On a trip to Beijing in the days before the hub-bub, Corbin Hiar finds a mixture of excitement and dread. He gazes back while taking in the five-ring circus …
The first thing we noticed stepping out of Beijing Capital International Airport was the smog. It hung heavy in the humid night like ozone after a violent thunderstorm. My mother, sister and I loaded our bloated backpacks into an idling cab. Its headlamps sent beams of light into the hazy evening air. In the waning days before the 2008 Summer Olympics, the much-needed subway line connecting the airport to the city centre had yet to be completed.
Fuwa, the five “good-luck dolls” that are the city’s Olympic mascots (pictured), swung from the mirror of our cabdriver’s Hyundai as he merged onto the airport expressway. We soon saw the first of many huge, flashing Olympic countdown clocks, as if anyone needed to be reminded of the declining sum of seconds before the opening ceremonies on August 8th. We passed over the recently completed Sixth Ring Road, fringed on both sides with bamboo. Gleaming new hotels shone in the dirty night sky as we followed the expressway into the heart of Beijing, where we would be staying for the week.
The transformation of the city from the imperial capital laid out by Kublai Khan in the 13th century to the current smoggy sprawl of glass, steel and the occasional slum began largely with Mao Zedong, who tore down most of the historic city walls. He began the grand project of the Second Ring Road–a mislabelled rectangular highway that circumscribes most of medieval Beijing and the entire Forbidden City. Mao destroyed most of Beijing’s distinctive hutong neighbourhoods of single-storey courtyard houses huddled along narrow alleyways, replacing them with massive Soviet-style concrete buildings. He also shut down many ancient temples or converted them into factories.
It wasn’t until 1980, with Deng Xiaoping’s awkwardly capitalist “Reforms and Opening up”, that Mao’s Second Ring Road was finally completed. A new wave of creative destruction began to reshape the city in earnest. When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2001 (seven years after narrowly losing out to Sydney), the building frenzy intensified. We arrived in time to witness this most recent wave wash over the city.
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