For history buffs, a visit to Shenyang in Liaoning province is a must. It was here that the first emperor of the Qing dynasty established his capital in the early 17th century, renaming the city Mukden, the Manchu word for‘ flourishing’. Some 300 years later, it was from the city that the Japanese launched their occupation of China. And even for those not interested in the past, the city’s status as the gateway to northeast China, its vast parks and pleasant summer climate make for a great getaway.
At the heart of Shenyang lies a well-preserved slice of its history: the grand Imperial Palace (171 Shenyang Lu, Shenhedistrict; 024 2484 3819; www.sypm.org.cn), erected on the orders of Nurhaci, the first emperor of the Qing dynasty, in the 1620s. It might not be quite as big as Beijing’s Forbidden City but, stretching out over an area the size of eight football pitches, it certainly shows the ambitions of this Manchu chieftain, whose son and grandson would go on to defeat the Ming dynasty and become China’s last imperial rulers. Shenyang’s palace hasn’t had quite such an aggressive restoration as Beijing’s and its faded, intricate wooden carvings exude a lost grandeur. A visit here should be complemented with a trip to Nurhaci’s Mausoleum (aka Fuling Tomb, 210 Dongling Lu, Dongling; www.qingfuling.com), a tree-filled, high-walled complex leading up to a large burial mound.
Shenyang continued to play an important part in post-Imperial China. Step back in time to the Republican era with a visit to the former residence of the warlord Zhang Zuolin (46 Chaoyang Jie, Shenhe district; 024 2484 2454; www.syzssf.com), who ruled Northeast China with a iron fist in the 1920s, and at one time even challenged Chiang Kai-shek, declaring himself president of the whole of China.
Zhang was assassinated by the Japanese in 1928. Three years later, the Japanese blew up a section of a Japanese-owned railway near Shenyang and, blaming the explosion on Chinese dissidents, used it as an excuse to invade the whole of northeast China. This crooked affair is remembered at the 9.18 Memorial Museum (46 Wanghua Nan Jie, Dadong district; 024 2281 8229). As you might expect, it’s not the most balanced of exhibitions, but the sombre pictures of war atrocities committed in the period at least serve to shed light on the source of the anti-Japanese sentiment still present in China today.
History isn’t all that Shenyang has to offer. Despite its reputation as an industrial centre, the city boasts vast stretches of greenery. In northern Shenyang, Beiling Park (Taishan Lu, Huanggu district; 024 8689 5895) is an oasis of flower gardens, lakes, pine trees and historic buildings, including the tomb of Huang Taji, the second Qing emperor. On the eastern outskirts of the city, the Shenyang Expo Botanical Garden (301 Shuangyuan Lu,Dongling district; 0248803 8035; www.syszwy.com.cn) stands out with some 250 hectares. After all that walking, unwind in Top Elites City Resort & Spa (6 Sanyi Jie, Dongling; 024 6283 9999; www.sytbsh.com), the city’s swankiest bathhouse, which puts Beijing’s to shame.
At Manchu Family (19 Xiannongtan Lu, Shenhedistrict; 024 2411 1130) you can try traditional northeastern dishes, such as blood sausage and giant meatballs, in an atmospheric setting where the servers wear traditional Manchu outfits and the walls are lined with black and white photos from the Republican era. Perhaps one of the northeast’s most appealing gifts to Chinese cuisine is the jiaozi dumpling. Laobian Jiaozi (206 Zhongjie Lu, Shenhe district; 024 2270 0207) is a local institution with a long history serving this specialty.
Shenyang is also home to sizeable Korean and Hui Muslim minority groups. Head to Xita Jie in Heping district, otherwise known as ‘Little Korea’, for its barbeque joints and bustling nightlife. Bei Qingzhen Lu in Shenhe district is a Muslim snack street replete with excellent lamb chuan’r stands and flatbreads.
The Shangri-La (115 Qingnian Dajie, Shenhe district; 0242436 6666; www.shangrila.com) is one of the newest and best luxury options in town, with a swimming pool, hot tubs and steam rooms, great park views and doubles from 1,000RMB.
A short drive from Shenyang’s imperial palace, the Doubletree (89 Fengyutan Jie, Shenhe; 024 84118888; www.doubletree.hilton.com) has doubles from 474RMB. Those on a budget should consider Sanpi Youth Hostel (21 Yalujiang Jie, Yuhong), which has doubles from 110RMB and dorm beds from 55RMB (www.hostelworld.com).
Fast trains from Beijing to Shenyang take five hours (from 180RMB one-way)