The first thing we noticed was the people. Not just crowds but quick-moving throngs of people. Every hour is rush hour on Beijing streets as bicycles, taxis and pedestrians battle for precious space.

My 20-year-old brother, Mike, and I had gotten a great deal - $750 each for airfare from Detroit and a week's accommodations in Bei-jing.We read guidebooks and watched "The Last Emperor" to prepare for our trip. We called the State Department to get "the briefing."

"No glossy magazines with questionable photos. No drugs. No religious material. No political literature. No picture-taking of government buildings or military installations or police or soldiers or poor people."

Whew!

After a 15-hour flight from Detroit, we arrived in Beijing late afternoon and were whisked (actually, it took about two hours) to our hotel where we checked in and called it a day.

The Grand View Garden Hotel, while inconveniently located in the southwest corner of the city, was four-star by Chinese standards and more-than-adequate by mine. It was sparkling clean, comfortable, though the beds were a bit short for my 6-foot-2-inch brother, and we had a bathroom (with a real toilet) in our room.

We breakfasted buffet-style every morning in one of the hotel's two restaurants, which was part of the package deal. The hotel also boasted a bar, coffee shop, gift shop, currency exchange, workout room, swimming pool, on-staff masseuse, bowling alley and karaoke lounge.

There's no shortage of labor in Beijing, and there always appeared to be about four times as many staff members as necessary. One night at dinner, we observed an attendant whose only responsibility seemed to be transporting trays of food between the kitchen and the waitress, another who brought drinks, another who brought food, and one woman - who, like so many of Beijing's women, had an impossibly slim figure and flawless skin - hovered near our table and stared at us during the entire meal.

I don't think Mike minded.

The "staring squads," as the Lonely Planet guide dubbed them, were out in full force in modern Beijing. The country opened to tourism in 1978 and many visitors from the provinces have never seen a Westerner.Beijing's saving grace is several gorgeous, sprawling parks with lakes for boating, open fields for kite-flying and walking trails. They serve as havens from the concrete, traffic and exhaust fumes.

It's not impolite to stare in Chinese culture. And Mike and I found it both unsettling and flattering as we felt like movie stars everywhere we went.

The city was incredibly crowded, relatively clean but extremely polluted. Coal is still used for heating. Beijing's saving grace is several gorgeous, sprawling parks with lakes for boating, open fields for kite-flying and walking trails. They serve as havens from the concrete, traffic and exhaust fumes.

Taxis, food and admission fees at the sites were never more than a few dollars. We paid $3 admission at the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.

We walked across the concrete desolation of Tiananmen Square, we filed past Mao Tse-tung's crystal coffin, we rented a taxi for a day, paid an English-speaking driver about $90 - a good month's salary for him - and headed north about two hours to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, we stared in awe at the splendor of the Forbidden City, where the emperors lived. We avoided tour buses, anything roasted on a stick and the zoo, despite the pandas.

Few people speak anything but Chinese and if they do, the language of choice is definitely English, which everyone learns in middle school.

People were polite, friendly and helpful - if not a bit overly attentive. Chatting freely with the locals, although difficult, was possible though people seemed somewhat restrained in discussing politics, the economy or the law.

Lee, our taxi driver for our out-of-town trip, told us repeatedly about how much better off China was since it opened itself to the Western world, but he could not articulate specifics. Beijing is booming with new construction throughout the city. Western influence has taken hold quickly and with a vengeance. In addition to McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and a Hard Rock Cafe, we also saw a Chili's restaurant, Subway sandwich shop and Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor.

Senior citizens dressed in "Mao suits" mixed with trendy, young women in short skirts and chunky shoes, which seemed to illustrate the city's position poised at the edge of becoming cosmopolitan. Its residents are struggling to comfortably combine its past and future.