While wandering Beijing this month, IgoUgo Editor Michelle Doucette found it shockingly easy to escape the city’s past and impossible to shut out its future.
Before I arrived in Beijing, I assumed that my visit would center on its history, from the dynasties that built the Forbidden City to the more recent incarnations of Tiananmen Square. I hadn’t accounted, though, for the prominence of China’s unprecedented growth spurt and Beijing’s dash toward the 2008 Olympics. So I often found myself casting an eye toward next summer and the question: Is Beijing ready to debut as an Olympic city?
Much has been made of the Chinese government’s attempts to beautify the capital in preparation for the Olympics (as well as to curb human rights violations, but my weeklong vacation can’t speak to that). There is at least the appearance of progress on the project: recycling bins sit next to every trash can, though if you look inside, you’ll see that they hold all manner of trash.
A more pressing environmental problem during the Olympics will be air quality. After a few hours in Beijing, my friends and I were genuinely concerned about the athletes’ ability to perform. The entire time we were there, and even when we ventured almost 4 hours outside of Beijing, a thick blanket of smog never lifted. As the first to start coughing, I endured jabs about my sensitivity to allergens until my four friends were equally short of breath. The government has refitted or relocated some of Beijing’s diesel buses and factories in the run-up to the Olympics, but I can’t imagine that the smog that had us nostalgic for Los Angeles skies will dissipate anytime soon. I wouldn’t want to run a marathon in an atmosphere where walking down the street feels laborious.
On the cultural front, Beijing caused some buzz last year when it implemented fines for spitting in an effort to make international visitors feel at home, and while the loogie trade continues, I didn’t find the practice to be overly widespread or offensive (indeed, with my hacking cough worsening, I felt sympathetic—and jealous). Another concern, queuing (or lack thereof), seems to be unfounded; lining up was common practice everywhere we went. Less successful may be China’s crackdown on improving English translations—plenty of hilarious interpretations have escaped detection. It is possible that signs have been righted a bit in Beijing, though, because our favorites were in Shanghai (namely, a warning about a four-letter word for waste that you are forbidden from doing in People’s Park).
Beijing’s scale is so huge that we mostly used taxis to get around, and the drivers were unfailingly honest, polite (we think), and helpful. Well, one smoked up a storm in the driver’s seat, but he did offer us cigarettes. The subway was also impressive—not too crowded and only 3 yuan (about 40 cents). Buses were a bit confusing but available everywhere, and again, didn’t seem overly crowded. And our overnight train experience in China was fabulous. Overall, Beijing’s transportation system appears ready for an influx of visitors.
Construction is a constant, but that was the case in Shanghai as well, not to mention every other city across the globe where cranes dot the sky. It’s true that China has taken development a step further in the face of the Summer Games, though, even planning to pave the way of the Olympic torch up Mount Everest. Back in Beijing, while construction is destroying many traditional hutong neighborhoods, the remaining hutongs spread out across the city are amazing places to stay, eat, or stroll. They’ll still be there come August 2008, and are meant to be explored.
The last prep work that Beijing is doing for the Games, and the only one that interfered with our itinerary, is sprucing up tourist sites. A lot of popular stops are currently closed for several months, including Chairman Mao’s mausoleum (a blessing and a curse, I think) and some of the more notable Summer Palace buildings.
Above all, what settles the question of Beijing’s readiness for the Olympics is its people, which seems appropriate given that, this being China, the 2008 Olympic Games have been coined the “People’s Olympics.” Despite the obvious language barriers, Beijing’s citizens were hospitable and friendly, and I’ve never felt safer in any country than I did there. In the end, I left China knowing that Beijing is ready to welcome the world, and I can’t wait to watch the scenes—the new bird’s nest stadium; Tiananmen Square lit up at night; the enduring, lively hutongs—play out on TV. You’re going to love Beijing.