BEIJING Faced with my blank look of incomprehension, the taxi driver took a deep breath and tried again.
"Ha-pi-tu-mi-te-yu," he intoned.
Wow, I thought, six years out of Beijing and a long-haul flight from Europe have turned my once almost fluent Chinese to mush.
Then, it hit me. This was English. "'Happy to meet you?'" I asked.
He beamed proudly.
Give Beijingers this much: They sure want Olympic visitors to feel right at home.
In the seven years since the Olympic movement anointed Beijing as host of the 2008 Summer Games, China's capital has undergone a transformation so thoroughgoing that "makeover" doesn't begin to describe the change.
English-language and anti-spitting lessons for the masses. Entire neighborhoods ripped down and rebuilt. Cutting-edge Western architects let loose to create futuristic landmarks amid the forests of gleaming new towers. The ancient capital has taken on an edgy, neon-electric 21st-century frenetic feel.
You have to search harder, in back alleys that the wreckers' balls have yet to reach, for the quiet, intimate villagelike atmosphere that long set Beijing apart from more cosmopolitan Hong Kong and Shanghai. In smoothing the rough edges, some charm has been lost.
First-timers and those who've not been here for a while may, like me, find the new Beijing a bit of a jolt. Who knew that the world had so many construction cranes, or produced so much concrete, glass and steel?
The shock of witnessing such voracious change leaves an unsettling feeling about whether the rest of the world can compete with a waking power as hungry as China. The immense scale on display seems designed to impress; the new Terminal Three at Beijing International Airport, where many travelers will arrive, is the world's largest.
The modernization makes Beijing easier to visit. Cash machines on many blocks. Cool art galleries in old Soviet factories. Hangouts for backpackers, swanky hotels for the well-heeled. Late-night shopping. More clubs than even the most insomniac reveler could get through in a weekend. Clean taxis. New buses. More subway lines. While the bicycle once ruled the roads, cars do now, and traffic is often snarled. If you're brave, rent a bike. The city's largely flat; you have nothing to lose but your chain.
The food: Don't miss a meal. Restaurants are plentiful and generally clean, offering all varieties of Chinese cuisine and many foreign ones a turnaround from a generation ago when food was scarce and eateries few and dingy.
A nice touch: many now display color photos of their dishes. No more point-and-hope ordering from menus that often used to be only in Chinese, and far fewer comical English mistakes. A favorite from the old days: a hole-in-the-wall that served fried carp but got the "a" and the "r" in the wrong order. Like many old haunts, it is now gone, replaced by a new office building.
For sightseeing, new landmarks compete for time and attention with older marvels, like the sprawling and ancient Forbidden City still a must-see.
The Olympic architectural jewel is the 91,000-seat, $450 million National Stadium. It's a knockout to look at. Bravo Switzerland-based architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Beijingers call it the Bird's Nest because of the latticework of steel beams wrapped around the exterior. It will host the opening and closing ceremonies and track and field events.
Visitors without Olympic tickets will only be able to admire it from afar. Venues and the areas around them will be sealed off for the Aug. 8-24 Games.
The massive security Chinese officials are rolling out poses an Olympic-size question: Will it kill off the fun, feel like prison, seeing guys in uniform across the city? Could be. If you are not coming for the sport or for the Olympic experience, August may not be the most relaxed period to visit.
The upside is that if a police officer does ask you to move on, there's a fair chance he'll be polite and understandable.
A pre-Olympic "Good Manners Campaign" promoted courtesy and orderly queuing and frowned on swearing, spitting and littering in public. One of the Beijing government's slogans, according to state media, was: "Spitting kills even more than an atomic bomb." Paper spit bags have been passed out. In three weeks here in May and June, I didn't hear anyone noisily clearing their throat in public a once common sound.
Beijing authorities have also given English lessons to 400,000 people, state media say. Most taxi drivers, hotel employees and all Olympic volunteers have received etiquette and English training. More than 10,000 police officers received basic work-related "police English" and even some Japanese, Russian and Arabic training.
Among the phrases taught: "Welcome to Beijing, the host city of the 2008 Olympic Games. I recommend visiting the Great Wall; it is one of the seven wonders of the world."
Got that right. It was among seven new wonders of the world chosen in a global poll last year that elicited about 100 million votes via the Internet and text messages. The wall really a series of fortifications built over 1,500 years makes for an inspiring day out of the city. Take good shoes and water, so you can hike at least a little way from the crowds. Admire the way the wall hugs the hillsides as far as the eye can see. Take a bus or taxi there.
The Badaling section is easiest to reach, and therefore the most crowded. Sections at Mutianyu or Jinshanling are farther away but offer more spectacular mountain scenery. Both have cable cars, for those for whom hiking is difficult or who maybe ate too much crispy Beijing duck the night before.
The Forbidden City is worth taking time over, too. Meander through its courtyards, some huge, others small and cozy, like secret gardens. Chinese emperors once lived shut off from the outside world behind the vast palace's blood-red walls, amid eunuchs and concubines. A detail to look out for: the fierce Chinese dragons finely embossed on the copper window frames of some of the palace buildings.
Then leap from concubines to communism, by walking through the front gate of the palace to Tiananmen Square, where five-starred red Chinese flags make snapping sounds when there's a strong breeze.
Mao Zedong gazes across the square from his portrait hanging on Tiananmen gate, at the north end, toward his mausoleum where his body lies encased in a glass coffin.
Tiananmen is a must-see for Chinese visiting Beijing. That makes it a great place to people-watch. Tibetan monks, ruddy-cheeked peasants from some far-flung village, southerners with singsong accents throng the square.It's one place you may also attract stares. Foreigners are still novelties for out-of-towners from China's more remote regions. Not so for more worldly-wise Beijingers, who will likely be more than ha-pi-tu-mi-te-yu.
If you go ...
WEATHER: Beijing's summers are hot and humid, with average highs around 86 degrees and lows of 68 degrees. Rain is frequent and often heavy.
METRO: Five lines run throughout the city; Line 10 takes you to Olympic venues while the Beijing Airport (L1) runs from Airport Terminals 2 and 3 into the city to the Dongzhimen metro stop (Line 2).
TIANANMEN AND FORBIDDEN CITY TOURS: Exit Tiananmen East or West metro stops for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, open from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. during the summer; tickets are $8.70 per person and half price for children and students. Audio tours are available for $6.80 with a $14.50 deposit.
Tours can be found at www.chinatourdesign.com.
HIKING THE GREAT WALL: The best way to get to the Great Wall is with a tour group. The Badaling section is an hour drive outside of the city; tickets cost $6.80, open 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mutianyu is 1.5-hour drive outside of Beijing; tickets cost $5, open 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. A scenic and less crowded Great Wall experience is the four-hour-long Simatai to Jinshanling hike; a 2.5-hour drive outside of the city, it is open 5 a.m.-7 p.m. Tickets for Simatai cost $6.80, and $4.50 for Jinshanling. Tour information can be found at www.tour-beijing.com/great_wall.NATIONAL STADIUM: The National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, is a 30-minute taxi ride, if there is light traffic, or by the Line 10 metro from downtown Beijing. Exit at the Olympic Park area.
Associated Press writer Chi-Chi Zhang contributed to this story.