For decades, Zhangjiakou was regarded as something of a backwater – a low-level administrative city, where less-fortunate PLA generals would be forced to spend their winters, scanning the horizon for signs of invasion.
Today, with the threat of a surprise Russian attack long since past, Zhangjiakou is attempting to redefine its image. Although still home to the colossal 65th Group – one of the three large-scale military units assigned to protect Beijing – the ‘gate of the north’, as it was once known, now invites visitors to enter into the city via a succession of ornate European-style bridges. A gritty garrison town this is not.
Driving under the flashing neon lights of the downtown area, we are met with the first of several large signs proudly announcing the city’s joint bid with Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Dismissed by many outside China as audacious, the bid has become central to Zhangjiakou’s renewed sense of self. Few people we talk with during our visit express doubt over the city’s chances of securing the Games – while a small number, like our hotel receptionist, appear convinced the city has already won.
With enthusiasm so high, competing bids from Oslo and Almaty barely register, the common consensus being that only the Chinese government has the political will to deliver the Winter Olympics. Confidence is high among investors too, many of whom have begun buying up land in preparation of the Games’ arrival.
At the two-story Tianlai nightclub, no-one mentions the bid directly, though evidence of its effects are soon made clear. While the manager appears taken aback at the prospect of foreigners entering his club, he is equally quick to assure us of its “international reputation” – and by extension, the relatively low cost of the RMB1,000 table fee required to set foot inside. Eventually, after much negotiation, we are ushered to a table next to the dance floor, at the reduced price of RMB300 and a complimentary round of beers.
It is a Tuesday night but the club is full to capacity. A singer dressed in a red fur coat, leather trousers, chunky gold chains and a studded cod piece, performs in front of a young, fashionably dressed crowd. Bottles of Chivas Regal and green tea are ferried between tables and the music is thumping – a relentless mix of hard techno beats and EDM club bangers. Two brightly-adorned circus clowns wander the club on stilts, handing out balloon animals, while above the dance floor, skimpily dressed female podium dancers work the crowd. Unlike similar clubs in Beijing – where all too often, people seem content to affect an air of aloofness from behind a ‘VIP’ table – almost everyone at Tianlai appears eager to dance.
“Young people come here to let loose after work,” explains 23-year-old Wang Wei, the club’s floor manager. His colleague, a barman who goes by the single English name ‘Diamond’, agrees: “Zhangjiakou is not as developed as Beijing yet – but it’s not as pressured either. There is more freedom. Young people here are good at having fun.”
As the night wears on, the crowd slowly filters out into the nearby parking lot, where lines of BMWs, Mercedes and Audis await. We decide to head back to our hotel and flag down a taxi. There are too many of us for a single car but our driver – a towering man of Mongolian heritage – seems unconcerned. He pretends not to notice as five passengers squeeze into four seats and as we pull away, he begins to sing. His voice has a melancholic quality that quiets our drunken conversation and for the rest of the journey we travel in silence.
We get up early the following morning and head to the local market to buy some breakfast – the sight of several foreigners in a neighborhood rarely visited by tourists, prompts several vendors to ask us if we’re linked somehow to the Olympics. It is bustling and the produce fresh; many of those here are from nearby villages – their rural wares a marked contrast to the shimmering new buildings that form the market’s backdrop.
The vendors appear keen to talk, with many telling us of the changes that have taken place. “I've been in Zhangjiakou for ten years in total,” says Sun Wei, leaning over a pile of cauliflowers. “Not so long ago, where we are today was all fields. The changes have been good for us ordinary people. There are more job opportunities and higher wages. General living conditions are improving too. When I started out, ten years ago, I made just 400 yuan a month, today I can earn as much as 2,000.”
On the way back, we encounter 36-year-old Liu Boyu, the principal of a nearby English language school, and part-time snowboarding instructor.
Despite his passion for winter sports, Liu, who requests that we call him ‘Bowie’ (“I love Ziggy Stardust!”) views the Olympic bid – and the changes it might bring, with a certain trepidation.
“There’s no reason to think it will be a good thing” he begins. “Aside from fame, I don't know what hosting the games would bring us ordinary citizens. The skiing facilities are some of the best in China. But who does it serve exactly? Yes, it creates a few jobs, but most people here in Zhangjiakou can’t afford to use it – and maybe never will.”
Bowie, who also serves as a delegate to the CPPCC (the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), fails to buy into the much lauded ‘trickle down’ argument that increased tourism would benefit ordinary citizens.
“Officials like to say that we are ‘Beijing’s backyard.’ I don't like that definition. Our city’s slogans are all about how to ‘serve Beijing’. Beijing takes all our water. Locals here today can’t farm rice, because there is no longer enough water, so instead they grow corn. In the summer, the government cuts our water supply even more – why? Because Beijing’s water supply is more important. It’s the same with power too. The huge power stations you saw on your way into town do not generate power for people here – it is for Beijing. And yet all the pollution the power stations create stays right here in Zhangjiakou. The relationship is uneven. Beijing is the emperor, we are the servants.”
After spending much of the morning with Bowie, he invites us to join him for lunch alongside his friend, Wang, a former mining magnate turned real estate developer.
We travel by car across town, stopping briefly to admire the city’s immaculately manicured central square, before arriving at a newly built hotel, not far from the head offices of the local government.
Wang is awaiting our arrival at the entrance of the hotel. A tall, slender man in his mid-30s, with a firm handshake and a shrewd grin, Wang seems at ease in our presence and leads our group through the hotel to a private restaurant on the top floor.
The restaurant is lavishly decorated – and the menu expensive. But Wang assures us not to worry, we are his guests. He encourages us to order whatever we like, and instructs the waitresses to bring in some cold beer (“it’s too early for baijiu”). After several days eating in roadside diners and second-tier snack-stops, the sudden change of scenery feels somewhat surreal.
As we prepare to sit down, Wang introduces us to a third friend, Liu, a “big time” Shanxi steel broker with an elaborate dragon sleeve tattoo and an outsized chunky gold watch. A reticent character, he remains suspiciously mute throughout the encounter. The two are business partners, explains Wang, and together they are planning the development of a new ski resort.
“We have bought the right to develop two mountains, between here and Chongli,” explains Wang, lighting a cigarette. “We are waiting for the approval from the government to go ahead – all building is suspended until July next year [when the IOC announces the winning host city of the 2022 Olympics], after which the government will create a plan of how to develop the area.”
As the food arrives – plates of classic delicacies including steamed mandarin fish and braised duck tongue – Wang tells us how he came to be in his current position.
A self-made man, with a large property portfolio, Wang entered the mining business in his early twenties, opening his first mine several years later, though he never discloses exactly how.
For a while, business was good. But then, midway through last year – the government ordered that all mining operations be halted, as part of a Hebei-wide initiative to improve the local environment. According to Bowie, Wang was never compensated for the forced closure.
The experience taught Wang to be weary of the capital – “You can’t fully trust Beijing,” he says at one point.
But as Wang openly admits, his new mountain resort remains dependent on Beijing’s backing – specifically its support for the Olympic bid – without which his venture will likely remain in the planning stages.
He shakes off the apparent contradiction. “We don’t need Beijing – Beijing needs us. Where else are they going to ski?”
There is perhaps some truth in that, but it appears to us that having reached a certain level of prosperity, Zhangjiakou’s new power elite now face a dilemma: move closer to Beijing, and risk having their local monopolies broken up – or retreat, and miss out on the potentially lucrative opportunities made possible by increased development.
For the moment, however, Wang remains unperturbed by the changes ahead, and we join him in a toast to “new friends”.
Later in the day, as we drive out of Zhangjiakou, we pass the ‘old square’ where elaborate Olympic-themed decorations are being arranged under the city’s last remaining statue of Chairman Mao. The Olympics are coming, they appear intent on announcing. The Olympics are coming..?