Friday, August 29, 2008

Post Olympics

Now that the Olympics are over, I plan to post some older stories that were in the pipeline soon, keep checking for new posts!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Olympics Day 8

Its my last day in Beijing, and probably time for some reflection. But first, some observations.

Last night I managed, after some jockeying in line and some encouragement from my buddy Andrew, to get into "Club Bud" which was set up in a section of the National Agricultural Exhibition Center. It was, as expected, packed with athletes, coaches, officials, friends, and moochers like myself from all nations. Drinks, seemingly limited to beer (Harbin which is owned by Budweiser, and imported Budweiser) and water, were free. In other words, it was a giant international frat party minus the keg stands (to my knowledge). The dance floor was packed and throbbing, the lounge area couches taken, the floors sticky and full of people getting their grove on. After the place closed at 4, Andrew and I went to the Sanlitun bar area where the party continued. Pooped from the night before, I left at around 5.

What I have not really discussed has been the sheer promotion of the Olympics in Beijing along with the hurried construction of buildings in order to make the city look presentable . Below is a shot of the new CCTV Tower (My apologies for the poor picture quality, it was taken from inside a taxi). Note how it looks pretty much finished, though a number of cabbies (notice a trend that all of my Beijing know-how seems to be sourced from taxi drivers?) asserted it would take at least 6 months to one year to finish work on it, outside and inside.

"Yeah they rushed to make the outside look nice. You know, for the Olympics; it'll take like a year to get everything done though." If you look closely you can still see a crane at the top of the building. Other buildings that were not completed or had abandoned apparently, according to my friends were quickly covered by scaffolding or huge Olympics advertisements.

The banners and ads promoting the Olympics are also everywhere. Bridges, roads, buildings, inside the airport, etc.

Reflections: I have to admit, despite the fantastic experience I had going to events, seeing different parts of the city, old and new and partying late into the night, I felt a sense of emptiness. This just wasn't the Beijing I knew, the real Beijing. Yes I appreciate clean air and relatively efficient traffic as much as the next person, but to me its such critical issues that define China's economic development. Additionally, a number of areas I visited were stunningly quiet and devoid of action. While the example of my old neighborhood is probably a poor one (given that the Team USA was staying nearby). However, ordering food in a restaurant and being told it was not available along with a number of other dishes "due to the Olympics" and not seeing the usual action of construction, fruit sales and other activities on the sprawling Chinese capital's streets, both big and small, that I feel give it a certain character that I have grown accustomed to love were missing. Or I'm just sad that I couldn't buy DVDs.

That being said, the air hasn't been incredibly clean (it has by Beijing's standards); smog was still visible on some days, and traffic has been slow at times, despite the odd and even numbers rule, though far less congested than normal. While the Olympics were a success on most fronts and provided the moments of glorious victory, crushing defeat, controversy along with the spectacular (this is putting it mildly) shows and facilities, I'll be glad that the next time I travel to Beijing, it'll be back to normal, whatever that may be.

Olympics Day 7

Was out and about last night and noticed that Sanlitun seemed to be more crowded than a typical weekend night. Up at Bar Blu's terrace I had the good fortune to speak with a number of Olympics athletes and coaches representing Russia, the US, Germany and the UK. By the time I left Bar Blu at 5 am, the place, unlike on most weekend nights to my memory, was still hopping and filled with people.

What some the athletes said about Beijing:

"People have been brilliant and I can't complain about the facilities, but the rest is a set up, its fake, I know it, the air and the traffic especially," said a UK Athlete with her two colleagues nodding in unison.

"Its very nice, everything is." - Russian Athlete

"Actually we missed the Opening Ceremony; we were in Macao training and relaxing, and just got here one week ago." I pressed to ask if this was as a precaution against potential air quality issues.

"No, I don't think it was that. We were just there in a relaxing atmosphere, lots of teams were down there" - UK Athlete.

This morning at 945am I was awakened by a knocking on my friend's front door. I stumbled and opened the door only to see a police man and another man in plain clothes, asking to see our documents (mine, my friend's and his roommate's). Passports, visas and residence registrations were closely scrutinized for a few minutes, and I was asked when I would be leaving Beijing, though I was not required to show my plane ticket.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympics Day 6

I was recently having dinner with some friends when I heard an incredible story about getting tickets to the Opening Ceremony and other high profile events.

There have been widespread complaints in these Olympics regarding sold out events having numerous empty seats available. While this does happen at most sporting events worldwide, it has not been just the odd empty seat or two but apparently large noticeable numbers of unoccupied seats at events that have been deemed "sold out". To assume that all of these are no-shows would be naive.

The story I heard last night may be able to explain some of that. While there is no way I have the talent or to coherently put together a winding and complex 30 minute story involving over twenty people purchasing tickets and attempting to make deals with three different high profile scalpers, I can say that businesses bought seats for the opening ceremony at about $8000 USD per seat (nothing really unusual there) on the morning of the event.

However, this same businessperson discussed in length about how company staff had collected bank money, reaching well over $150,000 USD in cash in RMB ($1 USD = 6.8RMB) to secure opening ceremony seats from organized scalpers, despite banks being closed (the deal was struck the night before). Frantic calls were made to colleagues and business partners to rush to ATMs and use other methods to secure large amounts of cash which were then collected and help. Deals were struck in a 5 star hotel lobby, after other sources with similar demands and prices, had fallen through... In one of the secret locations, apparently an office in one of Beijing's office towers was literally, stacked with tickets to all kinds of events with a number of high profile clients screening through and selecting tickets for various events.

While I am in no position to comment about the source or the tickets or the practices of such organizations, it is most certainly sheds some light on how some high profile events have not been filled to anywhere near capacity. I only wish I could have seen "stacked tickets" with my own eyes.

What I did see, however, at the Bird's Nest in my two visits this week was the government/VIP section was nearly empty both times.

Olympics Day 5

Note: No photos today, I'm afraid.

"When the Olympics were in Seoul, you knew it. It was a very festive atmosphere all over the place. Beijing looks very quiet compared to what I see when I have visited other times for work. It seems like nothing special is going on, but it is much quieter with far less cars and people on the street," a colleague of mine noted.

And it seems to be very true. Special thanks to him for beautifully dumbing down my blog into three sentences.

Last night, I decided that I wanted some kebabs. I took a cab from the Bird's Nest to my old neighborhood restaurant, hoping to get some quality food and some good conversation with the owners. I got there at about 1215 AM and saw that the street was completely dark and empty. No activity, whatsoever. This being summer, it's very common to see people sitting on stools, drinking beer outside and chatting well into the night while munching on kebabs. The old neighborhood was no exception, and my favorite restaurant is usually open until 130am. As I stayed in my cab and looked on in surprise, the driver remarked, "must be the Olympics."

I was puzzled to say the least.

Today it dawned on me that last night, I had been near Beijing Normal University, where team USA is currently residing. I have heard from friends who are currently students there, that university is a fortress and one cannot get into the grounds without proper ID (something to do with team USA or being affiliated with the university). My guess is that authorities want to keep the area safe and quiet and have closed down surrounding areas early in the evening.

Another aspect I referred to in yesterday's post (when talking about construction) was the lack of availability of certain goods. Apparently there are numerous checkpoints outside the city of Beijing in which the flow of goods and people are heavily restricted. I had lunch with a friend a few days ago at a relatively upscale Japanese restaurant in downtown Beijing. My friend ordered something that the waitress said was not available. She tried to order another item only to be told that it too, could not be prepared. As my friend looked up, mildly irritated, the kind waitress pointed to a number of dishes that were currently unavailable. The reason, she said was, "due to the Olympics."

We ate our lunch with puzzled looks on our faces, though its a bit more clear now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympics Day 4

Went to Cao Chang Di a new-ish art district near Beijing's famed 798 Art District. It's an area that's off of the Airport Expressway and its an series of hutongs and low lying buildings, though more on the outskirts of Beijing. Walking through the hutong, it was clear that daily life had not changed, not even on a temporary basis.

When eating lunch, I noticed that I was the only one in the restaurant besides 3 waitresses and a cook, who were busy cutting chili peppers and watching a daytime drama on TV. I asked the waitress why they weren't watching the Olympics, instead.

"We watch it at night, sometimes," she said.

I went off to see some art galleries. It was in one of them I met "Mary" who was working the front desk. After looking at the art, and discussing with her our favorite pieces, I started asking questions: where are you from, what did you study, etc, nothing unusual. Then I asked how the Olympics had affected her daily life in Beijing thus far.

"Are you a journalist? You seem to like asking questions."

After assuring her I was not a journalist, and that I am asked questions in China all the time (usually the same ones), she said that there wasn't much time to watch the Olympics, maybe on occasion when at home. Because of her two-hour commute and only one day off per week, she didn't have the chance to watch the games. Mary did mention how her commute has been affected for the worse due to heavily increased traffic since her route to work goes near/past the Olympic Complex. Besides that she said the games had not really affected her daily life much.

I walked onto other galleries. At another one, I met "Shelly." She also didn't have time to watch the Olympics, though she argued, her commute to work was better given the automobile restrictions.

I then crossed the street to a complex that was currently being constructed to house additional art galleries. Two men were mixing cement with another watching on, as I walked in. The work was nearly done, save for some final touches and interior finishing and a pile of trash and rubble in the middle.
I was informed by one of the foremen (both pictured above) that if I was to sign a contract today, the interior could be finished along with electricity, water and internet/telephone in less than a month. Although the two men stating the complex was nearly done they informed me that full blown construction would not start again until October, after the Paralympics.

"Not only do we not have migrant workers, we cannot get materials, since they come from outside Beijing (something I will cover in tomorrow's post), there's a ban on construction and we're not even allowed to get rid of our trash," the manager explained. "I mean if we were to pick up all this trash/rubble and take it away to dump we'd be stopped." He then went on to show me how thick the walls of the place were and welcomed me to take a look around.

Finally I stopped in one last gallery and asked the two women working the front desk about the Olympics and its effect on their daily lives in recent weeks. While their responses were the same as I had heard from others, as in not having enough time to pay attention to the Games, and their lives not being affected by it, one pipped in and mentioned, " my commute is far easier." When I commented that Beijing was different, given the lighter traffic and the clean air, one of the women noted, "well not quite so clean today, is it?"

Though I had to agree, the air, as a "black cab" driver pointed out, was far cleaner than it usually is. When asked about the effect the Olympics had on his personal life, he stated "oh everything." When I pushed him to give me an example, he grinned, "well I get to rest every other day!"

My "rub it in" Olympic photo today is that of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who broke the Mens 200m world record (by .02 seconds) and took gold with his nearest competitor half a second behind him.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Olympics Day 3

Woke up today and and made my way into downtown. First stop was Tiananmen Square. Predictably, security was significantly tighter than in other areas. Rather than hand checking bags, there were x-ray booths at every entrance, in addition to a fair number of police and security guards on patrol.

Additionally, there were a number of gardens and fountains in the square, which were clearly placed there very recently and beautifully maintained.

Something I found shocking or interesting was the lack of foreign tourists in the square. Maybe it was lunch time or they were watching the Olympics, but proportionally, there were far fewer foreign tourists that I previously had anticipated.

Walking out of the square, I proceeded to go to a side street parallel to Qianmen Road East. It was here that the Beijing Police Museum was located along with the People's High Court. Alongside the one of the streets were police and security cars in a row (they were empty, pictured below). I did get someone with a safety volunteer badge to pose for a photo though. The man in white and his friend (below), happily posed after smiling and pointing to their arm bands, saying "public safety volunteer." The neighborhood was so quiet, one could have thought it was any ordinary day, though with such buildings in the area, I'm sure things don't get too exciting. It was here that I saw my first SWAT vehicle, a black Hummer. I was too scared to take a photo though.

I next went to a hutong nearby which has been in the process of being razed for at least the past year. What caught my attention was that the outside walls were newly painted and there was an abundance of grass and new trees planted on sidewalks (none of which had been present a few months ago), but upon entering nothing had changed (save for a few more demolished houses/shops, when compared to a few months ago). Perhaps fewer people lived there, as they had probably moved out, but life went on as normal, quietly and peacefully. I saw groups of senior citizens speaking in groups, but decided not to bother them with annoying questions about the Olympics or taking photos. It was here that I felt a sense of solitude in the middle of the city. Silence enveloped the surrounding area and save for an occasional security volunteer and a few Chinese flags (both pictured below) one would have thought nothing out of the ordinary.

On my taxi ride back, I did get to pepper my driver with questions. his response was similar to most people I've spoken to about the Olympics. He's a little busier with work, traffic is better due to restrictions, but he really hasn't been affected personally. Though he was proud China was hosting the Olympics and it showed the world China was developing.

As expected, traffic was significantly heavier on the 2nd and 3rd ring roads, particularly around the Central Business District and Tiananmen, though the only private vehicles on the road had license plates ending in odd numbers. Air quality was good, though not as good as yesterday. There was definitely some haze/smog in the distance.