The End of a Beijing Binge

BEIJING—The last night of the old, normal life, July 19, was mild and beautiful. The air was clear, even though the Olympic rules would not take effect till the next day: the driving ban on half the city’s three million private cars, alternating daily between odd- and even-numbered license plates; the halt to construction digging and cement pouring. Tomorrow, by plan, the Olympic city would be in place.

I had spent the morning and early afternoon 80-some miles away in Tianjin—the Newark to Beijing’s New York. I had in mind that I would return on the brand-new bullet train, but the bullet train isn’t open to customers yet. Neither is the new Tianjin train station, so I waited in the old one, a vast, grimy shed above the tracks.

It gets easier and easier, if you stay within the busily improving capital, to forget what the ordinary infrastructure of China is like. Hand-painted train-announcement signs and LED ones contradicted each other; information moved through the immense crowd of travelers by word of mouth or herd intuition. The crowd-mind absorbed the news that the 3:46 express to Beijing was delayed 20 minutes … 30 minutes … 10 or 15 minutes more … finally (a surge toward the stairways) boarding.

The train itself was clean and modern and completely sold out. I rode standing up, looking out the window in the train door at the tedious landscape. In America, I usually enjoy the view from trains, of the shacks and junkyards and industrial wreckage of the country’s backside. But China is already one big rail bed; the backside of the country is everywhere. If anything, the railway scenery seemed tidier than average. In the train car, a seated passenger was reading a magazine article with the headline, in English, “Keep Fit While Learning English/Simple Ways to Suppress Your Appetite.”

The Beijing train station had been given over to endlessly repeating lit-up advertising posters of the five Olympic mascots, the Fuwa: Bèibei the fish, Jíngjing the panda, Huànhuan the Olympic flame, Yíngying the Tibetan antelope, and Níni the swallow, the unpopular one. “Beijing Huan Ying Ni”—“Beijing Welcomes You.”

On the Thursday before, the Olympic press center had called a sudden news conference—a “flash”—to announce that the final Olympic subway lines would be opening … soon. Probably before the end of the weekend. As usual, a reporter who was there told me, such specifics as a date or a time went unoffered.

A text message arrived from a friend: The subway was open. Another, from a different friend: The Apple store was open. “People keep pulling the security cord off the laptops, setting off alarms. …”

Downtown, at the Donghuamen night market, I had reporting to do for a food story. On a corner across from the food stalls, a young Chinese woman in a black polo shirt stopped me—could I take a survey? The lanyard around her neck said “Nielsen.” She held up a tiny, featherweight notebook computer. I clicked through the questions. How long had I been in China? (Longer than a year.) Did I recognize the Olympic slogan? (“One World One Dream.”) Did I agree, disagree, or not know whether each part of the three-part Olympic motto was accurate: Green Olympics (agree; for public transit alone), High-Tech Olympics (agree; the surveillance system is astonishing), People Olympics (don’t know). Had I bought any Olympic merchandise? (Yes.)

Did I think that the Olympics would be a success? (Don’t know.)

Whatever may happen in August, tourists were making it to the night market in July, at least. I dined, taking notes as I went, on fried scorpions, fried bees, a fried starfish and a bowl of pork-intestine soup. A culinary-minded Chinese friend helped me with the Mandarin interpretation. The starfish was full of a gummy gray mass like flavorless, overcooked fish eggs, and was so messy to pry open that I gave up after two of the five arms. Everything else was fine.

When we got in a taxi to leave, the cabbie confessed he had no idea how to get from downtown to Dongzhimen, the major junction where I live. He was fresh from the countryside and had been driving a cab for fewer than 10 days. We got him to the Second Ring Road, then gave him a quick tutorial on the layout of the northeast as we went: Chaoyangmen, then Dongsishitiao, and finally Dongzhimen. His driving experience was no more extensive than his geographical knowledge; the cab flinched in and out of lanes. In less than 20 days, Olympic visitors would be trying to hail his taxi.

There was still time to catch a ride on the subway. I took another cab out to the Third Ring, where the new No. 10 line runs, and entered at the Liang Ma Bridge station. The hallways were a tasteful gray, and a breeze was blowing through them. I bought a one-ride card—about 30 cents—and rode one stop to the Sanyuan Bridge station, to see if I could transfer to take the new airport express train home. I could, the station attendant told me, but it would be more than 10 times as expensive—twice as much as a taxi ride. It seemed, in that moment, profligate, even in the name of research. I surfaced and got a cab.

The 20th was hot but clear and clean. The inner driveway of the apartment building was lined with cars, their plates ending in 9 … 3 … 9 … 7 … 5. But in the construction pit across the alley from the living-room window, a crane was still moving.

Toward evening, we went to Sanlitun, the old Embassy-bar street a few blocks east of home. The west side of the street has been redeveloped into a series of shopping complexes. In a white Moorish-style building, we found a new branch of an Asian chain selling Western kitchenware: tri-ply copper-stainless cookware; silicone cake molds and basting brushes; pepper mills; enameled cast-iron casseroles. A year ago, a place like that would have been unimaginable. We have been cooking in Beijing with a hodgepodge of pans and utensils collected from supermarkets, the corner store and parts unknown. In the courtyard outside the kitchen store, Tex-Mex music was blaring from a restaurant with a cactus on the signboard. Workers were finishing store interiors. At the front of the building, signs announced an American Apparel was coming soon.

Further down Sanlitun, at the corner with North Workers’ Stadium Street, was the new Adidas superstore, the world’s largest. Next to it was a nearly finished Uniqlo. The two mark the south end of the Village, a collection of retail buildings drawn up by avant-garde architects, all steel and angled glass walls and gold-tinged materials. Further into the compound was a Nike store, and then the Apple store: an immense glowing white logo on a gray box, two or three stories above an open square—the old Macintosh “1984” commercial perfectly reversed. Inside, a clerk greeted me in English so flawless that I didn’t notice it was English till a second clerk did the same.

It was getting dark. Back outside the Apple store, a billboard-size video screen announced: “The paint is almost dry and the first villagers are moving in.” A slapping sound echoed off the walls. Up on a scaffold, a worker was gluing tall purple letters to the glass, rising from left to right, thumping each one into place with his hands. He was just putting the “n” on “Steve Madden.”

tscocca@observer.com