|So what do I really think after 11 days in Beijing at the Summer Olympics? Sitting at 36,000 feet in the middle of the night somewhere over the North Pacific is as good a time as any to download impressions of my maiden trip to China, the most populous country on the planet. I have titled this blog “Made In China,” because just about everything else seems to be.
But before I dish my “Top 5” lists, I owe the imperial city of Beijing an apology. On our final full day in the Chinese capital, the true Beijing, the one visitors rave about in spring when the cherry trees blossom, or in the fall when the air turns crisp and the skies sparkle, was simply glorious. For more than a week, I had whined about the insufferable humidity, the dawn-to-dusk, steel gray skies and the tofu thick air. I painted a picture of a city in need of one gigantic facemask. But, just in time for the start of Olympic track and field events and, more importantly, in time for this California journalist to see Beijing in a new light (and yes, that was real sunshine and honest-to-goodness blue overhead) the weather took an unexpected and welcomed turn. It was a glorious final two days in Beijing as we walked the Olympic Green with tens of thousands of spectators, most of whom seem to be snapping pictures. It was refreshing not to be perspiring like a cold can beer in the hot sun. Beijing is indeed beautiful and the skies are truly blue and I am thankful to have seen its best face.
With apologies delivered – and I hope accepted by my many new Beijing friends who are reading this – here are my “Top 5…”
BEST BEIJING MOMENTS…
• Stepping off the plane at Beijing Capital International Airport. The stunning $2 billion makeover of the airport was completed in February. Using 50,000 workers, a half-million ton of steel and 2 million tons of concrete, Terminal 3 is the centerpiece of this architectural wonder that stretches 1.8 miles in length and offers retail that rivals South Coast Plaza.
• Trying to flag down not one, but two cabs in a driving thunderstorm outside the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium at rush hour. Wearing a plastic poncho and wading in nearly two feet of water, I needed wiper blades for my glasses and my son needed fins. We were two soggy Californians looking very much out of place. The four-door taxis are so small that the five-member Team Churm always needed two cabs. My wife and I apparently didn’t listen to Mao and his one-child per family edict.
• Standing in my hotel elevator when NBA superstar Chris Bosch stepped in. I’m 6-1, 195 pounds (no comments, please) and I felt like a midget next to the 6-11, 235 pound All-Star who is a member of the Team U.S.A. Olympic team. Imagine how most Chinese feel next to Howard, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the “Dream Team,” all of who were encamped on the upper floors of our hotel in Beijing’s Financial District. NBA stars are like Greek Gods to the Chinese, who last year built 70,000 basketball courts at elementary and secondary schools and plan to construct another 600,000 in the next five years. It was heaven for a hoops junkie like me, if not a bit intimidating.
• Walking on the Great Wall. At the risk of swollen hyperbole, it’s a breathtaking, and then some. I can’t begin to fathom how this 4,000 mile long brick barrier was built in terrain that no clear-thinking mountain goat would ever scale.
• Shedding tears as I sang the national anthem during the gold medal ceremony at the National Gymnasium, minutes after American gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson finished 1-2 in the women’s individual competition. Half way around the world from home, in a city where Chinese nationalism is strong, loud and on constant display at The Games, a sense of deep pride and privilege at being an American was hard to hide.
• All the dim sum, chicken fried rice, Won Ton soup and watermelon I could eat from the breakfast buffet at the Intercontinental Hotel. Oh, they had scrambled eggs, pancakes and bacon. But what’s the point? My wife isn’t conditioned to serve stir-fry for Sunday brunch, so I went for it in Beijing. And, I wasn’t the only Churm having sautéed Chinese vegetables for breakfast. "Pass the soy sauce” replaced "pass the cream" at our daily Olympic training table.
• Speaking of breakfast, my daughter Carli rated the bake beans (need your daily dose of legumes, right?) as some of the best ever. Her morning Beijing menu just might become a new diet fad: Fresh brewed breakfast tea, a bowl of corn flakes, kiwi and melon and two helpings of baked beans. She must get those taste buds from her mother’s side of the family.
• McDonalds on Day No. 8 of our Olympic odyssey. As we learned again, the Golden Arches is the same in any land – predictable and welcomed. Hold the soy; just extra ketchup, please, as the Churms devoured nearly a dozen 99-cent cheeseburgers on the Olympic Green at the biggest Mickey D’s I’ve ever set foot in.
• Biscuits, Snickers and Tsingtao beer at the Olympic venues. For many Americans, a live sporting event is as much about the Grande Nachos and barbecue tri-tip sandwiches as the game itself. Not in China. The fare at Olympic venues consisted of crackers in a box (known as biscuits), Snickers (the official Olympic candy bar) and warm beer or sodas. Oh, yes, they did serve hot dogs – on a stick, cold and no bun. No wonder the Chinese are thin. There was nothing to eat while watching the events.
• Scorpion or centipede on a stick. Considered a source of protein and sold at street carts, we never indulged. But do I get points for contemplating it?
• Fruits and vegetables were unbelievable and fresh.
* Olympic-size construction. From the lacy tangle of steel twigs that formed Beijing’s National Stadium (nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest”) to the National Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”), the city’s subway system and the endless high rise apartments, Beijing has been the world’s largest construction zone during the past decade and it shows. China spent $43 billion preparing for The Games and the great news is most of it was on buildings and infrastructure that will last well into the next century.
* Peking University, site of the Olympic table tennis, is one of the most peaceful settings in Beijing. Founded in 1898, the university, with his stately brick buildings and tree-lined bike paths, could be mistaken for any Ivy League school.
* The cleanliness of Beijing. Aside from the murky (substitute polluted if you like) air quality during the first week-plus of our trip, Beijing itself is remarkably litter-free. Compared to other great world cities, there was hardly a bottle or scrap of paper to be found on the streets or sidewalks. Maybe it was the Olympics and a push for positive press, but Beijiners did one heck of a good job polishing the look of this city of 17 million residents.
* Security. The post-9/11 world we live in requires it in heavy doses. You could not move in Beijing (the Olympic venues, the subways and even our hotel) without having your backpack searched, your ID checked or passing through an X-ray machine. It clearly put a damper on things and limited access and the spontaneity in terms of celebrations and gatherings that have long made the Olympics one of the world’s great parties every four years.
* The Beijing people. The Chinese are deeply proud of hosting the Olympics and they worked overtime to make sure as foreigners our stay was as comfortable and special as possible. On every corner, at every Olympic venue and at every turn in this vast city, people wanted to help. Countless times Beijiners would approach with a smile as we tried to decipher our maps. We felt safer and more welcomed in Beijing than many U.S. cities.
Two final thoughts: Our hearts are still saddened by the senseless and random death of Todd Bachman, father-in-law of Hugh McCutcheon, head coach of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Men’s Volleyball Team. Bachman was killed and his wife seriously injured on the second day of The Games by a Chinese national who then took his own life. Thankfully, Barbara Bachman is recovering. The Bachman’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Hugh, have become friends and their loss touched our family.
And lastly, this trip was about family for me. I was fortunate enough to have my wife, Cinda, and our 3 children, Katie, Carli and Logan, along for this Olympic quest. We laughed, hugged and made memories for a lifetime together. I arrived back on U.S. soil tried, safe and very secure knowing that I have the best of all worlds when surrounded by my family.
Team Churm visits the Temple of Heaven in central Beijing.
Blue skies return to the Olympic Green and the Bird's Nest.
There was no shortage of spectators.
Two admirers go face-to-face with a bigger than life Olympic hero Michael Phelps.
The Chinese spent $2 billion to renovate Beijing Capital International Airport and it shows.
Team Churm on one stretch of the 4,000-mile-long Great Wall.
Blue skies finally appeared over the Olympic press center.
It was the people of China that made our Olympic Odyssey so special.
The Golden Arches means food in any language.