Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beijing - Day 5 Great Wall and Forbidden City

Beijing Day 5 — Great Wall — 14

We were both very excited about our day long tour today. We were going to see the Great Wall and then on to Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. I had some concerns that with an hour and half drive to the Wall each way and the tour only being from 9 am to 5 pm that we would be able to spend enough time at the sight to actually see everything. It was actually worse than I expected. Our tour guide, Shall, meet us at the hotel at 8:30 am. She used to be a teacher and her English is quite good. She's also a very chatty person. She spent the day asking us what we knew about the various sites and then lecturing us on what we didn't know.

I had read that tour guide often make side trips to "factories" where you can basically buy direct from the factory. You have a little tour and then dump you into a massive store. Who knows if the stuff is actually made there are not. I had assumed that our tour company would screen their tour guides and at least ask if we wanted to go shopping. No such luck. In fact, we didn't even make it to the Wall without stopping at a factory.

The first one, the Jade Factory, wasn't so bad and I had wanted to get some jade jewelry, so I didn't mind so much. We had a short tour about where jade came from, the types of jade and how they carve it as well as viewing some extremely awesome carvings. Scott has some pictures. The store was massive and we did buy some jade. This stop cost us approximately an hour out of our day.

Beijing Day 5 — Jade Factory — 4

We then headed to the Great Wall. We were going to the section at Badalang. I had read in the tourist guides that this section got fairly heavy tourist traffic, but the reality was hard to envision. The drive up was quite nice with some amazingly beautiful scenery. Once there, it was a bit like an theme park from the 70s that hadn't been maintained very well. Lots of souvenir shops (and I do mean lots - like wall to wall from the entrance of the place to where you started walking up to the Wall. And some zoo-like pens with black bears. The funny thing was that there were a ton of signs that said don't feed the bears or throw things at them. However, everyone was doing so and in fact the bears were standing with their mouths open to encourage people to throw food at them. There were no park workers to stop them.

Beijing Day 5 — Great Wall — 2

We elected to take what we thought was a trolley/tram to the top. It wasn't a trolley, more of carts on a conveyor system. Think kiddie roller coaster up a very steep hill. They don't actually stop the cars, you just have to jump in really quick. Not so easy when you have a backpack on. When we got to the top, again the things didn't slow down and the guy just reachs in and jerks you out. I'm going to have a bruise the size of my "rollergirl" bruise on my thigh tomorrow. Once off the carts we still had a decent climb to get to standing on the Wall. The stairs weren't that well maintained and it was more like hiking on a rocky hill that walking on stairs. However, you are also surrounded shoulder to shoulder with about 200 people all trying to get to the same narrow walkway. My favorite is having someone put their hand in the middle of my back and just start pushing. Like I wouldn't be moving forward if I could! My other favorite is those people that just stop dead in the middle of traffic to take a picture, get in their bag, whatever. They can't pull over and get out of traffic, they just stop right in the way and then give you a dirty look when you run into them because they stopped without warning. Cheesh.

Beijing Day 5 — Great Wall — 9

We climbed some very steep stairs and made it up to a guard house. Very close quarters with people trying to go both directions in a walkway that was wide enough for about one person. Typical. Once through, we were actually standing on the Great Wall. That was pretty awesome. It was very foggy due to humidity and being up in the mountains, so I'm not sure how well Scott's pictures turned out. We continued hiking towards the next guard house. The stairs are all very uneven. You will have a couple of steps that are about 3-6 inches high and then the next one will be nearly 24 inches high. Man, I was thankful of all the squats and lunges that our trainer has been making us do. Additionally, it was very steep, I would guess about 30 degrees and still packed with people. The shoving and pushing at this point just becomes dangerous.

The sad thing was that we noticed a lot of graffiti carved into the wall. It didn't look terrible to us because it was all in Chinese and their characters are just pretty, however the defacing of such a national treasure is just sad. Another sad thing was there were several spot where it looked and smelled like someone had peed on the Great Wall. I've never been to Wasington, D.C. to see any of our national monuments, but I have to hope we treat them better than this.

Beijing Day 5 — Great Wall — 15

The tour guide had only given us about an hour and twenty minutes before we were to meet her back at the entrance. Unfortunately, with all the people, we barely made it to the first high spot in the Wall before we needed to turn around and head back. We were delayed because the line for the pulley cars was quite long. I took some video of coming back down, if it turned out. You could smell the brakes on the front car all the way down. Did I mention it was very steep? Fortunately, on this ride, they did actually stop the car and allow you a second to climb out without injuring yourself. We were late in meeting back up with Shall and then had to walk down passed all the pushy vendors one more time to get back to the van. As it was about noon, we drove off to get some food.

Imagine our surprise when the restaurant was connected to another factory. We ended up touring the factory before we got to eat. It was a cloissene (sp?) factory which was interesting I suppose, but none of these items were on our shopping list and I doubt any of them would make it back to the States in our luggage.

Lunch was good. I have no idea what Shall ordered except that there was no fish. She was gone when the food started coming and we were hungry, so we just started eating. It turns out, the first dish was eggplant. I did fine eating it until I found out what it was. Then I started having a gag reflex. Go figure. I passed on the bean curd this time, but I tried everything else and it was tasty. Again, there was too much even for the three of us to finish. It seems very wasteful, but Shall says it is expected that you leave food or they will think they weren't good hosts.

By now, it was nearly 2:30 and we headed out to Tianamen Square. However, Shall had been spending a bit of time on the phone while we were driving and we ended up stopping and waiting for someone to meet us for about 15 minutes. He was dropping something off. Did I mention the hard sells? Shall gave us a talk about the Olympic running man logo and Chinese stamps on our way to the Wall. She then said she knewn a guy who carved name stamps and asked if we'd like one. Scott said sure and so she had him write our names and the year we were born on a piece of paper. It turns out that we were waiting for this guy to bring our stamps and to take another order. Shall had gotten a call from a previous tour participant who wanted additional stamps. They were pretty cool - watch for your next postcard. However, Scott didn't ask how much and they were more expensive than I think they are worth given how much we will probably actually use them.

We were finally dropped off at the Square at about 3:30. Shall mentioned that we needed to hurry so that we could get to the Forbidden City before the ticket office closed. We essentially ran through the Square and the Forbidden City and "finished" both in an hour. Every time Scott tried to take pictures, Shall would hurry him along. Not at all satisfying, especially given that we had no time due to shopping excursions we hadn't wanted to take. I'm definitely saying no shopping for our tour on the 25th. Scott and I also agreed that we are going to use one of our free days to come back and actually look around the Square and City at our leisure.

Neither of us were that impressed with the service on our tour. To top it off, I could remember the standard tip amount and we massively over tipped for a tour we weren't at all happy with. On the plus side, we will be with Shall again on the 25th, so I'm not tipping again.

We had about 15 minutes left to our tour and Shall wanted to rush us off to a silk factory. We lied and said we had arranged to meet people at the Night Market (mmmmm, scorpion) and needed to be there at 5:00 and asked that they drop us off at the market so they, Shall and the driver, did. It was kind of a relief to get away from the non-stop talking and selling.

We had actually wanted to stop over at the Night Market and the intersecting shopping street because Scott wanted to visit the Nike store and see if he could find a Yau Ming jersey. They had them, but nothing of a size that would fit Scott. They also had some nice country related wear, but it was very expensive in comparison to the Olympic swag we had seen so we passed. Next, we spotted a store that had a ton of Olympic stuff. We braved the massive crowds and purchased a chunk of Olympic history.

Ladden with bags, we headed over to the Night Market and had some dinner. Scott had more pot stickers, a beef mixture wrapped in a thin pancake, a stuffed pork sandwich and supposedly a ball of fried banana. I had a pancake wrap, an ear of corn (which I thought would be spiced up some but it wasn't) and the fried banana. At which point, we were full and just grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. It was about 6:30 pm, one of our earliest nights yet so we'll take the opportunity to post to the blog, download pictures and get a good night's rest. Tomorrow we have the women's basketball semi-finals: China vs. Australia, USA vs. Russa. It ought to be good (if we can buy some better seats!)

Beijing — Day 4 Diving and Basketball

Today was another full day of Olympic action. We've settled into a good routine in the mornings and are able to get ready and get out pretty quickly. Our first event today was the Men's 3M Springboard semifinal at the National Aquatics Center, aka the Watercube, on the Olympic Green.

Finally the Olympic Green!

I've been dying to get in there since we got here, but as I wrote previously access is restricted to people who have an event ticket for one of the venues on the green. No ticket, no entry.

We got a shuttle from the hotel and got there really fast, so we had a little more time to walk around before the diving began at 10 am. No cars or buses are allowed on the Green, so we had to get out a good half mile away or so at the main entrance. Yes, the main entrance is a half mile from any of the venues. The park itself is maybe 2 miles long or so. It has it's own subway line with 4 stops. We decided to good ahead and catch the subway and go farther up than the arenas and walk back so that we could look around.

The complex has a total of 9 sport venues, pavilions for the broadcast companies including the huge broadcast pagoda next to the Bird’s Nest, pavilions for all the major Olympic sponsors, concert areas, fountains and tons of sculpture. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we didn’t do much more than walk back from the subway stop to the Bird’s Nest and Watercube. One other piece of information you need to fully paint the picture is how hot it was this morning.

It was jungle hot, as in watch out for the anacondas and poison blow darts Amazon hot. And if it were any more humid, we would have needed snorkels. A walk that took us about an hour ended up leaving both of us… moist.

Anyway, the center of the Green is a wide median with streets on either sides and then additional walkways outside the street lanes. Many of the sponsor pavilions are on this median. We crossed over to the side with the Bird Cage and started walking towards it. We noticed that this side had an sunken area that was about 2 stories deep that ran parallel to the main median and streets. There are more sculptures down there — we saw one that caught our eye that looked like drips of liquid mercury with one drip caught just as it was landing. When we got down there to take a closer look, the vertical drip was actually a rabbit. I have no idea why it is a rabbit. There were no explanatory plaques or info anywhere. There was also a McDonald’s down there, a performance area and additional large art installations.

Back up to the main level, we found a cross street that gave some great angles on the Bird Cage and Pagoda broadcast building. We did some tourist poses. Pretty much any time we stop to take pictures, people ask me to help them with their cameras and/or to use their camera to take pictures of them and whichever landmark they are interested in. As I wrote before, the Chinese people seem to love getting their photo taken in front of stuff. With the Bird Cage, I can understand since I did it to. They tend to take it to crazy town level though. There are wall posters in most venues that show a group of people having fun at the events. I think it is meant to encourage people to be courteous to others — one of those Chinese mass behavior modification efforts. Chinese people are constantly getting their photo taken in front of those posters. They do it in front of pretty much anything that has any possible tie to the Olympics. I chalk it up to them being totally new to this whole big event thing and to being honestly proud to have the Olympics in their city. It’s still pretty comical at times.

Once we got to the base of the broadcast Pagoda, I was finding it hard to get a good angle to shoot it. There is a lot of crap around it and it’s heavily guarded. We thought we’d try to find the NBC booth since the Today Show has been broadcasting live. We found it, and even though we were there during normal show hours, nothing was going on. Of course, 8 am in the morning Beijing time is not really normal broadcast hours in the US. We are 12 hours ahead of NYC. Duh.

On final approach to the Bird Cage, I noticed a large walled off area right outside the plaza around the stadium. On tip toes, I was able to see that it was the warm up track and field. I’m not sure why they would wall it off. All it did was make people come over to look and half climb the fence.

The Bird Cage itself is a huge building. It basically is a full-size stadium with an exposed superstructure. You’ve all seen it on TV, I’m sure. Up close and personal, the beams are truly massive and seem to twist and roll in ways that don’t seem architecturally sound. One of the really cool things about it is how the sunlight bounces around. I hope the photos I took accurately show what I mean. There’s almost a facetted look to it. We came in on the side in shadow. I took a few shots and decided to walk around to the sunlit side to get some shots over there. Did I say this building was huge? It took almost 15 minutes to walk around. Since we’re going to be back here for at least one more day (we have track and field one morning), I didn’t get too crazy with the Bird Cage photos. We did decide that on one of our remaining free days we would come down to the Green and see if we could buy some scalped tickets so we could get in for a night event and see how it all looks at night. We almost don’t care what the event is and may not go to it. I just want to get in at night.

On to the Watercube. This has to be one of the most unique buildings in the world and is certainly one of the most amazing Olympic venues. It certainly puts the basketball arena to shame. By now, everyone has seen what it looks like from the outside — a grid of interlocking, irregular bubbles. Inside, that theme is continued. There is a main wall next to the entry way leading into the seating area that uses the same bubble shapes, but is made up of flexible plastic and has to be inflated with air.

There are also interior water walls and reflecting pools that keep the interior much cooler than other air conditioned buildings we been into. Everything is designed around the bubble theme. There are bubbles in the counters at the info booths. The walkway is configured to undulate like a wave. The seating includes blue seats at the bottom with white seats at the top. In between the white seats start from the bottom in a random pattern increasing in frequency as they go up, like rising bubbles in water. It is by far the most thoroughly thought out building we’ve seen so far.

Men’s 3M Springboard semifinal

The seating area inside the Watercube is really relatively small. I would put it at 7500 or so max. One side of the seating is set aside for media, photographers, TV cameras and all the other specialized sections for dignitaries and athletes (that rarely get used except for final rounds). For the diving competition, only one end of the building was being used, so I estimate a quarter of the seats were being used. The seating is very steep and Angie and I found ourselves 3 rows from the top. You can’t get much more nose bleed than that. For the most part, the building was very cool due as I said. Unfortunately, none of that refreshing coolness reached the top of the stands. The seats were small, full of people and it was stifling… for an hour and a half. More of the moist.

While we weren’t surrounded by Americans like we have been previously, we were surrounded by other English speaking nationalities — Canada and Australia. The Canadian group was fairly large and all related in some way to one of the Canadian divers, Reuben Ross. They all had t-shirts that had their relation to him on the back — Reuben’s Cousin, Reuben’s Brother, etc. Unfortunately, he did fairly badly. He didn’t come in last of the 18 divers, so they had that going for them. He came in 17th.

The competition itself was fairly straightforward. There were 6 rounds of dives with 18 divers. There wasn’t much of a pause between each round, so the competition continued at a fairly even pace. Not ever having been to a diving competition and only having seen it briefly on TV, I was a little underwhelmed. Most of the dives looked the same. I get that a back 3.5 somersault is harder than a front one, or doing a twist one way might be harder than doing it the other way, but when you have 18 divers all doing some slight variation of 3 somersaults with a pike thrown in, it gets a little repetitive.

That repetition did help us in spotting the good dives in later rounds. It started to become more obvious when the dive was good or not after having seen 60 versions of them.

Since we had a late night at soccer last night and mixed in with the hot, close quarters, I started to nod off a bit. I know, how can you fall asleep at the freakin’ Olympics? I fought it, I really did.

Things started to perk up in the last couple rounds. One of the Chinese divers was so far out in front that the lower placed divers weren’t even besting his score after they completed an additional dive. His place in the final was set early on. Others’ positions were more up from grabs. If I remember correctly, the 4-12 spots changed sometimes fairly dramatically round to round. One of the American divers, Troy Dumais, had a lock on the top 4 spot through most of the competition. He had a couple bad dives at the end and fell almost out for qualifying for the final. The other American diver, Chris Colwell, did the reverse. He nailed his last two for some big scores and pulled himself out of the basement and into the final round.

All of the divers tried to pull out the stops for their last dives and a couple really nailed it. The leader, He Chong, went last and popped the highest score for any dive of the day. He could have fallen backward off the springboard and lost his speedo on the way down and would have still gotten first place. Instead, he let the other divers know he was boss. He wasn’t the only one who really uncorked one, which left me wondering why some of these divers couldn’t have performed better on their earlier, easier dives. If you can pull of a 90-100 score on your final dive, why are you hitting 70 point dives early on?

The one thing that I need to mention was the music played at the end of each dive. Right as the diver’s feet passed through the surface, the music would start blaring over the speakers. At first, it seemed like the person manning the iPod was trying to find music related to the nationality of the diver. That ended pretty quickly since there are only so many pop music songs which evoke Finland or Ukraine in some way. Unfortunately, the next playlist on the iPod was disco. Apparently, Dmitry Sautin is a Dancing Queen in his spare time. Angie, who was also nodding off, mused that they do the music that way to keep people awake.

So our grand plan was to leave the Watercube, catch the subway to the final stop on the other end of the Green, check out the main souvenir store that is supposed to have everything in one place (the arena-based souvenir selections SUCK), and then try the massive McDonalds for lunch.


First off, the line for the subway extended all the way up and out of the station, which meant there were several thousand people ahead of us. We decided to walk. Did I say the place was 2 miles or so long, maybe longer? Did I mention how hot and humid it was?

Once we got to the store and McDonalds, our normally people-loving attitudes were right out the damn window. Then we find out that the line for the store is being measured in hours. Forget that. So we head to the McDonalds. The ordering counter was maybe 50 feet long with a register every couple feet. The mob of people was 10 deep. After standing there, being pushed, jostled, getting cut in front of and sweating like Nixon in a televised debate, I was ready to initiate an international incident. And on top of that, the menu was limited to just a few items, none of which were localized in any way. Feh.

We ate outside and needed to find a cab to get us over to the basketball arena on the other side of town. Of course, we discover that no cabs are allowed at the back entrance to the Green and we have to all the way back to the main entrance. Since the last subway stop was nearby, we went down there hoping that the crowds weren’t too bad. We were able to get a seat before the masses got on, so that was decent. We’re getting pretty used to the subway here, so we were able to navigate around and get to our cab in about a half hour.

Now, as I wrote previously, our tickets for the night’s games included one session of two games with us sitting behind a metal bar and glass panels. Unacceptable. We had talked about finding some better seats via the scalpers and did a quick walkthrough of them before going in. They all had tickets for the first session and not the second, so we went to plan B — seat hopping.

I’ve described the process before. The Chinese seem to have no regard for what their tickets mean. An open seat in a better location is on open invitation. At times, upwards of a third of the people in a given section don’t have tickets for the seats they are sitting in. We decided to give it a try for the second session, which included the US/Korea game. Before that, we had Belarus vs China and Australia vs Czech Republic.

Game 1 — China vs Belarus

Again, the Chinese crowd was really into the game. The flags were everywhere and the Cha Yo cheer was almost non-stop. The Chinese women did really well, although they had some rough spots that I think a more skilled and talented team will do better at exploiting than Belarus did. The Belarus team looked out of their depth a bit. They were fouling like crazy and could not keep the ball under control. Add to that inconsistent shooting and they never really had a chance.

The interesting thing about this game was that Donna Orender was sitting just a few seats away from us. Someone with a USA Basketball shirt came down and got her after awhile and I didn’t see her come back.

Game 2 — Australia vs Czech Republic

Damn. Talk about a statement game. The Aussies dominated the Czech. The Czech team only had 27 points after three quarters. Truly amazing defense against a mediocre offense.

The bigger story is, of course, Penny Taylor going down with what looked like an ankle injury. I don’t know if the broadcast picked up her scream, but man did we ever hear it.

She got fouled under the basket and let out a little yelp with the foul — the Aussies were already up pretty big and about half the Chinese fans left after the first game so it was fairly quiet — and then let out a scream when she came down and suffered the injury. They don’t show any kind of replays on the big screen (in any venue we are discovering), so it wasn’t clear to us what happened. All I know is that she was down for a long time and had to be helped off.

A couple of the Czech players were standing over Penny while the trainers worked on her. One reached down to either pat her or offer a hand. LJ came over and really bitched the Czechs out, telling them to leave her alone and back off. She was pretty steamed the rest of the way and took it to the Czech team. Don’t piss her off, even if it seemed like they were trying to be nice.
Even without Penny, the Aussies easily handled the Czechs. In the stands, the Aussie contingent was still large, but a lot more subdued. Even before Penny’s injury, they weren’t nearly as loud as they were during the last game. Maybe they are saving it up for the next rounds.

Game 3 — USA vs Korea

Ok, so we got back into the arena (they kick us out between sessions), and went to our ticketed seats. As we sat there strategizing where we might go — we were thinking about moving back a couple rows and offering our seats to anyone who we had taken seats from — and spotted that the mid-section usher was gone from his post. We looked around and though to go for it. We kicked it down into the cush seats at about row 10 or so. Just to be extra bold, we went for the aisle seats at mid-court. We sat there nervously for about a half hour. Our plan in case we were challenged by the actual ticket holders was to play dumb like we misread our own tickets and move to nearby seats. We decided on where we’d move to ahead of time so it didn’t look like we were searching for open seats, not that the Chinese who do this really care about that.

The game got underway and so far, no problems. We actually made it to the half before the two people with tickets showed up. Luckily for us, there were still 4 empties right next to us in that row, so we just moved down. We made it the whole game with no problems. It wasn’t until the period between games that the rest of the actual ticket holders showed up. By that time, most of the people in the seats in our immediate area were seat hoppers. We ended up moving sections, but still in the lower area. We made it through the second game as well. The next round of games has us up in the nosebleeds. There won’t be any easy seat hopping for that situation. We’ll have to go the scalping route and plan on getting to the arena earlier than normal so we can work the line.

The game itself was a lot of fun to watch. The US was rolling and was able to do what I thought might happen once Korea got to play a really good team — slow down their shooters. Korea has some great shooters, but not much else. Their defense isn’t all that strong and they don’t have anyone who can really play center or power forward. Given that, Fowles had a monster night. Leslie was on the verge of doing so, but got into foul trouble. The US as a team put on a solid show and easily won the game.

A couple of in-the-stands items.

For a short time, Candace Parker’s mom was sitting in front of us. She had to move because she was in the wrong section. We tried to get her to take the seats next to us, but she didn’t and moved over with a group of Americans on one side who included a lot of coaches, including former Storm assistant coach Heidi VanDerveer, and other players’ families.

The trend I was watching concerning how demonstrative US fans are at the games continued. There were many more US fans at this game, but still no where near the rabid support we saw from the Aussies. A few flags were waving, but no organized chants. Are we so afraid of being seen as rude or arrogant? Angie and were yelling like we normally do — at the refs, for some of the players, normal stuff — and we were getting looks. I’ll keep watching how this plays out as the games get bigger leading up to the Gold medal match (if the US gets there).

Speaking of yelling things, I kept having to stop myself from yelling stuff about the Storm. I also had to stop myself from heckling Leslie and Milton-Jones when they were complaining about calls or imagined calls to the refs. The uniforms are different, but the anti-Spark conditioning is strong in this one.

The US men’s team came to watch, although I didn’t see Kobe. He might have been there since my view was partially blocked. A crowd of Chinese came down to take photos, but there were only half or less than how many came down with the Chinese men’s team showed up the other night.

Game 4 — Russia vs Spain

Finally, a close game… well most of the way.

Spain really came out hot, but Russia outlasted them and was able to dig themselves out of the whole in the second half and win handily. Unlike the last game we saw, the Russians played Becky Hammon as a starter instead of an off-the-bench shooter and gave her tons of playing time. She was really the difference in the game overall. The looming US vs Russia game will be very interesting indeed. I don’t think the Russians have the bench to hang with the US and they are very inconsistent. I think the US will find a way of capitalizing on the Russian’s rough shooting spots.

In the stands, I think we may have found a group who could give the Aussie fans a run for their money — Russian fans. They were out in force and making a ton of noise, all game long. It’s too bad these two teams won’t be facing each other in the next round. Seeing the Aussie fans go mano y mano with the Russians would have been a lot of fun (when the game means something, the final pool play game wasn’t really in doubt).

Well, tomorrow is our first day off from Olympic events, so we’re heading up to the Great Wall.