Figure/Ground

Beijing

CONTENTS
Modern Beijing [ 13 photos ]
Old Beijing [ 18 photos ]
The Forbidden Palace [ 13 photos ]
Simatai Great Wall [ 10 photos ]

ARCHITECTURE

CCTV Headquarters
   - Rem Koolhaas/OMA [ 4 photos ]
National Centre for the Performing Arts
   - Paul Andreu [ 10 photos ]

8 YEARS AGO

Beijing [ June 2000 / 11 photos ]

My plan was to go to Simatai village and stay overnight at a farmer's home by the Great Wall, which sounded like an interesting experience. This way I can get an early start on the Wall the next morning.

There are two ways of getting to Simatai. The one recommended by everyone, from online discussion forums to travel guidebooks, is by bus, which is quicker, more comfortable and has more frequent service. The not recommended way is by rail. Guess which one I chose? Yup, the train. I like rail travel, what can I say?

There's one train per day from Beijing that goes to this town 20km away from Simatai called Gubeikou. The train gets there around 9 and I'm to take a taxi to get to Simatai and supposedly there are plenty of farmhouses available for lodging once I get there.

When I got to Gubeikou, I got off with maybe 3 other locals onto a barely lit and empty platform. One of them dashed to what looked like an exit so I followed him out. I figured it's best to get to where ever there might be taxis waiting, seeing as how the station is so empty and dark and this local must know where he's going since he's walking so briskly.

The gate connected to some stairs heading down the mountain (the station was high above the village below). Half-way down and as I was wondering if I went the right way the lights, what few there were, were turned off. I guess that was the last train of the day. So I was walking in pitch darkness, down the mountain and the guy in front of me had disappeared from sight by now. And the other two locals who had gotten off the train with me weren't behind me either, a bad sign that I might not have gone the right way. By the light of the moon I pressed on, as I can see some lights from the village at the foot of the mountain and going back up a dark mountain path wasn't so appealing.

Then, the walkway just ended in the middle of nowhere. I can see the backyard of some villager's houses a few hundred meters away through some thick bushes but I thought this can't possibly be the way out of the station so I reluctantly turned back around and climbed in pitch darkness back up the mountain.

Pretty scary actually.

Got back to the station, exhuasted from the hike up the mountain. The station people were completely unsurprised at seeing me, an obvious non-local, and completely disinterested in helping me (Mainlanders are a sully bunch, you tend to get curt, unhelpful answers if you ask them anything). I was hoping for some help and sympathy for a clueless outsider, perhaps help me call a car to pick me up? But all I got was a finger pointed in the general direction of the exit. The "exit," as it turned out, was just a paved road that starts at the end of the platform.

Whatever car service that would have been there to pick up the passengers from the last train was obviously long gone. My plan to get to the village at the foot of Simatai was now shot. I can only try to find lodging in this town.

I walked down this road, dimly lit in some parts and completely dark in others. It was so dark that I had to use the flash on my camera to take pictures of road signs in order to read them. It was half an hour of walking on dark mountain roads—with visions of getting lost and sleeping on the side of the road—before I emerged onto the main road where there were cars and a couple of dingy hotels.

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The media this week is full of stories about how bad the air in Beijing has been leading up to the Olympics, how it's shrouded in heavy gray, but the 8 days I was there in mid-July weren't that terrible. Sure, there were four dreadful gray days where visibility is fog-like, but there were also four clear ones, which is four more clear days than when I was in Beijing last time in 2000 (there was none that time).

* * *

More photos on Flickr: Beijing (July 2008).

And you can read my thoughts on Beijing on my blog.

All images and text copyright © Liao Yusheng. He can be reached at liao@yusheng.ca.