Saturday, September 13, 2008

Senses Working Overtime


As you would imagine there is much to be amazed by in Beijing. Like the people. In a city of almost 18 million people (890 per sq. km) you are never really far from anyone, or never really alone. Most surprising is the way people move. Just being among such a vast populace requires a certain amount of street smarts. Whether you are riding a bicycle, driving a car, ordering a drink, crossing the street or catching the subway, there is a method to all unmethodical movements that take place in this city. Take the humble traffic light; in most cities it’s a silent vigilante maintaining safe, orderly decorum amongst all those who cross its path. In Beijing, the “hóng-lu-dōng” is merely decoration. Sure, it will stop most cars, but that still leaves the cyclists, pedestrians and motorbikes crisscrossing through moving traffic like precision acrobatic skateboarders, and literally defying death. Amid the disorder you will rarely hear a car horn. It’s just normal procedure. Fortunately I am now fully desensitized, so every close shave (and believe me there’s lots) is rarely noticed.

Once you’ve crossed a road in Beijing there is a good chance you are staring at something amazing, for every neighborhood, every street is the very definition of history. The alleyways (hútòngs) are breathtaking. These narrow lanes snake through the older quarters of Beijing providing a glimpse of what Old Peking was like half a millennium ago. Most popular hútòngs are now home to small bars, cafes and gift shops, but the architecture remains (barely) intact. Doorways that once led to dark, hidden opium dens are now more likely to lead you to a DVD store or shoe shop. If you are into museums, towers and palaces, Beijing is a Mecca. On weekends, the temples and parks are filled with locals, young and old, singing, dancing and generally have a wild time. Wonderful.

If the number of 200+ room Karaoke establishments is anything to go by, Beijingers love to sing. And for those who’d rather listen, the live music and club scene is truly impressive. Places like MAO Live, White Rabbit, Block 8, Song and Suzie Wong’s all rate a mention. But back on the street is where you’ll hear the real Beijing. Each busy footpath has its own collection of random conversations and despite the harsh tone of the vernacular, the sounds sail past the ears of those not versed in the local language like a tin pan orchestra. Street vendors screaming along the Dong Hua Men night market create a surreal sideshow as they tout their gourmet goodies; snake, scorpion (see photo below), stomachs of various things, sheep testicles, fresh fruit on a stick (something for everyone!). Then there is my favourite five words I hear every day. The mystery woman who is the voice of the pre-recorded message every time you jump into a Beijing cab…”Welcome to take Beijing Taxi….” It so deserves to be on a t-shirt. And perhaps it might find its way there. There is also a couple of words that the locals could simply not do without. No sentence in Beijing is complete with out at least one ‘Nega’ and the occasional ‘Jega’. Roughly translated Nega and Jega mean “this and that” and it’s a word that can never be over used. A guy will pass you in the street on his mobile phone… “Wei, ni hao…Nega, nega, nega, nega, nega…..” (and then the conversation will start). You can basically get around Beijing by just pointing and saying jega and nega all day long. The other essential is “dway”. If a local asks you a question and you totally do not understand, you simply respond with “dway” – “correct”. When your taxi driver turns to you and starts rambling and gesticulating, all you need to do is nod patiently and give a dismissive “dway-dway-dway”. But the phrase you will hear a thousand times a day is “Ni Hao”. Everyone you meet, pass by, glance at or stumble into will greet you with “Ni Hao”. How lovely to be in a city where saying hello to everyone you see is standard. This type of behaviour back in Sydney might get you locked up.

The unique smells of Beijing can take some getting used to, particularly for the unseasoned traveler. The aforementioned night market in the Wan Fu Jin area is a good example. This massive kaleidoscopic smorgasbord will have your nostril hairs curling! But for most people newly arrived in Beijing, the most difficult and troubling aroma is that of the legendary Beijing smog. The smog in a word is pretty ‘bad’ with only a smattering of blue sky days to ease your lungs (and throat). Tempted as I was to include smog under the ‘Taste’ heading below, I’ve kept it here even though you generally taste it as much as inhale it. The other overriding smell that comes to mind is garlic. It seems to be everywhere, and on everybody. For those who can think of nothing better than a strong intake of garlic aroma, may I recommend any of Beijing’s taxi cabs. At first I was looking for the garlic scented pine tree hanging from the taxi’s rear view mirror, but realized my driver had probably just finished lunch. As every person has their own unique aroma, so too does every city. Beijing is filled with the wonderful scent of spiced foods cooking, blossoms in the park, jasmine and mint and a whole world of stuff yet to be verified.

Really the only one thing that can truly go under this heading is massage. More popular than convenience stores, the humble massage shop can be found on every street. Everywhere, several within spitting distance (literally). Offering a curious array of treatments, the Beijing massage establishments have proven a godsend for those of us working long, long days and nights filled with tension and stress (“jing jong”). For something special, an absolute ‘must do’ in Beijing is the “blind man massage”. No, not being rubbed all over by an intoxicated, groping old masseur, but a fully trained, visually impaired wunderkind of the massage world. These guys need to be ‘felt’ to be believed. With heightened senses due to their lack of sight, the ‘blind man’ can feel every aching sinew in your body and work his magic like the magician he actually is. The prices are ridiculously cheap (about 15 cents per minute) so a healthy tip is always the order of the day. I did, however, pass on the cupping, electric heating and the measles scrapping. Mmmm, delightful!

The food in Beijing is out of this world. Amazing delicacies abound in a flood of first class dining establishments and tiny backstreet cafes in every corner of the city. But a word of advice when eating out; if you are happy just to point at the menu pictures, well, let’s just say a picture paints a thousand words, and what’s for dinner might not be exactly what you’d hoped for. Some western folk are braver than others and do not bat an eyelid at ‘bat’, ‘saliva chicken’, ‘innards in innards sauce’, ‘husband and wife’s lung slice’, ‘chicken without sexual life’ and ‘hair blood is flourishing’ but personally I’m just a tad more unadventurous. That is not to say I haven’t eaten my fair share of Chinese specialties. Many of the very good natured Chinese friends I’ve met here will always say “try first Mike and I’ll tell you later”. How else do you think I’ve managed to eat buffalo tendon, duck blood and go hopping headlong into a bowl full of bullfrog? Sure, there is some strange and weird concoctions, but really only strange and weird to us pathetic “laowai”. Much of the crap we stock on ‘our’ supermarket shelves would curl the toes of these culinary and courageous Chinese.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Well, it ain't called Gym"nice"tics

Beijing, Day 136: It’s the opening day of competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. It just happened. It crept up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and said “Hey you! I’m here!” And so it began, not so much a controllable mission as a big invisible monster grabbing me by the ankles and whirling me around for 16 days. There was months of build up, rehearsals, instruction, training and serious one-on-ones with people I didn’t believe were ready. Take for example one very ambitious and eager student, so willing it hurt; I’d like to call him ‘echo’, though that’s not his name. Everything I tried to tell him, each word of advice or instruction just came right back at me like I was holding some kind of cave tutorial: Me: “What you need to do…”
Him: “Hmmm, Need to do”
Me: “…is make sure you have all your timings…”
Him: “aaah, all your timings”
Me: “…matching the competition schedule”
Him: “Mmmm, matching yes matching, mmmm”

We were ready. And like it so often does, this major event on the world sporting calendar just…happened. Before I could say “God have mercy on our souls”, Day 1 was over. And it was ok. In fact, it was quite good. My team of students from CUC (Communication University of China) who looked to me like lambs to the slaughter were more wolf than sheep and followed my commands with precision, efficiency and more dedication than they’d led me to believe they possessed. Similarly to the theory of a million monkeys tapping away on a million typewriters…soon enough these guys were going to produce. Sport Presentation (local) teams of Beijing produced some shining examples of great work. Keep in mind “TIC” (this is China) and leaving the tribune mid-competition, reading a novel and texting your mates on your mobile phone are all common procedures when in the throes of show-calling an event, but somehow, miraculously we came out the other side without a blemish. Well, maybe a spot or two. Not unlike a super action hero darting through a shower of bullets, I got to the end with little more than a few rugged looking flesh wounds. My demeanor is not really suited to the role of Director for Artistic Gymnastics, as most of the time I am quite pleasant (and remember we are dealing with a sport that produced a gold medalist called “Nastia”). That being said, there were a few occasions where I let out a curse word or two, the frustration becoming all too much at times.

Sleep, something I’ve known very little of in the past 136 days, is quite a phenomenon in this country. For all their hard working exploits the local teams manage to schedule in at least 2 hours of solid kip in the very middle of every day, regardless of what’s going on. Productivity shut down occurs around midday, and while not unlike an afternoon siesta, I found it a little disconcerting smack bang in the middle of an Olympic Games preparation! So what happened during the Games when shifts ran past 12 noon? Some just fell asleep where they were. “Simon!! Wake up!! It’s the Olympic Games. You’ll want something to tell your grandchildren!” Normally, I wouldn’t have woken him, but he is my video operator and it was in the middle of competition.

At the end of it all, I hopped out of my Director’s chair, looked back down the long and winding road of Gymnastics competition and remarked that although we may have swerved to miss the occasional stray rodent, by the end of the trip there was no ‘road kill’ to speak of. In fact, we all piled out of our Beijing Sport Presentation ‘bus’ feeling somewhat refreshed, energized and even proud of our achievements. We presented 14 gold medals over 11 days of competition, watched by mostly full-houses each day (and billions worldwide) and received glowing reports from Competition Management and the international federation. Deep breath in…hold it, and exhale… done. Good job.
I take my hat off to my team of young and enthusiastic students who delivered more than I ever expected. Buoyed by pride I have not before experienced, I leave them knowing that they too are filled with equal pride at having accomplished everything they’d set out to do…and more.

Thank you Myesha, Robbie, Maggie, Echo, Karen, Alex, Fang Fang, Simon, Gong Wong, Tony, Gloria, Andrew, Dandan and Eric (and the Fuwa). Also many thanks to Dan and Michel, foreign announcers extraordinaire.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fresh Fish

When do you stop being a fresh fish and start being an old time Beijinger? Many would argue about the length of time one must live in Beijing before you can realistically call yourself a bonafide local. But goddammit! I'm going out on a very thin limb and proclaiming my new status.

11 weeks. I think this could be considered an industry standard and I'm proud to say I've just clocked up this impressive milestone today. Ok, so I may get some grief from Bjorn, the Swedish real estate guy whose been here 3 years, or other various ex-pats who have registered a staggering 5, 6 or 7 years. Perhaps even Queensland boy Tom, who has been back and forth to Beijing since 1997 will quietly chuckle at my impudence. His tenure, together with his incredibly impressive and fluent Mandarin, make him a demi-god even to the true, fully confirmed ex-pats.

Me, I'm an eleven-weeker, a pup, a green horn, but you know... I feel like I finally belong. It's quite possible I may look back at the end of my stint here and laugh heartily at my foolish self for being such a precocious upstart. But it's the 77 day mark and by gosh it feels like I've been here a very long time.

And still, there may be some contention when it comes to the specific qualifications needed to become a certified, card-carrying Beijing ex-pat, but I believe when I no longer need to hand my cab driver a slip of paper to get me home safely and nonchalantly rattle off “Yang guang shong dong”, well, in my book that's a pretty good start.

As I sit in my cab, I can control the driver like a puppeteer; “zo-gwai”, “yo-gwai”, “wan-tien” I command. And like a voice-activated remote controlled car we zig and zag, horn-blowing all the way to my destination. “Ting, Ting!” I instruct as we come to a halt. “Boo-yoong-jow la” I say as I float a 50 quai note in his direction. Big grin, “xie-xie” and I'm home.

But am I home? Is it not more than directing a taxi and being conversant in these simplistic and mundane daily rituals? Sure, I can order a double shot coffee to go, request an ashtray, a menu or the bill, but my major struggle is in hearing anything coherent in reply. I remember many years ago, when I walked into a tobacconist in Rome. After fifteen minutes of reciting “a packet of Marlboro, a packet of Marlboro, a packet of Marlboro”. I run into the shop, make my purchase and skip out, as local as you please; simple, no? No. I was stymied at the first hurdle when stupidly asked if I needed matches. Damn! What? I dunno? What are you saying to me? Why, why, why did you have to spoil my little ‘momento al sol’?

And there's the rub. As a deluded man I'll stand by my claim (especially in the company of new arrivals) and remain obstinately defiant to the end! Sure I can get my coffee just right, I can direct my cabbie left and right, straight ahead and in extreme circumstances muster up a u-turn command, but when he turns around and asks which of three alternative routes I'd prefer, I go from seasoned Beijinger right back to Mister Greenhorn McFresh-Fish.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Eye of the Storm

Way down, deep in the eye of the storm, it’s sometimes difficult to see the enormity of what is all around you. Everything appears calm while everyone but you sees the mayhem and carnage that would otherwise goes unrecognised.

As this immeasurable tragedy struck, the news filter through so slowly that the sheer magnitude of what had happened, although it seems ludicrous to say, almost went unnoticed. And even as more details came to light it provided little more than amusement from where I stood.

At 2:28pm on May 12, 2008 an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale shook China’s Sichuan Province, with Wenchuan County taking the brunt of the quake.

To date, the earthquake has caused 69,130 known deaths including 68,620 in Sichuan province; 17,824 people are listed as missing, 374,031 injured and 11 million people have been left homeless.

It’s easy to feel unconcerned when catastrophe strikes a long way from home, in a foreign land, affecting foreign people. We console ourselves, feeling satisfied with a pledged donation, an online post or a simple shake of the head while agreeing a terrible tragedy has occurred.

As I stand here at the precipice of this nightmare, I find I have lost my complacency and found new eyes; for the first time confronted by the harsh reality of what has taken place.

The lesson learnt is that when nature rears its ugly head and natural disaster strikes unannounced, it is just that, a total and utter disaster. And no matter where you stand, no matter your line of sight, the unholy void left in its wake should give us all pause to reflect on our own good fortune, particularly those of us who find ourselves in the eye of the storm. My heart goes out to the millions of people and their loved ones whose lives have been shattered by this atrocity and the uncertainty of nature's wrath.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Festival of Olly

With the weekend rapidly approaching and constant reminders that it was Olly’s birthday on Friday (primarily from Olly), I was fastening my seatbelt for a bumpy night or perhaps a bumpy weekend. No amount of practice ever seems to prepare me for a massive alcoholic binge, and despite my best efforts with consecutive ‘warm-up’ nights on Wednesday and Thursday, Friday night arrived and the ‘Festival of Olly’ was set in motion.

It began in an ex-pat sports bar, the Goose and Duck; more an amusement park than a drinking establishment. Somewhat like a Timezone for alcoholics, the G&D seemed like an appropriate gathering point for the night ahead. I was responsible for sending out the ‘facebook’ event invite which stated Goose & Duck for a bite and beers followed by ‘Block 8 Beach Party’. Olly, Kristen and I left home at 8, in order to arrive fashionable a-little-late at the Goose & Duck. Which we did, after arriving at the ‘old’ Goose & Duck’ location, wandering around like lost pups and then hailing another cab when we realized the ‘new’ Goose & Duck location was somewhere completely different. Ok, take two! Many of the more astute invitees were completely on top of this and, with seasoned ex-pat local knowledge, arrived at the correct location with just a single cab ride. But many others also did the two-cab-scenic-tour-stop-off before sheepishly arriving to join the rest of the party.

The night was a joint party for both Olly and our new Aussie friend, Laura, a fellow Taurean whose birthday was just around the corner. A clever move, not only because she’s a great girl, but this automatically increased the invite list by 1200%. It was good to see the girls from the BOCOG office actually outside the BOCOG office. Chang Shan, Jane, Tao and Echo arrived laden with gifts and cheesecake (one of Olly’s faves). Once the cake was cut and devoured and the last pints put away it was on to the second leg of the evening, Block 8.

I booked a ‘cabana’ at the Beach… a luxurious cushioned tent with room for 12 while the remainder mingled barefoot in the sand. This place is somewhat surreal when you consider the beach is actually on a rooftop, and although being in the centre of Beijing, creates an amazing atmosphere of late night Ibiza, complete with DJs, bikini clad dancing girls and free flowing champagne and Grey Goose Vodka!

With the name Block 8 scrawled in my mental black book, the beach sadly came to a close, ending amid a cacophony of block-rocking-beats and a swirling menagerie of laughing faces…and an ocean of empty champagne and vodka bottles.

On to Bar Blu, a 15 minute (single) cab ride away, and although it entertains a slightly less beautiful crowd, it’s as good a place as any considering our condition. This place has the added bonus of a kebab shop on the ground floor as you exit. And so, with the sun climbing up over the horizon, a kebab in hand, shooing away two very nice Chinese gay boys who wanted to ‘help’ our birthday boy get home, and with just enough coherence to hail a taxi, we left. But not before Olly did a most memorable and impressive stunt man routine. Before a ready made live audience, he plonked himself on a table in the street outside, collapsing it like a house of cards! Greatly appreciated by the crowd and I laughed so hard I nearly dislocated something.

By the time Sunday came around I was considering a day of pure nothing on the sofa, momentarily forgetting brunch at the Intercontinental Hotel. The Laura and Olly birthday weekend continued with a magnificent buffet of, well, everything. Fine food, free-flowing Veuve Clicquot and a made-to-order Martini bar, meant the festival was far from over. Pacing ourselves like true professionals, we gorged our way through a four-hour feast of delectable gastronomical delights and left completely sated and exhausted.

Pushing the food and drink aside for a spell, we ventured down Liulichang for a cultural palette cleanser. This street is known throughout China and the world for its ancient books, calligraphy, paintings, rubbings and ink stones. We meandered and browsed and some paintings and other trinkets were purchased. Then, with his innate ability to spot a self-promotion opportunity from a hundred and fifty metres, our man Olly lunged in front of a TV camera, pushing aside the presenter, screaming "Can I be on Chinese TV?" Before you could say Brian Henderson, Olly was reporting, mic in hand, from downtown Liulichang. He waxed lyrical about the joys and hidden secrets of this famous street, having had a good 45 minutes to familiarise himself with the surrounds. I tell ya, this kid is a natural. The Chinese media have gobbled him up, paying homage to this exotic English enigma, who has now been captured on tape three times in as many weeks. Watch for him next season in ITV's "Getaway UK: From Bury to Wakefield". TV Gold!
With Olly's travelogue in the can, we regained our senses and headed to HouHai to reclaim ex-pat status atop another roof clinking countless bottles of Corona and toasting everything from love and peace to the French, the Brits, the Aussies and the Venezuelans!

Coronas gave way to food and No Names restaurant located deep in the hutongs was the perfect place. No, I’m afraid no schnitzel combos here, but some remarkably good local fare. The Festival of Olly ended on a balmy, spring evening, with hundreds of locals mingling with the tourists as we wandered back along the lake, said our goodbyes and called it a weekend.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Let's Go To Bed

There are 18 million stories in this city; these are just some of them.

Mr. OK came this week to repair our showers and to see what could be done about our lack of hot flowing water. The whole experience played out like some vaudeville routine or a Chinese version of the Marx Brothers with Mr. OK, our diminutive and hyperactive handyman, in the starring role. He ran, literally, from bathroom to bathroom, from Kristen’s to Olly’s to mine with nothing more than a small monkey wrench, adjusting the shower heads and continually repeating his professional mantra (and I believe, the only English word he knew), “OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK”! He seemed pleased with his level of craftsmanship as he made illusory adjustments to the water flow. Poor guy, he seemed so excited that I didn’t have the heart to tell him the water flow had not changed at all. Well, actually I did, but he couldn’t understand a word so I just nodded. I’m now resigned to the fact that for the next 5 months I will have a shower that sputters and spits and takes five minutes to produce a drizzling of hot water. And so Mr. OK waves goodbye, totally bemused at how these wanton westerners can complain about such trivialities, and well he might, as someone who probably has to fetch his own water each morning in a bucket from a well.

Be careful what you ask for…or point at. I learned this particular lesson at a local restaurant this week, as I indicated that I would like “this one, please”. Perhaps the concerned look of the waitress was a telltale sign, but it didn’t really register. Soon after, a hot, steaming plate of boiled fat was laid before me (think the line of oily fat that runs down the side of your lamb chop and imagine a kilo of it piled on a plate). One piece was definitely more than enough and suffice to say, I filled up on the Chinese greens and rice.

Ain’t it funny how we talk to people who do not speak or understand our language. Well, yes and no. Yes if you’re me and no if you’re Oliver. I must admit, I love the confidence Olly exudes each time he chats to the locals here. He could be walking down the high street in Putney or sitting in his local…approaches the young Chinese waitress, “Alright, luv? How’s it going? Any chance of a few pints and some hot grub?” Meanwhile the Jury way is a little more standard, but by no means any more successful. I simply repeat myself, getting progressively louder each time I’m not understood. “We would like some food and beer…FOOD and BEER, FOOOOOOD and BEEEEEEER! Um…Tsing Tao, Burger? Xie Xie.”

After six weeks in any foreign city one likes to think of oneself as a semi-local. But every now and then something brings you squarely back to tourist status. We hailed a cab the other night in the Houhai district after eating in a great little hideaway restaurant. We nonchalantly showed the driver the address of ‘Bed’ (a cool little bar nestled among the hutongs). But something about this address sent him off into an animated Mandarin rant that had us more than a little bemused. “Yeah, that’s right, tiger” said Olly, “that’d be grand, fella. Away you go”. Meanwhile I am repeating the Mandarin for ‘bed’, “Chwang fang, Chwang fang!” getting progressively louder knowing this is the only real way he’d understand our destination. He ranted, we implored, and after a few more minutes of negotiations, he shook his head, put the taxi in gear and we were off! We drove down the street for 100 metres before swinging a u-turn, drove 100 metres back and came to a sudden halt. We looked at each other, we looked at our driver. He pointed to the small sign pointing down an alleyway… “Narr, Narr!”. Yes, he was right, we were the crazy westerners too lazy to cross the street.

On Saturday morning the first visit from our new house cleaner almost clashed with a very late Friday night. After returning home at 5am, the cleaner’s arrival a few hours later went totally unnoticed as I slept right through the doorbell. Fortunately Kristen was semi-conscious and managed to let her in. When I finally woke and walked into the hallway, my initial reaction was that our place had been ransacked by a marauding pack of Beijing cat burglars. There was stuff everywhere, strewn down the hallway, puddles of water, pieces of rag and a pair of shoes that had no business being inside our door. Then I remembered it was house cleaner day and the penny dropped. Sure enough she was busying herself in Olly’s bathroom, an enormous challenge and a brave place to start. I was out of my bedroom relatively early (11am) when you consider both Olly and Kristen each managed to hit the snooze button till around four in the afternoon. With an enormous hangover I nestled on the couch and moaned while our dutiful new house cleaner went vigorously about her job in the most unorthodox, hotchpotch fashion I’ve ever witnessed. From room to room she hopped like a startled rabbit. Polishing this, scrubbing that, back to the bathroom, move the couch (sorry, I’ll get up), back to the kitchen, and so it went. At one stage she passed me four times as I ambled to the bathroom. Perhaps a little unfairly, my early diagnosis was this woman is a fruitcake and has no idea what she is doing. After intermittently eating, walking outside and snoozing, I was awoken by the cleaner charading she was finished and it was time to pay. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I was in the real world. The apartment was sparkling. Amazingly spotless! Like a battalion of rampant domestic help had staged an all-day cleaning romp. While you may think seven and a half hours of cleaning is excessive, and our place might be a pig-sty, it’s just not true. She simply didn’t rest until it was to her satisfaction. I felt somewhat embarrassed when she wrote down the amount to be paid. 75 yuan (less that $12). She wrote down the numbers 17, 24 and 31, which I decoded to mean she’d come back every Saturday. I paid her (plus a healthy tip) and waved goodbye until next week.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Walk this way...

I spent most of Saturday at Wukesong Stadium, watching a Basketball Test Event. Nobody likes working weekends, but if you gotta, then this was ok. As the day wound down, and I began daydreaming of a long overdue Sunday morning sleep in, I was asked if I could pop in to the Marathon event on Sunday morning, not to take part you understand, but just for ten or fifteen minutes to watch the start. Um, sure, why not.

And so my Sunday morning began. My planned itinerary seemed straight forward enough: Rise at 6am, leave by 6.20 and arrive at the race start, Tiananmen Square by 7am and watch the 30 minute lead-in to the gun. But TIC (this is China)...

I arrived on cue, but due to strict security I'm dumped by my cab driver a good kilometre from where I need to be. I set off for the race start, but at every turn I am turned around and forced to re-turn. One young policeman would let me up some stairs only for a fellow teeny-bop cop to turn me away. Although they were helpful in pointing out where I needed to go (the big square over there) they were less forthcoming with an actual strategy of “how” to actually get there.

"This way?" I enquired. Lots of nodding and more pointing led me to believe that I was on course; walk outside this barricade 250 metres until you get to the end and then cross the road. I do this. Get to the other end only to be told (or ushered) in the direction from whence I’d come. “That way? I said. “I've just come from there.” Oh, alright then, back we go. Walk 200 metres that way, turn and walk 200 metres back. As the minutes ticked by I was suddenly jolted by a panicky and perturbed looking German photographer. “Mein Got! Vair ist unt schtartink line?” His sweaty, red and forlorn face spelled disaster; his desperation contagious. Soon the walking had turned to running. Both of us now in our own mini marathon, the Main Event only minutes from a start. Hans would have much explaining to do back at Das Spiegel if he didn't file his pictures on time!

But the maze of barricades and barrage of baby-faced policemen thwarted our every move. “Over here Hans!”. Damn, no entry.
“Ya, ya!! Ziss vay, ziss vay!”

We ran and ran like a couple of oversized Haile Gebrsellasies, darting across roads and hurdling barricades. Somewhere off I heard the theme to ‘Chariots of Fire’. We commandeered a passing golf cart that whisked us to the start line just in time to hear the starter's pistol. Hans ran to the line of spectators like a frothing, rabid Doberman, stucked his lens under someone’s armpit and snapped his little heart out. I wandered over to the VIP buffet, sat down for a cold coffee and a dry croissant.
This is the Olympics, and it’s not the winning but ‘taking part’ that counts. There was nothing left to do but say Auf Wiedersehen to Hans and head home. As I wandered slowly off under the watchful eye of Mao, across the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, a few sprinkles of rain cooled my overheated head. Momentarily turning my face towards the sky, I took a deep breath, pulled out my camera and snapped a couple of pictures of my own. But this was not a passing shower, and without warning a savage squalling rain storm hit. I was running like a lone Tibetan freedom fighter caught by surprise in a nightmarish hell. I made my way to the road, and began waving like a saturated psychopath, star-jumping between the sheets of rain, playing chicken with every vehicle that remotely resembled a cab.

“No!” said a policeman (what is it with these guys)

“No what?” my face implied.

“No Taxi here!” I saw in his eyes.

“You’re telling me, mate!”

He was telling me to move on and that I was not allowed to hail a cab at this particular area of the Square, no matter how bad the rain was. He pointed the way and after walking 150 metres in the rain I was met by an equally cherubic policeman who politely told me...“No!”

I thought to myself ‘if he points back the way I've just come I'm gonna spank him and get myself arrested’. Fortunately for both of us he urged me further along the Square, so I kept going. I was a walking dish mop. With foggy glasses I trudged on. Rain running down my collar, down my back and legs. My jeans and shoes now soaked. Not a vacant taxi in sight and no legal place to hail one. Every time I half-heartedly put my arm out to flag an already engaged cab, the Square’s ubiquitous policemen appeared like mini-Mao Tse-tungs to tell me “No!”. At least the steady stream of water running down the bridge of my nose and into my mouth kept my thirst at bey.

And so I headed away from Tiananmen Square and Chairman Mao and the cab-nazis. I had a plan; a plan to take the back streets and avoid the growing crowd of sodden, sloshy cab-hailers...and my plan paid off. I spotted a vacant taxi. I not so much hailed it as pounced on it, Steve Irwin-style, stretched across the bonnet and holding on for dear life, knowing if I let go it was surely death! Within barely an hour and fifteen minutes from the first specks of rain I was warm and drying off in the back of “my” taxi. My marathon was over and I headed home.