By Robert Hanna
The Bird's Nest stadium was not the only shiny new building which debuted for the Olympics. On the south of the city an equally impressive structure has just opened to the public, the very grand South Railway Station. The curves of the new structure are as interesting as those of the stadium and one feels as if one is in a very modem airport rather than anything as mundane as a the terminus of a rail system. In fact, this is one end of the new fast connection to Beijing's port city, Tianjin, which was unveiled without much fanfare in the days leading up to the Games opening ceremony. It may never become as iconic a building as its sporting cousin, but it is perhaps more significant in the long run.
It has become a commonplace for commentators to remark of the scale of the "new Beijing" and it is indeed impressive. My interest in the South Station and the trains that depart from there is more personal. Fourteen years ago my first train journey in China was to Tianjin from the main Beijing Station. I remember the taste of coal on the morning air, a ticket that was double the price paid by Chinese nationals and a two-hour journey to Tianjin, alone, in the rather faded splendour of the "soft seat coach". In the years since all of those images have been consigned to the history books. The coal briquettes, whose dust clung to my lungs, have been banished from the city. The special pricing for foreigners has been dropped, and now we must purchase our tickets from the automatic dispensers like the rest of humanity. The train, which would look well alongside anything the French can produce, whisked us to Tianjin in 30 minutes and even the expensive seats are all full.
Many of the changes have been gradual and almost imperceptible, but this latest Great Leap Forward is on a different scale. The old Beijing Station has been buffed up numerous times since my first encounter, but, despite the increasing amount of marble and the introduction of a greater variety of concessionary shops, it remains, at heart, a rather clunky leftover from early Communist-era architecture. Its clientele too, remain equally proletarian. Women and men from all corners of China pass though its doors daily, carrying their dreams packed in fertiliser bags. Beijing acts as a magnet for the rural poor and, even without the Statue of Liberty, the main station is their Ellis Island entry point to the land of dreams.
The South Station is a different world, all glass and steel, with gentle curves and a light airy sensibility. It is full of commuting urbanites, with nary a fertiliser bag in sight. Instead, all is self-confident, sophisticated bustle. ft is an unreservedly urban experience — odd in a country in which most people are still farmers or from farming backgrounds.
The new station remains a work in progress. Only a few of the platforms are in use, the connection to the Beijing Subway is not ready and some food concessions have not opened to the public. The incompleteness rather detracts from the full experience of the new communications hub. But if the main station was a monument to the aspirations of the new China in the latter half of last century, the South Station is a very eloquent suggestion of where China wants to go in the first half of this one. It is fascinating to be part of the transformation.
Robert Hanna has lived in China for many years. You can read his blog at www.greatwallappeal.org