Introduction to mysterious and present-day China
These days, it's quite jarring to walk around parts of old Beijing. Although old grannies can still be seen pushing cabbages in rickety wooden carts amidst huddles of men playing chess, it's not uncommon to see them all suddenly scurry to the side to make way for a brand-new BMW luxury sedan squeezing through the narrow hutong (a traditional Beijing alleyway). The same could be said of the longtang-style alleys of Sichuan or a bustling marketplace in Sichuan. Modern China is a land of paradox, and it's becoming increasingly so in this era of unprecedented socioeconomic change.
Relentless change -- seen so clearly in projects like the Yangtze River dam and the relocation of thousands of people -- has been an elemental part of China's modern character. Violent revolutions in the 20th century, burgeoning population growth (China is now the world's most populous country by far) and economic prosperity (brought about by a new openness to the outside world) have almost made that change inevitable. China's cities are being transformed -- Beijing and Shanghai are probably the most dynamic cities in the world right now. And the country's political position in the world is rising: The 2008 Olympics were awarded to Beijing, despite widespread concern about how the government treats its people.
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China has always been one of the most attractive travel destinations in the world, partly because so much history exists alongside the new, partly because it is still so unknown to outsiders. The country and its people remain a mystery. The rice paddies may have sprouted cities and manufacturing centers, and the streets may be clogged with cars and pollution, but the people remain rooted in a rich cultural heritage. They still burn joss sticks for good luck in an enterprise -- even as they iron out the details of that enterprise on a cell phone.