British man records changes in Beijing in past 30 years

2017-07-19 10:48 ChineseTime

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Bruce Connolly (R) and Mr. Li. Photo taken in 1987. [Photo provided to]

"There are many ways of seeing landscape quite as good and none more vivid, in spite of canting dilettanti, than from a railway train." 19th century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson's book Thoughts on Walking.

Rail travel has always been, and still is, my preferred way to travel. Exactly 30 years ago this week I arrived in China by train on a journey from Glasgow, Scotland to Hong Kong's Hung Hom Station. China was a country I knew little about apart from a few confused preconceptions. It would have been easy to fly to Hong Kong but to appreciate a country, or in this case two continents, overland travel encompasses the geography, of watching Europe slowly give way to Asia, of meeting people and observing how they also physically changed, and learning from people about their countries. That journey was also a life changer. If I had not taken the train, my China story would never have happened - 30 years later this country remains my adopted home! The experiences - incredible!

A warm July evening, retreating from the gravelly wastes of Mongolia's Gobi Desert the green eighteen coach train pulled into Erlain, China's border town. A fellow passenger, Mr Li, a journalist with the People's Daily East Berlin office, shook my hand while welcoming me to China. Minutes later we were both under the train watching the wheel bogies being manually swapped for Chinese track gauges, narrower than Mongolian and Russian.

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Beijing taxis. Photo taken in 1994. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

The next morning I awoke in Datong, a centre for coal mining but for rail buffs it still produced some of the world's greatest steam locomotives. Following the Sangganhe River through northern Shaanxi and Hebei provinces this was a land of yellow earth with loess soil used in the construction of the Great Wall, watchtowers and even small walled towns and forts.

Beyond Zhangjiakou, crossing Guanting Reservoir and the Kangxi Grasslands, the train entered a tunnel to stop at Qinglongqiao (Green Dragon Bridge) Station. We had entered Badaling Pass. The Great Wall of China rose precipitously on either side of the tracks. The station opened in 1908, which includes the tomb and statue of Zhan Tianyou, known as the "Father of China's Railroad" due to his engineering work, for this was the first railway in China built without foreign assistance. Beyond Zhan's highly acclaimed 'zig-zag' section, the line descended towards Juyongguancun with stunning views of the Great Wall until emerging from the Pass at Nankou, arriving two hours later at a Beijing very different from today. However, many of my preconceptions were not quite accurate. For instance, outside Beijing Railway Station were large adverts for video cameras and modern household appliances.

In the 1970's Beijing boasted the "quietest rush hour in the world" - possibly nine million bicycles silently cruised the city's streets. The year 1987 was at the end of the bicycle era. Many people still cycled but not in the numbers I had imagined. Cars and imported taxis ran alongside the iconic yellow 'mianbao' (or bread van) mini-buses. Diesel trucks were common while buses were often electric-powered although quite basic in comfort. The metro had just two lines. Main roads, such as Chang'an were wide, while Erhuan (Second Ring Road) following the former Ming City Walls was a pleasure to travel on! Urban Beijing effectively stopping beyond what is today's Sanhuan (Third Ring Road).

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Tiananmen Gate in Beijing in late 1990's. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Residential architecture showed the evolution of post-1949 socialist housing from earlier four to six floor redbrick 'walk-ups' to the 18-floor tower blocks steadily appearing through the 1980s. Modern for that time, tall commercial buildings such as the International Hotel at Jianguomen were gradually changing what had been an almost uniformly low-rise skyline. Construction had started on China World at Guomao in 1985.

Another notion quickly dispelled - most people were not dressed in conformist blue or green heavy cotton. Men generally wore white shirts, with women in light cotton summer skirts or dresses, some even in beautiful silk qipao.

I was staying at the Friendship Hotel in what was suburban Haidian, with its outdoor pool, tennis courts and a rooftop bar where the sunset over the Western Hills could be appreciated with a cold Tsingtao Beer! Outside the gates across today's busy Zhongguancun South Street was another world - bicycle carts carried melons, horse-hauled carts transported cardboard for recycling - and beyond a ditch an outdoor market had a range of vegetables quite unknown to me.

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Beijing Railway Station in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Another concept quickly breaking was cuisine - Chinese food I had loved back in Scotland bore little resemblance to the sumptuous multi-course lunch and dinners experienced in Beijing and of course Peking duck at Quanjude Restaurant on Qianmen Dajie. Apart from breakfast, there was little or no western-style food but I honestly loved every meal and 30 years later still wonder why so many Chinese friends prefer western food. To me it felt like a 'gourmet's paradise' - so much was new, colorful, aromatic and delicious. International fast-food outlets had not yet arrived.

There was no wifi or internet anywhere in 1987. Phone calls at the hotel were pre-booked and I had to try to tell my family back in Scotland everything in three minutes!! Noticeably little English was spoken.

Sightseeing was quite intensive with so much crammed into three days but looking back it was disappointing not to walk around the hutong alleys or stand at Shichahai's Yindinqiao with the sun setting over Houhai. Shopping unfortunately did not involve Wangfujing, at that time Beijing's premier shopping street - instead it was the Friendship Store to use now thankfully long gone Foreign Exchange Certificates!

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
The Temple of Heaven. Photo taken in 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Sightseeing of course included urban Beijing's premier attraction - the Forbidden City. Its scale overwhelming with so much to take in but on that hot July day every gift shop in the palace was giving away free bottles of cold Coca Cola! A year later, back in Scotland I would relive the grandeur through Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. The Temple of Heaven was awe-inspiring. The Summer Palace in its tranquil pre-mass tourism days was utterly beautiful. To be honest, I could not get enough of Beijing. With its history, its classic urban geography and so many experiences every day it was like nowhere else I had previously visited. Tiananmen Square and Gate was a 'must see' with the instantly recognizable portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong along with the opportunity to visit his mausoleum in respectful silence.

My final day in Beijing was out to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall at Badaling. I was invited to touch the wall, for as was explained to me, "Chairman Mao said that you are not a real man until you have touched the Great Wall". A tough climb, on that hot, humid day reaching the top watchtower I took out my cassette recorder to catch sound-bites that would later be used on Radio Scotland's popular 'Travel Time' program. "If I sound breathless it is because I have just climbed up part of the Great Wall of China - there are so many people here, so many people and many wanting to talk with me. "Huanying. Haunying. You are welcome in China." It was a moment I always treasure - standing there I did not want to leave. I knew that in only a few days I had found something special, something different I was sure would bring me back some day. I realized giving talks to various audiences back in Scotland who through my accounts and images shared this fascination.

That evening I boarded a train south to the tropics, two days to Guangzhou and another life changing story. It would be seven more years before I returned to Beijing – a city making tumultuous changes in appearance and infrastructure but waiting to be rediscovered through camera, text and sound.

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
The Silver Ingot Bridge at Shichahai. Photo taken in 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Melons on bicycle cart in Haidian District, Beijing. Photo taken in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Suburban Beijing in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Beijing street scene in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
The Forbidden City. Photo taken in 1998. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Trucks and buses on a Beijing highway in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

A Beijing bus. Photo taken in 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

The Forbidden City. Photo taken in 2005. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

The Tiananmen Square. Photo taken in 1998. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

1987 - near the end of the bicycle era in Beijing. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Train from Moscow to Beijing near Badaling in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

The Badaling Great Wall. Photo taken in 1996. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Near Silver Ingot Bridge in Shichahai. Photo taken in 1995. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Kunming Lake at Summer Palace. Photo taken in 2003. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

Street scene near Summer Palace. Photo taken in 1987. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/]

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