My third day in China started with an early rise, as promised. I took the opportunity to wander around the older section of Shanhaiguan, and try an reconcile my pre-conceived notions of the country with the thriving metropolis that surrounded me. In between stopping off at a roadside motorbike vendor for deep fried bread and warm soy milk and managing to get completely lost, I made it back to the hotel in time to depart for Shanhaiguan’s claim to fame – Laolongtou or Old Dragon’s Head. Laolongtou is the point at which the Great Wall of China meets the sea, the beginning (or end, depending on your perspective) of a nearly 9,000km architectural triumph. It’s surreal to stand elevated above the sea on a construction that’s hundreds of years old. The scenery is spectacular, and largely free from tourists outside of the smattering of domestic groups making the most of their time off.
From here we depart for the fast-train back to Beijing, and I embrace the chance to re-acquaint myself with the sprawling metropolis. In a city this size it’s hard to reconcile my recollections with the reality of an environment that changes so rapidly and so frequently. Still, as I navigate to the Qianmen subway station flashes of memory come back to me, the city-scape is constant evolving and shifting, but the energy of the people that inhabit the streets seem familiar. My first stop is the 798 Art Zone, a massive space that can be found via hopping a subway to the end of line and a short taxi ride. Built in the ’50s as a joint military production enterprise between People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, before being reclaimed as an artist community in the late ’90s. The result is indicative of the larger dialogue in contemporary China, a thriving cosmopolitan community producing engaging and dynamic culture nestled in the heart of what was once the pride of the military-industrial complex. Western graffiti from internationally renowned artists (shout outs to Utah and Ether) competes for space with Maoist slogans on the exteriors of the bars, clubs, galleries that populate the space. It’s this uncertain balance that makes the 798 district, and Beijing as a whole, so compelling. Cultural uncertainty forces introspection, and the quality of contemporary art that’s emerging from China is a testament to this process.
I leave the 798 District for another uniquely Chinese contradiction, the famed Beijing Silk Street Markets. Accessible directly from Yonganli subway station, the Silk Street Market is in actuality a sprawling shopping centre that houses hundreds of vendors across seven levels. Inside it’s swelteringly hot, and the environment is a chaotic riot of colour and noise. The vast majority of the crowd that swirl around me are from Europe and the United States, and the local market vendors show impressive linguistic dexterity, rapid-fire switching between French, Italian, German, and English to catch the attention of prospective shoppers in the fray. Silk Street is the go to destination for luxury goods of dubious origins and lovingly constructed approximations of your favourite sneakers that cost approximately a tenth of the originals. It’s clearly a tourist-trap, but it seems to be as essential to the Beijing experience as a pilgrimage to the Great Wall, or sampling the famous roast duck. After an hour of trawling the centre and being offered all means of goods, from Louis Vuitton wallets to Rolex watches to Ferrari shoes, I’m pretty overwhelmed. I beat a hasty retreat and make it back to our hostel with about ten minutes to spare before we depart for an overnight train to Xi’an.
Train travel in China is definitely a unique experience. With a country that spans 9.6 million square kilometers, the train network is the backbone of the domestic transportation. Each year the country’s rail network is responsible for moving a full quarter of the world’s rail traffic, which equates to a mind-numbing 2 billion trips per year. Suffice to say, it’s a serious enterprise. Overnight trains are the primary means of transportation for a country where the majority of the population find the cost of air-travel too prohibitive to make it a viable option. Even within the train their are socio-economic hierarchies, ranging from compartments that offer standing room only overnight journeys to plush decadent suites that look better than some of the hotels I’ve slept in. We opt for the ‘hard sleeper’ option, which means six bunk beds in two stacks of three and no doors to speak of. I’d like to consider myself a connoisseur when it comes to rail travel, but after spending a full night stacked in a middle bunk with approximately 30cm clearance room between myself and the bunk above me – I started to crack a little. Still, as dawn broke the views of Shaanxi Province rolling past as we entered Xi’an made it all worthwhile.
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12 Days In China Part One