Planet Earth 2007: China's Changing Landscape

The 13-hour flight from New York to Beijing is too short.

I arrived last Sunday evening, safe from the storm bearing down on the East Coast but still unprepared for China. The feeling is a familiar one, especially on overnight flights: Go to sleep over the ocean, awake in a different land. I have had this sensation on every trip to India, to Pakistan and South Africa, and certainly on this, my first trip to China.

I am in China for ABC's Earth Day special. "Nightline" producer Howard Rosenberg will join me from Washington, a veteran journalist who has been most everywhere and seen most everything except mainland China. So we're in it together. Fortunately for me, Rosenberg comes electronically equipped with two computers, and he knows how to use many cell phones. I'm not entirely sure he doesn't have a flyaway satellite dish tucked away in his luggage.

In the arrivals hall, I was greeted by a young Chinese woman bearing a sign for "Mr. Cynthia McFadden." Close enough. I followed her through the pristine airport, down to passport control.

The first form to be handed in was a health form required, I am told, since the outbreak of avian flu a year or so ago. It asks if you've had any contact with chickens, and whether you or anyone you know has avian flu. It also asks if you have HIV or AIDS, headaches or a variety of other ailments, including "psychosis." Pause.

The bored young woman who collected my form didn't look down to see if I was a health risk. The form did say I could go to jail if I lied.

I quickly passed through the passport line for foreigners … run very efficiently. No wait at all. No questions asked.

Behind the immigration officials, there's a hand-painted mural of the Great Wall. And -- surprise -- the first storefronts I see are Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken concessions in the airport.

Rosenberg and our team will meet up here in Beijing, where ABC has a first- rate bureau. We fly to Guilin, 1,000 miles to the south, Thursday, where we will broadcast live from the Li River as part of the special. It is the first time China has ever permitted a live broadcast out of the country from this location.

China Changing

Before heading to Guilin, though, we have work to do. Our report for the Friday night special is on China's environmental problems and the efforts to address them. Later on "Nightline," we will expand on the same general theme.

Our mission is to document the change in China's land. One fourth of the country is now desert, due to massive deforestation over hundreds of years. Scientists say the deserts are growing at a rate of 1,900 square miles a year. Beijing itself has suffered the dire effects of sand storms -- Tianmo desert lies just 100 miles or so north of the city.

Happily, to get to the desert you have to pass by the Badalong section of the Great Wall. So we get to be tourists. This is the section of the Wall where President Nixon famously said, "It is a great wall, indeed." At the time, it struck me as a rather lame remark, but climbing this section of the wall, I found the scope so huge, the accomplishment of constructing it so mind-boggling that it seemed a pretty good summary -- it is a great wall.

There is everything you could ever want in a T-shirt or a Chinese hat in the myriad little shops leading to the entry gate. Prices are negotiable. And cheap -- T-shirts are $7, unless you pay the first price asked.

The food is fresh and interesting -- and it's cheap, too. We ate lunch in a hideaway dining room at the Badaling Hotel. Beef with pepper is my favorite, but there is also a fine chicken and peanuts. The pork dumplings go fast. Cost? $5 per person -- the custom of the country is no tipping. In fact, there isn't even a spot for it on the credit card receipt.

The Desert and the Sky

After lunch we bounced along in our hired van, complete with pristine cotton seat covers, past villages where all the houses are brick, as is the custom in the north. Finally, the desert. You'll have to tune in Friday night to get the full effect, but suffice it to say while it looked a bit like a Hollywood set (complete with a tired-looking camel with two humps) it is a real desert complete with mountains in the distance.

It was a beautiful day Monday, a bright blue sky hung over the mountains. That is until about 30 miles outside of Beijing when you can begin to see the heavy gray sky.

The Chinese are acutely aware of the air problem in Beijing. And before the Beijing Olympics, in August 2008, they have publicly committed to improving the air quality here. Some progress has been made, but there is clearly more to do.

It is getting late by the time we get to Beijing, but we ask to see the Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium, an amazing engineering feat. Massive building is still going on for the Olympics, but the buildings are wrapped while they're being built, so the construction dust remains inside.

Finally, we head to Tiananmen, arriving just in time for the lowering of the Chinese flag at sunset. The square is enormous; the buildings surrounding it, particularly the middle gate, ornate, delicate and magnificent. We are shown where the tanks rolled down the boulevard to the square all those years ago, Mao's portrait and the new opera house. We have seen so little and yet so much.

This is China.