Bei­jing: Past and Present

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China Pictorial (English) - - News - Text by Rag­nar Bal­durs­son

fter a glance at Bei­jing’s sky­line to­day, it would be hard to imag­ine its ap­pear­ance in the 1970s, when the Bei­jing Ho­tel was the tallest build­ing in down­town Bei­jing. To­day, it is dwarfed by dozens of con­crete gi­ants flank­ing Chang’an Av­enue. In­stead of bi­cy­cles, the streets are jammed with cars. The sim­ple uni­forms of the 1970s—uni­sex blue, green or gray out­fits—are long gone. Peo­ple are in­di­vid­u­ally dressed in col­or­ful cloth­ing and mod­ern fash­ion, set off by mas­sive bill­boards and screens along the shop­ping streets.

How­ever, many re­minders and relics of the past are still clearly vis­i­ble. The por­trait of Chair­man Mao still watches over Tian’an­men Square. Re­cently, rental bikes be­came pop­u­lar on road­side paths where car traf­fic is re­stricted.

Some old dis­tricts full of nar­row al­leys have been pre­served, and the lay­out of the city still hear­kens to the time Bei­jing could be de­scribed as the big­gest vil­lage in the world.

Long Jour­ney to Red China

I first ar­rived in Bei­jing in the au­tumn of 1975. The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion an­nounced that China would grant schol­ar­ships to two Ice­landic stu­dents to re­turn the fa­vor af­ter an Ice­landic high school ac­cepted two Chi­nese stu­dents. I ap­plied as soon as I heard. The slo­gans of China’s “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” had echoed down the hall­ways of my high school. I was young, ad­ven­tur­ous and keen on learn­ing lan­guages.

In those days, plane tick­ets to Bei­jing were never af­ford­able, and direct flights were near im­pos­si­ble to find. It was not ex­actly open for in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers. We flew to Lux­em­bourg, where we hitched a flight to Hong Kong with an Ice­landic ndic air-cargo com­pany, Car­goloux.

It was a long flight with many stops to load and un­load cargo. Af­ter ter al­most 40 hours, we ar­rived in Hong ng Kong, which was a Bri­tish colony at the time. I found it chaotic and noisy. sy.

The Chi­nese Em­bassy in Ice­land and had given us the ad­dress of the state-run China Travel Ser­vice in Hong Kong. A young lady care­fully lly in­spected our pass­ports and read a let­ter we brought from the em­bassy. ssy. She was sur­prised that we didn’t know the name of the school we were to at­tend.

The next morn­ing, we over­came me ag­gres­sive porters and dragged our r own lug­gage onto a train bound for r Guangzhou, a south­ern coastal city y near Hong Kong. We were re­lieved d r. when we fi­nally reached the bor­der.

Only a hand­ful of other for­eign­ers ners could be found on the train, who were all headed to a fair in Guangzhou.

Bor­der in­spec­tion took a long time. The bor­der of­fi­cials had never er seen Ice­landic pass­ports be­fore. They hey seemed puz­zled that we did not know ow which school we were to at­tend. But ut thanks to our valid visas and await­ing ng con­tact at the Bei­jing Train Sta­tion, , we

were ad­mit­ted into the coun­try.

Cus­toms in­spec­tion was also time-con­sum­ing. There weren’t any English-speak­ing of­fi­cials avail­able at that time and the cus­toms au­thor­i­ties wanted to find some­one who could com­mu­ni­cate with us.

In fact, no one was fa­mil­iar with any of the Nordic lan­guages, or even Esperanto. When I noted that I had stud­ied some Ger­man in high school, the road­block was fi­nally over­come. We were in­tro­duced to a young of­fi­cial who could speak enough Ger­man to help us. The of­fi­cer was friendly de­spite his many ques­tions. We were his only case of that whole day.

Fi­nally, the jour­ney con­tin­ued, and in Guangzhou we boarded a dif­fer­ent train bound for Bei­jing. I sat by the win­dow to catch glimpses of the Chi­nese coun­try­side and cities as we passed. Every­thing starkly con­trasted with the scenery I saw in Ice­land. It felt like a whole dif­fer­ent world.

First Im­pres­sion of Bei­jing

A teacher at Bei­jing Lan­guage In­sti­tute (later re­named Bei­jing Cul­ture and Lan­guage Univer­sity) was wait­ing for us at the Bei­jing Train Sta­tion when we ar­rived early on the morn­ing of Oc­to­ber 25, 1975. He helped carry our lug­gage to a lo­cally pro­duced mini­van, of which he seemed proud. He over­saw the West­ern stu­dents at the school and told us to call him Teacher Bi.

We drove down a wide street, Chang’an Av­enue, which trans­lates to “Street of Long Last­ing Peace,” he said. It was the cen­tral thor­ough­fare of Bei­jing and steady streams of bi­cy­cles zipped around the buses and a few cars.

The Bei­jing Ho­tel was on the right. We drove past Tian’an­men Square, the big­gest square in China, if not the world. A large paint­ing of Chair­man Mao graced the gate of the For­bid­den City, and I could see the Great Hall of the Peo­ple on the left.

I thought he might be mak­ing a tour of Bei­jing be­fore head­ing to our school. I would even­tu­ally re­al­ize that the train sta­tion was at the city cen­ter and that it was ac­tu­ally the short­est route. We turned right onto a nar­row street flanked with low brick houses and al­leys.

So be­gan my first day in Bei­jing, dubbed the big­gest vil­lage in the world at that time. The large mu­nic­i­pal­ity was home to a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of around seven mil­lion back then. Later I re­al­ized that two to three mil­lion of them were essen­tially farm­ers liv­ing in pe­riph­eral coun­ties rel­a­tively far from the down­town area. Ur­ban res­i­dents num­bered only about four mil­lion at that time.

The city had vast dis­tricts of tra­di­tional one-story brick houses or “rooms” built in a square around small court­yards that serve as a com­mon area. Each court­yard had an im­pos­ing gate, open­ing into a maze of nar­row lanes called “hu­tong.” Many fam­i­lies had lived there for gen­er­a­tions.

A grow­ing piece of the Bei­jing pop­u­la­tion lived in en­closed com­pounds of multi-sto­ried build­ings fur­nished by the em­ploy­ing in­sti­tu­tion or la­bor unit. High walls sur­rounded them with guarded gates to in­tim­i­date un­wanted guests. Grad­u­ally, I came to re­al­ize that these com­pounds func­tioned as vil­lages within the city, both struc­turally and so­cially. Each unit pro­vided spe­cial­ized ser­vices like many of the vil­lages in the coun­try­side.

The Mod­ern Bei­jing

Af­ter four decades of re­form and con­struc­tion, I find it amaz­ing that the lay­out of Bei­jing has still re­tained fea­tures of an over­pop­u­lated coun­try­side, where ten thou­sand blocks and sky­scrapers are jammed into lim­ited space linked with a few traf­fic-jammed high­ways and ring roads. To­day, the pop­u­la­tion has ex­ploded to over twenty mil­lion. For­tu­nately, some rem­nants of tra­di­tional “hu­tong” dis­tricts have been pre­served and ren­o­vated and still hide in the shad­ows of high-rises.

Only in re­cent years have city ad­min­is­tra­tors adopted a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to ur­ban plan­ning. Con­sid­er­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Bei­jing as a tra­di­tional nu­cleus of China’s so­ci­ety and civ­i­liza­tion, it is now be­ing ex­tended as a mod­ern me­trop­o­lis as it in­te­grates with neigh­bor­ing ar­eas of Tian­jin and He­bei Province.

New cen­ters of gov­er­nance and de­vel­op­ment are planned in Tongzhou Dis­trict of Bei­jing, two dozen kilo­me­ters east of Bei­jing’s Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict, and Xiong’an New Area, south­west of the Chi­nese cap­i­tal, in He­bei Province. I hope that af­ter all these changes, some parts of Bei­jing will pre­serve the vil­lage charm—hope­fully with­out traf­fic jams.

VCG

Au­gust 30, 2013: A bird'seye view of Chang'an Av­enue at night. Re­plac­ing bi­cy­cles, Chang'an Av­enue is now al­ways jammed with cars and forms an end­less “dragon” of au­to­mo­biles dur­ing rush hours.

CFB

The river of bi­cy­cles on Chang'an Av­enue in the late 1970s tes­ti­fies to the promi­nence of bi­cy­cles in Chi­nese cities in the past. China was once known as the “king­dom of bi­cy­cles”.

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