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Glory-bound: Beijing's gold-medal transformation

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FIRST IN A YEARLONG SERIES

When the curtain rises next August on the Olympics, the world will see why a country that once shunned the world has become a favorite among travelers, who have made it one of the most visited nations on Earth. In this yearlong series of occasional stories, we give you the keys to unlocking a China that embraces its future as it reveres its past.


FOR THE RECORD:
Beijing: An article about Beijing in the Sept. 16 Travel section reported that nonstop service is offered from LAX to Beijing on China Air. The airline is Air China. —


Beijing

I knew that moving from Paris' 7th arrondissement to a dorm room in northwestern Beijing would be a jolt akin to waking up in a body cast after falling asleep at the wheel. I had been to the Chinese capital a decade ago, so I packed surgical masks for the pollution, thermal underwear for the cold and enough antibiotics to open a pharmacy. I weaned myself away from Ladurée macaroons and French Bordeaux, got a visa that identified me as a student and changed my e-mail address. I was prepared to be sick, scrutinized, hungry and miserable. Instead, I found Beijing far more electrifying than Paris, unrecognizable from the city I had visited 10 years ago. Where I had once seen construction workers using hammers to break stone on Chang'an Avenue, there were skyscrapers, shopping malls, pedestrian underpasses, park benches and rosebushes. Children no longer pointed and giggled when I passed. As the cold, dark Beijing winter yielded to spring, I often woke up to perfectly clear, blue skies.

So, I suppose I should not wonder when people ask me about poverty, traffic, pollution, xenophobia, strange food and a host of other unflattering clichés born of previous encounters with the city. I must be patient when they grieve for the old hutong neighborhoods supposedly swept away by development, when they marvel at my ability to get around without a guide and when they ask whether my cellphone was tapped.

The truth is this: There was the polluted, awkward, unfriendly Beijing I visited 10 years ago, and there is Beijing now, physically and psychologically transformed.

Shortly after the 1978 economic opening of China, Shanghai, the sophisticated financial hub, seemed to be leading the country into the future. But things changed in 2001 when Beijing, historically the nation's stodgy government and education center, won its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, which will be Aug. 8 to 24.

The government has gone on a $40-billion building spree to make these the best Games ever and to turn this into a colossal coming-of-age party for a world-class capital.

In preparation for the Olympics, which are expected to draw half a million spectators from abroad and 4 billion TV viewers worldwide, the government planted 2.7 million trees last year alone and has urged people to correct such bad habits as spitting in public, talking too loudly and cutting in line. Taxi drivers are deodorizing their cars, and meteorologists are searching for high-tech ways to make sure it doesn't rain on the Beijing Olympic parade.

Tourists who come here for a few days to see the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Ming Tombs are bound to notice these developments. In the four months I spent here studying Mandarin, I came to fully appreciate how far Beijing has come since my last visit -- and how much further it plans to go in the months leading up to the opening ceremonies.

I had no illusions about mastering the language in the short, intensive course I took, but I wanted to be able to explore the city with more confidence than I felt on my first visit.

And I stayed in a dorm on campus partly to meet people -- the woman at the laundry who always asked how I had spent my weekend, the flower salesman who threw a few extra stems into my bouquets, the clerk in the cafe who thought bagels were invented in Chicago.

I grew especially fond of my teachers, three Chinese women too young to have been affected by the Cultural Revolution and other upheavals that are as much as some Westerners know about the country's modern history. We never discussed politics, although on a field trip to the Great Wall, I asked one of them what she thought was wrong with China. She frowned and shook her head, then said the country had too many people.

Greater Beijing has a population of about 15 million, including 30,000 migrant workers building Olympic facilities, subway lines, highways, luxury apartments, shopping malls, airport terminals and skyscrapers. Construction has left some districts haphazard and rough-edged, but other neighborhoods are so ritzy and well-groomed that they could be mistaken for Beverly Hills.

Development has seemingly overlooked no city block, and many half-finished structures are already attracting tourists, who crowd near construction fences to gaze at the futuristic CCTV Tower in the Central Business District (designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas) and the National Stadium, better known as the "bird's nest." The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics will be staged in this massive ring of interwoven steel girders.

I never passed the new stadium without rubbernecking. But I also couldn't fail to notice that almost every major construction site is ringed by jury-rigged, temporary housing for workers, who squat in the dirt playing cards and drinking tea when not on the job. They labor -- with jackhammers now -- in round-the-clock shifts for about $150 a month, including bed and board, while flush Beijingers shop for flat-screen TVs and BMWs.

Much has been made of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in China. But income disparities in Beijing seemed no sharper to me than those I saw on the train to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which provides the only glimpse tourists are likely to get of squalid housing projects in the suburbs.

In the area around the Mandarin school I attended, I met mostly middle-class people who have the same desire to buy and consume that Americans have. The only difference is that most Beijingers couldn't dream of owning a car or going out to dinner until just a few years ago.

Beijing has been criticized for plowing up history in the city's mad rush to modernize.

But during my months here, I realized that this is not the whole story. The number of foreign visitors is expected to increase exponentially during and after the Olympics, so the government is pouring money into renovations at such popular tourist sites as the Forbidden City, Confucius Temple and the Summer Palace.

The more subtle hand of preservation is at work in some of the city's beloved old hutong neighborhoods, where generations of families lived in traditional Chinese courtyard houses, gossiped from their stoops, shelled chestnuts, aired bedsheets and sent their children out to play.

Every hutong was a world unto itself, tucked between the city's big boulevards in a tangle of alleyways tolerated by orderly Qing and Ming dynasty urban planners because the labyrinths were thought to hold imperial air inside the city.

Preservationists estimate that two-thirds of Beijing's hutongs have been lost to redevelopment. If you stand on the balcony atop the Drum Tower at the northern side of central Beijing, you can plainly see the wreckage of demolition. But if you walk a few blocks southeast, you can also see serendipitous old Nanluogu Lane, lined with guesthouses, shops and restaurants. It is thriving because Chinese businessmen have discovered that foreign tourists love hutongs.

A ringed city

One thing about Beijing hasn't changed in recent years. It is humongous, sprawling in every direction from the Forbidden City. Six ring roads, not the two of a decade ago, make concentric circles around the Imperial Palace, maintaining the symmetrical layout of the Jin Dynasty capital, founded almost 900 years ago.

In the mid-'90s, Beijing thinned beyond the Second Ring Road, which follows the path of the old city wall. Now, that road is a highway with interchanges looping around new landmarks, including a trio of office towers at Xizhimen. There, on the western side of the city, a Ming Dynasty gate once admitted imperial water bearers.

Upscale Chaoyang, favored by expatriates, foreign embassies and international hotels, borders the Second and Third ring roads on the eastern side of town. Older neighborhoods are to the south, and between the Fourth and Fifth ring roads to the north, an Olympic Green rises.

To get from my language school in Haidian to central Beijing on the subway took about 45 minutes. The mass transit system is easy to navigate and cheap and by August, it should be ready to take spectators to the threshold of the Olympic Green and travelers from the city to the airport.

I tended to take cabs, which are almost as cheap as the subway, although subject to epic-proportion traffic jams.

In Beijing, the number of cars is rocketing. As in U.S. cities, this rising level of vehicle ownership has coincided with a decline in transit ridership. Moreover, auto proliferation has exacerbated environmental degradation as much as -- if not more than -- industrial pollution, the use of coal as a household fuel, the spread of central Asian deserts partly driven by global warming and the influx of smog from other regions.

Having vowed to make the Summer Games a fully green Olympics, the government has launched campaigns to curb auto emissions, replace diesel-powered public buses with vehicles fueled by cleaner natural gas and move heavily polluting industries out of the city.

It's not clear whether such initiatives will be effective or how long they will last after the closing ceremonies. No one knows whether Beijing will become a soulless mega-metropolis with all the old ills or a Chinese capital for the 21st century.

But already, it's a pure joy to venture out in Beijing on a crystal-clear morning, with 15 million people apparently pulling with one oar toward the Summer Games. The city's not a finished product, not by a long shot. But for travelers who want to see how the present is becoming the future, Beijing far outshines the City of Light.


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