A shame I don’t speak the language and have more time and inspiration to explore the country(side). And still, the occasional trip to China has always been worth it. This time was no different.
As I note down the “professional” insights on Chinese urbanisation and some general thoughts on inspiration, this post is the trip diary, for my records.
It had been a while since I was last here almost four years ago, when my wife and I went by rail from Beijing to Hangzhou via Shanghai. I had felt an itching to come to China again especially now that my interest in cities has grown into becoming the focus of my PhD.
I flew into Dalian, a city of about two million people (if you only count the inner urban districts, otherwise the number swells to six) across the Bohai Bay from Beijing. I chose the city for mundane reasons – there was a flight available that day. As with other Chinese second-tier cities, I had heard of it in passing but did not really know anything about it.
Dalian is a comparatively wealthy metropolis that has carved itself a niche in being the R&D and financial hub of China’s northeast. (It is also host to a significant part of China’s Pacific Fleet if I recall correctly.) The air is relatively clean and the streets leafy. Walking a few kilometres in all directions from my hotel revealed a lively city with a friendly vibe.
The city has interesting Russian roots, in that Russia leased the city from the Qing Dynasty in 1898 and occupied it until the Russo-Japanese War, when the Japanese took over. The Red Army captured Dalian in the waning days of WWII (Dal’niy) and only left as late as 1955.
The influence of the northern neighbour remains to this day. There are (allegedly) quite a few tourists from up north, and architecture and cuisine are further enduring influences. I went to a “Russian” restaurant named “Moskva”. Alas, despite its name and Cyrillic advertising, it turned out to be a run-off-the-mill Chinese restaurant with a friendly and chatty owner.
Unfortunately my time was limited so I couldn’t explore more. Hopping on a high-speed train to Beijing the next day kicked off my rail journey, the main reason for my trip. I had booked my return ticket to Tokyo from Chengdu, four thousand kilometres away in Sichuan Province. I jotted in two nights in Beijing and Shanghai each to break the trip.
I am not sure I would want to live here, but Beijing remains my favourite Chinese city after several visits. I met a fellow GRIPS student for dinner and used my Airbnb host’s e-bike for an extensive hutong cycling tour.
Beijing ticks all the boxes of a dog-eat-dog kind of place: stern faces, long hours in the office, plenty of elbows and queue-jumping. Add to that heavy smog (although I have usually been lucky with the weather, also this time), clogged streets and crowded public transport.
But then, there’s this other side to the city, unfolding in the quiet and leafy backstreets. Who knows how much of the hutongs will be left within a generation – and maybe my idealising of relatively crowded and basic living conditions is revealing my naive tourist’s gaze – but I am glad I got the chance to get to know them.
I am sure many cities in China have similar traditional spaces, and yet Beijing feels special. Amid the gravity of history and the heavy, omnipresent weight of the state, the small and intimate scale just a few steps off the main thoroughfares is surprising.
Next up in Shanghai, I caught up with a friend who was passing through for a wedding. He had also given me the initial excuse to begin planning the trip around these dates.
His connection with Shanghai reaches back to the late 2000s, when he and a friend were thinking of opening a youth hostel here. I remember reading the business plan back then and being impressed by the duo’s ambition. It would have been cool for the two to become part of the city’s growth in tourism ever since.
It seems every major Chinese city has an “Urban Planning Exhibition Hall” in which politicians can showcase their achievements and ambitions. I missed the one in Beijing (closed on Mondays!), so I made sure to visit the one on People’s Square in Shanghai.
The major attraction in each of these places is a miniature city model. In Shanghai, it only covers the city’s 110-square-kilometre inner perimeter with its many skyscrapers. There is a constant need to update the skyline. The new 632-meter-tall Shanghai Tower was already towering over all over buildings.
Besides the model, there are also many exhibitions on the history of Shanghai’s urban planning inside the big museum.
As in Beijing (and soon most other Chinese mega-cities presumably), these are stories of superlatives. As economic growth accelerated in the 1990s, the two cities became the vanguard of China’s urban expansion. Investments into urban infrastructure led to the construction of countless metro lines and inner-city highways. Each time I have visited either place at least two major new metro lines have opened. High-rise housing estates provided living space to the millions of new inhabitants.
I was particularly impressed by the Hongqiao Integrated Transport Hub, comprising Shanghai’s second airport and the city’s major high-speed train station. About 400 million people use this facility each year. I took a train bound for Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
The scale of the high-speed network is breath-taking. The Shanghai-Chengdu route is the second-longest high-speed rail line in the world, at 2,100 kilometres only somewhat shorter than the longest (Beijing to Guangzhou, 2,300 kilometres). Beijing-Shanghai is the 3rd-longest. Altogether, six out of the ten longest high-speed rail lines are in China.
Looking out of the window, the vicinity of the train line changed from a nearly-constant peri-urban agglomeration on the Beijing-Shanghai leg to a much more rural landscape between Shanghai and Chengdu. The cities on the route become smaller, and the train stations less gleaming. The average speed also decreased to below 200 km/h, an almost leisurely pace compared to the 5 hours it takes for the 1,300 kilometres from Beijing to Shanghai.
Trains have become a cost-efficient and very comfortable alternative to flying. I found that on the routes other than the main one between Beijing and Shanghai, first class tickets are only marginally more expensive than those for second class. The additional comfort, especially for the 15-hour-long leg to Chengdu, is definitely worth the extra money. There was hardly a seat left unoccupied in either first or second class.
I spent all of Friday walking through Chengdu. Never having been here before, I ticked off the main tourist attractions. The first one on my list was the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. It proved to be very similar to the one in Shanghai, albeit a tad newer and unfortunately featuring only little English language descriptions.
The model of the city covered the entire conurbation, featuring a green belt woven around the city centre as well as the new airport currently under construction in the southeast of the city. It is intended to become the third-largest airport in the country, after Beijing and Shanghai. The city definitely has ambitious plans. But it is interesting to see that with only three subway lines thus far, it is in a much earlier development stage than the two primal cities.
Tianfu Square looked just like any other gigantic mega-square replete with Mao statue and some official buildings on all sides. The weather wasn’t great, which gave the place a bit of grim feel on that day.
Next up, the Wide and Narrow Alley were very Disney-esque, but not negatively so. Snacks and souvenirs in most shapes and sizes kept people busy and selfie sticks were swung in all directions. I was glad to be here on a misty Friday morning; not sure I would like it as much on a crowded summer weekend day.
Chengdu had a much more transitory feel. There was a lot of construction reaching into the very heart of the city. New residential projects going up everywhere. The noise of construction sites the constant background soundtrack.