Whoever it was that first said "Everything's bigger in Texas," clearly they never visited Beijing.
The first thing you see when you arrive is the new $3.75 billion terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport. It's incredible. And indescribably big. It took me longer to get from the terminal to the car than it did to go through a rather lengthy line at customs. A huge place and a beautiful place, too.
The best way to understand Beijing's size is to visualize what Manhattan might be like without the Hudson and East Rivers. Beijing just keeps going. Manhattan is almost 23 square miles. Beijing is more than 150! Block after block, mile after mile, there are office buildings and apartments stacked up one after the next. We had the opportunity to climb to the roof of two buildings to tape city shots for our "Outside The Lines" reports (our pollution piece runs on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN). One building was 26 stories and the other was taller. We couldn't see where the city ended, in any direction, either time. It was Manhattan, times six.
Given the size, you can probably imagine the traffic. It's like Los Angeles without interstates, at rush hour, in the rain. It's impossible to get anywhere quickly. I was warned before my trip that traffic would be worse than anything I'd ever seen, and it was. One evening, it took our crew nearly two hours to go about eight miles. It would have taken longer had it not been for our daring and creative (and sometimes frightening) driver. I never got behind the wheel while I was there, which was not a bad thing. Between the millions of bikes, the incredible width of some of the main roads, the impatience and aggressiveness of the drivers and the seemingly never-ending invention of new lanes, I was better off not being behind the wheel. Trust me, it takes courage just to cross some of these streets on foot.
It helps to be courageous at some of the local restaurants, as well. Since our vocabulary was limited, our camera crew generally did the ordering for our entire group. Grouse eggs. Fennel seed dumplings. Donkey. Donkey?! I tried it. I'll leave it at that. If donkey doesn't do it for you, there's always the option of wandering out to one of the street vendors for some fried scorpions on a stick. Don't worry; if you're not a fan of scorpions, they also offer fried seahorses.
For the most part, Beijing is a modern city built around its ancient history. In the heart of the city is Tiananmen Square. Across the street is The Forbidden City. About eight miles north is the Olympic Green, which is stunning. The Olympic Stadium, called the Bird's Nest, sits right next to the swimming facility called the Water Cube. I could have stood there and studied both for hours. And people do.
It's still a construction zone, but people sometimes line up three or four deep along the fence for pictures. On the northern edge of the Olympic Green, there will soon be the Olympic Forest. It was described to me as a man-made mountain, waterfall and river with the entire area stocked with animals. We weren't allowed to see it because it's still under construction, but if it's half as cool as the athletic facilities we visited, it will be a don't miss.
The "green" Olympics?
Beijing is promoting these Games as the first ever "green" Olympics. The Bird's Nest and Water Cube were both built to catch and recycle rain water. There are 6,000 solar panels in the Olympic Village, which will warm the water for the showers and a million new trees have been planted.
Despite all of that, Beijing still doesn't look green. That's because the air pollution is about as bad as anywhere in the world. We were lucky when we visited in April. It was windy and had rained hard for three days before we arrived, so the air was pleasant. I hope it's like that in August, but most of the experts we talked with doubt it will be. Had the Olympics been held last August, the air quality in Beijing would have been in violation of the World Health Organization standard every single day.
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, a tough and tenacious American mountain biker we interviewed for one of our pieces, told us he threw up during his race in Beijing last September because the pollution was so bad. Fifty of the best mountain bikers in the world started that race; eight finished. But American triathlete Matt Reed may have described it best. Reed told us he went for a jog in Beijing, blew his nose, and could see the black pollution that he'd blown out of his body. How's that for an image? The International Olympic Committee has already admitted it might have to reschedule some outdoor events if the pollution is bad in August. That would be a huge embarrassment for the Chinese hosts.
China was the first Communist country I had visited. Walking around the city, it didn't seem all that different from anywhere else, but you do notice a difference when you watch television or read the newspaper. Both have an obvious pro-Chinese spin because the government controls the media. Of the 20 channels on my hotel television, I think half of them were some form of Chinese TV presented by the CCTV network.
I asked Melinda Liu, a great writer who is Newsweek's Beijing bureau chief, how media coverage in China compares to the United States. She said the differences were "night and day." Liu should know; she's lived in Beijing for 10 years. She told us a story about a recent article in the China Daily, the English version of Beijing's local newspaper. She said the paper wrote something to the effect of, "The Dalai Lama might say he's not for independence and he might say he's not for violence, but we know he's always been lying. He's never said anything true in his entire life so why should we believe him?"
Not real subtle. The Internet isn't quite as regulated as long as you stay away from certain topics. If you try to type in "Tibet" or "Dalai Lama" in a Google search, chances are nothing will come up. It's part of what they call "The Great Firewall."
Time and space
The other thing that's impossible not to notice in Beijing is the time change. It's 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time -- 6 p.m. in New York is 6 a.m. the next morning in Beijing, which makes it tough to adjust. If you've seen the movie "Lost in Translation," you know what I mean. Bill Murray's character went to Tokyo, not Beijing, but I have to admit I too had more than one 4 a.m. encounter with the hotel treadmill.
If you're headed to Beijing for the Olympics in August, I'm jealous. It's quite a place.
Just stay away from the donkey.
Bob Holtzman is a reporter for ESPN.