A relatively small, hazy industrial city in the Liaoning Province, Jinzhou will be on few travel itineraries. Boasting a population of over 3 million, all squeezed into a compact maze of districts new, old and falling apart (plus surrounding farmland), it didn't even get its first McDonalds until 2017.
And yet, once you look past its sometimes grubby exterior, ignore the staring locals and shake off the culture shock (my introduction to Jinzhou was via the back seat of a taxi, at 60mph, crashing through an actual cornfield at some point past midnight), one quickly acclimatises to the relaxed lifestyle (crazy taxis aside), quirky demeanour and beautiful surroundings. Not to mention the food. Oh, that Jinzhou Barbeque.
The first thing any local will tell you is that Jinzhou is famous for its barbeque. You'll have no trouble finding your hotpot or kung pao chicken, but the streets are primarily lined with shaokao restaurants and street vendors, peddling some of the best meat-and-veg-on-sticks I've tasted anywhere in China. A trip to the Night Market is essential for fans of authentic regional shaokao.
Walk off that food belly with a trip to Beiputoshan, the beautiful mountain and woodland park which sits on the city outskirts. After the hustle-bustle of city life, the sense of peace and serenity is astonishing, and both the forest and the mountain are often deserted. It's a steep but manageable incline to one of the mountain's many peaks, and if you get tired, you can always take the stair lift down. The park at its base has plenty to see and do too, including temples, lakes, ponds and rivers. You could spend all day there and still only see half of it.
If the ocean is more your pace, a visit to the beautiful Bija Shan is recommended; another mountain, but this one is an impressive hunk of island accessible only during low tide or by boat (local fishermen will happily ferry you across for a small price). Whether you're standing on the mountain or viewing it from the other side, Bija Shan offers some of the best sights the region has to offer.
Or one can take in a unique combination of culture, history and natural landscape at the Expo Park. In addition to its small stretch of gravel beach, it houses a number of the city's fossils and an impressive dinosaur museum, complete with animatronic Tyrannosaurs outside on the lawn. Elsewhere, the Wenya Museum is less overtly breath-taking, but it houses more than 300 Jurassic-era fossils and is a must-see for dino enthusiasts.
Staying within the confines of the city and its urban districts will serve you well too – Jinzhou is riddled with lush green parks and hidden-away temples. An enormous river splits the city in half; wandering along the pedestrianized banks and bridges makes for a wonderful way to spend a warm summer's afternoon. Those living in Jinzhou will find life made easier by a vast array of supermarkets, (often deserted) shopping malls and even Walmart. Be prepared for the locals to stare at you a lot, though – one senses that Jinzhou doesn't get a lot of visitors.
After a long day of exploring (or teaching!), sit down and relax in one of Jinzhou's many laid-back bars or restaurants. While the city isn't one of China's liveliest, it boasts a number of friendly, modern bars with an excellent range of imported beers, activities (pool, darts) and live music. The city's university takes in a surprisingly large number of foreign students, so it's a great way to meet new people – and there's a welcoming community of TEFL teachers too, if you know where to look (usually the bar). After that, there's always the KTVs, which range from classy to… not.
Whether it's for the weekend, a short holiday or you just can't take the gawping locals anymore, Jinzhou is a hub to a number of big cities and sights. In addition to its own airport, the train station will take you directly to Shenyang (the capital of Liaoning), Dalian, Harbin and even Beijing.
Those who do stick around may find themselves falling for this unassuming, odd little city. Its sights are varied and many, everyday life and cost of living a breeze. There are more impressive, more cultural, more lively cities in China, but there's only one Jinzhou. And now it even has a McDonalds.