The Calm Before the Storm

But Pollution Remains a Major Concern

By Published on .

P.T. Black
P.T. Black
Last night was the calm before the storm, or like the day before Christmas, with people scurrying back and forth to finish final tasks and deal with unexpected emergencies. The streets have been relatively clear, which sounds nice, until you need to catch a taxi. Taxi frustration is shaping up to be one of the defining experiences of the Olympics.

Oh, about those taxis -- don't believe the hype. Beijing's taxi drivers have most assuredly not all learned English. They are, however, willing to turn on the air-conditioning in the 80-degree Fahrenheit swelter. They're usually not so accommodating, and it is a welcome sign of a city on its best behavior.

Empty streets in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2008
Empty streets in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2008 Credit: P.T. Black
Pollution is another matter entirely. The air was so bad yesterday when I landed in Beijing that I couldn't see the runway. Today, it's better, meaning it's no worse than usual for Beijing. The sky above and the air are undifferentiated shades of gray. You can't see the sun and you can't tell what time of day it is.

It's definitely not the blue skies and sunshine that Beijing promised the IOC. I hear they're hoping it will rain this weekend and the typhoon that just swept through Guangdong in southern China earlier this week will send cleaner air up, which could also help.

Amid the point-to-point hustle of Olympic functionaries, the hum of everyday commerce is quiet. Restaurants that rushed to open in time for the games, like the Shanghai hotspot Blue Frog, are still waiting for customers to risk leaving their homes. Some shops, though, have been quite busy, like Apple's massive new flagship store in the Sanlitun bar area.
Pollution in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2008
Pollution in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2008 Credit: P.T. Black

I spoke with one hipster teen wearing a precariously perched trucker cap and trendy lens-less black glasses. He explained he was buying a new iPod because it would distract him from his frustration that he couldn't go to the opening ceremony. That is a common vibe around the city. The set-aside lanes, off-limits venues and intrusive security have made it quite clear to Beijingers that, elaborate though it may be, the highly touted "People's Olympics" doesn't have a seat for them.

The exclusion reached a surreal level last night at a glitzy party given by an Olympic sponsor I'd rather not identify, because my impression of the event wasn't flattering. Police shut the front door for security reasons, leaving a scrum of furious glitterati in party clothes, clutching invitations and demanding to speak to the person in charge. It got messy. A series of altercations ended with Champagne splashed across some very chic tops and multiple threats from the public safety bureau to shut off the power.

The fiasco last night was an ominous sign of things to come -- a two-week wave of entitled global VIPs crashing against the stone-faced wall of Chinese bureaucracy. I wonder, should they have made this an Olympic sport?

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