We arrived at Beijing International Airport at about 8am on Thursday. I only got a good glimpse of the ground just a few seconds before landing, and my first reaction was that it still seemed like the Beijng I remembered from our visit five years ago – no sun, no blue sky, pollution everywhere.
But by the time we had deplaned and started walking toward baggage claim and customs, I could immediately see that it wasn’t the same, not at all. Up came a breeze that quickly cleared the morning mist, and the day began sunny, mild, and with a sky that was far clearer than many other major Asian cities like Bangkok, for example. Blue sky…shadows cast by the sun…shocking! Five years ago, I only saw these conditions in China when we were well up into the mountainous rural areas, because Beijing was unalterably grey, all day, every day.
This was my first surprise at entering present-day Beijing – how clear and clean the air was. In the next few days, I would experience several other shocking changes that have occurred over the past five years, essentially between pre- and post-Olympic Beijing.
Besides the bright sun, Beijing now boasts relatively quiet streets…what happened to the constant honking of car and truck horns I remember? Nearly all gone. Is it now against the law to use your horn excessively? How did such a huge behavioral change occur in such a short time?
Also nearly all gone are pushbikes, replaced by electric scooters and electrically assisted cycles that are completely silent, compared to the street cacophony caused by the thousands of gas powered motor scooters that are everywhere in most other Asian cities. They sound like angry bees, buzzing around the hives of every Asian city street corner, and here, their absence lends a sense of calm to the Beijing CBD which makes for a pedestrian experience that is actually quite pleasant.
I was also surprised by the huge decrease in observable cigarette smoking in public areas, along with the virtual disappearance of the hacking and spitting that used to be everywhere you turned, including inside the restaurants of Beijing. I know that smoking in public places is now against the law in China, but I read that this was a law that wasn’t being enforced much. Still a big behavioral change has occurred.
Beijing, I see, has transformed itself into a much more modern world class city in just the past five years, and I now expect that my experiences in walking the streets of this metropolis will also lead to many other new discoveries.