BEIJING The 2008 Olympics begin here in approximately 513 days. I suggest you head over now to beat the traffic.
"Olympic traffic and the environment are huge challenges," said Sun Weide, deputy director of the Beijing Organizing Committee. "The number of cars here have been increasing rapidly. There are 2.8 million cars in Beijing now, and we're adding a thousand cars a day."
He didn't need to tell me because all those cars were always directly in front of my taxi and trying to make a left turn.
Forget any images you may have of Beijing streets filled with millions of bicyclists pedaling smoothly to and from work. Those days are ending and the bicycles are steadily being replaced by cars driven by people who just received their learner's permits.
I'm not sure if China will surpass the U.S. economy within 40 years as many project, but Beijing has definitely matched Los Angeles at rush hour.
Taking a ride out to the Great Wall, we hit some of the worst traffic I've ever endured. I counted eight rows of cars clogging a highway that had only six official lanes, and we were all being funneled into a mere four lanes. Worsening the choke point was an accident blocking one of the four precious lanes.
You know that opening scene of "Office Space," during which Peter is stuck in traffic and notices he's being passed by an elderly man with a walker? This was worse. In 20 minutes we crawled perhaps one kilometer. And all the while, my driver squirmed in his seat and listened to the Mandarin equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. I have no idea what the broadcaster was saying, but he sounded so angry I can only assume he must have been bitching about the traffic.
It was awful. Just when I was about to get out of the car and begin walking the remaining 30 miles to the Great Wall, the traffic finally eased and we sped up to an astonishing 40 mph. I relaxed only to have the driver immediately slow down, pull over to the narrow shoulder and stop the car.
I feared the worst. Had we overheated or run out of gas during the awful backup? Was that the reason for the driver's anxiety and squirming? I raised my hands in the universal gesture of "What the @#&$?" but the driver only smiled at me and got out of the car. He rushed around to my side of the taxi and took a familiar stance by the front passenger door that quickly conveyed the problem: He needed to urinate. And he proceeded to do so right there in the middle of traffic.
And the thing is, that's the way traffic is now. By the time the Olympics start in August 2008, there will be a half-million more cars on the road. I just hope the new drivers remember to go to the bathroom before getting behind the wheel.
Sun Weide says Beijing is working hard to deal with the traffic issue: encouraging mass transit by building new subway lines (routes to the Olympic center and the airport are scheduled for completion by the end of this year), lowering bus fares, raising parking fees and designating Olympic traffic-only lanes during the Games.
However the traffic plans work out, the rest of Beijing's Olympic plans are impressive. Olympics traditionally inspire panicky stories about how terribly far behind the organizers are, but you don't see those stories with Beijing.
The main stadium, dubbed the Bird's Nest for the steel lacework of its structure, is nearing completion. So is the aquatic center (dynamically designed to resemble a cube of water) across the street. A vast public park is planned for beyond the Olympic center.
In all, Weide says the 37 Olympic venues should be competed by the end of the year.
"The hosting is very, very important on a national level," he said. "We describe the hosting as a 100-year-old dream coming true. In 1908, a Chinese magazine asked three questions: When can China send its first athlete to the Olympics? When can China win its first gold medal? And when can China host its first Olympics? In 1932 we had our first athlete. In 1984 we had our first gold medal. And in 2008 we will host the Olympics.
"We expect 500,000 to 800,000 visitors. We have a chance to show the rest of the world 5,000 years of Chinese history. It will be very, very important to us."
The last time the world focused its attention on Beijing, tanks were rumbling across Tiananmen Square. China remains a communist government that restricts free speech and is guilty of human rights violations, but it has so embraced capitalism in the past two decades that there is a Starbucks at the Great Wall and another in the Forbidden City.
A lavish shopping mall three blocks from Tiananmen Square has a Calvin Klein store, a Levi's, a Bose, La Perla, Tiffany's, Timberland, two Nike stores and an Orange Julius. There also was a multiplex showing "Casino Royale," the first James Bond movie to be shown in China (not counting the pirated videos, of course).
How fast is Beijing changing? In just my two days there, the building next to my hotel was condemned, torn down, replaced by a 10-story Starbucks, then torn down again to make way for a 50-story Best Buy. I'm exaggerating, of course. The Best Buy store will be in Shanghai.
The point is: Beijing is vastly different from the gray image most of us grew up with. Oh, the skies are still often gray from the pollution (and the water isn't safe to drink), but there are so many glittering stores and enticing billboards that I found myself asking two questions: Am I really in China, and where do the real citizens shop if a knit stocking cap at Timberland goes for $35?
Beijing is preparing for the Olympics in ways large and small.
A steel plant is being moved to another city to help reduce pollution. More than 200 hotels are being remodeled or built to star-rated quality, bringing the total to 800 by next summer. The China Daily, the English-language newspaper, ran an item one morning reporting the 11th of each month is designated as a day Beijing residents are supposed to train themselves how to stand in line. (Standing in line is a social custom seldom observed in China.) Another story was about a former soldier trying to convince citizens to cut down on their notorious public spitting.
Because the per capita income in Beijing is about $6,000, ticket prices will be lower than usual at the Olympics. Weide said ticket prices for preliminary rounds will range roughly from 30 yuan to 300 yuan, or about 5 to 50 U.S. dollars at the current exchange rates. The finals will go for about $10 to $150. A few tickets for the opening ceremonies will sell for $30; the highest will go for $450, which still is well below the Olympic average. Fourteen percent of tickets will be sold to Chinese students for $1 to $1.50.
Foreigners can probably expect access to the more expensive tickets, but attending these Olympics should still be cheaper than normal. Olympics aside, you can easily eat a very good and very large meal for $9, including beer. And there isn't any tipping to worry about, either. I tried handing the concierge 40 yuan for arranging a bicycle for me, and he looked completely perplexed and handed the money back.
If you are planning a trip to the Olympics next year, be sure to rent a bicycle while you still can. As a recent Bicycling magazine article pointed out, the so-called Flying Pigeons are a Beijing tradition losing the battle with the automobile. It's a shame because cycling really is a great way to get around town and often faster than taking a taxi.
On the other hand, cabs are inexpensive (the 20-mile ride to the airport was $13) especially if you price them by the minute.
RAMBLINGS AND STOMACH GRUMBLINGS
I recently returned from a literal around-the-world trip, traveling to China for a story on the growth of baseball there (modest though it may be), then flying on to England to compete in the very wild, very strange and very stupid Tough Guy competition, then back to America. Well, not really America Las Vegas, for a piece on the Hardwood Suite.
A couple impressions left in the notebook from my trip:
In addition to being very inexpensive, cabs in China (at least in Guangzhou) sometimes come with flat-screen TV monitors in the back seat. As I rode in from the airport late one night, I watched a news report gleefully showing members of the Taiwanese parliament throwing shoes at each other during a heated session. I could just imagine the commentary: "See? This is what the imperialist running dogs give you with democracy. We can give you the same thing just by opening up a Nordstrom's." It is also a very strange feeling to be riding through Guangzhou at six in the morning and watching a replay of Fish-O-Mania XIII.
The service industry can be very aggressive in China. On my flight out of Guangzhou, a man in a bellhop uniform asked whether he could help me check in. Now, I never get help carrying my bags. One, I feel very weird having someone else do the work when I can just as easily do it myself. Two, I am a cheap SOB. So, I politely told him, "No, thank you." He asked again, saying the airport can be very confusing. I was within 20 steps of my airline's counter, so I again said, "No, thank you." He asked a third time, this time more emphatically. I again declined, at which point he cursed me and said he had a family to feed and that even though I was a rich American, I didn't care. Then he stormed off.
I had a similar experience at the Great Wall. Due to a very limited window of time in Beijing, I hired a cab driver to take me to the nearest section of the Wall, which was about 40 miles out of town. Because cabs are so cheap, this was a very reasonable plan, despite the distance. He drove me out there, waited 90 minutes for me to hike around, drove me back and paid for the tolls, all for about $65. You can do it much more cheaply; a public bus will take you out there for a couple of bucks. But as I say, I was in a hurry to beat sunset.
Anyway, I was walking back from the Wall to the cab when a sedan pulled up alongside me. A woman in the passenger's seat rolled down the window and asked if I needed a ride back to Beijing. I told her no, that I already had a ride, and continued walking. The car pulled up again. "Ride to Beijing? Very cheap." I again said no, I had a cab waiting for me. The car pulled up a third time and asked yet again. I again said no, a driver was waiting for me. At that point, the car sped away and the woman flipped me off. It was enough to make me homesick for New York.
If you're planning a trip to England in the coming months, particularly London, I suggest you withdraw every dollar you have in the bank, invest it all on the roulette wheel and hope for the best. You'll need all the money possible, and more. Thanks to the continuing decline of the dollar, the pound is now worth roughly twice as much as the dollar. A one-way tube ticket will set you back $8. A day pass (good after the morning commute) is $10. A beer goes for $7 to $8 at most pubs.
And you know how U.S. business hotels try to hose you by charging $10 to $12 per day for Internet access? My hotel in London wanted $40 a day. FORTY DOLLARS!!! And I still would have had to pay to access a really good porn site. A London hotel where my friend stayed charged $1 a minute for phone calls. That wasn't for long distance; that was for local calls.
Still, I love London and it's hard to beat a day spent on walking tours followed by an evening tossing back pints of beer in historic pubs and dining on kidney pie. I just wish the kidney in the pie hadn't been my own which I was forced to sell to cover the tab.
I'm a die-hard Yankees fan (I know, you hate me) heading for my first ever Spring Training in Tampa in March. I'm going with my brother-in-law, not so much a Yankees fan as a drinking and strip-club fan. What are some things we should be sure to do/not to do? Any advice you have would be much appreciated.
Jordan: My main advice is definitely do not go see the Yankees at Legends Field, one of the worst venues in either the Cactus or Grapefruit League. Legends Field is so big and bloated it seems more like a stockholders' meeting than spring training. My suggestion is to go see the Yankees at some of the older sites Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota (March 22), McKechnie Field in Bradenton (March 23) or Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland (March 25 and 30). The tickets will be cheaper, and you'll get a better feel for the real spring training experience.
As far as dining and lodging options: An excellent restaurant with Spanish cuisine in the Tampa area is El Tio Pepe on the way to Clearwater. One of my favorite restaurants near Legends Field is Roy's, part of a Pan-Asian chain that started in Hawaii. I was there a couple of springs ago with Jayson Stark, Peter Gammons and Tim Kurkjian, while Alex Rodriguez and Reggie Jackson filled a table for four near us one seat for Reggie, one seat for A-Rod, one seat for Reggie's ego and one seat for A-Rod's insecurities. I also like Moon Under Water, a pseudo-British colonial pub along Beach Drive in St. Pete. My spring dining habits, I hate to admit, run more toward the Waffle Houses that are so ubiquitous in Florida they make the Starbucks look sparse.
If you can afford it, the Renaissance Vinoy is a swanky hotel in St. Pete with an old Florida feel within walking distance of Al Lang.
As far as your brother-in-law goes, the famous Mons Venus strip club is just a couple of minutes down Dale Mabry from Legends Field. Given the security and fan situation at Legends Field, this might be your best place to see ballplayers.
If you go to Mons Venus, I recommend lying to your wife/girlfriend and saying you instead went to the highly recommended Ringling Museum in Sarasota to see its fine European art collection and interesting circus museum (yes, it's that Ringling).
Three buddies and I are taking a baseball road trip Nationals, Phillies, Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Orioles home games all in about nine days. Any tips for the crew before we head out in mid-May?
Nathan: Sounds like a great trip. Leave time to go to the nearby Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore; wager on the president races in D.C.; run up the stairs to the Philadelphia art museum like Rocky (then view the superb collection of Impressionists); take the T to Kenmore Square and walk the short distance to Fenway to avoid the outrageous parking fees; tour Monument Park at Yankee Stadium (due for replacement in 2009); and don't eat anything at Shea Stadium.
(If you have a sports travel-related question or tip, write to the Road Warrior and Jim will try to answer it.)
I'm reading one of the best travel books I've come across in years, "The Sex Lives of Cannibals" (Broadway Books; $12.95), J. Maarten Troost's wonderful account of his two years living on the Tarawa atoll in the South Pacific. Troost is a smart, observant and hilariously self-deprecating writer. His description of Tarawa and the Republic of Kiribati makes it sound like the worst place on earth. But as with all great travel writing, his prose is so entertaining that you stillwant to go there and see it for yourself.
I particularly liked the way he explains how the Republic of Kiribati is an island nation of 33 atolls with a land mass the same as Baltimore but spread over thousands of miles of ocean:
To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into 33 pieces, place a neighborhood where Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have 33 pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way as to ensure the 32/33 Baltimoreans will never attend an Orioles game again.
Troost also has a new book that is titled "Getting Stoned with the Savages" (Broadway Books; $12.95), though I haven't had a chance
to read it yet.
THOUGHT FOR THE MONTH
"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue. In addition to his book "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," his new book with Steve Buckley titled "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is now on sale.