Jilin Province, 302km (187 miles) NE of Shenyang, 250km (155 miles) SW of Harbin

Changchun is remote enough to feel authentic, is friendly and modern enough to be comfortable, and has just enough pop-history background to make it interesting. Between 1932 and 1945, it was the capital of Japanese-controlled Manchukuo (Manzhou Guo) and home to puppet ruler Henry Puyi, the bespectacled final Qing emperor best known to Westerners as the subject of Bernardo Bertolucci's lush biopic The Last Emperor. The city provided a base for Japan's brutal World War II colonization campaign and was slated to sit at the center of a postwar empire that never materialized.

Changchun, now the capital of Jilin Province, has gained fame in the modern era as the Detroit of China, producing first Red Flag cars for Communist Party cadres and later Volkswagens for China's new middle class. Recent economic hardships have sent the city in search of tourism dollars and prompted admirable restorations of several Manchukuo-era buildings. But the city's greatest attraction is still its people, as unpretentious, warm-hearted, and quick-witted as any in the country.

The rest of Jilin Province mirrors Changchun in many ways. Less convenient than Liaoning to the south and lacking the "extreme travel" cachet of Heilong Jiang and Inner Mongolia to the north and west, it quietly offers several of Dongbei's most enjoyable attractions. Changbai Shan, a dramatic mountain straddling the China-North Korea border, is the most famous. Just as compelling is the seldom-visited Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture to the north.