(originally poster August 20, 2008)
Wednesday August 20, 2008 Starbucks in Beijing, China 2:19 pm
Wow, so much to say. So I have been in China almost 3 days now. I arrived on Sunday late afternoon and was met at the airport by an English speaking lady from English First, the company I am working for. She was quite helpful. Because I had my large bicycle case with me, there wasn’t room for all of us in the car so we took a train to Tianjin. We had a bit of difficulty finding taxis and then a train that wasn’t sold out. While waiting for the train, Luna took me to have Beijing duck, which was quite good. It is basically just sliced pieces of duck meat dipped in sauce and you put them in a rice tortilla, much like fajitas. The ‘bullet’ train went over 200 mph! We got to Tianjin and on the way to drop me off at my hotel, we passed a man peeing on the street. I guess Tianjin is more ‘real China’ than Beijing. The next morning I went for a run to scope out the area as usual, and Tianjin seems to be a beautiful city. People from the school picked me up again and we went to the police to register, as all foreigners must do within 24 hours of arriving in China, even tourists. While we were waiting, a man saw me and turned to me to try to practice his English. He was very kind, and it turns out his daughter who was with him is an English major. He gave me his name and phone number and told me to call him if I needed help with anything. I was certainly struck by the openness and friendliness of my first experience with local Chinese culture.
Then I caught the train back to Beijing in the afternoon and caught a cab to my hostel. The taxis here are really quite cheap here, although not as cheap as the 15 cent bus rides. The hostel is not great. The shower is pretty dirty, it doesn’t have a toilet, only a squatty potty, and the bed is basically just a metal slap with a blanket. (A squatty potty for those who don’t know is pretty much like it sounds, not a toilet but just a hole in the ground where one must squat to do their business. Also, not toilet paper.) It is not any softer than sleeping on an tile floor with a blanket. But I will survive. The guys at the front desk are quite helpful. My next trip was off to pick up my Olympic tickets, which proved to be quite simple. I already sold my extra track and field ticket to my roommate at the hostel. We walked around town a little bit and saw Tiananmen Square briefly, which was cool more for its history than its beauty. Lou, an English girl who went with me, really wanted a ‘local’ meal, since this was her first night in Asia. Having just come off from 6 weeks in Thailand, I was looking for anything but rice, but alas I went along with her. There would be plenty of time for the proverbial McDonalds later.
The next morning was yesterday, which was Tuesday. It was a most storied and incredible day. I got up early to go to the men’s triathlon event which it turns out was an over 2 hour bus ride from my hostel, but is still in Beijing. Just to give you an idea how immense Beijing is in land mass, I heard later that the city of Beijing is roughly the size of Belgium! And I thought Houston was large. I set out to find the triathlon venue with only my ticket and some scribbled Chinese from the guy from my hotel. I showed everyone on the bus and thought I was a goner until I miraculously found one Chinese person on the bus who spoke English (I was the only foreigner on the bus) who was also going to the triathlon. He was very helpful. Inside the even I sat next to some Canadians, who turned out their brother was competing for Canada in the modern pentathlon on Thursday. His mom said she might be able to get me some tickets. It was quite nice to speak normal English. The race was close, and I thought the Americans had a good chance since two of them came off the bike in the lead pack. But they couldn’t hang on in the run and in a thrilling sprint finish a German guy outran Simon Whitfield of Canada. I followed the Canadians back to the city and went to the Olympic park to walk around the stadium. I was really keen on finding tickets to the last night of gymnastics that night. Despite all the news reports about police cracking down on scalping, there were hundreds of people selling tickets on the street right next to the sign announcing that it was prohibited. It was literally a giant buffet line on the street of hundreds of local Chinese selling all sorts of tickets at ridiculous prices. But after some haggling I finally got a gymnastics ticket for 1700 RMB, or about $210! My quest was successful about 2 hours before the event started Considering the guy I had bought my other tickets from said he sold his gymnastics tickets for over $600, I was pretty pleased with my buy. I met a German guy on the street who was also on a quest for gymnastics tickets, and he was eventually successful as well. . I went in, grabbed some dinner and walked around a bit. Both the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium and the Water Cube were more incredible in person than on TV. Truly beautiful venues. I was soo pumped as I walked in the stadium. Since I hadn’t eaten anything all day, I quickly ran to McDonalds for dinner, as it is the only option for food inside the Olympic Complex. Strangely enough, this turned out to be a great analogy for China. There were about a dozen registers and hundreds of people pouring through the restaurant to get food. I have never seen so many people at a McDonald’s in my life. Behind the counter were scores of employees rushing around to efficiently bring dozens of meals per minute to hungry and pushy customers. Here was a perfect example of how personal space as we know it does not exist in China. I thought it was a great analogy of China using its biggest resource, people, in a workmanlike almost Communist style to efficiently feed the masses. Maybe I am being over poetic about a simple trip to McDonalds, but I thought it was interesting.
This night was some of the most exciting gymnastic event finals: Mens Parallel Bars, Womens Beam, and Mens High Bar. I was particularly excited about seeing Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson on beam. There were some empty seats so I went down closer to get a better view of the Beam. On my way some other Aggies saw my A&M shirt and yelled out Gig’Em. I think they were class of ’96 or something. I chatted with them for a bit, then went down and ended up with just about the best possible spot to watch the Beam. I was right over the entrance where the athletes came in and out. The first time Nastia came out with her dad I yelled her name and she turned to look up and me and gave a small smile and smirk. Then after she won the silver I yelled out ‘Way to represent Texas’ and she turned to look up at me and gave me a smile and a wave. Oh man was I excited! J It was awesome to watch her and Shawn with the silver and gold. Man what a great experience. And American Jonathan Horton won silver on the High Bar. But this is by no means the end of my Star Studded day. I went with one of the Aggies I met out to where they film the ‘Today Show’ right outside the stadium. If you can find on the NBC website or Youtube or somewhere the Today Show from August 19, I am in the background a few times, most prominently right behind Tiki Barber’s head. Ya I know go figure, Tiki Barber, a running back who is the all time rushing and receiving yards leader for the New York Giants was an analyst for Track and Field and I got to see him from about 5 feet away. I came all the way to the Olympics in Beijing to see an American football star. Ironic. Even better though, was the next segment of the Today Show where American swimming star and 11 time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin was doing a cooking segment. After it finished not only did I get her autograph, but I got a picture with her!!! She was really friendly, and I felt like I was dreaming. Unbelievable. I am hoping to meet the two American gymnasts at the Today Show tonight. But again, don’t be fooled, there is more to this story. After all this excitement I finally headed off to my soccer semifinal match that night, which turned out to be a soldout game between Brazil and Argentina! Ronaldhino versus Messi. Since I purchased the tickets over a week ago, I didn’t know who was going to be playing, but turns out I hit the jackpot. And not only in who was playing in the game. I didn’t arrive until halftime, but up until that point the score was 0-0. Then less than 5 minutes after I arrived Argentina began their scoring spree and ended up with a dramatic 3-0 crushing of Brazil. But here is the kicker. As soon as I sat down in my seat, the guy next to me (who was Dutch) told me to look at the end of the row behind me. And yes, even though I could scarcely believe it, there sat Kobe Bryant, basketball megastar from the Los Angeles Lakers! I must have looked at least ten time before I could believe it. It was really funny too, because the NBA is huge in China, and all these people kept walking by to take pictures of Kobe, not the soccer game. He had a whole row of security guards along with almost 30 Chinese volunteers escort him out of the game. But the climax is that as he was walking out right behind me, I stood up and said “Whats up Kobe?” and stuck out my hand, and he shook it!!!! That means I got smiles, pictures, and shook hands with 3 Olympic gold medalists in a matter of 3 hours!! It still sounds crazy when I think about it. What a first day to the Beijing Olympics huh? I guess everything from here on will seem really quiet. Wow what a day!!
I had a real difficulty finding an empty taxi coming out of the soccer stadium. I began walking farther away and a Chinese guy offered to help and walked with me trying to flag down a cab. He also helped me dodge the crazy cars and bikes while crossing the street. The Chinese are very helpful and friendly. Back at the hostel that night I met a British girl who speaks 4 languages already and is here to work on her Mandarin. Pretty impressive at age 19.
Today I spent 3 hours taking buses the wrong way and asking dozens of people for directions who didn’t know English trying to find the American Embassy to get more pages added to my passport. But in the end I made it. Now I am at Starbucks to write down all my adventures. Man I must still be jet lagged because I am exhausted even though I slept late this morning. I have also developed a rather concerning sore throat, but I’m praying it will go away on its own soon.
On the Mandarin note, I have already learned 4 characters, and since during my day in Tianjin I saw 0 foreigners, I’m sure I will be quite immersed in the language.