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|| News Item: Posted 2008-06-30

Practical tips for the Beijing Olympics
Frank Folwell shows us where the media will be sleeping and offers other wonderful information about traveling to China.

By Frank Folwell

Photo by Frank Folwell

Photo by Frank Folwell

CCTV building
I visited Beijing for the first time in 1978. The Cultural Revolution had just ended. The Gang of Four was blamed for everything. Beijing was a different place. There were no tall buildings or super highways. In fact, there were few cars on the streets. The biggest danger was dodging the thousands of black bicycles.

Outside of Beijing, Westerners were unknown. If we stopped in a public place we often drew a crowd, a hundred people or more, staring at us without saying a word.

Today, a taxi ride from the airport to downtown Beijing is reminiscent of driving into Chicago. Jammed multi-lane highways are flanked by high-rise apartment buildings. The city is alive with traffic and pedestrians. Commerce abounds on every corner. Beijing residents call the ever-present construction crane the city bird. Novel new buildings like CCTV headquarters are going up everywhere (locals say it looks like a pair of trousers.) Mao's picture may still be hanging on the gate to the Forbidden City, but this is not Mao's China.

Young people are interested in all things Western. When asked what TV shows they watch, they reply, "Prison Break, Lost, Desperate Housewives." They watch what American kids watch and dress like American kids. It is an amazing transformation. China is alive and growing with an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY's bureau chief, told me that it is ironic because the most laissez-faire economy in the world is communist China.

I hope you have a great Olympics.

Crowded Beijing
Thousands of tourists from all over the world are supposed to be descending on Beijing for the Olympics. It may not happen. The New York Times has reported that tourism is way down and may continue to fall. Journalists I met in Beijing told me that it appeared that hotels would not be full. It is difficult to predict, but it is a fact that visas are harder to obtain. Also, the earthquake may be a factor in slowing down visitors.

Don't worry the stands will be full. People will be coming from all over China for the Games. People see it as a coming-out party. The excitement and pride in the event is beyond measure.

Getting There
I am not one to get excited about flying for 13 hours, but flying from the East Coast or even Chicago, the flight will pass over the Arctic near the North Pole. Get a window seat and enjoy this experience. The flight will be daylight all the way. The only problem is you will fill the cabin with light just when everyone is tied up in the movies. Open the window shade anyway. The flight ends up over Siberia, the Gobi desert and on to Beijing.

Arrival - Beijing Capital International Airport
You will get an immigration form on the plane to fill out. There are two parts: one for arrival and one for departure from China. If you save the departure form, you avoid the hassle of filling out another when you leave.

If you are flying into Beijing from overseas, you will arrive at the recently opened Terminal 3, which is being touted as the largest building in the world. This means quite a walk from distant gates. Be prepared.

I have found the arrival process to be streamlined. You no longer have to fill out the "health form." Instead, you walk past infrared sensors that scan everyone to see if you have a fever. The signs say, "Taking temperature."

Now you are on your way to immigration, which is very much like the U.S. There are queues specifically for those with Olympic credentials. You should be able to move through quickly. While the immigration officer goes through your passport, you can rate your immigration experience by pressing buttons - from smiley to frowning face.

By this time, official guides will meet those with Olympic credentials. Head for the down escalators to the trains that take you to baggage claim, similar to the U.S. - big carousels and long waits (I have waited more than an hour for luggage). Customs is next. Most of you know that you are supposed to complete a special customs declaration form for equipment you are carrying and have it validated by the Chinese embassy or consulate in the U.S. I have no experience with this. I have never made a customs declaration. I just take the green channel, nothing to declare.

Media transport will begin July 25. They will take you to an accreditation center and then to media housing.

There are currency exchanges run by banks in the baggage claim area. You can change cash or travel checks.

Photo by Frank Folwell

Photo by Frank Folwell

Media housing for the Olympics.
Media housing
The media villages are in high-rise apartment buildings (MV-1 and MV-2). MV-1 is five kilometers from the Main Press Center, MV-2 is closer, only two kilometers. The apartments appear to be very comfortable - probably better than media housing at previous games. We were told that the top floors of the buildings would not be used so that the elevators and other facilities would not be taxed. All rooms are air-conditioned and have refrigerators and the ubiquitous electric kettle to heat water. They are supposed to be equipped with cable TV with Olympic broadcasts.

Breakfast is free! Supposed to open at 5:30 a.m. General food service supposed to be open 24 hours. Both villages will have VISA ATMs and general stores. Also, daily laundry and dry cleaning (Do you believe this? Remember Athens.), self-service laundry (free) for the brave. Finally, there are supposed to be swimming pools and exercise facilities.

Beijing traffic is terrible. Rush hour can make Los Angeles traffic look tame. Drivers don't follow rules we are used to. However, I expect traffic might not be a problem during the Games because of Olympics-only lanes and odd-even traffic rules. Half the cars will not be on the road on any given day: license plates ending with an odd number can only drive on odd dates and vice versa.

Media transportation
There is one big change for Beijing media transportation that may be a very good thing - "clean to clean." You go through security when you leave the media village and then enter the MPC without another check. Same goes for venues. You go through security when you leave and then enter the venue without another check.

Media transportation has been a nightmare at some Olympics, but I don't think it will be in Beijing. They plan for 24-hour service. The only question is schedules to/from venues, which are supposed to be from three hours before to three hours after the competition. This did not work out well in Athens. I am guessing it will be better in Beijing.

The "big three" venues for swimming/diving, athletics and gymnastics (National Aquatic Center - Water Cube; National Stadium - Bird's Nest and National Indoor Stadium - Dancing Fan are very close to the MPC.

Taxis are metered and relatively inexpensive. They are an easy way to get around except during rush hour. Very few drivers speak English so ALWAYS get your destination written in Chinese on a card or in your notebook. In a pinch, I call a Chinese friend on mobile and hand the phone to the driver for instructions. Tips are not expected. There are three classes of taxis with different charges, but I always take the first cab I see.

Receipts are printed out in the taxi in Chinese and English. A trip from the airport to my hotel was 23 km and cost ¥60 plus ¥10 toll (US$10.30). Most trips in the city are much less. Often, there is an English recording thanking you for using the taxi service and reminding you to take all your belongings.

Food is a joy in China! My hosts on a two-week trip told me we would not eat the same food twice - they were right. You can find first class restaurants that charge Western prices, but the real joy is enjoying the incredible variety of Chinese food in the smaller eateries.

Tipping is not expected. Attention to cleanliness is improving; in fact some restaurants deliver your plates and bowls shrink-wrapped in plastic. Use normal precautions for travel. Be cautious about raw vegetables and fruit - depends on the situation.

Larger restaurants give official receipts with a scratch off area like a lottery - just scratch off and see if you get any money back. Smaller restaurants off the tourist track are very inexpensive.

The most popular Western food chain with the Chinese is Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are plenty of McDonalds and Starbucks. I admit I tried McDonalds. I had to see what it was like. Not much different from the U.S. except the sauce a little spicy. I watched a six-year-old boy and his older brother order food. The boy came skipping back to his table, eyes beaming. I watched him eat every French fry with relish. Kids are the same everywhere.

One joke Chinese tell, is that we, "Eat anything with legs, except tables and anything with wings, except 747s." It may be close to the truth. However, you don't find many really exotic foods in Beijing. (Yes, it is true, I ate cat in Guangzhou.)

Photo by Frank Folwell

Photo by Frank Folwell

Bugs on a stick (top). Susanna Yan Xu eats beetles on Donghuamen Street (bottom).
One place to be adventurous is the Donghuamen night market. You will see a variety of strange food on skewers including scorpions, locusts and sea horses. But you can also get grilled chicken (at least it tastes like chicken and other more normal selections).

If you dine with Chinese friends, food will always be ordered and served family style. Everyone takes food from plates, almost always with their chopsticks. Westerners may be turned off because the same chopsticks for eating are used for grabbing food. Some restaurants have serving spoons, but smaller restaurants will not. Virtually all the meals I have eaten in China are served this way - no spoons, just chopsticks. It is just the way it is done.

Beijing is full of hotspots, some quite expensive. I am sure visiting journalists will find their favorites, so I will mention only a couple.

The first place I would go is Houhai Lake, which is lined with restaurants, teahouses, Karaoke bars and even a Starbucks. Tables at lakeside are great on a hot evening. This area will be packed during the Olympics so go early. Have fun.

If you arrive before the Games get underway, there is a interesting event every night at Houhai. Locals set up a large boombox mounted on a motorbike and play dance music. Early in the evening older couples practice serious ballroom dancing. Everything from Strauss Waltzes to Latin music. Later the music moves to disco and even hip-hop. Line dancing finishes up the evening. You gotta see this. Dance organizers told me they won't be doing this during the Olympics because of the crowds.

The Sanlitun area has bars and some restaurants. It is very popular with tourists. You will be assaulted by touts trying to get you to come in for "one beer" or "lady bar."

Recommended guidebook and map
Frommer's Beijing Day by Day is small, easy to carry, and has lots of great information. Most of the destinations, including restaurants and hotels are written in English and Chinese on the map pages. You can show taxi drivers.

The Beijing Olympic Venues Tourism and Transport Map is very good because it has all the Olympic venues on the map and it is easy to read. Only place I know of to buy this is at the English language store on Wangfujing Street.

Weather and Air Quality
It will probably be very hot during the Olympics. I was in Beijing in August of 2007. Temperatures were in the 90s, but then cooled off. Can it be worse than Atlanta or Athens? I doubt it. Bring hot weather clothing, but remember you might spend a lot of time indoors. Take a sweatshirt or pullover to fend off chilly air conditioning.

Rain? Authorities are going to extremes to prevent rain from ruining the Opening Ceremonies and other events. They plan to seed the atmosphere with planes and even artillery to prevent rain.

Air quality is another question. The U.S. Olympic Committee hired consultants who warned that the air quality could be a detriment to competition. They recommended that athletes not arrive early for training in Beijing. Many athletes will train in nearby countries or cities and arrive in Beijing just before they compete. Some may miss the Opening Ceremonies.

It certainly is a concern for athletes. On the other hand, the Chinese have made major efforts to curb pollution. They will limit cars on the road from July 20 to Sept. 20, stop construction projects and curtail outdoor painting. A number of iron and steel factories in the area will be closed.

The air will not be a big problem for most journalists, after all we aren't running marathons. Around 60-70% of the days I spent in Beijing started off with a heavy haze, often clearing somewhat in the afternoon. A sunny day in Beijing is not the same as a sunny day in Athens. There is usually a lingering haze. The bottom line, the air never affected me - I had no symptoms whatsoever.

Olympic veterans are used to tight security. You will be mag-and-bagged to death even with the new system. I have gone through security screening 10 times in a day just to do my job. Here are some suggestions:
• Avoid metal jewelry, watches, belts, etc. that you have to remove for security checks.
• Develop a routine for yourself - and follow your procedure every time! Or you might lose your phone or camera.
• Put your cellular phone, pocket cameras or metal watch in a pouch, inside your camera bag or zipped up in your photo vest to run through the scanner. Everything in one place so you are not collecting a bunch of small items.
• Avoid the baskets for small stuff. I have seen them dumped as they come off the scanner.
• Stuff goes missing, especially phones, at security checks. It just happens! Watch out.
• The people waiting behind you will kill you if you hold up the line. The goal is to walk through without a secondary check, pick up your stuff quickly as possible. However, mandatory hand inspections are probably unavoidable when carrying a heavy load of equipment.

Photo by Frank Folwell

Photo by Frank Folwell

A normal day in Beijing, a blanket of haze over the city.
Protect your gear
Things will disappear if you are not careful. Take a security cable for your laptop. ALWAYS secure it or you will lose it. At least try to slow down thieves. If you set your camera down for a minute it could disappear. We lost a $4,000 digital camera when it was left on a stadium seat for just a few minutes. Never leave equipment unattended.

A routine is important. When you are working long hours without much sleep, it is easy to make mistakes like forgetting to lock up your laptop.

100 Yuan = about US $14. The largest bill you will see is ¥100 - red with Mao on it. There are lesser bills down to one yuan and much smaller (in size) bills for fractions of a yuan called jiao. Check the back of the bill. If it says Yi Jiao (one jiao) it is 1.4 cents, not 14 cents. There are coins, but not used that much.

Credit cards are accepted at major stores and restaurants - not in taxis, smaller shops or restaurants. There are lots of ATMs in Beijing.

There will be a bank in the MPC and ATMs in the MPC and many venues. Remember VISA is the Olympic sponsor. Non-Visa cards may not work in the MPC or venues.

In Athens, the best exchange rate was the bank at the MPC, Check the rate there if you are going to change a large sum.

Travelers cash usually have a better rate than cash.

Some examples of exchange rates I got. All rates are yuan to the dollar:
• At the airport bank - ¥6.8064 for travelers checks.
• ATM - ¥6.70533 using bank card.
• Hotel desk - ¥683.25 for cash or ¥6.887 for travel checks
• Credit card - ¥6.683 for my hotel bill with Visa card.

This is about $2.80 less per $100 for the credit card (worst rate) compared to travelers checks at the hotel (best rate). Not a huge difference exchanging a lot of money. If you changed $1000, the difference would be $28.

Counterfeit money is a big problem. Watch out for fake ¥100 notes. Most Chinese can tell the difference immediately, but it is not so easy for foreigners. Somehow I got two bad ¥100 notes. Check your money, even from a bank.

One way a bill is palmed off on you - hand a ¥100 bill to a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper turns away with the bill and then hands it back, saying there is something wrong with the bill. They request a different one. You were handed a counterfeit bill; the bills are exchanged when they turn around.

How can you tell real from fake:
• Fake bills usually feel smooth, real notes have a distinct texture.
• The watermark of Mao (left side) on fake bills is lighter or may not show up when held up to light. It will be obvious on real bills.
• The telltale test is the green 100 in the lower left corner. Hold the bill at an oblique angle. On a real bill the 100 will look dark, almost black. On a fake, it will still appear to be green.

Photo by Frank Folwell

Photo by Frank Folwell

Top bill is counterfeit - this is scanned as a transparency. Same effect as holding the bill up to the light. 100 Yuan equals about US $14.
There are hundreds of places to shop, including high-priced Wangfujing Street, but everybody ends up at the Silk Market or its cousin, the Sanlitun Clothing Market.

It's not really a silk market anymore although they do have silks. There is everything imaginable in huge buildings full of shops. Yes, it is a tourist trap. But there are many tempting knock-offs (fake designer goods including Olympic merchandise). Cloisonne beads are a great buy, a unique gift. Mao alarm clocks are also a favorite. Of course, T-Shirts, hats, Rolex watches (fake, of course).

Most of the time merchants will quote a ridiculously inflated price for foreigners, which can make shopping unpleasant. For example, I checked out a pair of "famous brand" shoes. The shopkeeper said $100. I walked away. She literally came after me, tugging me back to the stall. I bargained down to ¥90 or about $13 (probably still too much. If you find bargaining difficult, these places are not for you.

Business Cards
Business cards are important in China. There is an aura of respect and status around cards. Always offer and accept cards with two hands. Never treat another person's card disrespectfully. It is a great idea to have bilingual cards made - one side English, the other Chinese. It will impress.

Mobile phones
The rate card mobile phones should be perfect for most people, but there are other possibilities.

Set up your existing Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile phone for international service. There is GSM and CDMA cellular service in Beijing. I have used Verizon with no problems other than high cost. People were able to reach me from the U.S. Good for emergencies.

However, using a U.S. phone to call people in Beijing is incredibly expensive, $1.29/minute to the U.S. Calls in Beijing are charged as a long distance call.

If you have an unlocked GSM phone or can get yours unlocked, there is a good alternative. Buy a China Mobile SIM card at one of the many mobile phone stores for about $15 to $20 with ¥50 time on it. You will have a local number for calling and texting - you can even call or text back to the U.S. The cost of use is quite low for local calls. Get recharge cards at any newsstand.

FYI: The SIM cards are sold a varying prices. Why? Some numbers are considered lucky and bring higher prices. Eights are especially desirable. After all, what happens on 8/8/08 at 8 p.m.?

There have been hawkers at the airport in the past selling the cards at inflated prices. Don't pay too much.

Don't drink tap water. Bottled water is available everywhere, even brands like Evian (expensive). Bottled beverages are available including Coke and Pepsi. Most Chinese bottled drinks are very sweet, even tea. In restaurants, it is a good idea to order bottled water.

There will be an electric kettle in your room. This will do a good job of making water drinkable if you boil it.

The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tien' anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven are all worth a visit. All except the Great Wall are easily accessible by taxi or Metro. You can do this on your own. The Great Wall at Badaling is the place most tourists go. It is always crowded and will be more so during the Olympics. Try to arrange an excursion to one of less visited spots, although they are farther away.

(Frank Folwell is the former deputy managing editor for photography and graphics at USA TODAY. He has coordinated coverage at numerous Olympic Games and has traveled the world extensively.)

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