I have to admit I had been putting if off for months. Not only was it likely to be a tortuous journey using public transport, but I’m not one of those who gets excited by bones and buried artefacts and anthropology generally. But eventually I gave in and set about visiting Zhoukoudian.
Where? I hear you asking…
Zhoukoudian is better known as the place where Peking Man was discovered. It’s located some 45 kms southwest of the centre of Beijing and to get there on public transport is going to take you over three hours in each direction. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see something that calls itself ‘Olympic Torch Square’ – though what the Olympics has to do with this place is anyone’s guess.
Along one side of the square is a mural depicting early man sitting round a camp fire cooking the spoils of a day’s hunting. Hardly that exciting, but it brightens the place up a little.
Around the rest of the square are notice boards telling you all about this site – the fact that Zhoukoudian is the "cradle of Chinese geo-engineers", it being one of the earliest geological survey localities in China. "Up till now more than several ten thousands of geologists and engineers have been trained and educated here", the text gushes. (If several is more than, say, three, then I calculate that must mean a minimum of 30,000 have trained here.) Zhoukoudian was placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1987.
Another notice board adds that "Zhououdian has been called as the home of the Peking Man. Since 700,000 years ago, our ancestors had lived here, experienced the major human development stages ranged from Homo erectus via Archaic Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens sapiens, dominated by Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis), Xindong Man, Tianyuandong Man and Upper Cave Man." (It goes on and on, but my eyes start to feel heavy at this point and I move on.)
As you approach the site, you know you have arrived by a “sculpture’ (for want of a better word) outside.
And walking up the path, there’s a modern looking building ahead behind the ticket office and entry gate.
I part with 30 kwai…
… and start walking up a hill…
… which has a number of little statues on right and left to “put you in the mood”, I guess.
The modern building turns out to be a cover for the cave in which the discovery of Peking man was made. It has windows that look like they can be closed to keep inclement weather at bay.
Locality 1, otherwise known as Longgushan (Dragon Bone Hill) is where a complete skull of Peking man was first discovered on December 2, 1929. And this so-called Pigeon Hall is where evidence for controlled use of fire and many stone tools were discovered. To date, 27 paleontological localities – horizontal and vertical concentrations of deposits – have been found within the cave system. And work is ongoing.
Most of the bones found before World War II were lost under ‘unknown circumstances’. During World War II there was an attempt to smuggle the more notable fossils out of China for safekeeping; they have never been recovered. Very little mention is made of this, though, which seems odd given the fact that the Chinese like to blame the Japanese for so many other things dating from that period.
Entering the cave, your eyes soon adjust to coloured lights on the walls of the karst rock formations.
There are 17 identified strata containing remains of least 45 Homo Erectus and 98 different mammals. Over 100,000 artefacts have been recovered from the site, including over 17,000 stone artefacts, most of which were recovered from layers 4 and 5.
Various slide shows and text are beamed onto the karst walls, and though one might not learn very much, it certainly looks quite impressive.
But after just a few minutes underground, you realise there is actually nothing to see here, and so climbing up into the daylight once again, you are soon faced with another stone staircase leading you up the hill.
There’s a small plateau just a little way up with more ancient warriors (taking home their hunting spoils) – though I notice the ‘wife’ is a lot taller than her ‘husband’. (The notice helpfully tells us that Peking Man came back to the cave after hunting.)
Walking further up the hill you come across a model of a ‘Wholly rhinoceros’. A what?
Well that’s what it says, though I somehow suspect they mean a Woolly Rhino – or Hairy Rhino, as the Chinese translates.
You are now at the Upper Cave, which contained the remains of early modern humans, as opposed to Homo Erectus. This cave was discovered in 1930 and excavated from 1933–34 during which time the roof and north face opening were removed. Excavations found evidence of human habitation in the cave dating back to 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. The cave was divided into an upper level living quarters and a lower level burial ground, while a small recess on the lower level acted as a natural animal trap.
From this vantage point one can look all the way down into that original Pigeon Hall, I started off in. But it’s somewhat underwhelming, I fear.
As the site maps show, the entire area is built on steep hills and you somehow know that walking up and down nonstop is what still awaits you.
Up a hill; down a hill; soon one comes to a simulated archaeology site to show how archaeologists set about exploring a find. Hardly exciting stuff.
There’s a notice board explaining how they go about methodically looking for fragments and other archaeological clues…
… while if this is too boring for the average visitor, the site does what so many other Chinese visitor attractions do – place a dinosaur next to a picnic spot – which is guaranteed to attract the family visitors like a magnet.
Actually the picnic area is probably the most attractive spot in the entire park, with a cascading waterfall and koi carp swimming about in the water.
Surveillance cameras are attached to camouflaged poles with fake pine needles to make them look like a rare genus of pine tree.
Soon, the call of nature encourages me to visit the gent’s loo which has a number of information plaques stuck up over the urinals and on the stall doors. Talk about a captive audience!
And I can reveal that the aforementioned ‘wholly rhino’ was indeed a woolly one, and all thanks to what one can read on the walls of a public lavatory. All kinds of lewd jokes spring to mind, but I will desist from the temptation!
There even appears to be a water saving feature in this public convenience, though I’m still trying to work that out.
Very soon, my feet find themselves heading in the direction of the Popular Science Experience Pavilion. Now, I wonder if they mean it’s a popular ‘Science Pavilion’ or a Pavilion for popular science.
Actually it is aimed squarely at bored teens, I think, who wonder why they were brought out all this way to learn about ancient man.
For instance, you can, if you have a mind to, throw rubber balls at walls with videos of animals darting across (presumably to “learn” how homo erectus had to have a sharp eye to be able to hit his prey).
Others prefer to make do with video arcade games…
… though I have to say they look pretty ancient by today’s hi-tech games available on most people’s smartphones.
There’s an attempt, of sorts, to educate the little dears with what-if and how-can questions, stuck up on the walls of an ‘Interactive experience’ room…
… but they get zero interest.
A notice on the floor advises me to “going on” and I do so, out of this popular experience.
Outside, there are examples of deposits containing animal fossils, and something called ‘soherical stalactites’. I keep going on…
Soon I am in what is described as a Rock Landscape (or rock garden, as it’s called on the map) but try as hard as I might, this is one area of the park that seems almost totally devoid of any rocks, with greenery covering everything in sight.
A little further up the hill is a “Scientists’ Memorial”, which is actually a cemetery containing leading scientists who worked at Zhoukoudian. "The scientists devoted their youth to the development of the site research and now are resting here with the green hills and water. To visit the cemetery is a way of commemorating the dead and getting inspired for us.”
And that, dear reader, is practically all there is in this park.
What? No skulls, bones and stone tools? No. It appears that they have been put in a museum some 15 minutes walk from here. Only problem is that there is absolutely no mention of the museum anywhere in this park – even in the visitor centre. Someone has posted on TripAdvisor “The museum is OK if you're into archiology, but really not much there.” (sic).
I find out later that it is in fact a building that the bus careers past on its way to and from this park. But my natural reluctance to spend yet more time looking at fossils and bones kicks in once more, and I decide to head for home, eschewing the potential excitement of seeing yet another skull.
The best way of getting to Zhoukoudian is by bus from Qianmen West. Take the 901 Rapido (which leaves every 30 minutes) and 5 stops later (45 minutes) you get out at Yancun. There you change onto the 38 bus and get out at YuanRenYiZhi (27 stops!) which is the stop after Zhoukoudian BeiZhan. Another route involves going to Liuliqiao East on Subway Line 9 and from there taking the 917 (towards ZhangFang QiCheZhan) getting off at Guce (10 stops) and transferring to the 38. But beware! There are different 917 buses that go to different destinations, and you HAVE to get the right one if you don’t want to end up some 15kms from where you were aiming for!