We pass rows of new buildings on the outskirts of Beijing. The train slides through a tunnel 1,400 feet below the Great Wall of China and emerges onto a plain where the 110-foot-long blades of hundreds of wind turbines tower over rows of newly planted pine trees.
It’s the panorama that passes on the high-speed train from Beijing to the Taizicheng mountain site for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and like the Games themselves, this 50-minute journey has been designed to impress with a history of China’s progress.
Journalists covering these Olympics were escorted from the hotel at the media center to the sports venue in special buses, taxis and train cars, in line with China’s zero-Covid strategy to eliminate infections . Unable to venture around, we gaze out of sealed windows, eager for scenes of life, especially on the roughly 110-mile train line to Taizicheng, near where many ski events took place.
While China has sought to wow global audiences with its gold medal tally, it has also used these Games to promote its broader economic, environmental and technological ambitions. The high-speed rail line is a centerpiece, displaying several goals promised by the Chinese Communist Party leaders: urban growth, clean energy and less pollution, and – most importantly – impeccable, on-time ordering.
The view along the road, however, also offers glimpses of the industrial and rural past that China wants to escape: a village where horses work the fields, or a factory, gutted and abandoned.
The guard posts that dot the railway tracks testify to the Chinese government’s abiding concerns about safety, even in remote villages. We pass tiny guard outposts set up to ensure the Olympics remain safe from threats.
Our journey begins at Qinghe Station in northern Beijing, where staff in blue uniforms, masks and goggles lead us to the Olympics-only waiting area and then onto the “Snow Dream” train.
For Chinese leaders, the expansion of high-speed rail has been a source of national pride and huge expense. This line from Beijing to Taizicheng and nearby Zhangjiakou, built to serve the Winter Olympics, has a total official cost of nearly $10 billion. Even on normal high-speed trains in China, the attendants show careful discipline – perfect posture, neat uniforms – and that’s even more true on this route.
The train journey is, like the Olympic venues, free of the thunderous billboard propaganda for Chinese leader Xi Jinping that is common across the country these days. But the message that China’s success is due to Mr. Xi and the Communist Party resonates in the slogans fluttering in Chinese on car announcement screens.
High-speed rail service to Winter Games venues “would testify to the increase in China’s overall national strength”, Xi said in late 2019, when the line was officially completed.
A few minutes from Beijing, we slip into the darkness of a 12 km long tunnel carved into a granite hill. We are under a section of the Great Wall, the network of fortifications that emperors have built over the centuries to keep marauders out. Rail needs straight track to run fast – no sharp turns or dips – and Chinese engineers are leading the world in building tunnels and bridges that cross hills and valleys.
Back in daylight five minutes later, the sky is clear blue and the fields are white with recent snow. Ten years ago, skies were more likely to be a smoggy grey-brown at this time of year, stained with pollution from industry and heating. We are approaching Hebei Province, long a hotbed of coal-fired power plants, steel mills and smoke-spewing factories that neighboring Beijing no longer wanted.
Now, however, the province is trying to cut back on polluting industry, and the rail line is adorned with scenes from China’s clean energy future. Dozens of wind turbines have been erected near the Guanting Reservoir, which provided Beijing with drinking water until agricultural and industrial pollution made it undrinkable. Solar panels cover the lower parts of the nearby hills.
China has promised a “green” Olympics, and power companies that have kept that vow have ensured travelers can see their efforts in action from the train window.
Now on the flattest stretch of the ride, the train accelerates: 207, then 209, then 211 miles per hour, reads the display panel at the front of the car. That’s a bit slower than the maximum 217 miles (350 kilometers) per hour that engineers say the train can achieve. Maybe recent snow means caution.
Ribbons of highways and high-voltage power lines also criss-cross the countryside, and the high-speed line sometimes runs parallel to tracks for six other trains. For three decades, Chinese leaders have been investing heavily in rail and other infrastructure to spur growth and connect the country into a tightly knit whole. The current leader, Mr. Xi, has accelerated this effort.
But we also cross countryside where horses and donkeys still work the fields. More than a third of the Chinese population lives in the country according to official measures; the actual number may be higher. For many of them, life is still difficult, without the social safety net and opportunities of city dwellers.
The scrolling faces are often older too. Few villagers in their twenties or thirties remain on the land. Many are moving into cities with new five- or six-story apartments rising out of the countryside, as if some official had put a finger on a map and ordered “City here!”
A decade ago, it would have been possible for a foreign journalist to travel to one of the towns along the line and talk to the locals.
Today, with the Covid restrictions imposed on journalists covering the Games, it is impossible for us to interview them in person about the changes brought about by the Games and the high-speed train. Even before the spread of Covid in 2020, reporting in China was increasingly difficult; officials and police often harassed visiting reporters or warned people not to talk.
In telephone interviews, residents living near the railway line said they felt proud of the new high-speed train and the Games, but also removed from the hype.
“The high-speed line has had no impact on business because the two-year pandemic makes it a problem everywhere,” said Xiu Li, who runs a fish and donkey meat restaurant in Donghuayuan. , a town close to the line. . “I watched some of the Winter Olympics, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. I just peeked into it when it’s on TV. »
The train begins to stop in the mountains. We pass through another tunnel – one of eight along the journey – and emerge into the high country, usually arid brown at this time of year. The announcement says that we are about to arrive in Taizicheng.
A team of cleaners – each covered head to toe in white protective clothing – wait to board and disinfect the train before its next journey.
Liu Yi contributed to the research.