Despite the frequent haze and language barrier, Andersen remains upbeat about a city whose numerous imperial sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, can require a marathon trek. China's expanding global role motivated their self-organized tour, he says. "Knowing its culture and what's going on here is very important for Americans."
Is Beijing ready to greet the world in English?
"I don't think so," says Li Yang, a key language consultant to the Games, who inspires mass rallies of volunteers to parrot Olympic slogans. "The government loves to boast of big numbers of English speakers (more Chinese are learning English than speak the language worldwide), but the reality is that many foreigners complain 'so many people don't speak English.' "
Still, correct English is making inroads on restaurant menus as authorities crack down on "Chinglish" translations (no more "fried crap") and misspellings that make tourists smile. "We are standardizing the English menus of 10,000 restaurants in central Beijing," says Yu Debin, deputy head of the Beijing Travel Administration. "It is a huge effort that costs a lot of money, but we must correct the mistakes to make the city ready for the world."
Even one year out, you can find Olympic volunteers already on the streets. At an information and recruiting stand near Sanlitun Bar Street, a popular nightlife area, Zhang Hailing promises Beijing is ready. "It is the duty of all Chinese to look after guests from afar," says Zhang, an Amway saleswoman. "I have never been abroad, but I am so happy the world will come here next year. We are all one family."
Her enthusiasm echoes Beijing's Olympic slogan: "One World, One Dream." In some parts of Beijing, however, you could add "one homogenized, globalized nightmare."
"Going to the hotel, we see Subway, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Sizzler, McDonald's," star U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps said on a visit in April. "It's like a big American city. They have everything we have in the States."
Beijingers soon can gawk at Hooters, too, beside the soccer venue.
Peer beyond the Westernized façade, and Beijing will reward with insights into China's past that may help explain the present.
At the fast-rising Olympic Green, 5 miles north of Tiananmen Square along the city's sacred axis, all eyes migrate to the "Bird's Nest," or National Stadium, a spectacle in twisted steel.
Beside it, the sci-fi "Water Cube," or National Aquatics Center, appears sheathed in massive bubbles because of its high-tech membrane. But by year's end, when all historic sites currently under renovation will be ready, a Ming Dynasty fertility temple will be visible in the Water Cube's shadow.
The Temple to Our Lady (Northern Summit) offers a 400-year-old hint at China's more distant past and the rich religious life of China's capital before the Communist Party took charge. "People came here to pray for sons or to recover from illness," says Ren You from the district cultural office, which has spent $1 million restoring the Taoist temple, used as a school since the 1949 revolution.
The temple will reopen next year as a museum for some of the 1,500 artifacts archaeologists unearthed from 700 ancient tombs found during construction of Olympic venues. They range from the jade belts of imperial eunuchs to snuff bottles, bronze mirrors and 2,000-year-old terracotta pots.