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SEPTEMBER 29, 1997


First impressions of Beijing

  by Sarah Beran
   At first glance, Beijing is a study in contrasts. Donkey carts and tractors jockey for space on the dirty city streets next to shiny new Jeep Cherokees. Glass and concrete monstrosities shoot up from the endless maze of overcrowded hutongs (old style, one story brick dwellings.) Change is everywhere and it seems to have left portions of the city trapped in different centuries. Downtown mirrors many an American city, while inside the remnants of the old city wall, people live in the manner of their Ming dynasty ancestors. Five hundred year old temples and gate towers, barely visible through the smoggy air, share the skyline with apartment buildings.
   I live in the foreign students dormitory. The government prefers to keep us separated from the Chinese students since the Tiananmen incident. This gives us coveted privileges such as showers and hot water a full six hours each day. Containers of boiled water for drinking are delivered to our doors every morning. I share a room with one other girl - a sinful waste of space considering the usual 8 people in each room.
   The Physical Education Institute, Tiyu Daxne, is on the outskirts of the city. Rice fields border the dormitories and the dirt streets are crowded with people from the country that bicycle to sell various goods. The nearby market boasts everything from barbecued pig feet to counterfeit Adidas shoes. A murky green river flows sluggishly by the gates of the college and serves as the collective rubbish heap and open sewer. This, combined with the suffocating humidity, make for some strong odors. The sun is obscured beneath a layer of smog ten times worse than the World Health Organization's (WHO) standard.
   Eleven million people live within the city limits of Beijing and countless others flood the city each day for work. Traffic is a constant and drivers, as well as pedestrians, take their lives into their hands when venturing out. There are no laws, and I have yet to see a policeman - only the everpresent uniforms of the PLA soldiers, always watching. The few existing stoplights are disregarded, as are lane divisions.
   Beneath all the dirt and squalor, there is an amazing city that is full of vitality 3000 years after its inception. Everywhere I look, people are tearing down crumbling buildings and rebuilding. I have heard that today's Beijing is unrecognizable from the city of 5 years ago. However, a handful of half empty modern buildings does not equal modernization. China runs a very real risk of leaving the majority of her populations behind in the dust of the villages and hutongs. Ultimately, though, we westerners can lift our hands despairingly over the atrocities of destroyed cultural treasures and the irreparable harm being done to the environment, but China is struggling to emerge from the past the only way she knows how.