I’m in China for a week of sight-seeing, research for one those Someday Scripts I hope to eventually write. The project is very much Old World, so most of my time has been spent tromping around the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, getting a feel for the architecture and details that you don’t really find in a book.

While the historical landmarks have been everything I hoped for, the real surprise has been modern China. It doesn’t feel anything like the Orwellian state I read about in high school. All the Business Week articles about China’s rush into a market economy understate the degree to which it already feels First World. People have cooler cell phones. They own their own apartments. Beijing feels like it could host the Olympics next year — although they have until 2008 to finish the new subways and all the other improvements underway.

I’ve been to St. Petersburg, which has a similar beautiful-buildings-to-ugly-cinderblocks ratio, but the mood couldn’t be more different. Beijing feels like it’s on a massive sugar rush, and the people in the park seem genuinely happy. It’s like Los Angeles, with more smog and darker hair. That doesn’t sound like a rave, but it’s actually pretty cool.

My advice is to come before the Olympics, when everyone will see how world-ready it is. Mandarin is notoriously difficult to master, but it’s pretty easy to pick up basic traveller pidgin: hello, excuse me, where is.., is it here?. As I overheard one expat Texan say over cocktails: “It’s easier to speak than to understand.” A great double-entendre, which in this case is true.