BEIJING, Oct. 19— When I'm riding around Beijing, I try to keep an eye out for the mountains. They are picturesque mountains, weathered into ridges and folds, rising abruptly in the rural west and north of the flat metropolitan center. For centuries, they were a retreat for nobles, the final resting place of emperors, the backbone of the Great Wall.
In the modern capital, you can go days or weeks without seeing them. Beijing's chronic haze and smog, held in place by those mountains, defeat long-distance gazing. From the windows of my Chinese language school, five floors up in a hotel-complex sky bridge, I've worked out an alternative set of landmarks. If the air is only moderately dirty, for instance, I can make out the shape of the world's second-largest Ikea on the Fourth Ring Road; when it's less dirty still, I can tell that the Ikea building is blue, and I can see the towers of the Wangjing neighborhood beyond it. (On the bad days? The buildings across the street fade out, and pollution hangs in the school's hallway, like cigarette smoke.) But today is a fine autumn day, with crisp sunlight and a clean wind blowing from the north. As my taxi heads west on the Second Ring Road, I check the horizon. There they are, all the way across town, faint but distinct: mountains. I make a note of it.
As I work on a book about Beijing's preparations to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, I find myself making lots of notes about the air ("Oct. 15: Burning smell"). Every Olympics is hailed as a transforming event for the host city, but Beijing's ambitions for 2008 go far beyond building new arenas, improving transit capacity, and expanding the tourism budget. Instead, the plan is to wholly remake the capital as an embodiment of China's new economic power and 21st-century global prominence—less Atlanta 1996 than Berlin 1936 (among the contributors to the new city plan: Albert Speer Jr.). There will be a gigantic airport terminal by Norman Foster; a futuristic high-rise business district, featuring Rem Koolhaas' looping CCTV Tower; a whole new tier of ultraluxury hotels.
This means that a drab, grimy, exasperating megalopolis must scramble to become a welcoming international showpiece. Construction, demolition, and more construction are going on 'round the clock, throughout the city. Caravans of trucks move through the streets at night, carrying full-grown trees for planting in newly cleared parks. Tens of thousands of rickety taxis have given way to shiny Volkswagens and Hyundais. And, yes, in the midst of the rest of it, colossal and architecturally fanciful Olympic venues have sprouted up at a startling pace.
With less than 10 months to go, plenty of the city's objectives still sound improbable: finishing four more subway lines, teaching English to clerks and cab drivers, curbing the citizens' ubiquitous spitting. The goal of fixing Beijing's air quality may be inspiring the most skepticism. There are plans to restrict construction and industry during the games, and to take more than 1 million of the city's 3 million cars off the road. Even so, some athletes are reportedly planning to wear breathing masks on arrival, and the International Olympic Committee has openly discussed rescheduling events if pollution gets too heavy.
I'm headed today for the Olympic tennis center. As each sports facility gets finished (or mostly finished), it hosts a test event of variable wattage: the women's soccer World Cup, the world junior wrestling championships, a fourth-tier pro beach volleyball tournament—in this case, a low-ranking ITF tournament. The cab turns north, toward the main Olympic grounds. Instead of more mountains, I see a brownish blur in the distance, getting thicker as we draw near. By the time we hit the edge of the Olympic site, we're driving in a dust storm. Beijing's soil is naturally fine, dry, and silty, and the construction zone is wide open to the north wind. Tan clouds are boiling up all around, indifferent to the dust-suppression netting. Sheets of dust seethe past the monumental steel thatching of the National Stadium and the celebrated polymer-bubble walls of the Aquatics Center.
The cab goes into the wind, skirting the vast Olympic site. Tennis is somewhere toward the north end, just below the newly created Olympic Forest. The worst of the dust is behind us.
We pass the field-hockey and archery venues. Tennis looks like it's just past them, but the road signs tell us to keep going. I got a late start this morning, and I'm hoping not to waste more time. We drive along the edge of the forest, with its rows of braced and staked trees, through a stretch of brand-new, unmarked roadway, weaving around jutting manhole covers.
We follow the arrows farther around the perimeter and then the signs point us south again, to a gateway. I see an expanse of asphalt, a white canopy, metal detectors, and the tennis stadium beyond: a clean-lined thing of concrete facets, flaring from bottom to top, something between an inverted pyramid and a Spielberg UFO touching down. Officially, it may be a stylized flower. I get out, ticket in hand.
An attendant stops me before I get to the metal detectors. This is the staff entrance, he explains. The spectator entrance is on the other side—back to the west, across the wind-whipped expanse of the complex. Or not across the wind-whipped complex. A trio of guards blocks the path leading westward. I should go back and walk around the outside, on the road, they indicate. That's really inconvenient, I say. This is an expression that comes up pretty early in Chinese class. Too inconvenient, I add. Extraordinarily inconvenient!
Extraordinarily inconvenient, a guard agrees. Nevertheless. I look at the road I'm supposed to be walking. Not only does it lead south, away from the tennis center, but it curves off to the east. I grab a taxi, one of two that seem to be waiting for nothing in particular, and set off for the opposite gate.
The spectator entrance is only slightly less desolate than the staff one. This is the next-to-last day of the tournament—the men's doubles final and the men's singles semis. I'm nearly alone on a broad walkway, passing pair after pair of empty side courts on the long approach to the flower-UFO.
Gate 10 is locked, as are gates 9, 11, and the rest. Only Gate 2 is open—or would be, if a game weren't in progress. I stand with three other would-be spectators on the terrace to wait for a changeover. The wind wails. There's no visible dust up here, but the lens cap on my camera makes a grinding noise when I take it on and off.
Finally, the gate opens. The doubles final is already in the second set, with Lu Xinyuan and Zeng Shaoxuan of China leading Lin Tzu-Yang and Yu Chu-Huan of Taiwan, 7-6, 3-2. I look down at the courtside section—my seat is fourth row, the best I could get. All the seats there are empty. There are fewer than 100 people in the whole stadium; some sections of the stadium don't yet have seats installed.
It's not much of a problem, as loose ends go. But when you start counting them up, the loose ends all over Beijing add up. The tennis facility is not the first venue I've seen that's been finished in the same sense that you've finished cleaning your room when you stuff everything under the bed. In August, I watched pre-Olympic baseball on a field where the grandstands only extended from on-deck circle to on-deck circle. Up the lines and around the outfield, where the rest of the stadium would go, was still a gravel bed. (The game was between France and the Czech Republic, so the seating capacity was adequate.)
Before I can work my way down to my assigned seat, Lu and Zeng have finished off the Taiwanese. The public address system tells the spectators that the event is over—in Mandarin, French, and English, just like at the Olympics.