Jet lag is a no joke. My first true day in Beijing started sometime around four in the morning, at which point my internal clock decided sleep was no longer in the books. The simultaneous existence of exhaustion and inability to sleep is a curious thing, not dissimilar to the sensation I remember as a young child in the early hours of Christmas morning. I killed a large block of time with an extended shower and contemplation of the possible benefits of having a toilet with two possible flush power levels (one used less water than the other). With time, the sun eventually rose. Or so I think.
Anyone who has spent time in Beijing will probably make some comment on the pollution level, in particular the generally ever-present layer of smog that hangs over the city. The first day-lit sight that my eyes found was a city shrouded in an almost smoke like cloud. Unlike fog, this covering leaned toward a thick, dirty grey color, at times moving into the reds and oranges. When we first left the building, I was immediately aware of a smell that I recognized, but could not label. It reminded me of some part of my childhood, and I eventually placed it as the slightly sweet, mostly acrid smell of burning coal. It was everywhere. In some parking lots, you could immediately pick out which cars had been left the longest by observing the thick layer of dust and dirt that had collected on top of them. In addition to the standard chemical pollution, Beijing is also subject to a fair amount of sand and dust pollution, carried by wind currents from the deserts to the west. As we got onto our bus, I looked up and could see a small, dirty orange ball glowing in the sky. The sun appeared to have little more radiance than a daytime moon, and not nearly so much clarity.
Our first day out consisted of visits to several locations, including the Beijing Science Museum, an opening ceremony, and a trip to the Hanban (Confucius Institute) world headquarters. The Confucius Institute has played a major part in the spread of Chinese culture and the propagation of Chinese language programs internationally. Hanban acted as our hosts while we were in Beijing, though from what I was able to understand, they were not directly in charge of our itinerary, but rather carrying out the plans of a mystery person much higher up on the food chain.
The museum was entertaining, but apart from this and our first excellent lunch, I have little recollection of the day. A very distinct image that has remained in my mind is a memory of our driving past the Olympic boulevard, stretching what appeared to be miles away into a smog induced orange infinity, something not dissimilar to the world I had pictured while reading “Dune”. This place, which I had seen so many times in pictures and on TV, was suddenly nothing like I had envisioned it being. It was massive to the point of incomprehensibility, and in its size I found it to be unreachable and alien, almost cold. This spot, which had held the eyes of the world for more than two weeks in the summer of 2008, now stood like a field after the battle. For a moment, I felt very out of place, and was glad to keep moving.
Although we did not actually stop to look at the Olympic facilities at this time, we passed close by, and Ronald told us a good number of things about the buildings, making note of the fact that many of them were currently undergoing renovation for better public usage. Many areas, he told us, were completely closed, and were not anticipated to reopen any time in the foreseeable future. It was hard to understand how so much time would be put into the construction of these state of the art facilities, only to let them lie dormant. On the other hand, I believe this is the case with most Olympic villages following their intended use. It is as though theses locations do not live past the time of their intended purpose, at least not in the same capacity. It seemed a waste to spend so much money on such massive construction only to have it stand vacant, but I am quite sure that the expenditures were returned in tourism and an overall increase in the international awareness of China as a rising force.
The rest of the day was not of any great significance, at least up until dinner, at which point we finally found ourselves with some free time. I was exhausted, but bent on making something of the evening, and ended up in the room with a few friends drinking Tsingtao, the Budweiser of China. If I felt like I had enough material to do so (or better yet, if I thought I could make it interesting), I would write an article just on Chinese beer. I was quite interested to find that most of the beer in China has about half as much alcohol as the same brands in the U.S. I have been wondering whether this is an attempt on the part of brewers to make beer more appetizing to the large number of Chinese who are slightly allergic to alcohol. It became quickly apparent that the effects of jet lag almost doubled to standard effects of drinking, and although it was my intention to go to bed, I was soon headed out of the door to a club called Dao, conveniently located across the street from our hotel. Other than the fact that it was filled almost exclusively with Chinese, this place was indistinguishable from any number of clubs within Manhattan. Drinks were not terribly expensive on our end (about 5 dollars US), but in Chinese standards this club is certainly limited to a more elite crowd. Having spent about an hour inside, I decided that it was an experience I could easily replicate at home, and headed back to the hotel to have another attempt at getting some sleep.