Where we enter the country through its most open port city
A group of Stanford students explored Shanghai for a few days, before heading to Beijing. On the eve of our trip north, we had dinner together near Xujiahui, where half a dozen gigantic shopping malls are perched above a major subway station. It turns out the students have been navigating around Shanghai using a paper map—how fantastic! Instead of relying on smart phone apps and GPS, they are practicing analog way-finding, taking cues from the street names, buildings, and landmarks.
Using this method of navigation gives a person a much different sense of the layout of the city and the distance between different sites. There’s a very interesting article from The Atlantic about the difference between “egocentric” and “allocentric” understanding of cityscapes—the former more like tracing your own route using street-level phenomenon, and the second having a birds-eye view of the city layout. A paper map is an effective way to boost one’s allocentric understanding of a city, putting many more things in context, outside of your personal experience.
One can trace the whole route from start to beginning without being limited by screen size, and instead of following directions turn by turn, one gets a greater sense of the overall journey—what the alternate routes are, the adjoining parallel streets, the possibilities for wandering—and a sense of how your experiences fit into the larger context of the municipality and its district.
Where we travel by railroad to the capital
The next day, we met at Hongqiao Station to take the high-speed rail to Bejiing. After a surprisingly smooth boarding process—no mad dashing for the gate because all the students arrived early—we leaned back in our chairs aboard the Harmony-class carriage.
On the journey, we witnessed the lively ferment of development in China: row after row of cookie-cutter high-rise apartments, thrust up into the sky and copy-pasted again and again; smokestacks and cooling towers adjoining large conveyer belts lifting coal to feed power plants. Passing through Jiangsu, we saw lovely scenes of still-thriving agricultural life, right out of an oil painting: white farmhouses with curved tile roofs, nestled against the greenery, some with pools of water. We also encountered a great peculiarity: a giant Egyptian Sphinx, the glass pyramid of the Louvre, the Temple of Heaven, and several other global landmarks clustered around each other at an erstwhile tourist attraction. The giggles sounded for quite some time.
The Harmony-class train can reach speeds of 350 kph, but slows when it’s near a station or populated areas. Since there were several stops along the way, we were below 300 kph for much of the journey, but still arrived in Beijing in good time.
Where we battle hordes in the subterranean world
After arriving at 北京南站 (Beijing South Station), we hustled through the concourse, wending our way through several snaking lines, before finally descending down into the subway tunnel. The station platform was extremely crowded, and we couldn’t make it on the first round. we barely got on when the next subway arrived. I sent up a prayer of thanks, because Line 4 goes straight to Haidian District and has a stop near our hotel, so we didn’t need to make any major transfers.
Where we experience the great distances along Chinese roads
We exited at the Peking University East Gate station and proceeded along Chengfu Road toward our hotel. “It’s a only a few blocks away!” I kept chanting, trying to give the students encouragement and keep them on their feet. It’s actually about halfway to Wudaokou, so not a short walk—though not a long one, either. We got to experience the joy of Beijing’s lo(ooo)ng city blocks, pulling our luggage along the road while craning our necks at nearby buildings. We finally made it to the Wenjing Hotel next to the Tsinghua University Science Park, weary but excited after the journey.
In less than 9 hours, we’d made it 1200 kilometers from Shanghai to Beijing and were ready to begin our new adventure! But dinner first.