Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beijing Day 1 — A Great Day

It’s amazing what a little positive thinking can do for you.

As we got ready to go this morning, I kept telling Angie that today was going to be a good day. I was wrong.

It was a great day.

We started out at the breakfast buffet downstairs. The one good thing about our room here is that we get free breakfast each morning. After loading up (Angie stays with the western style foods, I’ve been trying some of the local stuff), we stopped by the Olympic info desk to check our directions for getting to the handball venue later in the afternoon and to get directions to our intended sightseeing stops for the day. Our goal was to use the subway and bus system to get around and not rely on taxis.

The nearest subway station is about a half hour walk from the hotel, so we set out. There is also a bus that can take us there, but since we’re not working out we decided we need the walking.

We found the subway station and successfully boarded the correct train going in the correct direction. In order to get to our first sightseeing spot of the day, we needed to transfer subway lines and catch a bus. With a little help from the ever-present volunteer info stations, we made it to our destination: Jingshan Park.

The main reason we picked this as our first excursion was mostly because it borders the back of the Forbidden City and allows you to see into that complex. We also felt like we needed a little calm and easy going relaxation after the frustrations of the day before. We really picked the right spot.

First off, this park is huge. It’s actually built on the earth excavated to create the moats around the Forbidden City. Those moats are massive, and so is the hill at the heart of the park. So massive that the temple pavilion at the top is the highest point in Beijing, not counting modern skyscrapers. The view was fantastic and you can indeed look down and into the Forbidden City. This spot seems to be a favorite for the locals as well as the tourists because the pavilion at the top was packed with people taking photos of the skyline.

On our way up and on our way down from the summit, we kept hearing chanting or singing coming up from the base of the hill. It is all heavily forested, so we couldn’t see what the sources of the sounds were. Once we got down, we found out.

All around the periphery of the park, there were pockets of people dancing/exercising, fan dancing, dancing with giant flowing ribbons, singing, playing what looked like hacky sack with giant shuttlecocks and other similar sorts of activities. None of it looked like it was scheduled entertainment. It looked like people just showed up and started dancing, or whatever. Very spontaneous, like this was the spot for community performing and anyone was welcome to join in.

Jingshan Park Fan Dancers

The best group was on the back slope of the hill, amongst some boulders. There was a tight circle of people surrounding a small handful of women dancing to prerecorded music being broadcast on a small portable speaker. We watched for a couple songs and were about to move on when something wonderful happened. The next song started up and literally everyone pulled out a harmonica, drum, tambourine, maraca-type shaker or song book and joined in. The harmonica players even had personal amplifiers around their necks that we hadn’t noticed before. Even the kids were playing along. It was crazy. Both of us just kind of stood there with big grins on our faces, amazed at the sudden orchestra. We stayed for maybe 4 more songs before leaving.

A short distance away, we found a large open space in front of one of the gates leading into the park. There was a large group of people dancing/exercising to music. The odd thing about this group was that they were dancing to western music, like the Backstreet Boys. When “Bye, Bye, Bye” came up and they started doing some of the dance moves you normally find in boy band videos, Angie and I could only smile and shake our heads. It was by far the weirdest thing we saw today.

Next to these dancers were groups of people playing, for lack of the correct term, hacky sack with a giant badminton shuttlecock. These people were wicked good with that thing, doing kicks off their heels, from behind their backs and other moves that looked more like world-class soccer footwork than leisure exercise. Men, women, young and old were all playing.

One old guy that had me transfixed had a giant brush and was doing calligraphy on the paved walkways using water as his ink. The characters lasted until the water dried. It looked like he was doing people’s names, but I can’t be sure. At one point, he let a spectator give it a try. She didn’t do very well and once he got the brush back he started to tease her a bit. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, but from the reactions of the people watching, he was pretty funny and it seemed to be aimed at his “helper,” who was taking it with good humor.

Another group that was really fascinating was 5 older men who were twirling what looked like giant tops with a long length of string. As the tops spun faster, they started to make a low growl noise a lot like deep chanting. They were doing all sorts of tricks and really giving each other a lot of ribbing when one would mess up. It was pretty funny to watch them picking on each other. They obviously have been doing this together for a long time and were just waiting for each other to screw up so they could talk some trash.

After strolling through the park for a good three hours or so, we decided to hop back onto the buses and subways and make our way to our first Olympic event: 2 Men’s Handball matches at the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium — France vs Spain and Germany vs Russia.

Getting there really was a snap. Getting through security was no big deal. The hardest part was the long walk from the subway to the venue. There is a special subway line that goes into the Olympic park, but our venue was closer to the beginning of the subway line than the next stop, so the volunteer guides told us it was easier and quicker to walk. Still, it felt like a good mile or so. Speaking of which, all together we logged almost 30,000 steps today according to Angie’s pedometer.

Of course, the whole time we were closing in on the entrance to the park, I was getting more and more excited. Angie had to ask me to slow down a couple times because I kept walking faster and faster. Right before we got to the main gates for the OSC, I spotted a piece of the Bird Cage poking above some trees. I was all like, “Ooh, ooh, the Bird Cage!” and started snapping photos even though I could only see an end of it. Then I noticed the Olympic Torch was there too. “The Torch! The Torch!” Yeah, I’ve got it bad.

Bird Cage and Torch

Anyway, through security like I said – easy shmeasy. Angie did have to pull everything out of her back and pantomime a couple explanations for the bottle of ibuprophen she had in there. They understood enough to know it wasn’t lethal and let us through.

I was all like, “Dude, we’re at the Olympics!” and got a little verklempt. A little way up the path, I caught a better glimpse of the Bird Cage and had to stop and take some shots. Other people saw what I was doing and had to stop and shoot as well. At least I’m not alone in having it bad.

We had to go up next to the OSC Stadium which is all decked out for equestrian events and wind our way around to the Gymnasium. On the way, I saw a man walking past us with a big, fat Nikon on his neck and a camera bag on his hip. I stopped him and asked him about his camera — did security give him any problem getting it into the venue, how big was his lens, did he have other lenses in the bag? He answered no, big and lots. I shook his hand, explained how devastated I was to be told that I couldn’t bring my camera into the venues and thanked him for his time.

I did a happy dance. A spontaneous expression of glee. Literally, I danced.

This frightened my wife a bit.

It was such a blow to be told I couldn’t use my camera. One of my coworkers commented that taking photos is my thing, it’s what I do. To not have that, while not spoiling this trip because this trip was about so much more than photos, did put a wet blanket on everything. To have my camera back was worth a little jig on the pathway to the gymnasium.

Buoyed by this news, we hurried to our venue. After a short wait, we entered the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium and our first Olympic event.

First thing we did (and by the way, I was second in line to get in), was to do a quick walk around the concourse. This was not a western style arena. The concourse was really all on one side. The ends of the arena and back side only had a small walkway and restrooms. The only concessions or souvenir booths were next to the front entrance. This made sense once we got into the seating area. Most of the spectator seating was on one side. The opposite side was sectioned off for media, the many TV cameras, photographers and what I assumed to be dignitary seating. There was really very little room for spectator seating, so no reason to have a lot of amenities on that side of the building.

We went back out and cruised the merch booth. Definitely some possibilities with some t-shirts and magnets. We have to have our magnets. We ended up getting a set of the mascots as magnets. Keen.

The concessions were… interesting. Their concept of a hot dog gets a little lost in translation. I didn’t think to photograph the hot dog. I will next time because describing it won’t give you the full impact. Let me say that it was served cold, in packaging with the ketchup already squirted on. Like I said, you need to see it.

They also offered bread. Not a bread roll or a bun without the burger, no an actual small loaf of bread.

Of course, you could get beer. The Germans were double fisting the stuff.

Once inside, we found our seats — up high and in a corner. That’s B level seating for you. The arena was small enough that we still felt like we had a good enough view. It was analogous to being in about row 14 above the tunnel where the Storm enter the court at KeyArena. We had a German couple in front of us, a Thai family next to us, more Germans behind us, a group of Chinese school kids to the other side and an Indian couple in front next to the Germans. Excellent.

Before things got underway, I noticed that the Germans in front had a DSLR camera with a big ass lens. I went down and talked to them a bit and sure enough they got in with no problems. Life is good.

The pregame entertainment was a group of Chinese kids playing handball along with a cheerleading group called the Beijing Honeys — I am not kidding — and the Olympic mascots dancing about. While that freakshow was going on, the big scoreboards on either end of the arena had computer animated clips of the mascots dancing around and leading cheers. On top of that, the announcements were given in Mandarin, as expected, and English… with a Texan accent.

Believe me when I say it was all a little surreal.

Finally, the first two teams were introduced and the match began.

I won’t go into a play-by-play since this was televised and is available to view online. Plus, I didn’t take notes. All I can do is give you some impressions.

Having never seen handball before, I can say that it was pretty exciting to watch. A mix of basketball, soccer and hockey played with a small, palmable ball and a big net. There is a ton of physical contact including bone-jarring picks, high flying leaps with Jordan-quality hang time and lightning fast scoring. These guys were just throwing their bodies around and were able to get the ball into the net with incredible accuracy. Sometimes it seemed like it didn’t matter whether the goalie was paying attention or not, the ball went into the net.

France was heavily favored in the first match and really put a hurting on Spain through most of the game. Spain made up some ground in the second half but couldn’t get it any closer than 4. They kept piling up the penalties and France took advantage. The French team won it fairly easily.

There weren’t a lot of French or Spanish fans in the stands, at least not obviously so. I would say there were maybe 20 French fans with flags or costumes and about half that for Spain. After the match, two of the French fans who were dressed up with blue afro wigs, red clown noses and French flags as caps were real hits with the Chinese spectators. Everyone wanted a picture with those guys and they were happy to oblige. One Spanish fan who was also sporting a flag cape kept butting in, but was doing it out of fun. The French guys were giving him a bad time and he was joking back at them. Everyone was smiling, even those who didn’t understand what was being said because it all looked so silly.

The second match was Germany and Russia. The Germans came with a huge group of fans, probably a good couple hundred with flags, hats, capes, horns, giant foam hands, and just about anything with the German colors on it. They also did a lot of chants. Most of them sat in the section right behind the German bench. While that was good for the Germans, it was a little interesting how they all ended up there since the tickets were supposedly given out by lottery. There were fewer Russian fans, but there were also really vocal. All of that coupled with a tight match made for some exciting handball.

Germany came out strong and in control, but Russia kept finding ways to score and didn’t let the Germans get too far out in front. The game was tied or close to it most of the way. Both teams were really good and were really pushing each other. There were some flat out amazing shots with the offensive players getting mugged by two or three defenders, going down to the court and still finding a way to squirt the ball in past the goalie. Or the offensive player extending full horizontal to the floor and flipping the ball in just before hitting the deck. They were bouncing it between the goalies’ legs, looping it over their heads and doing all sorts of acrobatics to get the advantage.

One play by the Germans sticks out. One guy went in full blast and was cranking back to fire the ball into the net just as a second player jumps up with a different attack angle to the goal. The first player, right before he fell to the floor, flipped the ball up to the second player who was just then at the top of his jump who then did a cannon shot into the net right past the goalie who was still recovering from trying to block the first German shooter. It was like a handball alley oop and had the whole arena rocking. It didn’t matter if you knew anything about handball or not, that was one pretty play.

The two teams traded goals down the stretch, but no one could take control and the game ended in a tie. Angie was looking for overtime, but since this was pool play they took the tie and that was it.

What a good way to start our Olympic experience — watching a sport neither of us had ever seen, surrounded by people from 5 countries and getting a match that was down to the wire pushed along by hundreds of flag waving crazies. Seriously cool.

I almost forgot the last camera sighting. During the second match, I saw not one, not two but three people in a group each with a big freakin’ lens — two of which are exactly like the big freakin’ lens I have. I went down to talk to them. They were a Thai family and yes each had their own DSLR with 70-200mm lenses. Again, I asked if they had any problems and they said no. They had been to the Bird Cage the day before with no problems and had no issues getting into this venue either. All in all, I saw at least 10 people with big cameras and lenses at this event.

A pattern has emerged when it comes to the rules. If you ask, they will say no. If you just do it, they won’t bother you. At the match, there were two German fans with enormous flags that stretched across 5 or 6 seats. The spectator rules state very clearly that oversize flags and signs are not permitted. Sure enough a couple ushers came down and tried to take away the flags. The Germans argued and the ushers left. The flags stayed.

Earlier, we noticed that there were a lot of open seats. I went down and asked if we could move down once the match started an no one took the seats. I was told no. Of course, half the people around us got up and moved closer during the match.

When I asked about my camera, I was told no. All of the people in the stands with cameras took them in and didn’t act like they weren’t allowed to. They got in.

I don’t know if I’m ready to generalize this, but the pattern is real. Don’t ask permission, just do it like you know what you’re doing and they’ll leave you alone.

Anyway, back to my ginormous post.

Sounds like a full day, right? Getting around on the subway, going to the park, our first Olympic event — a great day. Well, it wasn’t quite done yet. There was still a little matter of finding some scorpions on a stick. That’s right. After the matches were complete, we went looking for the Night Market and some bugs on sticks.

Again, with a little advice along the way from a helpful passerby, we found the Night Market. It was packed, but we were able to stroll from stall to stall, looking for the scorpions and deciding what to try. Good lord it all smelled so good. The vendors were all hyper aggressive, trying to lure us in to buy their specialties. True to the advertising, there was all sorts of weird stuff on sticks: silk worms, snake, starfish, crickets, normal kinds of meat like chicken or beef, octopus (and not that little stuff that you usually get as calamari, I’m talking full on take-down-the-Nautilus squid), intestines, testicles and just about every other normally non-edible substance. As long as it fit on a stick and could be fried, you could buy it.

First off, because I was starving and it smelled way too good, I got a pile of pot stickers. I may never have pot stickers again back home. They can never taste as good as these ones did. Angie was being picky and unadventurous and went for some noodles. Whatever, rookie.

We got about 3/4ths of the way down the row before spotting the scorpions. Only one vendor had them, and he had two varieties — the small tan ones and the big black ones. The big ones were 50 Yuan, which seemed a bit steep, so I went for the smaller ones. He fried up a stick, which had three scorpions on it, and handed it over.

I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive. After all, these were scorpions with their claws and stingers attached. In fact, the first time I put one up to my mouth, I poked my lip with a claw. With Angie snapping away with the camera, in the first one went.

Crunchy. The claws and legs kind of poked the inside of my mouth as I chewed. I had to work the body off the stick a bit, and then the tail. Overall, not bad. It tasted a little like the skin off of fried chicken. I polished off the other two, making sure Angie was able to get a shot of one of the stingers sticking out between my lips, just for visual impact.

Mission accomplished, my friends. I ate scorpions on a stick.

Scorpions on a Stick!

Photos to come (and since I have to get up in 4 hours to get ready for our first full day — full meaning 15 hours worth — of basketball, photos will be coming much later, sorry). I’ll try to post a few highlights as soon as I can.

That was a great day.


Amanda said...

Congratulations you two! Thanks so much for reporting all of this, I love reading about your experiences. And FUCK YES to being able to bring your camera in! oxoxo

Lara said...

Ditto to what Amanda said! I'm actually a little verklempt myself reading about all your adventures. Tears of joy!

Jenny said...

Yay... Camera justice afterall, sweet! Thanks so much for making us all feel like we are there with you, you guys are Rockstars! I can't wait to read the next blog and see pics from the 'big gun' and basketball.. woohoo

Aimee said...

You actually ate it! Wow!
I love reading your blog and glad to hear you can bring your camera in.
Glad you are having a great time!

norwester said...

OK, I'm not a screamer, but I squealed at your scorpions on a stick picture. Must be my not-so-latent arachnaphobia.

I loved your descriptions of the locals in the park, and all the activities, and the excitement you felt approaching the Olympic venues and the diversity of the crowd.

But the best is the news about your camera. I was really feeling for you, and was extremely happy to hear that the "system" can be bucked.

jilly said...

amazing! i feel like i am right there with you and am enjoying every word i read. keep it up!

Joe Schwartz said...

"I don’t know if I’m ready to generalize this, but the pattern is real. Don’t ask permission, just do it like you know what you’re doing and they’ll leave you alone."

I think this is universal. Act like you belong there, doing whatever it is that you want to do, and most of the time everyone just assumes that you belong there. Don't act suspicious, don't ask for permission, just act like it's perfectly natural to be doing what you're doing. Anyway, I'm glad you'll be able to shoot.

Sheila said...

Yeah for the camera news. I've enjoyed reading about your trip. Your descriptions make the reader feel as if they have had the experience themselves, instead of living vicariously thorough the two of you.

As for the camera, tis always easiser to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

Speedforce said...

Glad you got to take the camera, man! Not surprising to hear about the Germans & the beer. lol. I know part of the allure is that beer is so damned cheap in China. It cost practically nothing! Buying a coke is almost the cost of a meal! And good thing beer is cheap with that heat!!
Glad you're having a ball.