Last week, as I sat in a hotel in Burgundy overlooking acres of vineyards and writing about the Karakoram Highway, I realised the strangeness of writing about China regardless of my own physical location. But while it might seem odd, it’s not at all difficult or unpleasant – casting my mind back over past trips is, along with anticipation, one of the many pleasures of travelling.
Thinking along these lines and in search of memories, yesterday evening found me hunting for photographs of two trips I took to China in 2000-2001. Eventually, I discovered them in the depths of my wardrobe pasted into a heavy photo album that creaked when I opened it. As I leafed through the pictures, I was transported back to a Beijing where the fourth ring road was still under construction (the 130km-long sixth ring road is now open), and a Shanghai when Pudong’s skyscrapers were empty of both people and shops – nostalgia at just over a decade’s distance.
The following photographs are among my favourites, because they show things that visitors can see today while still hinting – via a semi-constructed skyscraper or an old-fashioned model of car – that they’re not recent images. I hope that you enjoy them too…
The Great Helmsman (Chairman Mao), looks over Tian’anmen Square. Mao is not the first leader to have his portrait hung from the Tian’anmen Gate, at the entrance to the Forbidden City. Chiang Kai-shek’s portrait hung there between 1945 and 1948, and Sun Yat-sen’s portrait was also displayed on the walls of the Forbidden City before that. The two captions read “The People’s Republic of China Forever!” and “People of the World Unite Forever!”*
* Well, not quite forever – literally 10,000 years
Qufu Bus Station
In Qufu, birthplace of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, the local bus station had a most impressive array of clocks displaying, incorrectly, the time in various international cities. Useless, but charming nonetheless.
Municipal Art, Beijing, 2001
Beijing’s ring roads are treasure troves of bizarre municipal art. The spiky thing below is an excellent example of the genre, dating from the late 1990s, as does the vast building behind it – a confection of mirrored glass and white tile.
P.S. Can anyone tell me where this was taken? My best guess is Xizhimen. Is the building still there?
The Bund, 2001
Since it was built in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bund has been an icon of Shanghai. Now, its buildings, the grand old dames of the city’s architecture, are overshadowed by the soaring office towers across the river in Pudong. Back in 2001, however, the Bund Centre was still under construction (that’s its construction site in the background) and Pudong felt like a gigantic folly, its vast avenues empty, its shopping malls silent.
Street scene from a rickshaw, Qufu, 2001
Qufu in Shandong has unusual rickshaws – passengers ride slung down in front of the cyclist, leaving their feet dangling just above the road surface. I suspect that this very scene would be easy to recreate today, as many forms of people-powered transport linger in China, but the volume of traffic will have multiplied many times over. A poor photo perhaps, but I can remember riding one of these out to the nearby countryside, bouncing in time to the cadence of the pedals.