Thursday, August 23, 2007

Olympic Fever In Beijing

We're back from 11 days in China, facing a bit of jet lag. It was a good trip, though. We were fortunate to get a broader slice of Chinese life than most Western visitors. We'll do a series of posts on China since we're in the August doldrums here in Washington anyway.

We started in Beijing, the Curmudgeon's fourth trip there, the first of which was in 1989. Today, Beijing, the host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics, is in a feverish state of preparation. The city has been completely transformed since that first trip nearly 20 years ago, the result of China's embrace of capitalism and an unprecedented streak of 9-10 percent annual GDP growth.

Back in 1989, Beijing was a dingy city of 10 million people, most of whom got to work by bicycle, foot or bus. At night the city was dimly lit. Most people in the central city lived in low-rise hutongs--densely packed cinder-block buildings connected by a labyrinth of narrow alley ways. Further out, old 5-8 story apartment buildings reminiscent of New York's old tenements dominated the cityscape. Being driven around in a car as a privileged western tourist was easy on the uncrowded streets.

In 1989, the only shopping worth doing was for Chinese crafts--the regular department stores were filled with unstylish, low quality goods serviced by indifferent employees. A small number of nice hotels catered solely to foreigners. Arriving at Beijing's international airport, you felt like you'd been put into a 1950 film as you walked down a stairway from your plane and into a giant, confusing hall where you'd be processed through immigration and customs by stern-looking government agents.

Today, Beijing is all about the Olympics. The city center is composed of modern, gleaming high rise apartments, hotels and office buildings. Streets are brightly lit. The automobile has taken over--there are an estimated 3 million cars on the roads each day. With the cars has come smog--a chalky ozone haze settles over Beijing on most summer days. Brand new, state of the art highways criss-cross the city, just as jammed with traffic as I-95 in Northern Virginia (but much more nicely landscaped). [We'll do a piece later on the chaotic drivers of China.]

China has its own immigration problem similar to ours with illegal aliens. In China's case, it's immigrants from the countryside to the cities, or from the economically depressed interior to the booming coastal areas. Beijing's population has bloomed to 18 million now, of whom about 5 million are lacking in the permits they are supposed to have to live there. Like here, officials decry the illegals at the same time local businesses--especially construction--would collapse without them.

Modern hotels no longer cater just to westerners--a growing middle class of Chinese now can afford such luxuries. This is a good thing for foreign tourists, because it means nice accommodations are being built at other tourist sites around the country. [More on the growth of an indigenous Chinese tourist economy later.]

One can now find modern shopping malls in Beijing and other Chinese cities, not all that much different from our own. We took a break from Chinese food one evening--mainly for the kids' sake--to dine at the Sizzler Restaurant (an Outback Steakhouse was across the street) in the food court of the mall close to our hotel. Most of the other diners were Chinese. While waiting for someone at the mall's entrance, we noticed that quite a few of the patrons were rather chubby for Chinese, no doubt the leading edge of a future obesity problem there (although we never saw anyone close to the massive size you encounter among Americans every day). [Our female travellers were appalled to find, when buying clothes, that they were size XL, or XXL, in Chinese stores.]

The Beijing airport today is as modern as Dulles, Heathrow or Narita, with the exception that you'll get your luggage a lot faster in Beijing than at Dulles. As soon as you get outside with that luggage, however, you'll have your first encounter with China's ubiquitous "hello people"--these are the poor folk from the country who try to get by selling things, or services, to foreigners, with the standard greeting of "hello" followed by whatever they're selling. At the airport, it's "hello, luggage" as old ladies grab your bags and carry them to your bus in the hope of a tip, much like New York's old squeegee guys--doing something for you that you really didn't need. You'll soon run into "hello, hat" (a cheap Olympic cap), "hello, shirt" (Olympic t-shirt) and so on and so forth. As with the homeless here, it's important not to make eye contact with them.

The city is plastered with Olympic posters, and there is a fury of contruction going on to get ready. We drove by the main Olympic site, where most venues are nearing completion, yet much work remains to be done. While we were in town, a number of Olympic "test" events were underway, including cycling (in the hills near the Great Wall), beach volleyball, badminton and much more. At the same time, the city conducted an experiment under which half of all private autos were banned from the streets each day--odd numbered license plates could go one day, even the next--to see whether it would help reduce congestion and pollution. The experiment was deemed a success, but we wonder: yes, it was better, but it was still congested and hazy, nonetheless.

Down the street from our hotel (the Novotel Peace Hotel, about three blocks from Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City) we found an interesting nighttime festival in a city block of outdoor food stalls under colorful red lanterns. The fare will make for some interesting dares among western tourists headed for the Olympics: take your choice of goat head, fried scorpion, beef boiled in urine, intestines, sea horses, and our favorite, fried cockroaches on a stick. Have a few drinks before you go down there!

Despite a concerted effort by the Chinese to correct the problem, visitors will probably still encounter a few "Chinglish" signs--amusing translations of Chinese into English, such as "Many Accidents Happends This Neighborhood"--a sign seen along major highways to denote a frequent accident zone. Or the sign pictured here. (One of the interesting things about China is just how many signs are in both Chinese and English--a practice that long predates the Olympics.)

Fortunately, most of the work on renovating the major tourist attractions in and around Beijing is pretty much complete. Last time we were there--in 2005--everything from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven was shrouded in bamboo scaffolding. Now it's all in pretty good shape--at least until the pollution settles back over everything.

Visitors to the Olympics should find an enthusiastic city ready to greet them. And ready to sell them stuff. Lot's of stuff. Apparently everybody in Beijing expects to get rich in some way or another. We're not going--that's why we went now--but we anticipate most who do will have fun if they can get over a little congestion, a little haze and lot of "hello, [fill in the blank with any item that can be sold]. Let the Games begin!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


"The Beijing airport today is as modern as Dulles, Heathrow or Narita, with the exception that you'll get your luggage a lot faster in Beijing than at Dulles."

Great swipe at Dulles. If you want Dulles to feel fast, hang out at National for awhile.