The other marathon: Getting around Beijing

It's not just athletes, but fans, who have to be in top shape for the Olympics.

Published August 12, 2008 1:35PM (EDT)

Transportation between the venues of China's games is a snap, if you happen to be a veteran of the Long March.

My favorite event as a kid was the steeplechase, with its numerous hurdles and splashdowns. And that's just what it felt like on my first day of attending actual events -- making me realize that it's not just athletes, but fans, who have to be in top shape for an Olympics.

The first competition of the day went well enough -- except that, for all the signs around the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium (despite the old-fashioned name, an ocher-colored cube that looks from afar like it has been fabric-draped by Christo), none indicated where my highly nervous cabbie should drop me off. Security inspections soon rid me of my umbrella, my ham sandwich and chewing gum (verboten as food or weapon I wasn't sure). The game itself wasn't exactly a hooter, though Russia's women eventually bullied their way to a last-second recovery over "scrappy" South Korea (aren't they always?). The match was enlivened mostly by the Beijing Dream Dancers and their Globetrotter-like stunts plus the sections of enlisted "Beijing cheering workers" thumping their blowup thumpers in a bipartisan manner. Despite the lack of plastic bags, or any bags, at the souvenir shops, all was right with the world when I set out for what I estimated would be an hour and a half trek to the field hockey greens on the north end of the Olympic complex.

Years back, when I was reporting on the "death of the bicycle" in the city that still boasts the most on earth by far, I suggested to Olympic planners at the Beijing municipal government that they make a statement of ecology and identity by providing hundreds of free bikes for spectators to pedal to the various sites. What better way to clear the air and involve the populace in physical fitness? The planners appeared dumbfounded. Either the idea had never occurred to them, or it had been swiftly dismissed as a reminder of China's "backwardness." I'll bet someone is regretting that now. There are going to be plenty of complaints, especially as I didn't even see many shuttle buses in evidence. Considering that rush hour was nearing, and I wanted a native experience, I decided to try the subway. Ticket holders and media are allowed a free ride through the entire games.

Beijing's subway is fast and efficient, even if most of its stations, constructed in the 1950s, are bleak and rather dowdy by world standards. A smattering of English signage had been added and I didn't think I'd have that much trouble making three quick transfers of lines. However, I was already left wilted by the longest leg in a packed, hot car even before my first change of lines proved to be a half-mile walk along the uphill grade of a bleak underground passage.

Transfer two was even longer, and the numerous escalators to all sides had not been completed in time for Olympic use. On the new outer lines, the cars were air conditioned, the stations more pleasant -- but the farther away from downtown, the fewer times I could spot a map or exit signs that weren't entirely in Chinese characters.

My last exchange, just south of the main Olympic green, involved heading outside to follow signs for a Line No. 8 that dead-ended in the back end of a bus terminal. Volunteers here told me to cross the road for a No. 1 bus. I eventually got one, though there were no signs. This bus was also packed, and turned out not to be any express but a very local that made stops each block as it worked its way up the massive new city-within-a-city built for the games. None of the personnel here spoke English, and the one passenger who did told me the subway would have been a lot quicker.

Along the way, I got my first glimpse of the liquid blue walls of the "ice cube" aquatic center and the Olympic Village for athletes, much praised in local press for its comfort level, but looking to me like slightly lower-density housing blocks of the usual grimy, cheerless and purposely colorless sort. I would rather prepare for my golden moment from the inside of San Quentin.

Eventually, I completed my marathon in just over two and a half hours.

And even entering the field hockey grounds, I had a good quarter-mile hoof to my seat -- where I caught the last 20 minutes of a typically extroverted and face-painted crowd of Aussies exulting in a 6-1 victory. In a way, it had all been my fault. After all, I knew that the scale of Beijing's flat sprawl was immense, purposely huge to radiate grandeur, bordering on the infinite. A spot on a map, or a single block bordered with rows of weeping willows, often turned out to be a major hike. I should have known that the main Olympic complex should also have been laid out on the principle of wider is wiser. These ought to be called the Gargantuan Games.

With an hour's wait until the next match, I tried to score up some supper. Or a good high-energy bar. With years to craft recipes, I figured the world's most eating-obsessed country, home to its most varied cuisine, would win the Olympics of refreshments going away. But there's not even a dumpling in sight. Most Olympic fare tends to be very basic and dominated by the products, good or bad, of one or two major sponsors.

Here's what's on offer in Beijing: Yili-brand milk and ice cream (often vanilla cone only) and tubs of ultra-sweet yogurt, chips (rice or barbecue flavored), dry biscuits and moon pies, bland half-cold sausages without the bun, snack noodles (dry) and soft drinks along with "mineralized water." By the time I got to the head of the line, the only answer to my requests was the time-honored "Mei you." Not Mao, but nothing left. I felt transported back to early visits when few of the items on elaborate hotel restaurants were ever brought to the table.

The ride home also took me back to first trips when shoving and pushing onto dirty trains and buses were the norm and travelers did anything they could to avoid the crush of the dread "renmin (people's) run." Though leaving early from one of the smaller stadiums, the only transport I found outside were the rows of limos waiting for VIPs. (A newspaper report boasted that Beijing airport got its private jet passengers out of the terminal in just 20 minutes.) Taxis weren't even allowed in this zone. And that meant waiting in endless queues once more for various buses whose destinations could not be explained by any of the people in charge. So far, it seems the great "Beijing speaks English" campaign has been about as successful as that "Great Leap Forward" mobilization to make high-grade steel by melting down forks and knives.

Of course, every nation on earth has its lapses, some societal blind spots that keep it forever missing and failing to correct its own flaws. And I suppose such telltale lacks and shortfalls should be treasured these days as just about the only things that keep every place in the world from looking and feeling exactly the same. But they sure can be annoying.

Day One of the China steeplechase was over and I hadn't even qualified for a place in the pack.

By John Krich

John Krich has been covering China for 20 years, most recently as the Asian Wall St Journal's main food/sports/culture writer. He's the author of "El Beisbol," "Won Ton Lust" and other literary travelogues.

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