Blue. That was my first impression of the landscape as our plane made its approach to the improbably gigantic Bejing Capital International Airport, which shortly before the 2008 Olympics turned a bucolic suburb into one of the busiest places in the world. Blue roofs. You don't see a lot of blue roofs in America, but there, splashed across the countryside, they were — baby, cerulean, baboon-ass, and every other shade you can imagine. They caught the eye from factories and warehouses and shacks and from the clusters of apartment towers, identical and symmetrical and eerily neat, islands in a sea of green. I've seen a half-dozen explanations online — that they categorize industrial buildings, that they hint at a resurgence of faith, that they are remnants of central-planned design, and so forth. I've yet to find anything authoritative; maybe some clever reader knows.
Green — that was the next thing. Flying into Los Angeles I'm used to a concrete-colored Gibsonesque sprawl farther than I can see, but Beijing — for all of its 13 million people — is still surrounded by vast swaths of green, the exurbs dotting it instead of dominating it.
Clean came next. We were last in Beijing in 2007, when we picked up our daughter Elaina. Then the city was struggling to prepare for the 2008 Olympics, and ramshackle scaffolding and heaps of construction equipment were everywhere. It was not memorably clean. But 2016 Beijing — at least the parts we've seen so far — is unsettlingly clean, Disney-clean, clean in a way that invites dark speculation into how such cleanliness is maintained. It's difficult to spot trash. I don't know if this is a result of a vast infrastructure devoted to picking it up, or cultural distaste for dropping it, or both. Even the cars seemed clean and neat. I couldn't put my finger on what seemed off about the roads until I realized how few old or beat-up or filthy cars seemed to be on Beijing's main streets. There were hardly any beaters to be seen.
The buildings that were encrusted with scaffolding in 2007 are now long-built or repaired. Certainly Beijing still has rows of boxy apartment buildings, identically grim, and its fair share of brutalist concrete. But it also has pleasant modern-looking apartment blocks and shining new office buildings with juts and curves and swoops and whimsical skybridges. Ancient and modern and beautiful and ugly rub shoulders. For all the stereotypes about communist architecture I saw very little as dystopian as FBI headquarters or downtown LA's criminal courthouse.
Speaking of communism and dystopian government, it wasn't much in evidence, at least in the parts of Beijing we've seen so far. We saw numerous Russian flags along the highway from the airport, raised to salute a visiting Vladimir Putin, but the Chinese flag wasn't omnipresent. To the contrary, it was rarer by an order of magnitude than the American flag in a typical American city. Nor did I see overt propaganda of the sort that still lingered in 2007 — the closest was a huge sign with the English translation CONGRATULATIONS TO POSTAL SERVICE ON SUCCESSFUL INTRODUCTION OF NEW INVESTORS, which is somewhat less than communist in content. Armed soldiers ("Look, they have machine guns," said my mother-in-law. "Those aren't . . . never mind.") guarded some edifices along the main boulevard, but unobtrusively. People wandered about and started at their phones and ate and drank and lived like they do anywhere else. The most prominent sign that we were someplace politically different was the fact that we had to use a VPN to visit Facebook or Twitter.
And the traffic! In 2007, the fabled Beijing traffic lived up to every stereotype. Cars hurled themselves like berserkers at our tour bus's fenders, and weaved about like a chase in a Michael Bay movie. Now? Well, I would hesitate to drive myself, but it was comparatively placid, not much worse than someplace like Boston. I saw a family serenely bike between the lanes, parents masked and baby sandwiched impassively between them.
In short, what seemed most alien about Beijing was how it failed to live up to expectations or stereotypes. It seemed thoroughly westernized, with only glimpses of its former life — a trio of old men fishing in the river as SUVs whizzed across a bridge over their heads, a glimpse of hutongs, an occasional conical hat. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the city this week, and to visiting other cities over the next two weeks to see how they compare.
Today, Sunday, was our first full day. It was hot, and the air quality was quickly searing my lungs, producing an ache that reminded me of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early 80s. So we visited the aquarium at the zoo, which was indoors and sufficiently diverting for the kids, and for me.
Later I took my son Evan and daughter Elaina to the hotel pool. Nominally Elaina — who has completed four years in a Mandarin immersion program — is our translator. Practically she's mostly waiting, quivering in anticipation, to translate Thrice-Peppered Squid Taint In Mungbean Oil as "sweet and sour chicken." I quickly discovered she did not know the word for "towel" and was disinclined to get there through description. Nor was it a word that the hotel believed pool employees needed to know in English. I was left to wander from pool attendant to pool attendant, patomiming. We do not have whatever it is you wish to rub or wrap yourself with, American, their expressions said in a very courteous and non-judgmental way. I found the towels eventually, and returned to the pool to soak away the travel and the heat, clad in the required black bathing cap, which makes me look like a condemned manatee.
More to come.