For the past two years and seventeen countries, it has been my mission to forge a connection with the past through extraordinary acts of imagination while retracing the path of Richard Halliburton, one of the world’s greatest travelers and adventurers.
At the Place of High Sacrifice in Petra, Jordan, I envisioned a ritual so ghastly it left me light headed and nauseous. With my mind’s eye I witnessed a devastating avalanche sweep Hannibal’s elephants off a high pass in the Swiss Alps. In Turkey, Hector and Achilles lapped me in our mad dash around the city of Troy.
Practice has honed my imagination into a fine blade, able to slice away the six thousand years blocking my view of Saqqara’s construction in Egypt as easily as it can shave off the mere ninety years standing between me and Richard Halliburton’s fantastical journeys around the world.
But, as vivid as my imagination is, it couldn’t handle Beijing.
People the world over know about China’s remarkable progress in recent decades. The country has leapt into the 21st Century with almost violent enthusiasm, and nowhere is that better exemplified than in the capital.
- Beijing’s metro population now exceeds 25 million people.
- The urban center covers 1400 square kilometers of land.
- The subway system has nearly 600 km of track with an anticipated 1000 km by the year 2020. London’s underground, by comparison, consists of just 400 km of track.
- And, though this fact is about the whole country, not just Beijing, it’s too fascinating not to include: China used more cement from 2011-2013 than the US used in an entire century.
But the city’s remarkable progress is at odds with its cultural history. The Beijing of old, where emperor-gods ruled the land and time was measured in dynasties, disappeared just over a century ago.
Halliburton spent a few weeks in Beijing in the winter of 1922. My goal while there was to recreate as many of his experiences and activities as possible. What follows is a series of historical photos of Beijing relating my successes and failures in trying to connect with the city’s past.
Note: All the old historical photos of Beijing presented below are found in Beijing’s museums; the original photographers are unknown. Don’t forget to play with the sliders on the photos that have them! It may take an extra minute or two for the photos with sliders to load, but trust me, it’s worth the wait.
BEIJING’S CITY WALLS
Halliburton wrote several times in his letters home about walking the city walls with friends he made in the city. I’d hoped to do the same during my stay in Beijing, but on arriving I learned that the walls had been torn down in the 1960’s to make way for the city’s Second Ring Road.
[The eastern edge of Beijing’s old city wall has been replaced with the Second Ring Road and a new wall of hotels and high rises.]
Could the road have been built without destroying the walls? Almost certainly. But creating a city plan that preserves cultural artifacts takes time, and Beijing in the 1960’s was too busy with the Great Leap Forward to consider what kind of landing pad they were building.
There is one section of wall that remains, though it is largely rebuilt. Dongbianmen used to be the city’s southeast corner, but is now roughly central in Beijing’s sprawl. If Halliburton had stood there in 1922 and looked south, he would have seen a busy transportation canal backed by endless plains and hills. When I stood there on a sunny November day in 2015 I could see no end to the city.
Along with the walls, most of the city’s gates, watchtowers and archery towers were also destroyed. Of the sixteen sets of gates and towers that originally punctuated the walls, only a handful remain, and those are heavily reconstructed.
Qianmen and Tiananmen, though unmoored by the loss of their walls, somehow manage to remain a natural part of the cityscape.
[Both Qianmen’s watchtower and archery tower remain, standing guard over the entrance to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City]
Others, like Deshengmen, squat in the city like dinosaurs, utterly out of place yet impossible to ignore.
Most of the gates and towers, however, are simply gone. Their ghosts are remembered in the names of subway stops and the way the roads curve bizarrely around towers that no longer exist. But mostly there are just roads, eight lanes across and filling the air with exhaust and the din of honking horns.
[The Dongzhimen Subway stop pops you out at what used to be Dongzhimen gate. I had to stand in the middle of the road to get this picture–and it’s a much busier road now than it was a century ago!]
[A pedestrian overpass made Fuchengmen easier to photograph than many of the others]
Standing on the pedestrian overpass where Fuchengmen used to guard the city, I wonder: if Richard Halliburton were magically transported through time to arrive in modern day Beijing, how long would it take him to figure out where he was?
FOREIGN LEGATION QUARTER
Halliburton’s next destination after Beijing was Vladivostok, so it’s practically guaranteed he paid a visit to the American and Russian legations in Beijing to learn about Russian visas. Surprisingly, despite decades of animosity toward the Western world, the Western architecture in Beijing’s old Legation Quarter is largely intact.
The Yokohama Specie Bank is one of the more distinctive buildings. Leafy trees (and a public toilet) now obscure much of the view, and a taller building rises behind it, but the distinctive dome still catches the eye.
[The Yokohama Specie Bank remains one of the most distinctive buildings in the Foreign Legation Quarter]
It took a while to find a way into the American Legation complex. The main entrance is on Qianmen East Street rather than on Dongjiaomin Alley like the rest of the legations. Some of the buildings in the complex now contain art museums and high end shops, but the main building looks unchanged. Gazing at the pale stone exterior, it wasn’t hard to imagine Halliburton bounding up the front steps like a puppy, taking them two at a time, then reigning himself in and adjusting his tie before pushing through the door.
[The American Legation remains almost perfectly intact]
Happily, Beijing has done a good job preserving its more famous historical sites. The first one I visited was the Forbidden City, the most famous complex in Beijing, perhaps in all of China. Its mysterious and private halls were rendered decidedly less forbidding in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty and established the Republic of China. The outer gates were thrown open and, for the first time, the general public was allowed inside.
In 1922, however, when Halliburton was in Beijing, the doors to the inner reaches of the Forbidden City were still closed and Puyi, the ousted last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was under house arrest within. Halliburton was lucky enough to witness Wanrong, a young woman from a good background, travel Beijing’s streets in a curtained palanquin at four o’clock in the morning on 30 November, 1922, to enter the Forbidden City and wed the dethroned emperor.
After Puyi was kicked out of the Forbidden City in 1925, the palace was no longer the hall of emperors and gods, and the grounds became a museum. And so it remains in 2015. In the intervening years the Forbidden City’s main gate, Tiananmen, has witnessed remarkable chapters of China’s history. It was here that Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and his portrait still adorns the gate.
[Oddly, Tiananmen is more heavily guarded now than when it was a palace]
Tianammen Square hasn’t fared as well. You would think preserving the integrity of a plaza would be easy, but apparently that’s not the case. When Mao died, the city decided to immortalize him with more than just his portrait on the gate: they built a mausoleum to house his embalmed body. And they didn’t build just any old mausoleum, they built a huge mausoleum, and plopped it right in the middle of Tiananmen Square. Where previously you could look north from Qianmen Gate all the way to the northernmost end of the Forbidden City, now you can only see the ugly, concrete cube that dominates the square.
[The view north from the Qianmen archery tower has changed a little bit! The only recognizable feature is the dim and distant outline of a rooftop in the upper right hand corner.]
The Bell and Drum towers are in remarkably good condition, though the Chinese penchant for severely limiting peoples’ movements makes it difficult to explore them—you can stand on exactly one of the Drum Tower’s balconies, but none of the others.
[In front of the Drum Tower, the types of vehicles on the road have changed, but not much else]
[I couldn’t get the angle I needed on this shot because the balcony was gated off, but it’s still clear that, while the city has grown up around it, the layout of the road is the same]
The Yonghegong Lama Temple is also in excellent shape. Though there are significantly more tourists today, the architecture and statues remain.
[The number of tourists is all that has changed in this shot of the Lama Temple]
Beijing’s most beautiful site, the Temple of Heaven, has survived in wonderful form. I was happy to find that the case since Halliburton wrote so warmly of the temple. “The Altar of Heaven is the most spiritual monument yet,” he wrote in a letter home. “I’ve never seen anything so conspicuous as the heavens there.”
The three-tiered Altar of Heaven is unchanged; even the stonework is cracked and aged instead of reconstructed and polished like so many of China’s monuments.
[The Altar of Heaven at the Temple of Heaven is remarkably unchanged and very, very beautiful.]
The temple’s crowning jewel is certainly the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. It must have been this building Halliburton was writing about in his letter. The building’s graceful lines and vivid colors draw the eye upward, toward the “conspicuous heavens”. Despite nearly a century separating Halliburton’s experience from mine, I found the Temple of Heaven every bit as mesmerizing and inspiring as he did.
[The stunning Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest remains, in my opinion, the most beautiful and unique site in Beijing.]
Beijing is a bizarre and compelling mixture of old and new. In my opinion, too much of the old has been sacrificed for the new, but who am I to pass those judgments? I’m just grateful to have found any pieces of the past peeking through the forest of concrete high rises that dominate the city today.
But one thing is certain: the Beijing of Halliburton’s day is well and truly gone. Unless he were transported directly to the center of the Temple of Heaven, I doubt Halliburton would recognize a single corner of the city he once wandered.
Which can only make me wonder: what will Beijing look like in another hundred years?
Only time will tell.
If you’re interested in viewing more historical photos of Beijing and other locations around the world, check out my photo recreation gallery. The gallery uses the slider feature to compare photos Richard Halliburton took during his travels to what I’m finding today.