Shenyang, North Eastern Capital of the Manchu dynasty.

One of the stipulations that I made for agreeing to join Elisabeth on a trip to the DPRK was the opportunity to see something of Manchuria, the old feudal region that now forms the three North Eastern provinces of China. Far fewer tourists regularly venture out this way than to the more picturesque provinces since it is better known for the devastation and brutality of the Japanese occupation and is now heavily industrialised. Unfortunately, there was simply not enough time to get to many of the more interesting parts: the rugged lakes and mountains of the more remote national parks, the River Border minorities, whose nomadic lifestyle is more Siberian than Chinese and the fascinating palace of the Last (or puppet) Emperor at Changchun.

After the all-important detour to Tiger Mountain, however, a stop off at Shenyang, capital of the region and home to not one but three Unesco World Heritage sites, seemed absolutely essential so I had arranged a 24 hour break in our train journey and the services of a local guide. What surprised us was not so much the amount of sightseeing that we had to cram into that single day but the lack of enthusiasm displayed by everyone else involved in the planning of our trip. Koryo tours seemed never to have encountered such a request before, our guide in Dandong had never visited and had no knowledge of what was there and no-one on the DPRK trip showed any interest at all.

Our train arrived in the evening and we were surprised at to find ourselves at the absurdly luxurious Double Tree Hilton hotel which I had pre-booked at a comparatively modest price. Our twin room was more than ten times the size of some of the “comfortable but compact” budget accommodation Elisabeth had become used to on her travels through Japan. She did comment that free internet would have been more useful than all the fancy electronic devices but I noticed that she tried out all three different shower settings and surfed some of the sixty TV channels. Well, sometimes a bit of relaxation can be fun and even the most dedicated asceticism requires the occasional contrast.

Our local guide, Jason, explained that he got no more than three English speaking commissions a year and frankly it showed. He was keen to help though and, in accordance with his instruction from Sino-tours, paid careful attention to our onward travel bookings because this is a huge city with more than one railway station. A complicated combination  of taxi, bus and subway got us around the city to all three important historical sites in just over eight hours but I wouldn’t recommend trying it without a guide; in fact without Elisabeth’s determination  I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have given up somewhere along the way. This is just not a place for tourists although we did see plenty of Chinese people out and about, enjoying the palaces and the parks with their families as Sunday is now firmly fixed as a day of rest in this highly business oriented city.

The Mukden or ImperiaLPalace is sometimes referred to as the “Small Forbidden City” although, containing 300 rooms and spreading over a huge ground plan, it is more than impressive enough in its own right. Now let me see if I can sort this out. It was begun early in the 17th century before the Manchu takeover of the empire and establishment of the Qing dynasty; their leaders obviously having their eyes so firmly set on the prize of Beijing that they chose to build their own copy in the North East.  After the conquest the court was actually held here for little more than a decade before moving to Beijing, leaving these sumptuous buildings to be used as a Summer Palace until the fall of the China’s last dynasty.

Fires and neglect have taken their toll in the intervening centuries but a remarkable amount of the original construction remains, particularly the irreplaceable timbers from Baekdu, the Sacred Mountain situated on the border with Korea but restoration here is not nearly as extensive as in its grander cousin in the capital. I must say that I found it very much more accessible in spite of the fact that many of Jason’s explanations of the historical context were nigh on incomprehensible.

I shall enjoy reading more about the love-sick emperor who closeted himself with his cook only to eat himself to death after the demise of his favourite wife (none of the others seemed to be able to console him) and I certainly need to find out the truth about the crows.  The Manchu lifestyle was much influenced by the Mongols and many animistic beliefs were absorbed, including a reverence for these scruffy scavengers of the battlefield, whose presence was said to be essential for the continuance of the royal line. We were assured that the 4 meter high feeding pole in one of the courtyards was regularly loaded with “the favourite food of the crow” and that up to three thousand prisoners a year were sacrificed accordingly but I’m afraid we remained somewhat sceptical.

It being the weekend, a delightful costumed ceremony was staged outside the magnificent Dazheng audience hall and provided a splendid photo-opportunity for the many visitors. I couldn’t help noticing that the standard of the dancing has slipped rather since the days of the Chairman’s Republic (and that the youngsters are noticeably chubbier) but the lack of discipline was all the more welcome after North Korea. The few foreign visitors that we met were mostly German and mostly having a day off from their business deals rather than being primarily concerned with sightseeing.

As I explained, the two sets of tombs were on the outskirts of the city, Zhaoling to the North and Fuling to the East, and echo the magnificence of the Ming tombs outside Beijing. These burial places were set in lovely parklands of ancient pine trees and it was delightful to see families picnicking beside the animal statues on the sacred way, in contrast to the more formal atmosphere of their better known counterpart in the capital.  In summary, it was a marvellous day, and if our special Manchu/Mongolian  evening meal was marred by the lack of translation skills of our host (one dish consisting mainly of chillies is probably best forgotten),we did at least make it to the station in time for our overnight “Soft Sleeper” back to Beijing.

Categories: China, Far East

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