Happy cultural revolution

By Daralyn Danns, April 4, 2008

This summer’s Olympics offer a perfect excuse to see Beijing and Shanghai

The Chinese may be worried about the protests currently surrounding the Olympics, but they have produced a no expense-spared, futuristic-looking Beijing that, on August 8, will stun the world.

From the moment you arrive at Beijing airport’s new state-of-the-art terminal, designed by Sir Norman Foster — the world’s largest airport building, and one which works efficiently — you cannot help but be impressed.

Forget any preconceived ideas you have about China. Impoverished? You will be surprised at the number of trendy shopping malls springing up; Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores are becoming as commonplace as Starbucks.

Bicycles are a convenient way to dodge the traffic. But more than 1,000 new cars are taking to the roads every day and the traffic in Beijing makes driving in New York seem like a picnic. The good news is that traffic will be limited during the games.

As for the pollution, Beijing has pulled out all the stops to improve its air quality. Millions of trees have been planted and gas is starting to replace coal.

The dull, grey, buildings that once epitomised China are being replaced by skyscrapers, which are works of art in themselves. The old hutongs (lanes), once the home of the nobility, taken over by the people in 1949 and turned into overcrowded slums, are being converted into high-rises or luxury homes.

The Chinese have produced some of the most innovative Olympic venues to date. The 91,000-seater Olympic Park, nicknamed the Bird’s Nest because of the way that the exterior lattice structure is entwined, is Beijing’s showcase.

The National Aquatics Centre, dubbed the watercube —– its translucent outer covering looks like bubble-wrap — is spectacular. It has 6,000 permanent and 11,000 temporary seats and is also the greenest of the venues.

I stayed at The Grand Hyatt, reputed to be the best hotel in the city. Connected to the Oriental Plaza shopping mall, it is the essence of modern China: a fusion of Western and Eastern traditions. Whether or not you stay, dine at Made in China; the place to go in Beijing.

Also check out its Club Oasis. The pool’s virtual sky changes colour during the day and at night turns into a star-studded canopy. Very Las Vegas-like, but great for escaping the bustle.

It is safe walking around the streets of Beijing, but not everybody speaks English so have your hotel name and destination written for you in Chinese, even when taking a taxi, a cheap and convenient way to get around the city. I

f you travel so far for the Games, you will want to do the main sites.

Standing in Tiananmen Square, I began to get a sense of what China and its people are about. It was here in 1949 that Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China. A giant portrait of him still hangs over the gate of the Forbidden City. He died in 1976, but continues to draw the crowds. There are always long queues outside the mausoleum to file past his embalmed remains. I wonder what Mao would make of the National Centre for Performing Arts, nearby. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, it looks like it has been lifted straight off a set of a sci-fi film. Across the road is the old Imperial Palace, more commonly known as the Forbidden City, because only the emperors and their servants were allowed to live there.

The Great Wall is more awe-inspiring in reality than in pictures. Believed to have been started by the first emperor of the Quin dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, it comprises several connecting walls constructed by different dynasties. Avoid touristy Badaling and go to Mutianyu. Mao said you are not a hero until you have climbed the Great Wall. When you see how steep the steps are, you will see how right he was. But the climb is rewarding as the views are spectacular. And there is a cable-car.

Next stop was Shanghai, where skyscrapers fill the skyline. Once a fishing village, it is arguably now the world’s most exhilarating city, constantly reinventing itself. Buildings go up and come down in the blink of an eye as the city prepares to host Olympic football and gets ready for Expo 2010.

I stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Pudong, which 10 years ago was farm-land. For the most breathtaking views of the city and the Huangpu River, the Grand Hyatt, currently the tallest hotel in the world, is hard to beat. It recently hosted its first Jewish wedding catering for 400. Cloud 9, on the 87th floor, is one of the coolest bars in the city.

If you think consumerism has hijacked Beijing, wait until you see Shanghai. Even the poor areas are crammed with shops, shopping having become the People’s favourite pastime.

For cheap clothes and souvenirs go to the underground market at the Science and Technology Museum in Pudong. It is hit and miss but fun. Never pay more than 30 per cent of the asking price.

Across the river is Puxi, the old Western quarter. To get another perspective, I moved to its new “cutting-edge” Hyatt on the Bund, which provides the perfect respite from the frenetic pace.

The hotel is north of the Bund, about a 10-minute walk from the Bund itself and an 11 Yuan (less than £1) taxi-ride to People’s Square, Shanghai’s heart. The Bund’s art deco buildings are now jammed with designer boutiques and hip restaurants.

The city can be daunting, so I was thrilled when my Shanghai-based friends, Michelle and Karen, invited me to hit the shops with them. My credit card needed some exercise so I could rebuild my Airmiles. (For every £10 I spend using my Lloyds TSB American Express Card, I get a mile. The Airmiles can be redeemed for free flights with BA, hotel rooms and other benefits.)

We went to boutiques on Taikang Road, to Plaza 66, Shanghai’s most exclusive mall, on West Nanjing Road and on to other malls on Huaihai Road, before collapsing over an espresso near Shanghai Times Square. After that, a Chinese meridian massage at the hotel’s luxurious Yuan Spa was the perfect way to recuperate.

Next day, I saw Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now a museum to commemorate the 25,000 Jews who escaped Nazi persecution here — the only place in the world to accept Jews without a visa.

Games or no Games, there has never been such an exciting time to see China.

Last updated: 2:29pm, September 10 2008