In 1983, I stepped off a somewhat rickety Air China plane onto the tarmac of the Beijing International Airport — and practically needed a flashlight. Only one light burned in the airport terminal, and passengers were met not by taxi cabs and relatives driving cars but by friends and family ready to transport them home…on bicycles.
When I returned this past September, I felt like I'd landed in the middle of the most modern metropolis on earth. The dank terminal I remembered had been replaced by a gleaming mini-city, complete with automated teller machines (ATMs) and fancy shops and restaurants. I sped to the phalanx of taxis waiting outside the arrival doors via bright and shiny high-velocity trains, with destinations announced in English as well as Chinese.
What People Eat, How They Dress
Once in Beijing, I had my choice, not just of rice and dumplings, but of McDonald's hamburgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken strips, and sandwiches from the Subway just around the corner from my hotel. I was curious about food quality, given the news reports that have swirled around everything from contaminated dog food from China to tainted milk. My unease increased on my second day in Beijing, when the newspapers reported the use of gutter oil by some restaurants. "Gutter" oil is so named because it is reclaimed by dredging the drains behind restaurants. It is supposed to be recycled into other uses, but some cooks reuse it in their own kitchens, regardless of what it contains. Reading that report made me shudder! Fortunately, there were many excellent restaurants in Beijing and especially Xi'an, where I enjoyed a feast of delicious traditional dishes, including a variety of stir-fried meats and vegetables.
The television in my room offered a variety of channels in English; 28 years ago, there were few hotel room tvs, and no offerings in anything other than Mandarin. The dress code had changed, too. Whereas most people – men and women alike – were still wearing "Mao" suits in the early eighties, today, women stylishly head off to work in short skirts and stilettos, while men wear Dockers, jeans, Oxford shirts or full Western-style suits and ties.
Meanwhile, the parks brimmed with people not only doing traditional tai chi, but jitterbugging in groups and salsa line dancing, too – something I would never have witnessed in the much stricter political climate that reigned 28 years ago. Before and after work, people exercised in public without the least bit of self-consciousness. It was quite common to see men, women and kids using outdoor stationary bicycles and other gear made from steel to withstand the elements. Elsewhere, groups of friends were challenging each other to games of mah jong, cards, badminton, and hackey-sack, the latter played with a large sturdy shuttle cock rather than the balls more common in the U.S.
What About the Environment?
Environmentally, some things have changed for the better, but most have changed for the worst. A new subway system, built to accommodate the hordes of tourists that descended on Beijing for the 2008 summer Olympics, now whisks hundreds of thousands of people around the city with ease. But almost as many commuters have the means to drive their own cars to work, and air pollution in the region suffers as a result. In fact, during the entire week I was in Beijing and Xi'an, the other city I visited, I never saw blue sky or the sun, thanks to the smog that obscured the heavens.
Water quality has not improved in the city, either: you couldn't drink H2O from the tap three decades ago, and you can't drink it from the tap today. According to scientific reports, as much as 70% of China's rivers have been polluted from industrial discharges as the country's factories work non-stop to meet global consumer demands that were negligible when I originally visited.
It doesn't seem like using plastic is given a second thought. All drinking water is factory-processed and bought or served in plastic bottles. I never saw anyone using their own reusable water bottle – what would be the point? You'd still have to fill it up from a plastic jug!! That said, many people were drinking their own tea and coffee from reusable mugs. In fact, the airport and some public spaces offered safe water dispensers where you could fill up for free.
A plastic bag ban went into effect on June 1, 2008. Initially, it was targeted at supermarkets and shopping malls; this year, the ban was extended to book stores, restaurants, and drugstores. The Beijing News reported that the number of plastic bags produced and used in China has dropped by more than 24 billion a year since the ban occurred, saving 600,000 tons of plastic or 3.6 million tons of petroleum. Yet it didn't seem to me that the ban was being enforced. All of the purchases I made, whether in drugstores, supermarkets, large stores, or from roadside vendors, would have been packaged up in throwaway plastic bags if I hadn't brought my own reusable one.
In 1983, I remember many more vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooks boiling pots of fresh noodles on the street to serve on glass plates. People would sit down at benches to eat, then return the plates for washing to the cook. Today, as in the U.S., food shoppes and supermarkets are filled with plastic-wrapped food. I was amazed to see everything from a single roasted chicken leg to a clump of cooked noodles shrink wrapped in plastic to extend their shelf-life. Organic food doesn't seem to have made many inroads in China yet. I only saw one grocery store offering organic fruits and vegetables, and it was on the outskirts of Beijing.
No matter where I went, people seemed warm, friendly and eager to practice English with me. In Tian'an Men Square, a beaming couple approached me with a camera. I thought they wanted me to take their picture. But no – they each wanted their picture taken with me! I traveled throughout Beijing on my own, and never felt nervous or threatened. Of course, I was never, ever alone, either. Every subway car was packed, every street corner crowded, every restaurant filled. If I were a permanent resident, I might eventually feel like I had no room to myself. As a traveler, it was somewhat reassuring to have a lot of company, even if it was the company of strangers.
Here are a few more photos from the trip, all taken with my trusty Nokia smart phone.
Have you been to China? Please share your stories!