Beijing's Olympic infrastructure grows and grows

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Ever since Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Chinese capital has been in the midst of a massive construction boom. In addition to new sporting venues, there are now six ring roads encircling the city, facilitating movement of an ever-increasing number of vehicles. Newly wealthy Chinese are replacing the once ubiquitous bicycle with cars.

The new airport is fully operational, designed to handle the expected influx of athletes and tourists in the Olympic period next August. A wide freeway that links the airport to Beijing is already handling large volumes of traffic. Other highways link the center with attractions such as the Summer Palace, on the northwest outskirts, and the Great Wall and Ming Tombs, 45 miles to the north. The main Olympic stadiums also lie to the north, beyond the fourth ring road.

Across the city, towering office blocks, many with innovative and distinctive designs, are sprouting seemingly overnight, alongside a vast array of residences built to house the influx of workers from other regions.

Given the workers on hand, everything happens very quickly. My first night in Beijing, I walked past an empty hair salon that had been stripped for renovation, with only the red-striped barber's pole still operating. By the time I wandered past the next evening, it was already back in operation, with nine chairs in two rooms occupied.

One element Chinese authorities cannot control is the weather. Of particular concern to Olympics organizers is the persistent haze that hangs over the city. It is rumored that officials will banish private vehicles during the Games, but industrial pollution and dust from desert sandstorms account for most of the haze. During my stay, it was only after a day of persistent rain that the next morning dawned clear. But the haze was back the next day.

On sunny days, the Summer Palace grounds are thronged with locals escaping small apartments for a day of relaxation on and around its large lake. Visitors in town for the Olympics might take a ride on one of the lake's dragon boats or stroll along its ornately painted, covered walkway and 17-arch bridge. The entire complex is a de facto museum of Chinese architecture. 

In Tiananmen Square, tourists still line up to view Chairman Mao's embalmed body in its large mausoleum. At the northern end of the huge square, they enter the Forbidden City, with its bright red and yellow buildings and vast courtyards. 

The covered Pearl and Silk Market on Jianguomennei Avenue offers floors of clothing. The designer labels are fake but the quality is top-notch.

Another joy of visiting Beijing is the food. I have found that diners with a yen for authentic Chinese cooking should seek out restaurants where the clientele is local. There, they'll likely find a delicious meal at a reasonable price.

A good Chinese beer is the best accompaniment to spicy, Sichuan-style dishes.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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