A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

You mean, that's all there is?

There are times in this city when I’m amazed by some of the sights and sounds there are all around me. Beijing is an amazing place, and to intentionally misquote Dr Samuel Johnson: “When one is tired of Beijing, one is tired of life”. But there are other times when I despair of the place. And one such occasion occurred just a few days ago on a bitterly cold night, when everyone of a sensible mind should have been wrapped up indoors.

To believe some of the hyperbole surrounding Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, you’d think the IOC will surely have a clear cut decision ahead of them when they decide to plump for China as the host country in seven years time. As Bon TV’s web site so enthusiastically puts it, the bid has driven public enthusiasm for winter sports to new heights.

Oh really? Maybe I blinked at the wrong moment, thereby missing all the enthusiasm; but always being on the look out for new experiences here, I fell pray to some of the write ups…

“Bejing residents can enjoy large ice sculptures downtown this year at The New Year Ice Lantern Carnival,” the copy-and-paste web brigaders loudly trumpeted. “For the first time in more than two decades, Beijing residents can enjoy large ice sculptures downtown rather than having to drive a long way to a suburban area to see them. The New Year Ice Lantern Carnival will be open on Dec 30 and run through Feb 13 at the Beijing Workers Stadium. The ticket fee is 100 yuan ($16) per person and 240 yuan for a package of three tickets.”

The next paragraph is a clincher: “About 150 craftsmen from Harbin, Heilongjiang province, an area famous for its ice lanterns and sculptures, are making magnificent ice sculptures inside three enormous temporary sheds on the grounds of the stadium. This is the Harbin Ice Lantern Art Exhibition' second time show in Beijing since the 1980's. Being a brother city of Beijing, Harbin uses its well-known ice lanterns to assist Beijing to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.”

Well we all know about Harbin and its famed ice sculptures, don’t we? Indeed I had often thought about going to visit that city in the winter and here was a golden opportunity to experience their craftsmanship right on my doorstep! (Oh silly boy! What misplaced trust you do have!)

The show, sponsored by the Beijing Federation of Labour Unions and the Municipal Government of Harbin, and supported by the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Winter Games Bid Committee, kicks off at 5 p.m. every day.

More than two dozen ice sculptors from all over China, apparently, joined the International Ice Sculpture Invitational Tournament in the Workers Stadium, in which three Canadian-designed sheds, with an area of 4,000 square metres, and a maintained temperature of minus 5 Celsius (thanks to 30 mobile refrigerating machines), is host to tons of ice blocks that have been transported all the way from inner Mongolia to build an ice world.

Beijing Workers Stadium, also known as Gong Ti, is a multi-purpose stadium in the Chaoyang District of north-eastern Beijing, and is better known for hosting soccer matches. It was built in 1959 and last renovated 11 years ago, and, according to the official blurb, covers 350,000 square metres with a capacity of 66,161 people. (Note the accuracy! Not just a round 66 thousand; not even just 66,160. Somehow they have managed to squeeze in an extra one to that figure! I wonder how hard they really tried.)

It all looks pretty jolly from the outside!

But once inside it’s a different story. Frankly, it’s like stepping into an old warehouse with a whole load of ice blocks that have been thrown together, along with some very rudimentary strip lights making a garish display. The fact that this is a good two weeks after the exhibition opened might also explain why some of the sculptures show definite signs of having been subjected to melting on and off over a number of days.

No doubt it is all very clever stuff, but the whole display looks a little sad – and that, I think, is putting it mildly.

First up there’s a replica of the Linglong Pagoda from the Western Hills …

… while a couple of paces away we can admire the Reclining Buddha of the Wofo Temple.

Everyone will immediately recognise the Temple of Heaven of course; though this one is definitely looking very much the worse for wear.

The most adventurous sculptures are perhaps the 12 animals of the zodiac – such as this rather snazzy snake… or is it a dragon – I’m not really sure.

And why this rat appears to be riding a motorbike is anyone’s guess.

As for this tiger, I only know what it is as there are 11 other animals which look even less like a tiger than this one. Looks more like a bear to me…

Weariness is already settling in, and looking around me, it would appear that I am not the only one who feels this way. Three horse blobs anyone?

The blurb also goes on apace about an ice sculpture of Qianmen Gate having been made. Surely they can’t have meant this dual gateway???

Oh wow. Prepare to overdose on excitement now … not just ice carvings, but 'snow engravings' of ‘Olympic culture’ (huh? What on earth is that?) and torches of the past five Winter Olympic Games – which look to me decidedly phallic and pretty untorchlike. Are they kidding?

Meanwhile, lest we should forget for one moment why we are here, there is an emblem which has been designed for Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Looks like someone thought long and hard when designing it!

And what have we here? What? Could Hit FM – whoever they are – be sponsoring this event? What? Cynical? Moi?

Oh and this coming new year is the year of the sheep, so it would hardly feel right if someone hadn’t carved an ice sheep for our visual delight. <sigh>

By the time that we have all traipsed through the three sheds, you can tell there is a world-weary look on everyone’s faces, as if to say “Is that it? Did we really fork out 100 RMB just for that?”

But no, dear blog fans. Far from it. We walk out into the open air and lo and behold there are yet more lights and lanterns for our visual delight. Hmmm

Yes, decidedly Hmmm. To say that the entire experience has been massively underwhelming would surely be an understatement of the first order. If this is the best that the burgers of Harbin can dream up for whipping up Beijing’s residents into an Olympic frenzy, then they have definitely underestimated their intended audience.

I think if I had to judge it, I would generously give a 1 out of 10 for making an effort; but hey guys, don’t expect me to make a fast beeline to visit Harbin. And if the Olympic Committee, in their wisdom, decide to give the winter Olympics to some other well-deserving capital – such as Singapore, or Jakarta or Mexico City – then please don’t be in the slightest bit surprised. I fear if I was serving on that committee – which has to be way down the list of possibilities, it has to be admitted – I wouldn’t give Beijing a snowball’s chance in hell if this is really the best they can come up with.