Saturday, January 10, 2009

Where's WALL-E When You Need Him?

People often remark that here in China things age prematurely. A brand new apartment building goes up and it is covered in a coat of dust before all of the tenants have moved in. (Speaking of dusty, you should see the current state of my bicycle!) When we were told, incorrectly it turns out, that our complex is only five years old, we half believed it, even though the place looks like it has been around much longer than that.

And so it was that yesterday we had an encounter, this time altogether unexpected, with the phenomenon of the "accelerated life-cycle" (for lack of a better term). I say "unexpected" because we were visiting one of the most popular tourist destinations in today's Beijing, a must-see for visitors from the provinces. And these kinds of places often look brand new (as I've posted about before), even if they are hundreds of years old.

The venue I happen to be talking about isn't hundreds of years old...In fact, it's not even one year old! Yes, we were out spending an afternoon walking around the Olympic Green...

Now, there were enough other people around, paying thirty kuai each to have a look inside the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. There were plenty of tour guide flags flapping in the strong winter Beijing wind. So it's not that the place was a ghost town, any more than you would expect for a collection of athletic venues that are standing there idly.

The first thing I noticed when we came up out of the subway was the state of repair of the walkways on the green. Really, the state of disrepair. Chunks of concrete crumbling off. Pieces where the mortar is no longer doing its job and the sidewalk now rises and falls under your feet as you step on and step off. (Kind of like being at sea, with ebbing and flowing waves rocking your boat.)

Then there was the deconstruction of the venues themselves. Perhaps the most shocking sight was the cauldron where the Olympic flame burned just a few months ago. Rather than standing grandly above the stadium, it was lying on its side on the girders up at the top of the Bird's Nest. Why are they taking it down? Is it going to be put on display somewhere else? I have no idea, but I just kind of assumed it would always keep its place of honor as a visible reminder of Olympic pride.

Then there were the commercial sites. Companies paid money, presumably lots of money, to occupy buildings on the green, hoping to cash in on all that global wealth that descended upon Beijing for those glorious few weeks last August. Omega. China Mobile. When we fist walked by the Omega building, there were workers busy scraping all of the horseshoe emblems off the glass facings. Hundreds of horseshoes. By the time we passed by again a few hours later, the job had been completed.

As for the China Mobile building, it was a really strange site to see. A total post-modern kind of design, with a basketball player "emerging" from the structure, ready to throw down a monster jam. Except that the exterior material, some kind of siding, has fallen off in a few places. And the surrounding environment was equally bleak...An empty, crumbling lot. Sorry dude...The game's over. Take your ball and head home.

The weirdest location on the Olympic Green? The fencing hall. Located right next to where the gymnastics events took place, in a prime spot, this venue is, for all intents and purposes, unidentifiable. There are no grand, stone carved placards left. There are not even any small signs that tell you the name of the building. It was only two minutes ago, when I pulled out a map of the Olympic sites, that I discovered what competitions actually took place inside this impressive glass-walled structure. Here's how the map describes the building...It will "sure become the focus of the whole world."

Sounds good, except that, right now, the building is surrounded by piles and piles of scrap metal. It really looks like it is on the verge of being bulldozed to the ground. Although, in actuality, the place is in the early stages of being prepped for a second life as a convention center, it right now presents a mildly disconcerting sight, to be honest. Except if your name is WALL-E, I guess...



Since getting tickets to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the glowing blue venue, accurately named the Water Cube, was virtually impossible, we decided to make it our business to venture back to the Olympic Green for another attempt at an up-close look and perhaps even a peek inside.

Now that China's "coming out" party is comfortably behind, the more popular Olympic sites are part of a tour route for travelers from all over the country. In this way, we joined the throng by purchasing our 30 kuai tickets at the northwest corner of the building, and then joining the zigzagging parade that lead to the southeast entrance. (While it seems that there is a bit of poor planning on this one, with respect to practicality, perhaps it was planned this way in the spirit of the Olympics...providing everyone with their daily exercise!)

Once inside the gates, the building structure was every bit as impressive as we thought it would be, with its puffy air-filled shapes of ETFE membranes (translucent, flexible plastic). When we entered the Water Cube itself, the foyer was open and airy, with lots of glass and a bubble motif on the walls. There were, of course, vendors selling snacks and souvenirs, and even water bottles designed with Water Cube patterns. Passing by all of this commercial activity unscathed, we were able to step inside the main competition hall. With unobstructed views of the pools and diving platforms, you could almost feel the Olympic spirit in the room. Imagining the record-setting wins by Michael Phelps, Dana Torres, and Guo Jingjing was easy to do, not only because we were sitting in the room where history took place...but also because of the huge LCD screen that continually played highlights from the games! Since it was difficult to keep our eyes off the screen, we moved up to the very top row, where flags from every country gave us coverage from the media blitz. We sat there for quite a while, taking in the aura and watching all the tourists, each one looking absolutely thrilled to be there...really!

Interestingly enough, the pools that were once used for the swimming events have been transformed. Beneath the surface of the water lies a complex web of metal pipes, which form an intricate fountain. Accompanied by an orchestra, these lighted streams of water are a part of the "Music Spectacular Watercube" (tickets from 200-800 kuai), which takes places almost every night until the end of January. Perhaps the venue would be better used in, say, the Asian Games, the world swimming championships...But, for now, it seems that the Water Cube is making its "splash" where entrepreneurship meets nationalism. How about that?


Friday, January 09, 2009

In A Six-Story Communist-Style Housing Unit, There Lived A Hobbit

For a few days this past week, we have been in one of those mid-winter "time outs." Julie, Z, and I did not go to school or work, as a nasty little bug worked its way through the three of us. So how did we pass the time when we were well enough to be awake, but sick enough not to attend to our professional duties?

We got under the covers together, cracked open the copy of The Hobbit that Julie happened to have checked out from the school library, and went on some adventures with Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves.

Actually, the real hero of the "adventure" was Desi, who somehow always managed to keep us well-stocked with nutritious food and drinks (plus the occasional snack!). If only she had a ring of power that could make the mess we created go away!


Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Transitive Property Of College Basketball

You may have heard that the dreaded Tar Heels are the prohibitive team to beat in college basketball this year. They have been the unanimous number one team in the polls all season long. Until a few days ago, that is, when Boston College came into Chapel Hill and handed the Heels their first loss.

Great joy for BC fans, no doubt. Then came the inevitable letdown. In their next game, the Eagles lost at home to Harvard. Which, of course, makes the Crimson the new number one team in the country...

If Harvard > Boston College


If Boston College > North Carolina


Harvard > North Carolina

Now, Robert, before you get too excited...Remember that Harvard's basketball team is currently coached by Tommy Amaker, a former Duke player and assistant. Just another example of how Harvard is, as they say in Durham, the "Duke of the North..."


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Bureaucracy And Democracy Goes Global

I recently met a professor who swore he had heard of me before. "That's a long shot," I thought to myself. He then went on to say it was because he had recently read a review, in Chinese, of Bureaucracy and Democracy. "You must be mixing it up with another book." This time I articulated my doubt out loud.

The next day, when we met up again, he was carrying a copy of Journal of Public Administration, a Chinese-language academic publication. Sure enough, he opened up to page 172, and there it was...a ten-page review of the book that William T. Gormley, Jr. co-authored with 巴拉. 巴拉? That's how the author translated my name into Chinese. And I went through all of that trouble getting my students to give me a Chinese name (click here for that story)!

As for the review itself, I have no idea what it actually says. Rather than do the difficult work of translating the Chinese characters, my current strategy is to imagine what the final sentences might say...This book fundamentally transforms our understanding of the role that bureaucracy plays in democratic political systems. It is a must-read for all Chinese citizens.

Now if I could just find someone to translate the book itself into Chinese...


Sky Cap

Yes, you know what the title means. Those guys in chauffeur's outfits that come up to your car at the airport. Yeah, they charge, like, five, ten bucks. Here, in China, they charge around 30 kuai. But who needs one of them when I'm around?

So, we are on our way to some random place in China. No car, no bus to the airport, etc. What do you do? Hop in a cab. Well, after a half hour, stuffy cab ride, we are at the airport with the sky caps. With four rolly bags, it is not a problem. We just tell the sky caps bu yao (we don't want a cart). Then we come to the big line of baggage carts. I can't resist. I pull out a cart and load on our bags. By the way, I'm free!

Now, put yourself in this situation. You are squished like a sardine in the fight to get off the plane. Mind you, some of the passengers get up when the plane is slowing down to taxi to the terminal. The attendants try to get them back into their seats. Anyway, there is the rush for the front of the baggage line. I really don't know why they do it, since the bags all go the same way. When our bags come out, I load them on a cart, just like a sky cap.


The Russians

In Harbin, everyone thinks you are Russian. The locals expect mostly Russian visitors, since it is such a close place to travel to. Since we are of European descent, whether we are in Harbin or Yabao Lu (a Russian area of Beijing), we are often greeted with Russian hellos we don't understand.

Between our many trips to Yabao Lu and our trip to Harbin, we have all experienced very funny "Russian" moments.

Take our first afternoon in Harbin. Walking down the central avenue past a statue of a horse and carriage (which, of course, Z had to climb!), I noticed a family of four--a father, mother, and two girls (you can see the girls riding behind Z). The father was working on taking a few pictures when he noticed me, standing on the side. He said something in Russian to me, then to his wife and kids, and then started handing me his camera. Slightly startled (I also was eating an ice lolly, so my hands were full), I turned to Mommy, who was behind a few steps, and told her to come quick and take the Russians' picture. It was pretty funny to have them talking to us as if we understood, even though we were speaking English moments before.

Did you know that Russian sounds nothing like English?


Sunday, January 04, 2009

Thrill Seekers

You probably have done one of those crazy, but thrilling things in life. At the snow and ice festival, Dad and I tried one out!

The first time we went to the festival, Dad and I noticed a line that went up a hill. After watching for a minute, we figured out that it was a toboggan. It looked awesome, but one thing held us back. At the end of the slide, there was a ten foot tall mound of snow. Guess what it does? It breaks your ride! Actually, it really only breaks your back. When you come down, you never stop. Your toboggan flips up and knocks you back when you hit the snow.

The next day, when we came back, no one was there. Since there was no line, Dad and I decided to give it a try.

We were the second ones up (it had just opened). All I can say is, WOW!!!...and OWW!!! The ride down is thrilling. You go really, really fast. Then...ouch! My toboggan came to an abrupt halt when it went straight into the snow, as opposed to sliding up the mound. My socks were soaked!

Dad, on the other hand, went up and back down. He scared Mom out of her wits when he told us that his neck hurt. Our main reaction? "Who designed this thing!?"


The Difference Is Like Night And Day

Viewing the Harbin Ice and Snow World in both darkness and light gave me an excuse to toy with the panorama setting on our camera. I had never tried it before but, after a few tries, came up with these beauties (click on the pictures for full-size views). As you can see, while the visual images you experience can be vastly different, they are both as breathtaking as the arctic air itself!


The Mother Of All Ice Slides

The structure you are looking at is a huge collection of slides, built entirely on ice blocks. Altogether, there are eighteen slides. Twelve of the slides go straight from the top to the bottom, while six of them curve on the way down. Over the course of two days at Harbin's Ice and Snow World, this several story high fun house effectively served as our home base. Between the four of us, we made literally hundreds of runs down the slopes.

There were sitting rides, laying down rides, head first rides, spinning rides, twirling rides, kneeling rides, standing rides. There were combination rides, like starting out standing and then dropping to laying down. There were solo rides, double rides, triple rides, and family rides--all four of us together! There were even rides with people we don't know, like this one Harbin tour guide who joined Julie and Z for a few spins down the slopes. There were human chain rides. Z and I got involved in a couple of these, which entailed more than a dozen people linking up and snaking down the hill together (kind of like Hot, Hot, Hot!...or, in this case, Cold, Cold, Cold!)

You name it...We tried it!


Ice And Snow World In The Day

Recall that evening is high time to take in Harbin's ice sculptures, when they are lit up in all their glory. For our second visit to Harbin's top attraction (have we mentioned how incredible Ice and Snow World is?), we decided to once again go against the grain and check the place out in broad daylight. What a great decision that turned out to be!

For one thing, the sculptures look totally different with the sun beating down on them. Bright contrasting colors give way to a sea of total white and reflecting glass. All of us agreed that the park looks and feels much colder during the day, even though we know this isn't actually the case. It's amazing how a visual focus on ice (bing), as opposed to lights (deng), can have an effect on one's other senses.

And then there was the second major difference...The place was virtually deserted! The crowds don't really begin arriving in earnest until after dusk. This meant that we had the park pretty much to ourselves for a couple of hours. With a lack of lines at some of the major attractions, we took full advantage...

The tubing hill. It just didn't seem worth it to wait for a ten second ride down a small incline. But, all of a sudden, the ride looked pretty appealing when we could slide to the bottom and run right back up to the top. Along the way, we got to "know" the operators, who began doing fun things with us, like grabbing us by the feet and sending us spinning hard down the slope. Even Desi got in on some of that action!

The snowmobile ride. Same story. Why wait out in the bitter cold to take one lap around a circular course in a snowmobile? Not only did we not have to wait long, we also enjoyed a te se (special) treatment. A tubing hill operator who had pushed us down many, many times had now moved over to the snowmobiles. He knew that Z was not the minimum age of sixteen, but after thinking about it for a few minutes, he decided that Z could have a spin. As for Julie, I think her height faked him out.

Brilliant white ice sculptures, lots of winter fun...and we haven't even talked about the ice slides yet...