A Modern Ruin

Especially when traveling around the Roman empire, it’s common to encounter the ruins of a stadium, and one can easily imagine gladiators or lions and Christians putting on a show to the excited masses watching from the seats above.

As we went to the Olympic games complex in Beijing yesterday, I was wondering why people would be paying an admissions fee just to enter an empty stadium with no event happening, and then I remembered visiting the Roman sites. The Bird’s Nest and the Aquatic Center are both quite popular tourist destinations — many people were there in middle of a summer Wednesday. At least the Aquatic Center gave an impression of still being in use — there were sets for “Swan Lake”, the water ballet, around the main competition pools, and the warm-up pool is open to the public, after screening for swine flu.

The plaza between them is also quite massive — I would not be surprised if it’s larger than Tienanmen Square. And there still seems to be construction going on — I guess the Chinese economy hasn’t turned down so far that they’re not creating more business space around Beijing.

The neighborhood near our hotel has some fruit vendors on the street selling mangosteens — we’ve been picking up a few every chance we get since we won’t find them once we get back to the West. Or even back to the USSR. There’s a panel truck parked on the street near the hotel which is filled with mixed recycling, and a family seems to spend their days sorting it all out — it’s interesting that that job is so distributed.

Also near our hotel is a wonderful authentic Sichuan restaurant which the staff recommended. Everything on the menu has pictures, but they basically don’t know any English. We had some slightly spicy pork and vegetables inside a lotus leaf, some spinach with a black bean sauce with salted fish, and a beautiful plate which turned out to be mushrooms — a dozen of them about the size and shape of tongues atop a mixture of many other varieties. If we don’t hook up with a friend of ours who’s here on a pre-eclipse tour, maybe we’ll go back tonight.

Today we went up to the Summer Palace, which seemed even more packed with tourists than our visit last year to the Forbidden City. It’s a large park next to a lake, with a large Buddhist Incense Tower and several museums showing relics collected by the Empress Dowager Cixi and others who built and stayed there. The Summer Palace is all new construction, since Lord Elgin burned down the original in 1860. One of the more recent restorations was completed in 1996 and houses a furniture museum

Later: back to Little Sichuan is where we went. Tonight we had a wood ear salad with some white noodle shaped thing that might have been a marinated root, in sesame oil and vinegar. Also, eels ginger and celery with Sichuan Pepper and red pepper that was more like what you think of as an American when you encounter Sichuan food. And a cabbage and meatball soup. We didn’t go all out tonight like last night. The bill was under 100 yuan ($14.33, says Oanda of our 98 RMB bill)
I had been hoping all afternoon for a call from a friend who is on an eclipse tour passing through Beijing, but a combination of a 24 hour plane delay and a ruthless tour company whose checklist of must-see things is more important that the comfort of its customers, prevented us from meeting this trip.