Thursday, August 7, 2008

OC Countdown I: There are Some Things Money Can't Buy

Less than 2 days to go till the Opening Ceremony of the XXIX Olympiad. Everything seems to be primed and ready to go here. The excitement can hardly be contained. The last legs of the torch relay started in Tiananmen Square yesterday morning. Supposedly by this afternoon, it will wind its way in and out of the city and end up at 101 high school (which my wife attended, back in the day). 101 h.s. is situated right next to Yuan Ming Yuan, part of the scenic summer palace gardens north of PKU and Tsinghua U.

The very last leg of the torch relay into the Olympic site has not been announced publicly yet. I will write more about the torch relay and the 19,400 torch bearers later in a different blog, but first, here is a quick look back at the last few months leading up to the Opening Ceremony that even Nicholas Sarkozy will be attending.

By now, most Chinese elementary school kids can probably list the top Olympic events and venues. Quick! Which event will be at the Peking University gymnasium?! (Hint. It's considered the national sport.)

Yes, that's right. Table Tennis. A beautiful, brand new, gymnasium was built at PKU for the event. Since mid May, the area has been roped off, including the May 4th Athletic Field next to it. By mid July the entire section of PKU housing the gymnasium has been roped off, including the Southeast Gate to PKU. Ticket and security checkpoint has been set up. Easy-to-spot yellow signposts announce directions in Chinese, English and French. At the same time that Beijing started traffic restrictions, entrance into PKU has been restricted to staff, students and Olympic volunteers. Just before dinner time last night, more internal checkpoints were set up. Apparently, my office is located in a more secure part of campus. (Why doesn’t that make me feel better?) I can walk to the cafeteria, but coming back, I needed to show PKU ID.

These days, for most of the day, PKU seems like a ghost town compared to the usual hustle and bustle. Two Fridays ago, the last of the Olympic tickets went on sale. Near the booth next to the Southwest Gate, there were so many people queued up that extra security had to come to rope off that portion of the road. A couple of the students I knew stayed in line for 2 whole days (they took turns queuing) and, luckily, did manage to get tickets to the Team Semi's (for Table Tennis).

Looking further off campus, much of the service roads and pedestrian sidewalks along the Fourth Ring Road were systematically repaved over the last few months. Beautiful potted plants, numbered in the 10s of millions, now line a good portion of the major roadways. These plants are sprayed regularly. 3 new subway lines opened up on July 20th. Another (the Number 5 that runs near our apartment) has been running since last October. I have seen quite a few cabs equipped for the handicapped. And the Olympic shuttle buses are electric. Compared to the Beijing 2, 3 years ago, Beijing at the present is decidedly Greener. There are trees and potted plants everywhere. Even the gasoline has been improved. I no longer smell hints (some days stronger than others) of sulfer in the summer humidity. Unfortunately, the city has suspended recycling in the last month. Partly because many trucks are banned from entering the city. But perhaps a stronger reason is the recycling collectors. If you’ve been to Beijing public parks recently, you must have seen retirement age folks picking up plastic bottles from garbage cans. Some even wait patiently for you to finish your drink. Some others are more aggressive and ask you directly if you are done with the drink. I’ve always found this to be a very efficient recycling ‘system.’ (Well, it’s built on cheap Chinese labor, like most things in this world.) Some studies supposedly show that it takes plastic bottles less than 3 days to make it from garbage cans in the middle of the city to the recycling plants outside the city in Hebei province. But for now, these recyclers have gone the way of the street vendors.

These days, I see Olympic volunteers everywhere: On campus, at info booths, on the street, at traffic intersections and at some security checkpoints. A couple of times when I walked past one of the info booths, I had to resist having a little fun speaking English (or Spanish or French) with the student volunteers. One of our friends showed us the volunteers' manual. On the first page, there were greetings in 23 different languages. And for some reason, Russian was not one of them ... (but other Slavic languages were there. hmmmm....) Supposedly there are over 1.5 million volunteers. And their getup (uniform, ID card, ...) costs 4,000 rmb per person!

Reminds me of a possibility for a commercial. Imagine an out-of-town Chinese tourist arriving at the new terminal at PEK and the voice-over starts

Terminal 3 at PEK: 20 billion yuan

(as her taxi rushes along the Fourth Ring Road, past the Olympic site with the Bird's Nest in the background)

National Stadium: 3.5 billion yuan

(and when she walks on site and is greeted by the volunteers)

Uniforms for 1 and 1/2 Million Volunteers: 6 billion yuan

(and finally, a shot of her at the Opening Ceremony, with the camera pulling back for a full view of the packed stadium)

Hosting the XXIXth Olympiad: Priceless!

[Any suggestions for the stylized Mastercard logo?!]

(FYI, 6.85 rmb/yuan = 1 US$)

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