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Ni Howdy! Romanian president calling

Aug. 18, 2008, 3:20 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Ni Howdy! AP's Warren Levinson, who is covering his 8th Olympic games, is blogging daily about the sights and sounds of the host city.


MONDAY, Aug. 18, 2008

This is a mostly tourist blog, but one is occasionally pressed into service as a sports reporter, as on Sunday night at four gymnastics event finals. We were backstage trying to wring a few quotes from Sandra Izbasa, who had just won gold in floor exercise. Not so easy; her English is limited and our Romish is nonexistent. Then she raised a cell phone to her ear.

"Who's on the phone?" I asked.

"My president," she replied.

End of interview.

I don't know where we rank on the food chain, but Romanian president Traian Basescu is definitely higher.


SUNDAY, Aug. 17, 2008

The thing about a police state is they don't stint on the police. A hundred thousand Chinese soldiers are backed up by extra national police in the Olympic city. And their numbers are supplemented by red armband-wearing security volunteers. Most are elderly residents, sitting on low chairs in the neighborhoods, keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary.

And then there are the overpass cops.

On virtually every highway bridge and pedestrian crossing in this town, there is 24-hour security, either regular police or volunteers. Not just close to the Olympic sites. Everywhere. At least, I assume 24 hours everywhere, because I have been keeping very late hours and my incompetent reading of the map has had me bicycling through some far-flung spots.

But a volunteer still has to make a living.

In the warren of underpasses at the Madian Bridge, where the Badaling Expressway crosses the Third Ring Road, I discovered a barber, red armband and all, plying his trade while he kept an eye out for suspicious characters. Bahom was finishing up with an elderly gentleman when I happened by, and after considering it briefly, I asked him, mainly through gestures, to do me.

I mean, I'm not exactly Percy Shelley; there's not much to ruin. Communication was limited; I can't say "layer it, please" in Mandarin. But he did a nice job, especially considering that he's working with a folding chair and clippers powered by a battery in his bicycle basket. A better job than the one I got from a surly girl at Supercuts back home a couple of weeks ago. OK, I didn't mean for him to shave the three-day stubble I've been maintaining, especially not with cold water and a not-so-sharp razor. But it'll grow back in three days.

Meanwhile, he wouldn't take money, so I can't report on what an underpass haircut costs in Beijing. I gave him an AP Olympics pin.


SUNDAY, Aug. 17, 2008

Chinese massage is offered pretty much everywhere, judging from the number of businesses that advertise it around town. The sign on one not far from the Olympic park promises: Massage by Blind Masseurs. Anyone care to take a crack at what that's about?


FRIDAY, Aug. 15, 2008

There are some ways you go native and some ways you don't.

Eating with chopsticks, even when breakfast is sausage and eggs? I can do that.

Rolling your shirt up to the nipple line to keep cool in the Beijing heat?


Actually, the city went on a campaign to get the locals to stop altogether. It was part of the same etiquette offensive that seeks to keep Beijingers from spitting and get them to line up and wait their turn.

But men with exposed midriffs have resisted the drive to get them to cover up. Young men, old men, fat men, thin men.

Not this man, even though it has been awfully hot. Didn't bring enough sunscreen. And today, we actually did have sun. Our first after almost a full week of smoggy haze.


THURSDAY, Aug. 14, 2008

A note about yesterday's visit with Jen Lin-Liu, in which she was puzzling over why the Chinese had turned back copies of her culinary and cultural tour, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China.

Reader Tyler Haglund points out that Serve the People! is also the title of Chinese writer Yan Lianke's sexy satire of life in the People's Liberation Army. It's banned in China. Mr. Haglund suggests that the overworked mail-openers at the border probably didn't bother to make the distinction. Thanks for the clarification.

Here's a look at both:




THURSDAY, Aug. 14, 2008

Consider this my apology to the Chinese food delivery men of New York.

Mike Noble, the announcer here for team handball, has been riding a bicycle around Beijing during the games. He gave me a few pointers about how to ride against traffic, "which you will have to do occasionally."

Maybe you, I thought. Not me.

In New York, I save my sternest approbation for cyclists coming at me as they ride against traffic.

I don't say anything, but I try to sneer. I try to convey with a look: You moron! They should take your bike away!

Bearers of takeout are far from the worst offenders, but they're disproportionately represented.

Now after a few days in the minuet that is Beijing traffic, I realize riding the wrong way is not only necessary (I have to do it to get home or make a half-dozen complicated turns), it's culturally ingrained.

Dui bu qi! Sorry!

I'm not making any promises, but I'll try not to sneer when I get back.


WEDNESDAY, Aug. 13, 2008

One of the great things about foreign travel is catching up with old friends and colleagues in distant places.

Jen Lin-Liu, who was a Newsweek on Air intern when I co-hosted that radio show in the '90s, is all grown up now. She's a writer and cooking teacher who's been living in China since 2000, when she came here on a Fulbright Fellowship.

She made us lunch at her cooking studio in the Black Sesame Hutong (nothing fancy, salmon and fried rice, but a home-cooked meal at the Olympics is as rare as a bicycle helmet in Beijing), where we caught up and she talked about the security crackdown that makes the capital feel like a ghost town to its residents.

"They've made restaurants put up signs that say 'No Gambling, No Prostitution,'" she reports. "One of my restaurant owner friends says, 'I'm not going to put those up. People are going to start wondering, Do I have gambling? Do I have prostitution?'"

Jen's felt the sting of police state tactics herself. She had the publisher of her new book, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, ship her copies to give friends here, only to have the authorities ship them back. Not "authorized material" was the only explanation.

By the way, a lot has been said about the suspension of all construction projects in order to project the image of an orderly city. That includes home renovations, a Chinese passion. They're on hold until after the Paralympics next month.


WEDNESDAY, Aug. 13, 2008

So what was that?

The tank ok, armored personnel carrier that was parked out front of the main press center yesterday is gone.

I know it was there. I sent a snapshot home of me posing with it.

No word from the Chinese on why they took it away, or why it was there in the first place.

Was there a real threat, now passed? (The two machine-gun toting guards posted yesterday are still there.)

Was it an advertisement? Was the Chinese military letting the international arms bazaar know what surplus equipment it has for sale? Certainly the government knew that an APC with a half-dozen troops parked in front of 25,000 journalists would immediately become the most photographed bit of military hardware in the world.

Today the commercial is over. The mystery lingers.


WEDNESDAY, Aug. 13, 2008

Here's a scene that will be repeated in millions of Chinese living rooms where Olympic vacation photos are displayed.

"Wow, that Bird's Nest is really something! But what's that gray, filmy stuff in the foreground?"

The organizers, in their infinite wisdom, have closed the Olympic Park - the park they boast is the biggest in Olympic history to all but ticket holders to events.

So that means, at least until track and field starts, that the place is empty.

The Chinese are anxious to control everything, fearing real violence and some student wrapped in a Tibetan flag falling down in a puddle of fake blood.

So to be on the safe side, it's ticket holders only. And instead of a vast, open promenade, it's thousands of noses and cameras pressed up against the security fence.


WEDNESDAY, Aug. 13, 2008

I have joined the army of bicyclists thronging Beijing's streets. I bought a single-speed Giant without a bell, but brakes that, so far, squeal like a baby elephant going though a blender. How long could I watch people riding bikes without joining them?

Some observations:

They ride slow here. I like to go faster. Does this make people think I am stupid or rude? After one day, I haven't decided.

This is an enormously complicated city. I navigated my way successfully from my accommodations to Tiananmen Square and back in the morning, but got disastrously lost (even with a map!) making the same trip in the afternoon.

No one wears a helmet. I saw three other people in helmets Tuesday. Two were foreigners on rental bikes.

Intersections are a fascinating ballet in which bikes seem to drift around the cars and pedestrians. For autos, right on red means right now on red no watching for walkers or cyclists. For everyone else, the traffic light is advisory only. If you can make it, you go. Slowly.

There are miles and miles of separated bike lines, but they are regularly ignored by drivers and pedestrians. The former treat them like an extension of the roadway; the latter like part of the sidewalk. Sometimes the safest way to get somewhere is to pull into the motor traffic lanes.

It isn't that hard to negotiate Beijing traffic by bike if you're an experienced urban cyclist. I don't recommend learning to ride here, any more than I would suggest you take up swimming by trying the shark tank at Sea World.

One more thing: want to buy my bike? Half price on August 24th. About $50, lock included.


TUESDAY, Aug. 12, 2008

The thing about foreign languages is that they sound so, well, foreign.

To an outsider, everything said in French or Italian tends to sound more romantic than it really is. Everything in German seems to sound more threatening. In Mandarin, it's the volume that's exotic.

At an early morning fruit and vegetable market in a narrow alley near the Forbidden City, buyers press in on heaps of peaches, beans, tomatoes, celery and yams, conducting transactions at a volume that would deafen a trader on the Chicago Merc.

To the outsider, it sounds like this:

"You moron! I curse your ancestors to the eighteenth generation!"

But he's really saying, "Hey! Try the cauliflower! It's really good today!"


MONDAY, Aug. 11, 2008

How eager are the Chinese to please?

"Hello!" sang out a voice at my elbow as I was waiting to cross a busy street. "My name is Ivy! Where are you from?"

Ivy was an eager volunteer who's taking time from an office job to work for the Business Club of Australia, an arm of the government in Canberra. She was so sweet, I did not have the heart to tell her that while her English was good, it was a little like talking to an audio tour.

"New York! New York is also called the Big Apple. New York, New York. The city is so nice, they named it twice. Many young people enjoy living in New York. There are always exciting things to do. They can go to the theater, to concerts and the museums any time."

I was looking for a shop where I could buy a bicycle. She took me to a supermarket. They didn't have any.

Just between you and me, I was relieved. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable riding in Beijing traffic on something purchased between the beans and the bok choy.


SUNDAY, Aug. 10, 2008

If you've ever browsed the fake designer goods on the streets of a big American city, visiting Beijing's Panjiayuan market is like tracing the Knockoff Nile to its source. The monster flea market is bursting with jewelry, scarves, purses, artwork, pretend antiques, toys, musical instruments ... I could go on. The tradition at this flea market is you haggle, which, when I'm feeling bold, I'm sort of good at and when I'm feeling shy, not so much.

Sunday was a shy day.

I fingered a dining table runner (sorry, honey, I was too overwhelmed to even focus on jewelry) and immediately the overfriendly proprietor was on me with a price, punched into a calculator. About $100. I shook my head and walked away -- isn't that how you haggle? indicate you're ready to walk? -- but she came after me, insisting on a counterproposal. I lowballed it. She made the international symbol for "you insult me and generations of my ancestors with your offer." I walked again and we were off. My favorite part of the negotiation was how she reached down to the floor to indicate how low she was willing to go.

Eventually, it was $45 and I'm sure I overpaid, despite her sign language demonstrating how elaborately the item was made. "Sewn!" was her one word of English. Still, it's a nice piece, and it will look good in our dining room -- or someone else's if my wife overrules my taste, as is her spousal prerogative.

Next week I'll go back for the jewelry.


SUNDAY, Aug. 10, 2008

I don't want to insult the New York City subway, which has made great strides after hitting bottom 30 years ago. But by comparison, the Beijing subway rocks.

For 2 yuan -- about 35 cents -- it's a smooth, quiet ride. With video. My train was showing Olympic highlights, interspersed with commercials for the subway. Thankfully, no sound.

One thing the New York and Beijing subways have in common is public address announcements in Mandarin. At least I assume it's Mandarin in New York. How else do you explain the noises that come out of the PA system on the R train?


FRIDAY, Aug. 8, 2008

It's probably just me, but the thing that may stand out in my mind about the Olympics opening ceremony isn't going to be Li Ning's spectacular Peter Pan act lighting the cauldron.

Or the 2,008 drummers, chanting and drumming on their ancient instruments in perfect unison.

Or the flashing light suits. Or the spacewalkers and the giant globe.

It's those wind machines.

When the Chinese flag was raised early in the ceremony, it snapped smartly in the breeze for the rest of the evening. So did the Olympic flag when they ran that one up the flagpole near the end.

Only there was no breeze. The air was hot, humid and utterly still, as it's been for most of the last week. It's starting to get the asbestos-like smell of a bad brake job. The way things are going, no one's going to have to worry about wind-aided track records.

Now, I know the Olympic opening ceremony isn't exactly a documentary. That Chinese scroll painting wasn't discovered by dancers rolling across a sheet with brushes attached to their hands and feet.

I know the Chinese have been doing their best to control the weather, trying to make it rain and not rain on command.

But still. There were 91,000 hot, sweaty spectators.

You had all that extra wind, and you couldn't blow any on us?


FRIDAY, Aug. 8, 2008

This is probably an easy target: Weird translations of Chinese business names into English. Still, I couldn't resist this one, on a Beijing beauty parlor.

"Focusing attention scalding with Sharon."

I'm sure being scalded by Sharon (or with Sharon) would focus my attention. I'm just not sure it's a service I want to pay for.

As a bald guy, my hair care experience is limited. Anyone care to guess what she means?


FRIDAY, Aug. 8, 2008

You could tell a big event was in the air even if the streets weren't blocked off for miles in all directions around the Olympic Green, or the troop trucks weren't disgorging loads of ramrod-straight soldiers.

The flags are out.

Unlike Americans, especially Americans post-9/11, the Chinese aren't that into flag display. You see them everywhere and on sale everywhere. It seemed every snack bar and newsstand was selling at least little ones on the eve of the Olympics.