Old Version

Do Rivers Run Through It?

Once, when the city was plunged into a semi-lockdown on the eve of a long holiday weekend, I saw a group screening a movie. They had hauled chairs, a screen and a projector to the riverside, along with food and drink

By Kathleen Naday Updated Jan.1

It’s generally held, at least by me, that a great city has to either have a river or be by the coast – think Sydney, Paris or Budapest. A body of water lifts the spirits, brings a breeze, breaks up the monotony of the buildings, and provides areas for recreation. It’s why Shanghai’s famous Huangpu River, with the Bund and its curve of old European buildings on one side, and the buzzing financial district of Liujiazui, home to several of the tallest buildings in China on the other, is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.  

Beijing famously has neither. Its main characteristic, geographically speaking, is its location in the dry and dusty northern plains, surrounded by mountains that tend to keep the rain out. No major river winds its way through the capital, though there are some man-made lakes in the old part of town near the Forbidden City, and a few small canals and rivers, many of them on the outskirts. They remain unloved and uncared for, sometimes stagnant or almost dried up, for years.  

Then some bright spark decided that what the city needed was to revive its waterways. It all started with the Liangma River, a waterway some 10 kilometers long that stretches east from the city’s diplomatic quarter, past one of its biggest urban parks, until it joins the Ba River in the eastern suburbs.  

The river has become quite the hotspot, with boardwalks, light shows, bars, cafes and restaurants and even boat trips. It was a lifeline during the pandemic, as one of the only places you could freely go. I often walk there with my dog, a favorite place to go because dogs are banned from many places, including parks. It’s full of picnickers, skateboarders, singers and livestreamers. Once, when the city was plunged into a semi-lockdown on the eve of a long holiday weekend, I saw a group screening a movie. They had hauled chairs, a screen and a projector to the riverside, along with food and drink.  

But it got me wondering – what was the rest of the river like? Was it so glitzy all along? Where did it start and finish? I decided the only thing to do was walk the whole length. It turns out the western end just springs up from nowhere – an underground culvert from beneath a busy road. I walked east, and beyond the park, the river crosses an area of rather poor housing, and here, it turned back into the rather ugly stream it used to be, with almost no water in the channel and a lot of trash. No path anymore, the only way to cross a major road without a big detour was to go under it, balancing precariously on a ridge of mud above the trickle of water. It was the normal way to get to the other side, locals assured me.  

But after another kilometer, I arrived at Beijing’s newest suburbs, some quite fancy residential compounds. Other less posh were for people who had been moved from old central alleys and courtyard houses. There used to be factories here, and some were in the process of being converted into new destination venues for shops, galleries and live music. There were new parks as well. I was impressed – it turns out the suburbs of Beijing are quite attractive. I found where the Liangma River flows into the Ba River, which continues east and south, until it joins the much larger Wenyu River, which in turn flows through the old Grand Canal bridges. Here, goods used to enter the city after long journeys along the Grand Canal from the south.  

Walking beside rivers gives a much different perspective on a city. I branched out, and have almost completed walks along several other rivers. I found that the clean-up continues, and that facilities such as outdoor gyms, running and cycle tracks and parks have been installed along waterways to provide more exercise space in the cramped capital. There have been less successful attempts to jazz up some river sections – one near me tried and failed to attract people to riverside bars with loud karaoke. It’s just annoying. Other areas are full of trash left by picnickers.  

But the goal of completing the capital’s rivers continues. Beijing will never be a Cairo, with the Nile, or New Orleans with the Mississippi, but it turns out it has surprisingly more water than you think. And some of it is very nice.