We were making better progress than expected, so after a quick discussion up front Linda said we had enough time to walk through the area by the Olympic stadiums if we wanted to. Despite the sore feet and damp shirts, everyone was game -- none of knew then (or now) if or when we might ever get another chance. After some zig-zagging along different highways & some larger roads in the city proper, we began passing the apartments that had originally been built to house the athletes and officials. Team USA had filled an entire apartment block (pictured), while some of the smallest teams had only needed one or two apartments.
A short distance later, our driver pulled over and we all got off the bus. Off to one side was a massive, block-long hotel designed to look like a dragon (okay, if you squint a little). What really impressed us was the collection of high-def video screens mounted on the outside of the building; the main tower (the dragon's "head") had a massive unit that spanned five stories mounted up high where it could be seen from most of the surrounding neighborhood. We would later find this was just a taste of things to come... but it still was an impressive display of modern China's slightly scary technological capabilities.
As we made our way across the street, Linda explained that the roads inside the Olympic complex are closed to traffic on weekends and have become a popular place for Beijingers to spend a little time unwinding. When we finally got across the road, across the service lanes, and through the security checks, we encountered a little bit of the everyday things that make Beijing so different from back home... a motocab. These little descendants of ancient rickshaws are basically the front end & engine of a motorcycle grafted onto a small enclosed compartment, forming a motorized tricycle that zips easily through traffic while protecting its driver and a passenger from the elements. (I have no information on how well they protect anyone from the crazy traffic...!) The little buggers were buzzing around all over the city, so it was interesting to see one up close... and doing so made me all the more certain I'd stick with the regular four-wheeled taxis!
Looking past the motocab (and the big Mickey Dee's just beyond!) we could see the famous Water Cube; there was still too much daylight to get a glimpse of the colored lights inside, but if you look at the photos very carefully you'll see that the walls & roof are translucent. (If the videos we saw back in the airport arrivals area are to be believed, the interior is being remade in to a water park & shopping mall.) We started down the main avenue that bisects the Beijing Olympic Green (not much "green" where we were walking, but that's the official name) past the Water Cube toward the Bird's Nest National Stadium. Along the way we began to encounter vendors who were flying long strings of mini-kites tethered together, so light that they remained airborne just from the motion of the vendors walking down the street. (The string in the attached photo eventually settled to the ground when the vendor stopped to make a sale... and was promptly driven over by one of the official golf carts that were moving up & down the street!) The farther into the Olympic Green we went, the more vendors we encountered... and the more persistent each became. We also began seeing guards scattered around, in addition to regular police; in China, keeping things "harmonious" is of major concern to the authorities. I did get one small chuckle at the guards'e expense, though; some wore shoes, some wore sneakers, some wore boots, I even saw one wearing sandals... I guess the idea of harmony doesn't necessarily include uniform footwear!
We continued down the road past the Press Building (the facade is designed to mimic the look of circuitry with a black-on-black color scheme) and other venues, dodging the occasional golf cart and increasing flow of vendors. I thought they'd been persistent back at the Forbidden City... but, wow, these guys (and gals) just would not take "no" for an answer! We encountered the largest concentration of vendors as we passed the Olympic Tower and came to the main open area outside the Bird's Nest. Looking around, I was struck once again by the sheer scale of what I was seeing; the Olympic Green stretched off into the distance (possibly not as far as it seemed, since the haze was pretty thick), and every building seemed designed to hold crowds beyond any I'd experienced in a sporting venue. (I have to admit that the largest stadium I've ever attended a game in is Camden Yards in Baltimore... but that's still not exactly postage-stamp sized!) The other thing that struck me was the omnipresence of technology; the massive video screens on the hotel could be seen clearly, and there were kiosks & tents scattered around with very large TVs showing the evening news, a speech by the President, and some cultural programming. This was far from just an open expanse of concrete & roads around a major stadium; it was a showplace, and a busy one at that.
There was a momentary bit of confusion as Linda negotiated with two different vendors on behalf of the other families in our group (it was hard to tell who was competing with whom vs. who was a friend holding extra inventory), but they were soon the happy owners of long strings of the mini-kites. I thought about it for a moment, but realized I really didn't have a way to adequately display one back home, so I just kept shooting photos and looking around (one of a very few decisions to not buy a souvenir that I don't regret). As we got moving again, we walked past the Bird's Nest and the complexity of its design became even more obvious. It's not just a carefully arranged tangle of girders; I hadn't known there's actually a semi-standard stadium encapsulated in the "nest", and that many of the openings in the tangle of girders have transparent or translucent panels to act as a roof.
It was getting late so we set off to meet our bus. Walking along the large open plaza, I couldn't help but think the futuristic lampposts looked like alien trees sprouting from the ground of some distant planet... but that's just me. <grin> Moving around the far side of the Bird's Nest, the landscape changed to include more grass & trees as we approached a large park with a little touch of whimsy we all enjoyed -- all the ground lights along the walkway had been designed to look like little birds' nests to mimic their big cousin next door! There was also a very large pond with water lilies (and a few big, pink blooms that somehow always dodged behind a lily pad when I aimed my camera at them), and then after a few more minutes' walk past buses converted into rolling souvenir shops, we found our trusty chariot waiting and headed back to the hotel.
There was the usual bout of last-minute "whereizzit...?!?" and "where's the key to the &#@%! lock?" but we'd managed to complete most of our preparations earlier and checkout was relatively painless. (I had already emailed the PandaPhone people with a request to deliver the phone to our hotel in Nanning, but a last-minute check showed no response.) Traffic was actually almost normal so we were on time reaching the airport; once there we bid a fond farewell to Linda, figured out how much everyone was supposed to be tipped, and got through security with minimal fuss. We sat & waited a while in Terminal #2 (used for shorter-range flights; still large but nothing on the scale or impressiveness of Terminal #3 where we'd first been), and boarded our plane with minimal confusion.
Then things got weird.
The B777 we'd arrived in had spoiled me; this was a smaller Airbus plane designed to move smaller crowds shorter distances, so there was no data screen in front of me. Instead, as the plane began to fill, small LCD screens flipped down from the overhead bins every 5-6 rows... and began playing commercials for BMWs, jewelry, imported foods, and so on. I began to get the feeling that Communism ain't what it used to be... when the steady stream of BUY THIS! was interrupted by the usual pre-flight safety lecture. This, too, was on the little screen several rows in front of me, so while the pictures were clear I could barely hear a word uttered by the lovely fake stewardess onscreen in short skirt & high heels telling me how to survive a disaster. A quick look at the safety card in the seat pocket reassured me there wasn't anything new, so I settled back and waited for the commercials to start again.
A movie came on -- not some big-name Hollywood production, but a Chinese show about police in Hong Kong. No, I couldn't understand what they were saying (frankly, I could barely hear the tiny speakers on the monitors), nor could I read the Chinese text onscreen. For lack of anything else to do, I just watched for a few minutes, and pretty soon picked up on it being the story of two police units getting into trouble by competing against each other instead of working together. (I knew it was in Hong Kong because one of the few things I could make out on the soundtrack was a loud, "Yes, sir!" every time a superior office issued a command -- an interesting holdover from HK history.) It was soon obvious that everyone was pretty much a stock character; there was the Group Of Misfits led by the Grizzled Old Pro, and the Group Of Misfits led by the Female Officer With Something To Prove... They almost lost a robber because they were too busy keeping each other from catching the perp, then they got into trouble by fighting in a karaoke bar... then the Disillusioned Old Fat Cop was found drunk because of all the trouble and had to be practically carried home by the Grizzled Old Pro and the Young Rebel, who rode his motorcycle too fast, and then... Hey, waitaminit...
I suddenly realized we were at least 45 minutes into the movie, and the plane still hadn't pushed back from the gate...?!? None of the Chinese passengers seemed the least bit bothered, and were all reading or talking quietly among themselves. According to my watch, we should have been in the air for quite some time by that point, and I wondered if our getting to Nanning late was to use up some of the good karma we'd gained by arriving in Beijing early. I went back to watching the movie... the Gang Of Dangerous Criminals had just held up a bank and holed up in the hills when the plane switched to internal power; so far, so good...
And then the plane switched back to ground power; not so good. The pilot got on the (barely audible) PA system and said something that included "delay" and "cross traffic," then switched to Mandarin. I didn't know if I should worry or not when most of the Chinese passengers started laughing halfway through the announcement... I went back to watching the movie (now both groups were being ordered to cooperate in a search for the Gang Of Dangerous Criminals, and the Grizzled Old Pro was trying to convince the Female Officer With Something To Prove that her group would respect her more if she wasn't so hard-nosed... Like I said, these were very stock characters...) There was a bit of motion in the aisle, and there was the crew... passing out dinner!
Neither A nor I had ever had a meal served on a plane while on the ground, and we figured it didn't mean anything good. There were no funny smells, no smoke, no safety crew running around outside, and the Chinese passengers all seemed to be behaving as if this was an everyday occurrence, so we shrugged and opened up the box meals. We were both about 1/3 of the way through the meal when all of a sudden, all the video monitors folded back up into the ceiling, the plane switched to internal power, the crew scrambled to find seating, and (as the engines began spooling up and the plane rolled back from the gate) the Captain got back on the PA and announced we had just been given clearance, the crew should please prepare the cabin for takeoff, please return all seats to the upright position and fold up the seatback trays...
Dude, my dinner is spread out all over that tray you just told me to stow...! Everyone scrambled to get as ready for takeoff as they could, and I kind of shoveled everything back into the cardboard box & held dinner in my lap as we taxied... no, raced... through the airport. (If you remember the scene in the film Air Force One where the terrorists run the 747 across an airport on the ground, it was a little like that. Just faster.), We made a hard turn onto the runway and immediately blasted off into the sky without a moment's pause. I kind of got the feeling our pilot wanted to get where he was supposed to have already been, because I was used to hearing the engines throttle down about halfway when a flight reached cruising altitude; not only had we broken most speed limits getting from gate to runway, I never heard the engines on this flight throttle back other than to take them out of Max Thrust mode.
Once again, all the Chinese passengers were acting as if this happened every day, so I put my dinner back on the tray and after a couple of minutes, the little video screens unfolded from the ceiling again. Eventually, the two groups of police had worked together to end a violent shootout & capture the entire Gang Of Dangerous Criminals, the Disillusioned Old Fat Cop was captured by the baddies but redeemed himself honorably, the Female Officer With Something To Prove allowed her group the freedom to make their own attack plans, the Young Rebel learned how to be a team player, the Grizzled Old Pro honorably shared the credit with everyone, and everyone headed back to headquarters together while singing. (Hey, I can't help it; I got into the movie!) I watched a few repeats of the BMW and Nissan commercials, leafed through a magazine... and we were landing in Nanning.
I can't find my notes, but the pilot must've had that sucker on the highest throttle setting he dared because we actually made up almost an hour of the lost time. That's the good news; the bad news was that we were still landing late, as in "very" -- when I pulled my suitcase off the almost-empty baggage carousel, it was 02:15 in the morning. As our group made its way through the mostly-closed(!) airport, we met Lisa, who was going to be our in-province guide (and, as it turned out, general arranger, helper, organizer, scheduler, babysitter and general life-saver par excellence). She got us to our bus -- the only vehicle left in front of the terminal! -- and we blearily clambered aboard.
Now, a quick aside. Jump back to March, 2009; during the agency's travel seminar, one of the more "interesting" (read: frightening) statements was that on many trips, the group met their babies first thing in the morning on their first day in-province... and on some occasions, had just gotten to the hotel to find the SWI staff waiting for them, children in tow.
Now jump forward again to July, 2010. We'd gotten up early in the morning, with no chance to get used to the 12-hour time difference between Beijing and home. We'd spent most of the day on foot, including some very difficult climbing on the Great Wall. We'd had no time for freshening up before leaving for the airport. We'd sat on the plane for hours before it even left the gate. We were exhausted, disoriented, jet-lagged, and perhaps a bit smelly... and at 2:30 in the morning the idea that we might be meeting Miri around 8:00 and we hadn't even checked in at the hotel was enough to make our portraits appear in the dictionary where the word "anxious" was defined.
Lisa reassured us that everything was still on track, and that we would be meeting "our babies" later in the day... We'd have plenty of time to get some sleep and eat an easy brunch, maybe even take another "longevity nap," and then would all meet in the lobby at 2:30 in the afternoon to go get the little ones. I don't remember too much else from that ride, simply because I was fighting to stay awake long enough to get to bed for the night... We had been joined by both a driver and an older male guide (doggone it, I've got his name somewhere around here...), and we got a bit of a talk about the province we were now in and the area we were driving through. We'd been talking about "Guangxi" ever since Miri's paperwork came through, but the full name was Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (one of a handful of Chinese provinces with a semi-autonomous government due to a non-Han majority), and Nanning was its capital; if we headed south for a couple of hours, we'd end up in Vietnam.
Things were definitely blurry by the time we began driving through the city proper. The streets were mostly deserted at that hour, but I remember thinking there was a lot of neon in a lot of colors. Some buildings were outlined in neon, some buildings & walls had designs on their sides in neon, many bridges & overpasses were outlined with colored neon, and one set of bridges (which turned out to be directly across the river from our hotel room) had neon-circled lampposts that cycled from blues to greens to yellows to reds and back to blues... Very pretty, very fancy, and (as we soon found out) very Chinese. There was another momentary, Oh, NO! as the bus turned into a driveway and picked its way through some construction (something else that's apparently very Chinese), but the Guangxi Wharton International Hotel seemed to be intact... with more neon, of course.
We checked in, figured out how to cram everything into the elevator, and dragged ourselves down the hall to our room. There was a panel controlling various lights around the room, a couple of fancy mirrored alcoves with bronze or ceramic statuary, a nice hot pot (more on hot pots in another post) and assortment of coffee & tea... and... omigod.
I think A and I both stopped short for a moment (I know we both took nearly identical photos). Up until now, to varying degrees, everything had been part of an ongoing adoption process, a process that had been stretching out into the future literally for years. In a sense, A was still paperchasing, and conversations were still couched in terms of, "we'll figure out the right size when we get her," or, "we'll have to wait and see if she likes that," or other "someday after..." type statements. Even the idea that this was the last night without Miri being a member of the family was somehow an abstract idea -- until we walked into that room, because there was a crib in the corner.
There is a BABY'S CRIB in the room.
All of a sudden, it wasn't so abstract any more.