Glimpse of brave new metropolis
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AS 5 pm nears, vendors roll stoves made from oil drums up to Beijing's busiest intersections and begin their hoarse, slurred cries: ''Piping hot meat buns!'' ''Have some dumpling soup!'' ''Hurry, get your noodles!'' The warm fragrances grab homeward commuters by the nose as they stream past on bicycles. Some stop abruptly, prompting a trill of bicycle-bell ringing from annoyed riders braking hard behind them.
Pairs of cyclists shout back and forth over the loud drone of traffic and of jackhammers at the subway construction site across the street.
On the sidewalk, pedestrians have to weave among small squares of cloth covered with wares: hair clips, small porcelain statues, cigarette lighters, imitation ancient coins. Most of the sellers have day jobs, but rush out early to set up shop in time forrush hour.
Pre-teen girls from outside Beijing - part of China's new army of itinerate hawkers - wander up and down, thrusting roses at passers-by.
Walk further, and two sets of tables and chairs are smack in the road, forcing bikers and drivers to veer into the oncoming lane. A few early diners slurp noodles in soup, oblivious to any danger, as the car horns and bicycle bells and hawker cries and conversations blend with the sounds of televisions and cassette tapes being played inside open-door restaurants.
Beijing's clamour and congestion are the symptoms of life and commerce flooding back to this capital city of 11 million people after decades of socialist good order.
There never used to be traffic jams, but then, it was almost impossible to find a taxi. There were not tables in the street - there were hardly any restaurants.
Now every block seems to have two or three restaurants, offering hand-thrown noodles from Gansu province in the west, chicken with red peppers as made in Sichuan, mutton hot-pot favoured by China's Muslim minority, Cantonese-style fish in sweet sauce or the fatty sausages and cabbage casseroles of the cold northeast.
Beijing's revival began slowly through the 1980s and turned into an explosion two years ago. Now, entire blocks of one-storey traditional housing are being razed to make way for office and shopping towers that are giving the city a new, high-rise skyline. Old storefronts are getting chrome facelifts and hanging out strings of tiny coloured lights.
But Beijing has yet to figure out how to manage development so the city stays liveable.
A small group of residents rioted last summer, tearing down the merchant stalls that jammed their narrow street to the point they could hardly get in and out of their homes. Others have staged protests at having their homes demolished before new housing is available.
Zoning laws are violated flagrantly, especially the ban on new buildings taller than two storeys along the Avenue of Eternal Peace that runs through the heart of the city.
Deadly competition is waged between cars and bicyclists, who are accustomed to ignoring traffic lights and darting at will across roads and intersections.
The bicycles still hold the edge in numbers - seven million compared with just 610,000 cars - but cars are fast gaining. They creep through the city's main streets, sometimes bumper-to-bumper for a kilometre, running red lights and snaking around jaywalkers and pedicarts that get stranded between lanes of traffic.
The traffic police, few of whom have ever driven cars, have created multiple-choice speed limits to regulate the unhappy mix of two-, three-and four-wheeled traffic.
Historians and travellers wax poetic about Beijing's charms under the emperors: massive city walls, carved wooden arches over roadways in honour of generals and chaste widows, temples alive with gongs and chants, high walls with bright red doors guarded by stone lions, concealing gardens of magnolias and weeping willows.
Yet, turn down a narrow lane and the brave new metropolis fades away.
An old man sits on a low stool in his doorway and hails passing neighbours. A woman in blue jeans and bedroom slippers and her little girl step from a doorway with tin bowls in hand, slip into a corner restaurant, then re-emerge carrying bowls of steaming noodle soup.
A knife-sharpener wheels his bicycle loaded with tools down the lane, sounding clappers to advertise his services.
POPULATION: 10.8 million legally approved residents, one million unregistered residents.
Size: 16,800 square kilometres, of which only 370 sq km are urban. The rest consists of farming villages administered by the Beijing government. The population density in the urban area is 26,607 people per sq km.
Housing: An average of 7 sq m per person. Many homes lack toilets; almost none have running hot water.
History: Primitive ''Peking Man'' lived and hunted in the Beijing area about 700,000 years ago. It was the capital for the tiny state of Yan in the 5th century BC, and became the nation's capital in the 13th century, when China's Mongol conquerers built amagnificent new city there.
Income: For urban residents, the average per capita income is 2,363 yuan (about HK$2,100), 30 per cent higher than the national average. For peasants, the average per capita income is 1,569 yuan, double the national average.
Growth: Beijing had little industry before 1949, when the new Communist government took power. It quickly set up a steel mill, coal processing plants, an automobile factory and other heavy industry to transform what the Communists disapprovingly termed a ''consumer city'' into one of the nation's top five manufacturing and trading cities.
To keep that ranking, the city government last year invested 5.8 billion yuan in highway and other infrastructure improvements. Pollution: Among the world's top 10 in terms of particle pollution.