By TRENT DAVIDSON, SPECIAL TO SUN MEDIA
She smiles, but confusion replaces concern. Do I not know the Olympics are in August, and that I am very unfit? I nod but block out her trash talk. I'm mentally preparing myself to tackle an event for only the most ambitious of travellers: The sightseeing decathlon.
Over two days, I will attempt to experience 10 of the most popular attractions of Beijing, in a personal tribute to the Olympic city. The plane touches down, and I hustle out for a taxi to race to my first event. Let the games begin.
100 METRE RACE -- CHAIRMAN MAO'S MAUSALEUM
People come from all over China to pay respect to Chairman Mao Zedong, the first leader of the People's Republic of China, who died in 1976. The crowd is silent and respectful, but upon entering the "Mao-saleum," they jockey for position. I hold the inside lane and manage a fleeting look at the Chairman in his sarcophagus as I am hustled through by runners behind me.
It's all over in 10 seconds. The Chairman's face was a blur, which could be the pace of the sprint, or that he is especially waxy after all the maintenance performed upon him.
I exit into a souvenir shop where Mao memorabilia is for sale. I find his face emblazoned upon badges, plates, pens, stamps, and his little red book, filled with quotes spurning the capitalism his image now fuels. I'd say the Chairman would be rolling over in his grave, had I not just seen him.
400 METRE RACE -- GREAT HALL OF THE PEOPLE
I dash the 400 metres from the mausoleum to the political centrepiece of China without raising a sweat. Built in 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the Soviet style building commands attention. Its sheer size makes me feel insignificant; a sensation common in a country of more than one billion.
I follow a self-guided route through the monolith that includes the Great Auditorium, where Mao presented his plans for a new China, and the State Banquet Hall, which could potentially hold 4,999 of my closest friends for dinner. The building also features rooms reflecting the character of China's individual provinces, though most are drab. With the clock ticking, I can't risk the decathlon degenerating into a heptathlon, and skip them for event three.
HIGH JUMP -- IMPERIAL PALACE
I jog a short distance to the Imperial Palace, where people could once only get in with an extremely high jump. It's better known as the Forbidden City because it was off-limits to all except the emperor and his associates.
The massive grounds cover over 70 hectares and feature ancient buildings that housed Chinese royalty for hundreds of years. The emperor had access to thousands of rooms, which sounds excessive, but he did also have thousands of concubines to accommodate.
Guided tours are available, which is how I learned glutinous rice and egg whites were used to glue bricks during the palace's construction. It must have been an insult to the hungry peasants being shut out.
My highlight is a stone carving weighing 250 tonnes. Thousands of workers hauled it from another province. Ingeniously, in winter, they sprinkled water on roads to create an ice path to slide the brute block to the emperor's new address. This story of persistence over pain is the fillip I need to push on.
1,500 METRE RACE -- SUMMER PALACE
What's better than having one palace? Having two. The Summer Palace was the humble retreat of the emperor when he needed to get away from it all. I hail a taxi to take me to the emperor's home away from home. About 15 km from the city centre, the Summer Palace seems bigger than its larger imperial cousin. A massive man-made lake, which takes up three-quarters of the grounds, helps create the illusion.
While the buildings aren't as grand as those of the Imperial Palace, the emperor's holiday home offers a more calming walk. There are winding paths around the lake, recreations of ancient Chinese streets, and beautiful gardens, making it place for the longest run of the decathlon.
JAVELIN -- DONGHUAMEN MARKET
As the sun sets, I hail another taxi back to the city for my final event of the first day. The Donghuamen market features dozens of food stalls in the heart of Beijing's commercial district. Impaled up large skewers at each stall is a selection of animals, insects and more. If it can be speared and cooked, you'll find it on a stick here.
As I peruse the selections, I see many safe options such as noodles and dumplings, but at what other time will I be able to sample crispy insects?
I begin with glutinous rice (I'm curious how sticky it must be to secure bricks) before trying unusual fare. Snake and cicada do little for me, but I have high hopes for the finale of scorpion. I take a bite of a pincer and find the texture crunchy, like an arachnid potato chip. While the flavour isn't bad, it has a bland after-taste. An odd thing to discover, but as a dish, scorpion has no sting. I call it a night, satisfied I have received a big hit of protein for the next five events.
DISCUS -- TIANANMEN SQUARE
I begin my second day before sunrise, heading to an area big enough for the discus throw -- Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square. Each day dawn is met here with a solemn flag-raising ceremony.
The open space soon becomes crowded. I have under-estimated the stamina of my fellow athletes, who have swamped the square. Near the flagpole, there's not enough room to walk, let alone spin. As light greets the horizon, soldiers march to the flagpole and send the red flag on a slow journey upward. The Chinese national anthem blares from loudspeakers while onlookers maintain a silence of respect.
The day has begun. The crowd breaks up, as hawkers offering miniature flags prey upon nationalistic pangs. I walk past them and exit the square. While impressive, the square is not a spot for lingering, especially with four events to come.
110 METRE HURDLES -- THE HUTONGS
Many hutongs (narrow alleys) criss-cross Beijing, lined by courtyard homes that often house three generations of a family. While there used to be thousands, their numbers have dwindled as they have been razed to make room for roads and highrises. China winning the bid for the Games kick-started more demolition.
Hutongs can still be found in the city centre. Once there, you must jump - over puddles, rubbish, and most commonly, over spit. Not high hurdles, but ones you want to clear. There is a campaign to eliminate spitting before the Olympics, but it's a hard sell among die-hard hackers.
The hutongs show a traditional way of life. I see elderly residents perched around makeshift tables playing mahjong, and ladies performing tai chi to tunes crackling from an old radio. My favourite is two children having an improvised match of table tennis using a plank on two cardboard boxes. The game is an obsession here. Small wonder China has won 16 of the last 20 gold medals.
LONG JUMP -- XIUSHUI MARKET
The market was chosen as the long jump because a leap of faith is required to trust vendors on their goods and "best price."
Most people come to purchase counterfeit designer goods, which aren't always displayed but are whipped when you enter one of the stalls in the indoor market. Customers inspect the knockoffs so they can get a fair price. The irony of shoppers looking for flaws on a rip-off of a quality product, so they don't get ripped-off, doesn't seem to be grasped.
One stall offers me "real fakes" -- fakes of higher quality and higher prices -- for discriminating shoppers.
I don't have time to haggle for fake fakes, let alone real ones, so settle on a cheap Beijing '08 T-shirt.
POLE VAULT - THE GREAT WALL
I travel by bus and taxi to Simatai, 100 km out of Beijing, to view the Great Wall of China. At some sections of the Wall, a pole vault would put you on the other side.
As I ponder the difficulty, I realize there wouldn't have been much point. Invaders didn't need to vault the Wall; they simply bribed the guards and went straight over.
The attraction of Simatai over other towns lining the Wall is more of the original wall remains here. I contend with crumbling bricks and uneven steep surfaces as I head past watchtowers for a spectacular view of the Wall disappearing around mountains. I also learn that glutinous rice helped secure the bricks of the Wall.
According to Mao, "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a real man". I pass. For $5, I skip the long walk back by hurtling swiftly to the ground on a zip line. Cheating, maybe, but I'm sorely in need of some Tiger Balm and a rubdown.
SHOT PUT - ACROBATICS SHOW
Fortunately, my final event involves displays of strength by others. I've left the hard grind of the shot put to people who have the power to perform the seemingly impossible: The Beijing Acrobatics Troupe.
I watch in awe as they perform amazing feats such as spinning plates while carrying another acrobat upon their shoulders (who is also spinning plates) and throwing themselves atop each other to make human totem poles.
While watching, I am reminded of the true athletes, the ones who have complete control over their minds and bodies, and who will set new records come August. Their skills make a mockery of the pain I am feeling after two days of mild physical exertion.
Although I leave without a medal, I do at least depart with two days of indelible memories. That's gold.
Contact the China National Tourism Office at 416-599-6636, 1-866-599-6636 or tourismchina-ca.com.
This story was posted on Sun, April 27, 2008
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