Despite the combative title, it’s rather tough to A-B the two places I’ve spent the most time with in China. They are both supported and mired by a number of attributes that make them both rather unique places to live.
Last week Maggie and I grabbed a flight out of PVG and made our annual pre-holiday trip to visit the inlaws and friends in Dalian. That we both work outside the confines of anyone’s schedule but our own, we are fortunate that we can travel when the rest of the country is distractedly focused on tying up loose ends before one of China’s major holidays. It makes for cheaper and less crowded travel.
Returning to Dalian, where I spent the first year and a half of my China life, is always a mixed bag. I love Suzhou, and I love living in Suzhou more than I loved living in Dalian. But at the same time, Dalian has the huge draw of both friends who have remained (or returned) there and a rather large nostalgia factor.
That it was the first place me and China started our near half-decade affair has left me with a strong impression of Dalian. Around every corner and down every road there seems to be an “oh, I remember that place!” moment, followed promptly by a “hey, but that’s new!” While living there I was always on the fringes of the city proper — living first in Jinzhou district (the “district” bit being a bit of an insult to the city, as it’s older than Dalian), where I met Maggie and where her family continues to live; and second in Jinsanjiao, on the northern edge of Dalian city.
Never having lived downtown may be one of the major reasons I was eager to leave Dalian, and upon looking back, may have lead me to judge the place a bit unfairly. While it is relatively Western friendly, my feeling about the place is that it doesn’t remotely compare to the Westernized parts of Suzhou. Dalian, despite all its development, is still in Dongbei, China’s northeastern rust-belt.
And while Dalian — more than most Dongbei cities, has spent lots of time and energy trying to reinvent itself, learning largely through trial and error what works and what doesn’t, Suzhou’s a decade or two ahead. As a comfortable place to live, Suzhou still takes the cake. However, let me compare a few differences between the two places I’ve called “home” in China:
Despite being a Canadian, I’ve no loyalty to four distinct seasons. While Dalian’s weather is much closer to that of which I’m used to, I wasn’t sad to leave Dalian’s icy winters behind when I moved south. What I hadn’t counted on was Suzhou’s absolute bunk climate. Even in winter Dalian is likely to have beautifully clear-skied and sunny days. Suzhou hasn’t had sun since the Song Dynasty.
While enduring Dalian’s northern winters may be a challenge, its summer is livable and its spring and fall are a good length. Not so in Suzhou. Suzhou’s summer is akin to living in a bathhouse for 4-5 months, and its winter is wet and about as close to freezing as you can get without committing to it. Winters are made all the worse by the peculiar evolutionary trait of those born south of the Chang Jiang being without the good sense to insulate their buildings. Fall and spring are things only existent in fables — as proof, it will be October tomorrow and I’m still in shorts and tees.
Dalian: 2 – Suzhou: 0
This is another area where both places are nothing to write novels about — blog posts maybe. I find Dongbei food rather simple and bland, while Suzhou’s local fare is sweet and a bit odd (bull frog is a common menu item). My palate is much more inline with Hunan or Sichuan food, and I can’t get enough of the cumin-y goodness of Xinjiang food.
Where Dalian edges out Suzhou is that it has a wide selection of chuar locales. There wasn’t a place I lived or visited in Dalian that wasn’t a 5-10 minute walk from a street full of low-sitting tables and stools eager for you to grill stuff. While Suzhou has a few chuar spots, they are just that – few. And while my body is surely happy I’m not sucking back enough carcinogens to give my grandkids cancer and washing ’em down with bottle after bottle of cheap brew, there’s a reason a chuar restaurant is usually my most anticipated event in Dalian.
Dalian also scores points over most Dongbei locations as being close to the sea, and for this seafood lover, that’s a huge plus.
Dalian: 2 – Suzhou: 0
Western Standards of Living
Now before the FOTBers or hard-core expats get their backs up, let me qualify this by saying — to each their own. For me, I’ve lived in China long enough that a bit of comfort is something I’m willing to look for. When I first arrived, and occasionally still in fits of boredom, I loved the chaotic cacophony that I had assumed was China. I felt it defined China in some way, and that I was missing out on it by living a cushy expat existence. But then I asked myself, would anyone live in those conditions if they weren’t forced to by finance or because they’re a cultural tourist? Probably not. At least not me.
And while Dalian has some charming and exclusive expat-geared communities and facilities, Suzhou gets all the points in this category. In fact, from what I’ve seen of Shanghai, Suzhou would give it a run for its money. The entire eastern end of Suzhou is row after row of wide, organized streets, designated and protected bike paths, international restaurants, and decently maintained apartment complexes.
Dalian: 0 – Suzhou: 3 (because few things top ‘livability’ for points)
Culture and History
The park at 2,500-year-old Pan Gate
Being that it was the native home to nomads, it is perhaps unsurprising that there aren’t many long-standing cultural spots in Dongbei, and what few the area has, virtually none of them are in Dalian.
Suzhou, by contrast, has been sitting here for 2,500 years just collecting culture like it might one day come back in style. Despite winning 3 points for its modernity, Suzhou has done a decent enough job maintaining its numerous historical sites — the revenue for which no doubt helped pay for the newly developed districts.
Both places provide good insight into what is China’s chimera-like culture, but for strictly bookish culture and history points, Suzhou wins hands down. There aren’t many cities in China that get their own Chinese sayings, nor do many still have monuments to pre-Qin kings.
Dalian: 0 – Suzhou: 2
Bingyu Valley, just outside of Dalian
Both Suzhou and Dalian have decent scenery. Suzhou’s Venice-like network of canals are fed by a number of lakes in the surrounding area, including China’s third largest, Tai Hu. Additionally, there are a good number of large hills (called “mountains”, but really?) for a day out hiking.
Dalian is also great for hiking, with Da Hei Shan and Bingyu Valley being particularly great spots to visit. However, where Dalian jumps ahead of Suzhou is its proximity to the sea. While perhaps not for everyone, it’s hard to deny the aesthetics of a nice sea-side sunset/sunrise. Coupling its drastic seaview vistas with its rugged hilly terrain, Dalian beats out Suzhou in this category.
Dalian: 2 – Suzhou: 1
This was one of the primary reasons I was eager to move down from Dalian to Suzhou three years ago. While Dalian is well-connected via trains, planes, busses and ferries; Suzhou wins out simply for being directly adjacent to one of China’s (indeed, the world’s) largest cities. Suzhou’s proximity to Shanghai (just half-hour on the new fast trains) give it a huge leg-up over Dalian, which despite its connectivity is still in the relatively isolated northeast.
And while unlike Dalian, Suzhou doesn’t have its own airport, we’re happy enough borrowing the two in Shanghai, or a third in nearby Wuxi. Shuttles run from Suzhou to both of Shanghai’s airports, and because Shanghai PVG is a truly international airport, global direct flights are easy to come by.
The one downside to Suzhou’s otherwise unencumbered system is that it is virtually the last stop before Shanghai for all trains coming from the north. This can make it a bit of a challenge to get train tickets to Shanghai last minute.
Dalian: 0 – Suzhou: 1
I’m married, what the hell do I know about nightlife anymore?
Actually, I think both cities are pretty much on par with each other in this regard. Both have a couple of clubs, a number of pubs, and a few good miscellaneous expat hangouts (cafes and whatnot). The only edge I might give Dalian here is that it is generally cheaper to go out in Dalian than in Suzhou — which seems to have taken its pricing cues from its big sister to the east.
Dalian: 1 – Suzhou: 1
Final Score & Conclusions
Not a striking difference, and admittedly my scoring is biased as all hell. At the end of the day, I would happily recommend (and have numerous times) either place as a good spot to live. That they have their differences is a great argument against the opinion (that I’ve more than once repeated) that all Chinese cities are indistinguishable at their core.
A few photos from my trip to Dalian