BEIJING — We leave the capital on Highway 108 early in the morning, ahead of the sludge of commuter traffic, which grows by a thousand new cars a day. The blacktop beneath the green Jeep knocks us around; we're taking the back road west, ignoring the modern, smooth expressways.
More than 2,500 kilometers separate us from our destination: Chengdu, the dominant city in China's Wild, Wild West. A driver, interpreter and I are setting out to look at a sprawling, complex country through the prism of the 2008 Olympics. In front of us is a week of white-knuckle mountain roads, countless oxen, a Rolls-Royce, homes made of mud, skyscrapers made of steel, a dreary coal-town wedding, a forest of smokestacks, a quilt of rice paddies, hundreds of villages and cities filled with people, each with a story to tell about the hopes and dreams of the real China and what, if anything, the Summer Games can do to make those dreams come true.
Behind us lies Beijing. With just a year until the opening ceremony — and all the metaphors of rebirth that go along with it — the construction in the city is breathtaking. New roads keep up with all those new cars, enough that lifelong Beijingers often get lost, sometimes finding themselves at the end of an uncompleted freeway. Entire ancient neighborhoods are bulldozed by day. At night, sparks rain down the sides of buildings, welders working around the clock, replacing the old with the new. Everywhere you look, there are bundles of steel and towers of wood and stacks of bricks, stretching to the horizon like soldiers, raising the obvious question: Where does all of this stuff come from?
The nerve center for the Games is a marble-floored skyscraper not far from the two main Olympic stadiums, and not far from the start of Highway 108. The sunlight makes the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games headquarters glow, as though it's generating its own energy, which, in a way, it is. It's drawing a road map for places like Chengdu, and all the villages and boomtowns in between. It's saying: This is what the new China should look like.
"We are building a harmonious society," BOCOG spokesman Weide Sun says. "You have only seen half the story in Beijing. But when you travel to the western part of China, you're going to see there are many, many areas that have difficulty even finding clean water. There are still lots of challenges for China. The goal is to build a well-to-do society, and the Olympic Games will be a milestone event for that."
Those are the stakes, as defined by the government itself. The Olympics are clearly more than a sporting event, and next August will be a historic moment for China, symbolizing the strides of the past decade and pointing the way for a century to come. But will the Games help bridge this growing gap between the new and the old, using sports to give people common ground? Or will the growth represented by the Olympics split the country in two, haves on one side, have-nots on the other? The answers to these questions will determine the future of the world's fastest-growing economic superpower, and they lie in front of us, covered in soot, growing in emerald green fields. That's where China's Olympic spirit lives, beyond Beijing's sea of merchandise stands and the jungle of cranes.
It's out along Highway 108.
Road Diary, entry 1: FOLLOWING THE SIGNS Driving between Beijing and San Lou