Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living in the 13th century

Today I headed 130 kms east of Ulaanbaatar to check out a ‘13th century park’ to which we are planning to take delegates attending a conference in Ulaanbaatar next year on a day-long excursion.

It was raining when we left, but that didn’t deter our driver from driving at what seemed like a dangerous speed, splashing through pools of water on the road at 80-90 kph so that the whole windscreen was obliterated in muddy water. I guess my guide could sense that I was a bit nervous, because after we had to swerve suddenly to avoid an oncoming car that had itself swerved to avoid a pot hole, he turned to me and said: “Don’t worry, the driver is very experienced – just look out of the side window and then you won’t be scared.”

After about an hour and a quarter we stopped by a massive steel statue of Chinggis Khan that was being built by the side of the road. It is out in the middle of nowhere, but is intended to be a halfway stop for people traveling to the 13th century park. It is nearly finished, and when completed will house a restaurant and a souvenir shop.

The scale of the statue can be judged from the size of the large earthworks vehicle on the left hand side of the photo below and the four-wheel drives on the hill to the right. (The picture is quite dull because it was taken in a light drizzle).

After an another half an hour or so we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road across the steppes – at times sliding around corners on the soft mud (good job we were in a four-wheel drive – there was no way a conventional vehicle could have made it through some of the soft spots today).

The scenery was beautiful – so green at this time of the year – and occasionally we would see one or two gers in the distance.

After about another half an hour we reached the 13th century park which is a 350 hectare National Park in which about 35 people are living like they did in the 13th century. Yes, it is a tourist park, but not one where people come and dress up as 13th century warriors for the day and then go home at night – these people live in the park 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, just like they did in the 13th century – with no power, no running water, and no modern utensils of any kind.

About 50 tourists a day come and visit the park in the summer months, and only a handful in the winter. There are eight camps in the park with 2-6 people living in each camp following different lifestyles as they did in the 13th century. Each camp is several kilometres from the next one, so each one feels very isolated.

The photograph below is of the hunter’s camp, and the one below that is of a fortified camp of the type in which a king and queen would have lived in the 13th century.

One of the hunters inside the ger that you can see in the first photograph allowed me to take a few portrait shots of him. I didn’t bring my external flash unit with me, so had to rely on the built-in flash which unfortunately produced a bit of shine on his face. But it didn’t turn out too bad.

We also visited the guardians camp near the entrance to the National Park and a teachers’ camp where gers are set up like classrooms were in the 13th century.

We called it a day after visiting four camps because the rain was getting heavier, and I was getting quite wet and cold. Our driver – a large Mongolian man – gave me his coat to put over mine (which helped a bit), but so that he didn’t get his shirt wet, he took it off and was driving us around the camps topless! I couldn’t believe how cold he must have felt, but I suppose people who are used to braving winters where it gets down to minus 40 (Celsius), must feel relatively warm when the temperature is hovering around the low teens.

I hope it is not too cold when the conference delegates visit the park next year, because it is an interesting place to visit. I am not usually into tourist parks like this – but Mongolia’s 13th century park is quite unique and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.

On the way back to Ulaanbaatar I spotted a ger not far from the road that had a satellite dish set up outside (my guide told me that because the owner had a motorbike AND a horse, as well as the satellite dish, he must be quite a wealthy nomad). I asked the driver to stop, and after getting out of the vehicle started to walk towards the ger. But then a black dog – one of three sitting outside the ger - started racing towards me barking and growling. So I quickly snapped the shot below and ran back to the vehicle, just making it back before the dog. It didn’t look to be a very friendly dog!

Half way back to Ulaanbaatar my driver and guide decided to stop for a cigarette. It was still drizzling and quite cold, so I stayed inside the vehicle. I snapped the shot below through the side window. That’s the driver on the left. By this stage he had put his shirt back on but hadn’t bothered to button it up. I still had two coats on to keep warm.

When we reached Ulaanbaatar it was apparent that the rain had not let up for most of the day because there was water everywhere.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A beat-up Bluebird and a burned building in UB

By the time I cleared immigration and customs at Ulaanbaatar airport last night, it was just on midnight as I exited the arrivals hall. I thought my office had arranged for someone to meet me, but nobody was there, so I had to take a taxi.

I saw lots of taxi touts hanging around the arrivals hall, so I asked at the information counter how much a taxi into the city was. The girl behind the counter said “9,000 tughriks,” (about US$8) but then she added: “but those guys will want at least 15,000 or 20,000,” gesturing towards the taxi touts.

I wondered why she was bothering to tell me that because I knew there was a proper taxi rank outside, so I headed out the glass doors towards the taxi rank ignoring the touts on the way. One of the touts followed me, and when I got to the taxi rank I could see why, because the ‘official’ taxi stand had been taken over by the touts. There were no proper taxis in sight. Just a line of beat-up old cars with young guys sitting on the bonnets waiting for weary travelers who had no other way to get into the city. It looked like the normal taxis don’t bother to come out to the airport at night, so the touts had taken over the taxi service completely.

The guy who had followed me started to put my bags into the boot of his car, which was the first one on the rank. I said to him: “How much to the Ulaanbaatar Hotel?” He replied: “30,000.” I said: “No way, the fare is never more than 10,000,” to which he replied: “Okay, I’ll take you for 20,000,” and we settled on that.

I had already decided that I would pay him 20,000 because when taking unlicensed taxis in the middle of the night, I don’t want the driver to think I have screwed him down too much otherwise he might be tempted to rob me on the way (although I don’t believe that Ulaanbaatar has a reputation for that – if it was Russia I would be much more apprehensive).

His car was an old right-hand drive Nissan Bluebird (probably a second hand import from Japan where they drive on the left hand side of the road) with a cracked windscreen, no seatbelts in the back, and no shock absorbers. He drove into the city on high beam all the way, with a red engine warning light flashing on his dashboard. It was a bumpy ride, but I must say he drove quite safely – I’ve experienced a lot worse in other countries.

When I woke up this morning, I drew the curtains of my hotel room to find I was right next door to the headquarters of Mongolia’s ruling party that had been set on fire by an angry demonstrators last month after the announcement of the election results (they believed that the ruling party – the MPRP - had ‘fixed’ the June elections).

The demonstrators also alleged that party members were getting rich from ‘donations’ from Russia and China for giving them preferential access to Mongolia’s natural resources, whilst the rest of the people in Mongolia remained poor.

A state of emergency was declared on 1 July, but that lasted only four days and things settled down quickly after that. Most Mongolians I have spoken to feel ashamed of what happened and now the burnt-out headquarters of the MPRP seems to be the only reminder of this blot on Mongolia’s history. Five people died on that night.

I wondered how I would have reacted if I had been staying in room 403 of the Ulaanbaatar Hotel on 1 July. I guess I would have started taking pictures from the window at first, but it probably would have got quite scary after that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Traveling light to Lagos

This evening I took a flight up to Ulaanbaatar for some meetings I needed to fit in whilst the Olympics were on. I went a little earlier than usual because I’d heard that it was taking longer than normal to get through security – and just as well because there were long queues at the check-in desks. The queues were caused by passengers having to open their check-in bags after they were put through the x-ray machines behind the check-in desks. Apparently they were not allowing anything with batteries or which looked ‘electrical’ in the check-in baggage. I was carrying two portable hard-drives that I was taking to Mongolia as gifts, and I was asked to remove those from my check-in baggage and hand-carry them. The security even asked me to do the same for my electric shaver. It was just as well that I had left some of my gear in Beijing, so I was able to find room to stuff them into my briefcase and camera bag.

As I walked away from the Mongolian Airlines check-in counter, I noticed five Nigerian guys checking in at the next counter where passengers were queuing for an Ethiopian Airlines flight (I assume they were Nigerians because their bags were all addressed to Lagos). They had about 15 baggage trolleys between them on which were piled about three times that many cardboard boxes.

I wondered firstly how much their excess baggage charges would come to, and secondly whether they had any electrical items in the boxes. If they did, I wondered whether they would be asked to hand carry their boxes onto their flight. Knowing Ethiopian Airlines, they probably wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Rubbing shoulders with famous people

My wife went to one of the swimming finals in the Water Cube this morning. She called me halfway through to say: “Guess who is sitting behind me – George W. Bush and his wife and daughter!” I assumed that meant she was sitting six rows in front of them and there were five rows of secret service men between them, but when I got back from work in the evening, she showed me a photo she had taken over her shoulder – and she really was in the row right in front of them. I was amazed that the President’s security people (who seemed to be nowhere in sight) would have let other spectators that close waving cameras in his face. Maybe they feel more relaxed in China knowing that there is already a big security presence in Beijing.

After studying the photograph for a few moments, I said: “But did you notice who was sitting behind George Bush?” She hadn’t. She was too busy trying to take a snapshot of Bush to notice Bill Gates right behind him.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The greatest show on earth?

Wow, what a night last night was. Many are already saying it was the greatest show ever staged on earth. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing was nothing short of spectacular. But it was a long (and hot) night. We had to leave our hotel at 3.45 pm in the afternoon in order to go to another hotel, from where the buses to the stadium would be leaving, for security screening. We had been told the buses would leave the hotel at 4.30 pm, but that was probably just to get us there early because they didn’t actually leave until 5.00 pm.

It took us less than 30 minutes to get to the National Stadium – or ‘Bird’s Nest’ as it is known – because most of the roads to the stadium had been closed off. We were in a convoy of 12 buses which had a police escort – but there was little need for that as there was hardly any traffic on the road. There was a policeman about every 20 metres along the road between the city centre and Olympic Green where the stadiums are located, numerous checkpoints around the stadiums, and hundreds of soldiers inside the plaza between the ‘Water Cube’ aquatic centre and the ‘Bird’s Nest’ where our bus dropped us off.

But despite the high security, there was a very relaxed atmosphere inside the plaza and people were wandering around taking photographs of the ‘Water Cube’ and the ‘Bird’s Nest.’

As more convoys of buses pulled into the plaza, we decided to go into the stadium to get a good seat. Our ticket showed the section that we would be sitting in, but we had been told it was free seating inside that section. Just as well that we did, because not long after we were seated (we managed to find two seats at the top of an aisle so that we had a relatively unobstructed view of the whole stadium), many more people started pouring in, and the seats started filling up despite it being only 6 pm – two hours before the start of the opening ceremony.

There was already some pre-opening entertainment going on. At first we thought they were artists rehearsing for the opening ceremony, but as none of them appeared in the opening ceremony we realised later that the entertainment had been put on to keep us from getting bored as we waited for the opening. There were dancers and singers from all parts of China, and some of the acts were very good.

About 25 minutes before the start of the ceremony, people started wheeling in thigh-high Chinese drums into the stadium. They came from all four corners like columns of soldiers on the march, and they kept coming and coming. After about 20 minutes there were about 2,000 drums filling the floor of the stadium and we knew that something special was about to happen.

The lights went down, the 91,000 spectators were asked to turn on the coloured torches that had been placed in bags under their seats, and suddenly the sound of 2,000 drums filled the night air with a tremendous crescendo – and then what happened surprised everyone – the drums lit up and formed patterns across the stadium floor in beat to the drumming – the Chinese drum had gone hi-tech!

And then came the count-down to the ceremony using the drums to form the numbers, finally ending in an explosion of fireworks around the rim of the stadium – it was a spectacular start to the opening ceremony.

As the drummers left the stadium in the dark, the Olympic rings seemingly magically appeared on the floor of the stadium and then gradually rose into the sky to a thunderous applause.

And then a giant scroll started to unfurl in the middle of the stadium which subsequently became the centerpiece of a story that dancers and other performers told of the history of China and its culture. The programme that had been provided to us in the bags under our seats told us that the “long scroll of Chinese painting demonstrates the unique concept of time and space and the philosophy of Oriental aesthetics.”

It was a bit hard to match some of the performances with what was listed in the programme, but I think the appearance of thousands of ‘scholars’ in the picture below was related to the part of the programme which was titled ‘Written Character’ and described as: “In the civilization of mankind, the written Chinese characters show their graceful and beautiful forms. They originated from pictography, which then became symbols. The symbols, though small, have numerous changes, and contain everything of the universe. They convene the most ancient philosophy – that harmony is precious – the relations between people, and between people and nature.” (You would think that after spending US$40 billion in staging the Olympics, someone could have thought about paying a native English speaker a few dollars to correct all the grammatical mistakes in the programme before printing it!)

Next followed some performances of Chinese opera which the programme described (with a few more errors of grammar) as: “Beautiful music come from people’s heart. The traditional Chinese operas have deep roots among the people. This piece of vast land has given births to hundreds of types of traditional operas. With the passing of seasons and years, the Chinese people have gone in pursuit of the eternal Harmony.”

About 20 minutes further on into the ceremony there was a dance sequence that was particularly impressive when dancers in light-emitting costumes came together in a big swirl to form a dove of peace:

I think the pictures above were taken during a sequence called ‘Starlight’ which was described in the programme as: “We live with the Heaven and the Earth; the nature and mankind are in harmony. Human beings have dreams, in the vicinity of nature, and the air of Taiji (the Supreme Ultimate) fills the whole universe”, but I am not a 100 percent sure because in the second part of the ceremony, which the programme called “Episode Two: Glorious Era,” I had difficulty relating between what was happening in the stadium and what was in the printed programme. I only managed to work out where we were when the athletes’ parade started.

The section where we were sitting was the next section along from where all the VIPs were. We could see George W. Bush about 20 rows away, and when the Cuban athletes marched on with a very loud cheer from the Chinese spectators, I tried to see what his reaction was – but he was a little too far away for me to see. Apart from China, the other two countries that got very loud cheers were Iran and North Korea. I bet George was grimacing by that stage!

Usually the athletes enter the stadium in alphabetical order of their countries, but we were told that in Beijing they would enter in an order determined by how many strokes of the pen there were in their Chinese names. Under this arrangement Australia (pictured below) entered second last before China (the hosts always enter last) which didn’t seem right to us because the Chinese name for Australia looks like it has much fewer strokes than the names of many other countries (for example, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which entered 66th out of the 204 countries looked like it had twice as many strokes in their Chinese name as the Australians). Even the student volunteers in the stadium that we asked about it seemed puzzled as to how the order was determined.

Some of the Australian athletes gave the Chinese marshals a hard time when they kept running off the track to make faces at the TV cameras (the Italians were the only other ones who were a bit unruly).

The athletes’ parade took about two hours to conclude, and during this time many of the spectators went for walk to get a beer from the bar or something to eat. Eventually about 10,000 athletes filled the centre of the stadium, and the formalities began with the Chinese President declaring the Games open, the Olympic flag was raised and a runner entered the stadium carrying the Olympic torch.

Just before the torch arrived, some white doves were released to symbolise the Olympic objective of using sport to promote peace. As I read the programme description which said: “Under the blue sky and white clouds, wind blows gently; people of different colours from five continents are blessing for peace” I wondered whether the copywriter realised that this part of the ceremony would be taking place at night (and the sky - if you could see it - was definitely not blue) and whether he or she had contemplated that this would be the very day on which Russia would declare war on Georgia (and Prime Minister Putin seemed quite unruffled about that sitting in the section next to us).

The Olympic flame was carried around the stadium, passing between torches being held by eight of China’s most famous former Olympians, and then the final torch bearer – Li Ning who won six medals at the 1984 Olympic Games – was hoisted up on a wire track that enabled him to run around the inside of the top of the stadium to light the Olympic cauldron which had been constructed in the form of a giant scroll torch. The picture below was taken just as the cauldron was lit. You may just be able to pick out Li Ning in the middle of the spotlight to the right of where the flame starts to the right of the cauldron.

And then fireworks exploding in the sky formed the Olympic rings – very impressive:

After the ceremony was over, we headed outside of the stadium to find our bus. There were plenty of student volunteers holding up signs to help us find our way, so despite the large crowds we found our bus very easily (not like in Doha two years ago, at the end of the Asian Games opening ceremony, when nobody had a clue where we had to go!).

As we headed across the plaza to where the buses were parked, the ‘Water Cube’ looked very impressive in the dark.

40 minutes later we were back at the hotel which we had left seven hours earlier, and from there it was a 15 minutes walk down Wangfujing Street to the hotel where we were staying. People were still partying in Wangfujing Street (they had been watching the opening ceremony on big screens) and the beer bars were still open.

It had been a stifling hot night in the stadium and extremely humid. Most people came away with their clothes soaked in perspiration and sticking to their skin, so we stopped for an ice-cream on the way down Wangfujing Street to cool us down (the first time we have ever had ice-cream in Beijing at 1 am in the morning) and then made our way back to the hotel to sleep after a long but enjoyable night.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Torch bearers in Tiananmen Square

This morning John Barton and I had the privilege of carrying the Olympic torch through Tiananmen Square. We were two of 29 foreigners that had been invited to carry the torch in Beijing today after it had arrived overnight from the earthquake-stricken province of Sichuan.

Originally John was going to carry the torch in a province a long way out of Beijing at the end of July, and I was going to carry it in Qinhuangdao on 3 August, but they changed those relays to earlier dates because of the earthquake in Sichuan province, (they wanted to leave Sichuan until last, before Beijing).

Neither of us could change our schedule (it was too late for me to get an earlier flight to Beijing – everything was full) so we asked the organising committee if they could give us slots in Beijing. And a few days ago they confirmed that we could run here.

When we were originally invited to be torch bearers, we thought we would be running about 250 metres like in previous Olympics, but then we heard that the relay slots had been cut back to 100 metres because they were trying to fit in more runners.

But when we got to Tiananmen Square, we found that the relay slots had been cut down to about 30 metres (the committee was probably under pressure to squeeze more people in) so it turned out to be a pretty short run!

There was an opening ceremony to receive the torch in the Forbidden City, and then about eight torch bearers, starting with Beijing Communist Party boss, Liu Qi (who also heads up the Games organising committee), and China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, carried it through the Forbidden City to the Meridien Gate where it was handed to Yao Ming, the Chinese NBA basketball star. He carried it out into Tiananmen Square and then it went once around the perimeter of the square and once around the inside.

John and I were positioned on the eastern side of the square near Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. We arrived on a bus with the other torch bearers, and they dropped us off at 30 metre intervals along the relay route. As we were driving along the relay route, about half a kilometre in front of the torch (at one stage the torch was almost catching us up so we had to speed up) I noticed that all the ‘public’ lining the relay route were dressed in uniforms or had t-shirts on of the same type. There didn’t seem to be any ‘ordinary’ people there.

I learned later that thousands of people had turned up for the torch relay that morning (and hundreds had slept over night in the square to get a good spot) but before the torch relay started, the police had moved them all out of the square and bussed in thousands of people from dance and martial arts clubs, and community groups and associations whose members had been ‘screened and approved’ by the authorities.

Along the road where John and I were positioned, the spectators were all old women (probably from a retirement village or something) who were wearing ordinary street clothes but were all wearing a large badge and waving a Chinese flag.

So we realised then that the whole of the Tiananmen Square torch relay was being stage managed for television. And as the torch passed by the ‘approved’ crowds, the cheering and waving was not necessarily spontaneous, but what they had been told to do and probably had been practicing for months.

That’s not to say that there was anything artificial about the crowds’ enthusiasm, because it was clear to see that they were excited about being there, and it certainly was a great spectacle as the torch was carried through Tiananmen Square.

John was running before me, so he was to pass the flame to me, and then I would take it to the next runner – a Chinese man who told me that he was just a ‘shopkeeper’ (although I wondered whether his ‘shop’ might have been one of those multi-million dollar emporiums that have sprung up around Beijing in recent years).

The organisation of the torch relay was as efficient as it could possibly be. Just prior to being dropped off we were handed our torch, and then as we got off the bus someone checked our uniforms to make sure the Olympic rings were on up the right way (I had my headband upside down), and as John came down the road carrying the torch, one of the escort runners who was running about 10 metres ahead of the torch used a key to turn on the gas cylinder inside my torch.

We had been instructed to pass the flame by holding the torches at a 45 degree angle. We were told that we were not allowed to shake hands, but we could give each other a high-five before I set off on my short run.

We had also been told to ‘smile and look happy’ and to look at the media truck that was in front of us (it had two TV cameras and about a dozen press photographers sitting in the back) as we waved to the crowds.

The atmosphere was electric, so we hardly needed to be asked to ‘smile and look happy’, but I had to keep remembering to look at the media truck.

But it was all over in a flash. It seemed that hardly had I started running, I was approaching the next runner, so had to pass the flame having borne it for probably no more than 15 seconds.

Along came another escort runner who turned off the gas in my torch. He was followed by a bus on which I was ushered. Someone sitting in the front seat of the bus took my torch, opened it and pulled out the gas cylinder, and then gave me back the empty torch.

(We had been told that we could keep our torches, which was very generous of the organising committee because in Athens in 2004, torch bearers had to pay US$250 if they wanted to keep their torch).

After the bus had filled with torch bearers that had done their bit, we headed back to the China People’s Palace Hotel where we had rendezvoused earlier that morning.

I must say that even though the whole thing was stage managed, the enthusiasm of the people involved was impressive. I had read reports about the escort runners pushing and shoving the torch bearers and shouting commands at them to hold the torch higher when the relay was held in other parts of the world, but here in Beijing they were as polite as could be and everyone was saying things like “nice to have you here”, “have a good day” and “hope you enjoy your torch run”.

When we got off the bus at the China People’s Palace Hotel, that was our first encounter with ‘ordinary’ people. A crowd had gathered around the front of the hotel (I guess they wanted to catch glimpses of people like Yao Ming who had rode on the bus along with the other torch bearers). A few came up to us and ask if they could touch our torches, and before long we were surrounded by crowds of people holding onto our torches and having their pictures taken with us. They wouldn’t have had a clue who we were, but must have thought we were someone famous from the western world.

We were asked to autograph caps and t-shirts (whilst people were wearing them) and it took us about half an hour before we could tear ourselves away from the crowd.

I went inside the hotel where the organising committee was providing packing tubes for our torches, and even there I had hotel managers and staff asking to be photographed with me holding the torch. One smartly dressed female manager took off her jacket and asked me to autograph the sleeve of her white silk blouse. I tried to tell her I wasn’t anyone famous, but she didn’t seem to understand and insisted that I deface her crisp white blouse.

It was certainly an experience to be treated like a celebrity – but I don’t think I’d like to be one for real. People grabbing you, pulling you, thrusting caps and pens in your face – I can understand why pop stars and the like get tired of pandering to their fans after a while.

My only regret about the experience is that because the public couldn’t get into Tiananmen Square, neither Lydia nor any of my work colleagues could take a photograph of John and me running – so that was a disappointment, but lots of people said they saw us on live television, so we are hoping someone we know might have recorded it.

Postscript added 23 August:

Today I was given a DVD recording of the Tiananmen Square torch relay, so at least I was able to get a few screen shots off it (see below) to keep as souvenirs. The quality is not very good, but it’s better than nothing.

I’ve uploaded two shots of John first as he came before me (he was runner No 95), followed by two of me (I was runner No 96).

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Smog, fog or ‘humidity haze’

The haze is back in Beijing. At the weekend the China Daily was rejoicing about how all the anti-pollution measures had worked (we had one and a half days of fairly clear skies over the weekend) but on Monday the skies were grey again and visibility was down to about one kilometre.

The China Daily didn’t mention anything about the haze yesterday, but today carried a story acknowledging that the haze was back, and criticising the western media for calling it ‘smog’.

A spokesman for the Chinese government was quoted as saying that the air was safe to breathe as it was in the 50-100 ‘moderate’ bracket on the pollution scale and that it was not ‘smog’ but a ‘humidity haze’.

In a story in the South China Morning Post (a Hong Kong daily that is not controlled by the Chinese government) environmental activists accused Beijing of fudging the figures and claiming that their own measurements showed that the air was in a ‘danger’ zone above 250.

So who do you believe?

Based on my own experience of living in Kuala Lumpur and experiencing smoke haze for 11 years from the illegal burning of rainforests in Indonesia, the present haze seems to me to be something around the 150 level. So maybe both the Chinese authorities and environmentalists are fudging the figures a bit.

Where the Chinese government loses credibility is the fact that any reading under 100 is classified as a “blue sky day” – yet there has not been a hint of blue in the sky since the weekend (see picture below).

If the above is classified by the Chinese government as a “blue sky day” then I guess some people might think that the government is trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

A government official was only yesterday proudly announcing that Beijing had had 154 “blue sky days” this year. Now it’s 155 – but I wonder on how many of those 155 days the sky looked like that in the picture above.

If the government was a little more honest about what is blue and what is grey, then maybe people would start to believe their pollution readings.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Beijing spick and span for the Olympics

After catching up with a backlog of emails this morning, I took a stroll down Wangfujing Street to find somewhere for lunch. I could hardly recognise parts of the street. Many of the old buildings have disappeared and have been replaced by new shops and large billboards promoting the Olympics. On one side of the street there are flashy new 5-6 storey department stores, but on the other side there are blocks of 1-2 storey shops which look like they have only been built temporarily to support large Olympics billboards (see pictures below). Behind them are vacant lots, so I suppose they will be torn down after the Olympics for more permanent buildings.

I am sure there used to be large trees along both sides of the part of the street pictured above. All those have gone so it looks like everything was razed to the ground for the new developments (although at least they have planted some saplings in their place). Walking along this part of the street where there is no shade, it is noticeable how hot it is compared to walking one block further north where the original street trees remain. It’s a good example of how much the presence of street trees can help keep pedestrians cool in a hot and humid summer climate like Beijing’s.

Further south down Wangfujing Street (which is the main shopping street in central Beijing), towards the junction with Chang’an Avenue, many temporary cafes have been erected in the pedestrian mall section – actually they are more beer bars and drink stands because I couldn’t see any of them serving food – but they give the street a more cosmopolitan atmosphere – something that Beijing lacks.

The whole city is looking spick and span for the Olympics. The gleaming new airport terminal – the largest in the world – is a sight to behold, and there is a brand new six-lane freeway in from the airport on which the asphalt seems only to have just dried. There are beds of flowers everywhere, street sweepers in Olympic uniforms are ensuring that the streets are clean, the beggars have been run out of town along with the DVD peddlers, and there are no prostitutes hanging around the hotels. Beijing has certainly cleaned up its act!

All the city needs now is some clean air. After taking half the cars off the road, and closing factories for hundreds of miles around, Beijing’s air was looking better this weekend than I have seen it for years – but the August humidity is still stifling, so I wonder how the athletes in the endurance events are going to cope next week.

I read a rather amusing story in the Asian Wall Street Journal this morning. Apparently the Beijing Municipal Council has issued a booklet telling its citizens how to behave during the Olympics. It includes some advice on how to dress, recommending that people do not wear their pajamas in the street, and not to wear white socks with black shoes.

I only saw a couple of old women wearing their pajamas on my walk down Wangfujing Street, and nobody wearing white socks with black shoes, so it looks like most of Beijing’s citizens are taking heed of their Council’s advice.

Maybe the Council should also include in their advice that it is not polite to mow down foreign tourists on pedestrian crossings. It seems that one thing that hasn’t changed in Beijing is that the pedestrians still cross the road on the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign and the drivers still cross the crossings on the red lights.

The locals seem to have dodging the traffic on pedestrian crossings down to a fine art, but several times today I saw foreign tourists who had dutifully waited for the green ‘Walk’ sign, only to freeze in fear halfway across the road as a trolley bus bore through a red light with its horns blasting, sending the pedestrians scattering in all directions.

Friday, August 01, 2008

China relaxes its Internet censorship – for now

Surprise, surprise! I can access my blog from China – the first time I have been able to do that ever since I started my blog on – it seems the Chinese have kept their word to ease restrictions on Internet censorship during the Olympic Games.

It’s not completely open, but there’s a lot less censorship than there has been in the past.

I said “surprise, surprise” because I didn’t expect to be able to access my blog after reading the South China Morning Post during a transit in Hong Kong yesterday. The SCMP carried a story on its front page stating that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had admitted to cutting a deal with China to censor the Internet during the Games.

And it said that the chairman of the IOC’s press commission, Kevan Gosper, had apologised for misleading foreign journalists about press freedom during the Games during an interview with the SCMP.

Since the Games were awarded to China seven years ago, Mr Gosper, IOC President Jacques Rogge, and Chinese officials have many times promised that there would be uncensored access to the Internet during the Beijing Olympics. But Mr Gosper was quoted as saying two days ago: “If you have been misled by what I have told you about there being free Internet access during the Games, then I apologise. I am disappointed the access is not wider. But I can’t tell the Chinese what to do. You are dealing with a communist country that has censorship. You are getting what they say you can have.”

I got to my hotel only about 2.00 am this morning, after my Dragonair flight from Hong Kong was delayed, so didn’t get around to logging onto the Internet until late this morning. And by then, I discovered, a lot had changed in the previous 24 hours and many Internet sites that had been blocked up until the previous day were now accessible.

During that 24 hour period, most international news services and newspapers had been hammering the Chinese government over its Internet restrictions.

And by the time I logged on this morning it seems that the government had bowed to all the pressure and had relaxed many of its restrictions. However, the government didn’t make any announcement on the issue, and a spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), Sun Weide, was quoted as declining to confirm whether there had been a change in policy.

BBC News reported that its Chinese language news site was now accessible, along with Voice of America. The International Herald Tribune reported that the Radio Free Asia website had been unblocked, along with those of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Websites mentioning a certain spiritual movement whose activities are banned in China were still being blocked (I daren’t mention their name otherwise the Chinese filters might block my blog) as well as some pages on Wikipedia*.

Although the government was keeping mum on the issue, my guess is that they decided that having the international press spend the week leading up to the Games complaining about not being able to access their news sites would take a lot of the ‘glory’ away from hosting the Games and prompt the media to write more negative stories about China.

I expect that seeing front page stories in the South China Morning Post criticising China’s censorship of the Internet, one week out from the opening ceremony, was not what the government was expecting by way of publicity in the lead up to the Games.

I don’t expect the government will admit to backing down (that’s not the Chinese way), but by relaxing the censorship for a couple of weeks - but not actually admitting that they have done it - is a good way of ‘saving face’, even if it does mean that some Chinese citizens get to read a few stories that the government doesn’t really want them to see.

But I would also guess that the shutters will go up again on 25 August - the day after the Games finish.

*Out of curiosity I looked up the section in Wikipedia on ‘Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China’ to see if they had an updated story on the developments of the last 24 hours. I was able to log onto Wikipedia okay, but when I went to the China page, it was blocked. And then when I tried to log onto other Wikipedia pages, they were also blocked – so it seems my attempt to read the China page had triggered some sort of blocking mechanism directed at my computer. But fortunately when I tried some non-controversial pages later in the day, I was able to gain access again, so I decided not to tempt fate and have since stayed away from any pages on Wikipedia that might trigger the blocking mechanism for fear of it restricting my Internet access for the next four weeks.