Thursday, April 7, 2011

Day 4 - This Tour Goes to ELEVEN! Part V - Look! There's the Bird's Nest...

And other New Uses of the Olympic Stadiums

So, what, are you, as a government that is extremely uncomfortable with large organized gatherings of your own citizens that YOU didn't organize, to do with a couple of stadiums you built to impress foreigners?

Step 1 - make sure they are not used for any gatherings of your own citizens by not only fencing off the stadiums, but also fence off the roads as well.

Step 2 - throw up a couple of guard posts, and only allow tourists and select government officials into the areas around these stadiums.

Step 3 - in the vast caverns under these stadia that once held; athletes, their equipment, spectators going to and from events, concessions and officials, install special tourist stores, night clubs, and other shady operations sanctioned at some level by someone in the government (or by someone with power over some branch, stick, twig or leaf of it).

Step 4 - because the areas where people used to congregate and sports were actually done are no longer of use to you, as the government, and possibly an object of severe dislike, let these structures fall rapidly to rack and ruin.

Step 5 - contemptuously ignore all international censure of the international community on these matters, just like you do for everything else.  Because you can.  And you are too busy with so much else!

How does this come up?

As our tour was winding down, we still had plenty of time before we were supposed to show up at the tea house.  So why not make quick stops at a few more shops to pick up Chinese Souvenirs of (slightly) better than average quality?  First, on the way to this "tourist only complex" we made a quick stop on a half fenced off overpass where we could get a quick snap shot of the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium, 

the Water Cube (the swimming venue)
You can see tail of the hotel in the water cube picture.
And you can see the corner of the water cube in the picture below.

 and the (in)famous "Seven Star Hotel."
I can't tell you how many times we were told,
"China is the only country with a 7-star hotel."
Possibly because I stopped listening at some point.   

The Birds Nest and the Water Cube are nearly impossible to drive to.  Infrequent subways will take you there, but you get off at what feels like the end of the line (well it is).  And you walk out into a deserted ghost town.  The guide books says you can get tours and walk around the stadium, but it is apparently depressing as you can see the structure falling apart and rusting.  And apparently there is no way near or into the Water Cube.  I bet that is a weird and scary place these days.  We declined the trek later, and just stuck with these odd pictures at about the closest point to these structures a regular person can drive to.

The "Seven Star" hotel is a different matter.  You can still drive there if you want to.

Built for the Olympics, as a 7-star, they were one upping (well 2-upping) the traditional maximum of "5-star."  All this hyperbole comes into perspective as you realize that a large number of Beijingers STILL live in houses that have only a cold water tap, and must empty a chamber pot into the community toilet every morning.  One rapidly gets the feeling that their 1-star includes even fewer amenities than what a Westerner would consider 1-star.  That, and what few amenities it takes to be a 4-star toilet.  And the fact that no Chinese institution would ever WANT to be 4-star anyway due to to "unlucky" associations of the number 4.  (Our hotel had no floor 4, 14 or 24 - or 13 for that matter).  The star system in China seems to work on an odd number only scale anyway.
So 7-Star really comes out to 4-star anyway.  Whoop-de-do.  But they are apparently charging 7-star prices all the same.  We could see, driving by, that even the front building is largely an X-Ray building.  Floors were empty or in the midst of halted construction. And for a structure purportedly built for the 2008 Olympics, occupancy was WAY behind schedule.
The best rumor we heard about it, "George W. Bush has bought a whole floor."

After we snapped those pictures, we stopped at the "Silk Museum and Store."  And after what I'd seen the Chinese government passing off as museums, if this store wanted to call their collection of an old silk winding machine and a few prints of old scrolls depicting pre-industrual silk harvesting methods a museum, I felt they were perfectly justified.  Strange how quickly I fell back into the "flexible standards" that come of getting by in a communist country when travelling as just a peon tourist.

Oh... and for those of you in school in the 70's, the silk winding machine was exactly the same kind I had seen in my childhood elementary-school educational movies on the Silk Worm.  (Silly nostalgic excitement attack!) 
Dim light, small room, and they were in a hurry to get us to
the part where we were supposed to spend money.
Alas... this is the only shot I got. 
In the store portion (yes much, much larger than the museum) we saw silk everything - and this cloth was thick.  There was hardly any of the silk gauze so popular in the US now.  The silk comforter was tempting, but we had just replaced our comforter at home.  The clothes and fabric were all florals of the 1980's Laura Ashley school, or out of the Wild-Victoriana style as far as I could tell.  Just not my style.  And mostly too small anyway.  We did manage to find some nice decadent sheets.  

And on to the pearl store.  This was in the understory caverns of the stadium used for beach volleyball, among other things.  The stadium was of no interest, but all the rooms underneath had been converted into interesting things (including the above mentioned night club).  This was a freshwater pearl store.  Salt water pearls are more a specialty of the Japanese and other Pacific nations with a similar coast line/land ratio.  China with prodigious inland waters always has had more of a hand in fresh water pearls.
We were shown the freshwater oysters that are the source of the pearls, and they cut one open so we could see the pearls in situ.  Originally our hostess asked us to guess how many pearls there were, and we could keep them if we got the right number.  Well, all of us guessed far short, but since it was just the 3 of us, and she didn't have anything to do with the pearls herself, she still gave them to us.  

Fresh water oyster... check out the pearls on the counter... and more on the shell

We ended up with some nice pearls for Alec's sister, and a few cool looking HUGE irregular pearls for me.  I still need to make necklaces out of them.
On our way out a Russian group came in, and in the same way we had been greeted by our own pearl-store hostess who spoke quite good, but frantic, English limited to selling pearls, I could hear the Russian speaker (with a really decent accent) doing the same for the Russian group.  Incidentally I could understand her since her Russian was pretty elementary, much like mine :).

Almost done with showing us stuff to buy, there was 1 more stop... the Tea Shop.  But that's next.
Fun Facts:  

Unlike salt water oysters, where you use a hard particle to start the pearl, and only 1 or 2 at a time, with freshwater oysters you actually use tiny bits of oyster meat, and can put up to 40 implants.  Hence the 27 pearls in our oyster (Including the lumps on the shell.)

If you want to see if pearls are real, and really the color they are, and not colored after harvesting, rub two pearls together. They should give off a shell-dust (like grinding a clam shell) and it should be white!  Even if the pearl is grey or pink or lavender.

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