Dalian Wonder

March 2009, Silkroad Magazine, China

A colourful past has created a bright future for this cosmopolitan city

“You won’t find much of China in Dalian,” one foreign resident recently observed over coffee, and he has a point. At one time Russian, another Japanese and with a host of names and identities in its recent past, Dalian is as famous today for its female ‘mounties’ on horseback and its links with Canon and Mitsubishi, as it is its excellent sea food.  But on one of its famously clear days in one of the many squares, watching couples parade and old men practice water calligraphy, Dalian can also be the best of China. Many agree, and it has been voted one of the most livable cities in the country.

Dalian’s appeal comes from its modern history, since it has little by way of ancient architecture or artistic heritage. Before the various occupations it was a fishing village. Instead there’s good weather, a dazzling coastline, a string of manicured beaches and a surprising connection to the cultures in its past. Quirky Russian and Japanese accents are found used in modern buildings here and visitors from both countries come thick and fast; the Russians to warm up and the Southern Chinese to cool down. Dalian is booming too, with a good handful of five star hotels, a thriving port and a software park that is gaining global recognition for IT.

Things to See

Though the retro cable cars and gentle hills have had Dalian likened to San Francisco, this is a coastal town with Chinese characteristics: expect magnificent squares and a neatly sculpted coast. A trip to Zhongshan Square is to see pigeons flock and citizens exercise under the sedate gaze of grand stone buildings (all disappointingly, banks).  Friendship Square at night lights up like a big snow globe, and Xinghai Square – as the largest square in East Asia – is the pride of the town.  It has a prime position by the sea and boasts seafood restaurants, a beach nearby and a very young castle, which is currently a museum of shells, but is slated for hotel development. Xinghai can also kick off the coastal drive (about 100RMB in a taxi), which winds past a number of beaches, viewing pagodas, themed wedding studios and the working harbor in the east.  Pause for a snack with the well-heeled at Tiger Beach – where attractive holiday homes cluster – or continue on to Hai Zhi Yun Park, where reality can warp.  Here you’ll find real deer mingling with plastic versions, and sculpted sea creatures protruding out of the cliff. Try out the binoculars at the park’s ramshackle tea house (Magic Slope Tea House, tel: 13998412649). There are also a number of zoos in the area, and a large Jinshi Golf Club (www.dalianjinshigolf.com) at the Golden Pebble Beach National Resort, 40km from town.

Where to Shop

Top fashion brands nest at Parkland (1 Jiefang Street), where you’ll find  your Escadas, Ermenegildo Zegnas and English speaking staff at Starbucks. For more of an adventure, Victory Plaza is a labyrinthine underground mall just outside of Dalian train station, with everything from shoes to souvenirs. Olympic Square is your bet for electronics, DVDs and other gadgets – and for a haggling match, especially towards the end of the day. For something a bit hip and quirky, check out a few of the small fashion stores along Xiangqian Road which leads off of Friendship Square. X-ite (Xian Qian Jie tel: 82808705) has edgy male fashion in line with Diesel, with labels from France, Japan and the US. Among the specialist tea houses in town, Middle Centre Tea House or Xong Xin Wu (16-18 Liu Lin Street, tel 8282 1000) is a dusty treasure with a good range.

Where to eat and drink

Dalian is well known for its seafood – particularly its sea cucumber – but it has yet to build the kind of coastal restaurant strip that you’d expect.  Those in the know will head downtown to Wan Bao (Jie Fang Road, tel: 0411 8881 2888) – a large marble wonder with a procession of fish tanks – or to Tian Tian Yu Gang  (45 Tongtai Street, tel: 0411 8454 9111). The latter has a rather elegant branch called Seafood Gourmet (543 Binhai West Road, tel: 0411 8477 0099) near Xingang Square, with around ten large private rooms. Also in the square area is the fresh, upscale La Gauche De Malin Restaurant and Lounge (527-1 Binhai West Road, tel: 0411 8480 3188), with everything from steaks to salmon, and a buffet that could rival your five star hotel.  La Riviera (68 Renmin Lu, tel: 0411 3963 3899) and Café Igosso (45 Nanshan Rd, tel 0411 8265 6453) are the people’s choice for a top European meal, the former a grand affair, the latter more of a bistro. Be boggled by the beer choices at the comfy Strollers (tel: 0411 8269-8293), or go Bavarian at the Kempinski’s Paulaner  Brauhaus (92 Jiefang Road, tel: 0411 8259 6666).

Where to stay

The Kempinski Hotel Dalian (92 Jiefang Road, tel: 04 11 8359 8888, www.kempinski-dalian.com) is central, modern and sleek and comes complete with an Arabian themed spa, a pool and a variety of upscale restaurants, and a new Chocotheke patisserie. The immediate area features plenty of shopping, and a good selection of bars and restaurants. Closer to the port and the railway station, Hotel Nikko Dalian (123, Chang Jiang Road, tel: 411 82529999 , www.nikkodalian.com.cn) has 372 bright, modern rooms and suites with harbour views, plus a selection of one to four bedroom long-stay apartments. Many expats choose to stay at the efficiently-run Somerset Harbour Court Apartments (55 Renmin Road, tel: 86-411 8899 1888, www.somerset.com) for something a little more long term. If you fancy a night by the sea shore, the Dalian Regent Hotel (12 Hutan St, tel: 0411-2892811, not related to the Regent group) is a well trodden three star establishment along the Beihei Rd route and sees a lot of honeymooning traffic.

Best Coffee in Town:

E xpats are fond of the All’s Well and Starbucks chain affairs but you are guaranteed a good cup at Isiyaki Café (35 Wuwu St, tel: 0411 8273 4550) – though being Japanese-run, your cup will likely be rather delicate, with flowers on it. Expect pages of options from Cuban to Charcoal Roasted.

Insider’s Guide

Wen Jing runs Dalian’s only Jazz establishment, Blossom Jazz Club.

Favourite Restaurant: Shanghai City (29 Wuhui Road, Tel: 0411 88228888), next to the Labour Park. I like Shanghainese food and here it’s healthy and not so spicy.
Favourite Bar:  Blossom Jazz Club (50 Kunming Street, tel: 0411 8280 0878), my own of course! I love foreign cultures and after a big trip abroad I decided to open this place – the first jazz club in Liaoning province.
Favourite buildings: All the old buildings around Zhongshan Square, they are old and special. From above the round shape and the eight entrances symbolize good fortune.
Favourite way to relax: I go to the Shangri-La spa every Saturday. It’s comfortable and has highly skilled staff that were trained overseas.
Favourite view: Beihei Lu, the road along the coast, is clean and beautiful.
Favourite place to take visitors: To my bar. I think it stands for the level of Dalian culture and many international people meet here.