I have officially been in Beijing for 4 days now. I start this post with that admission, because before you read this I want you to know that I'm no expert on Beijing or China. Before this current trip, I have been here once before. Aside from a few useful phrases, I don't really speak any Mandarin ... and any experience benefit I might have from having been to Beijing before has surely been erased from more than ten years of development and more recent construction and preparation for the Olympics.
Still, I travel often and like to think I can adapt to new places relatively fast. So when I thought about sharing a few of my experiences from Beijing over the past few days, and getting ready for a week of blogging about the Games here for Lenovo, my first thought was to share a few things I have learned so far about getting around and perhaps challenge a few perceptions that people have had about Beijing from media.
- The Pollution - This was one of the hottest topics in the media about Beijing, that the pollution would create a huge problem for athletes of all sorts. The truth is, the pollution on the ground has been much less of a concern than another simple fact ... Beijing is a hot and humid city. Pollution or not, it is actually the heat and humidity that cause the biggest concern for athletes. I have been to many polluted cities across Asia, and Beijing is certainly nowhere near the worst. In fact, the place I had the toughest time breathing was not related to pollution at all. It was in Lima, Peru thanks to the altitude of the city.
- The Language Barrier - This is a very real concern about Beijing and means that you need to learn to travel a bit differently. Whereas in many other cities, you can learn to speak more slowly or use a few well chosen words (airport, hotel, bathroom, etc.) and people will understand you, native Mandarin speakers have no such frame of reference. As a result, you need to rely much more on written directions and images. The most useful thing you can always carry with you are a bunch of cards with destinations pictured and written in English. Always get your to and from destinations written down by your hotel concierge, and get used to asking a few people to piece together your destination based on multiple directions (crowd sourcing directions works here).
- The Olympic Venue Security - Getting into and out of Olympic venues has its own learning curve that are particular to Beijing's games. These are my third Olympics and so I do have a frame of reference, however the security at these Games out of necessity needs to be far beyond what it has been in any previous Games. Most Olympic venues have a single gate of entry, which may require you to walk 1 or 2 kilometers all the way around a venue. The positive aspect of this is that because entry is consolidated, BOCOG can place all their resources in this location, so getting through security and into a venue is a very fast process once you find the correct entrance.
- The Nightlife - One of the persistent themes in the media you may have seen is that many journalists are calling this the "no fun Olympics." I was speaking to Jim, the blogger behind www.beijingboyce.com, about this and his point of view was that the main problem is that they don't really know where to go. Beijing Boyce is a leading blog in helping people to find the truly fun food, drink and nightlife destinations in Beijing not to be missed, and I have already started using it as a brilliant resource and guide to the city. I wished I had more time to spend with Jim to get more insight, but if you are ever in Beijing, this is a blog you will want to bookmark.
- The Transportation - Like many other travellers here, I have had my moment of standing around for more than an hour on a street corner competing to catch a taxi with a dozen other people in the same situation. For me, this situation ended positively because it gave me the motivation to try using Beijing's Subway system and I was pleasantly surprised. As opposed to the stifling hot stations in Washington DC (my hometown), the station I used here was air conditioned, brand new and trains ran frequently. The signs were useful and in English and the fare was quite cheap (2 Yuan - about 35 cents) per journey. Taxis are cheap as well to go from one side of the city to another and the measures the government has taken to curb traffic (alternating days you can drive your car based on your number plate ending in an odd or even number) and essentially removing trucks from the roads has been helping to avoid gridlock. I suspect that the weeks of the Olympics may be the easiest time to travel in Beijing.
If there is another area of travel or the city that you have heard about and are interested in knowing more about, leave a comment here and I'll do my best to share some thoughts about it.
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