What To Look For In Beijing

by Mike Byrnes

I know many of you reading this will be headed for Beijing and the greatest event in sport, the OLYMPIC GAMES. Forget the cost, the trip is well worth it and not just for the awesome competition. There is so much to see and do, so many short excursions to be taken and so many surprises in store, you DON'T want to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Last year I was fortunate enough to go in order to help cover the World Junior Championships. Jim Spier, Joy Kamani and I discovered a wondrous world that we had never known. (If you go back into the archives, you can read my stories from our trip)

The flight is a very long one so buy your tickets as early as possible in order to obtain the best seats. You definitely want a window and an aisle. Why? The window seat is obvious, you'll want to see the unbelievable terrain you'll be passing over. The aisle? You and your companion can change seats and share in the wonder below. I strongly suggest biting the bullet and going Business Class. I did and never regretted it primarily due to the fact that occasionally I was "forced" to move to First-Class. Darn!!

One of the sights I'll never forget was the vast nothingness of Siberia. For hundreds of miles there wasn't a town, city, village…nothing. A vast expanse of green with a few rivers running through it. Green? Yes, when the snow and ice melt, vegetation of every kind springs up enjoying their ever so brief moment in the sun.

Another unforgettable vista were the ever-changing cloud formations. At times it seemed we were flying over a huge snow field and to my wondering eyes I saw cliffs, mountains, faces, familiar shapes…it was a fascinating experience. Forget about sleeping! Watch, the wonder outside is too awesome to miss. (I took a flight a long time ago and sat next to an older woman who was taking her first flight. It got a little warm in the plane and she turned to me and asked, in all seriousness, how do you open these windows?)

When you arrive in Beijing one of the first things I noticed was how bad the air quality was. The Chinese have little or no concern for 'clean air'. Perhaps you've noticed a few articles in which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voiced concern over this problem, even threatening to move some events if the air quality didn't improve. But the Chinese are a very proud people and will certainly do something to improve those conditions.

Bicycles, are a way of life in China. Most Chinese don't earn enough to purchase a car so the favored mode of transportation is the bicycle. They cover the streets in a rather strange partnership with the innumerable taxicabs. One would think accidents would be a constant but in the ten or so days we were there, we never saw one. When you arrive, and I hope you make the trip, you'll probably see more taxis and fewer bikes. When you take a cab, and you will have to, don't worry about being cheated on the fare. The drivers will have been forewarned; any complaints and you'll become a prisoner rather than a cab driver.

The Chinese government has little concern for rights that we take for granted. For example, you can bet that every undesirable, or those the government thinks undesirable, will be forcibly removed from Beijing. The streets will be as clean as Mom's kitchen and many factories and businesses that use coal for fuel, will be shut down. Remember, this is China's chance to showcase itself to the world. Very few tourists can list this vast continent on their list of places visited. So you can expect a pretty clean city, a plentitude of taxis, a lot of bicycles and a surprisingly friendly populace.

During your stay you will have to go shopping. You will HAVE to go shopping. Why? China is the greatest place in the world for "knockoffs", items that look exactly like the real thing but aren't. Most are fairly good and the prices are unbelievable…IF you can bargain. Luckily, our group had two of the greatest bargainers IN THE WORLD! The aforementioned Joy Kamani and Paul Limmer outsmarted and outfought the clerks, invariably lovely young Chinese women who spoke much better English than we did Chinese. Limmer and I had to purchase an extra suitcase since we'd bought so much stuff. There are only about 3469 luggage booths available so we went to the nearest one. We each selected a bag. How much? $250. Limmer laughs and walks away. Clerk races after him, "Come back, come back!" Reluctantly, he goes back. Clerk: "$150, OK?" Limmer: "Are you crazy? We just saw one for a lot less." Clerk: "How much do you want to pay?" (Note: Don't fall for this one. Whatever number you give they'll go up on since they now know how much you're willing to spend.") Limmer: "No no no, how much you want?" Clerk: "$75" Limmer: "$20" Clerk wails and shakes her head violently, "No, not enough." Limmer: $25, no more." Clerk: (after long pause) "OK." We walk away with two new suitcases. Mine is still pretty good; Limmer's fell apart at the airport when he got home. Who had the last laugh?

So don't be afraid to shop but don't be afraid to bargain either. Some buys will be great and some will fall apart at the airport.

While in Beijing you'll have to eat. Jim Spier has an uncanny knack for finding terrific restaurants that the average person would never see. And we were the better for it. One such was a "Hot Pot" restaurant. It's much like a fondue establishment but quite different. You're seated at a long, rather narrow table. In the middle is an opening with a pot of cooking oil inside. A small propane tank sits under the oil. It's lighted and the oil quickly comes to a boil. You're given a menu, shrimp, octopus, a few veggies and the like. The food comes. Everything is…ALIVE! The shrimp are squirming about, the octopus moving around. One of our group, the melodramatic Chelo Canino almost screams, "They're alive!" The waitress waits and gives us a puzzled look. She thinks we don't know how to proceed. Helpfully, she skewers a shrimp and pops it into the oil, waits a few moments and takes it out. We get the message. The food is wonderful. We eat heartily and sit back, fat and satisfied.

But beware of the Chinese interpretation of what's on the menu. Knowing many members of the Press were more comfortable in English rather than Chinese, they attempted to tell us what we were about to eat. These are real menu items, honest.

Bamboo soup, Fried Hairtail, Double Boiled Young Pigeon in Chinese Medicine, Sweet Thick with Egg Thick Soup and one of Jim's favorites, "Large Don't Eat Food." Others were accurately described but frighteningly so, e.g., Marinated Pigs Ears in Brown Sauce, Shredded Pigs Stomach, Deep Fried Pigs Large Intestine with Pineapple and my favorite, Deep Fried Vegetarian Duck. But remember, you didn't fly halfway around the world to go to MacDonalds, swallow (pun intended) your fear and venture out. Most of the places we ate were fine, the menu far better than those items above and the staff invariably helpful. Try new foods, DON'T go home having eaten only stuff with which you're familiar. Be adventuresome, you'll be pleasantly at how much there is to enjoy.

One anecdote; there's an off day at the track so we decide to visit the Great Wall. We've been advised to not go to the closest site but to travel about 40-50 miles to a site that is far better and more representative of this magnificent structure. We depart at 6am. Along the way we're hungry and I tell the driver to find a place where we can get breakfast. Accordingly, we come to what looks like a large shopping center. For some reason, we stop across the street. The driver takes us not to the store area but to several people cooking outdoors in a field. There are a few wooden tables with benches and the clientele is entirely Chinese looking at us curiously. We order. Fried bread, soup, what looks like wontons and several other items. We get plenty to eat and it's good. Comes the bill, for six people, about $2.25! And a great experience.

Now you have an idea of what to expect when you head off to Beijing. Remember, it's more than a track meet, it's an experience.. In the words of a Chinese friend, "Cho kysmo bekke took ya!" Looking forward to your visit!

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