As a result of my amazingly lax work timetable (sixteen hours a week spread across three days, thanks China) I have been attempting to thoroughly explore Beijing, and its greater areas, in my spare time. TimeOut Beijing recently posted a special publication advertising various museums that were available in and around the capital. One that caught my attention was to be found in Zhoukoudian. It is the site where the now famous ‘Peking Man’ was first excavated in 1923.
Peking Man, or ‘Beijing Yuanren’, is regarded as one of the best archaelogical finds of the species ‘home erectus’, a 700,000-500,000 year old descendant of modern Eurasian and American people. In 1929 the Swedish geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson found quartz rock not native to the excavation area, and is said to have proudly proclaimed ‘Here is primitive man; now all we have to do is find him!’
And find him they did.
My travel route from the DaXing area (southern countryside of Beijing) went as follows –
- Take Line 4 Subway to Taoranting.
- Use exit A.
- Walk North to Nanheng E Street, crossing the road as I did so using a pedestrian bridge.
- Turn onto Nanheng E Street to face East.
- Walk until Nanheng Street became Beiwei Road.
- Continue until I found the bus stop for 836/917, near number 32 Beiwei Road. This is the Tianqiao stop and the start/end of the line.
Now, most china travel guides currently online have said the 917 bus will take you to your correct destination. As of the time I am writing this that information is incorrect and you will instead want the 836 bus. The stops you will be looking to make your exit are Zhoukoudian Cun Lukou OR Zhoukoudian Lukou. It takes about an hour, but this estimate is traffic dependant. I exited at the second Zhoukoudian bus stop (because I missed the village stop), which turned into a favourable event, as I could finish my travels in a tuktuk type metallic cage of a vehicle for ten kuai with one of the most talkative drivers I have ever met. He delivered straight to the foot of Dragon Bone Hill aka the Peking Man site. Total cost going there, around 20 kuai.
Tickets are 30rmb, a number that won’t break your bank balance. I visited on a Wednesday morning, which was great because there were very few people to disrupt the sound of nature/get in my way of walking. Your ticket will then need to be stubbed by a grounds warden dressed in an auspicious red coat, and after that you are free to roam. I inadvertently went the ‘wrong’ way around and started my journey close to a large topographical map. From there I walked up the hill to start my exploring inside their museum.
A small building from the outside, the museum entrance had a rather humble sculpture of two homo erectus specimens, artistic facials lost to the thoughts of the objects they were holding. The sitting specimen held a peculiar philosophical gaze as if to ask ‘but why is this rock a tool?’ Then you will walk into a very well set-up immersive screen display showing the topographical nature of Dragon Bone Hill, and a wall text with well translated English giving a detailed history of the place. After that you will be left slightly disappointed at the invariably Chinese execution of museum displays, think poor lighting and mismatched placement of objects with no logical connection to each other. Points will be awarded for two parts inside the museum
- The baby riding a dinosaur wall graphic, of which I still have no idea what it actually conveyed, but made me wish dinosaurs were still around if only for that opportunity to become reality.
- A tv+camera display with various Q coded headbands was set up in one corner of a display room. After selecting a headband and turning to face the camera, your face will transform into either an animal that used to roam the hill you are exploring, or the face of homo erectus. The selfie opportunities are hilarious.
After the museum I walked around to the scenic destination spots elevated at three different platforms. These would have been great, if the museum had a landscaper hired to take care of the overgrown trees hindering the view. The juxtaposition of Old and New China will have to be found at another location. On my way to the top of the final platform I came across a foreign couple that, of all places, were from Wellington, New Zealand! The smallness of planet Earth continues to astound me. We chatted and toured Locality 3 together before I departed, my hunt for Locality 4 and the Peking Man Cave being my priority.
Locality 4 was the main reason I wanted to visit Zhoukoudian. It’s where one of the best discoveries of controlled fire use was excavated, and from this discovery the theory of evolution continued to strengthen. Stepping into the mouth of the cave, an indescribably sense of awe passed through me. I was standing inside what amounted to a hole in the ground, where ~500,000 years ago a relative of the current homo sapiens species (myself) was controlling this energy source we take for granted. I can’t explain what I was thinking, but I wish I could say to them some words of achievement. Although to be honest the words would probably be grunts and huffs, and I’d most likely end up insulting somebody’s mother. But to stand at a place and actually be the physical evidence of how far evolution has come, was surreal.
The actual excavation point of Peking Man was less mesmerizing. A lot of construction work was being completed to make the site more accessible. A small sign affixed to the side of the cave proudly held the message declaring the exact point of the amazing Peking Man discovery. I imagine when the work is done the site will be worthy of its achievement in history.
So if you are looking for an unusually satisfying experience, and have a spare day in Beijing, I’d recommend making the effort to go to Zhoukoudian. To sit in caves where evolution was activated, is quite an awakening experience.