Every city around the world aims to impress with a modern new airport. Airports are monuments to advancement and gateways to trade, so it makes sense to build a new and exciting one. Beijing’s Capital Internatonal Airport was certainly no disappointment, its clean modern gates and sinuous ceiling arching across the sky. As we landed around midnight, the gates were deserted, save a Emirates crew disembarking, walking across the customs area with their neat uniforms.
What was really impressive about the airport wasn’t that it was modern or stylish, but that as we got onto the automated people mover, I realized its size: Gate after gate whisked by in the night, as we moved from terminal to terminal. As we drove into the city, flyovers and apartment buildings similarly dominated the horizon, astounding in sheer number.
Shaking off the jet lag, we decided to venture out into the city with the goal of trying to get to the China Railway Museum. What used to be out in the countryside near the airport is now engulfed by new apartment buildings and development. Our first task was to walk to the subway station. Beijing now has 192 subway stations on 15 lines, mostly built in the past ten years. The lines span 372 km, stretching out in every direction. In comparison, Toronto’s subway has 69 stations over 70 km of track. Walking along to the subway stop was a mix of modernity and tradition. Along the streets in this part of town, the images of waves of only bicycles are now replaced by the 4.5 million motor cars in town, intermixed with pedal and electric bikes. The streets are filled with the cacophony of horn honks, as vehicles mix in and out and the sounds of construction.
The route to the subway seemed to be filled with congregations of stores of a certain type. One street was only musical instruments, shops festooned with violins or drums. The next appeared to be a monument and award street, with shop fronts displaying plaques, trophies and commemorative nameplates.
The first line of the subway was built 1970’s, but as we made interchanges to lines going out of the city, the stations became modern. In some cases, the signage seemed almost temporary, with station names affixed on labels where changes would soon be made. On a quiet Sunday, the subway was still busy. We found ourselves in the area of Wangjing, a newly suburb–surrounded by blocks of apartments and greeted by the gleaming corporate headquarters of multinationals like Microsoft, Daimler, Nestle and Caterpillar. I thought it would be a good idea to walk for bit to see what regular people do here–on a Sunday, it seems everyone was out with family.
The main road here had a real estate office, a 7-11, and some street vendors selling potatoes. About a block or two further along, a modern and new shopping arcade had places like KFC, McDonalds and Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain. Some people here had the unmistakable tribal plumage of a corporate ID card, hung around the neck with a lanyard with logos. Probably a lunch place for the office workers.
By now it was noon, so we sat down at an interesting restaurant named Royal Dumplings, which seemed to blend traditional dumplings made with cornmeal skins and the branding of a large multinational food chain. The Royal Dumplings staff didn’t speak English or Cantonese, which made us seem probably seem a bit arrogant to try. Here, my lack of Mandarin makes me worse than Siobhan as at least with her, they understand why she doesn’t speak the language. Regardless, we did manage to order two plates of dumplings and a plate of solid tofu cut in strips with pea shoots.
Getting to the museum became a journey in itself, watching people out and about, in hair salons and riding to their next destination. Eventually we came to an industrial area with garages and metal workers, some fixing cars or welding together steel frames, others just shooting the breeze with their friends.
The Railway Museum is quite a walk away once past the interesting suburb. Eventually we found ourselves at a huge warehouse, but only with a few indications a museum was inside: First, there were several tracks leading into the warehouse, despite the wall being blank. This meant the doors didn’t open often. Second, Siobhan spotted a stroller and a family bringing their kids inside. Once we paid our admission, inside were several rows of old steam and diesel electric locomotives.
It’s funny how despite cultural or language differences, people fall back to the same inordinate truths and values. First, kids love trains, so any Sunday, whether you’re in Halton or Beijing, it’s fun to go see them. Second, every train exhibit, in English or Chinese, will need some Thomas the Tank Engine playing, in this case in Mandarin. And third, everyone loves to sit in the cab of a train, even if the train is not moving, so you’d better have one of the locomotives open for visitors.
It was interesting to see that China imported locomotives from different countries–West Germany and Croatia for example, as well as inherited them in its past–notably Japanese steam. It was also interesting to see steam engines only ended production in 1988, decades after the end of steam in the West. The fourth inalienable truth of rail fandom: People love steam: A row of photographs of old locomotives, smoke billowing from the smokestacks, driving across the Chinese landscape, were presented for visitors to see. They were really beautiful.
The rows of massive diesel freight locos and huge big iron of steam engines are interspersed with memorabilia: Coffee cups with the railway logo, old timetables, official station keeper stop watches, and badges and uniforms. Someone has carefully kept all these things and collected them for show. And perhaps the fifth truth of all railways: People are proud of powering the engine of a nation, in this case, the state railway.
We took a taxi back to the subway station and returned to the hotel. By now, a dinner rush had swamped the subway, with thousands of people in the stations. Getting caught in this wave of people meant being swept up like little fish and transported downstream.
Today has been a bit of study in contrasts: We’ve seen the state railways, the light industrial quarter, the corporate international area, and on the way home, a tourist/commercial district.