Generally speaking, New Yorkers don’t go to the Statue of Liberty, Romans avoid the Colosseum and Parisians wouldn’t be caught dead on the Eiffel Tower.
Likewise, very few Beijingers walk The Great Wall, Shanghainese don’t waltz all day on the Bund and Hong Kongers never shop till they drop.
So where do those 1.3-billion Chinese go for their getaways while we’re checking out their must-see hot-ticket attractions?
Many head for their east coast— roughly the length of our North American shoreline from Halifax to Key Largo— where the air is crisp and clean and the crowds are manageable by Chinese standards.
We followed them there, visiting four provinces along four seas, stretching from South Korea to North Vietnam. There were no historical wonders like the Forbidden City or Terracotta Warriors. But what we did find were four slices of China that few North Americans ever experience.
In fact, the only North Americans we came across during our 10-day tour were several members of a gospel singing group from Seattle who were part of an exchange program.
Our first stop was to the northeast province of Lioning and its capital city of Dalian, population about 6.5 million, just another of those galloping cities throughout China. Sleek, modern, neat as a pin and covered with clean crisp air, Dalian is a favorite retreat for the millions living in the Beijing area.
The Koreas, north and south, are fewer than 300 nautical miles across the Yellow Sea; inner Mongolia is to the north and the Russian border just beyond that. Consequently, Russians and Koreans top the list of international tourists. In fact, there is an entire street containing about 50 Russian-style shops, restaurants and hotels.
After Beijing and Shanghai, Dalian has the costliest real estate in China. The province is considered such a sure thing that there are several “Ghost Cities” –brand-new skyscraper communities with no one living there, but practically all housing bought by well-heeled Chinese as future investments.
“It’s better than money in the bank,” said our guide, Ping.
On each visit to China I’ve found a few eye-openers (escalators scaling mountains etc.) and Dalian didn’t disappoint. At our hotel, The Bayshore, you enter your floor on a central console outside the bank of elevators. No more looking back and forth for the next lift. The console directs you to the right elevator, you simply get in and up to your floor you go.
On some of the city’s busiest roadways, directional signs automatically light up at night and on overcast days. And in one fancy restaurant, buffet trays opened and closed with a touch, no more lifting the lids.
Yet, Dalian manages to cling to the past as well. It’s the only city in China still using trolley cars, and more than 100 buildings in its old quarter have been designated as untouchable.
About 45 minutes south by plane we arrived in Qingdao (Ching-dow), capital of Shandong Province on the Bohai Sea. Another eight-million-plus population city, it’s home to one of the world’s most famous beers, Tsingtao, taken from the original name of the ancient city.
But there was a more important birth in Shandong: Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who lived 500 years before Christ and whose sayings are now in a bit of a revival (seems the old sage’s stock has had its ups and downs over the centuries).
Confucius was born in the small city (60,000) of Qufu (Coo-foo), a few hours drive west of Qingdao. We visited the Confucius temple, the area where he was born and raised — and attended a dazzling outdoor show with Confucius as the central theme. Like many great men in history, Confucius did not become a “star” until after his death.
In recent years, Qingdao was the host city of the 2008 Olympic sailing competition.
Qingdao has a beautiful coastline stretching over 700 kilometers and containing a dozen very nice beaches. Towering above the seaside is Mount Laoshan, the highest mountain along China’s coastline, with its perilous peaks set off against the azure sea.
Some 2 hours further south we landed in Xiamen (3.5 million), capital of Fujian Province, just across the East China Sea from Taiwan. Heavy rain and high winds greeted us here, except for a few brief clear intervals.
Nonetheless, we braved a day at Gulangyu, a car-free island five minutes by ferry from downtown Xiamen, Gulangyu has a standing population of less than 20,000 –including about 1,000 pianos!
For some reason, no one really knows why, the island residents are nuts about pianos. Walking the narrow streets, you can hear someone playing quite often. Not surprisingly, the tiny island also features China’s only piano museum.
But there is much more on the island’s narrow winding streets: quaint shops, puppet shows, varied architecture, museums, beautiful beaches and cozy restaurants. I would like to return here on a clear day.
Rain the next day, too, so we visited a traditional foot massage parlor near our hotel. Massage is too mild a word. There is nothing sensual about a Chinese foot massage. The Chinese believe there are 72 pressure points on your feet that correlate to various body parts. So they probe (not gently) until they hit a sore spot, then proceed to tell you about a problem in another part of your body that you may — or may not — know about. They don’t sugarcoat the problem, but tell it like it is. Knowing this from previous Chinese foot massages, I ignored the pain because I didn’t want any bad news spoiling the rest of my trip.
HAIKOU AND SANYA
Last stop, the island province of Hainan off the southern tip of the mainland in the South China Sea. Neighbors here would include Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines.
Haikou, the provincial capital ( two million) sits on the northern end of the island and is the economic center. Sanya (700,000), at the southernmost tip, is China’s best beach area by far. In fact, there are high hopes of turning it into a “Little Hawaii.”
We stayed at a sprawling resort called Grand Metro Park on Yalong Bay. It took almost 10 minutes to get from our villa by golf cart to the main building. Yet, we would later learn that this was considered a medium-sized resort.
After 10 ten days, four provinces, four seas and about 2,500 kilometers of coastline it was time to leave this edge of China far away from the usual tourist trails Perhaps the Chinese are secretly hoping to keep it for themselves.
IF YOU GO
We flew Air Canada (aircanada.com) nonstop from Toronto to Beijing. The airline was offering promotional fares to its Asian destinations during our bookings; these may still be available.
Visas are required. Check with your travel agent or nearest China Embassy.
For further info on China and the sites visited try cnto.org