Don’t like the look of a neighborhood? Build a wall around it.

You have to give the Chinese credit for trying to clean up Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Their methods, while borderline authoritarian, have resulted in a significantly cleaner and friendlier looking China — the perfect reflection of a global economic superpower that should be hosting the games.

Several weeks before the games, officials attempted to curtail pollution by shutting down or constraining many of the factories in the region. While air quality has still been poor — one out of three cyclists in a recent race had to drop out because of the conditions — rain and cooler temperatures are now helping the conditions improve.

Other measures taken have had broader, more ominous impact among the resident population. At the same time that factory pollution cuts were mandated, residential vehicle traffic was also halved to cut down on emissions. Commuters were forced to take other transportation to work and trains and buses hemorrhaged with passengers as millions of Chinese jockeyed through Beijing trying to get to work.

In another district of the capital, developers decided that a particular neighborhood reflected poorly on the image of the country. Their solution? Build a wall around it. Despite the fact that multiple businesses and storefronts faced the street, an eight foot wall was erected around the region, blocking out the questionable content and creating a cleaner, more “tourist friendly” look.

Take a look at this brief video put together by the Boston Globe. Would you be happy with a wall like this in front of your storefront? .

Behind the Olympics: Memories of the old Beijing

Last summer, I found myself on a dusty lot overlooking Herzog & de Meuron‘s newest creation: an elegant jumble of I-beams that Beijing residents wryly refer to as the “bird’s nest.” The stadium housed 91,000 spectators for the opening of the Olympics, marking what many believe to be the “Century of China.” I struggled to see anything beyond the gawking tourists, imposing cranes, and cough-inducing smog.

Beijing isn’t very Beijing-ish anymore. Just a decade ago, I could amble through the labyrinths of hutongs – narrow alleyways unique to the capital – and sip some cha at the neighborhood teahouse. Now I barely recognize the new Beijing.

The sleepy outpost once considered the architectural backwater of Asia now rivals Shanghai and Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan juggernaut and its ambitions do not stop there. In the last few years, Beijing has snatched the attention of the world’s top architects away from the usual gang – New York, London, Paris – to power its metamorphosis at a frenetic pace that threatens to eclipse Dubai‘s.

It boasts the world’s largest airport terminal, designed by Britain’s Norman Foster (which opened last month), the immense national theater by Frances Paul Andreu, and the megarestaurant LAN by Philippe Starck. But towering above anything else – both figuratively and literally – is Rem Koolhaas‘s 750-foot doughnut-shaped marvel for China Central Television (CCTV), which will be broadcasting this year’s Olympics from the skyscraper to the 1.3 billion Chinese. “The sheer possibility of designing it, something of that magnitude and ambition, is only possible in China,” says Ole Scheeren, the partner in charge of the project.

The CCTV building sits squarely in the middle of the newly established Central Business District (CBD). “Five years ago, there was nothing there besides abandoned factories,” says Mr. Scheeren. He recounts being shown a blueprint of the district by government officials with 300 skyscrapers etched in – planned construction for the coming decade. Their postmodernist wonder has rewritten the playbook on space and context.

Driving toward it one day last summer, the “trouser legs” (a local nickname for the CCTV) looked imperial and gargantuan. A split moment later, as I glanced in the rear-view mirror, it seemed gaunt and teetering on collapse, like a stack of poorly placed Jenga pieces.

Across town, and next door to the Forbidden City, developer Handel Lee has been busy converting the former American Embassy – built in the dying days of the Qing Dynasty – into another international icon of Chinese extravagance, featuring chic imports like a Daniel Boulud restaurant from New York and the swanky nightclub Boujis from London. As the perfect example of Beijing‘s “me, too” attitude, it’s telling that Mr. Lee’s last project was Three on the Bund, a cultural venue that revitalized Shanghai‘s riverfront.

Thankfully not everyone’s quick to take the Beijing out of Beijing’s architecture. A year or so ago, Shauna Liu, born and bred in Beijing, opened Côté Cour, the first upscale hotel set in a traditional courtyard or siheyuan. Here, in one of the last cultural enclaves in the city, not much has changed since Ms. Liu’s siheyuan was first built 500 years ago. Neighbors exchange gossip, kids run down the packed hutongs, and vendors hawk everyday goods like fresh fruit and pirated DVDs (OK so one thing’s changed). She’s managed to fuse the authentic Chinese design with a Western splash of style, bringing in Venetian plaster, glass tiles, and a lily pond. And guests couldn’t be happier – she’s almost booked for this year’s Olympics.

Sadly, even though China‘s populace is no longer so complacent or disconnected, in the push to modernize, the central government has gutted Beijing’s very soul.

A generation ago, some 6,000 hutongs wove through the pedestrian-friendly city. Now less than a thousand remain. More than a million local residents have been tossed into the streets, their homes commandeered in the Olympics frenzy. The whole situation ominously smacks of Mao’s conquest of the capital in 1949, when he seized the siheyuans and tore down the historic city wall to make room for a humdrum slew of factories.

Millions of peasants and migrant workers are expected to pour back into Beijing after the Olympics, and the city’s wealth gap continues to widen, making it hard to maintain President Hu Jintao‘s vision of a “harmonious society.” One thing’s for sure though, a doughnut-shaped icon won’t be able to feed the poor.

A bathroom problem of “Olympic” proportions

When I first saw the venue designs for this summer’s Olympic games in Beijing, I was quite impressed. The Chinese have pulled out all the stops to create several cutting-edge stadiums for the games, including the Beijing National Stadium designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron and the Beijing National Aquatics Center, which looks like a huge floating cube of water.

However, as the BBC reports, China may have spent a little too much money on those architecture fees. Prompted by frequent visitor complaints at test events, the Chinese are scrambling to replace traditional squat toilets at the venues with western-style “loos” for an expected 500,000 visitors. According to the BBC, who quotes Yao Hui, Deputy Head of Venue Management, “Most of the Chinese people are used to the squat toilet, but nowadays more and more people demand sit-down toilets.”

Gee, Yao, do you think? I have no problem adapting to a traditional squat toilet if I’m coming to visit China on my own, but perhaps when you have visitors coming from as many as 200 different nationalities you might want to standardize? I guess if you’re headed to this summer’s games in Beijing, make sure you bring your own toilet paper and maybe take a look at this for advice. Also take a look at this for more “traditional” background info on Beijing before your visit.


The top 10 World’s Dirtiest Cities:

You’ll never guess what made the list!

Beijing 2008 Olympics tickets: Watch out for sketchy online offers

Quick quiz: Click on this site for Beijing Olympics tickets. Now, click on this ticket site. What’s the difference? The first is official, the second is not. They look pretty much the same, right? That’s the point, and that is what’s scary. The second link is clearly some ticketing warehouse. Note the text along the top of your browser — Champions League? Euro 2008? But, you say, I want Olympics tickets! — and the glaring typo in the welcome message. Go ahead and click on ‘About Us’.

The Washington Post‘s crack travel team outed a sketchy Olympic ticketing site this past weekend in their “Coming and Going” column. Having been alerted by a reader to a suspicious site — — CoGo, as the column is playfully referred to, made some calls. A few things didn’t add up: The site gives a UK phone number and a Phoenix address. The company running the site — XL&H — is either a public or a private enterprise, depending on which part of the site you happen upon. It is registered in Delaware. The Post notes all this, but couldn’t turn up any Delaware registration for the company. When reporters tried to contact the company through the e-mail given on the site, they received a vague response about all tickets being available for pick-up in China. The paper also turns up some interesting fine print items.

What really matters in all this is that, as the Post notes, this particular site pops up first in most standard Google searches for Olympics tickets, which could lead some to see it as more official than it might be. Ditto for the second and third hits that come up on most searches, the Post reports.

The Olympics are a scant five months away. Individual events have been sold out for months, and the scramble is on to secure packages and miracle one-offs. This is not to say that you cannot go through alternative channels to obtain hard-to-get seats, or that Web sites advertising tickets are necessarily scams. But you should be careful and you should have a pretty good idea where you’re sending your money.

China bans ghost stories

There will be no spooky slumber-party tales for Chinese children anymore, at least if the government has its way. As China prepares for the 2008 Olympics, the government is attempting to rid the country of any evidence of vulgarity. Recently, China banned “vulgar” ads for items like brassieres and sex-enhancing drugs (even provocative sounds such as “ooh” and “ahh” were banned from airwaves). Last week, China went one step further and banned ghost stories.

That’s right. Ghost stories.

Any video or audio content containing ghosts or monsters needs to be reported to authorities in the next few weeks. Reuters quotes the administration in saying that offending content includes “wronged spirits and violent ghosts, monsters, demons, and other inhuman portrayals, strange and supernatural storytelling for the sole purpose of seeking terror and horror.”

Reuters suggests that China “is keen to step up its control of the cultural arena ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August, which are widely seen as a coming-out party for the rising political and economic power.”