Retrace the Path of History
—A Trip to Changchun and Jilin
If you want to know about the contemporary history of China, you should visit Changchun. If you are interested in the origin of the ethnicity of the Manchus, who ruled over the Middle Kingdom for almost 300 years (1616-1912) in the time called the Qing Dynasty, you ought to seek the root in Jilin City. However, if you visit Changchun and Jilin during the winter, an ice-and-snow feast will be waiting for you.
As a Southerner, I am always longing for snow in the winter. My recent trip to Changchun has quenched my thirst for snow. As we were about to land in Changchun, a piece of bad news was announced that due to the bad weather, the plane had to land in Yanji directly without stopping at Changchun. I had never experienced the inconvenience that the snow brought about as the Changchun airport had to be closed. I thought I had to stay overnight at the airport again as happened for my first time in Lijiang several years ago. Luckily, the airline company put us up in a nearby hotel. I was totally unexpected to be in Yanji, a transportation hub of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. As Yanji is very close to the border between China and North Korea and there is a large Korean Minority living there, the Korean language is everywhere on signs in public. The renowned Changbai Mountain, which was where Manchu ancestors came from, is just located in the south of Yanji. Therefore, mountain hikers usually take a flight to Yanji and then change to a long-distance coach for about 4 hours to Changbai Mountain. I originally planned to visit Changbai Mountain on the way to Changchun but at that time I had no knowledge about the transportation connection. Because of the unexpected stop in Yanji, I knew more about the connection. Alas, I did not have the right mountain equipment for Changbai Mountain this time. Probably because of the Korean signs and the crude layout of the city, I felt somewhat like I was in North Korea. Of course I believe Yanji is much better off than North Korea. Otherwise there won’t be many hungry North Koreans taking risks to flee into China.
Early next morning we were able to fly back to Changchun from Yanji. I could feel the frigid winter had started here once I went outdoors. Because of a memorable wrestling match over the inflated fare with a deceptive taxi driver in Harbin, I took a shuttle bus from the airport to downtown Changchun at a price of only 20 RMB. Changchun was extremely beautiful after the previous night’s snow. Yes, the shining white snow like a big blanket had covered all the dirt and dust of this old industrial city. However, on the way to the hotel I could see several huge smokestacks smoking on and on. Look! The snowy sludge was enjoying free rides from one car wheel to another, leaving the street fairly muddy. If there are two sides to every coin, then the snow must have its beautiful face and its ugly side.
I stayed at Song Yuan Hotel in Changchun which used to be the residence of the top official of Japanese Kwantung Army during the time when Japan invaded China. Later when New China was founded, the hotel became the Party guesthouse which accommodated high-ranking leaders like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Wen Jiabao. I was a bit surprised by the big garden and the playground in the hotel. The pine trees in a snowy white dress were particularly attractive. With the convenient location of the hotel, I got to the must-visit spot in the city very quickly—thePuppet Emperor’s Palace & Exhibition Hall. This museum exhibits the 14-year significant life experiences of China’s last emperor, Puyi. The entire palace is well kept. The architecture, the furniture, the décor, the pictures, the uniforms, the wax models, the gardens and the chandeliers of all shapes show all visitors the intriguing life of Puyi. The story of Puyi is very sad as he was manipulated from cradle to grave. At the age of three, he was given power by the devious Empress Dowager Cixi. From 1932 to 1945, Puyi stayed in the Puppet Emperor’s Palace as nominal head of the newly established state of Manchukuo, established as a way for the Japanese to try to legitimize their claim to the territory of northeastern China and then the rest of the country. I watched the movie “The Last Emperor” with my dad when I was very little. All I could remember was Puyi was too spoiled to take care of himself in prison. As I was touring the palace, I was drawn much closer to the history of Puyi as well as of China during the period of Japanese invasion. The museum was divided into two parts—the front palace for administrative purposes and the rear palace for residence. The architecture design combined a variety of style of Chinese, Japanese and European. And the largest and most impressive of the buildings, the Tongde Palace was not lived in by the emperor since he believed it to be bugged. When I was there, the big horse track, the tennis court, the Eastern Imperial Garden, which was designed by the Japanese and some part of the swimming pool were hidden in the snow. I left the museum with a few intriguing questions. In order to search for the answers, I bought a 500-page book about Puyi’s life in Jilin. Now you know what the political intrigue in Puyi’s life which was played out in one of China’s most volatile periods of history.
Not far away from the museum is a big mall called Xin Tian Di Living Park. I was surprised to see the canal and the Venetian design inside the mall. It reminded me of the Venetian Casino in Macau. On the top level of the mall is an amusement park. I couldn’t believe all those rides and swings were set indoors here. The roller skating rink was the most popular place. There were table tennis, bowling, restaurants and a movie theatre on the same level. You could really spend a whole day here without stepping out of the frozen world. I had supper there at a local dumpling restaurant on the first night and went for a movie on the last day of my stay in Changchun.
I went to Jingyuetan Forest Park on the second day in Changchun. Because it was winter, there were not so many people in the park. For those who visited the park, they all went to the only destination—the skiing zone. I took many photos of the winter scenery in the park. The blue sky, which was extremely attractive, served as a foil to the tall birches and pine trees. I had a good time with the snow in the park. The snow really aroused my winter fantasy. Winter here was indeed very beautiful. I took a light rail on my return to downtown. Later in the afternoon, I went to the Cultural Square for a visit. The sunset in Changchun was very early. At 4 P.M. it got dark and I happened to see the winter sunset in the square. It was really spectacular. On one side of the square was the Xinmin Street, where the Japanese used to set up several official buildings as the ministries of the state of Manchukuo. Today, these buildings have become either part of Jilin University or the hospitals or post offices. The architecture, including the relic of the State Department of the state of Manchukuo, looks really grand and outstanding from the outside. Peking Roasted Duck was my dinner for the day.
My purpose to visit Jilin City was to see the famous rime ice which was actually the icicles on the trees along the banks of the Songhua River. Unfortunately, the weather was too warm to provide the spectacle. Maybe because of the snow or cold weather, the blue sky was quite clear here although there were a number of smokestacks standing in the city like several huge burning cigarettes. Jilin City has the largest population of Manchu people. However, the ethnicity has largely been assimilated with the Han Chinese and the Manchu language is almost extinct, now spoken only among a small number of elderly people in remote rural areas. There isn’t much to do in Jilin City except taking a walk along the river on Songjiang Zhong Road. The Jilin Cathedral and the Century Square are two major landmarks on opposite sides of the Songhua River. When I was there, it rained. According to the taxi driver, it was unusual to rain in winter. I assumed I must be the unusual guest to this city.
The railway system is quite good in northeast China. That is probably one of the few contributions that imperialism imposed on China in late 19th century. Many of these rail roads were constructed upon the request of the Russian Czar or the Japanese during those days. So I took a two-hour train ride round trip between Changchun and Jilin City. The last dinner in Changchun was authentic northeastern cuisine, including venison, one of the three treasures of Jilin Province. If you want to have a decent last dinner like me, make sure you visit the Noble Hotel in Changchun. You will get a nice treat.
On the day I was leaving, God must have heard my wish. It snowed a while and I was able to see snowflakes for the first time in my life! People on the street were all bundled up and walked in a hurry in the snow; while I was celebrating my joy outdoors, leaving the snow flying towards my hair, my face and my shoulders. In the world of just two of us, the snow and me, how romantic!
For more visual pleasure, please visit the photo album online at