Yanji: small border city featuring ethnic Korean culture becomes popular spot in China after pandemic
Going the distance
Published: Feb 23, 2023 08:03 PM
A visitor poses for photos in the Korean Folk Village on February 15, 2023. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

A visitor poses for photos in the Korean Folk Village on February 15, 2023. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

As night fell, 75 billboards lit up one by one, neon flashing and dazzling onlookers. As the signs lit up the night, tourists took out their mobile phones and posed for selfies to record this beautiful moment.

This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, which attract tons of tourists for their colorful shining billboards. 

This is Yanji, a small city in Northeast China's Jilin Province. The spectacular neon billboard wall opposite the gate to Yanbian University has become one of the most iconic landmarks in the region, attracting nearly 1 million tourists to the small city this winter.

The city, with a population of about 600,000, is administrated by the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, home to a large population of ethnic Koreans with a distinct heritage in culture, cuisine and architecture.

The city has become one of the most popular travel destinations in China since the country downgraded its COVID-19 management. It is a great place for tourists who are interested in experiencing the culture and history of the Korean people.

During the recent Spring Festival, Yanji received a total of 890,000 tourists, a year-on-year increase of 195.7 percent, realizing tourism revenue of 1.48 billion yuan ($214.6 million), a year-on-year increase of 270 percent, the local publicity department told the Global Times.

Recently, the Global Times reporters visited Yanji to experience the city's unique culture, as well as try to find out the secret to its magical attraction.

A stall sells kimchi in the morning market in Yanji, Northeast China's Jilin Province. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

A stall sells kimchi in the morning market in Yanji, Northeast China's Jilin Province. Photo: Shan Jie/GT

Princess for a day

In Yanji, you can be a princess for a day.

In the Korean Folk Village in the city suburbs, visitors wearing elegant traditional Korean ethnic clothing, who are jokingly called "the escaping princesses or princes," pose in front of local traditional cottages.

This village is a recreation of a traditional Korean village and is home to several cultural activities, including traditional Korean dance performances and handicrafts as well as Korean barbecue.

Tourists can easily rent a full set of traditional Korean clothing inside the park. Inside the clothing rental shops, there are hundreds of choices, from gorgeous king and queen outfits, elegant wedding outfits to sweet dresses for young women. 

There are also many newly designed outfits that incorporate the aesthetics of modern people. With fresh colors and more fashionable designs, they have been welcomed by young tourists.

Zhang Chunmei, the store manager of Sugain, a clothing rental shop in the park, told the Global Times that a visitor could spend about 500 yuan to become a princess, which includes a rented costume, a Korean makeup makeover and the services of a photographer.

"We serve several hundred 'princesses' every day," Zhang said in a statement. 

"Tourists all want to make beautiful memories here."

In addition to trying on Korean clothing, visitors can also taste authentic Korean rice wine and rice cakes in the park, which are local intangible cultural heritages that have been passed on over the generations.

According to locals, college students from all over the country make up the main force of tourists. 

"Yanji is a delicious, fun and beautiful city. Traveling in Yanji is full of happiness," said one "princess."

Han Chengjie, general manager of the Yanbian Chuntian media company, which runs the folk village, said that they plan to upgrade the park in the spring. 

"We plan to build more landmarks and prepare small gifts for visitors," he said. 

"Scarecrows with Korean characteristics will be added to the courtyard to enhance our folk culture atmosphere," Han added.

Traditional and modern

In Yanji, a typical day for a tourist usually begins in the water market in the city center.

The local morning market, only open from about 6 am to 10 am, is always full of tourists, who weave between hawkers selling rice cakes, strawberries, or various kimchi creations.

Tourists can buy the most authentic and traditional Korean food here, because this is what locals usually eat.

The day in Yanji also ends with delicious food.

The innovative modern restaurant Big Exclamation Point in Yanji is usually overcrowded by 6 pm. 

Featuring unique decorations such as indoor streetscapes and tents, the restaurant also has dishes that are more in line with current Chinese tastes, such as dry-roasted beef sausage, grilled cheese and iced strawberry smoothies.

The shop's signature drink is creamy rice wine. Many tourists take away a bottle or two to share with friends in their hometown after trying some at the restaurant.

Global Times reporters found some tourists were lined up outside the restaurant with their suitcases, hoping to make some more good memories before leaving Yanji.