Thursday, August 28, 2008
Beijing is like that now. The Birds Nest, the Water Cube and the dozens of other sparkling, new venues are empty. The flame has been put out (and passed on to London) and all of the nations' flags are folded and put away. The vendors' tents have been collapsed, carts hauled away and leftover merchandise boxed up. Around town, the streets seem emptier. The Silk Market salespeople sit idle on stools instead of grabbing at hordes of tourists. The bars at Sanlitun close at 2 instead of 6 a.m. The two huge warehouse-cum-nightclubs (the Heineken House and the Bud Club) where gold-medal winners, journalists, coaches and hangers-on partied nightly have vacated their property for good. All the train stations, highways and airports were packed as tens of thousands of visitors tried to get back home or get to their next destination as quickly as possible.
It's too early to tell if the $43 billion the Chinese government spent to host the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games paid off. Certainly, they're going to take a monetary loss (not surprising, considering they spent more than the five previous Games combined), but that's not necessarily what marks a host city's success. Time will tell if these past 16 days will remembered as a huge triumph (Sydney) or a monumental failure (Montreal).
Watching the torch go out from the bar at the St. Regis - yes, I roll like that - made me a little sad to see the Olympics end. I've had a fabulous experience here at the Games. I've gotten to sit ringside and watch the best amateur boxers pound the crap out of each other. I saw ping-pong in the country that calls it its national sport. I watched gold-medal judo matches, beach volleyball and USA basketball live. My commute to work involved walking through the Olympic Green twice daily, hearing the hum of the the masses and seeing the smiles all around. And I got to work in the Birds Nest, standing at the finish line and interviewing athletes. The top experience for me had to be watching all three of Usain Bolt's world records (the men's 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay) live, in person, and then talking to the guy after. Yes, I'm bragging, but how cool is that? I still can't get over it.
Neither can China. I think the country is in post-Olympic denial right now. They've been re-airing the highlights from all 51 of their gold medal winners and also just showed the entire Opening Ceremony, including the March of nations, unedited, this morning. The Chinese waited too long to host for it to be over in 16 days. We'll have to wait and see what happens when they come down off the collective high; will there be a national depression or a recession? The stock markets look like it - Shanghai's is the worst-peformer world wide and the recent inflation is starting to cause problems locally.
There is one success I'm proud to report, however small: I now love the Olympics. This is coming from a guy that hadn't watched any Opening Ceremony in 12 years and didn't watch a single minute of either Athens' or Torino's respective Games. But having been here and watched athletes go all-out for the mere love of the game, to break down crying as their nation's banner soared to the heavens and to chant "Jai Yo" (Let's go!) with thousands of happy Chinese has given me a new appreciation for what the Olympics mean. For two weeks, nations set aside their differences, pushed away language barriers and joined, universally, in sport. It wasn't just to see who could come away with the most medals, it was a chance to work together for something - to do something higher, faster or stronger than ever before. It was beautiful.
My favorite quote of the Games came from a Canadian 800m runner who finished fourth in the final round, just missing out on the podium.
"I'm not upset," he gasped in the mixed zone, 20 yards from the finish line. "I gave everything I had. Everything. It's all on the track."
That's what the Games are all about and I got to see that, firsthand, on a daily basis. You can't ask for more than that.
See you in Vancouver.
Friday, August 22, 2008
I don't want to run through an entire list of what I bought (that would take approximately 19,000 words), since I did have to buy a second suitcase ($15) to get everything back to the States. But I do need to go over some my better purchases and ones that you might want to make, if you ever get over to Beijing.
First off, travel is hard. Plane, train and bus rides aren't good on your back. And, if you're like me and carry a man bag everywhere, your shoulders and neck can get messed up to. A massage is the answer and one of my little guilty pleasures no matter where in the world I am. For 98 yuan ($15), I had a beautiful, hour-long massage where my little Chinese masseur took me apart and put me back together again. It was ugly, she was violent, but after the dust settled, I was a new man.
Food is ridiculously cheap. My daily breakfast usually consists of an egg sandwich on fresh-made, nan-like bread or a few dumplings and a hard-boiled egg. In either case, I pay anywhere from 1 to 1.50 yuan... that's less than 20 cents in the US. Beat that, Dunkin' Donuts! And if you're paying more than $4 for a beer (in a very nice bar), then you're paying too much. Generally, it should cost between 10-15 yuan (under $2), unless you just bought it in a hutong's local shop... then you get a 20-ounce Tsingtao for 3 yuan ($1.50). Yes!
I'm not a big taxi guy, but there are times where I really don't feel like dealing with the subway here or it's late at night and I just want to get home. Thankfully for my wallet, I'm in Beijing - city of millions, most of them cabbies. These guys are everywhere and although the base fare starts at 10 yuan, I've never paid more than 90 ($12) for a ride. And that expensive one was coming in from the airport, where there are always extra charges. By comparison, my cab ride from Boston Logan to my apartment in Cambridge cost $28 before tip and took about a third of the time.
Luxurious escapes from China are, at times, necessary. I love mingling with locals and trying to see how they live, but there is a limit to how much Chinese food I can take, how many dirty serving trays I can see or how long I can go without a napkin (you'll only be given those in Western places or, on occasion, if you ask really nicely). Beijing, being the international hub that it is, has plenty of 5-star hotel bars to relax in, sip a whiskey and smoke a cigar (all for under $20). There are also dozens of ex-pat gathering places from diners (Grandma's Kitchen) to cafes (The Bookworm) where you can drop the seemingly exhorbitant sum of 100 yuan to get fresh, Western delicacies for less than 15 dollars. Then, once your stomach's been filled with reminders of home and your mind has been refreshed, you can head back out into the city streets, recharged and ready to once again soak it all in.
The cheap shopping opportunities around Beijing are well documented. But what I didn't expect to find were several tailors around the city, offering high-quality, hand-made suits and dress shirts. Last month, I visited Lisa Tailor, which is located on the 5th floor of the 3.3 Mall in the Sanlitun area. Apparently, this particular shop is well-known and recommended by many concierges around the city. I wasn't expecting to buy anything, but was completely floored by the prices - 1,000 yuan for suits, 1,300 for tuxedos, 80-150 yuan for shirts and ties for 30 and under. Put in Chinese prices, that sounds expensive, but that meant I could be spend $150 for a suit, $180 for a tux and about $10 a shirt.
If you know me, you know I can't resist shopping and I can't fight off bargains. I walked out of there with an order for a pin-stripe suit, a black tuxedo, five shirts, two ties and four sets of cufflinks. That alone might have been worth the flight over here.
So, while travel in the UK and Europe continues to get more and more difficult as the dollar's value free-falls, it's nice to know there are still places where a 25-year-old, unemployed kid can come and live like a king.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
It's a fact, USA - our domination of the Summer Games has come to a close. China already has twice the number of golds we do and are halfway to its goal of 119 medals. We're gonna lose. And it sucks.
But at least we have someone to cheer against.
If you look on the bright side, now we have competition and someone that I can boo internally while watching from the sidelines (I won't externally because, well, I like living too much).
Athletes are machines.
Television does not do these super-human competitors justice. They have ceased to be everyday people, have become machines honed for one thing and do that one thing faster, higher, harder and better than everyone else.
The first time I stepped on the practice track in Chaoyang, I was floored. There isn't an ounce of fat anywhere to be seen. I thought spandex would tear from the strain of containing the bulging muscles. The sheer fluidity of how they move around the track is like poetry in motion. Incidentally, I was watching the Nigerian, Cuban, Honduran and Malawian teams, too - and they're probably not going to win three track & field medals combined. So you can imagine what it's like standing next to the American athletes.
Long-distance runners are skeletons.
I've run one marathon and two halfs in the past 18 months or so, so I've seen some skinny competitors (Mostly at the start, before they start jogging twice as fast as I can sprint). But I have never seen three dozen, 5-foot 3-inch, walking, talking skeletons until I covered the women's marathon. Those girls had waists the size of my thigh and the tallest of them maybe equaled my height.
On the 100m sprint:
It will take me longer than 9.69 seconds to write this paragraph. And I didn't even slow up to celebrate at the end.
I heart my press pass.
Not only do I get free entrance to most of the attractions around town, as well as complimentary use of the city's subway and bus system, but it gets me other places, too. Like if I want to get into the press area while a spectator at an event, carrying a beer and dressed in a t-shirt. Or if I decide to skip lines and use the VIP entrance at the Olympic Green's sponors' exhibit halls. Perhaps if I wanted free beer at Club Bud or a gift every time I visited the Yashow Clothing Market, I could just whip it out. It gets me access beyond security points that require special passes, all because the Chinese are afraid of offending western press. People stare at it at the subway and kids tug on it. Oh, I'm keeping that thing.
If you're going to be a language translator, you'd better know how to speak the language.
So, the Chinese powers that be, in all their infinite wisdom, decided not to bring in official translators to work for the media at the event centers. Instead, they took on local student volunteers to do the work, most of whom have around two years of education in a language. They're all quite good speakers - for people that have studied for two years, that is.
Example: We're at a test press conference, where fake athletes will be answering questions from English-speaking journalists in Spanish and Korean. Our intrepid language staff will then translate the answers. The Spanish "athlete" delivers a three-minute answer to a question. We all wait, with baited breath, for the translation to come through our earpieces after he's finished speaking. There are 30 seconds of silence, some shuffling of papers and then a slight cough.
Then more silence. We turn around and look into the translator's booth. There, looking completely befuddled, is a smiling Chinese student. Let's just say that language services here hasn't gotten better since.
When you're dressed the same as everyone else, you do what you can to stand out.
Even if that includes wearing a 1990s, Limp Bizkit-style bucket hat, with the brim flipped up and dark sunglasses. Yup, that was me yesterday. It'll be me tomorrow. And it'll be me through the rest of the competition... Oh yes, pictures will follow.
After a week of watching preliminary rounds, I want to box.
And if that fails, I can always race walk.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Much of that has to do, I'm sure, with the fact that the Olympics are in town. The government has cleaned up its act for a month or two, Internet barriers have temporarily come down (all except, for me, Facebook, Wordpress and, weirdly, one of my credit cards) and the local media has continued its tradition of self-policing and China promotion. While my troubles on the 'net are an annoyance - particularly the Facebook thing, since I can sometimes get on and sometimes not - the most censorship I've experienced has been from a mulit-billion dollar American company. One I happend to work for not so long ago.
I was lucky enough to get a ticket into the Bird's Nest to see the Mens 100m Finals - arguably the marquee event of any Summer Games and, really, the only one I definitely wanted to make sure I saw. It lived up to the legends of Olympics past: Tyson Gay's injury keeping him from the finals, the current and former world record holders lining up for the finals, a pair of unsung Americans running alongside and the culmination of Usain Bolt (who, by the way, started running the 100m less than a year ago) breaking his own world record to win gold.
As the eight sprinters lined up to start, the capacity crowd of 91,000 fell to a hush and rose, as one, to its feet. We stood there, poised and ready, as if we were tensed to run the race alongside the Olympians. The entire crowd could hear the call of, "On your mark... set!" and then let out a defining roar milliseconds after the starting gun. We screamed for 9.69 seconds, took a breath, and then screamed some more - in disbelief, in joy, in celebration, in the Olympic spirit.
I had my Flashcam with me and I captured that moment live, in the stadium, just soaking it all in. But NBC, apparently, thinks it owns the rights to the very Olympics itself and keeps kicking my video of YouTube. And there's nothing I can do about it. Apparently, one of the world's ten largest companies that generates billions in revenue each year thinks that someone shooting at an event their television network covered (not even using their footage) could bring down their entire profit stream.
So, thank you GE and NBC Universal. You've just shown me what censorship is all about in China.
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Saturday, August 16, 2008
Here's some footage from the Birds Nest of Usain Bolt's world record-breaking 9.69 second finish in the Men's 100m finals tonight...
Note: NBC blocked the video about 12 minutes after I put it up, so I re-did it this morning in the hopes that they won't do it again. We'll see...
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Seven years, $40 billion dollars and one fantastic show later, the Beijing Games have officially opened. I hope the Opening Ceremony made you all sit up a little straighter on the sofa and take note: the Olympics have arrived.
It was impossible not to notice. Some highlights: the 2008 drummers counting down the final few seconds; the little girl soaring above the ground, flying a kite and landing into a human recreation of the Bird's Nest; dancers painting a beautiful tapestry; hundreds of paddle-weilding rowers recreating the Yellow River; Lopez Lomong - a former Lost Boy of Sudan - carrying the U.S. flag into the arena; and the everlasting image of Li Neng running through the air to light the Olympic flame.
I'd been given the honor of seeing a dress rehearsal the week before, so I knew what to expect from the spectacle, having see everything except for the final torch lighting (which had been kept secret... Reportedly, only three people in the world knew who would be the final carrier). So, last night, what I was looking for was the reaction of the Chinese people - even more so than re-watching the brilliant ceremony.
I've been some places, I've seen some things in 25 short years on this here rock. But not many come close to the sheer exuberance and enthusiasm that 17 million people can exude all at once. The whole city seemed to be united in one, giant motion. It stood smiling with its arms spread, at once welcoming the Games and the world to its door.
My friend Anna and I started out in Tian'anmen, where, although the actual square had been cordoned off, thousands of people milled about. There wasn't anything to see (few fireworks and no TV screens) and yet people were just there because they had to be somewhere. Everywhere we looked, there were Chinese flags waving, stickers of the banner cut into heart-shapes and cameras flashing as people tried to document the historic occasion.
We wound up walking around the square for a bit, soaking in the sights, and then headed north to meet some friends. The government had shut down the 2nd Ring Road and many of the main drags, so it took some fancy driving to get us to the Houhai/Drum and Bell Tower area and he dropped us off about a 15 minute walk from where we wanted to go. It wound up being less of an aggravation and more of an adventure. Thanks to the cabbie, we spent the first few minutes of the Opening Ceremony on the streets of the city, surrounded by awestruck Beijingers.
They packed up against each other, eyes towards the skies, looking for the first explosion of fireworks that would signify the party had begun. They blocked off streets, standing in the way of buses and cars, in order to keep a clear view on the big screens and TVs that lined the sidewalk. They cheered and took pictures and smiled and hugged and we were a part of it all.
Eventually, we made it to the bar and met up with our friends. There were plenty of ex-pats there, but at least half of the crowd was Chinese. They atmosphere there was one part party (bar, duh) and one part movie screening, as the crowd watched the show in silence broken only by excited buzzing and spurts of applause. Watching for the second time, I was just as enraptured as the first.
As the night wore on, the March of Nations started and we began cheering for each other's nations. There was a lone Israeli there, but the entire deck cheered for the Israeli team. Hong Kong and Taiwan received vigorous applause, as did Romania, Sweden, Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Australia.
But that was nothing to the deafening, citywide roar that arose as Yao Ming's 7-foot, 6-inch frame stepped onto the floor of the Birds Nest holding the Chinese flag aloft. The place went nuts and the floorboards shook under my feet. I yelled along with everyone, caught up in the moment and just happy to see the joy across the faces of people who had waited for seven years for that moment.
That's what the Olympics are all about. It was time to forget borders, forget money, forget politics. Instead, we remembered that despite our differences, we are all the same. Now wasn't a time to fight, now was a time to cheer each other on. So cheer on, we did.
Go China, your time to shine has arrived.
The city, and the world, celebrated long into the night.
Note: I grabbed the photo from The Big Picture, which is a blog on Boston.com's website. You should definitely be subscribing to their feed. They post about 3 times a week and have some of the most amazing, newsworthy photography out there.
Friday, August 8, 2008
When I lived in London, my daily commute involved taking an overland train from Clapham Junction (Britain's busiest rail station) to Waterloo and then switching to the subway during rush hour. If I had enough room to hold a paperback in front of my face AND still have it far enough away to pick out individual letters without my eyes cramping, it was a light travel day. That hardly ever happened.
Coming to Beijing, a delightful city of 17 million in a country of 1.3 billion people (one-sixth of the world's population), I knew I was in for some close encounters of the Chinese kind in public transport. Every day since I've gotten here, I've been pushed, poked, prodded, piled on, pried past and probably propositioned politely on the subway. The Line 1 trains are particularly packed. Frankly, the time of day doesn't really matter... Sure, it's more backed up during the moring/evening rush hours, but I've gotten into squished cars at 2:30 in the afternoon. Whatever, it's part of life here.
The fun thing I didn't expect to find here was what I affectionately call "The Running of the Chinese Bulls." You see, I'm staying beyond the end of Line 1. That line ends at a stop (Sihui East). From there, I have to switch to the Batong Line if I want to continue eastwards from downtown. It makes no sense whatsoever - the Beijing MTA could easily just make the Line 1 trains keep going instead of pulling U-turns and heading back west, but whatever. I'll post more on that sort of commonplace Chinese efficiency later.
The Running of the Chinese Bulls is what commuters do every time they have to switch trains at Sihui East. The line up at the doors of a Line 1 train, sprint out in a mad dash from the car, up the closest flight of stairs, through corrals set up for the express purpose of preventing the weak and young from being trampled, back down a flight of stairs to a different platform and then huddle around the areas where the next train's doors will open. Once that train pulls into the station, the people cluster around the doors - literally pressing themselves against the side of the car - before sprinting for a seat as soon as they whoosh open.
I've seen full-on dives for seats, mothers tossing toddlers into an open plastic chair, bags thrown down to mark territory and more sucker punches thrown in the scrum than I could count. Within three seconds, every seat is taken and the chaos subsides into the usual sort of spacy silence you'd expect from the commuting crowd. It's rather uncanny and something you just need to see for yourself. So, I've taken it upon myself to videotape the scramble for my next YouTube project.
Here goes nothing...
Saturday, August 2, 2008
But I don't fit in her society
Lord, have mercy on a boy from down in the hutong.
Hutongs are the narrow, winding alleys that spiderweb across Beijing. They are the traditional neighborhoods of often-ancient stone houses, clay-tile roofs and shared bathrooms. If Beijing's six circular highways (ring roads) are the arteries of the New City, then the hutongs are the network of capillaries that have given life to the capital for centuries.
They're everywhere, crisscrossing main streets, leading to landmarks' rear entrances and dead ends alike and twisting—often at 90-degree angles, without warning. But at the same time, they're easy to overlook, for this is where the city's underclass lives. A few hutongs here and there have been gentrified, with new walls and tea shops sprouting up. Mostly, though, stepping into one is stepping into the way of life for millions of Chinese.
It is a step, I think, that many tourists don't take. Just like it's easy to stay away from the run-down neighborhoods at home, wandering through hutongs isn't a necessity. There are main roads, taxi cabs and sparkling new subway lines to whisk foreigners from photo op to photo op, shopping centers built below high rise office buildings to peruse (mostly Western) name brands and plenty of KFCs, McDonalds and Starbucks to visit instead of getting your feet dirty trudging through back alleys. This isn't a condemnation; it's just an observation. I've had my share of iced coffees from the baristas over the past month, too.
But I've also found the hutongs to be an indispensable part of my experience here. Perhaps when this is all over, my times wandering through these neighborhoods will be my fondest memories of the city.
Stepping off the sidewalks into a hutong means you're leaving behind all of the comforts you're used to. There aren't any English menus in the restaurants and very few will have pictures. You may have to put up with the smell of open toilets as you pass by the common bathrooms the residents share. You'll be dodging delivery people and garbage collectors on bicycles and have to endure the occasional interested stare as one of the locals watches you, perhaps wondering if you're lost.
Walking through a hutong also provides you with potential for some of the best travel experiences you can have. For one, I've found the food to be incredible. Most of the restaurants will either have open-air kitchens or will only have one dish for sale, which will be on display. I can spot something I like (egg and tomato stir fry or pistachio pastries, for example), pay a couple yuan for it and either eat it there at a small stool and table or take it for later munching. While these places look ramshackle and run-down on the outside, I'd trust their food over pretty much any Westernized fast-food joint in Beijing. These restaurateurs are basing their entire livelihood on their dumplings or their steamed buns—make a couple people sick and no one's going to come to you ever again.
There are almost always children playing in the streets, whether it's kicking a ball or running around playing tag or some other chase game. Many will skid to a halt after spotting me, sidle up and whisper a nervous, "Nihao." I'll respond with the same and a smile and their faces never fail to light up as the foreigner tries to speak their language. They'll giggle and then run off to keep on playing—the joy of children is universal.
The other day, I stumbled into Yang Guanjun's art shop, attracted by the watercolors and the English "ART" sign on the front door. I found the owner to be a delightful dude, with enough knowledge of English for us to stumble through a conversation. Guanjun is from X'ian in central China and he studied art at university there. There wasn't enough work for him in his hometown, so he brought his wife and young daughter to Beijing ten years ago to open an art studio and tea house. Business has been okay, but it's hard for the tourists with money to find him, as his home/studio is a few blocks from the main road, down a narrow hutong with no signs and no other shops. He gladly showed me his wares—everything from calligraphy on antiqued scrolls to photographic prints—before inviting me upstairs to see the living space he's trying to rent out for the Olympics (a pair of twin rooms, a brand new shower he was infinitely proud of and Internet access on provided, ancient PCs). I spent 30 minutes chatting, sampling the tea he had on sale and talking about the coming Summer Games before I departed, two original paintings under my arm. Those souvenirs are nice, but their meaning will go beyond that of the trinkets I've picked up in the Silk Market or around town because I shook the same hand that painted them.
None of that would have happened, had I not gotten lost, wandering alone through a hutong. If you're ever in Beijing, I suggest you do the same. You never know what you might find.
Champion Art Gallery (owned by Yang Guanjun)
Bicycles Along the Wall
Editor's Note: Yang Guanjun does not have a website, but he can be emailed at yangguanjun [at] sohu[dot]com. His shop is at 26 Men Kuang Hutong, in the Xuan Wu district (about a 20 minute walk south of Tien'anmen Square).