E-mail from Beijing

Springtime in the Capital City

You wouldn’t believe this place. Despite the fact that it is 70 degrees and sunny, it’s snowing. For a few weeks each spring, Beijing is blanketed in poplar tree pollen. The city’s dreamlike quality only intensifies in spots such as the Summer Palace. I enter the enormous lakeside public park via a newly opened canal system (formerly this waterway was reserved solely for royalty and then state officials) on a boat called the River Dragon. The grounds are swarming with schoolchildren in identical sweat suits. These days most Chinese schools require that all kids learn English, and they’re told to approach and exhibit their talents to foreigners. This results in folks like myself being attacked by flocks of smil- ing, "hello!"-shouting kids—totally adorable and disarming.

In the Dashanzi art district you can really see the future of Chinese culture. Much like New York’s SoHo a few decades ago, it’s a worn-out industrial part of town, but here some factories still operate. The entire neighborhood looks like the Pompidou Center: Vents, pipes, and metal latticework run through streets lined with slick galleries. Turning a corner I find artists hammering sculptures and blue-collar types welding pipes within the same courtyard. It’s like this throughout the city, a bizarre collision of contrasts—old and new, West and East. Huge gleaming office buildings sprout up alongside decaying Communist-style apartment complexes. When I venture to a medical acupuncturist, his modern office is filled with patients holding cigarettes. The newest restaurants (most noteworthy is Blu Lobster, with its $36,000 lobster press and ethereal food combinations) are Western in style and in stark contrast to those omnipresent traditional Peking duck houses. It is an amazing feat: Beijing manages to be familiar and indescribably foreign all at once.