Two years have passed since I spent three months in Beijing in 2007 and it only seems like yesterday that I was writing a series of posts about how Beijing was changing in its mad dash to get ready for the 2008 Olympics. Of course the games are long over but the city has been forever changed by its passing and on my first return two weeks ago I was surprised at the extent of the transformation. Using photos I snapped on previous visits (and a few more I found online)  I’ve put together a few comparative impressions from my fleeting visit…

Pollution & Traffic

Upon landing at Beijing Capital International Airport we were greeted with the all-too-familiar blanket of smog suffocating the suns light casting a grey hue over the city’s many architectural monstrosities. Whist initially depressing things cleared up for the rest of the week with almost-blue skies giving much better visibility than I ever remember in the past. A wander through the Forbidden City and up the hill in Jingshan Park visibly confirmed this:

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park – March 2008

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

April 2009

Overlooking The Forbidden City

What was an invisible haze in early 2008 is now a beautiful vista in 2009. Whether it would be like this everyday is another matter but with this sort of view the imagination runs wild. I quite fancy the job of Emperor if it comes with a palace like this!

Hall of Supreme Harmony – March 2008

Undergoing Restoration in the Smog

April 2009

Forbidden No Longer

Aside from the much improved view the restoration work has now been completed on the centrepiece of the Forbidden City. I hesitate to use the word “restore” as its not so much preserving the original as it is replicating and rebuilding to reproduce the original look which is a sad reflection on China’s obsession with new being good and old being bad.

As for the traffic – it’s just as bad, if not worse, than it ever was. Taxi drivers are still rude and unhelpful.

Restoration

When climbing the Great Wall at Mutianyu previously there was a certain point at watchtower 20 where you could go no further due to the deterioration of the wall (and a man stationed to stop you!) but over the past year they seem to have done a big restoration effort and are opening up further sections:

Mutianyu Great Wall – March 2008

In Need of Restoration

April 2009

After Restoration (2009)

I didn’t have time to climb the new section but it looks exciting. The nice part about Mutianyu is the relative lack of people compared to Badaling which is the main tourist site being closer to Beijing. The quickest way to get there is by a bus from near Xuanwumen subway station.

Subway

The Beijing subway used to be somewhat of a groaning monster under the streets which was neither comfortable nor convenient to use and invariably overcrowded most of the time. This has mostly changed with the advent of an automated ticketing system, new/refurbished trains and additional lines to ride on making the city much more accessible. There are still too many people but this is more bearable now that the trains have working AC:

September 2006

DSC_5597
Photo by Tan Yu

April 2008

P1020444

Weirdly they are still insisting on scanning everyone’s bag as they enter the station which seems more of a token act than a real security precaution. It’s almost like nobody has told them the games are over or that now ticket checkers are no longer needed that the staff have been blindly given this job to keep them employed. Whatever the reason it’s a bit of a hassle and bottleneck.

Destruction

The saddest part of my trip was seeing the newly rebuilt Qianmen street that has taken the place of some fascinating old hutongs which have been almost totally destroyed. I’ve written about this specific act of cultural vandalism before so I’ll try not repeat myself but it makes me feel quite sick at what they’ve done.

Qianmen – March 2006

Qianmen
Photo by mikeccross

March 2009

South of Qianmen
Photo by olgainchina

Disneyfication:

..the processes of stripping a real place or event of its original character and repackaging it in a sanitized format. References to anything negative are removed, and the facts are watered down with the intent of making the subject more pleasant and easily grasped. In the case of places, this typically means replacing what has grown organically over time with an idealized and tourist-friendly veneer…

I know which one I prefer.

Beijing is undoubtedly a more modern and easier city to navigate for all its recent changes but in the process of modernisation a big part of the old China has been lost to be replaced with something frankly more generic and fake which is a big pity. I only hope that the country can wake up to saving what it’s got before it’s all lost.

Comments

  1. this was really interesting.

    i think my greatest dismay are your pictures of mutianyu and qianmen.

    especially in mutianyu, the rebuilding looks artificial. it’s destroyed the sense of historical continuity — my opinion is that they should have protected it in such a way so as to retain its state, as it was.

    but that’s a looooong conversation.

    great post.

    • David says:

      Thanks, the saddest thing is that this sort of historic cleansing seems to be happening all over the country. It seems that in the headlong rush for development nothing is sacred.

  2. Jesse says:

    this is a very interesting comparative series. i feel the same way about the great wall that you feel about qianmen. i’d much rather see the original ruins than a gentrified remake. anyways nice photos. i was in beijing in august 2004 for a month and then again for the olympics, and the differences were astounding. i’d even put beijing on the same level as singapore as far as cleanliness and orderliness go, at least during the olympics.

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comment Jessie. I always wish I had had a chance to see Beijing 10 or 20 years ago as the differences must have been even more fascinating. In another 20 years it will probably be totally different again so I’m glad to have been able to see a little of the “old Beijing” before it totally disappears forever.

  3. clarke says:

    great composition, I’m sending this out all my friends who went there for the Olympics

    there is a noticeable difference with the smog, but I do feel worse when in Shanghai or Shenzhen; then I ever did in Beijing. It’s also good to know the places which haven’t been disneyfied.

    • David says:

      Thanks Clarke! I surprised you found the pollution worse in Shanghai and Shenzhen. I always thought that with the sea air that Shenzhen at least was a bit better but I supposed I’ve not experienced a hot & hazy summer here yet.

      • clarke says:

        some to degree, I think it’s where you are in all 3 cities.
        my offices are not in the downtown area…Fen Tai District in BJ, Songjiang in SH, & Che Gong Miao in SZ…..(I was often the only caucasian walking around)

        Shanghai I thought was the worst, cough w/ itchy eyes. Out in Songjiang it wasn’t too bad, though I used to stay Xuhui District near the stadium

        Shenzhen, scratch in back of throat; felt it more around the Lo Wu area, but that’s probably not helped by the buses & trains.

        Beijing, scratch w/ itchy eyes. Probably with all the sandstorms, that doesn’t help too much either.

        • David says:

          Good point. I spend most my time in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen which I suppose is closer to the sea than Lo Wu to an extent and a little less densely developed. I think after a few weeks here I adjusted to it and don’t notice the pollution any more although goodness knows what it does to your health!

  4. Stevo says:

    Great then and now shots. I was in Beijing recently but have no way to compare what I saw to what was.

  5. Victoria says:

    Your following thoughts mirror mine almost 100%:
    “I hesitate to use the word “restore” as its not so much preserving the original as it is replicating and rebuilding to reproduce the original look which is a sad reflection on China’s obsession with new being good and old being bad.”

    “Weirdly they are still insisting on scanning everyone’s bag as they enter the station which seems more of a token act than a real security precaution.”

    “Beijing is undoubtedly a more modern and easier city to navigate for all its recent changes but in the process of modernisation a big part of the old China has been lost to be replaced with something frankly more generic and fake which is a big pity.”

    Couldn’t say it better myself.

    Beijing isn’t a place I particularly like but I wish to come back for the Mitianyu section of the Wall. I have previously been to Badaling and Simatai, but I hear Mitianyu is more challenging and certainly looks a lot more authentic.

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