Benxi is a small city by Chinese standards, with a population of around 1.5 million inhabitants. It was once identified by the UN as one of the world’s top 10 polluted cities, unidentifiable from satellite. This grotesque past certainly isn’t evident today. Of course there is the smoggy haze that blights most Chinese cities, but for most days un-obscured blue skies can be seen.
Off the beaten tourist track, the number of permanent foreigners in Benxi usually numbers below ten. Alongside Benxi Future English School, there is only one public school that hires foreign teachers. Other foreigners you are likely to meet are the odd engineer coming to Benxi Steel, the largest employer in the city. With so few foreigners you are always seen as an oddity. You will be stared at everywhere you go. Strangers will want to talk to you. Students will follow you, giggling at everything you do. You will receive attention reserved normally for celebrities. This added a new dimension to living in a small Chinese city.
With few foreigners, communication can sometimes be an issue. Very few people speak English to a conversational level. Saying this, it often surprised me where and when you would meet somebody with impressive English skills. Not being able to fall back on speaking English was one of the main draws of coming to Benxi and not once did I see the lack of English speakers as a negative. Such a situation was perfect for learning and practising Chinese.
If you crave Western amenities there are some western foods available in supermarkets (Vanguard being the best stocked) and restaurants (Europaer has several branches around the city and serves a selection of pizza and pasta). Benxi also has three KFC’s and a Pizza Hut but the lack of McDonalds shows it doesn’t feature prominently with foreigners. Chinese food is plentiful and cheap, especially dumplings, the local favourite. Expect to pay between 10RMB and 50RMB for a meal.
Apart from one nightclub and a handful of bars (with BJB’s and 37 Degrees being the best), nightlife in Benxi is very tame. If you are wanting a drinking and party culture, Benxi isn’t for you. Shenyang is close enough to satisfy these cravings, but with only the one day holiday each week it’s not always an option. Other highlights for an evening’s entertainment include a cinema, bowling and an endless supply of KTV karaoke joints on virtually every street.
Around Benxi, there are plenty of places to visit. Amongst the most famous are Benxi Water Caves, Guan Men Shan (Close Door Mountain) National Park, Ping Ding Mountain and further a field, the cities of Shenyang (which has a smaller version of the Forbidden City and all western luxuries), Anshan (the world’s largest jade Buddha) and Dandong (which straddles the border with North Korea and has a section of the Great Wall). All are worthy of at least day visits.