Scenes from Beijing (cont.)
Taking the scenic route
QINHUANGDAO, China -- It took me just two hours to cover the 200 miles east from Beijing to this coastal city where the United States meets Norway in the Olympic women's soccer opener on Wednesday. The high-speed train was a model of efficiency, comfort and service, and it left me wondering why we can't get the Chinese to come fix Amtrak.
But then it took the same two hours to cover the three blocks from the Qinhuangdao train station to my hotel, and somewhere along the way I think my head exploded.
The Chinese are so eager to please their Olympic guests that they're killing us with kindness. And I'm so eager not to play the ugly American that I starred in an unintentional comedy routine that eclipses even the non-stop Kenny G soundtrack in the lobby of SI's Beijing hotel.
Everything was looking good when I arrived at the train station here just after 9 a.m. with Michael Lewis of the New York Daily News (one of approximately 79 American sportswriters named Michael Lewis). But the next two hours unfolded like this:
9:10 a.m.: Smiling local organizers welcome us into an air-conditioned waiting room and promise that a shuttle bus to take us to our hotel will arrive soon.
9:10-10 a.m.: We wait patiently while being entertained by the absurdly cute Rylie Rampone, U.S. captain Christie Rampone's 2-year-old daughter, who rode in from Beijing with her dad, Chris.
10 a.m.: Losing my patience but still smiling, I get one of the local organizers to write down the name and address of our hotel in Mandarin so that we can take one of the many taxis waiting outside the door.
10:01 a.m.: The smiling local organizer realizes we're making a break for it and shoos us back to our seats. "No no no!" she says. "Take it easy! The bus is almost here!"
10:19 a.m.: Not quite. The bus isn't here yet.
10:20 a.m.: A gigantic tour bus arrives for the seven of us. We pile on. The digital clock inside reads 4:39 p.m., a nice symbol for the odyssey that's unfolding.
10:30 a.m.: We're finally moving! And there's our hotel just three blocks from the train station! Boy, it would have been nice if one of the organizers had told us the official media hotel was only a five-minute walk away!
10:31 a.m.: The bus doesn't stop at the media hotel. Why not? Who knows? We drive 10 minutes to another hotel to drop off some of the U.S. team's family members who are with us.
10:40 a.m.: The official Olympic bus driver is lost. An unplanned tour of Qinhuangdao commences.
10:50 a.m.: The driver turns the bus around and eventually drops off another group of passengers at a third hotel.
10:50-11:05 a.m.: Finally, we're about to head to our hotel! But wait: The bus driver and smiling local organizer are still in the lobby of the previous hotel! What's going on? The smiling local organizer returns to tell us that he and the bus driver are going to go up into the hotel and inspect the quality of the room so that their guests will be happy.
11:06 a.m.: I finally lose it. Ugly American time, baby! Michael and I storm off the bus with our bags, hail a cab and show the driver the name and address of our hotel.
11:10 a.m.: Two hours after arriving at the train station, we pull into the driveway of our hotel -- just three blocks from where we started.
11:30 a.m.: I stagger into my hotel room and swallow a small pharmacy's worth of Advil.
11: 35 a.m.: A smiling hotel greeter knocks on my door and presents me with a lovely fruit basket. "Welcome to Qinhuangdao!" she says.
11:40 a.m.: The smiling head hotel greeter knocks on my door and presents me with three shiny booklets: Guide to Journalists in Qinhuangdao, 2008 Qinhuangdao China and Welcome to Qinhuangdao Venue, which contains the following information about tonight's stadium:
"The output of the sewage is 260m3/d. The sewage from kitchens goes to the outdoor drainage after the disposal in grease traps, then it goes to the second sewage biological chemical treatment spot, finally, the water is drained to the civil rain water drainage while rainwater in outdoor drainage also goes to civil rain water drainage."
11:41 a.m.: "Welcome to Qinhuangdao!" the head greeter says with a smile. "Thank you!" I say, smiling right back.
Tuesday, Aug. 5
Plenty to go around at opening feast
BEIJING -- The first significant meal at a foreign Olympics is an important one, as potentially tricky to navigate as white-water canoeing. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, I went liquid at Al Bicerin with the bicerin (pronounced bee-shur-REEN), a heavenly mix of melted chocolate, espresso and thick cream. In Athens four years ago, our staff ate at a restaurant overlooking the Acropolis; white-tuxedo waiters fed us enough meat and lamb to feed the city of Akron.
Technically, my first meal in Beijing was a pair of chicken skewers over greens in the Media Press Center, but that was merely a prelim. On Tuesday night, we headed to Dayali, a chain restaurant that is a healthy 10-minute walk from the Media Press Center. The eatery's name translates to Big Pear. (Yali is the pear itself. Da means big.)
Some of the dishes offer fables as their titles. "The clever and dexterous woman hand rips the cabbage" costs 16 renminbi ($2.33) while the "soft-shelled turtle soaks the cake" will run you five times as much. Our group of nine enjoyed a feast of familiar names (Chinese broccoli, roast duck, scallion pancakes, fried rice, quince, rice-coated meatballs) but with an unusual taste. Reporters Rebecca Sun and Jingwen Wang, who thankfully speak Mandarin, ordered Mao Shi Hong Shao Rou (red roasted pork) for the table, informing all that the dish was Yao Ming's favorite (as well as Chairman Mao's). The meat was sinfully good, sort of like Yao's dunking over Eddy Curry.
We washed things down with Yanjing beer, and peach, pear and sour date juice ("First bitter, then sweet," Rebecca said, explaining that the sour date aftertaste was worth the initial ordeal.) When a steaming pot of duck soup (made out of the carcass of the duck) arrived to conclude the meal, I heard at least two Marx Brothers references. (Gold and silver medals to Alex Wolff and Brian Cazeneuve). Our bill came to 466 renminbi, which is $68 in the United States.
Cazeneuve wrote a couple of days ago that this will not be an ordinary Olympics. Of this we agree. Welcome to the land of clever and dexterous women ripping cabbage.