Chinese Buffet – Part 4: Beijing’s 365-Day Countdown Begins

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

(Olympic neon glows from a hutong shop window.)

In a few hours, the city of Beijing will kick off it’s official one-year till the Games countdown celebration. The big 08-08-08 is just 365 days away, and the media buzz surrounding whether or not Beijing is ready will continue to escalate. There is constant chatter about public health and security concerns, human rights violations, and civility initiatives. Here are just eight examples of topics currently on the table:

1) Yesterday the city began its two week ban of one million cars from the city streets. The ban, which will affect one third of Beijing’s vehicles, is a pre-Olympic test to temporarily decrease pollution and traffic. (Several city residents told me that when they did this last summer, there was a noticeable difference in the sky and on the streets.)

2) But the IOC President said today that athletic events could be postponed if the air quality is not good.

3) Sixty new parks will be built between now and when the Games begin, but many still wonder, will Beijing be green enough? (I was impressed with the number of tree lined streets and blossoming parks, but is it just for show? Hopefully these new parks will be preserved beyond the duration of the Games.)

4) Over 1.25 million people have already been forcibly displaced from their homes as a direct result of preparations for the Olympic Games.

(A model of the “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium)

5) Taxi drivers (among others) must follow new regulations that meet the standard of the city image Beijing is striving to show to the world. (I rode with several drivers who were quite happy to share their English language skills.)

6) Water closet will be flushed for toilet: All “WC” signs will be replaced with “Toilet” signs before the end of the year. (I don’t recall seeing even one WC sign in Beijing, so they are making progress on this one.)

7) The first of three new subway lines is set to open in September.

8) The Made in China manufacturing craze ensures that Olympic merchandise will be over the top. (Do do you really need an Olympic pinky ring?)

The That’s Beijing blog has a good roundup of major pre-Olympic initiatives underway and a blog about public relations in China has a handy summary of the various protests taking place. Olympic excitement and anticipation is addicting, especially if you are a fan of sport…but debate and discussion about the challenges Beijing faces is just as fascinating to follow.

(A model of the bubbly Olympic swimming venue.)

Being aware of these Olympic-size issues will be helpful for travelers heading to Beijing in the next year. But let’s get back to basics for a moment with some general sightseeing travel tips from the Immersion Guides team. Here are five “insider” tips they shared with me during our visit:

1) Most people come to Beijing and spend too much time worrying about bargaining. But who cares about getting ripped off every once in awhile? Expect to get ripped off – it’s part of the experience! And remember that you are probably still getting something for a very cheap price.

2) Skip the student art exhibit scams and steer clear of the tea scams as well. (Bill Bowles is a traveler with a website full of awesome videos about his visits to China and elsewhere; watch his team scam story for the scoop.)

3) History buffs who want to learn all the details and background of a particular site should always find an official guide or audio tour.

4) If you are short on time in Beijing, it’s best to choose between the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. They look very similar — one just has lots more green landscape around it! With limited time, only visit one.

5) If you do choose the Forbidden City, be sure to seek out the West Palace. Lots of people whiz through the FC, wondering what the big deal is, because everything looks the same. But the West Palace is unique and does not look like anything else. (Hopefully it won’t be under restoration. But regardless of when you visit, some section of the palace will surely be closed.)