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I'm leaving, on a jet plane...

Wednesday August 6th, 2008

I managed to finish my work on the morning of my flight, get to the airport and get a seat on the plane. I didn't have a ticket for any Olympic events, and didn't even know exactly where the hotel was, so all in all, it was another classic start to another classic holiday trip. I got to Beijing late in the evening, about 10pm and took an airport shuttle bus to Dongzhimen from where I took a taxi to my hotel\hostel.

The first 'event' of the trip was the incident on the airport bus. Now, my Mandarin(Pu-tong-wah) is very, very basic so I can't tell you what the plot details were but the female ticket collector got into a verbal with one of the passengers. Do you remember the scenes from Jiang Qing's trial (The Gang of Four)? She was Mao's wife and she was mad. Just potty ! Well, I think the ticket collecting girl was her grand-daughter because she was shouting at one of the male passengers as if she was denouncing him at a political trial. I also think that she had a bit of Nigerian in her because even when she was calmed down by others, she would restart the argument again and again (she never kissed her teeth at any point though). The object of her anger was a male passenger who had got up to complain about something. To give him credit he did not back down either, well not until the third time she 're-ignited' and by then even he knew he was fighting a losing battle. So, not for the first time on this trip, I was to wonder if the stereotype of the demure Asian woman was a long way from the truth. That's what I love about holidays.

So I 'kind of' got to Dongzhimen, I got off at the stop suggested, there was no main station or directions detailing where to go so you just grab any passing cab. I asked him to go to Sanlitun. Now finding a street in Beijing using the English name of the street is like finding... well difficult. So the taxi driver and I got to the area, which I've been to before so I was not panicking even though it was well after 11pm by this time. So as the taxi drove down Salitun's main bar street looking for my hotel I saw a black fella (as they say in Oz) and thought this is providence. I wound down the window to ask him direction and lo and behold, he was a Nigerian, Igbo\Ibo (tribe) by the looks of him. The only trouble was that he didn't know where it was either! The solution was the old 'call the hotel and get them to direct you' deal. It worked a treat. The room was okay although overpriced at 120AUD for a twin room and that was because there were no singles with en-suites left anywhere in town! Well, I was happy anyway because I viewed an en-suite as essential in China, need I say more? No? Okay, so I paid the money and did the time!

Our Opening Lesson

Thursday August 7th, 2008

Now today was the day that Nigeria were to play Netherlands in the Olympic football tournament. It was I think the first event of the 2008 olympics. This was the reason why I was in China before the opening ceremony and yes, shades of me in Adelaide in 2000 to see Nigeria v Honduras before flying onto Sydney for the 2000 olympic games. Don't ask me how - I think it was over the sharing of a taxi - but I met two American chaps, Alvin & Ben - sound like cartoon characters? The Chipmunks or something? - who were in Beijing to catch a few days of the Olympic spirit. They were probably correct is taking the 4-5 day Olympic option rather than my 2 week one! Meeting these guys was a cool turn as we had a good laugh over the next few days.

The first task of the day was Alvin meeting a colleague of his in the centre of town at Wangfujing shopping mall. We had a meal after that and as the USA were to play on the same bill as Nigeria in Tianjin, it seemed like a good idea that we all go to Tianjin to see the start of the football tournament. Now this was to be an epic story of comrades travelling long distances over the Chinese countryside and persevering against all obstacles. No, this was not the re-enactment of 'The Long March' of the 1930's but was to be similarly long drawn out and difficult.

We had heard about the high speed super-duper new train to Tianjin so decided to take that. Tianjin is about 140km away from the centre of Beijing and the new train travels at 300kmh so that's a half hour trip. We went to Beijing main railway station and bought a ticket expecting to board the train. This was our first lesson about China. We were silly. Why the heck would you expect to get on a train at the same station where you have just bought a ticket? That's what tends to happen elsewhere but "What happens in China - happens in China"!

So, you buy the ticket and then have to go to Beijing South station. Great. Get to a taxi, arrive at Beijing South station to find that you have to get a separate minibus from the street to the actual station because they have not finished building the front yet! So, cutting a long story short we got to Tianjin via the new train and that was very good and so fast and efficient that I thought we were in Germany or Switzerland. But, when we got in a taxi to get to the game we came across a problem in the station car park. A female taxi driver was having an argument with a male driver. If was the airport bus all over again. This 'lady' was as mad as a bag of ferrets. Scary! She got out of her cab and was giving the guy a proper barking at!

Our actual taxi driver was fun, a guy called Yung. Seeing as we were foreigners and 'I is black' he decided to play some Reggaeton on the car stereo. Funny. A taxi in China with the driver playing reggae really loud and driving like he's in a Hollywood car chase. Alvin & Ben were a little startled at the driving style but this was classic Chinese taxi driving style, and even though there was a lorry heading towards us he carried out the requisite wrong side of the road moment too !

Getting a ticket was much easier than I thought. As we got out of the taxi across the road from the stadium complex we found lots of ticket touts/scalpers. The funny thing was that one of them had 8 tickets to sell and just put them all in my hands and turned his back while I chose one! Now that would NEVER happen in the US or UK. But then again, maybe he was a 10th Dan Kung Fu expert who runs a 10 second 100metres! Or maybe China is a honest place with nice, generous people. I bought a ticket and as Alvin & Ben already had theirs we went to see the game.

The nice, new Tianjin stadium had a capacity of maybe 60,000 and was set in a water world kind of area. A huge man-made lake encased the stadiums. The weather was so humid and air so still that it was like a sauna inside. The USA won their game and the Nigeria v Netherlands game was a goal-less draw . The best thing about that was the Nigerian fans who turned up about 30 strong. They applied the usual Nigerian ticketing practice which is to ignore your seat number a just sit where you like. The problem was that the Chinese officials were almost visibly having kittens. I don't think they've seen anybody do anything slightly naughty since the summer of 1989 and as you can't get tanks into the stadium easily they decided to placate the fans and set us in an area together. The local Chinese spectators loved the singing fans and took pictures of and with us. We were joined by USA fans because the Nigerians and the bank of Dutch fans in orange - of course - were the only animated people in the stadium in terms of what was happening on the field. The local Chinese were more animated when the mascots were taking photos. Everyone else was melting away which is probably the only reason they all did a Mexican wave every ten minutes to create some form of breeze in the stadium.

Now, it turns out that Ben is a bit of a worrier. At halftime he wanted us to leave so that we could get a seat on the train back to Beijing. NO ONE at the stadium - and I mean the volunteers or police - had a clear idea of when the last train for Beijing was leaving. Flashy new train but no one had a clue. It took 20 mins before we made the executive decision to go. We left at around 9pm. We eventually got a taxi and got to the station at 9:40pm. The last train was at 10pm and it was booked out!

We returned to the taxi rank after a less hazardous drive back to the station. Like many Chinese cities the new architecture (this clock was three storeys high), was very impressive and either European styled or just plain off-the-wall. There's a big river running through the city and the whole riverside area has been modernised to have something of a Euro/Neo Asian style about it. There were no arguing female taxi drivers this time but a bunch of taxi drivers asking for 500RMB or 100AUD to drive back to Beijing. Not a problem in terms of cash but the warning was that these guys are not allowed into Beijing due to olympic regulations so they could only take you to a town on the outskirts of Beijing at which point you would have to find a taxi to take you the rest of the way and all that at 1am or later. We found a cheap station noodle bar which seemed a favourite with migrant workers from other parts of China. They each had their belongings in one big, sack-like bag and looked at us across the room as if we were Martians. I guess we were. The game now seemed a long time ago.

Luckily, Alvin's Chinese colleague got his nephew and his nephew's car driving mate to give us a lift back to Beijing for the aforementioned sum. That was a life saver but wow, what a long, long trip. We had to go through three checkpoints to get permission to continue to Beijing. Nice. So, we left the stadium at 9pm and got back to our hotel at 2:30am. This was the first harsh lesson in learning that the Chinese 'authorities' were putting on an Olympics to cater for the athletes, the IOC members and the press. The public were not even on the list and why would they. It's not as if people can affect customer service quality. The people themselves are very nice though. Very nice.

The Grand Opening

Friday August 8th, 2008

Now as it was the day of the opening ceremony there were no events on so I had been for a one and a half hour walk all the way from Salitun to Hou Hai. It was a blazing hot day but the walk was fine because I saw a few local areas that looked more or less like they normally did. One little gem I found was a market five minutes away from the Hou Hai lake area. I saw just one other westerner there and so therefore market had the authentic feel that had been lost around the tourist traps in central Beijing. I bought a local SIM card with the help of the shop owners who rang in an activated for me. In fact I never had to dial to recharge for the whole trip because whoever sold you a recharge voucher dialled and recharged for you because you would not be able to understand the prompts in Mandarin. Now that's helpful.

I had also spotted an Irish bar , yes, in Beijing and this was where we decided to watch the opening ceremony . Paddy O'Shea's which was also the place to watch English football and buy somewhat overpriced Irish beer and Guinness pies! Irish bars are the original McDonalds. They are like a flag placed in every country around the world. Before you ask, there was one in Mongolia too !!! Arrrgh!!!

So, we got bar side seats and watched the ceremony and like you, we were blown away. Hmm, I thought that London would be in trouble but when the cost of the round came back I thought we had our own problems.

Let's go to the beach

Saturday August 9th, 2008

Well, there was not much to do but go shopping at Silk Street Market which is a four floor block of shopping heaven/hell. Imagine if you will a four storey office building with each floor the size of a football field and every nook and cranny filled with 'stuff'. It's all clothes, jewellery, small electrical goods and young girls who run the stalls and get foreigners to believe that they have bought a bargain even though local people would get the same items for less. Alvin & Ben wanted to go in order to buy the obligatory 'designer' items that you find in China/Asia. The trick was that I went with them and brandished my broken mandarin to such effect that I saved them a bit of cash and became a marked man among the shop girls who wanted to get top dollar out of Alvin & Ben just like they do all the tourists - especially Americans. The basic rule of thumb is that you look at an item and then offer to pay 20% of whatever the seller tells you the price is. 10% if you are American because they try and screw you more! Of course the girls always think I am American or South African. Me being British is a surprise and when I say that I'm Australian they are probably thinking that I don't look like the Aborigines they've seen in Crocodile Dundee!

Alvin & Ben had tickets for the beach volleyball and I didn't so the job of the day was getting to the venue and then getting me a ticket. My scalping skills were still being formulated so I wanted to get to the venue early in order to try and find English speaking scalpers. We got there so early for the evening session that we found no scalpers so we went to a local restaurant for a meal.

The restaurant was nothing special but they did have an interesting mention with a donkey burger on the menu. Yes, I did say donkey burger so we bought one and ate it between the three of us. What can I say? Well, it did not taste of chicken but did taste a little like the meat that you put BBQ sauce on so as to cover the taste of its impending off-ness. If you are what you eat I'd only want one aspect of donkey about me but having said that the rest of the meal was okay. (Yes, I know many people think of me as an ass anyway!)

We crossed the road in front of the venue and all three of us were looking for a scalper so I could obtain a ticket. Ben & Alvin thought it was wise to ask any westerners in case they had a spare so they asked a guy who was next to us and crossing the road as well. It was then, as he was explaining that he did not have a spare, that I realised he was none other than Marcus (Dr Marcus) from England. This was the same Marcus I had met at the Adelaide Cricket Oval when we were part of the 'Barmy Army' supporting the ill-fated England cricket team in their bid to retain the Ashes in 2007.

We drank and sang all weekend on what was a memorable two-days of English dominance during the five day test. Marcus, being a doctor, would pick out all those spectators in front of us with their shirts off, thus increasing the size of the potential melanomas they had growing on their shoulders and backs. He was witty like that (he's the reincarnation of Leslie Phillips from the 'Carry On' movies) but that's a doctor's thing I guess, lol. It was totally bizarre/surreal and all those other things to meet him with his wife and kids on a street in Beijing, but that's the Olympics (and football World Cup) for you. As it happens, he helped my bid to gain access to the venue as only an Englishman with 'blagging' skills can.

When it rains...

Sunday August 10th, 2008

It was Sunday morning and Alvin & Ben were at the tennis so I decided to watch something different. I went to weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2006 and so I decided to go here in China too. At this point I was getting slightly, just slightly wiser and got one of the lasses in the hotel to write the address of the gymnasium I wanted in Chinese for the taxi driver.

It was a long drive down a few of Beijing's terribly long straight four-lane expressways. It's a strange thing to be a grown man and still not know where the heck you are in a city. The streets were as ever full of cars and people. Unlike the last time I was there in 2006, there were fewer moments of gridlock due to the Olympic traffic regulations but then there are so many vehicles in Beijing its hard to tell. But the air was clear, the sun was out, it was hot and the Olympics were on. Excellent!

There was no crowd outside the venue, just a few stragglers. You would only know that there was an olympic event on because of the bunting and usual olympic paraphernalia at the front gates to the university complex. No crowd at the front of the venue meant even fewer scalpers and thus one of the more bizarre scalper episodes I had during the trip. The sellers were a husband and wife team and the wife was wearing the trousers. It had been raining earlier and maybe she could not be asked to hang around but when he did the usual trick of getting my interest to start of a bidding cycle she cut him short and left it in no uncertain terms to sell at the price that I had suggested. You did not need mandarin level 10 to understand that she wanted to settle. So we did and I went in to watch the event.

So the weightlifting was cool as always and this example was being held in a massive new gymnasium on a new looking university complex to the north-west but still central of the city. It was a bit inspiring actually but as it was still midday there was plenty of time to get to the tennis to meet up with Alvin & Ben. Getting there was horrific! I got a taxi to the the apron of the National Stadium complex. That was my first view of the Bird's Nest. It was a rainy, overcast day and thus unfortunately the Bird's Nest looked rather gray. The "Water Cube" looked very interesting though. All said and done the tennis was somewhere else and man, was it ever. I was directed out along the main road outside the complex. The volunteers thought I may be a bit crazy to walk it and eventually I realised I was but folks, there were no taxis along the way anyway. Ten minutes into the walk I bumped into a family of four (two young boys) from South America, who were also looking for the stadium. Ominous signs, eh? I told them the directions I had been told and turned left. We made a pact that we would try and tell each other the correct way if we found out - I don't know how, we never discussed that! 100 metres down the road I got the correct details and then asked the two guys that told me to tell "that family over there in the distance as you are heading that way". Hmm, some proper organisation by the authorities would have helped so much.

So, I walk another half hour to reach the tennis. Again, the organisation sucks as there is just no clear way to get there. No clear train or bus directions/availability and even taxis - I'm told later - had troubles getting there. So now I'm there I need a ticket. I cranked up my mandarin and started the "Hustle". It was 2pm-ish so I had a couple of hours to spare. The event was a sellout so it was down to me versus the scalpers, and the scalpers had no clue as to life in the West. Today was the first day that I had to give a stump speech - like a street politician, how about Lenin, that sounds fitting - about how to scalp\sell tickets. There was Chinese girl I met who had impeccable English and used it to tell me that he was selling the 400RMB tickets she had for 5,000RMB! Yes, that sounds like alot even in Chinese money. That's a 80AUD ticket for 900AUD! As you sit reading this - don't worry, she can't because this site is blocked in China - spare a thought for those poor Chinese folks who have no clue about life outside their country. She spoke great English but thought that all westerners swim in private pools filled with Cristal and Moet (not really, that's my opinion of her opinion)! It's laughable and quaint the first time it happens but not after you have spent a week there, it isn't, trust me. very nice people, very friendly and very interested to her all about your life and experiences but wow, consistently asking silly money. Bear in mind that the prices for the USA men's basketball games were consistently ridiculous well after the game had started.

So, I managed to get a 40AUD ticket for 80AUD and was quite pleased because it was to see Roger Federer who was to be on later that afternoon. I spent about an hour and a half chatting to Chinese scalpers and anyone else trying to buy and sell tickets. My mandarin really helped and was getting better due to use and my slightly increased confidence. As long as I was in a taxi, buying something or explaining where I lived and for how long etc., my Mandarin was passable. As a result that afternoon was a break-out session for my Mandarin.

This next part of the story could take me hours to write and hours for you to read if I tell it like it happened, so I won't. This is a very abridged version. The time had come for me to enter the arena. It was just after 3pm so I made my way through the first security gate. The area I was let into after the airport security tent was the size of a football pitch and became a holder area for people with tennis tickets.

Ticket holders for hockey, archery and tennis were all funnelled through the same entrance but the other two sport then when to their separate entrances. The problem was that the tennis was not letting people in due to rain delays holding up the first session. As a result, tennis ticket holder were being held in the common area with a food stall available, but no toilets. Maybe not a problem for a half hour but seeing as people had been made to drink all the water they had brought else throw it away at the security gate - no food or water could be brought in - it could become a serious issue and even I indentified that after 2 minutes in "the pen". Crazy or what?

So, I marched to the end of the pen and asked to use the toilets there but was told "No" because they were for employees only. Suffice to say I got myself in there after some terse words with the supervisor of the helpful volunteer kid who was helping me. To explain, the volunteers at these Olympics were all seemingly under 25 if not under 20 and were all selected because they spoke decent English. As a result they could not try and help you enough. I say try because it was often the case that the helpful young volunteer would understand what you needed and why, only to have a superior who did not understand the situation or speak English or possess a "can-do" spirit mess up the whole situation and then call their superior who would then call their superior... get the idea? Organised Chaos (OC).

So, I mentioned to two young English speaking volunteers that they needed to speak to their leader and get some toilets in. As I had just got to use toilets by forcing the issue I figured I ought to help those less confident. To cut the story even shorter, it started raining and the only covered area for "the pen" was the "airport security" tent that everyone had come through to get into the pen. I had moved to this tent - it was one of two - five minutes before the biblical downpour that came. When the hard, hard rain commenced the Chinese started to distribute those cheap plastic raincoats you get at sporting events. The police had been told to keep the tents clear, so they are the police started kicking people out of the tents and into the torrential rain. When I say people, I include the frail elderly couple who had come into the tent for refuge from the waiting and the rain. The lady was infirm and wobbly on her when walking and her husband was not much better and I won't mention the woman in the wheelchair either. It was a ridiculous scene when they were moved outside into the downpour. Please note that this was done via verbal means and no one was manhandled into the rain, threatened or tasered. It's just how it is in China in terms of customer service.

I have omitted some details from this story but will just add that the first portable toilet arrived well after 5pm, a full two hours after I suggested it. The queue for that was 30 people long. A second arrived at 5.45pm. Oh, and the whole event was cancelled at 6pm (refunds are available but it a slow process). So, people like me were effectively held for a long period with no toilet facilities from 3pm until 6pm. Suffice to say I did not go back to the tennis venue ever again. Alvin & Ben were in the venue as they had watched the tennis' morning session so when the rest of the day was cancelled from 6pm we went to a restaurant famous for it's Peking Duck and had an excellent meal.

It's me, Kobe...

Monday August 11th, 2008

So the boys went to see some boxing at the Worker's Stadium Gymnasium which conveniently was around the corner from our hotel. We got tickets from a nice family (father,son and daughter). The daughter and son spoke english so they did the deal while dad collected the cash. Boxing is usually good and Sydney and Athens had good arenas that did not dwarf the contestants. The only trouble with this venue was that it was indeed a bit too big and thus some of the emotion was lost but the action always makes up for it.

There was a Ukrainian fighter on and his mates/cousins/clan members were giving it the full throat treatment from the stands. Queue the Chinese volunteers circling in a slightly concerned manner. I don't recall if it was this day or the second day I went to the boxing but volunteers and other security actually went into the seating for the boxer's family and friends and asked some South American boxers not to stand when supporting their countryman. Hmm, telling a boxer to sit down is pretty brave especially when he's enjoying a bout.

Having said that, nothing can really stop you from having a good time at an olympic event - although the Chinese authorities came close at times - and so we had a good time at the boxing and met Master Qi from the World of Qigong via Queens, NYC where he now resides. Nice chap, very well connected in political circles and otherwise, and the truth of that was in the pictures he showed us of him at the opening ceremony with killer seats right down at the front of the stadium. I can say that he had one of the strongest, most impressive and thus scariest handshakes that I'd ever come across. Not a guy to be messed with but today, like all of us, he was a happy patron of the olympics.

We had a few hours to kill so we went to the Hou Hai lake area. It's a cool area with bars and the usual tourist shops but it has the lakes which are a serene alternative to the madness of urban life in Beijing. You can take a walk past old guys playing dominoes and there's a section where old fellas go swimming in the lake too. There are families and people just generally slowing down and taking in the view. We took a rickshaw to finish the last part of the walk because it was such a hot, hot day. The rickshaw driver was initially not that enthused about carrying three guys but as usual for the locals, had a smile on his face when we got to the destination a few hundred metres down the road.

A couple of days earlier, I had walked all the way to this part of town so I knew of a local market that Alvin & Ben might be interested in seeing. Hou Hai was on the way so it was a good opportunity for the guys to see the lake and this market. Alvin wanted to get a haircut so we took a moment as we passed a local salon or "salan" as they spelt it. This was a local area where tourist did not come and the people were quizzical as to how we found the place. This is the kind of place I love going to, not the tried and tested tourist traps selling pizza for silly prices. I want the real Beijing.

We hopped into a taxi to Wukesong. Taking taxis is not usual for me but I did an awful lot of it during my time in Beijing. In a taxi your tiredness does not matter and I'd always get to speak some mandarin to the driver. The taxi to Wukesong, site of the baseball and tennis, was 60RMB and about 30 minutes but the train was 30 minutes and 1RMB, so we always took the taxi!. 60RMB would be eleven American dollars so split that three ways and the comfort of a taxi is a no brainer. Forget carbon neutrality because you are in China goddamn it !!!

So the basketball gig was another introduction to the world of Chinese scalping. These guys still lacked any idea of a decent price and again I had to give a street speech in mandarin to explain that a 400% mark up is the limit but markups of 1000% - 5000% were ludicrous, even if the original ticket prices were very low by western standards. The result of all my labour was a ticket from a young lady who was studying English. I paid a rather high amount for a game I was not bothered about as it was the USA women's team (I never saw any men's basketball though we spotted Kobe Bryant at the game) and the USA team meant more money for scalpers (80AUD I think in this case). The good part was that I used the ticket to make shuttle runs and get Alvin & Ben down to the half court line where I was seated. That was fun itself because the Chinese just don't know anything about blagging and sneaky stuff unless it involves industrial cock-up or milk substitutes, lol.

This was Alvin & Ben's last day as Alvin was going to Shanghai and Ben back to the States. It was a shame to say goodbye at this point because we were having a great time and had not discovered the Holland House but I'd be representing on their behalf later in the week.

The band played on... loud and proud

Tuesday August 12th, 2008

So on paper you may think that me watching 22 fit and athletic women from Nigeria and Brazil would be my idea of heaven but I'd have to show you the team line-ups to dispel that idea. Having said that, I don't imagine the players would rate me much either so let's call that all square! Watching women's football is a strange sensation because as a man in reasonably fit condition you feel as if you could walk on and not look too bad in comparison. On the bright side that makes the games entertaining because you are never quite sure if that goalie will actually fall on that easy ball etc. etc.

Further entertainment came with the faint sound of drums from the far end of the ground. I thought I also heard a snatch of the Nigerian Football Supporters Association "theme" tune so I went to investigate. I found a bunch of twenty fans and the band at the far end but had to "breakthrough" a ring of volunteers and stadium security to do so. I kid you not, the Chinese police/security made a bunch of volunteers ring fence the Nigerian fans by holding hands! I don't know what they expected to happen and it was nothing to do with race but the shock was that the Nigerians were playing instruments and singing! At a football match at that! I'm slightly surprised the authorities did not call in the Army and the Navy but there were at least 5 policemen (some quite senior) there with about 15 or so volunteers . The Chinese were initially bemused but then as the game went on, totally enthralled by the Nigerians fans. After the game, which the Brazilians won easily, the Nigerian supporters club played all the way out of the stadium and even the olympic volunteers were getting into the swing though the police did not.

Some people box, some kick balls

Wednesday August 13th, 2008

Boxing was not the first thing I did on this day. I had to go and book my train ticket to Mongolia. A train because I had wanted to fly to Mongolia but read a blog that told the story of a 30 hour train trip from Beijing to Mongolia. Like many things in China it sounded like a great idea but when you actually try to do it you see all the little obstacles that are in the way! This morning I had to find the sole location where tickets for this train are sold. I found it but it was closed for lunch! I came back later and bought a ticket.

It was now time for some boxing. Why not, I like boxing and once again I got a ticket through a little mandarin infused negotiation and arrived at the Worker's Gymnasium. The highlight was the flashy Chinese boxer who the crowd cheered for at every moment but I was cheering my discovery of two English, Souser (from Liverpool) ticket scalpers outside the venue. I was so pleased to negotiate with Scousers rather than the local Chinese and its rare that you would prefer English scalpers over anyone but this was definitely the case. They had tons of tickets and sold me a 30RMB ticket for 50RMB (10AUD). You can't say fairer than that because one of the locals would have smiled sweetly but wanted 200+RMB for the same ticket!

I came out of the boxing and went around the corner to buy a ticket for the Nigerian men's soccer match later that afternoon at the Worker's Stadium. It was the Nigeria v USA game and it was a shame that Alvin & Ben were not there to see it but then, they were lucky to miss the rubbish that occurred at the start of the game because the Nigerian supporters club were being told that they were not allowed to bring drums and trumpets into the stadium. Just to get that right, these were the same fans, drum and trumpets that had been in the same stadium the day before! The Chinese people are relaxed and love foreigners and different things like drums, trumpets and dancing at games but the "authorities" are sadly stuck in a Communist time warp.

Well as you can see, we played music and danced and sang and Nigeria won a crazy, entertaining game. After the crappy start this turned out to be a great day out and I met a few of the same faces I had seen from the game in Tianjin the week before. I wonder how they got home that night! We won, so we danced and sang our way out of the stadium. It took a half hour until the band left the stadium as the Chinese wanted to party on and take pictures with the Nigerian fans. Wonderful. This was what the Olympics is all about. Don't let people talk about the "inscrutable" Chinese. They are the friendliest folk you can meet and ten times more friendly that the Athenians were four years before! Now, if they could only make city life in China less chaotic it would be much better!

Take me out to the ball game

Thursday August 14th, 2008

I popped into Silk Street Market to buy some socks etc. to avoid visiting a laundrette during my stay. Even though this was China I did not want to create any unsightly 'Chinese laundry' and while I was ambling past some stalls I bumped into Aretha from NYC. The truth is often stranger than fiction because I had met Aretha during the Athens Olympics in 2004 and though we had exchanged a few emails, neither of us realised we'd be in Beijing. The Olympics finds a way to connect people from different places and has been doing so well before Facebook! So, now we were reunited in the market I once again played the role of shopping language interpreter. We hung out on a few occasions over the week too.

After that surprise I went to my first baseball game . It was the second day of baseball but the first of the meaningful games. I went to see Holland versus the USA and met a wacky bunch of Dutch/American people who themselves had only met the previous day and they were to become my second Olympic "family", Eric & Joris et al. It was cool because I made fun of Eric until he caught a the foul ball that was headed for my hands. I won't retell the full story because that would sound like sour grapes but you should know that it ricocheted of a stadium floodlight and then a seat and he literally turned round to see what the commotion was only to have it hit him square in the hands. He even had the media asking him his name and details. The USA were murdering the Dutch and then a rainstorm came down in the seventh inning so I left to get my Mongolian visa and agreed to meet the guys later that night at the That evening? Drinking at the Holland House .

The Cold War on a hot day...

Friday August 15th, 2008

Baseball, USA v Cuba, this was a game I had been looking forward to. Under a blue sky and burning hot sun the old dual between communism and capitalism was played out in front of a big crowd. It's interesting to think that Cuba is probably more communist than China these days. The Cubans like to sing and dance so as you would expect, I stood with the Cubans with an English lad called Chris who I had met on the way in. As you can see, alot of fun was had by all and the spirit between the fans was great. The Chinese were supporting the Cubans but only because they seemed to sing more and were a bit better looking. It was a very hot day and the queues for food were as tortuously long as ever. That was one of the stories of this olympics. Bless the Chinese but they have a knack of making a 5 minute queue into a 20 minute one and when all that is at the end of it was yet another dose of popcorn or potato chips, it had been a long week of eating "olympic venue" food. The game went to the 11 inning before Cuba won. I gratefully rehydrated and as I had a spare ticket for the women's basketball taking place next to the baseball stadium we went to see China play Mali.

The seats were good and Chris met up with a friend he had met a couple of days before and so another event was under the belt. The highlights of this one was the episode where a volunteer was sent around the whole arena to tell the Chinese fans not to boo the Malian when they were in possession of the ball. The Chinese fans did not realise how bad this would look to the world even though it was not "aggressive" booing. So the arena "authorities" sent this guy around to tell them to stop booing. Classic. It worked a treat. There's alot to be said for social control but it wouldn't work anywhere else!

That evening? Drinking at the Holland House .

A (100m) time to remember...

Saturday August 16th, 2008

Athletics - 100m, and this was the blue ribbon day. I went to the Bird's Nest by 10 am and using my mandarin "skills" helped a couple of American get tickets for that night's Men's 100m final among other events. I spent an hour and a half looking for a ticket myself but had fun with the locals, (and others dressed in regional costume ) selling tickets versus my bad mandarin. I went for a walk around the complex and found a guy willing to do business. Having bought a ticket I was set for the day because having a ticket at 1pm meant that I could relax and enjoy the day.

By coincidence this was the first day I met with an ex-colleague from Sydney, Beverley . She is, an avid pin trader and was at Sydney and Athens doing the same. Many are the times I've laughed at her for having such a strange hobby. That day I tried it a saw what the obsession was about so I've restricted myself to that one day only. It was fun meeting people and trading without money changing hands. That was a wonderful change!

The evening athletics were to start at 8pm and as I'd been out since 9am I decided to go all the way back across town and freshen up at my hotel (I had swapped rooms from a twin room in the hostel to a double room in the hotel proper). After five minutes in the taxi I realised that there was no way I would make it back across town so I changed my plans, jumped out of the cab, got a phone recharge card from a high street near the stadium and started walking back. It was now coming up to 7pm, it was hot as heck and there were no taxis. So as I walked with no worries because I had a ticket, I popped into a supermarket to get some wet wipes. Now, how do you explain wet wipes with a phrase book in a local supermarket where they are just surprised to see a black person? The answer: badly. Well actually I got the word wet tissues right but when I picked up a packet of sanitary pads, you know, the type with wings, the two shop assistants (older ladies) had a really good laugh. At moments like those you really don't need a common language to see the funny side of things. No, you just need the ability to read Chinese although I wonder what characters explain "sanitary pads with wings" in Chinese?

Well, I left the supermarket and made it to the stadium meeting long jump legend Mike Powell on the way. Funny but outside the stadium a guy randomly offered me a ticket for less than I'd paid for mine. I would have bought it - then given myself the problem of selling mine - but another guy jumped in just when I was getting my money out. China does not wait for you when there's a deal on the table. No worries, I chuckled at that and remembered the good day I'd had and I went to the races. The day got even better.

When I walked into the rather odd stadium it was a shock to see so many stairs. Hmm, the home to the Paralympics and yet a mountain of stairs. Not happy. When I got to my seat I was delighted to see that I was on the 60-70 metre line on the best side of the track to see the 100m . What a result ! Eric and the crew were in the section to the left of me and so everything was right and as you will know, Usain Bolt made it a night to remember. It was a truly memorable moment and seeing it live was something special. Worth every cent and every moment. Fantastic.

After the events was over, we crashed the media center and made it down to track side to take pictures. I then bumped into Marcus and Carolyn yet again. The Barmy Army was in the Olympic Stadium and Marcus had his Barmy Army (England cricket fan fraternity) tee shirt on! We had met in Adelaide two years earlier when Australia were beating England in the Ashes. Who would have thought we'd be at the Olympics!

Later, drinking at the Holland House where I met Simon from Sunrise and he was taller than I thought he'd be!

A serene Sunday...

Sunday August 17th, 2008

It was softball and it was Sunday and I was getting really fatigued, but it was the olympics so I joined Melanie for the last part of the softball ( Japan versus someone else) and then we got some "real" food to eat at a restaurant. That was a welcome change but this was as close to an olympic rest day as I would get.

Internet access seemed more difficult to find than the previous times I had been to China. The funny thing was that there was a 100 seat internet cafe in the hotel courtyard, a 24 hour one at that but because there was no signage in English, I had not known. It was a local lad who, when I asked him for an internet cafe took the time to walk me back down the road to my hotel and thus the cafe that I had been walking past for a full week! The only problem was that my website, the one you are looking at, is banned in China because it's a personal website. After two days of emails back and forth to the website provider, they asked me where I was and then the penny dropped. It's China. You have the internet, but not as you know it....

Later, drinking at the Holland House but tonight it was so full the doors were shut so Eric and I jumped the fence and put on cunning Dutch disguises!

Losing your shirt? Buying one is harder!

Monday August 18th, 2008

It was Japan v USA but I only bought a ticket so that I could get inside the stadium to buy some decent Olympic merchandise. You see the thing was that even though China makes most of the casual clothes worn in the world it seemed that you could not get any olympic stuff in China unless you were inside a venue. How bizarre. Apparently there was a huge merchandising shop with everything in it at the Olympic complex containing the Bird's Nest but as it was China no one tells you that. I was told later that day that the factories had long since stopped producing the merchandising and so I'd be lucky to find what I wanted. It was chaotic and even the sizes in the labels in the shirt apparently meant nothing. A shop assistant told me that two of the three sizes in the shirts meant nothing and no one could tell me what the equivalent of a women's UK\US size was. Ah, I love China, no really, I do!

I actually left the game at halftime to do the merchandising shopping I had come to do. The USA won the game and I got my merchandising goods. Shame I said no to the people selling fake hats in Salitun. I needed them later that night because buying goods in China for the full price is just not right. I have to wonder where all the dodgy street sellers had gone. Maybe they were all fearful of being re-educated so they left the streets for the olympic period. Normally there are a fair amount of street vendors, DVD sellers and beggars but all of them had vanished. Now that's what I call effective "government".

Later, drinking at the Holland House where tonight I met Hamish from 'Hamish and Andy' and gold medal rower Mark Hunter from the UK! Did I leave there at 2am?

I'm leaving, on a slow train...

Tuesday August 19th, 2008

Did I actually go to sleep? I'm not sure I did in case my fatigue meant I missed the train . I got to the station and onto the train. Nice, it was the first time I had actually gone into the Beijing main railway station which is a majestic old communist building. The train was, as you can see, full of old world charm too.

Fortunately for me, when I booked my cabin on the train I deserted my communist principles and booked a deluxe cabin. On reflection this was the best move I made. As a result, the 30 hours went like a breeze.

Stepping over the Steppes...

Wednesday August 20th, 2008

The gradual change of scenery from Chinese farmland to the wide bare spaces of the Gobi desert was a delight to watch. I had eaten in the Chinese food car with the jolly staff. Got off when the train reached the border at 9pm for the two hour wait for them to change the train change (so China could not invade Mongolia with their trains). That was an odd episode, after which you reboarded the train only to have the Chinese security board the train and briefly search your cabin and the after that the stout, stockinged ladies of the Mongolian immigration service (stout but attractive faces with huge Russian style commissar hats on) who boarded the train and took your passport for the 20 minutes it took to process everyone on the train. It was near or past midnight and pitch black outside the train while it felt like a spy movie from the sixties inside the train as you heard the army and officials pass by. I was not worried though having nothing to hide other than the two hip bottles of hard Chinese vodka I had bought for the journey at Beijing station.

Waking up at dawn and looking out of the window to see the Gobi desert was special. The light was that strange dawn sunlight you get but this time it was like looking through golden gauze. What made it so eerie was that the train was not moving so when I opened my eyes I did truly wonder if I was dreaming or just lying there, floating above the waking, vast desert.

Half an hour outside Ulan Bator (Ulaan Bataar) the countryside was mountainous but lush with green rolling meadows forming the floors of huge, wide valleys. It was raining and it could have been Scotland or somewhere in Sweden as the trees dotted in clusters around the landscape looked like pines. It was reminiscent of Wales, Scotland or maybe even Tasmania but no, this was Mongolia so you had a slight notion that Chinggis Khaan once rode across these majestic vistas.

When the train drew into the city you were cured of such ideas. Ulan Bator reminded me of Sofia, Bulgaria. It was dirty, gray and communist and this was the height of summer! To be fair the rain must have been very heavy and it all dried within 2 three hours but road drainage was poor to nonexistent. The ugly, Communist era power stations we had seen on the way into the station were called "Power Station No.1" and "Power Station No.2" with massive great big letters painted in white, and even more curiously, this was written in English!

Getting off the train was a great moment as I had actually made it to Ulan Bator (even the name sounds so different). There were various people milling around the train and passengers - because the arrival of the train seems to be an event in city - and with no one was there to pick me up and it was not the most customer friendly place to alight a train. There were no obvious signs or clues as to what to do next. This was "real" travelling. It had just rained, the station was a communist build and the one foreign currency kiosk was shut which was a "smart" move when remember that the train only arrives twice a week!

I had to settle for an illegal taxi driver who tried to fleece me and did a decent job. I decided to go to the Ulan Bator hotel which is famously meant to be the only five star hotel in Mongolia. It's also next to the communist party headquarters in the centre of town which was burnt down two months earlier when there were riots due to the communists getting back in. The crazy thing was that six weeks earlier I had seen the same building on CNN as it was gutted and Mongolia was off the itinerary at that point. I was glad it was back on because I was quite impressed that I had actually made it there.

The hotel was 100 US dollars a night and a good three star which is five star in Mongolia I guess. I put my bags down and had to make my way to the local Air China office to change my flight out but that's another story. Mongolia is two stories, the romance (really?) of the countryside versus the grime and grayness of the city. I was told that the summer is a relief from the cold, harsh six month winter which goes down to thirty below. The streets looked like they suffered harsh winters every year because the paving was fractured and the general repair of the roads and pavements was shocking. The funny thing to note was the prevalence of missing man-hole covered whether on the actual roads or the pavement. I saw one of each in the two days I was there. They looked like trap-doors to an underworld and reminded you that living elsewhere makes you take certain things for granted. Like not falling to your death while walking down the high street!

That day, I managed to change my ticket and had a look around the centre of town. I didn't go too far because to be honest, Ulan Bator did not have any obvious tourist area or old world cafe scene but I did take the time to get on an unfiltered internet connection for the first time in days. That night I hung out in a couple of joints with my hired driver and a mate of his who recognised me because we had been on the same train from Beijing. That was a good night out.

Ride a horse badly? Yes, I Khan...

Thursday August 21st, 2008

Despite the general appearance of chaos and dusty dilapidation, Ulaan Bataar and Mongolia suggests a mystic history so I decided go to a historical site. Most of the tourist spots are included in two or three days tours because they are a long way out of town and the transport infrastructure is "not the best". The was a monastery one hour out of town so thats where we went for the day. I was due to go with Mark and Jackie, a London couple I had met on the train but Mark had succumbed to the eggs that he had eaten on the train the previous morning.

The day trip was cool but I lost my phone somewhere near the monastery. Not cool. The drive there was like driving through the wide expanses of Australia except there were actual, real yurts dotted on the landscape along with the horses, cows and yaks being herded by the locals. The romance was spoilt when you could see Toyota Landcruisers parked next to them but still, this was Mongolia and I had made it here !

That night was spent trying to watch the Olympics at the hotel. This was Usain Bolt's 200m night. Mongolia had been a quick trip and to be honest, more a taster than a real journey. The train trip getting there was good but the city of Ulan Bator was not postcard material. The people are living hard lives but dress and act like they are in a modern city. Imagine yourself in eastern europe and you'd be right. There were many more people here speaking English than in China and the biggest foreign influence seemed to be Russia or to be more accurate, the former Soviet Union. The people in China were friendlier as the Mongolians have been hardened by life and their winters. Would I go back? I would, in order to take the Trans-Siberian railway to Russia but the real Mongolia takes five days of riding horses and jeeps across barren countryside so you can imagine you are Chinngis Kahn. The two minutes I spent on a Mongolian horse (with a saddle too small for my own good) made me realise that i won't be going on that trip anytime soon. It was an interesting trip and one I won't forget too quickly.

Back to Bedlam...

Friday August 22nd, 2008

The night before, Mark and Jackie (in red) mentioned that there was a cyclone about to hit Hong Kong the next day. Not something I would usually take note of but this time I did because I was due to fly from Mongolia to Hong Kong the next day. I got a quick look at the CNN weather site and confirmed that it was a pretty bad idea to take a flight through a cyclone on a Chinese domestic flight. That's called a no brainer. This meant I had to ring up Australia and change my flight to London from Hong Kong to Shanghai and also meant that I could stay in Beijing until mid-Saturday rather than flying straight to Hong Kong. The result was that I would get an extra night in Beijing and the chance to see the men football finals too! I made a set of calls first thing in the morning and booked a hotel in Beijing just before going to the airport. Not the best preparation for an international flight but it was done before I left.

I still had 200 AUD dollars worth of Mongolian money on me but thought that the hotel money exchange rate be rubbish and I would be better served waiting until the airport (Chinggis Khaan international airport no less) to change it. Bad decision as the only currency exchange bureau at the airport was the immigration gates unlike every other airport in the world. They didn't even accept the currency in China or the UK, but then any currency or economy take runs side by side in US dollars is a bit dodgy. I made a mental note of that.

I could tell you about the hour it took for the airport bus to get through the traffic into the city or the hour and a half it took me to find the hotel I had booked and how willing but useless the local helpers and volunteers had been but that would not change a thing. It just reminded me that I was back in the sometimes surreal chaos of Beijing. It was yet another hot, beautiful and smog free day though.

I eventually got to the hotel at 5pm (after landing just after 1pm), dropped my bag and had to rush to the airline ticketing centre just past the Forbidden city to change my domestic flight tickets and get a refund for a previous domestic flight. I had been scheduled to fly out of Hong Kong that night but had changed it all to avoid the cyclone. This meant that I was going to be in Beijing on the Saturday and thus could go to see Nigeria in the football final the next day. It also meant that I would be flying out of Shanghai on the Sunday morning so I had to buy a flight to Shanghai. Confused?

I called Eric to see what he was up to and he mentioned that the USA was playing Cuba in the semi-finals of the baseball tournament so of course I had to go. By the time we got into the Cubans were beating the Americans easily and it was the 7th inning. It was still pretty good because it was a hot night and the Cubans were singing and celebrating as per usual. I even managed to have a vocal rant to those around me in the crowd about my website being blocked in China. The Chinese who understood me found it rather funny, the NBC guy who was in our group was sh*tting himself in case I was arrested. Me? I didn't really care at that point and was asking loudly to be re-educated in a camp of the government's choosing. I was not happy that you could see my website in Mongolia but not China! Pass the powdered milk dude!

Later, drinking at the Holland House for the final time! Sad!

The Final day, literally...

Saturday August 23rd, 2008

I awoke after three hours sleep, and realised that I had to get to a football final and buy a ticket to Shanghai for my flight to London the next day. Now seeing as I did not know the flight timetables I needed but internet access but my new hotel would not let me use their pc even for one minute! Customer service just does not translate. So I had to walk all the way to the Wangfujing shopping street to find an internet cafe. Fifteen minutes or so later I said stuff it and tried the nearest big hotel. I walked into their business centre ready to pretend I was a guest but no need, I got the details I needed. I then made my way to the Bird's Nest for the game.

I took the train this time as the traffic would have made me way too late. It was sweaty and slightly uncomfortable but I got there with no drama. It was yet another seriously hot, bright sunny day and thus not the kind of day to spend outside haggling over inflated ticket prices but here I was again. I had to give one last "speech" about how to sell tickets because the locals were once again trying to fleece everyone who wanted a ticket.

By the time I got a ticket it was kickoff time so I went though the security gates only see a long snaking queue of people in their hundreds if not thousands. It did not look like I would see any of the first half at this point. Luckily Eric and his troops were already in the queue so against my better judgement I joined them by jumping the police tape. I had saved myself twenty minutes to a half hour but we still had a wait to get in. We had a joke and a laugh in the queue about our predicament.

The game was entertaining but Nigeria lost. The Argentineans were lucky because Messi, Aguero and the rest of the team looked dead on their feet from the second half onwards due to the heat. If Nigeria had equalised it would have led to a Nigerian win and a gold medal but hey, it had been a great adventure and we sang and danced our way out of the stadium like always, win or lose. It was a bit surreal doing it out of the Olympic stadium this time though.

I then had the mad mission of getting back to the airline offices, buying myself a ticket to Shanghai and then getting to the airport on time. It was an "Amazing Race" out of the venue on the foot, then the wrong bus, then a taxi for five minutes until the traffic made me take the train. I got the ticket and got to the airport in time and arrived in Shanghai at 10pm only to find that the airline people had sent me to the wrong airport in Shanghai! By now I was too used to such cock-ups to be angry but man, China is something else! I had to take a fifty minute taxi ride to get to the correct airport (Pudong). My flight was not until 11am in the morning so with twelve hours to kill, I did what I did in Shanghai in 2006 and just stayed out all night until my flight.

I asked the taxi driver where the bars were and got chatting to Wolfgang an Austrian guy who was sitting at a table outside a street bar. He told me that he and his mate were going to a reggae club so I joined them and had a great (and interesting) time, leaving at 7am to get a taxi to the Maglev airport express train. I had to take it this time because I did not get a chance the last time I was in Shanghai so the 300kmh trip was impressive. I had been on two 300kmh trains in China and was wondering when I'd ever get on one in the UK or Australia in my lifetime!

Shanghai surprise?

Sunday August 24th, 2008

I collected my bag from the airport baggage service and hopped on my plane to London. It had been a crazy two weeks in Beijing and Mongolia and despite the frustrating times it had been an immensely enjoyable adventure. Having said that, I felt like I needed a holiday to get over my holiday!

[Thanks for reading, take a look at the picture and movie galleries as there are many more moments and narrative.]

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