University of Minnesota rower Molly Kalmoe has made the trek to the 2008 Summer Olympics as her sister, Megan Kalmoe, is a member of the United States Rowing team. As Molly cheers on her sister, she will provide gophersports with a spectator's point of view of the Olympics and Beijing.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
"The longest three minutes of my life."
Small boat finals was yesterday and the crowds had drastically increased from all the other days we had been to Shunyi so far. Today for the big boat finals, however, things were crazier still. With the prospect of medals, there came a new level of energy among the spectators. Megan and Ellen finished 5th in the double, behind medalists New Zealand, Germany and Great Britain as well as China, who finished fourth. Nobody could believe that China didn't medal! Megan and Ellen are, I think, relieved to be finished competing and are looking forward to moving into the Olympic village on Monday, visiting the Great Wall, and partaking in Closing Ceremonies in a few weeks.
It was a fun day of cheering our at the race course--we watched the American contender in the women's single, Michelle Guerette, win silver. I also thought it was a particularly wonderful day because for the fist time, we saw the mountains. We had clear, blue skies all day and virtually no haze. (As a sidenote: if you have been watching the races on TV up until now and have seen blue sky it is undoubtedly the work of filters and/or editing because we have seen no such thing but somehow the replays we see on TV always look to have beautiful, clear skies...) The American crowd finally congregated today, near the end of the family grandstand. We were sandwiched between a group from the Netherlands and a particularly rowdy Aussie crowd. It was nice to see the intensity and passion that the Aussies have for their athletes, but I was a little disappointed by the behavior displayed by some. They certainly weren't winning any sportsmanship awards in my book.
The medals ceremonies were quite interesting to take in; the medals, the flowers, the flags and the gold medalists' national anthems. I was getting goosebumps all day long just watching! After departing the medals dock, each medaling crew took a victory lap past the crowd, which consisted of rowing down the front of our grandstand, rowing across the race course at about the 250 (while the next race was underway,) and rowing back up along the grandstand on the other side of the course. Do they always let people cross the race course at the Olympics? It made me a little nervous because the crews never seemed in much of a hurry or real responsive to directions from the officials after just winning those medals!
Big boat finals was an adventure in itself. Bigger crowds, louder cheering and plenty of great racing. We watched the men's eight take bronze in a tight race, following the gold medal finish of the women's eight. It was absolutely unbelievable to be here live for that. And of course, then we got to sing.
Now we are getting ready to make the trip back home. Personally I have been dreading the 13 hour flight. According to our itinerary we are due to depart Beijing at 4:03 PM local time tomorrow (8/18) and we are due into Chicago at 4:06PM (also 8/18). We have been joking that this will be the longest three minutes of our lives. In any event, maybe we will get some sleep or watch a movie. It has been a crazy trip these past ten days and certainly an unforgettable experience. There is nothing else in the world quite like the Olympics and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been here to see it first hand in Beijing, China for the Summer 2008 Games.
Friday, August 15, 2008
"Follow me like a bunch of bananas."
Our days in Beijing are passing by quickly and I have realized that we now only have two full days left before we board a plane for home. I know that the moment we have been waiting for all week is near; medal finals for the small boats is tomorrow afternoon, and the anticipation is building. We have been keeping ourselves busy the past two days, but it is hard to get rowing off my mind.
Yesterday morning we toured the Forbidden City on foot, with a Chinese guide who goes by the English name Aragon (like the dragon rider, he told us). He had a lot to tell us about the Forbidden City, and lots of things to say about China, which was nice, but some of it seemed a little far-fetched. For example, he said that a 100 meter long ship mast had been discovered, and was found to have belonged on a large Chinese-made wooden ship the size of a modern US aircraft carrier, which supposedly housed a crew of 30,000 and sailed to the New World ages before Christopher Columbus. It seems that everywhere you go, somebody will tell you a different version of history. We also learned from Aragon that the Chinese invented spaghetti and that the Italians are mere poseurs with a red tomato sauce. Who knew? In any event, we were entertained by the sites and our guide throughout the duration of the 2 mile tour. Aragon told us to follow him, "like a bunch of bananas." We weren't exactly sure what that meant, but we sure tried.
Today we had our first spectating experience outside of rowing. We received free tickets via the Bank of America hospitality center for women's volleyball. We watched two matches at the Capital gymnasium, amidst an eager crowd of Chinese. First up was Venezuela and Poland, followed by Italy and Serbia. The second match was the more competitive, and fun, to watch, but we enjoyed both. Our seats weren't half bad either, especially for being free! We are still learning a lot every day, and certainly getting better at making our way around the city too. Tomorrow we go back to Shunyi to cheer on our boats in their finals. Can't wait!
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
"I have climbed the Great Wall"
It is bizarre for me to fully comprehend a visit to a place like the Great Wall of China; a structure so magnificent, so powerful, so full of history--this is the stuff of legends, not my life. Yet today I stood atop it's majesty, accompanied by my family, and hundreds upon hundreds of other tourists. We visited a section of the Wall known as Badaling, which is just under a two-hour drive from our hotel in downtown. We were joined in our travels by two young women from Singapore and two other Americans. The Americans, a father and son duo from Texas were interesting to chat with. The son is a rap artist, and his father is the manager. They are here for several performances throughout the duration of the games, trying to break onto the international music scene. We will be keeping an eye out for him in the upcoming months and years, to be sure.
Our group was guided by a Chinese woman, who we called by her English name, Jennifer. Jennifer gave us some valuable information about Chinese culture and the Great Wall (mostly trivia style,) but also opened up the floor for questions, since we had two hours to kill each way. My mom asked her about some of the more exotic foods we had seen for sale by some of the street vendors--namely seahorse on a stick. Jennifer said she hadn't tried the seahorse; she wasn't brave enough to do that. But she revealed that she had once eaten spiders and cicadas with her friends, which were, alas, very delicious! As we climbed through the foothills and into the mountains, the conversation grew sparse as we all tried to just take in the countryside. It was a wonderful break from the city life. Finally, when we reached the parking area below the Wall, Jennifer announced that we would have two hours of free time. Knowing that it would take about 40 minutes to hike up on foot, we chose to purchase tickets for the cable cars with the intent of retuning via the toboggan chutes (think alpine slide at a ski resort). We were not shortchanged on exercise despite our easy descent however. This section of the wall is situated on the cusp of a mountain range, whose name I cannot pronounce, and therefore is filled with a variety of steep inclines and plenty of stairs to keep anyone occupied for quite some time. Let me tell you, we were glad to be wearing synthetic shirts today. Cotton would have been a poor choice, even though we were spoiled again with slightly cooler temperatures and lower humidity today. Due to a lack of time and a long wait for a spot on the toboggan, we had to take the cable car in order to make it back in time to have lunch with the group and head back to Beijing. We are hoping that despite the smog and haze at least some of our pictures turn out, although it will be difficult to forget the sites we saw today.
As we were making our way back to the parking lot after our hike atop the Wall, we were haggled by many a vendor. One stand was selling shirts in a variety of colors which said, "I climbed the Great Wall," with a sketch of the Wall and some Chinese characters. The next stand down the road had nearly identical shirts which said, "I have climbed the Great Wall." So I guess the idea is you pick whichever you think is more grammatically correct... Among our other sites at the Wall that I forgot to mention was the interesting array of footwear choices. We saw loafers, 4-inch heels and cowboy boots--none of which I think would have been either comfortable, practical or safe on the hilly terrain.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
No Watermelons, etc.
Today was our second free day. We slept in a little (as much as we could given that our internal clocks haven't entirely adjusted yet). After discussing possible excursions with our guide, we decided on the Temple of Heaven and the Antique market. We thought we would broaden our transit horizons and venture onto the subway system today. We had heard nothing but rave reviews since arriving in Beijing and just had to give it a try. We used today's rowing tickets to get free fare even though we had no intent of going anywhere near Shunyi. It was long after we stepped into the Qian Men station near Tiananmen Square that we could confirm claims that the Beijing subway is nearly idiot proof. Between the announcements in both Mandarin and English and the giant maps which had blinking lights to indicate your current position, labeled in Mandarin, pinyin and English characters, it would be difficult to go astray.
We arrived at our destination stop and walked a few blocks alongside a massive stone wall surrounding the Temple of Heaven until we reached the North Gate. My parents joined the ticket queue and meanwhile my brother, Bill, and I entertained ourselves by reading a large and extensive posting of park rules and regulations. Our favorites included: "No singing for profits," "Do not be dancing in the corridors," and "Footballs, pets, watermelons, etc. not allowed." Boy was I glad I had left all my watermelons at the hotel, although nobody appeared to be checking bags real closely for such contraband. All joking aside, we were absolutely blown away by the sheer size of the Temple grounds. The site consists of some 273 hectares, which is about 4 times the area of the Forbidden City, we are told. (It was so overwhelming that within the first 10 minutes we agreed that there was no reasonable possibilty of ever making it to the Antique market yet today.) The Temple of Heaven is one of four originial sacrificial centers/worship sites situated at the four corners surrounding the Forbidden City, which were used by the Chinese emperors of previous dynasties. There was a good deal of beautiful architecture to take in as well as plenty of green space to enjoy. We also stumbled upon an artist exhibition which is set up just for a few weeks during the Games. The artwork consisted of mostly traditional Chinese style paintings and a few contemporary pieces. All of it was produced by students and professors from a local university. We had a great time learning about subject matter, techniques, symbolism and the principles of traditional Chinese art directly from some of the students.
We also appreciated their A/C. Having been spoiled with a bit of cooler, rainy weather, today came as a bit of a shock. I don't think we've seen so much blue sky since we left home, let alone seen the sun at all (because of the thick smog)! It turns out the sun here is just wretchedly intense. I think we all came home a little pink despite our dutiful slathering of SPF 45. We are amazed to see the locals sweat it out in full pants and long sleeves on hot days like today. Many of them opt for the additional protection of parasols or umbrellas. Our guide, Erin, told us that many Chinese go to great lengths to keep their complexion as white as possible. It is a sign of economic status because tanned skin is an indication of labor. The less you work, the whiter your skin, and therefore the better your apparent status. Erin also mentioned the popular marketing and utilization of skin whitening products. We continue to attract an undue amount of attention and confuse taxi drivers all over Beijing with our destinations and directions, but we are finding ourselves more comfortable amidst the crazy energetics of this city. And we are counting down the days until Megans next race... Go USA!
Monday, August 11, 2008
Did you say Kiwi?
We had breakfast at the hotel as usual again this morning. Everyone seemed a little bit more nervous than normal, however. Today is Megan and Ellen's second day of racing and they have to finish well to move on to the medal final. After eating our plates of muesli, yogurt and fruit, we walked down through the hutong to the local market. It is filled with a unique and intense energy. Among other things, it is very loud. Vendors line rows and rows of tables with brightly colored produce, eggs, tea and a variety of dry goods. They shout greetings and sales pitches at the passersby. Customers come into the market, some with their own grocery bags (how very "green" of them!) to barter their way to purchasing the days' goods. As usual, there is a large accumulation of old, rusty bicycles at the entrance. The whole market was really quite an experience. Before long we noticed that it was almost time to leave for Shunyi.
We hustled back to the hotel, scarfed down a pizza so as to avoid the hunger issue we had two days ago at the venue, and headed out. Today we decided we would try our luck with a slightly different transportation route. First we caught a cab out on the main road and took it to an Olympic bus hub. We have actually been spending a great deal of time in taxis getting around Beijing. For one thing it is fast and also very cheap. The drawbacks are that none of the cab drivers speak English and we often get turned down when we show them our destination--either they are illiterate and don't understand the Chinese address we have gotten from our guides, they don't know where it is that we want to go, they can't comprehend the location when we point it out on a map, or they simply don't desire to take our fare. Most of the cabs we have ridden in are Hyundai manufactured, and the other more popular cars on the roads include Volkswagens and Audis although one evening we did spot a lone Mazarati too. Anyways, the taxi-bus commute took only two hours, which was a great improvement from our previous trip.
We got out to the venue, made it through security and into the stands as the big boat heats were finishing up (they had been delayed due to inclement weather yesterday). Those were some exciting races to start off the day. As the stands cleared a little, we were able to grab some seats next to our American friends and today felt a little less out of place. For those of you who are watching any of the races at home, you may be interested in the audio detail from the various spectator groups. Each country has its own cheer and I imagine on the TV broadcast it may be difficult to make out any single chant, but here's what we are hearing from the larger groups in attendance: Canada= "Can-a-da, Can-a-da..." Great Britain= "G-B, G-B..." USA= "U-S-A, U-S-A..." just in case anyone was confused ;-) Australia= "Aussie. Oye! Aussie. Oye! Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Oye, Oye, Oye!" New Zealand= Now this one is tricky. It may sound like "Kay-way," or maybe "Pele," (the soccer player) but what is actually being said is "Kiwi". The accent threw us off.
Before we knew it, Megan and Ellen were racing. They got off to a pretty normal start but built a lead early and just kept pulling away until they were about a length up on the field. They held it for the rest of the race and took their rep heat, moving onto the medals final. As for the Kalmoe spectators, we got in lots of time visiting with Ellen's family in the "Kiss & Cry" tent after the race, waiting for the girls to cool down and meet up with us. Megan was delayed due to a random drug testing, but we did get to see her before she sped off to the last bus back to their hotel, and us onto the last bus to Beijing. We returned to the hutong and visited the restaurant we ate at our first night. We couldn't resist after seeing the owner day in and day out, standing at the entrance, bellowing out into the street "NI HAO! HELLO!" He is really quite a character and we enjoyed his food. As we got back to the hotel we noticed that the live music was provided by the same man we had seen two nights ago. He was singing the same songs, off-key and with the wrong lyrics again, which made us laugh. It has been a great day.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round...
We are continuing to have our adventures traveling around Beijing. Transportation has probably been the most problematic, and most frustrating aspect of the trip thus far. Today we headed back out to Shunyi for the first day of small boat heats. Our guides suggested we take the special Olympic bus lines--which, along with the new subway system, are free for anyone who can present a valid ticket to an Olympic event that day (good until 4 a.m. the next morning). The trip involved two transfers and took a grand total of three and a half hours one way. It was rather ridiculous, and caused a certain amount of stress as we were constantly struggling to find an English-speaker who could point us the right direction, or help us identify the correct stop to make our transfers. We rode the bus line #1 in a giant circle, which took one hour--when instead we could have gotten off and walked two blocks to the next stop. Needless to say, we were relieved to finally arrive at the venue.
It is as impressive as we expected, even despite the fact that the mountains were nowhere in sight. Our seats are in the FISA family grandstand, at about the 250-meter mark. We were grateful to be in the grandstand as the other general admission seats are subject to the brutal afternoon heat and sun (or at least whatever sun makes it through the smog). Being in the shade makes the heat significantly more bearable. We were, however, rather disappointed that the vendors had completely sold out of food during that morning's run of kayaking and canoeing events. Expecting there to be food at the venue we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and no outside food was allowed in, so our tummies were grumbling. Our troupe of four subsisted on two bags of potato chips for most of a day. Between the lack of food and the overly long bus rides, it made for a very long day.
Luckily the racing kept our minds occupied. It was great to watch all of the different races, and cheer on our teams. It was also tremendously interesting to observe the other spectator groups. Somehow we got sandwiched in between two very large, boisterous groups--the New Zealanders and a crowd from Great Britain. We felt a little out of place. The grandstand had a jumbo-tron display at one end to show the starts of the races, and by the time the boats reached the 1000-meter mark we could see them appearing out of the smog that hung over the water. My sister Megan and (her sculls partner) Ellen were disappointed to finish third in their heat, behind Germany and a very fast New Zealand duo. This means they must finish in the top two of their rep on Monday if they want to make it into the medal final next week. We didn't get to meet up with the girls after their race, but instead headed back to downtown Beijing. This time, our bus ride was a mere three hours (and involved a lot of standing, which was not particularly fun as the bus drivers tend to have interesting braking techniques). It was a little after nine by the time we returned to our hotel. We were exhausted. After a quick dinner and a little live music at our hotel, we retreated into our rooms for the night.
Friday, August 8, 2008
"There's a street over there you stupid person!"
The tourists have arrived! And as if the streets of Beijing weren't already busy, they are absolutely unbelievable now. The roads and sidewalks are teeming with the Olympic crowds--seas upon seas of bobbing heads. What an exciting time to be out exploring the city, learning about China and Chinese culture. Today with no big plans, we took a taxi to Shunyi, a suburb of Beijing and the site of the Olympic rowing/canoeing/kayaking venue--and the rowers' hotels--with hopes of picking up our cell phones from Megan. The drive was long and involved several stops for directions. The cab driver, who spoke no English, was patient with us and even waited as we hasseled our way through the hotel security and exchanged our packages. We are learning that few Chinese people speak English beyond a few basic phrases, primarily: "hello," "bye-bye," "no," "ok," and, "sorry." I now know about five phrases of Mandarin, so I guess we are about even. This makes conversation difficult--usually consisting of broken questions, much repetition and pantomiming. Patience, we have found, is perhaps the most useful thing you can carry around with you. That and your passport, of course, as Chinese officials may ask you to produce your documentation anytime, any place.
After our morning tour to Shunyi we checked into the Bank of America Hometown Hopefuls hospitality center for Olympians and their families. It is open 11-11 daily and offers buffet style dining, free internet access and maps/directions or help with any questions we have. And the best part is, it's free! It's a fun way for us to get a break from the heat, refuel and even meet some other Americans. Tonight we attended a private Peking Duck dinner and Opening Ceremonies celebration with our tour group. We watched the ceremonies on several large TV's as the different courses of the meal were brought out. We decided that this was probably much more comfortable than watching from the Stadium. And what's more, one of our guides informed us that she has seen a last minute quote for OC tickets that priced them at $16,000 USD per seat (a substantial jump from the original $3000 pricetag, but either way, that is a lot of money...) So, we enjoyed our dinner, and when it was time to go home we hopped in a cab and were off.
Unfortunately, with all the crowds and celebrations going on that night, the police had blocked off several major roads. The cab driver refused to drive down the road where our hotel was located, and instead dropped us off a ways away. Because we could not cross particular streets we ended up winding our way through the back alleys of a traditional Chinese hutong (neighborhood) and saw a side of Beijing we never thought we'd see! It was an adventure for sure, and luckily our Chinese-speaking guide was able to ask the locals for directions back to our street. At one point we had come to what looked like a dead end--a gate. When our guide asked a man passing on his bicycle how we were supposed to get through he replied, "There is a street over there you stupid person!" She thanked him and we were on our way. She then told us what he had said and talked about how open and upfront the Chinese are in conversation. It surprised us a little to learn that a Chinese person might say to a complete stranger something like, "My, you are looking rather fat today." But, that's culture. Among the other more interesting things we have noticed around the hutong are the number of men walking around shirtless, or with shirts rolled up, rubbing their bellies and also the babies and toddlers without diapers or bottoms of any sort at all. Apparently us Westerners are just as interesting to them--we seem to be turning a lot of heads, getting targeted by plenty of cameras (the Chinese tourists) and making a lot of people's highlight videos. So the adventure continues. Go USA!
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Beijing Huanling Ni (Welcome to Beijing!)
They say that in travel, as in life, the journey is half the fun. Well, the Kalmoe family's journey to Beijing began Wednesday morning at around 8 a.m. as we headed to Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. After a quick jog to O'Hare in Chicago, we departed on a thirteen hour flight to Beijing. We arrived at 3 p.m. local time (on Thursday,) in what is, according to our flight crew, one of the largest buildings in the world--Beijing International Airport. The airport was in itself, quite a site, but also, we decided, the cleanest airport any of us had ever been in. We had to clear immigration, claim our luggage and proceed through customs before we could connect with our tour group. And then it was off to the hotel.
As we left the airport we encountered a certain mystical atmosphere. A dense layer of gray-white smog hung low over our heads, making the afternoon sky gray and dim. And although we traveled on large, magnificent highways, the roads were nearly empty due to recent measures to reduce pollution. I felt as if we were driving through an old ghost town. As we approached the downtown area, however, traffic increased (including a great number of bicyclists and pedestrians,) high rises and buildings appeared and then seemed to go on forever. Finally we arrived at a small, crowded street overrun with foot traffic and bicycles. Somehow our taxi wound down the long street of shops and restaurants to the end where we found our hotel. After checking in, our first mission was to purchase bottled water--which we did at a supermarket across the street.
Then we had our first authentic Chinese meal (which was as we had been told to anticipate, unlike any Chinese food we'd ever had--and BETTER!) By the time we had finished eating it was about 8:30 p.m. local time and having been on the road for over 24 hours we were all content to meander back to our rooms and crash for the night. Now it is Friday morning, and the first day of the Games. It still seems exceedingly surreal to me that we have come half way around the world to gather with a growing crowd of athletes and spectators (the expected number of spectators is estimated around 400,000). What is even more surreal is that we are here to watch my sister Megan, and her sculling partner, Ellen Tomek of Michigan, as they make their Olympic debut and vie for an Olympic medal. Growing up watching the '96 Atlanta Games on NBC from my living room in rural Wisconsin, I never thought I'd get this close; never thought I'd have a friend or relative competing in the Games. Yet here we are in Beijing, team Kalmoe-Tomek, ready to cheer our hearts out and ready to take in all that the Olympics has to offer.
What an incredible journey it has been already... Let the games begin. Go USA!