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Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008

BEIJING POSTCARD

Olympic tourists won't have chance to visit Great Wall


BEIJING — Finally, the official start of the 2008 Summer Olympics was to begin on Friday night. Yes, I'm referring to the Opening Ceremony.

News photo
High profile: Basketball star Yao Ming is featured on numerous billboards in Beijing. ED ODEVEN PHOTO

On Thursday, I had a few free hours to kill, so I decided to visit a few sites in Beijing.

I first wanted to see the Great Wall of China, snap a few dozen photographs, find a place to eat noodles and venture on to the second destination. It seemed to me like the proper place to start, so I took a taxi to a bus station, where I would then transfer to catch the bus to the Great Wall.

Plain and simple, it was wishful thinking. After paying my fare and getting out of the taxi, with a jump in my step, I waited at the bus stop for a few minutes until a Chinese man walked up with a sheet of paper, holding it up for me and one European fellow to read.

"We're sorry, but the Great Wall's sightseeing tours have been suspended during the Olympics," the paper informed us.

It was a big disappointment, but hopefully I can squeeze in a visit to the Great Wall before my return to Japan.

* * * * *

I enjoyed a visit to the beautiful Temple of Heaven on Thursday afternoon. Lush gardens, quiet walkways and magnificent architecture made the visit memorable.

I learned this after entering the complex:

"Built first in 1420 (A.D.),a masterpiece of the Ming and Qing architectural art and a precious example of China's architecture, the temple of heaven is the largest architectural group for worshipping heaven in the world," the landmark sign states.

"(The Temple of Heaven is) a place where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would worship heaven and pray for the bumper crops."

Centuries later, it's a place where Jorge Hernandez Isussi, the president of El Salvador's National Sports Institute, enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the park.

I caught up with him just steps away from the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where a Chinese tour guide translated numerous factual tidbits into Spanish.

Having spent the past 25 months living in Tokyo, I've had limited chances to converse in Spanish, but I politely introduced myself to him in Spanish, even though I hesitated at first, trying not to blurt out Japanese words and carefully choosing the right words and Spanish grammar.

The friendly Salvadoran replied in a mixture of English and Spanish, talking about his nation's small, but proud Olympic delegation: 11 athletes in nine sports, including rowing, judo, shooting and cycling.

It was a privilege to hear his words about the excitement and anticipation in El Salvador over these 11 special athletes. And it was a pleasant reminder that the Olympic behemoths — the United States, Russia and China — shouldn't command all the headlines.

* * * * *

You never know who you'll meet while traveling in an Olympic city.

Exhibit A: Outside of my hotel I chatted with a German fellow named Gerhardt on Thursday night. He works as a freelance journalist, specializing in coverage of table tennis. He grew up in East Germany and was unable to travel to foreign countries until after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

Since then, he's visited 46 countries, including Japan on several occasions.

Exhibit B: At a nearby watering hole in Beijing's Haidian District, I conversed with a university student named Mr. Gao earlier in the even ing. Gao, who told me his English nickname is Corey, stopped by the nightclub to catch highlights of the Brazil-Belgium men's soccer game. He already knew the final score: Brazil 1, Belgium 0.

Gao wanted to see how Brazil recorded the victory. Then, when the game was still scoreless in the 71st minute, he excused himself to take a phone call from a friend.

He returned to his seat 10 minutes later, or about two minutes after Hernandes had scored the match-winning tally for the South American powerhouse.

Gao, I instantly discovered, was disappointed he missed the goal, but happy to know that I enjoyed seeing it.(I'm hoping he caught the replay later.)

Our conversation soon turned to basketball. I asked Gao this question: Who is your favorite Chinese Olympian? And, hey, remember this: He had many to choose from (a 639-member national squad).

Gao likes Yao Ming. The Houston Rockets' starting center is his No. 1 Chinese Olympian.

Why?

"He talks nice but he plays great," Gao said, insisting he couldn't express the precise meaning in English.

Don't worry. The point was understood, my new friend.



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