-by Ernie Diaz
If your summer is seasonal, and therefore precious, you’re just starting to feel that existential itch. Summer wanes, the dawn and dusk skies giving subtle autumn cues. It’s a Sunday night feeling, and the urge to enjoy the dying warmth and light pulls us in strange directions.
Maybe as strange as Jilin, a Chinese province with an inimitable “not quite” feel. Not quite as far north as Harbin, although it does just brush Russia, and turns frozen hell in winter. Not quite on the Sea of Japan, instead holding tight to North Korea, lest it slip into the ocean, to punish her leaders for their crimes.
But summer is not quite over in Jilin, and if you would enjoy a part of China where the season is as precious and fleeting as the first weeks of a love affair, then consider the following locales.
Jilin is like New York, a state, but also a city. Less than an hour’s slog out of the latter lies 550 square kilometers of almost potable water, stretched into a 200 kilometer finger only 10 kilometers at its widest point. The size rivals Zhejiang’s mighty Qiandao Lake, and is every bit as artificial, including the nine “scenery zones”, Crouching Dragon Pond, Five Tiger Island, and the like. But so huge is Songhua that it garners respect for being man-made. And there’s nothing artificial about the mountains rolling close about Songhua, carpeted with forest primeval.
Also within a one-hour travel radius of Jilin sits a rehabbed walled city nowhere nearly as iconic as the Forbidden City, but ever so much more gratifying to the intermediate-advanced China expat. For it eventually dawns on even the most career-oriented foreigner that a huge socio-cultural divide separates North and South China. It’s no news to the Big Nose, for indeed until relatively recently most of China north of the Yellow River was Tartary, while south lay Cathay.
Ula City is an ancient stronghold of the Jurchen, and indeed getting one’s head around Jurchen vs. Khitan vs. Mongol et al takes a sight more parsing than making sense of Game of Thrones. But the Jurchen were the ancestors of the Manchu. They built Ula, a walled fort-city, in the run up to the Manchu dynasty, during the Ming. Obscure and irrelevant? Perhaps, but the contrived ‘authentic Manchu’ amusements and food will give you a new respect for the bad-ass roots of so many eternally-civilized Chinese.
Yessiree, Changchun is more than just a graveyard for SOE’s with steel foundry hearts long grown rusty and cold. Now it boasts China’s first serio-comic attempt at Universal studios, Changchun Film Theme Park. Lack of Hollywood-brand goodwill levels are addressed by – what else – size (a million square meters), and ostentatiously-named attractions (‘4D Theater’). The PRC relocated China’s film industry from Shanghai to Changchun, actually, shortly after the country’s rebirth, giving its cinema a clean new locale away from its decadent home ground as well. The kids won’t care, and after Ula you owe them some rides and assorted frippery.
Xianghai National Nature Reserve
The birds of the air neither reap nor sow, yet spend their summers in pristine wetlands with nary a timeshare, lucky little feathered bastards. No fishing for you here, despite the temptation, this here’s a World Wildlife Fund protected biosphere. Leave the fishing to the cranes, the last lazy flocks preparing for the trip south right now. They are safe from the wolves which prowl beside the marsh, their prey Mongolian rabbits.
Those rabbits made it over to the marshes easily, as Xianghai runs directly into the Horqin Grasslands. So if you’re the common type, easily bored by the 293 species of rare birds which summer here, you can get in some of that good ol’ prairie horse-riding, yurt-sleeping, and lamb eating essential to the rough and ready China tourist.
We’ve gone on at length about this UNESCO site, it’s superiority to the Ming Tombs, and the inferiority complexes which raise so much ire about whether this early kingdom was fief to the Han, making the Koreans Chinese in ancestry, or its own autonomous land, making Jilin as Korean as Chinese. Unless you belong to one of the two groups, and take remote origins seriously as part of your identity, it really doesn’t matter, not as much as the fact that you’re roaming fragrant woods seemingly laid out by nature in deference to the Korean mania for park-strolling.
The Puppet Manchurian Palace Museum
No quibbling amongst Korean and Chinese over one of their own going quisling for the Japanese, however. No marionettes here, either. Instead, there is closure for those who’ve watched the exquisite Last Emperor, and wondered how Puyi fared between getting evicted from the Forbidden City and rediscovering his cricket (comfortably but disgracedly). Germans and architects, German architects in particular, will thrill to the neo-sino grandeur of this palace turned store house. Ironic sods will thrill to the fact that the place was destroyed in 1945, as a lesson to sell-outs, then recently refurbished to boost Changchun tourist revenue. Oh yeah, and to remind the People of how self-entitled imperial rulers can be.
Changbai the holy, Changbai the grouch, for all but a few glorious weeks per year. If you’ve made it this far to Manchu turf, may as well go pay homage to the divine cradle of the race, born after a divine magpie knocked up one of Tianchi Lake’s three goddesses. As with Koguryo, we’ve expounded on the glories of Changbai (could CEX be running out of Chinese territory to cover? Nahhhh…) but heartily recommend the latter, over any other spot in Jilin, or in Dongbei, for that matter.