A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Brian Sprints his way around Olympics-ville

As my many blogging fans will know, I can hardly be described as the world's biggest soccer fan; not by a long way! But it would have been difficult for anyone in Beijing in the last month not to have known that the Italian Supercoppa was being held in the Chinese capital. Why a European country would want to hold its national football competition in a foreign country has somehow escaped me; but two years after the Italians first decided that this would be a thoroughly good idea, they were back yet again.

So come the beginning of August, two of the top Italian teams – Inter and AC Milan – could be seen playing in the Birds Nest as fireworks lit up the night sky outside. The Birds Nest (鸟巢), was the iconic venue for the Beijing Olympics, which were held in 2008; the world's largest steel structure and the most complex stadium ever constructed.

As the whole Beijing Olympics site is literally just up the road from where I live, it would have seemed churlish if I did not go there to investigate, which I did not once, but twice. Even three years after the most lavish Olympics in living memory, the site still draws hoards of rubber-neckers including a fair number of school parties and other organised visitors.


What is now China's National Stadium is located on the Olympic Green about 8km from the centre of Beijing. As a testament to its significance, it was built right on the city's north-south axis, which runs straight through the Drum Tower, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Three metro stations serve the area, it being that big – although the metro line, Line 8, has the fewest number of stations of all BJ's metro lines at only 5, covering a mere 4.5kms. But by 2013 Line 8 will be extended in both directions and will reach the city centre. Close by the Olympic Green is the iconic 25-storey IBM building built in 2001…  

The Chinese are still intensely proud of their Olympics and even now you regularly hear the 'One World, One Dream' theme song being belted out from loud speakers surrounding the Olympic village. Of course, you are left in no doubt that you are approaching Olympics-ville from whichever direction you are coming; but I wonder if the Chinese know something I don't? I always believed the Olympic symbol was five inter-connecting rings (signifying the five continents). The symbol was adopted in 1913 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement. So I am wondering how come the Chinese have discovered another four continents all of a sudden? (OK, maybe Arctic and Antarctica could account for two; and then….????)

Inside the Green itself you still get a feeling of the grandeur that bedazzled the world three years ago; from the Olympic Flame, which we all remember was lit by former gymnast Li Ning after a 4 month 'Journey of Harmony' around China…..

to the Ling Long (玲珑) Pagoda ('Ling Long' means delicate in Chinese), which housed a part of the International Broadcast Centre. This three-sided tower contains six occupiable pods, each in the shape of an equilateral triangle.

Across the way is the National Aquatics Centre, known as the Water Cube. Although somewhat underwhelming at first glance, when you come here after dark, things look very different! The Water Cube displays different colour patterns each evening, looking like a giant magic box. It has now been reopened as a world-class water amusement park.  

And talking of lighting, running up along the Olympic Green are the most fabulous lampposts (for want of a better word) that I have ever seen. Beauty and functionality combined in a towering statement of grandeur – repeated many times over!

Surrounding the entire Olympic area are acres of park and waterways, richly planted with lotus and water lilies and a delight just to walk beside.

Inside, right through the Green and surrounding parklands, are sculptures that tie in beautifully with the gaming theme of the Olympics, each with snappy slogans or explanations displayed at their base.

The notice at the base of this snooker sculpture reads "The sport of noble gentlemen shows a refreshing appeal when it is played by Chinese woman. Sports is the human language without national boundaries." (sic) I have never actually seen a Chinese woman playing snooker – as yet – but why ever not, I think to myself, as I move on toward a sea shell made of steel and ceramic representing tradition meeting future technologies.  

Ever eager to stop and admire myself, I also like a sculpture that appears to have no form or reason to it, save that it offers multiple reflections of little ME!

Of course I could not agree more with the admonition close by …  

And how they know anything about my kind soul, I have yet to find out – although once again it rings so very true!  

The notices liberally scattered around the grounds appear to have been well thought out to bring a smile to one's face. You can just FEEL the grass at your feet struggling to make you feel welcome. ..  

And you can't help but feel a right heel if you so much as think about treading on the not-so-verdant carpet…  

Of course, this is Beijing, so you know there are going to be at least some notices that leave you wondering what they are all about. Such as this one – Better moment to stay away forever civilization. 

Other notices are perfectly clear as to their intentions, even if they leave you to fill in the blanks…  

Near the southern entrance to the Olympic park is a huge lump of rock 3.2m by 2.7m by 1.6m weighing in at just over two tonnes. As you get nearer you can see the tell tale signs that this is a slab of natural Kunlun jade from the Hetian Kunlun Mountain in Xinjiang. Jade was uniquely used in the BJ Olympics as an inlay on the winners' medals. They say that if you touch the rock you will be blessed with good luck. So naturally I did, although I don't feel any luckier than before. But then who knows what might have befallen me if I hadn't?  

Along one edge of the park, for what seems like miles (but is probably only just over 150 metres) is a string (is that the right word???) of portable toilets. They are all spotless, though I for one am not a fan of hole-in-the-ground loos and would probably walk the extra 500 metres to a brand new toiletarium just up the road if pressed.  

No such problems, though for the local bobbies. I have been to many police stations in my time but never have I seen one so opulent. Take a look at the entrance gate for instance….  

… and this gate leads down a path decorated with dragons heads made out of stone and wood…..  

 …while there are also statues of wild men on horseback (or should that be men on wild-horseback???). I (along with some other snap-happy visitors) had to get special permission from the cop at the gate to be allowed in to take some photographs.  

… although some of the best piccies could be taken from the bridge opposite.  

Just a little further in to the Olympic Village is an exhibition hall belonging to the "China National Arts & Crafts Muesum Rarity Exhibition Room" (sic). I wondered what its purpose was to be perfectly honest. I mean it whiles away a perfectly pleasant 10 minutes, but is hardly earth shattering in its content …  

… though if you are into jade or ceramic workings then maybe you would be smitten.

But as Ogden Nash famously wrote here was "a vulture who circles above the carcass of culture" - and I found myself moving on. Before long I discovered a tower made up of every imaginable bell possible. A splendid sight ….  

… which led your erstwhile White Wabbit to a steel sculpture of his namesake.  

A few metres away was an exhibition hall showing off the story of the building of the Olympic Village; and in true Chinese style there were more models on display perhaps even than the Municipal Planning Department in Tianjin 

For history aficionados you could even gaze with awe at the boiler suits worn by some of the construction workers who put together the Bird's Nest (complete with grimy collars as if they were waiting for the props for one of those adverts for pre-soak laundry detergent). Luckily they were encased in glass, so there was no need to savour the odour saved for posterity; though perhaps one day they will be ideal for future research into 21st Century man's sweat glands.  

Of course, this being China you are never more than a tail's shake from somewhere to eat. Close by you cannot fail to see the signs…

to such famous eating houses as Yoshinoya and McDonalds. I asked someone to translate "I'm Lovin' It" back from its translated Chinese. But I felt the resultant "I love it" lost a certain je ne sais quoi in the translation.  

If Japanese or American fast food isn't strictly your cup of chai, then you should head instead to the fast food tent, which has to be one of the largest fast food halls I have ever seen. 

Here the idea is that you buy a prepaid card at one of the kiosks which you then use at any of the myriad of eateries in this megatent. The offerings were many and varied, though I was not particularly tempted to order fried lump…  

… or even to nibble my way through fried noodles with cat ears (what did they do with pussy's other bits, I wondered?)  

Other delicacies on offer were 'Roast Photatoes', 'Grilled Stesk', 'Besn Bun, and 'An intestinal dry surface' (whatever that was). I could even have plumped for 'Pinea pple roolls', 'Pinea pple cake' or 'Chicken nuggles'. But in truth I was not really in a Nuggle mood, nor even lusting after cats' ears, so I wandered outside once more ready to head for home. It had been a long afternoon, and it was clear that for some it had all been a bit too much.