Beijing is ready for its close-up. Long suspicious of the outside world and enclosed inside courtyards and walls, China's capital city in this Olympic year is flaunting its attractions to travelers. Justly proud of its historic treasures, it is even prouder of its recently acquired sheen of modernity. The first thing international visitors will see is Beijing's ultramodern terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport. With the official opening Feb. 29 and a wide operational opening March 26, the cavernous air-passenger terminal -- described by Chinese officials as the world's largest -- was built to handle an expected 2 million Olympics visitors and bring Beijing air travel into the 21st century. The gleaming terminal was designed by Sir Norman Foster, who gave London its newly iconic Gherkin and seems to design everything Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei don't. The airport update was badly needed. Well into the 1990s, Beijing's airport had the cramped, scuffed, dimly lit look of a place where Mao would have received Stalin in, say, 1950 to strategize about the Korean War. No more. The new terminal -- actually three closely spaced buildings with high glass walls and expansive interiors -- will boast a $250 million baggage handling system, links to the airport's older terminal 1 and terminal 2 by rail shuttles and a rail connection to central Beijing's Dongzhimen subway station. The airport train to central Beijing, 12 miles distant, is scheduled to start rolling in July, just in time for the Games, which run from Aug. 8 to Aug. 24.
Flying to Beijing is getting easier, thanks to slow but steady expansion of Sino-American aviation pacts. Beijing is served nonstop by United Airlines, owned by UAL Corporation ( UAUA), from Chicago O'Hare, San Francisco International and Washington-Dulles airports, and by Continental Airlines ( CAL) from Newark Liberty International. Northwest Airlines ( NWA) flies to Beijing from the U.S. via Tokyo's Narita airport. Beijing is a flat, sprawling city of 12 million people, dully dun-colored by day but multicolored at night when the neon lights of the city's new high-rise buildings flash on. The best way to get around this vast city is by subway. Beijing has five subway lines and is building five more. Line 10, scheduled for completion this summer, will link central Beijing with the Olympic Green, site of prime venues for the Games, including the "bird's nest'' National Stadium. One-way fares on the fast, clean and safe subway were recently cut to 25 cents from all of 40 cents. (The Chinese yuan trades at about 7.5 to the dollar.) Subway stations are marked by an "M' on street signs and city maps, and stations are both sign-posted and announced in English and Chinese. Beijing authorities are laying on special buses to Olympics venues, but language barriers make taking the bus vexing for foreigners. Taxis are cheap and plentiful -- though, again, traffic-snarls during the Games are likely to slow surface transport. Average fares are $2 to $3 and virtually no place in town is more than a $5 cab ride away. Be aware that few Beijing cabbies speak more than a token sprinkling of English; foreign visitors should get their destinations written out in Chinese and carry a card from their hotel showing the hotel name, address and phone number in Chinese.
With barely seven months to go before cries of "Let the Games begin,'' finding a place to stay is a challenge, especially at high-end hotels. The five-star Shangri-la China World Hotel, like numerous other prime Beijing hotels, is a designated Olympics hotel; as such, 70% of the guest rooms are set aside for Olympics officials. According to the
Shangri-la Web site , the hotel is sold out during the Games, but China World's director of communications, Diane Fermin, said that some rooms remain available. A similar situation holds at other leading international hotels, such as Beijing's St. Regis, Kempinski and Hilton properties, as well as leading Chinese-owned hotels such as the Grand. Beijing officials recently told the English-language China Daily that daily room rates at five-stars during the Games will average $380. Given that hotel room inventory and rates change daily, travelers should monitor Web sites such as tripadvisor.com and Expedia.com for updates. Before, during and after the Olympics, Beijing has a bounty of things to do and places to go. First-time visitors should not miss the Great Wall (the closest spot is 30 miles outside town) or the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (both in the heart of town). Less famous but worth seeing are the beautifully modern, glassy, egg-shaped Grand National Theatre (just west of Tiananmen Square), the vintage, back-alley hutong houses (west and south of the Forbidden City) and handsome Bei Hai Lake (northwest of the Forbidden City), with its bustling waterside restaurants and bars.
Cool spots to eat and drink change constantly in Beijing, as in other world cities living on fast-forward. As a five-time visitor to Beijing, my short list includes Centro, in the Kerry Centre Hotel, for cocktails and Cubans (cigars, that is), and hipsters hunched over their laptops; the Paulaner Brauhaus, in the Lufthansa Centre, for good, house-made beer, hearty meats and waitstaff in lederhosen; and the Courtyard, a stylish Asian fusion restaurant in a refurbished stone house that sits atop a trendy art gallery and beside the moat guarding the Forbidden City. The Courtyard's two-seat window table facing the Forbidden City has got to be the most romantic restaurant table in Beijing. For all things China -- including information about required tourist visas -- contact the
China National Tourist Office online or by toll-free telephone at the New York office at 1-888-760-8218 or the Los Angeles office at 1-818-545-7507.