Peering outside my hotel window, I saw a high crane balancing amid wires and concrete blocks like King Kong amid the ruins of New York. Except this wasn't New York. It was Beijing.
Yes, the skyline of China's ancient capital is now dominated by skyscrapers, most of them new. The city, which resembles one giant construction zone, and its 17 million residents are preparing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics this August. Blocks of crumbling old apartment buildings are getting demolished and replaced with new arenas, modern condos for athletes, expansive parks, and sparkling new hotels designed to hold millions of spectators—6.4 million visitors are expected. The Beijing Capital International Airport's modern Terminal 3—the world's largest airport terminal—opened for business in February. National Stadium, which locals have dubbed the "Bird's Nest" because it looks like a nest woven of steel, is getting finishing touches.
With August rapidly approaching, one could be forgiven for feeling skeptical that China will finish all these projects in the next four months, to say nothing of the likely level of quality of the projects that are completed. At the brand-new Best Western OL (Olympic) Stadium Hotel—built for the Olympics— where I stayed, the marble floors of the shower didn't appear inclined toward the drain, the toilet tended to get clogged, and the thermostat was apparently uninvolved in the cooling and heating of the room, which seemed to be operated centrally and maintained room temperatures at 80 to 85 degrees. Yes, it might be a good idea when booking to ask a hotel whether it offers individually controlled room temperatures.
Neither New Nor Old
That thermostat is the perfect metaphor for pre-Olympic Beijing: A city still hovering between the old, Communist Party and Western ways. Hotels offer CNN, but block CNN broadcasts on unrest in Tibet. The hotel's breakfast was a hodgepodge of Eastern (egg-flower soups) and Western (sausages and eggs) cuisine, and the French toast and coffee don't quite taste right. Many an American tourist in China runs for the Starbucks (SBUX); there are 62 in Beijing. One used to be located in the heart of the Forbidden City, a former imperial palace, but was closed last summer when the Chinese government took over all retail operations within the stately compound, where emperors, empresses, and concubines once spent their days. Most of the palace grounds have no trees, as emperors feared assassins hiding behind bushes.
A portrait of Mao Zedong still occupies an honored place at nearby Tiananmen Square, which at 100 acres is the world's largest urban square. When I was there in March, each entry point into the square, which became famous for 1989 student protests, was heavily guarded. Tourists eager to inspect the insides of a police station were advised to take pictures of protesters. We didn't see any, only a couple of kids flying multi-tiered kites. We, the Westerners, seemed to incite the most interest: Locals stopped and strained to hear our English. Half a dozen people asked a pretty girl from our group—18 garden-variety professionals and students from Portland, Ore.—to have her photo taken with them; cheerfully, she obliged.
Shopping for Bargains
The word "government" is mostly brandished by vendors trying to fleece tourists new to China. Take vendors at the Great Wall near Juyongguan Pass, about 37 miles from Beijing. Climbing this incredibly picturesque, uneven stairway winding up a beautiful hill, I stopped by a gift shop in a former guard tower where they were selling T-shirts declaring "Beijing 2008" and "I climbed the Great Wall." The shirts cost as much as they do in America. "Too much! Less?" I asked, pointing energetically to the floor. I don't know Mandarin.
"No. Government," said the seller, to explain that, like the wall itself, the prices are set in stone by the Chinese government. As I moved toward the exit empty-handed, however, the government seemed suddenly forgotten, and real bargaining began. In China, you can often get goods for a third to a quarter of the initial asking price, government or not.
Guides still route tour groups into what look like official stores to buy pearls, jade, and silks. The goods at these stores are high quality but pricey, occasionally costing even more than they do in the U.S. If you are looking for bargains, stick to street markets, which spring up in narrow alleys behind most museums and attractions: You risk buying a fake, but at least it will be cheap. Still, do stop by the big stores for their lectures: At the Bangfunchun Pearl Store, we got a demonstration of how pearls are harvested, and how to distinguish fake pearls from real ones (when you rub real pearls together, then wipe them on your hand, they leave a white trace on your skin). At Jade Factory, we watched craftsmen cut chunks of jade stone, which comes in more than 30 different colors, into packs of running horses, their manes streaming; full-bellied, laughing Buddhas; and cabbage (a symbol of good fortune in China).
China, by the way, will use jade in Olympic medals this year: A gold medal will feature a round piece of white jade framed in gold, a silver medal, a jade circle framed in silver. The Chinese believe heaven is round, so the medals signify that the winning athletes have been granted supernatural powers from above.
A Familial Scene
Tourists may also be interested in another holdover from the Mao era: the chance to visit with "a typical Chinese family." Our hosts—a retired schoolteacher and a librarian—occupied an old house in a hutong, a cluster of narrow alleys. They supposedly lived in the huge house alone, with at least three rooms (one of which featured a small bust of Mao), a courtyard, and two kitchens. Yes, we did think it was staged. The house looked unlived in, though the guide pointed out that the owners have just gotten new furniture, "from Ikea."
As we tried to ask questions of the owners, sitting awkwardly by the door, a translator answered the questions herself, without bothering to interpret. The sense of unreality intensified when, on exiting the house, we bumped into a film crew outside. As we left the hutong, we learned that, in preparation for the Olympics, all of the house exteriors in the neighborhood had been repainted—all of them the same dreary gray.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Yet, you can't help but feel that life in China is improving, in good and sensible ways, right before your eyes. People are dressing and eating better. More and more households own appliances including computers, refrigerators, and washer/dryers. But the most noticeable technological advance is the rise of the automobile. Only several years ago, few people here owned cars and the streets were filled with millions of bicycles. Today, it's an environmentalist's nightmare: The city is congested by a steady stream of mostly European cars and heavy traffic gripped in what seems an eternal rush hour. Only a sprinkling of bicyclists remain. Due in part to the heavy traffic—the Chinese don't require catalytic converters—and in part to China's use of coal plants, the air pollution is terrible. Tourists regularly complain of sore throats and coughing even on short visits, and people with asthma definitely need to bring medications along.
But China is starting to work on its environmental problems. Everywhere, it seems, street sweepers were gathering plastics and soda cans, some of which are being recycled into, of all things, street-sweeping brooms. Starting in June, local markets will be prohibited from offering customers free plastic bags in an effort to encourage use of reusable grocery bags. Many houses bear solar heater panels—something I wish we had more of in the U.S.
So will Beijing be ready in time? My guess is the cement will still be drying as the first planeloads of Olympic tourists hit the tarmac. It would be really interesting to return in a year or two to see whether the thermostats are working yet.
Click here for a few recommendations of what not to miss on a quick trip to Beijing.