Beijing hunkers down for the Games

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, July 28, 2008

This year's Olympics certainly won't be dubbed the Friendly Games. Perhaps the Forced Friendly Games might be a more apt title.

Race to remake Beijing in time for 'No-Fun Games'

Erin Conway-Smith, Special to
July 24, 2008 7:41 AM ET

BEIJING - Beijing was built by invaders - the Mongolians, the Manchus - who over centuries left their mark on the city by way of its blood red walls, ornately curved eaves and narrow grey brick alleys.

These days, you might think that the latest invasion was by aliens.

The scaffolding has just come off a city newly dotted with massive steel and glass spaceship-like structures that jut out at gravity-defying angles, earning their colourful local nicknames: the Bird's Nest, the Egg, the Big Shorts.

They are clean, spacious and futuristic-looking, just as China wants its capital to be seen when the world's spotlight shines on it in August. The campaign to transform Old Beijing has involved an attempted extreme makeover of the city, from its architecture to public decorum.

All the hard work has earned some successes. The air is slightly less soupy with smog, the traffic isn't as gridlocked in recent weeks and queues are a little more orderly, though blatant queue-jumping persists. Recently, for the first time in my three years in Beijing, a motorist politely waved me through a crosswalk rather than aggressively cutting me off with his right-hand turn.

Etiquette campaign

The Olympics have also been a boon for city infrastructure. Visitors landing at the new Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport, the largest airport terminal in the world, will be welcomed by a new high-speed rail link to downtown and helpful young women in sashes, rather than the illegal "black taxis" aggressively pushing their services as they did until recently. New subway lines make it easier to navigate this sprawling city, which is often choked by maddening gridlock due to rapidly rising car ownership.

One of the most visible changes in new Beijing is the security presence. Many varieties of security guards and police patrol central areas at night. Police are known to randomly stop foreigners and ask to see their papers; there are stories of some foreign residents being hauled in overnight if they weren't carrying their passports and police registration.

It's still easy to spot behaviour that doesn't befit the government's numerous "manners campaigns": a taxi driver taking a snooze in his back seat, slippered feet out the window. Or one lighting up a cigarette in his tidy cab. I also still regularly hear the unmistakable sound of someone hocking a loogie -- though slightly less often than a year ago, perhaps thanks to China's seemingly endless drives to stop citizens from spitting in public.

Many of the Olympic volunteers speak relatively good English and are at the ready -- though getting good directions from them is another thing. But as for the vaunted English lessons for Beijing taxi drivers, out of the hundreds of taxis I have taken in the past year, a handful spoke a few words of English, and only one spoke it at a beginner's level.

At some city intersections, middle-aged attendants armed with a flag and whistle cajole the pedestrians to stop instead of just zigzagging through the red light and 12 lanes of oncoming traffic as is usual habit. This is part of a long and largely unsuccessful attempt to retrain pedestrians and cyclists. One surprised me recently with her language skills, stepping in front of my bicycle after I had already stopped at a light. "Please stop. It is not safe to cross," she said curtly in English - and then inquired in Chinese if she had said it correctly.

Has the charm gone?

Civil propriety aside, as the race to remake Beijing for the Olympics ends, it seems that the city's old charm has gone missing along the way. Some of the ancient alleys have disappeared, entire neighbourhoods bulldozed to make way for ritzy new buildings. The extensive redevelopment of historic Qianmen Street, a Ming Dynasty-era neighbourhood near Tiananmen Square where old buildings were torn down to make way for Disney-style replicas -- and high-end fashion shops -- won't be finished in time for the Olympics.

Some restaurants have vanished, too. In Beijing, one of the pleasures of summer is lounging at roadside tables drinking Tsingtao beer and eating chuanr - grilled meat on a stick - at the city's many small Xinjiang restaurants, run by Turkic Muslims who live in western China. Twice in the past year I went to eat at such restaurants, which serve food that is more Central Asian than Chinese, only to find they had been torn down, the victims of neighbourhood development.

Most of their Xinjiang owners have been forced out of town too.

A much-welcome improvement is that many restaurants have in the past few months started offering a non-smoking area -- this in a city where it was not considered polite to ask someone to stop smoking near you in public. Menus have been tidied up - newcomers to the city will no longer be able to chuckle at the sometimes profane English translations of house specialties, or wonder at dishes like "pock-marked old lady's bean curd" or "chicken without sexual life."

Visitors to the city should, however, brace themselves for the squat toilets at many restaurants, public washrooms and Olympic venues. Public toilets in Beijing are a lot cleaner than they used to be. And many now include toilet paper -- something you would never have found in the past -- but squat toilets still take some getting used to.
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