Thursday, 13 September 2018

The World’s Most Important Ghost Station?

This Monday, I set out on a mission to find an almost forgotten landmark dating back over a century – a relic of early Republican China in a corner of Nanjing that is now almost forgotten by most city residents, and the planning authorities.

What I was looking for was an abandoned train station built in 1914 that was once the bustling terminus for trains heading to Beijing and the north of the country.  The station is called ‘Nanjing North’, or in Chinese, 南京北站, and was built on the north side of the Yangtze so that rail passengers would alight their trains to cross the river by boat – there was no bridge until 1968.

However, the opening of said bridge half a century ago made this terminal redundant and it was subsequently closed to passenger service. 

Being once a central hub on the Shanghai-Nanjing-Beijing rail corridor in the world’s most populous country, you could easily argue that it is the world’s most important ghost station.  Due to this, and due to it being a clear example of early 20th century Chinese architecture, I chose to set out to find it.

Getting there.
The north side of the Yangtze, known as Nanjing’s ‘suburban’ Pukou district, is to a great degree, considered the sticks by ‘mainland’ Nanjingers and this was particularly true of the area around the old Nanjing North Station, which my Chinese friends had mostly not even heard of. 

Although the Nanjing subway does extend to Pukou, the nearest stop was perhaps an hour long walk away from the old station, mostly along the Yangtze itself.  

As I walked it, the dense and glitzy high rises within a radius of the subway stop in time abruptly turned into vegetable patches and open fields with chickens – I was entering a completely different China.

Sign on the bottom left informing us that harbor was strictly
off limits to livestock.
And then, when rooftops started appearing again, it was evident that the settlement I was entering was itself nothing short of a time capsule - a China without skyscrapers, a China with the old sense of community - where the street is everyone's summer living room and your neighours are you're extended house mates:

And there were certainly streets that looked like this - it's best days were most definitely behind it.
Here was a community that had once been a railway hub, Nanjing's Swindon if you like, but now with its raison d'etre gone, and today well beyond the normal reach of the nearest subway stop, the settlement really has become part ghost town.

And there it was, Nanjing North Station:
And then as soon as I arrived, I came across the locality's very own tour-guide offering to show me around all the sites, and better still, she was driving around in one of these, which allowed us to drive up stony footpaths to our decaying destinations:

 Such as the old port, where the train-ferries would once dock up:
Me being so childish.
To the rail sidings, where some running locomotives still stood:
This picture we took without disturbing the driver - her idea.  A wee naughty but who cares. 

And then into the old station itself:
When you're so desperate for a holiday...
Sure, most people in Nanjing today may not have heard of Nanjing North station across the river but my tour guide and her colleague were certainly making a living out of this, and they clearly enjoyed doing it.

In fact, that day there was a local couple being taken round by her colleague, and I was shown pictures of previous customers posing amongst the old locomotives - one was a bride posing in her wedding dress, and another was a tourist from India.

My hopes for this community, are of course mixed.  On the one hand, it's nice that it has remained such a time-capsule and a snap shot of 'old China'.  But on the other hand, it is sad that this community is not what it once was - having once been a mega-important railway town and port, it is now part ghost-town.  

It would certainly be great if the metro could be extended, and who knows, use the old station as it's station, bringing it back into modern use.  But then, not only would tower-blocks follow, but my two tour guides would no longer have this decaying venue on their doorstep to show tourists around.   

Thus, when I saw this community, I definitely did not know quite what to hope for.  But then, next to the old station, I saw this - new houses being built in the old industrial style of this area.  Clearly, it's not just the two tour guides and their customers who value the heritage of this area, but the planners too.
And that is clearly a cause for optimism.  

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