2008 Summer Olympics

Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, August 25, 2008

Hello Everyone

I suppose many of you haven't heard from me for awhile. I actually wrote an entry with in the last couple months but refrained from emailing it. At the time I thought I would wait until I finished an additional entry. Unfortunately, that additional entry remains undone, and now I'm moving on to more interesting topics: the Olympics!

That's right, I spent four days and three nights in Beijing amidst Olympic fever. The following is my perspective on one of the most wonderful sporting events in the world and a practically perfect host city. Please read on.

Arrival and Wrestling 

In order to catch our relatively early flight, Helen (my wonderful Korean girlfriend) and I had to wake at 6:30 a.m., not my favorite time nor something I am accustomed to doing. I usually wake up around 9 or 10 for my 1 p.m. work shift. The flight was surprisingly empty (tons of daily flights from Seoul to Beijing) and comfortable. Putting U.S. domestic flights to shame, we were served a full meal despite a minuscule two hour duration.

When we arrived in the beautifully massive Beijing airport there was no George, my friend from college and our host. We waited around for awhile and then set up international service on Helen's Korean phone. George answered our first try with "Bill." Turned out he was at the wrong terminal. Fairly easily done considering there are three of them. As we quickly discovered with a bus ride to the next one, they are also very far apart. We ditched the idea of meeting at the airport and separately headed to the closest subway station.

Seeing George for the first time again was refreshing and delightful. Having studied Chinese diligently for the last year and a half (and speaks quite conversationally with the natives), he was fascinated with the Korean take on Chinese. Helen explained how all Koreans are required to learn Chinese in school in order to read newspapers (many Chinese characters) and better understand the origins of Korean (many Chinese derived words). Although Helen had a decent understanding of Chinese characters, Korean pronunciation is so different that her knowledge would be little help for communicating with the people.

However, when we arrived at the apartment we would be staying, we realized we would have few language issues. Also staying at the apartment would be three bilingual Chinese college students who George had befriended throughout his stay in the country. Not only would they be a great help to better understand the language, they also cooked a delicious meal that was ready when we arrived. We wolfed it down and then headed out for our first Olympic sport, Greco-Roman Wrestling.

Unfortunately, it was pouring outside. When we finally made it to the stadium after two buses and a subway transfer, we were drenched and cold. To make matters worse the air conditioning was on and cold. Helen dried out by buying an Olympic T-shirt and I threw my wet socks in the garbage.

Although I knew almost nothing about the sport, I had a great time learning from two wrestling fanatics, George and George (his Dad is named George too). In case you didn't know (because I didn't), Greco-Roman has three rounds and whoever wins two, wins the match. Each round is complete with three periods: one standing, and two periods of each player on top on the ground. Sounds sexy, huh? Well, it's not, but it's quite interesting. Strangely enough, if there is a tie in a period the winner is the wrestler who scored last. So, often the person who had the last top position will be the winner. Even stranger, they determine the ground order by pulling a blue or red ball out of a bag (wrestlers wear red or blue jerseys). So, if wrestlers are quite even, a match can literally be decided by luck of the draw.

Despite the slight absurdity of the new rules (the change the rules every Olympics), it was fun to see something new and revel in my first and only group of (the other events we saw were not medal games) Olympic medal ceremonies. The highlights for me were a Swede, a Russian and a Cuban for different reasons. For the record, I also enjoyed cheering on the Korean and US wrestlers, because of my connections with each country, but the former three were definitely more interesting. Because of what the Swede thought was poor officiating in a prior match, he thought he should be wrestling for gold rather than bronze. When he was given his bronze medal after winning the match, he placed the medal on the ground and walked out during the anthem in protest. Quite amusing and dramatic!

The Russian wrestler was absolutely amazing and fun to watch. In a sport usually very close and easy to score points, he had not been scored on at all going into the final match. He continued this streak demolishing his opponent for gold. Despite his dominance, he remained humble and shared the gold podium with his three other companions (they give two bronzes in wrestling). The Cuban was fun because he was Cuban. Almost all the good wrestlers were from Eastern Europe and had the same look; like you wouldn't want to encounter them in a back alley. However, this Cuban was amazing and from that interesting country I'm not allowed to go to as an American. How could I not cheer for him? At least that's how I saw it. Either way, he made it a very exciting match, by throwing his opponent in the final period of the third round securing his gold. Go Cuba!

Houhai and Home

All wrestled out and ready to explore, we headed to Houhai Lake to eat and drink. The man-made lake is a beautiful place to relax and hang out. Gathered at the front entrance were tons of Chinese playing Jian Zi, an Asian version of hacky-sack with feathers, so much fun I had to buy one. The lake is surrounded by hip bars with foreign singers in traditional style buildings, so cool! We hung out a bar with (what I guessed were) five Caribbeans playing mostly Bob Marley covers. It reminded me of Thailand where you will hear Bob Marley and Jack Johnson incessantly. Speaking of Thai, their Pad Thai was awesome. I ate two plates.

After a couple beers and a Cuban cigar (George Sr.'s idea), we headed back for the apartment. We taxied back and went to sleep around 1 a.m. This was not exactly ideal considering we had get up at 7 a.m. for Table Tennis the next day. Oh well, the good time was worth it.

Table Tennis in China

For the second day in a row, we had to wake up before 7 a.m., too early! However, it was the Olympics, so I woke up fairly easily, hungry for food and more quality sporting. This trip would only include Helen, Kevin and I. Even though Kevin is Chinese, he is slightly spacey and not from Beijing, so I was selected as navigator. With George's trusty compass (surprisingly useful in big cities) and map in hand, I successfully guided us through subway transfers and a taxi ride to the stadium (Kevin was the designated Chinese speaker for the cab ride). Although cabbies generally don't speak any English they are very cheap and fairly comfortable (though slightly smaller than the Korean Sonata taxis). Interesting about China's cars, there are tons of foreign cars (Volkswagens, Jeeps, Audis, Buicks, Mercedes, etc.), but most of them are manufactured in China with Chinese engines and foreign shells. This is quite contrary to Korea's insular driving economy almost entirely reliant on high quality Korean cars.  

Arriving at Ping Pong, it was a beautiful day and all kinds of Chinese college volunteers were happy to speak English and guide us the correct way. The Table Tennis stadium was located at Peking University, one of Beijing's oldest and finest. One volunteer I chatted with for awhile was practically fluent in English. When I inquired if she was an English major, I was surprised to learn she was studying Economics. Similar to Korea, it seems the younger generations are better and more interested in English and college students, especially, are quite gifted at speaking the language.

Our seats were on the second floor balcony just behind a mother and daughter from Edina, Minnesota. Edina is fairly close to my hometown of Eagan, also a five letter suburb of the Twin Cities starting with E. The venue included four tables that hosted eight different teams. The USA women's team, consisting of four Chinese nationals, was playing Romania. They were stellar, winning every singles and doubler's match versus the outmatched Eastern Europeans.

The Chinese crowd was surprisingly supportive of the US, one man in particular was heard throughout the stadium rather awkwardly chanting "U-S-A." After the USA team finished they were mobbed for autographs. Seeing no Americans seeking signs, I ran down to visit my countrywomen. The players were all busy, but I received the coach's signature. That's right, I have a signed Olympic ticket from none other than Teodor Gheorghe. Adding to the irony, the women's coach is a US immigrant from Romania. To quickly summarize, the US team of four Chinese players with a Romanian coach defeated Romania in China. How's that for globalization! Overall though, the Chinese absolutely dominated the sport. The men's singles finals was two Chinese facing off for gold and silver. On our ticket was a team match between Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei, two parts of China refusing to totally submit to mainland rule. Needless to say, they are both essentially Chinese and therefore very good.

Also worth noting is the difference between the men's and women's game. For starters, they are both extremely skilled and would kick my butt easily. However, the men play with power and finesse. Every shot is precise, but when they slam a shot it's serious. The men are constantly falling all over the place using their entire body to create the perfect spin and angle. We didn't see any injuries, but I can only imagine that occasionally these guys get hurt trying to relay a slam or deliver one of their own. Conversely, the women play much closer to the table. Relying mostly on accuracy and spin, they are rarely on the floor chasing or delivering a powerful shot.

Eating, Palacing and Watching Baseball

After the conclusion of our two-hour plus Table Tennis session we went walking in search of food. We went to a great diner-style Chinese place that was completely packed (always a good sign of deliciousness). I had a huge bowl of thick traditional-style Chinese noodles and washed it down with some Tsingtoa, delicious! Once full, we tried to walk through Peking University, but were denied, probably because of heightened Olympic security (bag checks everywhere). Instead we walked along a beautiful tree-lined street and eventually bused it to the Summer Palace.

The palace is gorgeous! Located around a lake and partially steeped on a wooded mountainside, it would take a long time to see it all well. We spent a couple hours meandering, taking photos, shopping and goofing around. The highlight for me was a Buddhist temple way atop the mountainside. Although quite the hike, it was well worth it for the great views of the Beijing skyline and the beautiful traditional architecture. Heading down the mountain, we found a shop that sold the Jian Zi. I promptly bought one and we hung out and hacked with some Chinese older men for awhile. Crossing the final bridge before leaving, Helen decided to dress up as a princess and live up to her ICEV name, Princess Helen.

All palaced-out, we headed on a bus then another bus and then a taxi to the baseball stadium. We arrived without tickets to a mass of people. Meeting up with the Georges, we set out to haggle for tickets. The original ticket prices were 100 yuan, about $14. Mingling with the locals, we couldn't find any scalpers asking for anything less than 400 yuan, sometimes even 800...total ripoff! Finally, after George chewed out some Chinese men in Chinese, "Your greed can go to hell," an honest looking couple approached us. They offered us 150 yuan tickets, the price they paid. We were sold.

Tickets in hand, we took our seats next to George along the first baseline despite having different outfield seats. When we arrived, Japan was pummeling the Netherlands in the bottom of the first inning, scoring four runs. We thought we were in for a complete blowout, but neither team scored again until the eighth inning. With the action lulled we had time to take in the scenery. Above the outfield bleachers was a beautiful sunset, the bright red CCTV tower and other aesthetically interesting buildings. A little bored, we even checked out our outfield seats for awhile. However, we quickly went back to the first base line where George was leading Chinese cheers and providing great entertainment. The main Chinese cheer is "country or team" Ja-young (let's go). The Chinese folks around really enjoyed cheering for the Netherlands with George's leadership. When George switched to cheering for Japan people weren't so keen. Apparently you are only allowed to cheer for one team in China.

After the game, which finished with Japan way on top, we taxied home, watched more Olympics and had some lively discussion. Shortly thereafter we went to bed, ready to sleep much past 7 a.m.

Tienanmen Square, Forbidden City and a Milkshake

We woke at 9 a.m. ready to tackle the more touristy side of Beijing. Kevin, our extremely friendly Chinese friend, bought us breakfast of stuffed rolls and dumplings, cheap and delicious. When the Georges returned form their McDonald's breakfast, we headed to the subway for Tienanmen. Climbing the subway exit stairs, I was immediately struck by the number of gorgeous buildings and the bright blue sky (where was all the pollution?). Unfortunately, Tienanmen Square was closed off due to preparations for the marathon the next day.

The area is enormous. It's probably about a mile from Tienanmen and the Forbidden City with one elaborate gate and statue after another. Then, the forbidden city is at least another mile or two long, a complete maze of ornate architecture. After buying our tickets and crossing the bridge over the moat, we were absolutely in awe. Built in the 1400s, and housing the emperor for over 5 centuries, this former ceremonial center of government consists of over 900 buildings. It would take forever to see everything and our hunger definitely would not allow us to do so. The food we ate in one of the FC cafes was good except for the strangest kiwi juice I'd ever seen. Instead of the neon green color I'm used to seeing, it was brownish and not sweet or tasty. Oh well, not everything can be perfect.

We did have lots of fun though. We ran into some Korean guided tour groups and I impressed them with my basic annyeong haseyo (hello) greeting. Koreans are usually surprised when foreigners know any of their language. I also posed with a couple German guys (decked out in German-colored Dr. Seuss hats) who made me promise to put Obama into office. I promised them I would do my best. We also met a colorful character from Wisconsin. An avid pin collector, Beijing was his 8th Olympics. He was doing it alone though, because he refused to bring his daughter. "The Chinese kidnap blond haired children," he had been told or read somewhere. My favorite part was the gardens at the rear of the palace. One of the rather large vases was designated for trying to throw coins in its uppermost apparatus, not an easy venture, but definitely a fun one.

When we crossed the moat again to meet up with the rest of our party, we were surrounded by gangs of Corona Bike sponsors (I didn't understand them, but they had nice Treks) and Phelps Phans, as their t-shirts denoted. At that time, Phelps had just won his seventh gold and was looking for Olympic history the next morning. All in all, a great time was had by all and we were all ready for some good old American malts. So, we headed to a rather famous western style diner.

My strawberry malt was delicious. In addition to good food and a quaint atmosphere, we discovered a cool sounding American sports bar called All-star in an English magazine. This would be our destination for the evening's USA-Spain basketball game. We headed home through the traditional streets passing small street vendors and local artists, great vibes! At home, the China-Germany basketball game was underway: Dirk vs. Yao. During the game my Chinese friends gave me a taste of how complicated the pinion (romanized Chinese pronunciation) can be. For instance, Wang Zhi Zhi is a great example. I always thought the sub par NBA player's last name was pronounced with a "z" sound. Oh no, it's actually a "ju" sound, like the beginning of the word judge. On top of that, you have to make sure you are using the correct tone (there are 5 to choose from!). Ahh! If you ever want to learn Chinese, the first step is conquering the pinion pronunciation, then learn the tones and finally tackle the dauntingly massive Chinese character system. Good luck!

The Redeem Team

After China put Germany away in the closing minutes in dramatic fashion, we taxied to the real game, USA-Spain. All-star is brand new bar, complete with 60 plus plasma TVs. Even if you are facing the wall in a booth, which I was, you still have a TV nestled in the corner for your viewing pleasure. After ordering countless dishes (delicious food) and beer (Hoegarden!), the first thing on tap was track and field: the men's 100 meter dash. Having never heard of Usain Bolt, I was completely blown away by his record breaking sprint. It was amazing to catch it live in such a fun environment. Everybody went nuts as he started celebrating with 20 meters to go and fist pumped his chest. Had he actually run the whole thing properly the new world record would be much lower. 

The basketball game created that same bar energy for the entire 40 minutes of play. Every dunk, shot and block was followed by a huge roar from the crowd. Even though the US heavily overpowered the talented Spaniards, the whole bar was glued to the tube from start to finish. I've watched tons of basketball in my life, but this might have been the most fun I've had watching a game on TV. Really, it was great! Also great, was the USA-Spain gold medal game last Sunday. Instead of the usual blowout, Spain kept it close the whole way, forcing the US to earn their redemption.

Olympic Park and Out

The next morning we slept until noon. We woke up to an empty house except for Solomon (George's Chinese friend) watching a Kung Fu documentary with the lights off (slightly strange to wake up to). After packing and taking pictures of the house (owners are Chinese traditional artists), we met George and Kevin at Olympic Park. They handed us two recently used fencing tickets so we could get into the facilities and use the subway for free (all public transit was free with same day Olympic tickets...pretty sweet).

Our first stop in Olympic Park was none other than...drum roll please...McDonald's! Yep, the good old American staple I try to avoid at all costs is sometimes not avoidable. In this case, we were really hungry and that was the best food around. Anyway, I did enjoy myself. For starters, the escalator down to get there was surrounded by massive traditional style drums. Further, the menu was interesting, so small and easy to choose. Only 4 items: McNuggets, Big Mac, Chicken Sandwich, Cheeseburger. Finally, it was packed and delicious. American fast food, especially KFC, is seen as upper class and generally more expensive than Chinese food. So, despite my misgivings, I enjoyed my Chinese McDonald's experience thoroughly.

After the fast food fill-up, we walked around, checking out the sites. Olympic Park is a huge pedestrian area with all sorts of great buildings to look at. We did some bird flapping in front of the Bird's Nest with the enormous burning torch in the background. Also, we played Chinese hacky sack between the swimming cube and the national stadium (gymnastics). It was a perfect environment to end our trip. After a very successful hack, we called it quits and headed to the airport. George and I chatted the whole way, catching up and discussing as old friends like to do. I departed on a great note, feeling great about China, the Chinese people (I hope I can see Kevin again), my wonderfully generous friends (thanks again George) and the Olympics (I can't wait to go again). To make matters even better, our flight back to Seoul was short and painless, bringing us back to Korea in two hours.

Thanks for reading

As always, thanks for reading, skimming or just looking at pictures. Whatever you're doing, I appreciate it. I write for an audience and it's nice to know that I have one, albeit a small one. I would like to know what's going on in your world. So, drop me an e-mail or a facebook message, whatever is best for you.

Also, a couple things to look for in the future. In September, I will be traveling with Helen and another couple to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. There will surely be a blog about those travels. In regard to my trip back to the States last spring, I'm not totally finished blogging. I still have to finish the Vegas chapter. Hopefully, I will finish that before the Southeast Asian adventure. I will do my best.

All the best, Bill


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