My guide in Dalian is Jiang Hao, who works in the shipping industry by day and heads up experimental rock band DOC in his free time.
DOC at the beachside Dalian Dusk Music Festival
He'll lead us through Dalian's offbeat and underground spots, which you might want to tack onto your agenda if you find yourself planning a Spring/Summer trip to cooler climes. It's definitely a refreshing break from Shanghai.
First Stop: Minzhu Square
I get into Dalian around 10pm, and Jiang Hao naturally wants to know if I'd prefer to eat first or just jump straight into the deep end, drinking-wise. I'm staying in the city's Zhongshan District, which is where most of my type of action happens.
For the first night, Jiang Hao recommends Democracy Square (民主广场), one of Dalian's many public green spaces referred to as "squares", even though they're all ovoid and feed about 10 streets each. In Minzhu Square you're going to want to head to a small cluster of fairly new bars and restaurants located behind this huge LAAN Coffee (this wasn't even the only shanzhai Maan Coffee I saw in Dalian; Maan Coffee is huge here).
I opt for food first. This corner of Minzhu Square has a whole string of Japanese BBQ spots to choose from. For the first meal we have some raw octopus in wasabi sauce, roasted fish, and other mysteries topped with octopus flakes. Going to be eating a lot of Japanese food on this trip. Asahi on draft is the standard.
The ulterior motive here is to move directly onto Minzhu Sq's bar scene, which is three bars mainly: this Japanese-style hostess bar blatantly ripping off Radiohead for its logo, an Irish-style beer bar, and Something Else, an elegant little whiskey-focused cocktail bar.
The first one was pretty weird. I walked in and a young lady with cat-eye contacts asked if I was "looking for a friend". Couldn't tell if that was a question or a proposition. The second one, Utoo Bar, is recommended if you want a beer, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better selection in Dalian. And Something Else (不一样), in Jiang Hao's expert opinion (he can drink), is one of Dalian's top-tier watering holes. That would be your go-to for quality whiskey tipples. I recommend the Blood and Sand.
After a quick hangover breakfast at Kong Long Mogu, a restored Japanese official's residence in Dalian's rundown, mostly chai'd "old city", it's off to Echo Library in the university district.
Echo Library was opened in 2013 by Han Linlin and her husband, Xie Yugang, founder of Chinese post-rock giants Wang Wen. The couple also operate a bookstore back in Zhongshan District (see below), but their newer project seems to attract more of their attention these days. Echo Library is quite large; you can access the three stories of stacks for a 200rmb annual membership fee. On my visit, the third-floor seating area was half-full of students cramming, all of them presumably coming from one of the three nearby universities.
Echo Library also has a first-floor gallery space that they use for art exhibits, book talks, independent film screenings, and live shows of experimental music. On the second floor is a fully stocked cafe, at which you can order coffee, lunch, or cocktails, depending on how hard you study.
It's also home to Dalian's most punk cat:
Local Eats: Jia Jia
Next up it's a big group dinner at a local seafood chain, Jia Jia. Xie tells me that Dalian food is pretty bland. The seafood’s so fresh that you don't need to do much more than boil it and eat it.
We get a lot of kinda standard jiachang cai dishes, most of which have some kind of octopus or shellfish angle to them.
Next it's off to Echo Books, a shop/cafe opened by Han and Xie in 2011. It's located in an old storage facility that used to house cargo making its way from train to port. Echo Books is bordered to its south by a Maan Coffee (naturally) and to its north by a spectacular bay view.
The store half of Echo Books has a broad and eclectic range of items for sale: mostly Modernist and postmodern poetry and prose, and an obligatory spread of glossy art and culture mags. They also have a small section dedicated to local publications. Echo itself has published two books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a vinyl record featuring a collaboration between Xie and PK14 frontman Yang Haisong.
The other half of Echo Books serves up light cafe fare and good coffee, but the highlight is the cocktail menu custom-made by bartender Xiao Gang. We went there after dinner and the next few hours were a never-ending wave of experimental concoctions. The man's an alchemist. I had this Elderflower Garden (dry gin, elderflower liqueur, clarified milk, lemon juice, agave nectar) early on so I can still clearly remember it being very good. Memories got fuzzy after this one though.
As previously mentioned, Dalian is a peninsula filled with public greens — it's a beautiful city. On my second day Jiang Hao takes me first to this artificial freshwater lake located near a tourist trap called "Nanshan Japanese Style Tourist Street". As much as I love a good simulacrum, I'm content to focus on nature for my tourist time.
This lake is a great place to stop and smell the peach blossoms while the locals take their drones for a swim.
Next we cab to Binhai Lu, "China's longest boardwalk". Basically it's a road that crawls along the beach for the full length of the peninsula, surrounding an area of protected beaches and mountain forests. You can walk different points of the boardwalk to get contrasting views of mountain, ocean and skyline. Really stunning views up here. Most of the time you're up on a mountain ridge, looking down and out across Bohai. Nice social scene as well: families, fishermen, lotta brides taking wedding portraits, more drones.
Jiang Hao ends our Binhai walk at Dansheng Space, a now defunct gallery at which he organized an epic beachside underground music festival in 2014. It'll probably turn into a Maan Coffee soon.
Zhongshan Park -- Not Just A Place In Shanghai
Now it's back to central Zhongshan to visit the district's eponymous park. I'm quite curious to visit Hua Palace (华宫), an old Buddhist temple that fell into disuse during the Mao era, then was sort of half-fixed up and rented out by what Jiang Hao refers to as "local mafia". Among other things, Hua Palace functioned as a practice space for Dalian bands DOC, Wang Wen, and Which Park. At night it transformed into a popular gay cruising spot. It's currently being spruced up...
...and will presumably be a Maan Coffee by year's end.
Here Jiang Hao stands on the site of his former practice room and recalls one of the craziest stories from Hua Palace's golden days: once when Wang Wen was practicing a dude literally fell through the roof onto the floor of their rented space. He got up, dusted himself off, said, "Excuse me" and bounced as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Elsewhere in Zhongshan Park: multiple competing jams on erhu, dizi, suona, feedback-heavy portable KTV rigs. Best noise show I've been to this year.
Historically, Dalian was an important battleground in the Russo-Japanese War; after that, Japan held on to it until the end of WWII. Dalian still retains some of its colonial heritage. Though much of the Japanese-built architecture is being torn down, some stately early 20th-century remnants can still be seen. One example is the Dalian Hotel (above), which was built in 1914.
In my short visit, Japan's vestigial cultural influence is mostly experienced through eating. I like my sushi, and Jiang Hao recommends Sushi Luck as the high-roller's option. Plenty of cheaper sushi, teppanyaki, ramen, etc places to be found all over the city, but Sushi Luck is probably the only place where you can get fatty gold tuna.
By Shanghai standards the prices are quite reasonable if you stay away from the "gold-covered" and blowfish parts of the menu. Real tank-to-table vibe here. Beware the impostors.
One more obligatory stop before I'm out: the local livehouse, Hertz Bar. Hertz is run by the guitarist of Wang Wen, and is the only game in town for rock bands touring through. The Dalian rock scene is small — not much more than the bands I've already mentioned in this article. But there's a steady appetite for post-punk and noise rock, and my time in town luckily coincided with a visit from one of the best Chinese bands doing that currently, The Fuzz from Xi'an.
I caught them about 30 shows deep into a 42-city tour, they were tight. The following day they had plans to transform the Echo Library's first-floor space into an ad hoc recording studio and lay down a track from the road.
Well, that was my 48 hours or so in Dalian. Though Dongbei is known for its fierce intensity, the vibe here is mellow and relaxed. Highly recommended for a weekend getaway from the sweltering Shanghai summer and the rushed rhythms of first-tier city living.
Getting There: If you wanna take the train to Dalian, the high-speed joint (G1252) from Shanghai Hongqiao leaves daily at 11.20am and tickets start at 836rmb. There's 21 stops. If you prefer to travel by air, the flight is about two hours and you can get a round trip flight from Shanghai for 1000rmb or less if you book in advance.
Where to stay: If you're flush, get the five-star treatment at the bayside Conrad Dalian, or go with the Shangri-La for its commanding high-rise view of ocean in almost every direction. In the mid-range, Dalian Hotel in Zhongshan square drops you into the city's colonial past. If you're broke like me, stay in one of the many Home Inns in Zhongshan District. I rested my head at the one on Tianjin St, a five-minute walk from the Minzhu Square bars.
For more by-the-book tour itineraries and up-to-date event and venue listings, track down a copy of bi-monthly magazine Focus on Dalian. You can get a nice visual history of the city from their Dalian in Pictures feature (Part 1, Part 2), and find a roundup of ideal spring- & summertime outings here.