BEIJING - Pang Juehan, the man I am (approximately) in Mandarin, is a big man around the Forbidden City. Chinese tourists from remote provinces like Xinjiang and Guangxi ask whether Pang will pose for photos with their decidedly smaller and shier mothers. A blue-eyed man two meters tall from Boston is an intriguing oddity indeed.
In August, roughly a million other oddities from outside the Middle Kingdom will be dropping by for the capital's 17-day coming-out party, which has been seven years in the making. Ever since Beijing was chosen to host the Summer Olympics, this city of about 16 million has been undergoing the kind of massive urban renewal ($40 billion and counting) that usually follows defeat in war.
Cranes and scaffolding, cement mixers and jackhammers are everywhere, erecting office towers, hotels, and high-rise apartment complexes. It has taken eight centuries, but Beijing has become the planet's biggest and noisiest boomtown, with the snarled traffic to go with it.
This no longer is Chairman Mao's place, although his oversized portrait still overlooks Tiananmen Square. Many of the hutongs, the ancient neighborhood warrens latticed by narrow lanes, have disappeared, knocked down to make way for wider streets with bigger buildings.
China may still be a communist society, but its economy is visibly and undeniably capitalist. Once Deng Xiaoping, the country's leader in the 1980s, declared that "to get rich is glorious," the citizenry happily devoted themselves to capital formation and conspicuous consumption.
The first thing you see when you walk out of the airport terminal is a massive video screen showing Tiger Woods alongside a Buick Park Avenue. Americans may think of it as dad's throwback prestige model, but here it's a gas-guzzling status symbol with an elite-sounding name. "The parvenus like to show off," a local businessman told me.
The new multilevel malls are crammed with upscale shops like Coach, Prada,
Westernization, once approached with suspicion hereabouts, has become equated with modernization. At the Hilton, desk clerks wear name tags identifying them as Felicity and Calista and Elvis. People under 30 eagerly approach American-appearing visitors, offering to buy them tea or beer for a chance to chat in English for half an hour.
Most of the students whom I met were studying economics and international trade and hoping to travel abroad. This generation was born after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the decade-long Great Leap Backward that exalted peasants and degraded intellectuals. Clothes are stylish (the only Mao jacket I saw was in a museum) and many women wear short skirts and high heels. When the Olympic organizers advertised for Beach Babies to perform at the beach volleyball test event, dozens of women turned up to try out.
The modernization, though, has limits. When visiting journalists asked officials whether there would be Western toilets at the Games, they were assured there would be - for Westerners. "Most of our people wouldn't know how to use a Western toilet," the official explained. (The squat toilet is traditional in Asia.)
Knowing that there would be an unprecedented influx of foreign visitors this summer, the government began pushing etiquette lessons on Beijingers, urging them to stop spitting on sidewalks and start lining up at service counters. Hosting the Games is a trifle compared with changing the lifelong habits of 16 million people.
This is a huge, sprawling, congested, and noisy city (think a supersized Houston with noodles, with a summer climate to match) and it can seem overwhelming to foreigners who don't know the language. But with a good map (get the newest and most detailed version you can), a pocket-sized guidebook (Frommer's just published a special Olympic edition), good walking shoes, and toilet paper (a must), you can scale down Beijing into manageable pieces.
The biggest challenge is simply getting to downtown from the outskirts, since the ring roads are bumper-to-bumper for much of the day. Once there, taxis are plentiful and cheap (no tipping) and the expanded subway (including a new line to the Olympic complex) is much improved.
The subway will take you to massive Tiananmen Square, located across the street from the Forbidden City, which is undergoing a facelift. You can spend an afternoon strolling about, checking out the Great Hall of the People and the Imperial Garden. Walk east along Dong Chang'an Jie, the huge main drag, and you'll come to the Oriental Plaza, one of the city's busiest shopping malls.
For a Ming Dynasty throwback, check out Qianmen Avenue, the city's oldest shopping district, which has been massively renovated and turned into a pedestrian area with a trolley.
Shopping here in the world's knockoff capital can be both satisfying and bewildering, especially at the cash-only Silk Market (Xiushui Jie), which offers fake brand-name goods that are so cleverly made that only a sharp-eyed consumer would know the difference.
Bargaining is essential: Cut the proposed price in half and proceed from there. But if you settle on a figure, be prepared to buy. That's how the game is played. Having a Chinese friend (or making one) is invaluable on shopping excursions, improving your chances that you'll get what you're looking for (shopkeepers' English is limited outside of the big malls) and that you won't be charged the "foreigner's price."
Restaurants are easier to handle on your own. Even some of the smaller ones have English menus (if sometimes in a head-scratching approximation called Chinglish) or color photographs of the items. That's helpful if you want to venture into one of the hutongs where some of the most authentic eating can be found.
Beijing is a big noodle and dumpling town and, of course, it's justly famous for Peking duck. One of the best places is Li Qun, a small hideway in the Dongcheng district where cordwood is stacked outside the door and dozens of ducks hang roasting above the fire. Unlike the Chinese-American version, you get the whole duck here, including the wings (shredded in a piquant sauce) and the liver, which is as big as a baseball.
While some food items can be unsettlingly exotic for the American palate (the Wangfujing Night Market offers silkworms and scorpions on a stick), most of the domestic cuisine, like kung pao chicken, will look reasonably familiar. But if you want Brazilian, French, Spanish, Russian, or thin-crust pizza, there are places that serve it and locals who eat it.
Although you'll still find neighborhoods that have an 18th-century feel to them, Beijing is a cosmopolitan place now, easily capable of hosting a modern Olympics and all the five-ringed followers who come with it.
Its sports venues, most notably the "Bird's Nest" stadium and the adjacent "Water Cube" aquatics center, are the most imaginatively conceived in the Games' history.
There was a huge overseas demand for tickets to the Games - the United States sold out its allotment months ago - and comfortable accommodations in the city will be scarce in August. And unless you're a fan of hot and sticky, it's a good time to be elsewhere.
The pollution may not be quite as nasty as its reputation (Mexico City's is decidedly worse), but they don't call this place Greyjing for nothing. On a bad day, the haze goes from ceiling to floor, turning the sun into a smudged orange circle. While the government has promised to take a million cars off the road and close factories during the Games (Aug. 8-24), a true-blue sky will be as rare as a Yank winning a table tennis medal.
The better time to come here is in October. By then, the days are cooler, the skies clearer, and the coming-out party will be over, the celebrants long gone. If you have blue eyes and blond hair, you'll again be an intriguing oddity around the Forbidden City.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.