Huge Chinese industrial cities: which to visit to get a feel for Chinese urban life?
October 9, 2006 3:02 AM   Subscribe

I live in Beijing. I want to take a 3-day solo trip to another Chinese city to get a feel for how the majority of urban Chinese live--outside of Beijing/Shanghai/Shenzhen. Where should I go?

I'm not looking for tourist attractions. What has always caught my interest is that China has 100 cities with more than one million people. After the few well-known eastern coastal cities, that leaves plenty more. I want to visit a city with a huge population and heavy industry but without much Western influence and without Beijing/Shenzhen/Shanghai levels of wealth.

Cost and weather do not matter. My Mandarin skills are adequate for this. Also, I have already visited Xi'an and want to consider another city this time.

So, where should I go?
posted by jbb7 to Travel & Transportation around Beijing, China (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think "city without Western influence" may be an oxymoron. My wife and I liked Chongqing; it's very different from Beijing (her home city), but it still has a big Holiday Inn on top of one of the many hills. In the week we spent there, we only saw one bicyclist, and he was riding for the workout.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:38 AM on October 9, 2006

posted by thirteenkiller at 4:09 AM on October 9, 2006

I'd recommend Tianjin. Though it may have changed since I was there, the city is different in different parts.

If you go to the 'Balitai' area, there are universities with Western students (Tianjin University, Tianjin Normal University). But go to the north of the city (where Hebei University of Technology is) and it's a different story. Virtually untouched by western influences. A poorer area of the city. Get the number 5 bus from the city centre and it'll take you there. There's a man at the end of the 'free market' (near the crossroads) who sells the most amazing lamb kebabs. They go well with the pancakes sold in the little shop opposite.

And it's only an hour or so from Beijing :) Or Lao long tou - Great Dragon's Head - where the great wall meets the sea. Very touristy, but hardly any westerners at all.
posted by lemonpillows at 5:03 AM on October 9, 2006

posted by thirteenkiller at 6:20 AM on October 9, 2006

Or Harbin!
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:20 AM on October 9, 2006

Actually, forget Hohhot - go to Baotou 包头
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:22 AM on October 9, 2006

Harbin is a good suggestion as well, you will not really find any English there at all, and I doubt you would find tourists there either, you will see a lot of Russians though. I would suggest Pingyao in Shanxi (its the one with no Xi'an in it). It is a bit touristy, but it is also incredibly charming, affordable and a good example of a well preserved Qing era city, there is industry in the surrounding areas, and you can get a decent idea of the countryside if you travel around that province a bit. There are a number or mansions in the area as well that you can visit if you can figure out how to get there most notably being the Wang mansion in which they filmed Zhang Yi Mou's Raise the Red Lantern.

There are also interesting cities in Jiangsu, such as Nanjing (probably too Westernized for your taste) and Nantong (you might have trouble with their dialect, it seriously sounds almost Japanese).
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:27 AM on October 9, 2006

I'd recommend Tianjin, since it's so close, although its history as a port city will detract from its pure 'Chinese'-ness. But the thing about those un-famous Chinese cities.. well, so many of them really suck. City planning in China really has destroyed a lot of the local charm of cities. Most cities without a really strong local identity have succumbed to the uniform style of square, white-tile monstrosities. Seen one, seem them all.

My second recommendation would be Wuhan, because it's a huge city that I'd never heard of before, has few tourist attractions to recommend it, and I've never met any foreigner who has talked about being there. It's also old, so it probably has some traditional style here and there mixed in with the inevitable sprawl of 5-floor walk-up apartment buildings and run-down SOE factories.

My third recommendation woudl be just to leave the famous parts of Beijing. You can take a minibus out to the middle of nowhere and meet lots of normal, non-Western influenced Chinese who have never met, maybe never even seen a real live foreigner. I did this on my way out to a remote section of the great wall, and the people were very friendly and interested in talking to me, telling me about the area. Fun stuff.
posted by bluejayk at 8:42 AM on October 9, 2006

I'm gonna shoot down the Tianjin suggestion.... I lived there a few months ago. If you're looking to not see too many laowai, it's a good start [for the east coast, anyway]... but I never got any other impression than that they were trying desperately to emulate Western society. It's only an hour away from you, so it might be worth exploring for the district lemonpillows talks about. Check out Ali Baba's at the end of your assignment.

After reading Pete Hessler's River Town, I've had an interest in seeing Fuling. Ten years ago when he was there, he was the only laowai in a town of several hundred thousand. The only way to access it was by ferry. It might have changed a lot by now, but I think a) the further west the better, and b) the smaller the better [which kinda rules out the "huge" criteria, but with population comes wealth, with wealth comes modernization].
posted by trinarian at 8:46 AM on October 9, 2006

Despite getting my wallet stolen there, I found Datong to be a very interesting city overall. It's right next to the Yungang Caves 云岡石窟, which are truly spectacular. In the city, there's a Buddhist temple with the largest wooden hall in China and there's a really cool Nine Dragon Wall 九龍壁. There isn't much aside from that, but I think it'd be a good example of an average city in China.

I think my favorite city in China is Chengdu, but it's a long way from Beijing and it's not really seeable in just a day or two. There's the Qingyang Gong 青羊宮, a really cool Daoist temple in the middle of town, and 青城山, an amazing Daoist mountain outside of town. Nearby is also Dujiangyan, with interesting historical waterworks. Plus Chengdu is (or at least was -- I went there in 1992) a very pleasant city with generally friendly people.

Qufu, Confucius' hometown, is also a really cool place with scads of cool history and architecture, but it's not necessarily all that urban. I also don't think it would be a good three-day trip either. Unless you meant "three days in addition to travel time", in which case either Chengdu or Qufu would be great places to visit.

I'd personally like to visit Luoyang, which has piles of historic religious things nearby: Shaolin Temple, the Longmen Caves and White Horse Temple, among others. The city itself also seems very historic, having been the capital of several dynasties.
posted by jiawen at 9:09 AM on October 9, 2006

SIDEBAR: jbb7 ... you already went to Xi'an? Tell me you saw the 兵马俑 and my envy will be greener than this page.
posted by RavinDave at 9:52 AM on October 9, 2006

Well, if you really want to go bleak industrial you might check out Shenyang.

Here's how it's described in Frommer's:
Shenyáng is the largest city in Dongbei and the region's unlovely gateway. A sprawling chaos of dirt and noise where historical buildings stand bathed in the neon of new consumerism, it is the epitome of China's propensity for criminally negligent urban planning. It was the birthplace of the Qing dynasty in the 15th century and is now the capital of Liáoníng, Dongbei's southernmost and wealthiest province. Many travelers spend only enough time here to switch trains, but it is worthwhile to linger. The city may be ugly but it is also home to several of Dongbei's most fascinating historical attractions.
Looks like Datong might be a good choice if you really want to see a large city without wealth. It GDP/capita is just $1,270.

I have been to Luoyang and although it's not a very large city I definitely recommend it. At all costs avoid the bus tour to the Shaolin temple and figure out transportation on your own instead. There are public buses that will take you there. Luoyang is interesting in its own right, and you will definitely get a picture of how real urban Chinese live even if the population is closer to 800k.

I also recommend Kaifeng, which is smaller (around 500k, I think) but wonderful. Very pretty town, interesting to walk through, with an incredibly chitsy (but totally Chinese-tourist-geared, so zero laowei) theme park meant to recreate old-time Kai Feng, and does this about as accurately as Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. But what makes it especially worthy of a visit is its night market. Don't miss the 5 spice bread! Out of this world!
posted by Deathalicious at 9:54 AM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and here's a helpful List of Chinese cities with over 1 million
posted by Deathalicious at 9:57 AM on October 9, 2006

You can also consider Dalian, about 1 hour flight from Beijing. A relatively quiet city compared to Beijing/Shanghai, still lots to see.
posted by dy at 10:31 AM on October 9, 2006

I too live in Beijing and do a lot of domestic business travel. I really like Chongqing. It's a river town, super hilly with trees, actual trees on the hillsides. The center of town has been pedestrianized and is great for people watching. You can go down to the docks and get a feel for the real old china ports whatching the shirtless "coolies" carry loads onto riverboats with their bamboo poles and conical hats.

It's big, and dirty, and hot, and humid, and concrete just like most Chinese cities in the south. It's also a workingman's town but there is just something charming about it. It's like tropical Chicago maybe?

Kunming is just like most Chinese concrete slabs, but the setting is incredible and the climate is nice. Nanning too, concrete slab, but has nice day trips.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:57 PM on October 9, 2006

My third recommendation woudl be just to leave the famous parts of Beijing. You can take a minibus out to the middle of nowhere and meet lots of normal, non-Western influenced Chinese who have never met, maybe never even seen a real live foreigner. I did this on my way out to a remote section of the great wall, and the people were very friendly and interested in talking to me, telling me about the area.

You really need more time. I've had some incredible experiences in China, but they were all in far out rural areas (southeast Guizhou, far western Sichuan, western Fujian) that you really needed weeks to check out. If you don't have weeks of free time at your disposal, I'd recommend what bluejayk said above. Just pick a random place in the far-out (two or three hours drive away) suburbs of Beijing.
posted by alidarbac at 8:15 AM on October 10, 2006

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