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Sunday, Aug 17 - Zoo, USA House, Gymnastics

Originally published at Andy Does Beijing. You can comment here or there.

Lions, Tigers, and … Pandas?

We hopped along to breakfast at 7:30 so that head out at 8:00 8:15 on the tour bus for an optional trip to the (as Karen put it) the ZOOOOOooooo! (I was about ready to stab her because she wouldn’t stop saying “ZOOOOOooooo!”)

Panda panda panda The Beijing Zoo is currently housing a special exhibit for the Olympics, the Olympic Panda House. (They have an Asian Games Panda House, too, left over from back then.) Eight more pandas came to the Zoo to live in a newly built house, which includes a pretty large play / viewing area for the pandas (and the people), a store with lots of cute, fuzzy, stuffed pandas, and an upstairs with a photo gallery and a science fair-style set of informational panels on raising and keeping pandas. A couple of facilities are built to house pandas and allow people to tend to them, where interns get to “love train” the pandas: feed them, maintain eye contact, and cuddle with the pandas. Best job ever!

Intern: “Here, Jingwu, time for your bamboo stick!”
Jingwu: [Lumbers over clumsily]
Intern: “Cuddle time!”
Jingwu: *om nom nom nom*
Intern: “Awwwww.”

The pandas are pretty cute, but they don’t really do much; they kinda just sit around, munch on bamboo, and clamber around on the play structure. I’m not really sure why the panda mania, so after I took my pictures and wandered around the panda house once, I started to scope out the exits. It took me two times around the houses to figure out that I had to go back through the entrance, and then I got to check out the rest of the zoo. They had a canine section (wolves, coyotes, etc.) who didn’t really look impressed with their cages. They paced an awful lot. In the human cage, I also saw two USA boxers — they were wearing USA Boxers and their ID tags. (Anybody who’s associated with the Games wears an ID tag in a plastic sleeve on a lanyard; the ID tag has name, photo, country, position, and a barcode. Since everyone has to wear them at the Games and on public transportation, so they just end up wearing them all the time.)

The zoo also housed some groovy other animals: Chinese porcupine; lions, tigers, and jaguars; rhinos and elephants; giraffes; basically, the usual complement of zoo animals. I was struck by the variety of living areas provided to the animals. The elephants, rhinos, and hippopotami had pretty homey areas that seemed to suit them fine; but the house for the lions and tigers was a smelly, high-ceiling vault with bars keeping the humans in the middle and the animals in their very simple 8-by-12 rooms. I suppose it suits them, but I’m more accustomed to seeing naturalistic habitats for them.

Other cool features in the zoo: thirty foot tall tiger statue outside the lion & tiger house. Seriously — huge frickin hunk of metal tiger. RAWR! Furthermore, penguin house that costed an extra 10元 ($1.50) and more time, so we skipped it. There was also a very nice lake built into the campus with weeping willows all about it, along with benches in their shade. The paths were lots of curves and a few straight roads.

Team USA! amazing awaits

No, seriously, amazing awaits is the motto of the USA House slash USA team. “amazing awaits” was printed in lowercase on the entrance to the fortress restaurant / house. “amazing awaits” was printed in lowercase on the press materials. “amazing awaits” was printed in lowercase on the backdrop for the TV area. “amazing awaits” is a pretty cool tagline, I’d think.

Each major country hosts a House — the Holland House, the China House, the USA House, etc. It’s a chill-out slash meet-up place for the athletes, family, and countrymen. The Holland House is public, you can just drop by and hang out — the Nederlanders are cool like that. The China House is pretty locked up, well-protected. The USA House, you can either get in comped as an athlete, athlete family, some US media, and athlete guest; or you can come as a day guest and pay $50 or $70 for lunch or dinner. Once you’ve been an Olympian athlete, you’re always an Olympian athlete; so Tiffany, our TA, has an official USA Olympian pass for Beijing 2008 and access to the house. That means she can bring guests; i.e., us! She extended the invitation to about half of us over the month, people she knew would be pretty stoked to hobnob with the athletes and be cool about it.

The USA House is over by the Worker’s Stadium. It’s a restaurant/club which was built a coupla years ago and was pretty cool, but then got run down; the USA House hospitality team came a few months back and had to redo a lot of the house to its current, glorious state. Now you walk in to be greeted at a reception desk / cashier; to your left is a limited (but open) bar; and before you are an assortment of square tables and wide open spaces, behind which you find the buffet areas. Beyond that is a patio with a grill area, staffed by an Aramark cook. To your right is a small patio/courtyard holding several more tables and two massage chairs; also, the masseur and masseuse. Around the other side from the massage area is a coffee bar with wireless access and laptops to borrow (in exchange for a token, like your driver’s license). Downstairs is a media area, for making speeches; the USA House store (selling all the gear found at USAOlympian.org); and another bar. All around the house were large flat-screen TVs showing the DX channels, the direct high-def cable feed from the Games. I didn’t go upstairs, but I hear it was all quite brilliant. Also, this girl Kate Sirolly, who knows a guy in my Chinese class, is working catering for the house, so she gets to meet see everyone.

The place is generally genial, lots of Americans wandering around and some Chinese staff (although with a lot of the Asians in there, you can’t tell if they’re American or Chinese until they open their mouths). Anybody who’s there is probably significant in some way, so they’re all self-assured and just make nice small talk about the game. We ran into Michelle Kwan, the skater, who happened to be Tiff’s roommate back at the Salt Lake 2002 Olympics, and chatted with her a bit. There were some other important names we were near, but I don’t really remember. Some black guy who won the hurdles or the long jump or something back in the ’60s, he was giving a speech when we walked in. Oh, and the cookies were delicious. De-lish-ous.

We hung out there for a bit, watched the USA women’s volleyball team win (we cheered), until Tiffany picked up a bundle of tickets she was buying from another American for all of us. In the package was an offer for gymnastics tickets for that evening, which were finals — for $25! We snapped them up and ditched the house at quarter to six for the event.

On the Floor

I’m sure everyone saw the gymnastics finals on the tee-vee, of course, because artistic gymnastics is obviously the win in the entire Olympics. At least, we think so =p Tonight was finals, which meant medals ceremonies, and they sure chugged right through them: ceremonies immediately followed the event (as soon as they set up the risers for the athletes to stand on). We saw men and women’s floor exercises, women’s vault, and men’s pommel horse. They all performed marvellously, except that the women in vault were a touch sloppy on their landings. (Nonetheless, they performed crazy difficult vaults, so we’ll forgive them a little bobble at the end.)

What you probably don’t see on TV is all the set-up/behind-the-scene business. It’s all out there for us to see, the multitude of volunteers on the floor making sure things go smoothly. They delegate tasks out like mad to the volunteers and then (it looks like) train them heavily. The volunteers do their jobs efficiently, professionally, almost militarily. To set up the medalists’ stands, a group of eight boys (in their cute blue volunteer uniform polo and khakis) carry in a set of four yellow blocks in time, set them down together, and rig it all up. When it’s set up, they execute a right face and march back off-stage, arms swinging in time. It’s half groovy, half silly to watch. I feel like a bit of the communist ethos shows through in these displays of youth militarism: strong young men, all equal and similar, working in unison to create a great work for the social good. The other volunteers I see, who interact directly with the public (the “spectators,” as they say in the Olympic parlance), are a slightly different flavor: the attractive, youthful faces of Beijing, pure and socially-minded. They’re all very helpful, cheerful, well-dressed, but still individualistic; and in sum, they put a bright, happy facade on the Games, as it ought to have. Yay Beijing PR team!

Incidentally, there’s about a billion and a half volunteer staffers, only a coupla hundred of whom end up on the telly (i.e. the kids who work the games themselves). Every entrance has at least two or three volunteers — that means the main entrances to the large parks with the metal detectors; the entrances to the actual venues where they check your ticket; the doors into the venues; and finally the entrances to the arenas themselves (where they tell you where to sit). At umbrellas and various other points along the walkways, volunteers are available to answer questions and take pictures. Those volunteers even have other volunteers as support staff, running around water and encouragement. Elsewhere are volunteers selling food at the food & bev kiosks and tents in each venue and around the parks, volunteers selling Olympic merchandise at the boutiques, and volunteers selling tickets at the ticket kiosks. Behind the scenes are other volunteers working inside, out of view to the public. It’s an amazing operation — also, an awful lot of blue Olympic polos, baseball caps, bucket hats, khakis, and yellow fanny packs. They have to supply their own shoes, which is just as well =)

Volunteers aside, gymnastics was pretty hot. Our seats were up in the second tier balcony, so we had a good view of all the events (especially the vault, which was closest to us), the scoreboards, and the flags. The best bit was the women’s floor exercises (my favorite event, anyway), when two of the Americans led the scoreboard until the closer, a Romanian, took the gold. Christina was a little irritated — we were hoping to hear the American National Anthem before we left, but no such luck. Nonetheless, I scored a sweet shot of two American flags side-by-side on my camera phone (since all three of our cameras had run out of power). New phone wallpaper!

Chao-ZI!

Coming home from the competition, we three decided we wanted to eat dumplings. Dumpling dumpling dumplings! We asked a volunteer where we could eat, but they weren’t familiar with the area outside the venue. They did teach Tiffany the word for dumplings, so Tiff just kept saying “chao-ZI!” the whole way home. We walked for a few blocks from the venue, but didn’t find anywhere to eat. We found the highway instead, so we just hailed a cab and headed home to eat at the market near our hotel.

Nobody was there. Sunday night is supposed to be the hopping night on the town, but there were maybe a dozen people out there (including half a dozen guys selling food). None of them had any dumplings, but they pointed us across the street to a little restaurant which had similar snack food — and dumplings! Asking them for the food was difficult, though, because the girl who was talking to us (who looked about 17yo) kept talking too quickly for me to understand, even after I told her my Chinese wasn’t any good. We were rescued by some college-aged guys who were also coming in for a bite and some brewskies, who translated food words for us. We ended up with two plates of cheap dumplings: one chicken, one vegetable. A little oily, probably not too good for us, but they were yummy and went down well with a 40 of Yanjing 啤酒.

A great day, hanging out with Tiffany and Christina and trading gossip, fun stories, good times, and good food! Life in Beijing and at the Olympics? Sweet deal.

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