August 6th, 2012, by Steven in Asia, China, Travel.

Before visiting China, like most other Americans I was familiar with Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou (as Canton). I was soon taken aback by the enormous size and endless number of Chinese metropolises. “12 million in a city called Shenzhen”? “Wuhan? It’s bigger than Paris? That can’t be right…”

What most of us don’t know about Chinese cities could fill a book as tall (333m) as the Wenzhou World Trade Center (“wait: Wenzhou? Where? Yep, and it’s bigger than Chicago…”).

While Beijing and Shanghai are certainly worth visiting, don’t leave China without spending some time in the “smaller”, more provincial cities. The ones you’ve never heard of. The ones that roll past you at 120km/hr on your train ride. Hop off the train and hop in.

Here are some of our favorite lesser-known Chinese cities:

1. Harbin

(har – bin)

If the winter cold hasn’t rendered your fingers useless, Harbin may have you rubbing your eyes and scratching your head. Onion-domed orthodox cathedrals and wide tree-lined boulevards, with well-hidden and stately park squares, plazas, and beer gardens peppered in, Harbin charms with its European character and form. Located in northwestern China about 400 kilometers from the Russian border, Harbin defies what you may expect from a modern Chinese metropolis.

This city of ten million still feels like an insular small town. The streets are human-scaled and endlessly walkable, weather permitting. The streets come alive in February when the annual ice festival gets underway. Be prepared for -30C weather. In the summer, Harbin offers comfortable respite from the heat of most Chinese cities. The cool breeze and open spaces vibrantly come alive during this time.

On any visit, a leisurely stroll down the European-looking Zhongyang Dajie should not be missed. Adjacent to this lovely and historic pedestrian street are some cozy beer gardens surrounded by food vendors and endless amounts of cheap and delicious local Harbin beer (lager and dark) on draft. The St. Sophia Cathedral is another must-see, with historic photos of Harbin on display inside. Aside from exploring this compact city on foot, a trip 40 minutes northeast of the city center is a must to see the Siberian Tiger Preserve (90rmb) and watch the world’s largest felines roam the open prairie. You can even purchase a few defenseless animals and watch the tigers turn them into lunch. Hippies and PETA members, you’ve been warned.

2. Changsha

Changsha is like the Cincinnati of China. It is a pleasant, conservative, inland river city built among rolling hills featuring some tight-knit historic neighborhoods and harbors an overall reluctance to change. It’s also almost completely ignored by tourists, though it has a lot to offer a visitor who takes the initiative to check it out.

Changsha may be best known for its association with Mao Zedong (he was born 90km away, in Shaoshan). It was the first major Chinese city that defended itself from the Japanese during World War II. How’s that for Chinese Communist credibility?

Today, the rapid changes happening in East Coast metropolises like Shanghai and Xiamen have skipped over Changsha. Things remain relatively constant here, by modern Chinese standards. As a traveler, I have walked down ancient alleyways and corridors that haven’t changed a bit since 1900. In one particular neighborhood, which is probably soon to be set for demolition, I remember seeing children running through the alleys in front of a brothel that was beside a makeshift slaughterhouse, which was across the street from a mahjong gambling hall which was beside a barbershop. All were open and filled with patrons in the mid-afternoon heat. It felt like a movie set. Get here and see it for yourself, before the changes sweep in and the scenes change.

3. Ningbo


If Changsha resembles a Chinese Cincinnati, then Ningbo is parallel to Boston: mercantile, compact, seafaring, prosperous, intelligent, and yet overshadowed by a nearby megacity.

Now connected to Shanghai (2.5 hours to the northwest) with high-speed rail, Ningbo is an old, yet vital mercantile port city with a history dating back nearly 1,500 years. Today, the prosperity can be seen in its well-designed parks and plazas, while history can be found in the ancient towers, libraries, and Euro-style riverfront neighborhoods. The nightlife here is another reason to visit, with many sophisticated cafes and live music venues banging deep into the evening.

4. Dalian


Dalian, though regularly a destination for business travelers and some Chinese tourists, is still off the beaten path for most international travelers. Located on the lonely southern tip of the Liaoning Peninsula, it’s a sophisticated and well-designed modern city offering enormous green parks, great seafood, cool summer breezes, and a shitty beach.

The city is one of China’s most cosmopolitan, and with good reason. Its governance has changed hands from Japanese to Russian and back to Chinese. Some Russian and Japanese influence can be found in the well-delineated squares and government buildings. Today, many businesses from western countries, along with Korean and Japanese have set up shop here, giving the city a young, educated, and affluent professional class (as well as some dogmeat restaurants).

Be sure to visit Labour Park downtown, reputed to be the largest urban park in the world (containing what may be the world’s largest soccer ball), and Xinghai Square, reputed to be the largest square in the world. If you happen to come across anything else that is large enough to compete, please let us know.

5. Qingdao

(ching – dao)

Yet another perplexing Chinese city, beer-soaked Qingdao offers up some lovely, foggy views of the Yellow Sea against cityscapes of Tuscan terra cotta roofs and decaying German colonial buildings. Like Harbin, Qingdao is cool and breezy in the summertime, making it a great place to refresh and recuperate from the urban heat and pollution of Beijing or Shanghai. And, as we mentioned in our Cheapest Beers article, beer costs a damn $0.20. Someone in Qingdao likes you.

Aside from the city’s rich history (being passed from the Chinese to the Germans to the Japanese and back to the Chinese), Qingdao offers up some interesting coastline and, like Dalian, a couple of not-so-great beaches to check out. Be sure to visit the neon-lit Beer Street (the adjacent Qingdao brewery isn’t the best brewery tour we’ve been on but it’s almost worth it just to get your picture in front of the massive beercan smoke stakcs, however) and explore the labyrinth of streets offering informal cornerside draft beer and BBQ.

6. Chongqing

(chong – ching)

First-time visitors are often turned off by Chongqing’s grimy, serpentine disorientation. On the contoured surface, it may appear that there is not much to see here. It’s true that Chongqing is a city of character, not attractions. And, like the rolling landscape, Chongqing’s character is best described as ‘undulating’. It takes a little bit of time and effort to appreciate. But once you’ve sweated over your first peppery hot pot on Nanbin Lu, with the city’s impressive skyline glowing behind you, you may be tempted to roll up your shirt (local style), expose your belly, and dig in your feet a bit.

In keeping tradition of giving these Chinese cities an American brother or sister, I’m going to have to pair Chongqing with Pittsburgh. They are both built inland on curvy landscapes at the confluence of three rivers. Both are a bit sooty and working-class. Both are centers of steel production. Both offer wonderful cultural institutions and tight-knit neighborhoods. If you can believe it, “Chong” is Chinese for “Pitts” (possibly, I’m not sure yet).

Steven (84 Posts)

Steven is a roaming traveler, writer and urban planner based out of Asia. Connect with Steven on Steven Muzik on Google+!

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