soccer

Traveling in China: A classic tale from the archives

Perhaps it’s self-indulgent to post a 4-year-old first-person travelogue. But this was probably the most popular post on my “profile-page blog” at USA TODAY, and that profile page has finally disappeared. Anticipating this problem, I saved the text. And since I’m not writing much else this month, it seemed to be a good time for a holiday rerun.

In case you’re curious, the game report from this game — a 2-0 USA loss — is still on USA TODAY’s site.

At Qinhuangdao before everything went wrong. Photo by Grant Wahl

At Qinhuangdao before everything went wrong. Photo by Grant Wahl

My first full day in China started with an 8:50 a.m. bus boarding at the Main Press Center for a five-hour ride to Qinhuangdao, site of the U.S. women’s soccer opener against Norway. That would turn out to be the easy part, a pleasant if puzzlingly slow ride through the countryside with a neat pit stop along the way.

To return to Beijing, we in the media were told to meet the bus at 11:30 p.m. We weren’t told where, but we figured we could ask in the stadium. One of the 38,298,294 friendly Beijing 2008 volunteers offered to take me to the spot. No, no, don’t trouble yourself, I said. I’ll stop by the restroom (no guarantee that the pit stops were open on the way back), and you’ve pointed me most of the way there. Thanks very much.

Oops.

As I headed in the pointed direction looking for the media security entrance at which we had been dropped off and from which we were supposed to return, the landscape looked less familiar. Funny how darkness will do that.

Another journalist had joined me at that point, and we think we had sorted out where to go. But it couldn’t be that easy, could it?

At the same time, two uniformed men with Darth Maul-style double-length night sticks plopped onto the sidewalk like Spiderman swinging into the neighborhood. One started pointing us in a new direction. “Go!” “Go!”

A volunteer assured us he would show us where to go. We didn’t argue with the volunteer because it’s heartbreaking to argue with such nice people. We didn’t argue with Darth Maul out of fear of joining Qui-Gon as a disembodied spirit in the Force.

Another volunteer, much more fluent in English than Darth, joined up with us and pleasantly walked us out. We repeated a few phrases back and forth to encourage her to question her sense of direction.

“We were told to go to the media security entrance.”

“Yes, yes,” she said as we walked toward a tent clearly labeled “Staff security entrance.”

“We’re taking the media shuttle.”

“Yes, yes, you’ll be fine.”

“It leaves in 10 minutes.”

“This man (Darth) will show you the way.”

Upon reaching the street and seeing no bus, the friendly volunteer started to realize things weren’t right.

“You want to go to the bus station?”

“No, no, media shuttle.”

“Oh, train station?”

“No. It’s a bus.”

“Ah, bus station?”

“No … look, can we just go to the media security entrance?”

Darth and the friendly volunteer suddenly realized we weren’t there. “Ohhhhh.”

The friendly volunteer rounded up a buddy with a car who would drive us there, which seemed to be the only way we’d make it in time.

We flew across the compound, having been sort-of waved through security when our friendly volunteer told everyone we had just come from the venue and walked maybe 30 feet away. All seemed well.

Until we exited the venue at something that was quite clearly not the media security entrance. Two buses appeared, but they weren’t heading to Beijing.

“You want the bus station?”

“No, the media shuttle.”

“What time is your train?”

“It’s not a train.”

Long pause. As the clock clicked to around 11:29, we tried two new tacks simultaneously. One was a repeated plea to get to the media security entrance. Another was a plea to take us to the media room, where people knew how to direct us, though it would surely be too late.

After a few minutes of chatter between friendly volunteer and driver, we finally took off.

“Don’t worry. Media room. We’ll take you there.”

Except that we were leaving the venue far behind. Even by the standards of these Games, in which we often arrive at a venue but find we must round a couple of blocks in a winding path a la Billy in the Family Circus strips before entering, this route wasn’t working.

“How is this taking us to the media room? Can’t we go back?”

“Media room. Don’t worry.”

(Sudden realization.)

“Wait a minute. Are you taking us to the media hotel?”

“Yes, yes. Don’t worry.”

The deans and masters of U.S. soccer journalism, Michael Lewis and Grant Wahl, had the foresight and expense accounts to book rooms at the media hotel. We did not. But at this point, we had nothing left to do. Perhaps the folks at the media hotel would figure something out. Maybe we could prevail upon them to make up for the error in media handling with a free night at the hotel, which would make it that much easier to get to Tianjin for the men’s game the next day.

At the media hotel, several people gathered around us to figure out what was going on. I produced a timetable for the media shuttle, which made a light click on the friendly volunteer’s head. The apologies flowed. I shook her hand, smiled and said I was sorry for the miscommunication.

The friendly staff at the media hotel had a reasonable solution for us. A train was leaving Qinhuangdao for Beijing at 1 a.m. We had an hour to make it to the station, and they’d flag down a taxi for us. Terrific. Grant had raved about the train. And so we didn’t even care, when we reached the station after a nice quick taxi ride, that we had to buy standing tickets because all the seats were sold.

In the dark, dank, sweltering waiting room populated by 100 or so sweating folks, some shirtless, we spotted a group of Americans and figured it couldn’t hurt to join up with them. They were thrilled to chat with some more Americans, even though they told us we weren’t getting the quick two-hour express train, but a trip of perhaps four hours.

Boarding the train was tricky because we had to step over the people who had given up on seats and were instead sitting on the floor. We weren’t so much embarking on a train ride as we were diving into a box of humans and rubbish.

Somehow, this wonderful group of Americans from Ohio, Alaska and a few other points started making deals to upgrade us. We got a few seats. As the train thinned through a couple of stops, some people even got beds.

The transactions were complex. We paid for seats in cash and found that the price also included some alleged food of various types and warm “Lowen” beer. No one in the group did a taste test to see if the drink was worth adding the “brau” to the name.

We were also using an intermediary who spoke a little English and communicated with the train’s attendants. Later, we found out the train attendants had sold us their own seats.

(Note to staff in Virginia: I do not have a receipt for this transaction. If that’s a problem, your chairs may disappear for a couple of days. The point will quickly be taken.)

Beijing South train station.

Beijing South train station.

While the train creaked up the line, we had a wonderful time explaining to each other how we all ended up here. One was a journalism major who didn’t seem scared away from the profession by the bedraggled duo of reporters now fully dependent on the kindness of strangers to avoid a night in a Qinhuangdao train station.

We were told we’d arrive at 5. Make that 5:25, which is when we slowed down. Or maybe 5:45. Or 5:55.

The two of us heading back to the Main Press Center bid farewell to our new best friends and found, with some help, the entrance to Beijing’s wonderful subway system.

The wonder ceases when it’s time to hop on the line into the Olympic Green. To hop that line, we were directed to walk down corridors so long they make the London Underground look compact. Then we had to leave the station, walk out to the street, turn left, walk more, turn left, go through security, turn again, turn again, head down the escalator and end up a few feet from where we were before.

The Olympic Green subway station is convenient to the Main Press Center in the same sense that an airplane’s coach section is close to the fully reclined first-class seats. Physically close, yes, but not a transition anyone can make. We first went right around the giant International Broadcast Center, only to find that street blocked. We were told to go the other way. Ten minutes of walking later, we thought we’d made our way around to a security entrance. Except that it was pointed TOWARD us.

We’re used to taking the long way around by this point. The arrival point for most venues requires vehicles and pedestrians alike to go at least halfway around the building. Sometimes three-quarters. For this trek, we had wandered around a couple of buildings, only to find that we needed to turn around and walk between them.

I fell backward a step or two, then banged my head against a post to the great amusement of a couple of volunteers.

At 7:25 a.m., nearly 10 hours after the final whistle of the U.S. women’s loss to Norway, I entered the Main Press Center and went to McDonald’s, where the staff probably thought it a little weird that a bleary-eyed guy in a USA TODAY golf shirt did everything but kiss the ground.

I’ve been excused from traveling to Tianjin today. I’ve been told to go back to the media village and find the bed I haven’t seen in 30 hours. I’ll do that.

If I can find the door.

Epilogue: On the way to the media village, I bumped into one of the people who rode the bus out to Qinhuangdao. He told me they convinced the bus driver to circle back and look for us for about 15-20 minutes. If we had ever convinced our friendly volunteer and driver to find the media entrance or a “media room” not in a hotel, we would’ve caught the bus and caught some sleep on the way home.

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