Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beijing, China - 2008 Olympics

I’m really struggling to put together a post on our trip to the Olympics in Beijing. It would be easy and a little gratifying to lay into China for the pollution and lack of drinking water availability along with its oppressive government that electronically bugs taxi cabs and hotel rooms and censors the internet and broadcast media. But I guess that’s not really my job in this BLOG so I suppose I will stick to the Olympics and the site seeing we did.

This trip was out of character for me since I am not a spectator sport sort of person. I don’t watch pro sports in the US much, and in all my (extended) time at LSU I only went to one football game. At Tulane, I didn’t go to any sports events. But the Olympics were really a treat. The athletes were amazing to watch, even in the early rounds when world class performances were just imperfect enough to show how amazingly difficult the feats really were. Watching things like women’s gymnastics on TV sometimes gives the impression that all of these teenage girls can do everything every time, but seeing the early rounds in person reveals that mistakes do happen and sometimes they are dramatic. Watching the Olympic swimmers doing their warm up and then effortlessly lifting themselves up and onto the pool deck in a single motion two feet above the water points out that not only can normal people not swim the same speeds as these guys, we can’t even get in and out of the pool the same way.

Watching the early rounds of volleyball left me with the idea that in earlier years I could have been down there playing, but as the elimination rounds progressed and the folks that probably should never have been there were defeated, the play improved and I quickly realized that I would have been one of the ones eliminated early.

The opening ceremonies were spectacular in the truest sense of the word. They were fantastic with perfect synchronization amongst hundreds of people at a time, and display after display of similar perfection. We were in the Bird’s Nest for six hours on opening night and didn’t see a single thing that could be called a mistake. Amazing. The fireworks set a new Guinness record with over 120,000 individual rounds fired over an 8 kilometer long path in the city. From inside the stadium we could see almost none of the fireworks, but we could see what you saw on TV from the jumbotrons inside and fireworks were still going off by the time we got out of the stadium at the end of the event. Just fabulous.

The Olympic venues were also spectacular. The Bird’s nest is something to see, but my favorite was the Water Cube. A building made principally of a visqueen like plastic in which the air that fills each “plastic pillow” is a structural element of the design. Amazing.

Because of the pollution, China will never make my list of favorite places to visit. How bad was the pollution? On our first day we could not quite make out the top of a cell phone tower in the city. On our tour of the Great Wall we could see only one or two battlements in any direction and we stood wishing that the day was clear so we could really take in this amazing structure.

But walking on the Great Wall was a singular experience. Our pictures aren’t great, but the experience was memorable. Strolling though the Forbidden City with its stark, vast squares designed to intimidate even the military was startling. The Forbidden City is mostly just a big empty space devoid of monuments or structure with any purpose but to intimidate and communicate absolute power. It is stark and lonely feeling in these days when it is merely a museum to days long gone. The same goes for Tienmen Square which is just huge and only slightly softened by the small gardens and special monuments that were erected for the Olympics. You never forget that the government in this country is all powerful and that “by the people, for the people” never entered anyone’s mind when it was founded or since.

China is without the exotic beauty that we found in other places in Asia we have visited. The monuments were to men gone but not forgotten and the architecture is purposed to intimidate. With almost no religion anywhere in the country, there are no temples, not even ones to false gods and that seems to leave only political reasons to build.

The people we came into contact with were typically Asian ie. smiling, pleasant and very accommodating to our needs at every point possible.

We learned after we got home that “bald and smelly” cab drivers had been taken off the road by the government.

We learned while we were there that violation of any of the “special laws” enacted for the Olympics are punishable by prison time and heavy fines. This includes unauthorized usage of the “Olympic Lanes” on the expressways and it was obvious that this law was strictly enforced because our bus had permission to use this lane and despite 3 or 4 other lanes being backed up for miles, we sailed down our lane completely alone on most occasions. Trips that we were told would take 1 – 1 ½ hours took us less than 15 minutes in some cases.

We learned after we left the country that many people were displace from their homes in order to clear the land needed for the Olympic venues. In the places where these people were relocated, signs were erected by the government saying “I participate, I contribute, I am happy.”

Well, I guess I couldn’t stick to the site seeing after all. God Bless America.