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Boulevard of dreams
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The sky was ashen at 6 pm. On one of Beijing's 'Blue Sky Days' the sun would have lit up the trellised surface of the CCTV tower but on this day it stood sullenly, its steel-gray tone almost merged with the sky.

The idea was to walk along a part of Beijing's east-west axis - from the city's most swish and trendy business hub, the CBD area, to the ultimate epitome of imperial grandeur, the Forbidden City. It's about a 2 hours' leisurely stroll and offers visitors wonderful snapshots of life in the capital.

In the lead-up to the Oct 1 celebrations of the 60th year of the People's Republic of China this stretch is being dressed up and the best time to watch the city, turned out in eye-catching finery, is after sundown.

I just about stepped off the elevator at Exit E1 at Guomao Subway Station and crossed the wide patio of the Beijing World Trade Center, heading towards Jianguomenwai Dajie, when the first round, heavy drop of rain fell in my eye. I wasn't carrying an umbrella. The start did not look promising.

Careening bravely for a while, a walker needs to duck beneath the more heavily-laden branches of trees growing on either side of the pavement, arching over in a porous canopy.

Horizontally-growing pine trees formed a green fence between the pavement and high-end hotels even as the monstrous chrome and glass buildings, grown darker and more elongated under the inky black sky, along the other side of the road, moved back.

I hurtled along the quiet high-end residential quarters. Still no sign of a shed.

At the junction of Dongdaqiao Lu at Jianguomennei Dajie, where the boxy green and red Silk Street Market has a fleet of tourist buses parked in front of it at all seasons, and to which the electric blue cylindrical twin towers across the road form a perfect counterpoint, a heavy shower began. It was pelting.

I darted inside the mammoth Beijing Friendship Store where miles and miles of jade jewelry, Kunqu Opera masks and cheongsams in floral patterns draped around mannequins with sad eyes were lined up in an intense display.

Half an hour later, the rain had lost its verve and volume. It stopped completely as soon as I bought an umbrella from a magazine kiosk, just before going up the Jianguomen bridge. At the other end of the bridge, a halfhearted steel rainbow rose from either side, stopping short of forming an arch.

Past the cut into Gongyuan Dongjie, I stumbled into the Chinese Academy of Social Science auditorium, a massive theater complete with the usual razzle-dazzle of performance-related merchandize and the happy hubbub of an eager audience in the foyer.

More massive buildings along the way COFCO Plaza, Henderson Center, the arched entrance of the Women's Federation with relief work on the panels supported by a colonnade on either side, the flood-lit crescent of the Jianguo Garden Hotel.

Thousands of ivory-colored temporary toilets seemed to have sprouted overnight on either side of the road. A merry crowd of holidaymakers is expected to take to the streets in the first week of October.

Dongdan onwards lights exuding out of the shiny shopping malls seemed to be in competition with the cluster of bulbs on street lamps and headlights from the whizzing traffic.

Vehicles rushed by, the reflection of taillights spilling and glowing on the rain-washed road, chasing to catch their source. The moon, three-quarters full, went behind the rain clouds, willingly withdrawing from the race.

By the time I reached Wangfujing, the glitter and glitz of the snazzy shopping malls and the aggressive procession of images on giant digital display boards could no longer hold my attention.

The red walls of Forbidden City, still more than 1 km away, were glowing under a never-ending row of bulbs.

The illumination outlining the historic structures around Tian'anmen Square - National Museum of China, the clock tower of Beijing Qian'men Railway Museum, the Great Hall of the People - made the ever-familiar appear in a new light, literally.

The Monument to the People's Heroes, at the center of the square, now deserted except for the guards on duty, flashed against the ambient light like a phosphorescent beacon.

Outside the closed gates of Forbidden City, in front of the marble arches across the moat, now made more luminous with strategic lighting from underneath the wooden platforms, a motley bunch of cheerful people took turns at flashing V-signs and photographing each other.

A clutch of young men dressed in soldier's camouflage trousers and black tees stood with their back to the rushing traffic on Chang'an Avenue, as a colleague clicked them. A few paces up west the grand facade of the Xinhua Gate, behind whose closed doors China's top-most leaders live, stood preeminently - a picture of quiet authority.

It was my birthday. As I stepped inside Xidan subway station to catch the train home, and the busker playing on his saxophone turned the recorded supporting music on, in full volume, I pretended these lights, the music, the spare but cheerful crowd out on Beijing's streets on a windy Sunday evening, were all there for me.

At that moment I felt I too was a part of the celebration of the founding of a new China, as indeed all you who walk that resplendent stretch from now on would be.

(China Daily September 10, 2009)

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