From the moment I get into a taxi and pull out of the Beijing Airport, all the signs are there. From the red flags fluttering on poles along the expressway, welcoming participating teams, to the five rings painted on the main lane, restricting it for Olympic vehicles only. Beijing is clearly a city gearing up to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
All construction in this fast-growing city is at a standstill for the Games, the sites cordoned off with neat facades.
Like a soldier dressed in a new uniform, the creases neatly in place, the city too is decked up — manicured lawns line the roads, hedges are pruned just so. Fully-grown trees have been transplanted from nurseries to the sides of roads, propped up by tripod-like supports.
And it seems like all the flowers in Beijing have conspired to bloom just now, to wow the crowd of visitors here for the Games.
There’s no sign of the dreaded traffic I’ve heard about. On even dates, only cars with even number plates ply on the roads, odd numbers on odd dates. The off days of working people across the city have been staggered across the week, so that on any given day, there are fewer people on the roads. And in offices across the city, employees have been encouraged to take their annual vacations during the Games.
A couple I met at the airport, practising Buddhists, were on their way to India, on a pilgrimage to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya. They could stay a week or a month; their office was okay with both.
The Fuwa, the five cheery mascots of the Games, are everywhere. In the foyers of malls and shopping centres, with little children posing next to life sized figures. And on keychains and bags and scarves and any kind of souvenir that you could possibly want at the many Olympic Flagship Stores in the city. There are even miniature working models of the Torch to be had, but they cost a pretty penny. Looking for a bargain, I wander off a branch of the bustling Wangfujing Walk Street and find myself a Fuwa t-shirt for just 20 RMB.
At Tiananmen Square, last minute preparations are still on. I watch wonderstruck as a large crane gingerly lifts a single flowerpot at a time, placing it in its rightful place in the Olympic logo taking shape right before my eyes. Next to it is a replica of the Nest, the impressive Olympic Stadium.
As I look around, a policeman walks up to me, warning me to hold my bag closer in the crowded Square. He points out the police booth, where I can go if I need assistance. And he’s not the only one willing to help out. There are volunteers everywhere; only some speak English, but all are ready to engage in a game of dumb charades and lend a hand if they can.
When the sun sets, the faint smog hanging over the city glows lightly orange. The lights come on, and I spot the clock outside the National Museum, counting down the hours to the 2008 Olympic Games in bright yellow numbers.