The Changing line is one of the latest stretches of elevated track that stretches from the outer reaches of the city to connect with the Beijing subway. The last time I took it I made notes about the most interesting sights I saw from the window and the first on my list was the approach into Zhuxinzhuang station. This is the first in a short series of stations that cover an area peppered with sporadic buildings, newly created countryside and neglected fields. It lies between the newer built up conurbation of Beijing and the outlying older urban sprawl of decaying housing and obscure universities. In another county, this far out from the capitals centre, it would be different city, but here, where scales of size are in another league, it’s still Beijing.
I leave the station with a small handful of others. Outside, black taxis tout hard for customers. There are no buildings nearby and few walk, either getting one of the cabs or jumping into waiting cars or onto bikes. I pass under the elevated track onto a wasteland of small trees and coarse dry grass. One part is fenced off to provide parking and the area is full of smart cars. The two arms of the overhead track arc away into the distance, the new concrete white against the cloudless blue sky. The sun hangs directly over the Beijing direction and the light is bright and harsh. I look to find an advantage to see into the station, but the angle is wrong. I’m worried that down on the ground where the perspective is different all the interest visible from the train is lost. Behind the track supports hide padlocked bikes, dog shit, a man urinating. A lone dog wanders warily across the ground, there isn’t much for me to see or it to scavenge.
I walk along the road parallel to the train in the direction I had just come. My back is to the sun and as I slug at the Jack Daniels in my hip flask I’m feeling warm and adventurous. I have a slight excitement at an anticipation of what will happen and what I’ll observe.
At one point the track sinks to just a few feet from the ground and behind there is a large high mound of earth covered in green netting. I start to climb to the top to see down the line. The climb is difficult in my thick clothing; my feet sink and slide in the loose soil and stiff plants push the netting up into trip hazards. The net is full of trapped sparrows and pigeons which burst out of holes as I struggle up. As I near the top I stop to look at my progress. The view isn’t that interesting and there’s a large police station now visible down the side. I feel a bit conspicuous up here and I imagine them gathering around the windows, looking up at me with my camera hanging round my neck. I turn round and hurry down before I’m arrested for spying. More likely, as happened once before, taken in for questioning, but the time spent photographing me with their mobile phones to show their friends and family later. I didn’t feel like acting jolly in another police station, held under some pretext of telling me off, while they snap and share pictures of me.
Later on, the track runs for a short distance along the edge of a wide, still river, covered with wafer thin ice, before heading out to the opposite bank. I go down to the edge and can smell the stagnant water, it reminds me of the ditches I played in when I was a boy. I can see the next station in the distance, but there is no way for me to cross. Up the river is the outline of a city where there must be a bridge. I continue along the bank towards it, on what will be a long detour. There is precious little to see on this side. A large housing estate hides behind a tall wall topped with razor wire and CCTV cameras. When I eventually come to a gate I’m stopped by security, my western face not sufficient for me to get entry. Towards the city there is an island, half way out and think it would be perfect for nesting ducks and geese, but can only see the usual crows and magpies.
I don’t know what the city is called, but there is immediately a bridge full of busses and trucks. I cross over, below the river has a few reed beds. If this was an English town there would be swans maybe a moorhen or coot gliding about. I walk down the opposite bank grateful to be away from the traffic. This side has the remains of older buildings that once must have been part of the city behind me. Now they are emptied – probably for more walled estates.
The houses are half demolished; walls without roofs, open rooms, it’s like a bomb site. There is no building or any continuation of the knocking down occurring, it’s as though they have been made and left deliberately uninhabitable. Still there is evidence of residency, piles of carefully sorted rubbish, a line of washing, a make shift table and arm chair positioned in a sheltered spot.
Further on I spot an old structure like an ancient fort. It shows signs of poor renovation that aren’t recent. The entrances are blocked and I wonder if it is being preserved or prepared for bulldozing. I can imagine the government deciding, in that cold logical way they have, that the location is too far out from the city and not convenient for tourism and its structure unsuitable for luxury housing, so has no value. No one will notice its disappearance and few would care.
The sun is starting to get lower now, casting long shadows. I have noticed this afternoon light before, it reminds me of the day years ago when there was a solar eclipse. The light is harsh but also weak, it casts shadows but not reflections and it radiates but doesn’t warm. I imagine the sun on Mars is like this.
I re-join the railway track after a couple of hours and almost immediately there is the station (Gonghuacheng). A futuristic building, incongruously standing in fields of green netting. In the grey distance the horizon is crenelated with blocks of apartments, their bases hidden behind the ragged rubble of old homes. I know from experience that this station, idle now, will be swarming with commuters in a year or two when the city has spread around it. Somewhere there is a plan, probably a scale model too, showing every street, apartment block and tree. It will spring up in a season once the building gangs arrive.
Almost immediately the track goes out once more across a second bend of the river. This time the water is frozen solid. Far out there is a man fishing though a hole in the ice and I walk out to meet him. He’s friendly and young and says the fish are small. I ask if it’s ok to cross and he anxiously says no. It’s another long detour.
I don’t fancy the walk and am lucky to meet a 3 wheel vehicle who takes me up to where a foot bridge crosses. It means I miss an old man playing a saxophone on the river bank. The river less than a mile away is shallow and unfrozen. Perhaps the result of chemicals or sewage from the nearby village. The footbridge is well used by locals carrying shopping and bicycles and at the opposite edge, where a small weir runs, there is a group of 5 young men shooting with catapults into the water.
I cross over wondering what they’re shooting at. They say sticks and maybe they are, but I feel they would just as readily shoot at fish or birds, if there were any.
The next section is more populated. Estates of great houses built in lines of pale stones like some old European town, vaguely Greek or Roman. They could have been created from a twisted dream of royal rows in Oxford or in Bath. Likewise, the large detached houses, eerily empty, recall images of horror movies. Of course everyone could be at work, but nowhere has the feel of occupancy. I’ve seen from the train that some of these houses have waterfronts as though on the Thames at Henley.
I suspect that the designer’s vision has been inspired by aspirations of wealthy lifestyles that in practice will be unfulfilled. Surprisingly few Chinese can swim and generally have no interest in boats. The riverside location is a place to fear drowning and disease from the stagnant water, where only mosquitos flourish.
The walk is nearly over, fields of equal aged trees have been planted in neat grids. Their slender trunks have been painted white, so they resemble a field of goalposts. The trees separate the unsullied dream houses from the squalor of the real life. It starts suddenly in a rank of falling apart shops and verges of bare soil, the grass worn away by thousands of shuffling feet. Around the shops are the untidy clutter of wheelie bins, litter and worthless scrap. The signs of Chinese life. There is a university nearby and the road to Shahe station is lined with cheap fast food vendors.
This walk, through the empty land waiting development, the smart young houses of unfulfilled dreams, the old homes worn slowly into ruin and the useless and ancient being reassigned is a cycle of construction mirroring the lives of the people. The Changping track, threads through a changing landscape like a timeline. From a window on the elevated train the progress of the city is a progression of buildings being conceived, maturing and growing old before being reborn into something new. Their styles drawing from the dreams and aspirations of their makers.