In Search of a Red October

I’ve been told many times that fall is not the best time to experience Dongbei. You either go in the summer when it’s most comfortable and fun, or you go in the dead of winter when the snow-scapes are at their best. But I chose to go in the fall because I wanted to try and find red leaves, and because my summer was a time for Tibet.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Dalian was not quite red yet. I’d come perhaps a week or two too early to really see red. True, I still managed to find some scant fall foliage, but it was hardly what I’d been expecting.

sea 4

Changchun (in Jilin province) on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.

“You’re too late,” a rough-voiced taxi driver outside of Changchun said. I was on my way to a place tantalizingly called ‘The Red Leaves Valley.’ “You should have come during National Holiday two weeks ago. The leaves were red then.”

I thought he was exaggerating, and so went ahead to the valley, thinking I could still catch some pretty leaves.

Boy, was I wrong.

red leaves valley 2

It’s a funny thing with Dongbei: it’s bigger than I thought. One part can still have many green leaves, while another be practically barren. I thought about this as I walked through the ironically-named (at that time) “Red Leaves Valley,” thinking that there was nothing more forlorn than walking through a forest of bare branches. Positive spin: it very much put me in the Halloween mood I’d been seeking in my ghost stories.

red leaves valley
I spy with my little eye exactly ONE red-leafed tree.

“It’s not so bad,” I tried to say to the taxi driver.

He shook his head. “You’re too late,” he repeated. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“Does that mean you’ll lower the price?”

He didn’t say anything.

Not to be deterred, I headed out to a local park the next day, not too far from my couchsurfing host’s home. The sky was a crisp blue (the kind that’s rare in the north once the heaters are turned on). I wandered inside and saw several clumps of trees with some orange still intact.

“There now,” I thought. “Maybe I’m not too late after all.”

I snapped photos of them from beneath, where the sun shone through them like fire. (Because sometimes leaves are like people: unimpressive from one angle, brilliant when given a chance to shine). As I walked through the park, I saw cat-tails by the pond in light browns, and single trees shining in light yellows. I took picture after picture, feeling pleased with myself for my life choices and inwardly cackling at the taxi driver (who did later lower the price when I whined about it, but then cussed me out later insisting that as a foreigner, “I obviously was rich.” Jerk.)

When looking through the photos later, I was struck by something.

“These trees look an awful lot more green than I remember…”

That’s when I realized something: I had been looking at them through my tinted sunglasses the whole time.

So, maybe people are right and fall is not the best time to go to Dongbei because the leaves are pretty unpredictable. But, sometimes you can get lucky, sunglasses notwithstanding.


South of the North

“It’s so great to be in Dongbei,” I said to my taxi driver. “I’m a northerner in the United States, too.”

“Oh, this isn’t the north,” he said, steering me through the winding roads in the seaside city Dalian. “It’s more like the south of the north. Once you get to Harbin or Changchun, THAT’S the real north.”

At first I didn’t believe him, thinking he just wanted to act all macho (since he was from Changchun originally), but after experiencing Dalian for several days, I’d have to agree with his sentiment. Yes, Dalian gets really freaking cold in the winter, but at heart, it sings a song of summer.

What can I say? I loved it anyway.

I loved that, even though by northern standards October ought to be getting chilly and grim, I and my exuberant Irish couchsurfing host could walk along the seaside with salt stinging our skin. I loved that, while I was reading ghost stories on the train to get in an October mood, the sun shone bright and the trees swayed green. I loved that people complained of it getting cold when all anyone really needed was a light windbreaker, but ate hot pot anyway to stay warm. I loved that after going out drinking, we could all walk out to the seashore like it was still summer, despite these very windbreakers and sweaters. I loved that people would say “yeah, winter is coming,” but still see public service announcements asking people not to barbecue outside on the streets.

Dalian experiences winter with a wink. Though it does get cold (and it will get cold soon!) there’s an exuberance about it that dances until the moment when the curtain actually goes all the way to the stage floor.

And I’d like to go back, when the curtain’s all the way up, in the summer with the sea.

Where Next?

Spring Festival is approaching, and for the first time in a long time, I have no major trips planned. Not because I’ve stopped liking travel, but because a) I just got back from a 3-week trip to America to see family and friends, and b) am going to be staying back to watch the cats while my roommate goes home to see her own family!

With all of the people off and traveling, it’s made me think about remaining trips to be had in China. Of the 34 “provincial-level administrative units,” the 23 provinces, the 4 municipalities, the 5 autonomous regions, and the 2 “special administrative regions” (Hong Kong and Macao), I only have FOUR left to go.

My map of past trips. The lines are different routes for long-term travels. The dots are for single trips to a specific location.

What are those 4 regions? Here’s a quick run-down of where I have left to go.


In the northeast, or “dong bei” part of China, it’s a place full of awesome dumplings, winter-hardened people, and from what I hear, decent mountains. All of this sounds nice, but what I hear most about this area is the large sea-side city, Dalian. This is a relaxing place along the sea with tons of seafood, sailing, and a laid-back atmosphere. If I were to go here, I might not make it to the rest of the province, just saying.


Also in dong bei, right next to Liaoning, Jilin province is a place best known for its natural scenery. Like Liaoning, it also has mountains, but as most photographers will tell you, it’s the lush red forests that are worth the trip. The red seaweed mentioned in the link sounds surreal, and I’m all about surreal. Added to the strangeness is the fact that beyond the mountains of Liaoning and past the forests of Jilin, North Korea lies in wait. (Though with a begrudging friendship with China, so no worries on that front).

**NOTE if you look at my map, you’ll see a line going through both of these provinces, indicating that I’ve been there. Not so! I rode a train through them, which doesn’t really count.


Located in the wild west of China, Qinghai is a desolate province bordering Xinjiang and Tibet. More than half of Qinghai is part of the Tibetan Plateau, which means that the elevation is high. According to some travelers I’ve talked to Qinghai is Tibet, but without the bureaucratic red tape. You’re still on/near the Himalayas, and the Tibetan people live everywhere in Qinghai. Something else that draws me to Qinghai is the Chaka Salt Lake. I love the thought of swimming in the mountains, and since I’m a mediocre swimmer at best, will appreciate the buoyancy.

Tibet Autonomous Region

This one hardly needs introduction, since it carries so much romance and imagination. Mount Everest is in Tibet. Religious mystery is in Tibet. One of the highest ferries wheels in the world is in Tibet. I have not yet been in Tibet. Many travelers are frustrated with Tibet, and it’s no secret why. Whereas back in the 90’s, travelers could carry a backpack and tent and just ramble on through, now it’s required to have a permit, a planned tour, and a guide. Sort of takes the mystery out, but I still want to go all the same. Though, I have also been told that Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces are almost better because there is less government intervention.

China is very big, and even once I hit all of the provinces, there will be more to see. For now, this is what’s ruminating in my mind for the summer/fall when the weather is not brutal and I can catch some nice nature scenery.

Until then, it’s time with the cats!