Reuters

How I'm figuring my way around Beijing

BEIJING -- I never imagined that not long after I moved to Beijing, I would be crawling around on a floor trying to find my apartment building under the glass of a giant map.

But in a city beset by some of the worst pollution in the world, fog, crazy-bad traffic and 22 million people, the map on the third floor of the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall is a pretty good way to get a sense of where you are.

Don’t count on the bird’s eye view from a high floor of one of the hotels. For instance, the China World Summit Hotel, on the 82nd floor in the Central Business District, attracts a fair number of people hoping to get a panoramic vista. The problem is that most days, you’re looking at smog.

The Planning Exhibition Hall is a museum as ambitious as China itself, with four floors detailing Beijing’s history from ancient times combined with a rather smarmy utopian vision for the future.

Try not to focus too long on the soaring music and the sense that a futuristic Beijing looks like Shangri-la mixed with Disney World’s Main Street. One 3D film on the city predicted that one day, "from anywhere in the city you can find a green space within 500 meters to reconnect with nature." Judging from the sight of "the big gray" today, that’s an optimistic vision.

The better perspective here makes a visitor feel like Gulliver on Lilliput: a layout encompassing 1,000 square meters of a miniaturized model city surrounded by three-foot-high glass walls. There's also a glass-covered map that visitors can stroll – or crawl – over. It’s a map to scale of a city that is 750 times bigger, with precise architectural details and the lakes of the Beihai chain blinking with tiny blue bulbs.

A group of women from the International Newcomers Network spent a recent morning exploring the near-empty museum. One of the longer-term members of the group, who has been in Beijing for a year and a half, pointed out the tiny green trees representing Olympic Forest Park just north of the famed Bird’s Nest. The park is a great place for jogging or for getting some respite from a crowded city, she said.

Apparently, the forest was created in 2003 to show Olympic organizers how trees would absorb carbon emissions and help offset the increased pollution caused by an influx of tourists for the 2008 Olympics. Using dirt excavated from the area used to create the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, the park has rolling hills, paved walkways, lakes and something like 530,000 trees.

What’s not spelled out anywhere in the museum, though, is that 1.5 million Beijingers were forced to move further away from Beijing to make room for the Olympics, including those who lived where the green space is today.

Even with these costs, it’s hard not to feel a little charmed by the planners’ vision for a "harmonious" city where cars move smoothly, trees line actual sidewalks (try finding an actual sidewalk in some parts of the city), and low-flow Western flush toilets grace every apartment and hutong home. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress couldn’t have done it better.

Photo credit: Bobby Yip/Reuters

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