Cheap Food and Fast Trains: Shenyang and Dandong

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The Shenyang Metro is a whole different beast than its Beijing big brother. Whereas the Beijing Subway system — the second longest subway system in the world, at 574 km long with 19 lines and 354 stations — averages nearly 10 million riders per day, Shenyang’s subway only serves around three-quarters of a million riders per day. Part of that is because Shenyang “only” has 8 million inhabitants, but mostly it’s down to the fact that the system only consists of two lines — one roughly North-South, and one East-West — serving 43 stations along its 55 km length.

Actually, Shenyang’s system reminds me a lot of Toronto’s TTC Subway; there are fewer lines than there should be, and in spite of constant rumblings that the system will be improved, few changes actually get made. [“I thought they would have finished the line to the airport by now. I’ve been hearing about it since early 2014” – J ]

There’s also the fact that taxis in Shenyang are cheap. Like, really cheap. Fares start at 8 yuan (9 yuan if the car is air-conditioned), and aside from our ride out to the airport, I don’t think a single ride during our stay cost us more than 12 yuan — about $2.40 CAD. So, with all that working against it, it makes sense that J and I only took the metro once while we were in Shenyang, to get back to Alex and Kevin’s apartment on the evening of our second day.

Day 2 in Shenyang

Day 2 in Shenyang started with another nostalgia tour down memory lane for J, as we took a taxi to her see her old apartment building near San Hao road. She’d been craving málàtàng since we first landed in Beijing, and was determined to go to the restaurant on the ground floor of her old building. Malatang is basically a kind of spicy soup — málà means “numbing-spicy” and refers to the peppercorn and hot pepper seasoning that makes your face go numb, and tàng, spelled with the Chinese character 烫, means scalding. You choose a number of ingredients, from piles of meat and veggies, pay for them by weight, and they get cooked up, doused in hot oil, salt and sesame paste, and delivered to your table where you slurp them down and hope the spice doesn’t melt your face off. J insisted that the restaurant in her old building was the best, and I believe her; the food was incredible.

麻辣烫 (Malatang)

After the malatang, we were supposed to meet up with Caleb, the owner of Fat Dragon Alehouse, his wife expat Chelsey, and their young daughter Tahlula. But we had some time to kill, so we wandered around San Hao Street proper, looking for a place that would fix my broken phone. Sadly, we had no luck; while the phone was built by Huawei, it’s a Google phone, so it was never sold in China. We gave up the search, and, overheating under the oppressive sun, headed toward Milk & Cookies to meet Chelsey and Caleb.

Milk & Cookies is adorable. It’s a little cafe, set in a small building in a park and decked out with Americana touches, towered over by Shenyang’s mammoth MixC shopping mall. The cozy cafe is run by a woman from the US South, and sitting there with the best coffee I’ve had yet in China, I almost forgot I wasn’t in North America. J caught up with Chelsey, her one-time coworker when she taught English in Shenyang, and I had fun watching the ball of energy that is Tahlula — Lula for short. The highlight came when she tried to eat a lemon wedge, pulled a face at its bitterness, and then kept going back over and over, for another bite.

Food vendors at the Shenyang Night Market

That evening, J took me out to a Shenyang night market. Full of street food, carnival games, pet vendors, people selling knockoff shoes and clothing, and craft vendors, the market felt like a county fair back home, except that it goes on every single night. We ate málà-spiced potatoes and kebabs made of wheat-gluten and marveled at how cheap everything was, before finishing the night off at Fat Dragon, where J caught up with yet more old expat buddies.

A fluffy local, whom we met at the Night Market

Dandong, the Great Wall, and North Korea

Up until this trip, I’d never been on a high-speed train. The trains back home don’t go much quicker than highway traffic. The train to Dandong was a totally different story. Like most high-speed trains, there’s a digital readout that tells you how fast you’re going. This particular train topped out somewhere around 260 km/h. The countryside tore past us as J and I sped toward Dandong, a small city on the Yalu River in Northeast China — a city of less than a million people, whose main claim to fame is that it’s right across the river from North Korea.

When we got into town, we did what any good tourists to Dandong should do: we headed down to the river, gawked at the original bombed-out Yalu River Bridge (destroyed during the Korean War, or, as it’s known in China and North Korea, the “War of American Aggression”), and then boarded a river tour. Dozens of boats ply the waters between the Chinese shore and the international boundary — some of the sketchier ones even cross over, and a few tour guides openly offer to even land on the North Korean side, so that their passengers can illicitly set foot in the mad “Hermit Kingdom”— offering tour-goers glimpses of the Potemkin village on the far side.

North Korea

As our boat steamed at a leisurely pace out to the middle of the river, J remarked that Sinuiju — the city on the North Korean side — looked considerably more built-up than it had when she’d last been here, in 2013. She conjectured that it was possible actual industry was taking place on the far shore, but as I later watched a crane lift a net full of boxes from a dockside ship, lower them back down, lift them up again, lower them back down again, ad infinitum, I’m not so sure of her assessment. Even if there’s more going on over in Sinuiju than had been the case in years past, the North Korean side is still a sad little backwater in comparison to Dandong, which itself is not exactly a bustling metropolis.

When the boat tour ended, we set off for our next destination: Peter’s Coffee House. The cafe was run by Kevin Garratt until he was arrested in 2014 for “espionage”; it’s much more likely that he was arrested for missionary work, and as a pawn in a Canada-China row that was going on at the time. Whatever the reason for his arrest and deportation, Google was still showing the cafe as being in business, so we headed off to its address, only to find that it had in fact closed. A little dejected, we settled for a nearby restaurant instead, to escape the heat and fuel up for our afternoon hike.

Big ol’ pile of vegetarian and vegan food

The restaurant was pretty excellent. As we were ordering, the prices seemed a little steep, until the food started arriving; the dishes were massive! We could have each gotten a dish and had enough to satisfy us, but J, not knowing how much food we’d be getting, had ordered five dishes. Again, Chinese food for the win.

Tower on the Great Wall

The final order of the day for our time in Dandong was a trip to the Hushan Great Wall, by some estimations the easternmost segment of the Great Wall. On the way there, the taxi driver — speaking in a thickly accented, occasionally unintelligible dialect of Northeastern Mandarin repeatedly tried to dissuade us from going, insisting that the wall was a fake, built by the government as a tourist trap [“there is quite a bit of disagreement on whether or not this is true” – J ]. Instead, he recommended getting (effectively) smuggled into North Korea, adding that he “knows a guy”. J told him that, as Canadians, we didn’t think it was a safe visit to make without a proper travel visa, especially this soon after the Otto Warmbier incident. The debate continued back and forth between the two, until we neared the Great Wall, and the driver gave up trying to convince us.

Crazy-steep sections

It was hot as all hell when arrived, and it would only get worse as the walk went on. The Hushan Wall has some incredibly steep sections, and in the beating sun of midday, J and I found ourselves rushing from one watchtower to the next, to be able to hide briefly in the shade before venturing back out into the heat. The views are worth it, however; beautiful mountains on one side, and North Korean fields across the river on the other.

J showing off her mountain-goat skills on the steep Hushan Great Wall

As we came down the back trail behind the wall, we got closer to North Korea than at any other point during our time in Dandong. A tiny stream separates the two countries, and at one point it gets so narrow that you start to think you could just jump across; indeed, that stretch of the river and the small island on the other side are called “Yi Bu Kua”, or “One Leap Across”. There are signs everywhere not to take pictures, and I was paranoid enough of overzealous North Korean guards that I took a very surreptitious shot of the crossing (hence why the photo is so crappy).

One Leap Across

Done with the tour, J and I took a cab back to Dandong. I had one last goal in mind before leaving town: acquire a pack of North Korean cigarettes. When J had last been here in 2013, street vendors hawking North Korean contraband had been plentiful. Now, however, North Korean cigarettes were considerably harder to find. I did find someone selling packs out of a beat-up briefcase early in the day, but as we bounced from one convenience store to the next, we had little luck. Finally, in a chaoshi (a grocery store) almost directly next to the train station, the elderly shopkeeper sized us up for a moment, before clearing some crumpled newspaper from the bottom of the basket to reveal the contraband cigarettes hidden at the bottom. Our mission accomplished, we headed to the train station, where another Mao statue greeted us, pointing this time, we guessed, in the direction of Beijing.

Me: “Hey Mao, which way to the train station”  Mao: “That way, bruh!”  Me: “… what? No it isn’t. Go home dude, you’re drunk.”

Stray Thoughts

  • Seriously, street food is so ridiculously cheap. At the Night Market, we managed to cobble together a meal for about $3.
  • During the day in Dandong, I realized that Imodium is useless for me. ‘Nuff said.
  • On the plus side, I’ve got a reasonable grasp on the use of the squat toilet. And toilet paper is the standard in China; none of the dreaded water pitcher method used in Southeast Asia.
  • Dandong, and especially the Great Wall hike, is also where I started to really lust after a smaller camera. I love my Nikon D800, but it’s a bit of a beast.
  • Apologies if my writing is a bit more stilted than usual in this post. I’m a little sick, and haven’t slept super well.

Up next: “First Class” flying to Shanghai, Hangzhou and the West Lake, and a considerably worse flight to Shenzhen

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