Formerly called Manchuria, this region covers a vast, mountainous, and sparsely populated territory in the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang. Historically, its nomads took any opportunity Chinese weakness offered to cross the Great Wall and ravage the rich lands to the south. The last time this occurred was in 1644, when the Manchu ruler Shunzi seized control, establishing the Qing dynasty on the Throne of Heaven in Beijing.
The Manchus, a people of Tartar stock, were set on the road to glory by their ruler Nurhachi, who united the tribes and became Khan in 1616, ruling from his palace at Shenyang. In the 20th century, Manchuria became a symbol of China’s weakness: under Russian military control from 1900, it fell to the Japanese in 1932, and became the base for their puppet-state of Manchukuo.
The northeast has much to offer visitors, but few infrastructural facilities to help them on the way. Warm in summer, the region is subject to viciously cold temperatures in winter.
The capital of Jilin Province was (in 1932-45) capital of the Japanese-dominated Manchurian state of Manchukuo. It was here that the last Qing dynasty emperor, Pu Yi, who had been forced to abdicate in 1911, was reinstated as emperor, ruling over Manchukuo as a Japanese puppet, only to be taken captive by Soviet troops at the end of World War II. Returned to China, he was given a course in political re-education, then worked as a gardener before his death from cancer in 1967. (Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor was a cinematic recreation of his life.)
Palace Museum of the Last Emperor Pu Yi (Weihuang Gong)
This palace served as the official residence of the last emperor during his time as the so-called ruler of Japanese-occupied Manchuria, although Pu Yi actually lived elsewhere. There are some memorabilia of Pu Yi, including his throne, photographs, and a room that was once occupied by one of his wives. South of the railway line. Admission charge.
Dalian is a major port and a seaside resort situated on the Liaodong Peninsula which separates the Yellow Sea from the Liaodong Gulf. The city’s harbour, once known as Port Arthur, was a Russian ‘concession’ until it was occupied by the Japanese. As a result of this, Dalian has a legacy of Tsarist and Japanese architecture to add to its scenic location. Its beaches are crowded in summer, but there is much rugged and open coastline nearby.
Situated on the banks of the Songhua river, the capital of Heilongjiang province is an industrial centre and railway junction. In January and February, the citizens take advantage of Harbin’s sub-zero temperatures to hold their world-renowned, spectacular Ice Sculpture Festival.
Heilong Jiang Provincial Museum (Heilongjiang Sheing Bowuguan)
There is not much to see here, although there are some interesting natural history exhibits, including a complete woolly mammoth skeleton.
China’s increasingly rare steam engines operate on the railway line that passes through Harbin.
Sun Island Park (Taiyangdo Gongyuan)
On the opposite bank of the Songhua river from the unpromisingly named (and unimaginatively conceived) Stalin Park (Sidalin Gongyuan), the Sun Island Park is being developed as a summer and winter outdoor leisure centre. Extending to almost 4,000 hectares, it has a lake, parks, ornamental gardens, and forests.
Sun Island Park
Capital of Liaoning Province, Shenyang is an industrial city, and a base for travellers wanting to get off the beaten track and explore parts of old Manchuria. It was the Manchus’ capital from 1625 until they took Beijing in 1644, and established the Qing dynasty.
East Tomb (Dongling)
This is the tomb of the Manchu ruler, Nurhachi, grandfather of Shunzhi, the first Qing dynasty emperor. Situated outside Shenyang, it encapsulates, in miniature, the style that the Qing emperors would later perfect in Beijing.
Imperial Palace (Gugong)
Built in 1625-36 during the reigns of the pre-Qing dynasty rulers, Nurhachi and Abahai, the palace remained the Manchu seat until their transfer to the Forbidden City in Beijing. Manchu architectural norms dominate over Chinese ones in the complex, and the palace is small enough to get around easily, yet big enough to give a feeling of the Qing rulers’ driving ambition. Among the most important structures are the Hall of Great Affairs (Dazhen Dian), the Pavilion of Ten Princes (Shiwang Ting), and the emperors’ private apartments at the Palace of Pure Tranquillity (Qingning Gong).
Imperial Palace Gugong
North Tomb (Beiling)
The spectacular tomb of Abahai, son of the Manchu Emperor Nurhachi, was completed in 1651, but has later Qing-dynasty additions. The ‘sacred way’, lined with animals carved in stone, is reminiscent of the more impressive imperial tombs around Beijing.