Thursday, July 14, 2011

Beijing, Revisited

Last week I traveled to Beijing for work. I like to think that I know Beijing well; after all, I lived there between 2004 and 2005, and I was last in Beijing exactly three years ago, when I spent a week in the city for an urban planning conference in 2008. That conference took place just three weeks before the Summer Olympics, and I was stunned to see how much had changed in a little over three years -- there were the architectural marvels, like the Bird's Nest Stadium and the Rem Koolhaus CCTV tower (recently featured in a New York Times article). Then there was my old neighborhood, or what I thought was my old neighborhood, that looked like a different place entirely; in 2008 Sanlitun had given way to a sea of construction cranes and shiny brand-name stores, including the largest Adidas store in the world.

I had a similar experience this time around. Simply put, Beijing blew me away. Given that I arrived from Kathmandu, I admit that my perspective may be different than others', and it did not take much to impress me. For example, I could not get over the Hyundai taxis that felt like luxurious limousines, the smooth, straight roads, and the lack of incessant honking. And the sidewalks! So wide, so even. I kind of felt like I had died and gone to a walkable street heaven.

Beijing may have walkable streets, but with its massive scale it is not what I would call an extremely walkable city -- in the sense that you would have to walk a lot to get just about anywhere. According to Wikipedia, Beijing is 6,900 square miles. Chicago -- my most recent point of comparison in the U.S. -- is just 230 square miles.

This view from my hotel room shows the northeast edge of the city, and it gives a small glimpse a sense of Beijing's expanse.

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Fortunately, Beijing's transit system has significantly improved since I lived there. The rickety old buses have been replaced by gleaming mobiles that run on clean fuel and have television screens inside. The subway system has expanded. And, perhaps most exciting, the Airport Express is now open.

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Even though I was last there just three weeks before the Olympics, the Airport Express had not yet opened for business, so last week's trip was my first experience on the new line that runs directly from the airport to the city. From the domestic terminal to the first stop -- Sanyuanqiao -- the ride was only about 12 minutes. I was impressed by the speed, the convenience, and the train itself.

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I disembarked at Sanyuanqiao, which is on the Third Ring Road and near the hotel where I stayed last week. Incidentally, the hotel is located around the corner from my old office building, so I took myself on a tour to reacquaint myself with the neighborhood. My office building is still standing (though the firm has long since moved out to bigger and better real estate).

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The new -- and huge -- U.S. Embassy is located about a block away from my old office.

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And one of my favorite restaurants, an Israeli spot, was clearly leveled to make way for a massive construction site and worker housing.

Fortunately, some new and good restaurants have popped up in the area. I loved a place called the Food Cube on Xiaoyunlu, which had a great selection of simple but delicious dishes like steamed pumpkin and taro.

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And an awesome spinach pancake.

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And, of course, there was the requisite stop at the familiar -- I had to go to Starbucks for an iced decaf Americano (no decaf in Kathmandu!).

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In short, it was a great trip, and I hope to go back in another three years -- if not sooner -- to see where the city stands then.

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