03/07/2011 02:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cupcakes and Concubines in Beijing

The last time I was in Beijing was in 1999 when there were more bicycles in the streets than cars. When I visited recently, it was announced that in 2010 18 million cars were bought in China. There are now so many cars--and luxury cars-on the street that the city has to restrict driving privileges based on whether license plate numbers end in even or odd numbers. Touring a vast new art foundation in Caochangdi, the up-and-coming art space that has attracted some of the city's most serious contemporary galleries, a young photography curator recalled how when she was young they only had black-and-white film and color was painted on to her childhood portrait. At another gallery, F2, where the garrulous French gallery owner invited us for lunch, his Beijing-born wife told of the winter when she was 7 or 8 and someone had the ingenious idea to sew rubber from tires on the bottom of her shoes, so she no longer had to wear hand-sewn cotton slippers on the icy winter streets. Today, her son goes to school at Le Rosey in Switzerland and she is an avid golfer and skier who wears designer clothes to temple.

The rapid pace of change that has occurred in this city in a little more than a decade is dizzying. The woman, who edits the most powerful fashion magazine in the world, Vogue China, proudly held up Mao's Little Red Book when she had her photo taken as a child. Just about anyone over the age of forty can remember vividly the scarcity of meat and the rough texture of the state-issued clothing. The internationally best-selling writer Lijia Zhang remembers hunting cicadas with her brother because they were so famished. "They didn't taste so bad," she explained, as we sat in the stunning tea house Green T Living where we nibbled on white chocolate infused with tea.

If Beijing today is a study in contrasts, it is also one of contradictions. Lijia Zhang's book Socialism Is Great: A Worker's Memoir of the New China has been an international bestseller. The book details her brutal factory life, her participation in demonstrations against the government, her escape to England and self-education. Her story so well captures the journey of her generation in China that she has been invited to speak at universities and embassies around the world. Zhang has not been arrested; in fact, she resides in Beijing. But her book is not sold in the city, and if she orders copies, they are seized. When the New York Times review of the book ran in the International Herald Tribune that page was blacked out in Chinese editions. Five years ago, she and her English husband divorced, which, for her mother, is a shame that far outweighs her literary achievement. "She doesn't care that I have met Hillary Clinton or am consulted by diplomats," laughs Zhang. "In China what matters now is money." And marriage. Zhang's mother still hasn't told her neighbors that she is divorced. The newspapers are filled with stories about the growing problem of young bachelors, millions a year who outnumber the female population. Another associated trend is the rise of concubines. When daily life was a struggle to secure shelter and food, the traditional family unit seemed sacred but in a society where social status has become such a national obsession, the historical prize of a mistress has come back into vogue. Oh, and cupcakes, too, have become all the rage. In a sleek new café in trendy Sanlitun Village, the designers behind the Apple Store have created Colibri, the place to gather for an afternoon snack of heavily frosted cupcakes and tea. West meets East in the most surprising ways in Beijing today.

To say that Bejiing is like visiting the future is true because there's no doubt that China will have enormous influence on world affairs. To understand where we are going, you must see it, but be prepared for disorientation. The rules and the reasons are not meant to be understood by Westerners, and some of what it holds--and sadly our common future, too--is bleak, polluted and crowded. Go now to feel the energy of the rapid change and be sure to spend time seeing some of its World Heritage sites and digging beneath the surface. (If you are interested in meeting Zhang or other cultural figures on a visit to Beijing, we can help arrange it.)

Read about my favorite finds in Beijing and our travel Cheat Sheet on the best of Beijing