|Before I get to the main topic of this missive, a few words are in order.
I'm a experienced traveler. There's only one continent I haven't visited
and there are very few track meets in Antarctica. Over the past 18 years
I've learned how to pack (make a written list of EVERYTHING you even think
you might need and keep adding to it as you get closer to departure.)
ALWAYS take a second bag with a couple days clothing just in case your bag
gets lost and DON'T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED.
Today, virtually all ticketing is via e-ticket. I can't remember the last
time I was issued a paper ticket. It's the day prior to my leaving for
Beijing. I'm nervous as a long tailed cat in a room, full of rocking
chairs. I recheck (for the seventh time) everything. I'm cool. I relax.
Then I remember the pictures I have of two Chinese girls taken at a previous
World Championships. Those should be taken with me to Beijing. I start
looking, one drawer after another. No luck. Then I remember! They're in
my Beijing folder. But I've already emptied that folder. I check again, I
have another folder! Here they are two smiling World Junior champions.
Then I notice something else, a booklet where I've written "Beijing" across
the top. What's this I wonder? MY TICKETS! I stare incredulously.this
can't be. I have e-tickets. Then I remember. The tickets were purchased
almost a year ago and came in the mail. I slump.how close I came to going
to the airport and NOT HAVING ANY TICKETS! So, as I said, never take
anything for granted.
At 2am, the limo arrives to take me to the airport. It's about 90 minutes
away. For all international flights, you have to be there two hours in
advance. My flight leaves at 6am; I get there at 3:45am and find out the
check-in widows don't open until 5am. So, I sit for an hour. Suddenly a
man appears with a letter. You can't take anything liquid on the plane. It
must be put into your checked luggage. Small problem.my luggage has already
been checked and it's GONE. So.all my toothpaste, mouthwash, shaving cream
and aftershave lotion (good stuff) goes into the trash. I quickly open the
aftershave and splash it on my face. I offer it around. Two or three
people say 'Thanks', the line smells terrific. I'm thanked. I'm also
A bunch of nuts decide to get together and buy plane tickets on several
different flights, each one carries the necessary components to blow up a
plane. The guy goes into the plane's bathroom, puts the bomb together, blows
up the plane and insofar as they're concerned, the world is a better place.
Supposedly, these components were all utterly innocent in themselves but
mixed.bingo.instant bomb. Now I don't know what those components were but
mouthwash, the contents of a baby bottle, toothpaste, bottled water?
C'mon.give me a break. Maybe sulfuric acid, four pounds of fertilizer
(something NOBODY would ever notice), plastic explosive (have you ever tried
putting toothpaste back into the tube?) and the like. Forget it!
Due to this farfetched scenario thousands upon thousands of people were
inconvenienced, fifty or sixty thousand tubes of toothpaste, 35,832 gallons
of mouthwash and aftershave, about a zillion bottles of water (one of the
very dangerous bomb components) and various and sundry other items were
trashed. But.in these dangerous times you do what you gotta do.
Our flight path takes us over the North Pole but I didn't see it due to
immense cloud cover. According to the history books, it took Admiral Peary
27 days to "dash" 431 miles to be the first to stand astride the Polar
Icecap. It took us about four hours or so to fly from Toronto and sail over
this historic point. Isn't progress wonderful?
From 38,000 feet it's hard to distinguish anything. So, when we finally
rose above the cloud cover I looked at, CLOUDS. The clouds are awesomely
beautiful. From ground level, all you see are these big puffy things that
look like cotton balls. Not so at 38 thou. You see a huge cotton field in
full bloom as far as the eye can see. You see the ground covered with snow
and off in the distance there are buttes and small mountains. You see a
stormy sea filled with thousand of whitecaps. Interspersed are large ice ice
blue lakes, some resembling the fjords of Norway. Suddenly the
snow-covered prairie, the whitecaps, the cotton fields are gone, replaced by
a vast herd of sheep all moving slowly beneath my eyes. The sheep disappear
to be replaced by layers of new-fallen snow, windswept snow. It's hard to
take my eyes off this constantly changing landscape (cloudscape?).
My gaze shifts upwards. There is a Carolina-blue sky, nothing else.
Nothing but the vast emptiness of space. Even the astronauts see something.
The earth, billions upon billions of stars, supposedly the Great Wall of
China (which is just a few miles away from my hotel.) I see.nothing. It's
a clear day. maybe I can see forever. Nice thought.
I peer out the window. There's a rainbow! Are my eyes playing tricks on
me? I blink, look again. It's still there. Excitedly I ask my seatmate to
look. He sees nothing. Maybe it's my new glasses. Another look, it's
I look down. There's a break in the clouds. Land! Below I see a huge
river with two very large uninhabited islands. Why no houses on those
islands? I check the map showing our progress. We're over Siberia.no
wonder. It might look innocent now but in a few months, the land I'm
looking at turns into some of the most inhospitable on earth.
It's a bleak land. Usually you see a village or two. Even flying over the
jungles of South America, you occasionally see a village. Here.nothing.
For perhaps a thousand miles this nothingness continues. The green
below is a rather sickly green nothing like the lush green of Germany. This
is more like a poorly kept lawn. The clouds return.
Below a huge arrowhead appears. How big is it? Who knows? A hundred
miles? A thousand? All I know, it's huge. It points to what? Nothing.
It's just a huge cloud mass in the shape of an arrowhead.
Now the clouds are beside us. It looks like we're driving by the edge of a
cotton field in full bloom. We're walking' in HIGH Cotton!
Now dark clouds loom below. There are several ugly grey formations, the
same color and shape as the cancer they removed from my Father some 50 years
ago. Ugly. No other word fits. Ugly. It's a long line of clouds rushing
under and past the plane intent on spilling their contents on some spot of
desolation.or maybe a small village.
We're descending. The pilot announces, "We're 235 miles from Beijing, we'll
be landing in approximately 20 minutes." We land. I look skyward, the
clouds are these big puffy things that look like cotton balls.
CRANES - Not the flying kind, these are huge construction types. We drove back from a shopping mall yesterday and I counted 53 in about a half-mile stretch.
HIGH RISES - Every one of those cranes is being used to build yet another high rise.
This is a city with approximately twice the population of New York. Space is essential. Older buildings are routinely knocked down to make room for another high rise.
JOBS - Since this is a Communist nation, everyone has a job. HOWEVER, there are only so many jobs. Our hotel restaurant has at least four older women constantly walking through the lobby with dry mops cleaning an already clean floor over and over and…
BROOMS - The city is virtually spotless probably due to the countless people using large “brooms” to sweep up anything that falls on to the street. A leaf? Gone in an instant. God forbid you drop a gum wrapper!
FLOWERS - There are beautiful floral displays everywhere. They line all the streets going towards the stadium. Canna lillies, marigolds, begonias, impatiens and many I don’t know. “Don’t forget the roses,” my friend Paul Limmer reminds, millions and millions of roses. Limmer, one of the world’s experts on Day Lilies, states, “I’ve never seen a city so beautifully landscaped.”
TREES – Ginkgo trees predominate as they thrive in the polluted environment that is Beijing. But there are Weeping Willows galore, maples, cedars but very few large ones such as oaks.
WALLS – My seatmate on the ride to the stadium, a woman photographer from Germany, points out dozens of walls. “They look old”, she says, “but they’re not. They used old bricks from the many downed buildings.” They’ve been built to hide seedier parts of the city. Many are adorned with what looks like graffiti. Not so. All the drawings were done professionally, I’m informed.
POLLUTION – Industry has grown incredibly quickly here. Thus, so has pollution. But don’t look down on the Chinese. The grey cloud covering Beijing looked quite like that of Los Angeles with one notable exception; it doesn’t burn your eyes.
BICYCLES – While there are plenty of cars here, one is awed by the number of bikes, many motorized. And their riders are fearless! They drive right across a cars path while chatting with their neighbor. Amazingly, there are few accidents. One of our group said they’d never seen motorized bikes. Those of us who served as Junior Air Raid Wardens during WWII condescendingly pointed out they were commonplace back then.
MALLS – They are EVERYWHERE. Filled with every conceivable item. Most look exactly like the real thing yet sell for far less than the real thing. YOU MUST HAGGLE. Anyone who pays the original asking price is seen as a pigeon awaiting plucking. Our group has one of the world’s greatest hagglers, the aforementioned Limmer. The process goes like this: We ask ‘How much?’ They respond with a price. We burst out laughing, how could anyone think that this item is worth that much? They instantly grab a calculator and put in a figure. We laugh again. They thrust the calculator into our hands and ask us to put down a number. We do. It is far, far below their number. They stare incredulously. Another number, another counter. Another number, another counter but less than our last offer. They scream. Now it’s time to get serious. Thus far, the bargaining has taken about ten minutes. We ask for their best price, it’s written. We grab the calculator and put in our ‘final offer.’ They whine, “We’re losing money, we can’t.” They put forth their ‘final price.’ We start to walk away. NOT ONCE did we get very far. They run after us, they grab our clothes. We’re begged to come back. Finally, a price is set. We smile, they smile. Everyone wins.
TAXIS – There are many cars, many bicycles and many, many, many taxis. They are surprisingly cheap, undented, very clean and the drivers utterly unconcerned with the rest of the traffic. Lanes are changed at will, other vehicles are cut off and life goes on. BUT, no one dares run a traffic light.
PEOPLE – Helpful to a fault BUT very few have any knowledge of English thus asking for directions is usually a dead end. The hotels have cards they hand out for you to show the driver where you want to go. But those directions are for malls only. The city is so big the drivers often must call their HQ and get directions. However, the drivers are unfailingly honest. Not once have we been taken ‘for a ride.’