Beijing: Past and Present
After a glance at Beijing’s skyline today, it would be hard to imagine its appearance in the 1970s, when the Beijing Hotel was the tallest building in downtown Beijing. Today, it is dwarfed by dozens of concrete giants flanking Chang’an Avenue. Instead of bicycles, the streets are jammed with cars. The simple uniforms of the 1970s—unisex blue, green or gray outfits—are long gone. People are individually dressed in colorful clothing and modern fashion, set off by massive billboards and screens along the shopping streets.
However, many reminders and relics of the past are still clearly visible. The portrait of Chairman Mao still watches over Tian’anmen Square. Recently, rental bikes became popular on roadside paths where car traffic is restricted.
Some old districts full of narrow alleys have been preserved, and the layout of the city still hearkens to the time Beijing could be described as the biggest village in the world.
Long Journey to Red China
I first arrived in Beijing in the autumn of 1975. The Ministry of Education announced that China would grant scholarships to two Icelandic students to return the favor after an Icelandic high school accepted two Chinese students. I applied as soon as I heard. The slogans of China’s “cultural revolution” had echoed down the hallways of my high school. I was young, adventurous and keen on learning languages.
In those days, plane tickets to Beijing were never affordable, and direct flights were near impossible to find. It was not exactly open for international travelers. We flew to Luxembourg, where we hitched flight to Hong Kong with an Icelandic air-cargo company, Cargoloux.
It was a long flight with many stops to load and unload cargo. After almost 40 hours, we arrived in Hong Kong, which was a British colony at the time. I found it chaotic and noisy.
The Chinese Embassy in Iceland had given us the address of the state-run China Travel Service in Hong Kong. A young lady carefully inspected our passports and read a letter we brought from the embassy. She was surprised that we didn’t know the name of the school we were to attend.
The next morning, we overcame aggressive porters and dragged our own luggage onto a train bound for Guangzhou, a southern coastal city near Hong Kong. We were relieved when we finally reached the border.
Only a handful of other foreigners could be found on the train, who were all headed to a fair in Guangzhou.
Border inspection took a long time. The border officials had never seen Icelandic passports before. They seemed puzzled that we did not know which school we were to attend. But thanks to our valid visas and awaiting contact at the Beijing Train Station, we were admitted into the country.
Customs inspection was also time-consuming. There weren’t any English-speaking officials available at that time and the customs authorities wanted to find someone who could communicate with us.
In fact, no one was familiar with any of the Nordic languages, or even Esperanto. When I noted that I had studied some German in high school, the roadblock was fnally overcome. We were introduced to a young official who could speak enough German to help us. The officer was friendly despite his many questions. We were his only case of that whole day.
Finally, the journey continued, and in Guangzhou we boarded a different train bound for Beijing. I sat by the window to catch glimpses of the Chinese countryside and cities as we passed. Everything starkly contrasted with the scenery I saw in Iceland. It felt like a whole different world.
First Impression of Beijing
A teacher at Beijing Language Institute (later renamed Beijing Culture and Language University) was waiting for us at the Beijing Train Station when we arrived early on the morning of October 25, 1975. He helped carry our luggage to a locally produced minivan, of which he seemed proud. He oversaw the Western students at the school and told us to call him Teacher Bi.
We drove down a wide street, Chang’an Avenue, which translates to “Street of Long Lasting Peace,” he said. It was the central thoroughfare of Beijing and steady streams of bicycles zipped around the buses and a few cars.
The Beijing Hotel was on the right. We drove past Tian’anmen Square, the biggest square in China, if not the world. A large painting of Chairman Mao graced the gate of the Forbidden City, and I could see the Great Hall of the People on the left.
I thought he might be making a tour of Beijing before heading to our school. I would eventually realize that the train station was at the city center and that it was actually the shortest route. We turned right onto a narrow street flanked with low brick houses and alleys.
So began my first day in Beijing, dubbed the biggest village in the world at that time. The large municipality was home to a total population of around seven million back then. Later I realized that two to three million of them were essentially farmers living in peripheral counties relatively far from the downtown area. Urban residents numbered only about four million at that time.
The city had vast districts of traditional one-story brick houses or “rooms” built in a square around small courtyards that serve as a common area. Each courtyard had an imposing gate, opening into a maze of narrow lanes called “hutong.” Many families had lived there for generations.
A growing piece of the Beijing population lived in enclosed compounds of multi-storied buildings furnished by the employing institution or labor unit. High walls surrounded them with guarded gates to intimidate unwanted guests. Gradually, I came to realize that these compounds functioned as villages within the city, both structurally and socially. Each unit provided specialized services like many of the villages in the countryside.
The Modern Beijing
After four decades of reform and construction, I find it amazing that the layout of Beijing has still retained features of an overpopulated countryside, where ten thousand blocks and skyscrapers are jammed into limited space linked with a few traffic-jammed highways and ring roads. Today, the population has exploded to over twenty million. Fortunately, some remnants of traditional “hutong” districts have been preserved and renovated and still hide in the shadows of high-rises.
Only in recent years have city administrators adopted a comprehensive approach to urban planning. Considering the characteristics of Beijing as a traditional nucleus of China’s society and civilization, it is now being extended as a modern metropolis as it integrates with neighboring areas of Tianjin and Hebei Province.
New centers of governance and development are planned in Tongzhou District of Beijing, two dozen kilometers east of Beijing’s Central Business District, and Xiong’an New Area, southwest of the Chinese capital, in Hebei Province. I hope that after all these changes, some parts of Beijing will preserve the village charm—hopefully without traffic jams.
The author is an Icelandic diplomat who studied in China in the 1970s. He is also the author of the book Nineteen Seventy-Six.