Sunday, August 31, 2008

Great Wall Dinner

In 2002 I had the pleasure of a Kempinski-hotel catered dinner at the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall with the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the gourmet club that we are members of. This year the Chaine organized another Great Wall dinner, this time near the Juyong Guan section of the wall at the Kempinski-run Commune by the Great Wall, a would-be villa community that was converted into a hotel. We invited our friend Jennifer to join us for this dinner, and met up with her at the Kempinski hotel downtown for the bus ride up to the dinner. The bus was pretty empty, since the majority of people attending the dinner were making their own way to the hotel and/or staying the night, so the only people on the bus were those of us who wanted to return to town afterwards. As a result of the sparse numbers, however, the hotel supplied us with a few bottles of Moet champagne to make the time go more quickly, and as a result we had a very convivial ride.

Up at the hotel, it appeared that the rainy weather that had prevailed in Beijing during the day had been replaced by relatively fair skies, which made for a lovely setting as we wandered the grounds of the hotel waiting for the evening to begin. The hotel comprises a number of villas designed by a range of architects strewn along two valleys near the Juyong Guan section of the Wall, so it kind of doesn't work too well as a hotel, though they do try very hard to accommodate, such as by having a stable of BMW 700-series cars to drive people around the grounds.

After a short walk around the main entry, we felt a slight drizzle start up, which caused Yves, the hotel manager and host for the night to get nervous, since the cocktail hour was meant to be on the roof deck of one of the hotel's villas. While we waited we had a nice little drink at the main house and before long Yves corralled us into the BMWs to head up to the cocktail hour. There, Yves announced that the rain appeared to have cleared up, so we were moving to the roof after all. No sooner did we get up there, though, then it started to drizzle, so a bunch of us grouped under some of the umbrellas, which it soon became clear were not waterproof, since as the rain got heavier, we started to get drenched. There was nothing to do but to grab hold of the umbrella and try to walk with it down the rather steep and narrow walkway from the roof back downstairs. Of course, we still got soaked, but at least it broke the ice (a LOT) and set the stage for a very pleasant cocktail hour.

I don't know if it's the rain, or the fact that Jennifer is very pretty, but at this dinner it seemed that a lot more people came to talk to us than at previous Chaine dinners, and we ended up meeting a lot of interesting people. Most Chaine members are either hotel managers, restaurant owners, or wine vendors, but at this dinner there were also a good number of "regular people", which made for a nice mix of conversations.

Eventually it was time to get back in the BMWs to return to the main building for dinner. At each setting was a lovely gift--a pair of steel chopsticks and Commune-themed cufflinks, along with a hand-engrossed copy of the evening's menu. Here it is:

Paris-Pékin, a duck tale: from duck foie gras to Beijing duck, all in one dish
Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection Chenin Blanc, Bush Vine, 2007 South Africa

Steamed Canadian Lobster Tail with grilled pineapple skewer, mild and spicy fish sauce, with Thai herbal infusion
Hess Chardonnay, Monterey, California, 2005

Emince of fresh Porcini in claypot
Chateau Moulin Eyquem, Cotes-de Bourg AOC, France 2002

Moutai sorbet with marinated wolf berries

Roasted rolls of Australian beef and veal tenderloin, bell pepper stuffing with spicy Sichuan style and Chinese Merlot sauce
Torres, Celeste Tempranillo 2005, Ribera del Duero, Spain

Green tea parfait, jasmine tea tiramisu, lotus paste springrolls with saffron syrup, Ginseng Crème Brûlée

Coffee or Tea, XL Sichuan pepper chocolate macaron
Cigar and choice of eau-de-vie d’Alsace: Vieille Prune and Poire William G. E. Massenez

For the most part, I liked the meal a lot, though there were a few dishes that were less than great. Surprisingly, the moutai sorbet (moutai being a grain-based Chinese spirit) was pretty good, despite my not liking moutai very much, and the dish was served very creatively, in the upturned lids of tiny teapots that had dry ice inside them so that "steam" came out the spouts.

The only problem with having to take the bus back to Beijing was that we had to wait for the bus to be able to leave the dinner; we would have left the moment all the cigars got lit, but could not do so, so we stuck it out for another hour or so, finally boarding the buses at close to midnight. We all slept in the bus, which made the ride go very quickly, and we were home by 1:30am, plenty of time to get some sleep before our personal trainer appointments at 10 the next morning to work the meal off!

The other pictures are here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Olympic Roundup

So, the Olympics are now over. To paraphrase what my mother would often say after a meal that took a long time to cook was eaten in less than 10 minutes, "Seven years to prepare for and only 17 days to finish." It's hard to believe that just a week or so before the Games began I was whining that I had no tickets to anything, and now it appears that I had tickets to fifteen events (only thirteen of which I actually attended). But they're not quite gone, since for one thing Chinese television stations keep rebroadcasting the opening ceremonies, events where Chinese athletes won, and other Olympic-related news. And of course the Paralympics are just a few days away now.

It's nice to have the city more or less back to normal, though, with fewer visitors, more time to do our own things, and less craziness around. But it also means we have pollution again, a bit more traffic and less excitement. Can't wait for the Paralympics!

Olympic Baseball

Several weeks ago, the International Baseball Federation approached us at work looking for help for their officials during the Olympics, and in exchange for our assistance (which mostly extended to my taking a late-evening conference call with them from the comfort of my living room), they offered us tickets to the Olympic baseball matches. They ended up giving me five tickets for two matches: the US-China game and the final. I could not make it to the former (which turned out to be a very dramatic game, with a couple of fights and some intentional bonking of batters by the Chinese pitcher), so I gave those tickets to some friends, but I was intent on going to the latter, since it is likely to be the last-ever Olympic baseball game, since baseball has been officially dropped from the 2012 Games in London, and unless Chicago wins the Games in 2016, it's unlikely they'll be revived then. As it is, only eight countries participated in this year's baseball competition (for the record: USA, Canada, Cuba, China, Taiwan, Netherlands, Japan and Korea). The US had to settle for bronze, having lost to Cuba the other day, so the final was between Korea and Cuba.

The baseball matches were held in the Wukesong arena, adjacent to the basketball venue, but unlike basketball, the baseball venue is temporary, and will be dismantled after the Games. Surprisingly, the stands were pretty full, though I believe most of the Asian people in the stands were either Japanese or Korean, and they are REALLY into their baseball. They had banners, flags, the supremely annoying "thunder sticks" (inflatable mylar tubes that you bang together and that, when banged in close proximity to a set of ears, sounds like two big inflatable mylar tubes banging together, which is to say VERY LOUD) and lots and lots of slogans to shout at everything going on on the field, some of which sounded like "Bulgogi Home Run" and "Kimchi Adios" (my Korean is rusty). Also, an interesting thing is that it appears that baseball skills run in families in Korea, since several of the players are from the Kim and Lee families....

As the game started, I was suddenly reminded of why I never found it to be a problem to live in DC, a city that for ages had no baseball team--baseball is a supremely dull sport, and not only that, sitting through the game was like eating a Proustian madeleine, sending me back in time to my days at Pierce Country Day Camp in Roslyn, NY, where more than almost anything else I dreaded the days when we would be forced to play baseball. Not only was I almost always the last kid picked for a team, but when it came time for me to bat, the opposing team's outfielders ostentatiously moved closer to the infield, in recognition of the weakness of my swing. Needless to say, I never became much of a baseball fan. And not only that, but in contrast with the other sports we watched at the Olympics (like gymnastics, water polo, diving, etc) the players in baseball a) wear big bulky uniforms and b) it's a good thing that they wear big, bulky uniforms. So after four innings, during which it became apparent that the Koreans would wipe the floor with the Cubans (who, incidentally, I was rooting for, if only because it seemed likely that there are more Jews in Cuba than in Korea, and the Cuban fans were both very sparse and very pleasant, in contrast with the obnoxious Koreans), we decided to make our move and leave.

As we left the stadium, we were further surprised by the number of fans lingering outside the gates, watching the jumbotron for the replays and the score. Most of these people did seem to be Chinese, so maybe there's hope for major league baseball in China after all.

Sitting in the cab for the long journey back to civilization (i.e., the eastern side of Beijing) we debated where to go for dinner. It should come as no surprise that we found ourselves in the mood for Korean food, so off we went for our first reasonable-hour dinner in more than a week, getting to the restaurant at around 8pm. It was only in hindsight that we realized that we were a block away from a Cuban restaurant that we had been meaning to try. Oh well, maybe if that Cuban taekwando player who kicked a referee the other day and got banned from the sport for life gets a reprieve we'll celebrate there.

Here are the rest of the photos (not many).

Friday, August 22, 2008

Olympic Water Polo

During the day today I was invited to lunch at USA House, formerly known (and to be thus known again after the Olympics) as Jasmine Restaurant, inside the East Gate of the Workers' Stadium, and where all US Olympians and other folks related to USOC can hang out, eat, and drink. While there, I once again ran into a gymnast, just like I did when there last week for the Chicago 2016 event. The gymnast this time was Shawn Johnson, the dynamo woman gymnast who came so close to winning gold in the floor exercise last week. I knew that gymnasts are normally small, but Shawn is tiny! But she was very nice, and graciously let people take her photos while she shopped for loot at the US Olympics store.

After work we had tickets to the semi-finals of men's water polo, taking place at the Yingdong Natatorium in the same complex as yesterday's modern pentathlon, just south of the Bird's Nest. In fact, we were to enjoy three matches, the first between Greece and Germany being not part of the semi-finals, but to help determine who'd be in something like 6th and 7th place, and then the actual semi-final matches with Montenegro vs Hungary and then USA vs Serbia. When I got to the stadium I found that our seats were awful--way off to the side, from where we'd have had a terrible view. Luckily, they had a system in place for people to exchange seats for something better, so I did just that, getting slightly better seats in amidst a large group of Hungarian fans.

The game was a lot of fun to watch. For one thing, the athletes were very good, but the play was also very exciting, with loads of action that was very easy to follow. I found myself rooting for all the winners of the three matches. Greece walked all over the Germans in the first match, and while the Hungary-Montenegro match started out close, eventually the Hungarians established a solid and insurmountable lead. Finally, in the US-Serbia match, the US wound up winning by a comfortable margin, 10-5.

It was a lot of fun and very interesting to watch how the various fans behaved in the stands; for the Germany-Greece match, people were generally pretty sedate and quiet, but for the Hungary-Montenegro game the stands went wild, with people shouting slogans, singing songs, brandishing flags (some much larger than the maximum allowed size of 2 meters by 1 meter) and raising the decibel level in the stadium enormously. Then for the USA-Serbia match the Montegrins who stayed rooted very loudly for the Serbians, while the Hungarians cheered on the US, though a bit less loudly than in the match in which their countries competed.

Now the US and Hungary will compete in the match for the gold medal, and the Montenegrins and Serbians will fight it out for bronze (which should be an interesting match, given those two countries' history). Meantime, the rest of the photos from these matches can be seen here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympics--Modern Pentathlon

I had bought a single ticket to the Modern Pentathlon, thinking that it was going to be good for all five events (shooting, swimming, epee, show jumping and running) but it turns out I bought the cheap ticket, which was only good for the last two events. And as luck would have it, today was pretty rainy, so I ended up having access to the only events that are held outside. Undaunted, I decided to give it a go anyway and see what it would be like.

The show jumping and running were held in the Olympic Sports Center Stadium, just a bit south of the Bird's Nest, an older building first used during the Asian Games in 1984. Sure enough, despite J2's assurances to the contrary, the stadium is pretty much open to the elements, and with the persistent drizzle, I was glad to have brought a rain jacket with me. Seating was open, and I was lucky to get a good seat, close to the field of play so I was in a good spot for photos.

The contestants (all 36 of them!) are given a chance to inspect the course first, so you had the rather unusual sight of all these guys in their formal riding gear walking around the muddy field. Then, about 30 minutes before the start, they held a draw to see who'd ride which horse (unlike the other equestrian events, here the riders do not provide their own horse, which adds to the drama, since the riders and horses are new to each other). They also explain the scoring to the audience--each rider has to cover the 350-450 meter course, jumping the 12 obstacles (totaling 15 jumps, since there is one double and one triple obstacle). There is a "standard" time for completing the course, and a maximum time of 60 seconds more than this standard time. Each athlete can earn a maximum of 1200 points for running the course, though points are deducted for several things: 4 points for every second over the standard course time; 28 points for each obstacle knocked down by the horse; 40 points for each hesitation or refusal by the horse to jump; 80 points for each fall by the rider off the horse, etc.

Several of the horses did not seem like they were fond of jumping over the gates, since there were five or six riders who could not even complete the course because of recalcitrant horses. There were also several falls, including one pretty dramatic one where the rider was thrown and it seemed the horse was about to fall on him (he was OK). After 24 of these runs, I decided I had had enough and left, deciding not to stay for the running event, which I figured would not be as rewarding as spending a rare quiet evening at home for a change. This also meant I could get a cab more easily....

There was also a little bit of excitement in the stands during the match--despite the open seating plan, this one guy created a big stink over someone being in "his" seat, causing the security people to come over and the other spectators to chime in with their views on the situation (they wanted the guy kicked out). Also, despite repeated pleas by the announcers for people to remain silent during the athletes' runs, the spectators persisted in making loads of noise...except when the Chinese guys ran the course. Hmmmm.

Photos of the event can be seen here.

Olympic Two-Fer!

On Tuesday night I passed up on an opportunity to take four (FOUR!) free tickets to the gymnastics finals from NBC, reasoning that I had already been to a few gymnastics events, and perhaps they would give the tickets to someone who had not been to any. It was only later that I realized what a dumb thing I did, since NBC will almost certainly have had tickets right up against the apparatus, so I'd have had an amazing view, but clearly someone up there appreciated my action, since I wound up on Wednesday with not one but two (!) events to attend, both at no cost to me!

The first one was courtesy of my friend Jennifer, whom we invited to use our extra beach volleyball tickets this past Saturday. She in turn has a friend with McDonald's who offered her two tickets, and she offered to take me along. Since it was the men's semi-finals (USA vs "Georgia" and Brazil vs Brazil) I could not pass them up, even though the event was at 9am on a workday. Fortunately, the day broke bright and clear, and our seats were amazing--fifth row just slightly off the netline. We thus had an incredible view of the action, so I was glad I had bought a US flag and wore my Obama hat, so that I might find myself on TV on the broadcast (though I forgot to tape it!). The Americans walloped the "Georgians" in the first set, while the second set was a bit closer. (And by the way, I write "Georgians" in quotation marks, since the players were actually Brazilians, who were given Georgian passports so that they could play for Georgia and overcome the national quota that prevents a single country from fielding more than two teams in the event.) For the most part, the Chinese in the audience appeared to be rooting for the "Georgians", who had somehow won the hearts of the Chinese, perhaps because they were dramatic players, perhaps because they were the underdogs, or perhaps because they represent a country that is fighting an occupying force (OK, that last one is a bit of a stretch for the Chinese).

I would have been happy with just the one event in one day, but later in the day I was offered three tickets by the NBA to that evening's basketball matches: USA vs Australia and Greece vs Argentina. I was going to watch the taping of the Today Show at the Green, but decided that the opportunity to watch Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard live was too much to pass up, so I ditched Matt and Meredith and went out to the Wukesong stadium after work (the other two tickets went to one of my colleagues, who is a huge basketball fan, and one of her friends). I never really followed basketball, except when I was in college and would follow the team as part of the band, but this was a lot of fun, perhaps because the NBA players are a lot better at the game than the guys back at Columbia were! The USA-Australia match was never close--the US maintained a steady lead throughout--and we ended up winning by a very healthy margin. I ended up deciding not to stay for the second match, since it was close to 10 by the time the US match ended, and I wanted to get home in time to download my photos and get some sleep before work on Thursday.

For photos of the Beach Volleyball, click here.
For photos of the Basketball, click here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Olympics--Men's Diving Qualifiers

Friends of ours whose daughters are divers set us up with tickets for the men's 3-meter springboard diving qualifiers last night, held once again at the Water Cube. The match started at 7pm, so we left work a bit early and grabbed a sandwich on the way so that we would not be forced to eat the rotten food that they serve at the venues. Once again, the metro was the way to go, but this time (and yesterday, too) it was pretty crowded, most likely because there are now also events going on at the 90,000-seat Bird's Nest. Still, we made it to the Cube in plenty of time to catch some of the practice dives.

The event consisted of five rounds, with each of the 29 divers doing one dive per round. There were two Americans among them, as well as two Chinese, and the top 18 would move on to the semi finals on Tuesday. The Chinese divers performed amazingly well, and wound up in the top two spots at the end of the match, and the Americans did well enough to get to dive again tomorrow. Phew.

On the way back from the Water Cube to the metro for the ride home we stopped to catch a glimpse of the taping of the Today Show, which is right to the north of the Bird's Nest. Saw Matt, Ann and Al doing their thing, but since I might get to attend a taping later in the week, I did not bother to stay too long.

Pictures are here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Olympic Gymnastics (Thrills! Chills! Spills!)

It being the weekend, there was no reason not to attend another event on Sunday, and I was not going to let a little thing like not having any tickets stop me! I went on a one-man mission to get tickets to the Sunday evening finals of the women's vault and floor exercise and men's pommel horse and floor exercise events, visiting the area where the ticket scalpers linger in front of the Bird's Nest to see what was available. For the most part they were selling athletics tickets, and their prices were astronomical (RMB 4000 for a ticket with a face value of RMB 400), but that was because China's star athlete, Liu Xiang, would be competing, and because they were in the Bird's Nest, which is highly sought after. (Incidentally, Liu Xiang ended up not competing, due to an injury.) I was all set to give up when a friend told me he had one ticket for the gymnastics available, so I had to keep trying in order for J2 not to be stuck sitting at home watching on TV. So back I went to the scalpers, finally finding someone with a ticket for a less than extortionate price (but not less by much), and we were home free.

The only problem was that I had to get the ticket to J2 in order for him to be able to get into the Olympic Green area, since access is limited to those with tickets, and you cannot even get on the subway that goes to the Olympic Green without a ticket. So since J2 was having a massage during the afternoon, we worked it out that I would hang out at the Green taking photos and just soaking in the atmosphere and then I'd meet him at the interchange subway station, give him the ticket and we'd head to the event. Amazingly, this plan worked flawlessly, and we got to our seats in the stadium just minutes before the event began.

As it turns out, we wound up at a great event! During the first competition, the men's floor exercise, there were a number of great performances, a couple of upsets (Marian Dragulescu, the reigning champion, missed a landing, for example), and a win by the Chinese performer (again...). During the next one, the women's vault, the Russian gymnast, Anna Pavlova, had two very good runs, but for the second was given a score of zero, which elicited tremendously negative reactions from the audience, but no explanation for the score from the judges (turns out, upon subsequent investigation, that she ran her second vault before being given the green light, which is a no-no). In the end, a North Korean gymnast won, so I guess she has a few dinners with Kim Jong-Il to look forward to now. Then on the men's pommel horse there was a very mediocre by one of the Chinese guys, followed by extremely interesting and complicated exercises by the American, Alexander Artemev, and the Veneuzuelan gymnast, though both slipped off the horse at one point, resulting in the Chinese guy winning (how odd!), with a Croatian getting silver, and the Brit bronze. In the final event, women's floor, Shawn Johnson of the US did an amazing routine and remained in first place all the way through the next six exercises, which included a few bad landings by Chinese star Cheng Fei, only to be outscored by the last gymnast, Romanian Sandra Izbasa (though in fairness, the Romanian did an amazing routine).

Leaving the gymnasium after the event (though before the medal ceremony for the last exercise) we were again starving, and again there was nothing to eat in the Green, so we took the subway back to our neighborhood to eat at a noodle place that was closing up around us. We ended up taking our food home and eating there. These Games will definitely not be remembered for the cuisine!!

Here are some of the photos; the rest are here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Olympic Beach Volleyball

Among the events that our Olympic expert friends told us to be sure not to miss was beach volleyball, an event whose inclusion in the Olympics for the first time a couple of Games ago I found ludicrous at best, and explainable only as a means of gaining a wider TV audience, since who wouldn't want to watch some good looking people jump around and play volleyball in swimsuits? But the venue (in Chaoyang Park) is not far from our apartment, and the tickets were not too hard to come by, so we bought a pair for Saturday evening's session. Then, as luck turned out, we were also given two tickets for the same session, thus giving us an opportunity to share tickets with some friends.

Sure enough, beach volleyball is amazingly fun to watch. Our tickets were for four preliminary-ish matches, with the following line up: Brazil vs Japan; Austria vs Latvia; USA vs Spain; Brazil vs Russia. The matches are played for the best two out of three sets, and the first three matches, though very well played (with very close scores in all of them), only played for two sets each, though several of them went into extra points, since you have to win with more than a one-point spread. The last match, between the second Brazil team and Russia, was particularly close, and went for a full three sets, with Brazil eventually squeaking out a victory.

The audience in a beach volleyball match is pretty lively, and the organizers prompt them to do waves, make noise, and generally be vocal, and the fans are only too happy to oblige. The Brazilians in particular are a very supportive group, and they had flags, banners, and wigs to help make their team proud and motivated. We were sitting among a large group of Americans, who chanted U-S-A with abandon, and caused us to consider the merits of rooting for the Spanish team (though of course we did not!). In addition, there are cheering squads of women in bathing suits who would come onto the field when they had to rake the sand flat, or when there was a time out called, or between matches. They did not really do that great a job, but clearly a lot of the (male) audience was very interested in their antics.

Our friends had a lot of fun (so they said, at least), as did we, and I no longer mock the inclusion of the sport in the games, even if watching it did cause me to relive painful memories of my childhood in Al Benyak's gym class in high school, with him torturing us into playing volleyball match after volleyball match without any break...

For the whole photo gallery, click here.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Olympic Boxing

Thursday night was very stormy in Beijing, with torrential rains and big thunderstorms in parts of the city (several people were even hit by lightning at the Great Wall that day, and eventually found their way to our hospital), so it was a good thing I had my kayaking event on Wednesday, since Thursday's match was rained out. But the good thing about the rain was that Friday broke with absolutely stunning clear blue skies and much cooler temperatures, so at least they won't be able to say that Beijing was gloomy and polluted for the duration of the Games. I even had time after work and before our boxing event to go to the Bird's Nest area and take some photos, and also to see what the ticket scalping situation is like over there; there were loads of people looking to sell tickets, mostly at outrageous prices (RMB 3000 each, for instance), though I did find one ticket of interest to me--Modern Pentathlon, to take place Thursday evening.

One interesting thing that I did not know about Olympic boxing--instead of trying to knock the other guy out, here the objective is to get points, which are awarded for hitting the other boxer with the front of your glove on certain spots of his body. Not entirely sure what those spots are, but the face seems to be one of them...

The boxing event started at 7pm at the Workers' Gymnasium, just a two minute walk from our apartment. It was mostly for that reason that I wanted to go to boxing, though J2 was interested in going since he has been learning boxing from our trainer, whom we also invited to come along. The Workers' Stadium, which was built i 1961, was nicely fixed up for the Olympics, and had a nice combination of socialist realist and modern design (which you can see in the Smugmug gallery, linked below). I was surprised to find out that we would be seeing 16 or so bouts, each lasting four rounds of two minutes each, with one-minute breaks in between the rounds. We saw some really interesting combinations, too, including Mauritius vs Uzbekistan, Botswana vs Morocco, and Cuba vs Mongolia. We also got to see USA vs France (USA lost). There were sizable cheering crowds for several of the countries, including the Mongolians, the Thais, the Koreans and the Mexicans. We were seated in the Mexican section, and a rowdier and louder group of fans you could not hope to be seated further away from.... They had these noise maker things that were absolutely the loudest things I had heard in recent memory, which they would use at every possible opportunity, really annoying the Chinese viewers nearby (and you know it had to be REALLY loud and obnoxious for it to be enough to annoy a Chinese person!). But as we have found to be typical among the viewing population, as soon as their countryman competed, the Mexicans left the stadium; too bad theirs was one of the last bouts.

We saw some interesting things during the matches. The Mauritius guy broke the nose of the Uzbek so he won by default (even though the Uzbek had more points). The Russian was visibly upset at losing to the Indian, perhaps mostly due to his having tied the Indian on points, thus leaving it to the judges to decide the winner, which I imagine is pretty subjective. And the Chinese went mad for their boxer, thus impelling J2 and me to root against him (and for the Moldovan, who actually did win!). And the fans in the stands seemed oddly enough to be more supportive of the American than the French fighter. Guess that torch snatching situation in Paris still lingers in the Chinese mind.

We were able to stop at our favorite chuanr (barbecued lamb kebab) place for dinner on the way home, along with many other fans, though at least as regulars we were not treated as money bags to be wrung dry and paid a normal price for our dinner. (We have not yet seen evidence ourselves of price gouging in restaurants, but we have heard stories of outrageous pricing for pretty normal meals.)

Pictures of the boxing and the beautiful blue skies of Beijing are here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympics Continue: Kayak/Canoe Slalom

A few weeks ago the USOC people who we work with recommended very highly that I get my hands on tickets to the Kayak/Canoe Slalom events, since the stadium was one of the best they had ever visited for an Olympics. I was lucky enough to get three tickets to this event for today, which turned out to be the preliminaries for the men's two-man canoe and women's one-man kayak races. The only problem I ended up having was that I could not get anyone to go with me to the competition, since it took place at 3pm on a workday. At the last possible moment I came up with the idea of posting the available tickets on a bulletin board for a group we belong to in town, and wound up finding someone who was interested in going.

To get to the stadium I left work at around 1pm, figuring it might take a while to get there from work, and not sure whether a cab could get all the way to the venue. As it turns out, the Shunyi Water Park is REALLY far from civilization, and I ended up paying a record-breaking cab fare to get there (RMB 124!). I had figured that the event would be sparsely attended, since most people had to be at work and how popular could kayaking or canoeing be in China?? Well, I was wrong--the place was PACKED, largely with what appeared to be groups of students and office workers, along with the usual foreign visitors, including sizable groups from South Africa, Slovakia, Britain, and others.

The weather was sultry as I waited for the competition to start, but as the action began, the humidity and heat seemed less noticeable, and I focused on the event. For the men, there were 12 competitors, and for the women 21 teams, and they ran in the course in reverse order of their rankings, so that there was a lot of suspense as each team tended to shave time off the time of the previous teams. Naturally, when the Chinese boats ran the course, there was thunderous noise from the crowd, but the other fans did their sides proud, too.

I ended up not staying through to the end of the women's second heat, since I wasn't sure how long I'd have to wait for a cab (in the end, it was not long) nor how long it would take to get home (a LONG time). It was a very nice way to spend an afternoon.

As always, here are the photos

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympics--Day Three

Monday was a regular work day so it was back to the office, where the standard greeting was "did you see the Opening Ceremonies" and "did you see any events". Quite a few of our colleagues had managed to snag tickets, including to volleyball, basketball and swimming, and EVERYONE had watched the opening, though very few actually attended the event. Of those who did, the overwhelming reaction was that it was very hot but very thrilling.

In the morning I received a phone call from one of our Olympic doctors, informing me that she had been invited to attend an event at the USA House (conveniently located across the street from our apartment in the Jasmine Restaurant), hosted by the Chicago 2016 Candidate City committee, which she wanted to invite us to attend, too. How could we pass that up?? So after dinner we walked on over to the venue and began to mingle and enjoy the event. They had a USA Olympic store set up in the downstairs area, where all sorts of USA Olympic paraphernalia was for sale, so we went to town buying shirts, jackets, etc emblazoned with the USA Olympic logo and various Chinese imagery (dragons, mostly). I have to say, it's very nice to be in good enough shape not to feel stupid buying the same clothes that the athletes wear!

For the event they laid on an open bar and loads of food, including some great quesadillas, crab cakes, and pork bbq, which we helped ourselves to with abandon. Our doctors and a friend from work eventually showed up so we chatted with them and through those conversations ended up meeting some of the other attendees, including loads of muckety-mucks from the US Olympic movement, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, and a few former Olympians. Just as the speeches were about to start, I realized that among the crowd were two of my all-time favorite gymnasts--Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci (not odd that they were both there, since he commentates on the gymnastics for NBC, and the two of them are married)! I actually stood next to them during the speeches, sharing a few smiles with them in response to some of the comments from the speakers, such as over the fact that Chicago would be a great choice for 2016 since it has a very large number of "blue sky" days (which Beijing has sorely lacked since the Olympics began on Friday) and when the chairman of the Chicago bid committee said that you don't have to be 7 feet tall to be a star (Bart and Nadia are very short). When the speeches were over, a photojournalist kindly offered to take my picture with them, which you see here.

One funny thing happened during the event; we were waiting to pay for our purchases at the shop when someone was speaking into a cell phone saying "let me find someone who speaks the language" (clearly trying to give directions to someone's cab driver to get to the event), so I said "I speak the language". When the guy gave me the phone, I asked him "by the way, which language are we looking for?", as I started to speak with the driver in Chinese. J2 explained to the guy that I speak a broad range of languages...

We stuck around for quite some time, just enjoying the atmosphere and chatting with the other attendees, most of whom have attended four or more Olympics, listening to them comparing the Beijing games with the others they have been to. The consensus is that Beijing has far too little pin trading going on (we were wondering why we were not seeing any pins around) but that the Games were well run. We even managed to score some more tickets! We now have beach volleyball on Saturday and men's diving for Monday evening! In addition, I was given a ticket for volleyball on Thursday evening (USA vs Bulgaria), so the number of events we'll be attending is still going up!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Day Two--Diving

We lucked into some tickets for the women's synchronized 3-meter diving finals, through friends of ours who have daughters in the diving world. They were class A tickets, too, so pretty good seats (and free!). The event was held in the much-talked about Water Cube, which I really wanted to see up close and personal (as they say), and it did not disappoint. Once again we took the metro to the venue, and once again we ran into people we know, this time the very people who had arranged our tickets! The walk from the metro to the venue seemed very long on this particularly muggy and humid day, but fortunately the stadium was air conditioned!

When we took our seats, there were some guys practicing their dives, so we got to see a bit of the other competitions, and it was not long before we ran into someone else we know (PR guy based in HK whom we met at Passover this year), so we chatted with him for a while before the event began.

There were eight teams diving--China, Russia, German, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, USA, and Australia, and there were pretty good sized cheering sections for the Russians, Germans and Americans, though of course the Chinese side was by far the loudest. We are not diving experts, so we were a bit at sea about the scoring that was given out, but our friends assured us that it was the correct result--China won gold, Russia silver, Germany Bronze, and the USA came in fourth. We stayed around for the medal ceremony, and I was surprised that more people did not sing the national anthem when it was played. Guess that's not a big thing.

On the way from the stadium back home we were very grateful for a bit of a dip in the temperature, and we got home just in time for a downpour. What timing!

So here are some photos; the rest are here.

Olympic Gymnastics

Last evening we went to our first event of the XXIX Olympiad here in Beijing, the Group C qualifier of the men's gymnastics competition. The venue was the National Indoor Stadium, located near the Bird's Nest and Water Cube on the new Olympic Green, so it was very much in "Olympics Central", which meant that getting to it by anything other than public transportation would be unthinkable. Fortunately, it turns out that holders of Olympic tickets ride public transport for free on the day of their event(s), so we just took ourselves over to one of the new subway stations that opened near us for the ride over. Strange enough in a city of 16 million plus who knows how many visitors we actually ran into people I knew on the subway, who strangely enough were also going to the same competition as us! So we ended up having company for the ride, which I think they appreciated, since, as visitors, they were not too familiar with the city and as non-Chinese speakers they were a bit nervous about getting lost.

To take the subway to the Green, you have to change trains at the new Beitucheng Station, where you actually emerge from the subway onto the street, go through Olympic security (assuming you have a ticket) and then proceed back downstairs to the connecting Olympic Line for the ride to the Green. Then it's just another stop before you're in downtown Olympicland, with huge pavilions touting the wares of the sponsors (Lenovo, Coke, Samsung, etc) and stands selling some food and drinks (also made by the sponsors). The crowd was pretty sizable, I'd say, and it was a lot of fun to see so many visitors in Beijing all here for the big event. We even had the impression that the Chinese are being particularly solicitous, with people on the subway asking us where we're from (and when the people we ran into told one set of girls they were from Israel, they got a BIG welcome and HUGE smile from them--finally, a country where they like the Jews).

Once at the Stadium, I saw a famous Russian gymnast--Alexei Nemov--chatting with some other Russians outside, so I asked (in Russian, of course) if I could take a photo.
Inside the stadium, we found our seats (upstairs, section 322, row 5, seats 4 and 5, looking straight down the lane for the vault and just under the right-most Chinese flag)

 and then went in search of something to eat. Unfortunately, either they did not plan for the sheer number of visitors, or they did not count on how much a bunch of foreigners could eat, but whatever the reason there was NO FOOD other than chips, crackers and popcorn to be had. There were SUPPOSED to be sandwiches and hot dogs, but they were all gone, and we were just about to resign ourselves to dining on junk food when a very nice Dutch lady, who had bought six sausages just before they ran out, offered us one of hers. How nice was that! And by the way, the pricing is not extortionate (to Western eyes, anyway); a soda is RMB 5 and the sandwiches/hot dogs were RMB 8, so do the math with the US$ equivalent to a bit less than RMB 7. We ended up buying two bottles of Coke Zero (which seems to be what they are offering instead of Diet Coke) and a thing of crackers and returned to our seats, where I started to get my camera gear ready.

Just before things started, they started to give information about the event, how it works, who was participating (Germany, Romania, Korea, and two mixed groups with athletes from Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Ukraine, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela). Then, at 8, things started with the judges and then the teams marching in.Then the teams assumed their stations, did their warm up, and then after two minutes, began their competition. After each team was done in their station they marched to their next station, so that altogether there were six rounds, each lasting around 30 minutes. While the teams marched they played music and the audience clapped in time while the screens showed some animation of the Olympic mascots dancing around and tumbling. Cute.

I have watched a lot of gymnastics on TV, but had never been to a match before; what was weird for me was that there are always around six routines going on at any given time, so you never know what you should be watching. You could be watching a fairly standard routine on one apparatus when you suddenly hear the audience shout out something and then realize that something interesting happened on another apparatus. The Koreans were having a very bad day; they kept falling off the apparatus, missing their landings, etc. The Belgian appeared to injure his knee. And one of the Romanians botched a landing and then limped the rest of the evening. Ouch.

After the fourth rotation we moved to a better seat, downstairs just above the rest area for the parallel bars. The view was much better from here, so I got some great photos of the athletes.

When the competition was over, at around 10pm, we figured we'd wander around the Green, admiring the nighttime view of the stadiums, and find something to eat. Well, it turns out that there is nothing open at that hour, so we resigned ourselves to heading home and finding something near there. But as we went into the subway station we found that the McDonalds was still open, so we ate there (yes, the irony of our eating junk food after all the months of being on strict diets and working out religiously and RIGHT AFTER watching some of the most physically fit people on the planet perform, was not lost on us). We then got on the subway for the ride home, where I immediately downloaded the 500 photos I shot.... And of course, you can view them by clicking here.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Games have Begun!

We just got home from watching the opening of the Olympics on TV at a friend's house. Today was made a semi-holiday in Beijing, with the government encouraging businesses to close to help reduce traffic and pollution. It seemed to have some minor impact on the former, but certainly not on the latter, since the sky was pretty grim all day. I took the day as a personal day off, and used it to spend some time wandering around the neighborhood, catching as I meandered the sight of bear fur-clad British fans (?) queuing up to enter the Worker's Stadium for a football match. I also saw a LOT of People's Armed Police on the streets, standing perfectly straight and looking completely out of place on the calm streets of Beijing. Whoever does the Beijing government's PR should be replaced.

The ceremonies on TV were not bad, though I have to admit that I think they were probably lost on the international audience, who I doubt could have appreciated the subtle lessons on the contributions of China to the world that were delivered through the various dances they did. We enjoyed trying to figure out which countries would come out when (they came in order of the number of strokes in the first character of their Chinese names, in case you were wondering). THe fireworks were pretty impressive, and I have to admit I had guessed who'd be the final torch carrier (I won't say who it was in case you have not watched the event yet).

We have our first tickets tomorrow evening (men's gymnastics prelims, Group C), and today I was given (GIVEN!) tickets to women's synchronized platform diving for Sunday afternoon, which means I'll get to see the watercube after all! Woohoo!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Counting Down

Well, the Big Day is nearly upon us! The countdown is in its final stages, and before long the Olympics will be here! There is a mad rush to complete the buildings that need completing, or cover up those that can linger unfinished with Olympic banners, and the city is getting more and more full of Olympic-credential-wearing foreigners (there seems to be an unwritten rule that, if you have an Olympic credential, you wear it at all times, regardless of your distance from anyplace where it makes a difference).

And in our little world the Olympics are making themselves felt, too, with our visiting doctors all arrived and ready to come over for their orientation tomorrow and then start work in our Olympic clinic. They have proved (so far) to be very nice people, too, who I'm really glad to have in town, since they give me an excuse to go out to some of our favorite places. Just got back from meeting some of them at one of our favorite Beijing duck places.

With the opening ceremonies less than a week away, my ticket count is now pretty much set; we have tickets for the following events:

Artistic Gymnastics, Aug 9
Canoe/Kayak Slalom, Aug 13
Boxing, Aug 15
Beach Volleyball, Aug 16
Water Polo, Aug 22
Baseball FINAL!!, Aug 23

In addition, we have the following Paralympic tickets:

Swimming, Sept 8
Athletics, Sep 10

Watch this space for photos and updates on how it all turns out!