October 4, 2006

Beijing Bursting Forth

We were lucky to be in Beijing for National Day, commemorating the 57th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Huge red laterns and enormous banners in red and yellow hung everywhere in the city. Hundreds of thousands of potted red and yellow flowers were arranged in enormous formations in Tiananmen Square, along with huge displays of the “Friendlies”, the 5 mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Families are everywhere, with many people getting the entire week off from work, and the festive and optimistic mood is contagious.

But my oh my, Beijing is very little like I remember it 10 years ago.

Beijing TrafficMy first thought was -where have all the bicycles gone??! Although there are bike lanes, the number of cars easily outnumber bikes 15 to 1, whereas I remember that cars were once forbidden during rush hours. And unlike in Europe, where they have mini cars, every car is a 4 door sedan. The traffic is unbelievable, at all times of day, crawling along the roadways at 5 miles an hour. Often we would budget an hour when going anywhere in the city from our hotel. We also heard that for the Olympics, residents will be forbidden to drive to see the games, in an attempt to try to reduce the congestion. Given that they are mostly new drivers, and many are cabbies, it is more than a little stressful to try to cross a street, dodging the bike lanes, the taxis, the buses, and the thousand other people trying to do the same.

The next thing that really struck me was the way the women were dressed. 10 years ago, local women were mostly wearing floral print skirts with pantyhose, layered with ankle hose in low pumps. Today, the younger women are almost indistinguishable from women in any large metropolitan area in the western world. Sporting tight blue jeans and little T shirts, with red highlights through their hair, they teeter on pointy high heels while chatting on their cell phones. With jeans and a polo shirt on, I’m a little stunned how much I look like I fit in here.

Lastly, it’s impossible to be in Beijing and not see the explosion in real estate development. Huge glossy billboards advertise high-rise, high-end modern apartments. Older builidings and the hutongs are reduced to piles of rubble, hovered over by the enormous cranes setting up the supports for the new buildings. Shiny buildings of glass, and high rise apartments…it really reminds me of Shanghai and Hong Kong. With the demolition of builidings within the 2nd Ring Road, residents are forced to move out to the “suburbs”. One of our tour guides told us that buying a car is now within the reach of most working urban families, with a base price for a car about 5000 yuan, or ¼ of an annual salary. An expense, but with the sprawling city, a necessary one.

The subway is definitely the easiest way to get around the city, especially in rush hour. With the 2008 Olympics looming, the city is in overdrive, trying to complete an incredibly ambitious subway routing, adding about 70% more subway coverage of the city.

And when I question my various tour guides, so far who are all young female recent University graduates, about the changes from 1997 until now, they simply shrug, and say, yeah, it’s changed. No sweat. I suppose it’s what makes time lapse photography so interesting…I only have two points to compare, whereas they have lived it every minute.


  1. One of the things I expected to see in China was a huge biking population, and I was surprised when that wasn’t the case during our trip last summer. But then I just thought my cultural expectations were miscalibrated by too many movies, so it’s interesting to see that your experience 10 years back really was that way. Of all the cities we hit in China, the only one that still had a big bike population was Xi’an.

    Regarding the shift to car ownership, I came across the following NY Times article a few months back, which provides an interesting discussion, and which also touches on some cultural idiosyncrasies that resonated amusingly with some of our experiences: http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/magazine/02china.html?pagewanted=all

    Your comment about the cranes putting up new buildings also rings true. During our travels last year, I kept saying how I’d like to be the owner of a tower crane company in China. In every big city we visited, there were literally countless cranes putting up high-rises everywhere you could look.

    Comment by Mike E. — October 7, 2006 @ 11:28 pm

  2. Checking back in on your blog, I realized that I made a mistake in my previous comment in saying that Xi’an had the big biker population. The city I meant to name was Chengdu. And I got the sense that’s the case only because there’s a larger proportion of students there.

    Comment by Mike E. — October 12, 2006 @ 9:39 am

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