China: Beijing a year out from the Olympics

By Kate Chapman

BEIJING - The first thing to greet a weary traveller at Beijing International Airport is a KFC restaurant. The second thing is a swarm of salespeople whose knowledge of English extends to "hello, cheap for you".

The irony of this situation should not be lost on the aforementioned weary traveller because it will become a familiar scene during their introduction to China's capital.

China is a myriad of crossroads. East meets West, new meets old, poor meets rich and inevitably foreigners meet a country full of surprises, both good and bad.

The bus from the airport to the city centre on a cold March morning identifies Beijing's ruling colour to be grey.

The trees which line the motorway are dark and sparse showing no hint of spring. The buildings, both complete and under construction, are likewise grey. Unsurprisingly people's clothes, if not grey, are a dark off-black sort of colour.

This dull background can seep into other aspects of the city: Beijing's residents at first seem rude and grumpy. In fact they are actually inquisitive, helpful and welcoming. They may not walk down the street smiling to everyone they see, but in a city of 14 million people this would have dire consequences on one's face muscles.

If help is needed they are only to willing to oblige. Directions to this lost traveller were readily granted. But, alas, the Mandarin directions were beyond my comprehension. Hand gestures were made, emphatic pointing ensured and still I stood there looking perplexed.

At one stage a helpful old lady who was out walking her dog shoved me onto a local bus and gave the driver instructions, which I can only presume were my destination, because some 10 minutes later I was being shoved back off the bus further down the road. I was sure I was now closer to my destination. But I had no way to be sure. More Mandarin instructions and an hour-and-a-half of walking around the block and I found my hotel. Success!

This language barrier is one city officials are working hard to address before the 2008 Olympic Games hit town. Short movies depicting how to give helpful English directions show on public transport and bad or incorrect English signs are being corrected around the city. However, despite valiant efforts, I fear that this issue will take longer than the available year to correct.

Other major issues are spitting in public, learning to queue nicely and the crazy traffic. All are, again, being tackled by city and government officials. Inroads are being made and improvements are sure to be seen before the Games start next year, but changing the habits of centuries is a tough call.

Despite such cultural differences visiting Beijing is an extraordinary experience.

Tiananmen Square remains a pilgrimage for tourists and Chinese alike. Between Chairman Mao's portrait on one side and his mausoleum on the other one cannot help but ponder on the current political climate and China's recent history.

On the other side of the Forbidden City's red walls is a glimpse of China's past: a time when emperors lived in immense palaces with up to 5000 concubines, when Britain fought them for opium and when Confucianism ruled.

A trip to the Great Wall likewise offers a link to China's past. Despite debate over the wall's visibility from space no one who visits could argue against its imposing presence here on Earth.

Back in the city the construction of buildings and stadiums hints towards the future of the city and indeed the country. With China arguably set to become the world's next superpower observing the changes in Beijing is as important as exploring the past.

- NZPA

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