A year after the summer Olympic Games, folks living in Beijing still seem to be on their best behavior.
"We are better because of the Olympics," said an employee at Opposite House, a new hotel in the sprawling city. "We are cleaner, more sophisticated," she said.
I didn't see any spitting on the sidewalks, a habit that was called to the attention of the Chinese and diminished significantly while the world watched the Olympic Games in the summer of 2008.
The Beijing air was relatively clean, too. Pollutants, reduced for the Olympics last summer, are still at lower levels, partly because of new traffic rules that require drivers to leave their cars at home on certain days. Local news reports of scofflaws reminded me of the 1970s gasoline rationing in the United States. Car owners would try various schemes -- switching license plates and the like -- to avoid following rules about when cars could be driven.
"During the Olympics, everything was very expensive -- to eat, shop, sleep," said my guide, Mandy, a student at Beijing Union University. "I think many people will prefer to come to Beijing this year, when it's not so crowded and is less expensive."
What's not forbidden, except to Starbucks
Guide Mandy and I walked through the Forbidden City in the middle of Beijing. The tour sometimes is a disappointment to U.S. travelers. After all, the city hasn't been forbidden since the 1920s, and the opulence of the Ming Dynasty days -- in the Beijing palace from 1420 to 1644 -- is not that visible.
The tour requires imagination and a willingness to be pushed, shoved and scrunched at small viewing stations by fellow tourists attempting to see what's inside.
Mostly, the tour is a lesson about architecture and excesses, such as stories of the emperor needing 3-4 hours to dress for an important occasion -- though I've never heard of any important leader who had that much free time to get dressed.
Still, the walled city is the world's largest surviving palace complex (3,150 feet by 2,470 feet), with 980 buildings and 8,707 rooms.
Starbucks is forbidden. A Starbucks coffee store, which opened in 2000 in a prime location inside the Forbidden City, was closed, after local protests, in 2007.
Every day, thousands of travelers, most of them Chinese, gather in massive Tiananmen Square to enter the country's top tourist attraction.
A picture of Mao Zedong -- a painting, really, that gets repainted regularly -- graces the front of the first of three gates to the Forbidden City.
Guide Mandy recommended that travelers visit the square and palace on week days, because the weekends, she said, are packed. The place seemed packed to me on a week day, but an American packed is not the same as a Chinese packed.
Next: Light and darkness at the Opposite House