I was reluctant to go the way of Marco Polo.  I had seen Seven Years in Tibet and Red Corner and thought I knew all about the People’s Republic—gray expanses of soulless concrete, hordes decked in Cultural Revolution military uniforms owning nothing but their aluminum bicycles and copies of Mao’s Little Red Book.  I had trouble stirring up the enthusiasm to see a place so bled dry of real identity or character.  I was quickly put in my place.

The air above Beijing is alive with construction cranes and dragonflies.  Their long skeletal green bodies rise into the distant smog above as if to scan the full perimeter of a city in transition.

            The summer atmosphere of Beijing pulses in your ears, a live and tangible thing of dense odor and heat that hints at heavy industry, desertification and raw humanity.  On the second day of the trip, three chatty, middle-aged New York City women from my tour group grow dizzy in the outer courtyards of the Forbidden City and crumple to the cracked stone tiles.

            The courtyard is filled with hundreds, a teeming mass of humanity jam-packing a massive edifice of imperial authority that ceased to exist in 1912.  Yet somehow, amidst all the bright soccer jerseys, chirping cell-phones and bored-looking olive drab security guards, the history and the culture punch of the place, the country, punch through my senses as vivid as if it were 1400.    

            My glum predictions of grim urban fascist architecture like something out of a J.G. Ballard novel are dashed when a greasy motorized tricycle taxi carved the thick air inches from my face on the street corner and hurtles down the avenue toward the tourist ghetto that surrounded the New Otani Hotel.  Leaning out past the plastic passenger compartment, the driver, a lithe, bald fellow naked from the waist up, scowls at me and yells something.

            Later, head swimming with two of the oversized Yanjing lagers given like water at any decent eatery, I stand under the colored light of clustered neon signs and watch the cacophonous and close-packed life that bustles around a Beijing tourist ghetto at midnight.  I watch people, stripped to undershirts, soccer shorts and sandals dine with plastic utensils in the middle of the sidewalk adjacent to massive black grills crowded with kebabs and skewers of every color.  That is my first night in the People’s Republic.

            The next morning, we eat a heavy hotel breakfast and set off for Beijing’s most famous landmark, The Forbidden City.  By then, my naive fears of a cultureless wasteland have been blown away in the gust thrown up by a vulgar tricycle driver.

            To get to the Forbidden City, you have to cross Tianamen Square.

            The vast concrete expanse serves as a minimalist counterpoint to the cloistered opulence of the sprawling palace that serviced the two last dynasties.  However austere, it’s now packed to capacity with street vendors, tourists, passing locals and plainclothes policemen. 

On the approach in our towering, air-conditioned charter bus, I see a line of hundreds stretching across the perimeter of the square, waiting idly in the smoggy morning heat.  Our tour guide, a jovial Ritz Tours veteran named Gary, follows our gazes out the tinted windows and switches on the bus microphone.

“Now all those people there, they’re in line to see Mao’s tomb.  Glass case, you know?” he says.

One of the tourists at the front, a big graying Spaniard, raises his hand.  “Why do so many want to see Mao?”

Gary’s response was a shrug.  “The Chinese are a very superstitious people, you know?”

            The tour guides are surprisingly at liberty to speak they way they want to about subjects of their choosing.  Gary openly talks about the 1989 demonstrations in the square, the problems with Mao Zedong (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution) and scores of other issues related to the middling human rights record of the People’s Republic.  He humbles me after lunch near the Forbidden City when I ask him why the Chinese don’t fight harder for social freedom that’s on par with the economic liberalization.

            Without a trace of sarcasm, he smiled as the wait staff shuffled forth to begin clearing off the remains of the tour’s afternoon banquet.  “Rights are good, voting too.  First, maybe we need to get something in our stomachs first, then priorities change, you know?”

            On a free day, I wander the streets far past the New Otani Hotel, eager to sidle past the rigid on-rails sensation of the tour bus and the tiny red nylon “Ritz Tours” flag Gary waves like a battle standard, rallying his weary First-World troops.

            It’s no moribund classical Communist edifice, model neighborhoods existing in a vacuum free of reality.  The streets, the symmetrical arteries of Beijing, are alive with commerce flowing like blood cells drunk on oxygen.  Almost everyone wants to sell you something.  From the sleek futurist consumer mall replete with brand names down the street to the shanty store on the corner selling iced bottled water and hand-packed dried fruit snacks.

            Outside what looks to be a KFC-spin off, I take a picture of a uniformed staff standing in rigid parade formation on the sidewalk.  In the shade of the ash trees they receive a stern briefing from their shift manager, rank signified by the overturned plastic Coca-Cola palette she stands on.

            I realize that Beijing fulfills that old Asiatic stereotype of “the historical coexisting with the contemporary” while simultaneously bucking it.  China has always been known for its resilient culture and sprawling history.  There were many points in history at which it was the most advanced civilization on Earth.

            Watching old grandpas playing Xiangqi in the park next to a KFC, or hundred-year-old hutong communal houses leaning half-cannibalized against the towering apartment complexes meant to replace them, it’s hard to tell who’s eating whom anymore.

            But there’s little time to wonder, it’s 6:45 pm and time for the tour’s Peking duck feast.