Shenyang: Rise and Rebirth of a City / by Thomas O'Malley

A piece on behalf of Shangri-La Hotels in support of their new opening in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province.  

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Four centuries ago, many miles beyond the Great Wall in the wilds of northeast China, events were unfolding that would change the course of history. A chieftain named Nurhaci set about uniting the Jurchen tribes, pastoral folk adept at hunting and fishing, into an organised, militaristic force. Proclaiming himself Khan, Nurhaci made the city of Mukden his capital and built a great palace. Within two decades, his people - the Manchu - would rule all of China as the Qing Dynasty.

Mukden, today known as Shenyang, is the capital of Liaoning province and the biggest city in northeast China. The once mighty Manchu are now a minor diaspora scattered far and wide, but Nurhaci’s palace endures, as does his grand tomb and that of his son, all three UNESCO World Heritage Sites and must-see highlights of any Shenyang itinerary.

Built to resemble the Ming Dynasty Forbidden City in Beijing, Mukden Palace is a fascinating complex of symmetrically aligned halls, courtyards and towers. The hands that wrought this Imperial structure in the early 1600s were influenced by Tibetan and Manchurian aesthetics, and equally, its 300 rooms afford a glimpse at the very unique brand of ‘north-eastern’ luxury afforded to the founding emperors of the Qing Dynasty - bearskin rugs, furniture made of deer horn, and raised beds with ingenious heating for Shenyang’s frosty winters.

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When you’ve had your fill of Imperial splendour, retire to a palace of your own, the Shangri-La Shenyang, the city’s newest luxury accommodation. Shangri-La Shenyang’s palatial lobby lounge is to the city what the halls of Mukden Palace were to the Manchurian capital of old. Ten metre tall columns echo the palace’s mighty timber beams, and a vast marble floor etched with rose patterns, the city’s official flower, reflects in both scale and detail the glory of Shenyang’s past.

Here you can enjoy wines from the world’s finest growers, or try local rising stars such as Grace Vineyard of Shanxi province, garnering global acclaim for its balanced and distinctive style. A gourmet tea menu invites guests to travel the growing regions of China from premium tieguanyin, a legendary oolong grown in the highlands of Anxi in Fujian province, to a 16-year old fermented pu-er from Kunming, in China’s steamy southwest.

Dongbei cai (‘northeast cuisine’) is hearty and fortifying. Stews of braised lamb bear the sour tang of pickled vegetables; potatoes, cabbage and eggplant are mainstays; and you can usually bet on a bowl of starchy noodles or boiled dumplings filled with pork and cabbage at most eateries. The region’s famous venison, a legacy of the Manchu hunting tradition, is a particular speciality. Summer Palace, the signature restaurant of Shangri-La Shenyang, serves its own elegant take on classic Dongbei and Liao specialities, alongside delicate Cantonese standards.

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The Manchu were hospitable rulers, welcoming the Han Chinese and others – Russians, Koreans, Europeans - into their northeast homeland over the centuries. As such, the city’s ‘Korea Town’ centred around Xita Avenue is one of the largest in China, and a wonderfully aromatic bustle of authentic barbecue restaurants, bars and karaoke parlours that stay open late.

For the broadest spectrum of global flavours, Café Liao at the Shangri-La Shenyang offers Indian breads and skewers of fragrant chicken hot from the tandoor, Thai soups, Japanese sushi and sashimi and delectable European-style desserts. For a dining experience more discreetly upscale, Shinsen Teppanyaki on the top floor of the hotel combines a sushi and sake bar with private teppenyaki dining rooms and a rooftop terrace.

In the forested tranquillity of Beiling Park, set back in the northern reaches of the city, lies the tomb of Huang Taji, the second Qing Emperor. The son of Nurhaci, it was he who changed the name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu, and his ceremonial mausoleum is another of Shenyang’s most captivating sights. Two banks of stone animal statues guard the ‘sacred way’ to the tomb buildings, which are girded by stone battlements with views of the surrounding lakes and woodland. In summer it’s a popular spot for family outings. During the winter you can have the whole park to yourself, so that it’s almost possible to imagine you’re wandering the deer-filled forests of old Manchuria.

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The reality, of course, is that Shenyang is a city as much buoyed by the tide of China’s epic rejuvenation as any other. Take a north or west-facing guest room or suite at the Shangri-La Shenyang and marvel at the soaring cityscape, rising ever skyward beyond leafy Qingnian Park.

A by-product of its commercial success is that Shenyang has become a haven for shopping. The MIXC shopping mall is just a short stroll from the hotel, offering luxury international brands and an array of dining options. At the opposite end of the scale, Wuai Market is one of China’s largest wholesale centres, promising countless bargains for the savvy shopper.

After exploring the many faces of this evolving metropolis, a treatment at CHI, the spa at Shangri-La Shenyang, is the ideal way to relax, rejuvenate and should you be so inspired, to ponder the passage of time and the rise and fall of empires. In the Mukden Palace, a few faded strokes of the Manchu alphabet, a now dead language founded by Nurhaci, still dance above the palace doorways. A fitting analogy, like mighty Mukden of old and the rise of present day Shenyang, that power perpetually ebbs and flows.