Groundhog day on the Great Wall of China

Today we skipped our rowing events to instead head out to the Great Wall of China. We originally planned on doing this with a friend that we ran into yesterday, but she overslept and missed it. Doh!

But first… Groundhog Day. I’m not sure if it has been totally clear from my previous posts, but you don’t see the sun in Beijing. I’ve talked to people that have been in Beijing for weeks and haven’t seen the sun through the haze. But today was Groundhog Day and we saw the sun! It was a really bright and clear day, and perfect for our trip along the wall.

(That’s not to say that today was great visibility, since there’s still quite a bit of haze. But instead of seeing soup a kilometer away, it was several kilometers away, and the sun broke through.)

The Great Wall

All I have to say is WOW! I’m so glad that we went, and it was incredible. There are several sections of the Great Wall near Beijing, and we went to Simatai. It’s certainly further away and harder to get to than other sections, but much more scenic and less “touristy.”

The Simatai Great Wall has two sections of wall. One runs off to the west, and eventually connects to another section of wall. (You can hike from one to the other if you’re ambitious). It’s beautiful, with sloping arcs of wall across the top of a mountain ridge. The other section of wall runs off to the east, and is absolutely incredible. It’s incredibly steep, and has watchtowers seemingly perched on nothing at all. In fact, after a certain point you aren’t allowed any further because of the poor condition of the path and the impossibly narrow wall. At one point it supposedly narrows to about a foot wide for over a hundred meters, with serious drops to either side.

We walked the entire eastern section until the sign and guard prevented us from going any further, and went as far west as we could until it was time to head back. The wall actually stops as it is on either side of a river, though there’s a bridge (used to be rope, now suspension) that you can use to get across.

Unfortunately my proper digital camera ran out of batteries before I finished importing the photos, but here are a couple that I managed to grab with my phone. They’re fairly poor, but start to give a sense of the size and incredible scale of construction. (All of the really cool photos are on my camera, and I will post them later.)

Getting out to Simatai was interesting. We had to go into central Beijing, get an express bus (980) out to one of the suburbs, and then catch a minicab/minibus out to Simatai. There were a few other Americans going the same way and we shared a rather death-defying 45-minute minibus ride out and back. Though we split up to tour the wall in different directions, it was nice to meet a few new people.

To make sure we weren’t exhausted by the time we got to the wall, we took a cable car ride up the mountain, and then a funicular even further. Even after all that it was a bit of a tough climb to get up! It would be a hell of a training session for a rowing/running/cycling team!

One of the best parts of Simatai was the incredible variation. In some places it’s just a walkway on top of the wall, in other places there is a high defensive wall to one side. Some places are fairly flat and nice, others are so steep that each step was nearly as high as my knee. Some steps were very deep, and others were so shallow we had to walk up and down sideways in order to fit our feet on the steps. Parts of the trail we were actually bouldering to get around.

All in all a fantastic day out. I really want to finish uploading my other photos soon.

More from our neighborhood — the Airport Dormitories

We got a tour through our local neighborhood this evening with our hosts that own the flat we’ve been staying in. This neighborhood really does come alive at night. It reminds me somewhat of neighborhoods that I’ve been around in Italy. At night the whole city comes out to the parks and common areas to socialize. Tonight we saw organised dancing (Chinese line dancing and ballroom-type dancing), people out for walks on a beautiful new running track, and kids playing everywhere. It seemed just really nice, and a fairly close-knit neighborhood.

Oh, and for Jose, who asked about the crowds of identical supporters and their identical “Thundersticks,” here’s an article I found about them. It seems to be a fairly accurate depiction of what’s going on.

How a small mis-calculation saved us lots of money in China!

So I’ve got a bit of an embarrassing story to tell. My wife and I were catching up this morning on how much money we’ve spent. Before we left London we had looked up the exchange rates for the dollar and the pound to the yuan. We memorized the numbers 7 and 13 for easy reference.

Well, we somehow mixed the two up (probably remembering that 2 dollars is worth one pound and forgetting the inversion) and got in our heads that 7 yuan equals one pound instead of 13 yuan equals one pound! Luckily, that just saved us a ton of cash, or at least it feels like we did. Everything we’ve bought so far only cost us half of what we thought, and we thought we were getting a pretty good deal as it was! Even with lots of food and drinks at the venue, with official souveneirs/gifts, it seems like we’ve hardly spent a thing! I managed to do a quick Google search on my phone to confirm it all, and that made our morning quite a happy one.

New places, old faces

China is a country of 1.3 billion people, and Beijing has millions. But yet somehow as we were walking in Tienanmen Square this morning we ran into two people from Thames Rowing Club! One guy that was on the men’s squad last year, and a cox from my novice year that has since gone on to cox at Henley finals three times, winning once. We ended up splitting up after about 20–30 minutes because we were doing different things, but it was great to catch up.

Then, as we were about to catch the bus to go out to rowing for the day, another friend that we haven’t seen since last year this weekend saw us at the bus stop! We ended up sharing a cab out to the rowing lake so that we could get there faster. She rows back in the States, and is in China for a chunk of the summer on holiday. We’re hoping to head out to see the Great Wall with her tomorrow.

Monday sights

Today we took our first in-depth tour around the classic sights in Beijing. We went through security and then walked through Tienanmen Square. There’s really not much there, and is surrounded by oppressive architecture. It’s got some Olympics-themed landscaping that’s been brought in, but that’s about it.

We then walked across the street to see the Forbidden City. Once we went in we realized that we just didn’t have the time to do it properly, so are planning on going back later this week, probably Wednesday morning. It looks fantastic, and has a really interesting history.

Finally, in my quest to see all of the cool new architecture that’s been built in Beijing, we walked around the Beijing Opera House. It was just recently built, and has been nicknamed the “egg-shell,” since it’s this bubble/eggshell looking structure completely surrounded by a ring of water. The entrance goes under this moat (which you can see above you). It’s very cool, and I hope to post pictures later.

Monday rowing

There was some great racing today out at the rowing lake. All of the men’s single scullers raced, and the top guys were spread out amongst the quarterfinals. Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand in particular had a fantastic race against Karponen from Sweden where Mahe just barely held him off, and Alan Campbell from the GB squad ended up taking second behind Marcel Hacker of Germany. But since the top three qualified to continue on to the top semi-finals, there wasn’t quite the same pressure to win.

Perhaps my favourite race was Elise and Anna in the GB Women’s Double Sculls. They were in the repercharge, and had to place in the top two of four to advance to the A final and a chance to medal. They were second for most of the first 1500 meters and well ahead of the next two, but were about 2 seconds behind Germany. Elise and Anna put in a hell of a push in the last 500 and beat Germany by just over 1 second. I’m really looking to seeing them race in the final.

The GB Men’s 8+ also raced today, and all I have to say is WOW. They were racing some tough competition, and once they got back the 500 meter mark, they took a solid lead and just wouldn’t let go. They just screamed past, and qualified directly for the A final on Sunday.

Finally, the GB Women’s 8+ raced, though didn’t qualify to move directly to the A final (only the top boat did). They looked really strong, but just couldn’t keep up with the USA women. The girls now have to go through to the repercharge on Wednesday (a reschedule), where we’ll be cheering them on again.


It was a great day. We saw our friends race and do well, we ran into friends in strange places out in town, and it looks like we just got set up for a trip out to the Great Wall tomorrow. All in all, a good day.

We’re skipping our rowing events tomorrow so that we can see the Wall. Everyone that we would have wanted to see rowing tomorrow either doesn’t have to because they did well yesterday, or their event was rescheduled. We’re going to take advantage of it and see some of the sights that you need most of the day to go see.

She’s dancing!

It’s true! We’ve managed to secure tickets for the Sunday rowing finals in Beijing!

When we originally booked tickets in June of 2007 (!) we asked for every rowing event and got tickets for every session except the Sunday finals. Unfortunately, this day will feature the lightweight events, quads and eights, with a few different medal potentials and a couple of friends competing. (That our friends and fellow Thames RC members are competing was a much more compelling reason.) We figured we would somehow manage to get tickets, but it was really starting to worry us. Luckily a well-connected friend came through and now we’re all set. Woo-hoo!

Rowing impressions

The whole event is pretty organized, though the first day had some hiccups. (Long queues for security, completely disorganized food vendors). Our tickets are for the stands about 150meters away from the finish (of a 2000m course) and in good view of the television that shows coverage of the entire race and the results board showing who’s ahead every 500meters. When photos are uploaded I’ll link to them here. (I’m not the photographer in the household)

[By the way, porto-loos in China are squat toilets. Luckily they also have regular toilets in a separate building. Again, guys generally have things easier here.]

The initial heats are always a mixed bag. Typically the first 2–3 boats are pretty competitive, but the last-place boats are often miles behind. This should tighten up for each race. But as I mentioned before, some crews have taken it easy once they were in a place to qualify for the next round instead of racing it to the end, to save themselves some energy.

Today, Sunday the 10th, the racing was cancelled just after the quad sculls heats were done because of the weather. (Rain, lightning, etc.) The women’s eights that had been at the start paddled down the course, and the other eights came in as well. At first the announcements just said that racing was delayed, but about twenty minutes later (after another batch of lightning) it was cancelled for the day. Apparently it’s now been scheduled for tomorrow.

Another strange note, but two Chinese boats scratched (officially “Did Not Start”) yesterday. That’s really too bad, as that puts a lot of athletes’ and their countries’ efforts over the past years to waste. Rowing was one of their big efforts for these Olympics since it’s known as a “medal-rich” sport, and this takes away two of the fourteen chances just by not showing up.

Life in the stands has been interesting. We’ve met some interesting people from elsewhere in Britain, been in front of an enthusiastic group of Poland supporters, and laughed at a fairly boisterous (read: drunk) group of Ireland supporters dressed in leprechaun outfits. Also met a guy today who was at the opening ceremonies. He mentioned that there while most of the stadium was full, there were still a good bunch of empty seats, which is a shame.

Life in China

So we’ve been doing a homestay here in Beijing which has been interesting. The flat is owned by a couple in their 50’s, a Canadian man and his Chinese wife. They live in a flat in the same neighborhood, the “Airport Dormitories,” since it’s by the airport and populated by a lot of their workers.

When we first walked up to the flat, the words going through my head were “tenement”, “ghetto”, “s**t-pit” and more. Luckily once we got to the top floor and our flat, we found a nice new modern door and a newly and nicely furnished flat. It’s fairly small, but complete with good kitchen, Western-style toilet/shower, great TV, and DSL. The owners have been incredibly kind to us, making sure we know the local area, how to get on local buses, interesting places in the area, etc. They also helped us get a Chinese SIM card for one of our mobiles.

We are definitely the only Westerners in our area, but word about us got around pretty quickly, so there’s no strange staring going on. Yesterday we got to know the local convenience store, and today we got to know the local department store/grocery store. Coming back from the rowing today we got enough food to last us two or three days easily for the equivalent of £9.

It’s been great to come back every night and see other events on the television, across four different channels. Unfortunately all of the commentary is in Chinese, but considering the standard of most sports commentary, that’s probably a good thing. It’s fun to wake up to Olympic sports, go see Olympic events, and come back home to see more Olympic sports. It’s going to be full-on for the next 10 days which is great!

Starting Day 2 in the rain

So Day 2 of our Olympics trek has started in rain. It’s pass reasonably quickly and everyone in the stands are now dressed in identical yellow rain jackets, handed out by the organizers.

We now have DSL up and running so will finally be able to respond to emails, etc. That just happened this morning so full Beijing update will start tonight.

We saw some great racing yesterday. Rob Waddell from New Zealand came from a length down at the 1500m mark to win by ~2 lengths. Not terribly surprising, considering he won gold in 2000 and is quite likely the strongest and fittest rower in a generation. Also saw the Kiwis row through the Netherlands in the Men’s 4- in the last 500.

I would be careful reading too much into yesterday’s official results. While some crews raced to the finish, others took it down a couple notches when it was clear they qualified for the next round. (The GB M2x was a good example of this.) It’s hard to describe just how hot and humid it was yesterday, and I can see why they would want to conserve their strength.

Up today are the lighties, the women’s quad and the eights. The rain has cooled things off, and we’re looking forward to seeing the racing kick off!

By the way, our hero of the day yesterday was Darryl Reid. He’s the psyiotherapist for the New Zealand squad, and has access to all the athlete facilities. We managed to get his attention as he was cycling by yesterday and it was great to say hi. But he also very kindly brought us ice-cold bottles of water to drink and help keep us cool. Awesome!

We’re in Beijing and have our tickets!

We’ve had problems getting DSL running at our flat, so I’m posting this from my iPhone. First impressions? HOT. Damn hot. Sunny, bit we haven’t seen it through the haze yet.

Beijing-ers have been incredibly friendly and helpful, especially through the language barriers.

We’re sitting on the first sessions of rowing right now, and have seen some convincing wins by the usual suspects. Elise & Anna and the GB four will be racing soon!

Day and a half left…

So the countdown to our departure to Beijing is getting very short. Tomorrow we do the online checking and pray for decent seats, and finish the day by packing. (I’ve made our list, but haven’t packed a thing yet.) That should be straightforward, though. It’s damn hot, and we aren’t doing anything fancy, so mainly t-shirts, shorts and sandals.

But before we go, here are a couple of cool links/stories I wanted to pass on:

  • Checklists for Doctors (from the New Yorker): A simple four-step checklist managed to reduce infection rates in intensive care units by 66%! In eighteen months, the group of hospitals saved 1500 lives and $175million.
  • No matter how good someone thinks they are, and how much study they’ve done of complex procedures, checklists are absolutely necessary. After three years running a nuclear reactor, I can say this with certainty. While we were trained to be able to do everything without instructions, we failed any procedure where we didn’t use them.
  • I really hope this is something that actually catches on in the medical community. It’s long overdue
  • Looking for a quick laugh? I keep forgetting to check McSweeney’s. This feature is great: “Corrections to last month’s letters to Penthouse Forum.” (via kottke)
  • If you like politics, and don’t mind a little math, you have to check out Developed by Nate Silver, who’s a pioneer in sabermetrics (aka baseball statistics), it’s a really deep look into the state of the Presidential and Senate races for this election. Very light punditry, very heavy math.

And to end this post, photos of Elise and Sarah’s bronze in Athens 2004, as well as Elise and Anna’s World Cup gold in June of this year.

Off to the 2008 Beijing Olympics!

This week my wife and I are flying out to Beijing to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics! Needless to say, we’re getting really excited.

We had to order our event tickets well over a year ago, and recently purchased a couple more tickets from a friend that couldn’t go. Over the course of twelve days we will be attending: Rowing, Athletics, Gymnastics, Triathlon, Beach Volleyball, Wrestling, and Weightlifting.

Key tickets for us are everything rowing (as you can guess by my previous posts), the Women’s Individual All-Around gymnastics final, and Athletics (to include Men’s steeplechase and long jump, Women’s 800m, Discus and Pole Vault). Provided we’re able to swap one of our two pairs of Saturday rowing finals tickets for a pair of Sunday finals, we will see 26 different finals and medal ceremonies.

Why we’re going

The main reason we decided to go to the Olympics over a year ago was to support our friends from Thames Rowing Club, where we’ve been rowing for four years. Elise Laverick is rowing in the Women’s Double Sculls with Anna Bebington, and Ali Knowles and Beth Rodford are rowing in the Women’s Eight. Last year Annie Vernon rowed for Thames (she’s since switched clubs), and she’s competing in the Women’s Quad Sculls. Oh, and Al Heathcote is rowing in the Men’s Eight; he’s the brother of a guy on Thames men’s squad.

Getting ready

It’s only been in the last few days that I’ve started to get really excited about the Olympics. We decided to do a Homestay, which I was initially unsure about. But now that we’ve been in touch with the owners of the flat (a Canadian man and his Chinese wife) I’m stoked. We’ll have wireless access, so we should be able to upload photos and blog on a daily basis while we’re there.

The Olympic Committee also recently released their visitor’s guide, which finally gives a little more information as to how we’ll be able to get in between venues. Considering the Rowing and Triathlon venues are well outside Beijing central, this is key for us. It took a bit to download the 100 MB PDF (!), but it’s packed full of information. As long as we have a ticket for an event on the day, transportation in the city that day is free.

By the way, I’ve been using TripIt to organise our whole trip… I highly recommend it!

Visiting Beijing

I also hope to see a bunch of Beijing while we’re there. The Great Wall is a trip that we’re trying to fit in on one of the days, but since it’s a little way outside the city we may need to skip one of the event sessions; we’ll see. To be honest, I’m treating this as a secondary part of our trip. We want to see the spectacle of the athletes and competition, everything else will be a bonus.


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With wireless access, I hope to be posting daily with impressions and photos from the day. I may also be able to post occasionally from the venue with photos now that I’ve got my iPhone! Oh, and I hope to be sending updates to Twitter, too. This is going to be great!