Beijing started the one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympics in the wee hours of yesterday by sending invitations to every corner of the world.
As a Beijinger, the changes taking place in my neighborhood, which is no more than a couple kilometers from the Olympic Stadium, mirrors the hard work the city has been doing to get itself ready. Signs directing visitors to hotels and Games sites have been erected at important exits of expressways and street intersections.
A six-lane thoroughfare is almost open right outside the residential compound where I live, reducing the years' long traffic congestion in the area. Trees and brushes are being planted to help reduce the effect of CO2 emissions.
More importantly, underneath the same street, the No 5 subway is on trial runs. The subway will naturally encourage us to leave a smaller eco-footprint when we visit the Olympic Village to the north and Tian'anmen Square and Wangfujing Street in the heart of Beijing.
Meanwhile, a new Olympics culture square opened on Sunday near my home, where local residents gather to do exercises and sing and dance to their hearts' content.
The city is becoming greener and culturally more vibrant with all the hardware, but good services that make visitors and athletes' lives easier cannot be overlooked.
But I still have doubts that the service trade and people in the services will be ready.
Take banks for instance. I simply don't know if hundreds of thousands of visitors will have the patience to visit banks. Most branches are thronged with customers who on average have to spend 45 minutes to more than an hour there.
Branch day managers don't seem to help unless they're asked. Customers sometimes wait until they meet with the tellers to find out that they don't have necessary documents ready or that they cannot accomplish their deals because it is the weekend.
Banks aside, the more than 60,000 taxi drivers are the Beijingers visitors and athletes first meet when they arrive in the city. We Beijingers may also rely on them as the city will encourage voluntary driving restraints during the Games.
However, taxi services may pose more challenges, even though the municipal government requires all taxi drivers learn English and familiarize themselves with city streets and roads.
I live near the Olympic village and I always have a sense of guilt whenever I get off the airplane and take a taxi home. More often than not taxi drivers will grumble about the distance, often making clients pay them extra.
When we travel around the city in taxis, often we encounter taxi drivers who frankly tell us they don't know where to go. On Sunday, a friend of mine and several foreigners were forced to wait for the second or third taxis to leave IKEA on the East Fourth Ring Road because the first taxi in line refused to serve them. My friend suspected the driver didn't want to take a short fare.
An Australian friend of mine told me that it is hard to get a taxi to go from Houhai - a popular hang-out area especially for foreigners - to places that fetch under 40 yuan ($5.3).
While efforts are concentrated on the construction of the hardware, it is really time we worked on improving the professionalism and attitudes of the services and the service people.
(China Daily 08/09/2007 page8)