From one extreme to another...
08.09.2008 72 °F
I used to be able to handle humid climates. Back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in eastern Bolivia, I lived through two rainy seasons that pushed my comfort buttons like a ten-year old playing Whack-A-Mole. But I prided myself in having acclimated to the subtropics and wore it like a badge of honor. Over the years I lost a lot of my tolerance to heat and humidity, and these two weeks in China will be a true test of how much I have left. Last night was the first exam.
Yesterday Calvin (the elder son of my cousin Bing in California) and I took the train to Tianjin to watch two women's soccer games: Sweden vs. Argentina and Canada vs. China. Tianjin is about 120km (72 miles) southeast of Beijing, and we got to ride the new bullet train that just started service on Aug. 1st. Aside from the fact that the train is super-fast and cuts the trip down to half an hour, we had to wait for over three hours for the next train that had available seats. This unexpected delay gave us plenty of time to wander around Beijing South Station, which is pretty impressive with its shiny granite floors, curved ceiling, and large waiting area with cushioned chairs that you might find in a hotel lobby. The perimeter of the station was lined with the type of stores you see in the international terminal of an airport that sell liquor, cigarettes, perfume, etc. The two McDonald's branches weren't open yet, though I was surprised to see a large Costa Coffee outlet - Costa is a large chain of cafes in the UK but I didn't know they had expanded into China.
There were lots of people waiting for trains, and it was obvious that they were members of the burgeoning moneyed class in China. Usually when you go to train stations in China, you see small groups of migrant workers from the rural areas either squatting on the floor or sitting/lying down on their overstuffed nylon bags or sacks. They're easy to spot and serve as a grim reminder of how huge numbers of people from the countryside move to the cities in search of better lives. That's worth a blog posting on its own. I didn't see any of these migrant workers at Beijing South, though - rather, the place was crawling with "Chuppies" (Chinese yuppies), toting the latest in cell phone technology and thumbing their noses at the days of the androgynous Mao suit.
Getting a taxi from the Tianjin train station to the Hyatt Regency Tianjin was a bit of a hassle, not because there weren't any taxis to be found. Au contraire, we saw plenty of them waiting right outside in a designated area. These taxis didn't have meters for some reason, so the drivers were all trying to draw passengers to their respective vehicles. The first guy tried to charge me 30 RMB (just over $4) to go to the hotel. I'm familiar enough with China to never accept the first offer, so I tried to get him down to 15 RMB. He went up to 20 and I didn't budge, so Calvin and I walked away. I expected the driver to call us back, saying that he would take us for 15, but that didn't happen - this is when you know you've gone below the seller's/vendor's threshold. The next woman quoted 30, and I countered with 20. Deal. When we got to the hotel, however, she asked for 30. My conversational Mandarin is fairly limited and I'm often self-conscious about speaking because I often mix up the four tones, but this was a rare instance in which all of the words poured out of my mouth. I challenged her right away and she backed down.
At this point it didn't feel excessively hot or humid outside...slightly uncomfortable, yes, but not unbearable. We chilled out in the room for a bit and then caught a taxi to the Tianjin Olympics Center Stadium. The boulevard leading to the stadium was closed off to traffic, so we had to walk for a few blocks and then go through several security points. Everything went smoothly and I was pretty impressed with the infrastructure and the flow. The seats themselves were quite good - just past midfield and high enough to be able to see everything but low enough to feel like we were in the middle of the action. The shocker came soon after we sat down. We were sweltering to the point of using our event tickets (printed on thick paper) to fan ourselves, but that didn't stop a large bead of sweat from running down my right leg even though I was stationary. My theory is that the bowl-shaped stadium trapped the humidity and prevented the breeze from coming in.
I can't imagine what it was like for the players to have to run around in those conditions. Regardless of the weather, Argentina definitely looked outmatched by Sweden. The Swedes were bigger, heftier, and more aggressive, and as such controlled the ball pretty much the entire time. The Argentines looked lethargic and couldn't gain control of the ball. 1-0 in the end. The main draw was yet to come, though. China's women's soccer team has been one of the best in the world for quite some time - remember, they barely lost to the U.S. in the inaugural World's Cup when Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey at the end of the final. Obviously the vast majority of the spectators came to cheer for China. What I certainly didn't expect to see was how rah-rah Chinese people have become. Nearly everyone had a Chinese flag sticker either on their shirts or stuck to their faces. Lots of red headbands with yellow characters sporting various messages. And, of course, a sea of flags.
The China-Canada game definitely was more interesting. Canada's players were taller and larger, so they won all of the contested headballs. China had speed, agility, and good ball-passing skills, though. Add a fired-up crowd, and it was exciting enough to distract me from feeling very uncomfortable...temporarily. When we first arrived the Jumbo-tron screen showed the temperature at 92 degrees, and during the second game it had dropped to a balmy 85 but with 72% humidity. Nasty stuff. Needless to say, I was happy to get back to the air-conditioned hotel room.
This morning we took the train back to Beijing South Station and made our way all the way back to my cousin's house via taxi, subway, and taxi again. In the afternoon a group of us went to the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park to watch the preliminary heats for men's & women's pairs, lightweight fours, etc. Wow, what a cool venue. The flatwater course is 2,000 meters long, and our tickets were for a section relatively close to the finish line. It was so hazy out that we couldn't see the rowers at the start line and instead had to wait for a couple of minutes before they came into view. The great part was that the temperature had dropped significantly and probably was in the low 70s with overcast skies, which made for great conditions in which to sit outside. The U.S. team had entrants in some of the heats we watched, so it was fun to cheer for them and wave our flags. I had brought a large flag that almost got confiscated at the security checkpoint, because the BOCOG volunteer thought it was too big to bring in. My cousin Andy saved the day by challenging the volunteer and then his supervisor, otherwise I might have lost it for good. This particular flag flew over the U.S. Capitol back in 1993, and I've schlepped it around the world with me: Germany, Bolivia, Australia (for the 2000 Summer Olympics), and maybe even one other country.
About halfway through the heats it looked and felt like it was going to start pouring rain, so we hightailed it out of the venue. Just as we were walking to the van after getting off the shuttle bus, it began raining - harder than I had seen rain fall in a long time. As I type this at 2:40am local time, it's raining again. Hopefully the net result will be a blue sky (or bluer, which isn't saying a whole lot) tomorrow and/or cooler temperatures...otherwise it might just keep coming down.
I'm dozing off right now so I'd better end here, but I'm happy to report that I saw myself on NBC's Olympics broadcast a few hours ago. They were covering the rowing and showed the women's quads heat with the U.S. in it - from a distance I spotted my big flag that almost didn't make it in. Very cool.