ended. It was more than two hours of driving and we must return too. But Li Batao had other plans. He had ample energy.