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Article featured in Beijing This Month, September 2004
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Walk the Ancient Dadu City Wall

Text and Photos by Bruce Connolly

Throughout its long history, because of wars and changing dynasties, Beijing has been rebuilt several times with slight changes in its physical location.

Once such instance came in 1267 AD, when the great Mongolian warrior Kublai Khan established the new Mongolian capital of Dadu, on lands now found in northern Beijing's Dadu Ruins Park. The park lies within the Beijing Dynasty Wall Relic Park that parallels Beituchengxi Lu, between the city's northern Third and Fourth Ring Roads.

The Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) capital of Zhongdu had been so ravaged by war, and water was in such short supply when Kublai Khan entered the city in 1264, that the Khan ordered the new city built northeast of the former Jin capital.

It took 18 years to complete, but Dadu, a forbidden city, became a great city, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). At one point, Dadu had a population estimated at between 400,000 and a half million. This included soldiers, statesmen, religious leaders and traders from all over the Mongolian Conquest. One among those traders and adventurers was Marco Polo, who would fascinate European readers with his tales of Dadu's magnificence and the famed Silk Road, which reached its eastern terminus at Dadu's western gate.

Dadu city was surrounded by 28.6 kilometres (km) of earthen walls, 16-metres (m) high and 24-m wide. Water from the Xiaoyue River formed a moat outside the walls that still remain, and it fed into the Grand Canal that connected Dadu to Hangzhou and the high seas beyond.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which succeeded the Yuan, the capital was extended southward and the Forbidden City -- visited by millions of visitors to this Olympic city -- was built. Strong brick walls were erected around the city, partly overlaying Dadu's southern walls at present-day Dongzhimen and Xizhimen. The northern parts of Dadu remained outside the Ming walls. While the latter have disappeared, the older Dadu earthen structures, called tucheng have survived.

This area, though suffering from some neglect, has been under some protection for many years, and the riverbanks have long served as a local park. Tree planting has also been encouraged along the walls, and in 1974 they were identified as the Tucheng Forest Shelter Belt. They are now a key feature of Beijing's "Green Olympics" plans. Chaoyang and Haidian district authorities, in collaboration with Beijing Municipal Government, have transformed the area into a wonderful park that has contributed magnificently to the city's environmental image and that has contributed to an improvement in the local quality of life.

The shelterbelt protects historical relics, creates a quality recreational area, contains several sculpture parks, and features unique wetlands environments for plants and wildlife. It is also a welcome walking area that allows for almost traffic-free jogging.

The park can be reached in many ways. It is clearly portrayed on all metro-station and tourist maps as a green strip paralleling Beituchengxi Lu. From the Shaoyaoju metro station, the third stop on Line 13 north of the Dongzhimen subway station, take the station's "A" exit and head diagonally across a new road towards traditional-styled grey-brick buildings that mark the park's entrance. There is no admission charge.

Once inside, turn left; follow the canal. Boardwalks lead through a delightful wetland of aquatic plants with purple flowers, tall reeds and hanging willows. Wooden tingzi (pavilions) are restful places to take in the scene. Seats here and there throughout the park feature imitation chariot-wheel supports.


Cross the river and head up a terraced slope. Timber stairs lead to the first section of the wall, passing two stone steles with complex dragon carvings. At the wall's crest, there is an unpaved path lined by pine trees. Steps frequently lead down to the riverside walkway, which is lined with manicured lawns and delightful flowerbeds. Stylish wooden arch bridges span the stream.

The riverside trail passes under Yinghuayuan Dongli where it breaches the wall. Beyond, a fashionable new bar street on the north bank is taking shape and will surely enhance the area's ambiance.

Past Yinghua Xijie, where the wall levels out, there is an amazing square. Two flocks of stone sheep rest beside pavilions resembling carved tree stumps. The toilets here are also architecturally palatial, with curved grey-tiled roofs and fine, brown woodwork.

A few minutes walk takes you to Beijing's largest open-air sculpture park. Displayed are depictions of the Yuan Dynasty's political, economic, military, technological and cultural life. A core statue is that of Kublai Khan (the Yuan Dynasty's first emperor) and his wife. Among 19 other characters shown are the famed traveller Marco Polo and Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing. An 80-m-long fresco depicts urban life during this period.

Still walking, Anding Lu is soon reached. There, large stone pillars hold bronze plaques illustrating the period's achievements in science and astronomy.

After crossing the road at a traffic light, the western section is encountered. There are some fascinating monuments there. A large vertical stone holds the "Stele of Yuan Dadu City Map." Easily recognisable are the Forbidden City and the present-day the Shichahai lakes. Nearby is a memorial garden with replicas of discarded weaponry. A simple message states: "Symbols of war are cruel. The armour, wheels and weapons abandoned after a battle warn us of the bloodiness of war and remind us of its dreadful history."

Brown wooden tingzi set among ponds and gardens offer a prospect of rest and a chance for thoughtful reflection. Nearby a wind-and-water bridge crosses the canal to a garden containing several symbolic sculptures. One holds a warrior's helmet sitting on a stone among other stones carved as broken chariot wheels. The text reminds: "A 1,000-year history develops and moves ever onwards ... even powerful empires wane and disappear with the winds leaving only memories and fragments."

Replicas of Persian pottery symbolise China's interactions with Central Asia, Europe and the Middle East during the Yuan Dynasty, while large "coins" represent the bustling commerce that took place along the walls during that prosperous period.

Here, the canal, with its waters cleansed, now functions as a boating lake. Its northern bank is lined with gardens, while Dadu's earthen wall continues along the southern side.

A long tranquil section follows, with willows hanging over waters spanned by charming wooden bridges. Lampposts convey periodic style.

A tunnel leads below a road to the Asian Games Village. Beyond, a restored section of the wall, lined with stone battlements, incorporates an incongruous helicopter-landing pad. To the north, the skyline appears strange at first glance. There, reaching into the sky, are replicas of the Emin Minaret of Xinjiang's Turpan, and the Three Pagodas of Dali from Yunnan. They are among the many attractions found in city's Chinese Ethnic Culture Park that celebrates China's wealth of cultural diversity.

The south bank was home to an underutilised aviary two years ago, while the neighbouring waterway was a festering eyesore. Today, boats sail along the canal. Enchanting fishponds grace rock gardens featuring covered, wooden walkways. Cages symbolically contain some brightly coloured songbirds. A large plaque elaborates on the area's former use. Stone tablets on the path leading up to the wall carry the names of the varieties of birds previously domiciled there.

The earthen wall comes very close to the canal, and soon the modern world in the form of the Badaling Expressway looms overhead. The walkway leads up past some period-style buildings to the busy street. The Xiaoyue River's meander disappears into a tunnel.

Crossing Changping Lu, beneath the flyover, it is necessary to turn left and then right. The path continues to the north of a tall broadcasting mast (look for fences protecting an unrestored part of the wall). The route passes through a section where considerable tree planting has taken place. Here men sit by the water playing cards, while others hang bamboo birdcages filled with chirping songbirds from tree branches.

Soon Beitaipingzhuang Lu is crossed and the route once again is a beautiful linear garden. This section was developed by Haidian District.

Close to the entrance is the "Sculpture of Eight Steeds on Pasture." Proud horses cast in bronze stand above a pond surrounded by tall reeds. Fine metal saddles mounted on stone pedestals stand in grass nearby. This is one of eight newly created scenic spots with enchanting names such as "The Moon's Reflection in the Silver Wave."

The environmental theme is promoted at every opportunity with notices proclaiming, for example: "We need green grass and they need our love and care."

On an adjacent wall it is possible to see a restored waterspout, one of the old city's eight great drainage ditches that once fed into the river.

Beyond Huayuan Lu boats, similar to the wooden barges on Shichahai, can be hired for evening cruises. Indeed they sail past a permanently moored barge named the "Ancient Boat with Tea Fragrance." This is an excellent spot to look down on a wetland garden, a natural habitat for water-loving plants. It is hoped that this area will attract waterfowl and other small wildlife.

Back from the river, adjacent to the wall, is a great granite sculpture commemorating the "Grand Foundation Ceremony of Dadu, Capital of Yuan Dynasty." With elephants lined up below him, Kublai Khan looks down on the scene. The new capital was faced with severe water shortages, a problem solved by engineer Liu Bingzhong. His statue stands beside a terracotta mosaic illustrating his great water-engineering scheme that connected Dadu to the Grand Canal, Hangzhou and the sea.

Stone paths meander through dense woodland growth to luxuriant lawns broken up with colourful flowerbeds. Pavilions sit above artificial rocky slopes where streams flow into ponds supporting reeds. Everywhere people are enjoying the environment -- exercising, flying kites, playing guitars, singing to music performed on the erhu (a stringed Chinese instrument), or just relaxing.

At Xitucheng Lu the route continues beyond the elevated expressway. Wooden steps lead up to the wall where a paved path now leads south along the crest. The view is of a modern city -- a far cry from ancient Dadu. The waterway, narrower than before, continues on the right.

Passing period-style, recently built park buildings, the path descends under the Third Ring Road at the Jimenqiao Bridge and comes to an abrupt end at a viewing platform looking towards Xizhimen.

Metro stations can be found at Dazhongsi (west of Jimen Bridge) or at Xizhimen to the south.