by Frank Lipsius
It is not too soon, nor is it too late, to decide to go to the 2008 Olympics, scheduled for next Aug. 8-24 in Beijing, China. If you're considering an epic family journey to this historic event, now is the time to commit.
Tickets may be particularly hard to come by because they are purposely being priced to sell out, but whatever events you miss, you can fill in with visits to sites that have defied stopwatches and judging for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Beijing is undergoing a vast and rapid development scheduled to be completed by the Olympics. Projects involve not just constructing enormous stadiums and athletic centers, but also sprucing up world-class attractions such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Wanfujing shopping street, where even the newly reopened foreign-language bookstore is worth visiting.
The very fact that the Chinese government, which under dictator Mao Zedong hid behind its borders and spewed slogans at the world, wants to participate in international culture to this degree is remarkable and worth supporting.
China's opening up to the world began with Mao's diminutive successor, Deng Chou Ping, who pithily commented about citizens' periodic demands for freedom, "When you open the windows, you have to expect some flies."
With at least a 12-hour flight from the East Coast plus a 12-hour time difference, Beijing can easily cause disorienting jet lag. A good place to stop on the way is Tokyo, which is far more western and modern than Beijing and, as a safe 24-hour city, can help your family adjust to the time change.
Tokyo is not quite the bargain that China is, but, because Japan has practically no interest rate, its exchange rate is more favorable to the U.S. dollar than elsewhere in the developed world.
Bargain-priced Japan Rail train passes that need to be bought outside Japan before arrival allow quick trips outside Tokyo to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, all worthwhile destinations.
Tokyo's attractions include the shopping districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya, the early-morning Tsukiji fish market, ubiquitous 100-yen (85 cents) stores with everything from souvenirs to kitchenware, the nightlife glitz of Roppongi and colorful temples scattered throughout the city and countryside.
Beijing's built-in advantage is a history that goes back many centuries as the capital of successive dynasties and the heart of a mighty empire. The Forbidden City, the palace that stretches lazily across acres in the heart of Beijing, symbolizes the power of the emperor and also his isolation. He ruled a vast empire from a hidden spot notable for its mystery, its weird rituals and a bureaucracy based on mutilated, scheming eunuchs.
That such an empire, with all its intrigues and mystery, survived into the 20th century makes its legacy part of contemporary life. Ordinary Chinese in cloth caps and working-class clothes still crowd into the Forbidden City on weekends through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, made world-famous by the giant portrait of Mao hanging over the entrance and facing Tiananmen Square.
An electronic English-language guide to the Forbidden City uses radio waves to trigger descriptions of the displays of imperial wealth and also of the unseen area where the
imperial family lived among minions on a more human scale and pretended to act like people did in the outside world.
Vast Building Program
Beyond the Forbidden City, huge new hotels are going up, while old hotels, such as the Jade Garden near the eastern entrance to the Forbidden City, have been tastefully upgraded to justify higher room rates that still do not reach $100 a night, though by the time the Olympics arrive, they might.
In Shanghai, officials are dragooning the city into the 21st century by knocking down old neighborhoods to put up new ones. But in Beijing's neighborhoods, old and new buildings are far too integrated to obliterate the city's ancient roots.
It does not take any effort to see Chinese people congregating in the numerous alleys between the widely spaced avenues where modern structures have sprung up. The avenues provide the delightful experience of shopping and bargaining, eating skewered food at the kebob heaven of the Night Market or at upscale local fast-food restaurants that cost a fraction of what you would spend at home.
But the narrow, one-lane streets behind the avenues show how the Chinese themselves live teeming, good-natured, really inexpensive lives that are not hidden and deserve as much time and attention as what's found on the avenues.
The official U.S. site for Olympic-event tickets is www.cosport.com. Although its ticket request period ended last summer, live sales of remaining tickets are going on now.
Tickets will be shipped in July, 2008. The site also offers packages that include event tickets, airfare and accommodation and can be searched by date or event requested.
Airfares from Philadelphia to Beijing through online services such as
www.orbitz.com start at about $1,500 flying Air Canada through Toronto.
Professor Edward Yeh, a legal scholar who has taught in China and is now writing a book on doing business there, uses as a rule of thumb aiming to pay about 15 percent of the price originally offered by the Chinese bargainer.
But to get there, you have to resist offering a price; eventually when you do, make it ten percent of the original price quoted and go up only in increments of one or two yuan until you reach the 15 percent level.
You will lose some negotiations with this approach, but there will almost always be the chance to make it up elsewhere. If you pay as much as 25 percent of the first proposal, you will still be getting a bargain by U.S. standards.
Let the Olympics be the excuse to go to Beijing, but know that the real reason is what goes on beyond the sporting events. You might want to set aside enough time for a day-long excursion to the Great Wall of China or a half-day's shopping at the Pearl Market. This multi-story emporium, located in the southern part of town next to the eastern entrance to the Temple of Heaven, has electronics, clothing and leather goods as well as pearls.
With so much to do and so little time, Beijing might be accommodating itself to the Olympics, but it has far more to offer than a venue for international sport.
Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.