That Tianjin and Beijing are only 30 minutes apart is thanks to the high speed train that is China’s modern transport triumph. As it hurtles between the two cities, it passes the Northern canal, an ancient, but in its time, achievement of even greater ambition. Like the bullet train network, the Northern canal is part of the waterways that make up the 1776kms Grand Canal. Although centuries in construction its completion still precedes the start of the canal age in the UK by over a 1000 years.
The remarkable Engineering endeavor has, like the Great Wall, been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. And like the Great Wall, its condition is in various states of disrepair. Some parts are still used for transporting goods, hardly changed since ancient times and are popular tourist sites. Other parts have dried up, been built over or modernised for water management.
There has been discussion about restoring this section of canal, there is interest in its tourist possibilities. Its UNESCO status, it’s situation between two huge cities, it’s reminder of Chinese ingenuity and greatness make it a potential source of wealth and political prestige. Some argue the amount of water needed to make it navigable cannot be spared. Others, that developments like the parks that decorate both ends are more destructive of its history than the neglect.
While it quietly awaits its inevitable rebirth, traffic along its length has stopped. Probably less than a handful of engineers will have travelled its length in recent times. It may not be navigable by boat, but perhaps its banks can be cycled. And along the way, missed by modernization, there might be signs of its ancient past, pockets preserved in forgotten corners. Whatever, there will be few years to see the canal as it is now.
Beijing to Wuqing
I start in Tong Zhou once a village on the outskirts of Beijing. Now swallowed by the spreading creep of the capital. It’s a mess of construction as it is transformed into an area suitable for the government officials who will relocate here. The canal park has already been transformed with both banks lined with wide paths, young trees and is thick with blooming iris. Here the canal is wide, maybe 300meters and the park continues for 2 or 3 kms along its length.
There are people camping, a fun fare, restaurants playing easy listening music, but there are also areas that have been made to look natural, a large reed bed where you can wander through on a wooden causeway. There are duck houses dotted among the reeds but no sign of any birds. It looks ideal, so maybe they will come.
At the end of the park the canal is dammed with a huge construction of unobvious purpose in progress. On the other side there is a busy motorway bridge then the canal restarts. The distance between the banks is similar, but there is far less water. Large areas are dry, a line of flags mark some unknown boundary their unnatural colours adding to the faded plastics that are scattered about the exposed mud.
The canal lies in narrow strips of water, heavily silted and in a deeper channel towards the middle. It’s a sudden contrast with the beautified park so near. But ironically, as I decent to the path along its edge, large cranes and white egrets take slowly to the sky and a lone frog croaks from near a half-submerged breeze block.
I push along the bank hoping to find a good cycle path. Vague tracks twist through woods, between fields and orchards, or vineyards. I make slow but steady progress making use of the trails from farm vehicles. Occasionally, I pass a house, or a group of houses made from scrap materials. I soon learn to approach cautiously as they always contain some mongrel dogs that charge barking and snarling at my pedals. Before or after there are invariably heaps of bitter smelling rubbish. At one bend in a dirt road I dismount to look at the canal. I push through the dry dead brush to its bank. Here tall willows line the bank, the water has built up again into a wide ribbon, unmoving. Here the smell is worse and I notice in disgust the half decayed bodies of three dogs. I can’t imagine what events would lead to their deaths and the indifferent dumping of their remains.
At the next bridge I cross to the opposite bank where there is a modern track of red tarmac called the greenway. I’m tired of searching for paths, of the stinking villages, the rabid mutts that threaten to bite my heels. It’s a long way to Wuqing where I plan to stay the night and I need to make some distance if I want to reach it before dark.
The greenway follows the route of the canal. Old trees line its length that stand out against the newer plants, making its presence known even though it’s rarely glimpsed. Small detours take you to viewing points where the canal looks clean and often beautifully framed. At one point a family is having a bar-b-que. The greenway is fast but not always clearly marked. Occasionally it branches into alternative paths that ambles through a wood or lead to toilets. It’s a Saturday, but there is barely a sole about and not an ice cream or drink to be bought.
Eventually, the greenway either ends or I lose it in one of its meanders. I head south, short cutting a long loop near Xianghe. I use an online map to guide me through a maze of dirt roads. The sun has starting sinking, the angle muting the colours and for the first time I’m away from the express and highways. It’s silent except for the occasional scooter. This is good biking ground, wide vehicle-less tracks of compressed dust, the terrain weaving and undulating. The homes are better here too, brick construction with gardens of vegetables instead of heaps of scrap. Materials are neatly stacked rather than strewn about the ground.
After an hour, I get a puncture. My immediate thought is that I’m away from the canal which I would use to detect the air-hole. But I don’t need it, a large nail is sticking out of tire and the hole is clearly visible in the inner tube. I patch it, but it just slows the escape of air and I’m forced to stop every 5 minutes and pump it up again. I head for the nearest town knowing I’ll not reach Wuqing tonight.
Wuqing to Tianjin
The canal through Wuqing is lined by vertical stone embankments and new parks of blossoming trees and decorative statues. It cuts through the city, under bridges busy with traffic. Not far from the train station the park suddenly ends at a hectic flyover and on the other side returns to a more familiar state of dust dry banks strewn with litter and construction waste. The path peters out in a punctureland of discarded matter.
I take the Beiyunhe Xidi road which runs along the canal side and soon the shabby remnants of the city thin and are replaced by fields rich with agriculture. The canal looks cleaner and young reeds and mature willows grow along the sides. The road too is tree lined and although it’s the weekend wonderfully free of traffic. As it bends gently around a curve of the canal, the sun filtering through the leaves, it feels more like rural France than China.
Progress is fast and I pass quickly through smart villages, waste and wild dog free, the buildings are in reasonable repair and tidy. Old men sit playing in the shade and return waves uncertainly as I pass. Further on there is a grave site and even here the cones of the burials are well cared for. Fresh flowers and red rosettes decorate the gravesides rather than the usual empty Beijou bottles and discarded wrappers of ancestor offerings.
The pleasant ride continues on through the flat countryside. Here the fields are filled with thick lush grass being cut for turfing and acres are covered in greenhouses growing vegetables. The vigour of growth is a huge contrast to the earlier dry scraggy terrain. I imagine the canal provides much of the water and judging by the algae already blooming along its sides, receives the rich run off in return. The canal is narrower here but the occasional fishing boat shows that fish still flourish.
After about 2 hours I arrive at the new town of Shuzhuang. The regulation promenade and park lines one bank and behind it, partly finished skyscrapers look out over the remnants of the village it’s replacing on the other. It’s pleasant enough and I stop for lunch, undisturbed by a populace not yet moved in. The nascent city soon ends, but the countryside never quite returns. Another 30 minutes and the canal widens as it meets the Shangdong river, the water spread out behind the sluices that control the level. Shortly after, there is a half abandoned village. Its square sitting quietly beside the water. Trees shade broken concrete seats and weeds push up between the stones.
To the north the high rise homes of Shazhuang are visible and south lie the towers of Beichen. This place, I think, just 30 years ago, would have been new and desirable with its fine views over the canal. Old men would have sat playing cards, or couples danced between the trees. 100 meters further on there is an exercise park, I’m surprised at the bright blue and yellow equipment among the brushwood, broken bricks and rusted reinforcing rods. Its newness suggests the village demise was recent and sudden.
Fishing is popular between here and Beichen. Anglers perch on little piers jutting out from the bank. It turns into the customary park once more after the city ring road. On the map the formal strip of staid greenery chaperones the canal from one city edge to the other. But the path is blocked by construction and I have to turn back and find a route through its bustling center. Beichen is not a novice to rebuilding. Glossy shopping malls and tower blocks, a once modern-art clocktower and the jumble of single story homes, betray the decades of construction waves, like the rings of a tree.
The city edges blur into the outskirts of Tianjin and the canal ends suddenly as it joins the Tzu-ya and Xinkai rivers.
As the canal ends a concrete Junk provides an impressive forground to the Tianjin eye. Immediately there are throngs of people crowding the pathway. In the bright sun the waterfront is impressive. a succession of stylish bridges and innovative buildings line the sides, clean and bright after the hours of unfinished broken or declining landscapes. I pass anglers, a team of swimmers, hordes of cyclists and a shower of brides.
I’d set out imagining myself like a latterday Livingston discovering a forgotten and abused relic of ancient history. I had imagined the canal would be like the neglected canals of England; weed choked and dry. The lining clays cracked and porous and the beds filled and built upon Where there is water I thought it would be stagnant and foul, full of shopping trolleys and abandoned pushbikes, poisoned by factory waste. But the northern canal is far from like this. There are patches polluted and stinking, places incarcerated within concrete walls and dams. There are long sections pimped with pretty promenades. But a large part, most of it, exists much as it ever has. Twisting silently across the fields and alongside remote villages where the people pass their lives mostly heedless of its presence.
The canal too seems impassive to the modern world, sitting there, its still waters unperturbed by the changes around it, or the rubbish and the run off dumped into it. At first, I was dismayed, but as I travelled along its length, saw the rise and fall of cities, the growth and harvest of crops, the signs of lives cut short, I realized that this time is almost nothing in the millennial existence of the canal. Unlike the narrow counterparts of the UK, the Northern Canal is too big to fail, to vast to poison or to drain, too long to spoil with decorative parks or blight with construction. It only has to wait and whatever fate becomes, it will pass.