China Travel Guide

The Northeast

  • Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang

  • The Northeast
    The Northeast

    Lying in the peripheral corner of China, the Northeast (Dongbei) abounds in raw beauty and mineral wealth, and was inhabited for centuries by indomitable tribes including the Khitan, Mongols, and Jurchen (Manchu), the latter ruling China for over 250 years. Today, the region’s three provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang form China’s industrial heartland, although the many lakes, mountains, and rugged borderlands offer scenic getaways. In Liaoning, Shenyang’s palaces are testament to its great Manchu past, while Dalian is a fast-moving city with architectural marvels. The city of Jilin, once the capital of Manchukuo (1933–45), the puppet state installed by the Japanese, has stunning winter landscapes. Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, has a thriving automobile industry, while Heilongjiang is famed for its Harbin Ice Festival.

    Sights at a glance

    Towns & Cities

    The ornate paifang or gateway to the rugged scenery of Bingyu Valley (Bingyu Gou), Liaoning
    The ornate paifang or gateway to the rugged
    scenery of Bingyu Valley
    (Bingyu Gou), Liaoning

    Nature Reserves, Mountains & Areas of Natural Beauty

    Offering incense at the Buddhist Jile Si, Harbin
    The icy blue waters of the volcanic
    Tian Chi - Heaven’s Lake – in Changbai Shan

    Key

    • International airport
    • Domestic airport
    • Expressway
    • National Highway
    • Minor road
    • Railroad
    • Provincial border
    Offering incense at the Buddhist Jile Si, Harbin
    Offering incense at the Buddhist Jile Si, Harbin

    Getting there
    The major cities – Shenyang, Dalian, Changchun, Harbin, and Jilin – are connected to Beijing by air and rail. There are express buses from Beijing to Shenyang, Dalian, and Changchun. Regular trains and buses also ply within the region. A few flights operate between the major cities, including Harbin and Dalian. In winter, popular destinations such as Jilin and Harbin are relatively easy to reach, while remoter areas such as Jingpo Hu and Changbai Shan are more difficult to access. Within cities, taxis are the best option.

    Offering incense at the Buddhist Jile Si, Harbin
    Offering incense at the Buddhist Jile Si,
    Harbin

    A Portrait of the Northeast
    Sandwiched between Russia, Korea, and Inner Mongolia, the three northeastern provinces constitute China’s easternmost extent. Even though the prevalent culture is Han Chinese, the Northeast’s geography, history, and extended external boundaries have shaped a distinct regional identity. The region’s attractions range from the bustling sprawl of its big cities to the rugged, and sublime terrain beyond, and the cultural mix of its border towns.

    It is hard to categorize the Northeast (Dongbei) – it enjoys hot summers but glacial winters, and while heavy industry and socialist planning blight some cityscapes, others sport elegant pockets of colonial architecture. And while parts of the region have been revelling in China’s economic boom, others have suffered from chronic unemployment.

    Stately Russian architecture in Daliqu district, Harbin
    Stately Russian architecture
    in Daliqu district, Harbin

    Encompassing the three provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, the Northeast was a latecomer to the Chinese empire and is sometimes considered as little more than an appendix to the rest of the country. As part of former Manchuria, how-ever, it was the cradle of the magnificent civilization that ruled China from 1644 until 1912. Shenyang, Liaoning’s present capital, became the Manchu capital in 1625, and the site of the Imperial Palace. Here they perfected their Eight Banner system of color-coded hereditary social and administrative divisions (see The Manchu Dynasty). Taking advantage of the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in 1644, they moved their capital to the For-bidden City in Beijing. Even today, the region’s Manchu population take great pride in their heritage and still adhere to the Eight Banners.

    Façade of the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, Changchun
    Façade of the Puppet Emperor’s Palace,
    Changchun

    In more recent times, the Northeast attracted the attentions of Russia and Japan, both of which have helped shape the region’s destiny. At the end of the 19th century the Russians, interested in the ice-free port of Lushun, tried to annexe parts of Manchuria and built part of the Trans-Siberian Railway line, before being humiliated by Japan. The area suffered again during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 40s, when it was renamed Manchukuo and Pu Yi was installed as Puppet Emperor. The brutal occupation left deep scars on the region’s psyche along with some pitiful sights, such as the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base near Harbin.

    Door handle Confucius Temple
    Door handle Confucius Temple

    Japanese occupation came to an end after World War II, ushering in a period of industrialization under Chairman Mao. His camaraderie with Russia in the 1950s resulted in the installation of a Stalinist state-sector economy. The peaceful relationship was shortlived and conflicts soon flared along the border.

    A secluded bay by the blue waters of the volcanic Jingpo Hu, Heilongjiang
    A secluded bay by the blue waters of
    the volcanic Jingpo Hu, Heilongjiang

    The Northeast’s rich mineral wealth has made it China’s industrial heartland. However, in recent years, under-investment and ruthless downsizing with huge state-sector layoffs have resulted in high unemployment and sporadic demonstrations.

    Centuries of hardship have molded the character of the Dongbeiren (Northeasterners). Resolute, unaffected, forthright, and hospitable, they are looked upon by their compatriots as a hardy, stalwart people, prone to hard drinking. Taller and stockier than their southern cousins, they speak Mandarin with a coarse, albeit intelligible accent. Unlike the sophisticated cuisine of Hong Kong and Shanghai, the local food – including jiaozi (dumplings), dun (stews), and tudou (potatoes) – is hearty and filling. The temperament of the people matches the vigorous landscapes that range from dense forest to volcanic regions and the tough terrain along the Russian and North Korean borders. These areas offer plenty of outdoor options including trekking and bird-watching, particularly in Zhalong Nature Reserve. The border town of Dandong has a thriving tourist industry, catering mainly to North Korean visitors.

    Despite the unfortunate effects of industrialization, there is much worth seeing. The onion domes and Byzantine ornamentation visible in Harbin’s buildings are distinctly Russian, a legacy of the city’s cross-cultural links. Dalian, on the Yellow Sea, is a dynamic and progressive city that has enjoyed the same economic success as Shanghai. Known as the “Hong Kong of the North,” it adds an affluent touch to the Northeastern rustbelt.

    Carving from Manchu palace
    Carving from Manchu palace

    The Manchu Dynasty
    The final overlords of the Middle Kingdom, the Manchus from the Northeast, took advantage of a China weakened by peasant rebellion to invade and establish the Qing or “pure” dynasty in 1644. This foreign Manchu court preserved much of China’s governing apparatus and over time absorbed local ways. Despite providing some of China’s most illustrious emperors, including Kangxi and Qianlong, the Qing declined into an ineffectual torpor. Coupled with the seizure of territories by foreign powers, the Qing failure to modernize led to the collapse of Manchu legitimacy and the final downfall of the dynasty.

    The court at the Forbidden City
    Like the Ming before them, the Manchu Qing established their court in Beijing. The Manchus were the last dynastic occupants of the Forbidden City. Served by as many as 3,000 eunuchs, they were immersed in a court life of arcane ceremony and ritual until the dynasty was unseated by the founding of the Republic of China in 1912.

    Qianlong (r. 1735–1796), the fourth Qing emperor, was a generous patron of the arts. His lengthy reign was also marked by territorial expansion, including the absorption of Xinjiang, and was largely a period of Chinese prosperity. Yuanming Yuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, was designed by Jesuits for the Qianlong emperor. Much of its grandiose architecture was destroyed by French and English troops in 1860. Jesuit missionary The Empress Dowager, Cixi, was deeply conservative and a shrewd manipulator. Dismissive of foreign powers, she appointed pro-Boxer Prince Duan as Minister of Foreign Affairs The queue, a long plaited hairstyle that has come to symbolize Chinese traditions, was a Manchu import imposed on Han Chinese men.
    Qianlong (r. 1735–1796), the fourth Qing emperor, was a generous patron of the arts. His lengthy reign was also marked by territorial expansion, including the absorption of Xinjiang, and was largely a period of Chinese prosperity. Yuanming Yuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, was designed by Jesuits for the Qianlong emperor. Much of its grandiose architecture was destroyed by French and English troops in 1860. Jesuit missionary
    Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666) impressed the Manchu court with his knowledge of astronomy. The Jesuits realized that having influence in China required mastering the Confucian Classics and Mandarin.
    The Empress Dowager, Cixi, was deeply conservative and a shrewd manipulator. Dismissive of foreign powers, she appointed pro-Boxer Prince Duan as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The queue, a long plaited hairstyle that has come to symbolize Chinese traditions, was a Manchu import imposed on Han Chinese men.

    The Boxer Rebellion
    The Boxers, a band of xenophobic rebels from north China who rose up to rid China of the “foreign devils,” drew from superstitious rituals that they believed made them invulnerable. Cixi, seeking an opportunity to strike back at the foreign powers, allied herself to their cause. The rebels laid waste to Beijing’s Legation Quarter in 1900, while besieging the district’s foreign population. The siege was finally lifted by an eight-power allied force. The Qing government was forced to sign The Boxer Protocol which, among other conditions, allowed the stationing of foreign troops in Beijing.

    Conductor and train on the Trans-Siberian Railway
    Conductor and train on the Trans
    -Siberian Railway
    Trans-Siberian Railway
    Trans-Siberian Railway

    Trans-Siberian Railway
    The term Trans-Siberian Railway refers to three services: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Mongolian, and the Trans-Manchurian. In 1891 Russia decided to join the extremities of her empire by rail. A short cut through Manchuria was negotiated with China and the line was completed in 1903. War with Japan forced the Russians to cede the railroad to them in 1905 and build a new line skirting Manchuria – the Trans-Siberian route was finished in 1916. The Trans-Mongolian route was added in the 1940s and 50s. In an era of jet travel, this epic week-long journey is an experience not to be missed.




    The longest railway service in the world at nearly 6,000 miles (9,500 km), it takes up to 7 days to cover the journey.
    The longest railway service in the world at nearly 6,000 miles (9,500 km), it takes up to 7 days to cover the journey.

    The Trans-Mongolian is probably the most interesting route of the three: it goes through China – past the Great Wall and Datong, site of the Yungang Caves; via Mongolia and its grasslands; and finally through the expanse of Russia. However, it also requires three visas.

    
Moscow is the end (or indeed start) for the three Trans-Siberian Railway services. It is possible to go on to St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea. However, Moscow has plenty of museums, churches, and grand architecture to see, and deserves a few days of exploration.
    Moscow is the end
    the Great Wall
    the Great Wall
    The standard of luxury is reasonable. (The Chinese deluxe carriage has showers.) If the dining car doesn’t appeal, at each stop there’s a throng of vendors on the platforms selling goods.
    The standard of luxury is reasonable.

    Orthodox priest running a mobile religious service in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century. Today the historic Russian presence in the Northeast can still be seen in Harbin, Lushun, and border towns like Manzhouli.

    Steam trains were finally replaced in 2002, although electrification began in 1939. Because of differences in the track widths of Chinese and Russian lines, huge cranes lift the carriages up onto the correct width “bogeys” when crossing the border.

    Lake Baykal’s cliffs proved problematic for the builders. They had to chisel miles of tunnels out of solid rock and construct many bridges. It was worth it in the end because the southern end of the lake provides all three lines with some of the most picturesque scenery of the trip.

    The standard of luxury is reasonable. (The Chinese deluxe carriage has showers.) If the dining car doesn’t appeal, at each stop there’s a throng of vendors on the platforms selling goods.

    Moscow is the end (or indeed start) for the three Trans-Siberian Railway services. It is possible to go on to St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea. However, Moscow has plenty of museums, churches, and grand architecture to see, and deserves a few days of exploration.

    Lake Baykal’s cliffs proved problematic for the builders. They had to chisel miles of tunnels out of solid rock and construct many bridges. It was worth it in the end because the southern end of the lake provides all three lines with some of the most picturesque scenery of the trip.

    Trans-Manchurian railway
    The Vostok makes the six-day trip once a week from Beijing through Shanhaiguan and Harbin, before heading through the spectacular Manchurian plain, the huge expanse of Russia, and back.

    Travelers’ tips

    • You can book tickets through Seat 61 – see www.seat61.com
    • Summer is the peak season; Fall is quieter; the train is heated, but Winter can be very cold outside.
    • Bring dried noodle snacks, hot chocolate, a bowl, and cutlery as there is boiling water on tap.
    • Arrange for at least one or two stops on the way – separate ticket required for each stop.
    • Be prepared to drink vodka.

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