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Liaoning Province, 868km (538 miles) NE of Beijing, 544km (337 miles) SW of Harbin

Shenyang is the largest city in Dongbei and on its way to being a lovely gateway in the region. The city -- formerly an industrial area sprawling with the chaos of dirt and noise -- has gradually transformed into a cleaner modern city where historical buildings stand bathed in new consumerism. As one of the four hosting cities for the 2008 Olympics soccer matches, it has benefited from the efforts to reduce pollution and boost citizens' English efficiency. It was the birthplace of the Qing dynasty in the 15th century and is now the capital of Liaoning, Dongbei's southernmost and wealthiest province. Many travelers spend only enough time here to switch trains, but it is worthwhile to linger in the city, which is home to several of Dongbei's most fascinating historical attractions.

Shenyang has existed under various names since the Tang dynasty (618-907) and has been the region's most strategically important city since 1625, when Jurchen founders of the Qing dynasty (1626-1912) made it their capital (Shenjing). The Qing's leaders stayed here for 19 years, perfecting a system of government modeled on the Chinese and plotting an attack on the weakened Ming from inside their palace, which still stands in the city center. With the decline of the Qing at the start of the 20th century, the city (renamed Fengtian) fell under the influence of legendary warlord Zhang Zuolin. Zhang ruled Manchuria from his downtown residence courtyard complex just south of the Qing palace, until his assassination by Japanese soldiers in 1928. The city drifted without obvious leadership until the fall of 1931, when Japan's Kwantung Army used the "discovery" of a small hole blasted in their railway line north of the city (known to them as Mukden) as a pretense to invade. The attack, referred to in China as the September 18th (or Mukden) Incident and immortalized in a museum in the north part of the city, eventually led to the establishment of Manchukuo (Mandarin: Manzhou Guo), the puppet state Japan used to mask its territorial ambitions during World War II.

The mayor who transformed Dalian into the shimmering pride of northern China, now the governor of Liaoning Province, has vowed to work his magic on the capital. Shenyang has never been pretty, but perhaps it doesn't need to be. "[Mukden] is ancient and dusty, with nothing especially attractive," one visiting Catholic missionary wrote in 1919. "I found it very interesting." The same holds true today.

The city is building its subway system to ease its busy traffic. One of the three lines has started to run in late 2009, with stations at popular spots such as Shenyang Zhan, Nanjing Jie, and Zhong Jie. The entire network is target to be completed in 2015. A massive bus station, with 40 bus routes and connecting with the subway's Pangjiang Jie station, will open in the end of June, 2010.