Beijing - before the sports
'Ceremony' - The Cult
Once I had found reception and overcome the problem that they initially believed I had only paid 10% of my six hundred-pound bill in advance, despite them having emailed to confirm full payment just a week earlier, I went up to my room. It slept six people, four of whom had rather natty pods built into the wall complete with their own power sockets and curtains. I, however, found myself on top of the bunk bed on the other side of the room. By the time I had 'unpacked' (IE: dumped my bag on the bed), requisitioned one of the lockers and meeted & greeted a couple of my roommates, it was getting to around ten O'clock and I still hadn't eaten.
I headed out onto Wangfujing, a pedestrian street that serves as the trashy shopping centre of the city in the same way as Oxford Street or the Champs Elysees do for London and Paris. The place was awash with people, including some presumably important souls who would occasionally wander by whilst minders cleared their path ahead of them like a motorcycle escort for a presidential limousine. All of which was very interesting but it wasn't getting me fed, no matter how many closing or closed places I walked into. Eventually I found a hotel whose restaurant was still serving. They had bright, shiny, new menus, which I would quickly discover was the norm for all the eateries in Beijing. Partly this was so they could include bright, shiny photos and English translations for foreign visitors who don't speak Chinese. Partly this was so they could include bright, shiny, new prices for foreign visitors who are willing to pay way over the odds for everything on offer during the Olympics. By way of another example, Chris, an English guy in my dorm, told me that he had stayed at the same hostel in May and had paid a tenth of the price for a better room. I picked the best of the few menu options. It appeared to be just vegetables. When it arrived I discovered that most of them were stuffed with meat. It was too late to bother trying to ask for something else so I ate what I could and went back to bed.
The next day I was booked to collect my Olympic tickets from an office that proved to be in the business district of the city. Wanting to use the chance to explore, even get a bit lost and therefore learn my way around, I carefully read the instructions to find the place on the internet but then deliberately didn't print them out. I figured that if I used the map in my Lonely Planet and tried to remember the location, then everything would work out OK in the end. Broadly, this was true. But trying to work out where I was on the map at any moment in time was very difficult. Throw in the fact that it's a big city so one inch on the page is a long way to walk plus the draining heat and it was at least a couple of hours later, plus time taken for a food detour, before I arrived dripping in sweat at the tower block in question. The area was full of modern office blocks and few of them were without their own unique design of impressive aura. Think of a hundred buildings each designed with the ambition of the Gherkin or that Mayorall office in London. Only bigger.
Not only were the buildings new, but so were the roads, the bridges, the pavements . . . everything! It is difficult to explain the extent to which this was true throughout the city. I have hardly found a road that doesn't look as if it were relaid in the last six months. Every office block looked brand spanking new. Most of the metro looks like it started operation last week. This last point is partly true as half of it was built especially for the Olympics. Not only is the whole network fully air-conditioned, there are TVs showing live broadcasts on most of the platforms and throughout most of the trains. Later in the week when talking to an English guy who works in construction in the city, I mentioned the oft-estimated figure of twenty billion pounds spent on the Beijing Olympics - around two to three times the London budget - he just laughed at me; "Ha! That's not one percent of the real total. They spent that on the airport alone!" It's not hard to believe. Flower beds, street lighting, signage - everything has been installed on a mammouth scale.
Inside the building, I took the lift up to the twenty-fourth floor and found the desk where they counted out each of my eighteen tickets for me. They also, upon my request, kindly printed out the instructions to get to each of the venues I was booked to attend. What a shame I then left this pile of printouts behind when I walked off. Whilst I waited for them to carry out their needless benevolence, a reporter from Channel Five news turned up and was told that they weren't allowed to answer any questions and that he would need to speak to the manager. This concerned me slightly, but as I already had my hands on the tickets I figured that they probably weren't a scam agency or anything. I also took the opportunity of being twenty four floors up to take a couple of snaps of the surrounding area.
Looking to go back to my hostel via an easier route, I followed the agency man's instructions to go to the nearest metro station via a place (lowercase 'p') called, erm, The Place (uppercase 'P'). This place (lowercase 'p') was a paved area that had been installed with the world's largest TV screen. The screen itself was set up as the ceiling, looking down, about fifty feet in the air. It was nearly as wide and it was as long as a football pitch is wide. Underneath was a walled-off sponsors area containing further jumbo screens.
Back at the hostel, I had been back for a few minutes and was chatting to Chris when someone came to collect him for a night out and I duly joined them. There were three Americans (two girls and a guy) plus an Irish girl. The American guy, Andy, was a typical loud mouth but was very funny and, to be fair, one hundred percent self-aware and was only playing up to a character he performed to entertain everyone. Underneath it all, I think he always knew which way was up. We went to Sanlitun, a famous street of bars and clubs. This being Beijing, no one venue held more than two hundred people and most held half that. The street also wasn't terribly long either. But, being one of the few such areas in town, most of the party goers were there in force. After a bit of looking around to find it, we went to a place that was famous for having the best pizza in Beijing. I suspect this is a bit like a restaurant claiming it serves the best Chinese food in Rome and certainly Mauro and Ernesto from Epson would have been weeping into their Parmesan when they tasted it. It seemed pretty average to me, but everyone else gushed over how incredible it was. This was followed by a bar where we were able to hijack the venue's PC that was playing the songs. There wasn't much to choose from to put our own favourites on, but we did our best. Andy knew more or less every single word to countless dreadful rap records. He kept protesting that he didn't like any of them and only knew them from overplay on the radio, but no one can possibly know THAT many lyrics to THAT many tracks they don't like. After a beer or five there we went off in search of somewhere else. The Irish girl took her unfinished drink with her but one of the Chinese Olympic volunteers ran up to her to politely tell her that she wasn't allowed to carry her glass around on the street. When he disappeared she sulkily threatened to smash it on the ground if they weren't going to let her carry it, which seemed a bit unnecessary to me. The volunteer ran back seconds later with a plastic glass for her so all was solved but, coupled with my tiredness, I decided that it would be a good time to duck out and head home. On the way back I had a lot of fun with the taxi driver practising the only Chinese words I knew: hello, thank-you and the numbers one to ten. Mostly this involved the two of us shouting the numbers over and over together interspersed by me shouting hello ("Nihao!!") at bemused folks we drove past.
By the time I had got up on Friday morning, had breakfast and used the internet, it was already time to begin preparations to watch the opening ceremony. Although no one had any tickets, I was due to meet two groups of people near the stadium to watch it on a big screen and generally soak up the atmosphere of being so close to the event. First of all there was Christian, the German from the train from Mongolia. He was now with another German friend called Stefan plus their Chinese friend, Wang, who was putting them up during the Olympics. The other group involved two Americans called Jon and Erin. They had been staying at Idre's hostel in Ulaan Baatar with me although the only time I met them was when they joined our table at BD's when we had gone out to celebrate Eryk & Daniel's last night in the city. They lived in China and were planning on attending many events in Beijing so I had given Jon my email as there were a couple of tickets we were interested in swapping.
Whilst the events inside the stadium were majestic and will rightly be talked about for many years to come, the events outside were a total farce. In a nutshell, the Chinese authorities are not very used to handling large gatherings of people and got very jumpy about the whole thing. For that matter, I'm not sure they're so used to handling mid-sized or even not-very-small gatherings. The whole area around the main stadium and the locations that surround it were totally cordoned off except to ticket holders. This was a theme of the whole games which I shall discuss more later, but I understand that the sponsors with sponsor's areas inside were furious that no one was being allowed in to attend their tents. I queued in the security lines for a while then gave up and tried to follow instructions from Christian's text message to find where he and Stefan were stranded outside. This I eventually achieved and, seeing that there was no hope to go on with our original plan, we found a restaurant to eat and reconsider a plan B.
I heard later from Chris that he and the others had managed to get inside the main area and sat down in front of a jumbo screen with a good view to watch it all. At four O'clock, with no warning, the screen was turned off. Basically, there were too many people (by Chinese standards) so the organisers quickly tried to disperse everyone by taking away the entertainment. Remembering that Chaaoyang Park, on the east of the city, was due to have screens for public viewing, they jumped in a taxi and headed over. They were pleased to find that they were there in time to get a good spot and settled down again. At half-past seven, half an hour before the ceremony was due to start, all of these screens were turned off also and an announcement asked everyone to go home. They got back to the hostel a couple of minutes beforehand and sprinted down to Wangfujing to try and watch it there. Half of these big screens were turned off also but they found one and were at least able to see it all. But, given that they had set out six hours in advance, they were a bit nonplussed to be sprinting at the last moment to see it all. Ben, another guy in our dorm, had a not-disimilar story that ended with him watching it all in the hostel bar.
Anyway, back to my own narrative... Two days after arriving in Beijing, Christian had decided that it would be a great idea if he got his hair decorated to commemorate the whole event. It's easier to look at the pictures than for me to explain in detail, but in summary he had the five Olympic rings and 'Beijing' (in Chinese) written into the side of his head. He was very pleased with it at the time but bitterly regretted it afterwards as the poor man couldn't get two minutes peace wherever he went as excited locals begged to have their pictures taken with him. Often I would be walking chatting to him when I would look around and find he was not there any more. Looking behind I would always find him surrounded by a crowd waiting patiently for their turn to take their picture.
After we had eaten, we decided to go to The Place (uppercase, oh, you get the idea...). First we had to cycle back to Wang's place. Only having their two bikes, this meant me sitting on the back of Christian's bike. Holding my feet out so they didn't knock into his while he cycled was actually harder work than cycling and my thights and feet both ached for days afterwards. On the way I shouted "Nihao!" and "Hello!" at scores of people, all who whom waved or shouted back. Pedestrians, other cyclists and even people in cars or buses. At one point, while we stopped to check our bearings, a convoy of army trucks carrying soldiers went passed. We shouted and waved at each one and a large group of soldiers leaned out of each one grinning to reply to us.
Back at Wang's, the boys all decided to have a shower, despite the time slipping away. Stefan, in particular, took ages. Don't you just hate people who are always late and take too long in the shower? Outside I tried to pass the time playing with local kids and talking to a neighbour's bird which could say "Nihao". To be fair, this wasn't much less than my command of the language. Finally, we got in a taxi across town and found The Place shortly before kick-off. Tickets to get in were free but had long since been snapped up. There were some bars around the side but all were also full or holding private parties. After looking around and rescuing Christian from a long newspaper interview, we took up places looking over the hedge into a bar's outside area which was hosting a private party of foreigners who were watching the TV and generally looking like they were having the most miserable time of their lives.
I didn't fancy doing this for four hours so after a while I walked around some more to see what else could be wangled. Eventually, I stood by the The Place's exit and begged for tickets from the people who were leaving early. After half an hour I could only get three. Returing to the others for a while more, we decided to try to get in with the tickets. Security insisted that, ticket or no ticket, it was full and we weren't getting in. We tried another door and got the same response. It turned out that Wang didn't need a ticket as he had some kind of official pass as he was one of the city's army of Olympic volunteers. He talked to the various people and managers on the door for a while and eventually we were waved through. They wouldn't let me take my water inside as it was a security risk. I quickly guzzled over a litre of it before they were able to stop me, telling me that there was free water inside.
The world's biggest TV is sadly only used for Coca-Cola advertising. The company's name/logo scrolled across in countless different languages bathing everyone and everything below it in a pool of red light. The area had a handful of jumbo screens and lots of Coca-Cola branding and stalls. We found a place to sit down and were in time to see the athletes begin to enter the stadium. Christian is phenomenally competitve and we were soon playing a game of who could identify the flags first. Apparently he spent last Winter with no heating in his bedroom after he and his housemate had had a bet to see who could last the longest without turning their heaters on. Both of them lasted the full distance and the bet was declared a draw. Here, the final score of 14-12 to him suggested a close contest but he won easily and was 14-7 up before I got a few at the end to avoid total humiliation.
When China came on, we went around to the busier area to soak up the nationalistic cheering, although none of us could bring ourselves to clap and cheer when the government ministers appeared on the screen. Many cameras filmed all of this, so possibly we ended up on TV somewhere. Many big flags were waved and one of the Germans borrowed one for us to wave and photograph ourselves with. I think I got a bit carried away and a circle formed around me as I scattered Chinese with my aggressive waving whilst Stefan whispered to Christian "It's always the Englander". They warmed to me though and soon I was surrounded by locals jumping up and down clapping me before I decided it might be good to stop and give the flag back. Afterwards, before we left for the long search for a free taxi, one girl came and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. "Very handsome!" she said. They know a thing or two, these Chinese girls....
The next day I set out trying to find the underground city. A network of tunnels and rooms built by Mao in which to survive in the event of a nuclear attack. It took a while to locate, during which time I stumbled across the women's cycling road race, which flashed before me in a few seconds. Sadly, it was shut, with a small sign on the front declaring that this was because of surrounding construction work and that they hoped to be open next year. I couldn't help but cynically wonder if it was because this was the sort of tourist attraction that the government hoped people wouldn't focus on during the Olympic celebrations.
Walking some more, I found a hairdressers and remembered how badly I needed to shave the beard off. I asked if they could do this. They couldn't, but they pointed me into another street where someone apparently could. All of this was done with hand gestures. I walked along and couldn't see another hairdressers or barbers but then realised that the place I had been directed towards was a corner on the roadside with two chairs sitting underneath an umbrella by a barrow where a couple of customers where having their hair cut. Come my turn, the lady did her best to shave me while I took pictures of the process with an outstretched arm and countless passers-by stopped and stared at it all. I don't know how long this normally takes, but I think my thick facial hair was a problem for her. She had to re-apply the foam half a dozen times, and resharpen the blade three for four times. When it was all done, she then put the foam on again for another shave to finish. I suspect that my price of twenty yuan (One pound fifty) was inflated but given all the extra work she had made, it didn't feel like complaining.
Moving on, I found myself at the Temple of Heaven gardens. I walked through, seeing the blue line that the marathon would follow later in the week. Inside the temple itself, it began to rain fairly heavily for a while. The temple was as temples are and the photos explain it better than I can.
All over Beijing, I have seen little beige pots with straws being sold at little food & drink stalls and shops, but I had no idea what they were. Emerging from the southern end of the Temple of Heaven, I bought one and found that they contained rather nice yoghurt. I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with the pot afterwards though. I'm sure you're not supposed to just throw them away as many shops also have lots of empties. But, is it rude to just walk into a shop, give them a pot and walk out? Was I supposed to have waited while I drank it before returning it to the shop I bought it from. I carried my empty pot around for an hour pondering this problem before I left it in a restaurant I ate at. It was a genuine accident, but problem solved I guess.