Treasures of Northeast China
Saturday - 1 May 2010
The 'other' Forbidden city
Beijing hasn't always been the capital of China; a few other centres have also held the exalted post. For a short but glorious period in the 17th century, for instance, the power of the Middle Kingdom emanated from Shenyang.
Located northeast of Beijing, Shenyang - now the capital of Liaoning Province - has origins dating back two millennia. However, it didn't emerge as a city until the 11th century when it began to prosper as a trading centre for nomads.
Among the powerful nomadic tribes in the northwest of China were the Manchus. They began to flex political muscle against the ruling Ming dynasty in the early 1600s.
In 1625, the founder of the Manchu State, Nurhachi after earlier seizing power from the Ming emperor, moved his capital to Shenyang, then known as Mukden. His first decree was to build an official residence that would rival the palace in Beijing's Forbidden City.
Today visitors can wander through Shenyang's still intact royal complex gazing at a collection of some 100 buildings built nearly 400 years ago.
The majority of tourists having previously seen the massive palace complex in Beijing will be able to easily compare the two regal residences.
The most noticeable difference I discovered on a sunny summer afternoon are the lack of crowds and the small size of Shenyang's 'Forbidden City'.
Though Shenyang is well placed on the tourism circuit and has many comfortable hotels there are far fewer visitors trodding the cobblestone paths in its royal compound. And they don't have such great distances to walk as this palace is about one-tenth the size of the better known one in Beijing.
Even after the founding of the Qing Dynasty - which lasted until 1911 when the last emperor was overthrown - and the shift of the capital back to Beijing in 1644 the Shenyang Palace served as the second seat of power in the empire.
Ongoing restoration and renovation has ensured that the predominately Manchurian architecture survives the cold winters and hot summers of Shenyang.
Adorned with a coffered ceiling, a yellow tiled roof the most picturesque treasure of all is Dazheng Hall.
'Guarding' the palace - in which the Emperor Shunzhi was crowned before his advance on Beijing and the transfer of the capital to Beijing - these days is a 'soldier' decked out in the best of Manchu finery. His colourful costume contrasts greatly with the more austere hues of the palace.
Visitors can admire the architecture of the palace buildings and learn about life in the early Qing Dynasty through numerous priceless exhibits.
The century's old palace enclave in the heart of Shenyang contrasts markedly with the modern commercial city that surrounds it.
Much of Shenyang was built within the last 50 - 60 years. Its wide, tree-lined streets, tall buildings and spacious squares give this modern city the appearance of a sophisticated centre in Central Europe.
Shenyang is not the only major metropolis in the province; Dalian is equally as important but for different reasons. A multi lane modern expressway - the first in China - spans the 330 km between the centres.
En route I stopped near Anshan to see a true jade treasure. Some 40 years ago miners toiling in this mountainous area unearthed a massive boulder that upon close inspection was found to be a lump of multicolured jade.
Weighing in at some 260 tons the rock was left untouched until 1994 when 40 artisans in a joint Hong Kong/Chinese venture carved it over 17 months into an 8 metre high Jade Buddha.
Housed in a temple fronted by 7 metre high columns of white jade the extremely rare statue in stone of 7 colours, I was told, is the largest piece of jade in the world.
Though Dalian itself doesn't have such a wonder it does have a rocky connection!
For more than 5000 years the tip of a picturesque peninsula near Dalian, a key industrial centre and a major port of northern China has been known by area residents as "Golden Pebble Beach" because of its oddly shaped stones and strangely coloured rocks.
In 1988, "Jin Shi Tan", as the place is called in Chinese, was gazetted by the State's Council of the People's Republic of China as a "First Grade National Scenic Spot".
Four years later its sweeping expanses of dense forest, clean sand and clear water and uncommon landscape were approved by the State Council as a "National Tourism Resort".
Work began immediately to develop select recreational facilities and create what's now considered to be "the most attractive holiday resort in northern China".
The beach that interrupts the 13th fairway is the namesake for the course. The golden coloured pebbles found here are estimated to be 600 million years old.
Far younger are the tall and leggy models who regularly strut their stuff on the cat walks of the city's fashion houses.
One of Dalian's many tags is "City of Fashion" as the hilly port city has over the years gained a global reputation in the international rag trade. This continues to grow each year following successive stagings of the Dalian International Fashion Festival.
During this week long exhibition fashion shows, entertainment performances and special sightseeing tours are organised.
(As this event is held in mid September you might like to coordinate your visit to northeastern China to also include the International Folk Art Festival which is annually put together around the same time in Shenyang.)
One place in Dalian where a sightseeing tour is not needed is in its centrally located Zhong Shan Square. The epicentre of this 2 1/2 million strong city is unlike any other in China because it's ringed by buildings built by the Russians and Japanese.
Both countries occupied the strategically placed city at various times during the past century. They left legacies in stone and brick that act as back drops to a daily parade passing through the square.