Saturday, August 02, 2008

Beijing spick and span for the Olympics

After catching up with a backlog of emails this morning, I took a stroll down Wangfujing Street to find somewhere for lunch. I could hardly recognise parts of the street. Many of the old buildings have disappeared and have been replaced by new shops and large billboards promoting the Olympics. On one side of the street there are flashy new 5-6 storey department stores, but on the other side there are blocks of 1-2 storey shops which look like they have only been built temporarily to support large Olympics billboards (see pictures below). Behind them are vacant lots, so I suppose they will be torn down after the Olympics for more permanent buildings.



I am sure there used to be large trees along both sides of the part of the street pictured above. All those have gone so it looks like everything was razed to the ground for the new developments (although at least they have planted some saplings in their place). Walking along this part of the street where there is no shade, it is noticeable how hot it is compared to walking one block further north where the original street trees remain. It’s a good example of how much the presence of street trees can help keep pedestrians cool in a hot and humid summer climate like Beijing’s.

Further south down Wangfujing Street (which is the main shopping street in central Beijing), towards the junction with Chang’an Avenue, many temporary cafes have been erected in the pedestrian mall section – actually they are more beer bars and drink stands because I couldn’t see any of them serving food – but they give the street a more cosmopolitan atmosphere – something that Beijing lacks.


The whole city is looking spick and span for the Olympics. The gleaming new airport terminal – the largest in the world – is a sight to behold, and there is a brand new six-lane freeway in from the airport on which the asphalt seems only to have just dried. There are beds of flowers everywhere, street sweepers in Olympic uniforms are ensuring that the streets are clean, the beggars have been run out of town along with the DVD peddlers, and there are no prostitutes hanging around the hotels. Beijing has certainly cleaned up its act!

All the city needs now is some clean air. After taking half the cars off the road, and closing factories for hundreds of miles around, Beijing’s air was looking better this weekend than I have seen it for years – but the August humidity is still stifling, so I wonder how the athletes in the endurance events are going to cope next week.

I read a rather amusing story in the Asian Wall Street Journal this morning. Apparently the Beijing Municipal Council has issued a booklet telling its citizens how to behave during the Olympics. It includes some advice on how to dress, recommending that people do not wear their pajamas in the street, and not to wear white socks with black shoes.

I only saw a couple of old women wearing their pajamas on my walk down Wangfujing Street, and nobody wearing white socks with black shoes, so it looks like most of Beijing’s citizens are taking heed of their Council’s advice.

Maybe the Council should also include in their advice that it is not polite to mow down foreign tourists on pedestrian crossings. It seems that one thing that hasn’t changed in Beijing is that the pedestrians still cross the road on the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign and the drivers still cross the crossings on the red lights.

The locals seem to have dodging the traffic on pedestrian crossings down to a fine art, but several times today I saw foreign tourists who had dutifully waited for the green ‘Walk’ sign, only to freeze in fear halfway across the road as a trolley bus bore through a red light with its horns blasting, sending the pedestrians scattering in all directions.

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