Exploring Manchuria

Manchuria is a great off-the-beaten-track destination for clients traveling to China By: Mark Edward Harris
Mount Chanbai is a popular hiking destination in the region. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris
Mount Chanbai is a popular hiking destination in the region. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris

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Manchuria is an especially fertile area for exploration, especially for Sinophiles who have visited a good portion of Mainland China’s major points of interest.

The name Manchuria derives from the Manchu word Manju. The Manchus ruled China from the 17th century until the 1911 revolution which ended the Qing Dynasty. At that point, the name of the region was replaced by the word “Northeast” by the newly founded Republic of China. A century later, Manchuria is still the popular name in the West for this region.

Shenyang is the railway and air hub for Northeast China. Attractions include UNESCO World Heritage sites of Mukden Palace, the former imperial palace of the early Qing Dynasty; Dongling, the tomb of Nurhaci, the first Qing emperor; and Zhaoling, which contains the tomb of the second Qing emperor, Huang Taiji. The city is a major commercial center, though its most famous recent export is the award-winning actress, Gong Li.

Several hundred miles north of Shenyang is the city of Harbin — derived from a Manchu word meaning “a place for drying fishing nets.” It’s far more than that these days — especially every January when the city hosts the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. The Harbin festival is one of the world’s largest ice and snow celebrations (others being Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival, Canada’s Quebec Winter Carnival and Norway’s Ski Festival). Harbin is also China’s gateway for trade with Russia. In the 1920s, the city was a major fashion capital as new designs from Paris and Moscow arrived in the city before continuing onto Shanghai. Called the oriental St. Petersburg, Harbin is well known for its Russian and European-influenced architecture. With its Baroque and Byzantine facades, Zhongyang Street retains the look and feel of the early 20th century and is still one of the main business thoroughfares in Harbin. The Russian Orthodox Church, Saint Sophia Cathedral, which was completed in 1932, is also located in this central district called Daoli. Russian bakeries, French fashion houses and stylish international restaurants make this a popular area both day and night.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Manchuria is its long, common border with North Korea. There are many points of interest to visit along the way, ranging from the area where Russia, China and North Korea’s borders come together in the northeast of Manchuria to Mount Paektu, the spiritual home of all Koreans and the Chinese metropolis of Dandong.

On its shared border with Russia and North Korea, the Chinese have constructed an observation tower complete with a gift shop and restaurant with excellent views of the surrounding landscape including the Russian town of Khasan, where a little-known battle between Japan and the Soviet Union took place in 1938. On the drive to this meeting place of the three borders, the North Korean town of Namyang can be seen across the Tumen River from the Chinese city of Tumen. The river is the dividing line between China and North Korea. The lack of any major man-made obstacles between the two countries is a constant surprise as visitors drive along the border.

Excellent hiking can be done on the Chinese side of Mount Changbai, an extremely popular tourist destination for South Koreans. Many South Koreans fly to nearby Yanji from Seoul on Asiana Airlines for a quick weekend getaway. The region, as a whole, has a flourishing Korean community since thousands fled north into China to avoid living under Japanese occupation at the turn of the 20th century. Thousands more fled during the Korean War.

At Dandong, where the Yalu River flows into the Yellow Sea, Chinese tour boats carry mostly domestic Chinese tourists along the shores of the North Korean city of Sinuiju. There is also the famous Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge with its southern half destroyed by American planes during the Korean War. General Macarthur was frustrated with the order that he could only bomb the North Korean side of the bridge. President Truman and his advisors feared that bombing the Chinese side would bring China into the war. After United Nations troops crossed the 38th parallel and marched toward the Yalu River, China entered the conflict, however. Tourist kiosks on the bridge and on shore sell North Korean stamp and coin albums and collectible pins.

While in Dandong, Beijing-based Koryo Tours has a number of fascinating options for visitors who would like to visit North Korea.

While the name Manchuria might recall a classic movie of the 1960s with North Korean spies and political intrigue, the area is a great candidate for off-the-beaten-track travel in China.

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