Sunday, May 13, 2007
Beijing was growing on me.
At first, I couldn't see anything but the sprawl, the construction and the vicious, honking traffic that squeezed the slow streams of cyclists in the bike lanes. Then, gradually, I quit fixating on Beijing's immense proportions and began to notice its human details.
There was the man with the wispy Confucian beard engrossed in Chinese chess on a street corner. There was the food frying on street-side griddles and the impossibly long chains on the bicycle carts. Most important, though, there were the parks in the morning.
Beijingers -- especially, but not exclusively, retirees -- use the city's parks to sing, dance, exercise and generally be together. When I walked into Beihai Park shortly after dawn, I immediately passed about 20 people silently making the slow pivots of tai chi. Elsewhere, solitary individuals did comically serious deep knee bends by a fence.
It was a nice setting for a workout. Beihai Park centers on one of the peaceful, willow-lined lakes that dribble across central Beijing. To the south sits Zhongnanhai, the off-limits Communist Party compound. To the north lies Houhai, or the Back Lakes, which are surrounded by waterside restaurants and bars with too much neon. I'd had a good meal and a leisurely drink there, watching the wind ruffle the water.
But Beihai Park is about movement. I watched about 40 women flick fans and scarves in a sort of line dance, then walked on to discover a calligrapher brushing Chinese characters on the sidewalk in water. As the morning stretched on, old men waddled around with wire bird cages in hand. An expat had explained the rationale of "walking" a caged bird: The bird's exercise comes from gripping its swaying perch.
My favorites, though, were the singers. I have seen few things as nakedly joyful as a group of neighbors gathered in the slanting light of morning to sing their lungs out. Watching them, cynicism became impossible.
How can you not appreciate a city that, even for a moment, allows you to feel that way?
* * *
For much of my life, China was a hazy place of contradictory associations -- cute pandas and pro-democracy protests crushed with tanks. In recent years, though, reports of the country's economic boom and rising world clout made it clear that the future was being forged, at a frantic speed, in China.
Of course, it's not just China's growing importance that has put it on many travelers' itineraries. With such iconic attractions as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City -- and that's just in Beijing -- the country will be the world's most popular tourist destination by 2020, according to the World Tourism Organization. The fact that Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics has merely drawn attention to the obvious: Right now, China is where the action is.
Fittingly, it was an item of business news that provided my excuse to book a 12-day trip to the Chinese capital. Earlier this year, United Airlines won the right to offer new service from Dulles International Airport to Beijing, giving Washington its first nonstop flight to China. The victory came at the expense of Continental, American and Northwest, which wanted to offer China service originating in Newark, Dallas and Detroit, respectively. China restricts inbound flights, so the U.S. Department of Transportation doles out new routes via an application process.