Beijing Underground (And a Visit With the Chairman)

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Notes from Beijing

Beijing has four subway lines. The oldest, built along the path of the former city wall, dates to the 1960s; the latest, which connects the Olympic Park with the Inner City, opened just a week before our arrival. Six more lines are planned to open by 2020—a program so ambitious that some subway maps show more lines “under construction” than actually in use. Despite the inclination of the tour leaders to protect us from the unknowns of public transportation in the Chinese capital, some of us wanted to explore the underground.

Hannah studies the subway map. There are four lines in operation and another six planned.

On Oct. 15, after we finished up at Peking University, Hannah, Sohail, Gerhardt, and I figured that there must be a subway stop nearby and asked Jack to arrange to drop us off. From there, we thought we could ride the old Red Line to the new No. 5 line, change trains, and head south to the Dengshikou stop, which was right under our hotel. Considering Beijing’s heavy street traffic, we were pretty sure we could beat the bus.

He said they would let us off at the first available stop, but after another half hour on the bus—including about 15 minutes on the fourth ring road—we knew we were being coddled. When the driver finally pulled up to a subway entrance, it was the No. 5 line—a straight shot to the hotel. We still beat the bus, but further underground exploration would have to be postponed. Later, we found out that tour buses cannot park or let people off anywhere. Police cameras are watching—as they are in every big city—and the bus operator will get a ticket if the bus stops in a forbidden place.

The No. 5 line is so new that its card-reading turnstiles are still under wraps. Tickets (2 yuan per ride—about 23 cents—recently reduced from 3 yuan to encourage greater use of public transportation) were purchased at a ticket booth and then torn in half by uniformed staff at the top of the escalator. (The Chinese love uniforms, but that could be the subject of another post.) Perhaps because it was so new, the line was surprisingly uncrowded, even at 5:30 p.m.

A glass wall with automatic gates separated the platform from the tracks, as in some U.S. airport shuttles, and lighted billboards brightened the opposite wall. An electronic display forecast the arrival of upcoming trains, and the next arrived precisely on time. The air-conditioned cars were of the most modern design, with LED displays showing the progress of the train from station to station and recorded announcements in both Chinese and English. We were the only Westerners on the subway. In three days of using the system, I saw just one other Caucasian. (The rest were confined to tour buses, I suppose.)

A platform on the new No. 5 line, which opened just a week before our arrival in Beijing.

Jim descends the stairs after having his ticket taken.

A subway ad for Internet service—“faster than a speeding bullet!” More later on advertising in China.

On Wednesday, after returning from the Great Wall, Carol, Jim, Hannah, Gerhart, and I decided to try to see Chairman Mao in his great mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. We had noted the hours: open until 4:30. We hopped on the No. 5 at Dengshikou and, after going one stop in the wrong direction, turned around and transferred to the No. 1, getting off at Tiananmen East. It was a short walk to the mausoleum, but we were disappointed. It had closed for the day. There would be just one more chance early the following morning, before the group left for Dongyue and the airport.

Tiananmen East is one of two stops for the square. It’s also the closest to the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, where one can view his remains.

We were told that Mao wished to be cremated. Instead he got this massive mausoleum.

Monuments call for monumental sculpture. A pair of these flank the entrance to Mao’s memorial.

Carol and Jim headed back to the hotel to rest, but rest of us wanted to explore further, so we set ourselves a destination of the main Beijing railway station in the southeast corner of the city. (The day before, Jack had pointed out a monstrous Victorian station not far from the Front Gate, built by the British after the Boxer Rebellion. Like old railroad stations the world over, this one has been turned into a shopping mall and food court. No trains arrive there.)

We retraced our route on the No. 1, transferring to the Red Line. A few stops later, we emerged from the ground in the middle of yet another huge construction project surrounding the Beijing Station. Workers were renewing the streetscape in front of the station entrance. Inside, we found a large open space. Up the escalator was a long concourse with shops and gates to a dozen different train platforms.

The plaza in front of the main Beijing railway station is being reconstructed. There are hundreds of such infrastructure projects underway in Beijing in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics.

The main hall of the station. The train platforms are reached from a concourse upstairs.

On the concourse are a series of ceiling murals depicting past Olympic games. Note the flying kangaroo!

Once again, we were the only Westerners—a feeling that is strange and a little lonely, but never uncomfortable. Mostly, the Chinese ignore you as they go about their business. Direct eye contact is infrequent, but those who make it usually nod and sometimes smile in a friendly way. Younger people are more likely to engage in this kind of fleeting personal contact, which almost never occurs in tourist hotspots. There, the foreigners are either totally ignored or are the object of commercial interest.

On our last morning in Beijing, Carol, Jim, and I became the diehard seekers of Mao. Everyone else was packing and having breakfast as we headed out the door for Tiananmen. The mausoleum was scheduled to open at 8:30, and we hopped on the train at about 7:45. After checking my camera at a security desk (5 yuan), we got on line.

The line outside Mao Zedong Memorial Hall was short at 8:15 a.m. It is controlled by military guards and a detail of the ubiquitous plainclothes police (man with back to camera) who are everywhere, just standing and watching.

Just as in Hanoi (where I viewed Ho Chi Minh’s “remains” in 2006), there were lots of guards shushing everyone and getting us lined up in ranks of four. The Chinese were a lot more casual about it, however, perhaps because although they respect Mao Zedong’s historical legacy—his face is on almost all the paper money—he is less and less relevant in today’s China.

The outer room of the mausoleum had a Lincolnesque statue of Mao sitting in an easy chair. Remember the chairs he and Nixon sat in in 1972? Same chair. Many Chinese visitors had purchased bouquets of flowers from a kiosk just outside the massive building, and they laid them in three neat piles before the statue. (We wondered whether they would be gathered up and resold.)

Ranks of four split into ranks of two. There was a huge tapestry behind the statue depicting the entire country from the Himalayas to the sea—quite beautiful, really. We filed slowly into doors on either side of the seated white jade Mao, and there he was inside a giant glass enclosure—a waxy, rosy-cheeked figure that looked surprisingly like the idealized portrait of that hangs on the Ti’an An Gate. If this is truly the mummified body of the Great Leader, it’s also a very consisten marketing effort. Brand Mao.

The flow of the line kept you moving; you wanted to look and, well, you didn’t, but no matter. In 20 seconds, bang, you were through the next door and—surprise—in the gift shop! After all the serious hero worship and history, Mao’s mausoleum turns out to be just another blockbuster exhibit with zig-zag lines and a souvenir stand, another Renoir or King Tut show. Welcome to the New New China: part developing nation, part theme park.

Me and Mao in the garden of a restaurant near the Great Wall. His image isn’t plastered all over, but kitschy representations like this are found everywhere. I bought a watch with a figure of Mao that waves his hand every second, and a deck of Mao playing cards.

Of course, each of us bought a souvenir. It was, all in all, a worthwhile experience, if only because we can say we’ve seen it. For me, it was No. 2 on a life list of what a friend on the Vietnam trip called the “Three Red Stiffs”—which, of course, begs a trip to Moscow.


5 responses to “Beijing Underground (And a Visit With the Chairman)

  1. Jeff,

    Fine reporting as always, and a pleasure to follow. As I recall, you didn’t get o pose with the first red stiff! Thanks for putting in pix of Hannah and to get a sense of the detours you all are following.

  2. I loved the great subway adventure. Maybe at 5:30 it isn’t crowded because they are all still at work. The photography is great, as usual.

    Your poor tour bus driver is probably being interrogated somewhere, just so you could ride the subway.

    It is stunning how conditions have improved in China over the last 100 years, but so much suffering to get where they are now.

    It’s hard to imagine what it might be like in another 100 years, but probably as different from today as the present time is from the early 20th Century.

  3. best site i have seen to date of china because it was both well written & photos were masterful.
    my dream is to experience china. am in a wheelchair – is light weight. am 59 can do some transporting with a walker. do you think (from what you saw) my husband & i could do china? sandra

  4. I wrote back to Sandra. If you could post more information on traveling to China in a wheelchair or with other disabilities, please post them here.

    My reply to Sandra:

    I wish I could be more encouraging about getting around in China with a significant disability. It will be a long time before they pass a Chinese with Disabilities Act. Even longer before they really start to enforce/implement it. (OK, it’s taking a long while here too.) I’m probably not the right person to ask (sure you’ve searched the web for other info on travel with a disability), but I’d say that if you don’t have other health issues, you would probably be OK in Beijing or Shanghai, staying in modern hotels, using taxis or hired cars for transport, and not expecting to see every last thing.

    That said, you have to realize that until maybe 20 minutes ago, the Chinese had a tradition of building doorways as if there were about to be a flood. Like, you have to step over something just to get into every temple/palace/hotong/whatever. I can walk OK, but I was constantly tripping over these 8 or 10 inch high “sills.” Maddening, and I remember thinking that my mother-in-law, who used a walker for quite a while, would have been out of luck. And there are steps everywhere. Other than severely wounded beggars in a few places, I did not see disabled Chinese going about the cities visited. But if you have the desire and the courage, perhaps you can bang open a few doors there.

    I’ll post your comment on my blog along with a request for info. Follow it for a few weeks and see if anyone has any ideas about traveling to China in a wheelchair. In the old days, if you had the money, you could have hired Chinese laborers to carry you wherever you wanted to go. But that’s probably not your idea of tourism.

    Thanks for your kind words about my writing and photos. If you get to China, please let me know how it goes. Myself, I can’t wait to go back.


  5. Louis Wickham Frazier

    Thanks for your experiences. I, 82 and my wife, 68, in pretty good health, will try to soak up as much as we can. She walks two miles a day, I can no longer keep up with her. We are non singing companions to her older sister, who will sing with a New York group. I had favorite cousins who grew up in China whose families go back to Oberlin and Boxer and a Chinese regiment in WW1. We have furniture and other mementos from family visits scattered among our family households.
    And another woman cousin in my mother’s generation who married a Liang, who came out as the communists came in, and who I never met.
    (She was the daughter of American impressionist painter, Charles Courtney Curran.)
    I believe they ran a motel in the east – east, that is, of Norwalk, Ohio, our home town from 1820.
    My good fortune to finally get to China!
    Louis Wickham Frazier, Long Island, NY.

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