Commentary

How one reporter gets around big, vibrant Beijing

Updated: August 13, 2008, 9:39 AM ET
By George Smith | ESPN

[Editor's note: George Smith is part of our ESPN crew covering the Summer Olympics. Throughout the Games, he'll be filing updates on his experiences in Beijing. Here's his first installment]:

Welcome to Beijing

Bird's NestBeijing Tourism Administration/Getty ImagesSee those five buildings lined up to the left of the Water Cube? That's ESPN's home away from home in Beijing.
I'll admit, I was a little apprehensive before I made the trip to China. It wasn't that I had any specific concerns. But I had never been to Asia before, so I simply didn't know what to expect. I'm very used to traveling. I'm on the road 150 days a year for ESPN. I've been to every state but Alaska. I lived in London, and I've traveled in Europe. But this trip has an element of the unknown.

After landing in Beijing last Tuesday, I went to pick up my two suitcases at the baggage claim. I watched the carousel like a hawk to make sure no one mistakenly grabbed them. An hour later, I had only one suitcase. I had checked two suitcases at the exact same time when I arrived at the United counter at O'Hare for the nonstop 13-hour flight to Beijing.

Turned out only one suitcase made the plane. Suddenly, a reassuring feeling came over me. Lost luggage. "This is just like America," I thought to myself. And so I began to relax.

Dining
My first meal in Beijing was a burger and a beer at the InterContinental Hotel adjacent to the Main Press Center (or MPC). I'll admit it wasn't very creative, but it did the trick. Since then, I've been a little more adventurous.

Now, I meant to work on my Mandarin skills before coming to China, but in the end, I really learned only "hello" and "thank you." And I can tell you everyone here appreciates the effort. You get broad smiles when you say "hello" in the native language. But "hello" and "thank you" don't necessarily cut it when you're hungry.

One day, I wandered into the Hung Yu restaurant not far from our office and the Olympic Green. I sat down and was welcomed by a young man who spoke a little bit of English. I was glad one of us did his homework. He brought over a menu with the names of the dishes translated in English. I ordered the spicy beef. It was pretty good and very cheap -- about the equivalent of $6 for food and drink. A picture of Mao hung on the wall, and he appeared to be watching my every move.

I returned to Hung Yu the next day with a couple of ESPN colleagues. Same waiter. Same order. The Chairman still was watching. At the end of the meal, the waiter asked to have his picture taken with me. I've got rock-star status!

Touring town
I'm going to let you in on a little secret. There are not a lot of black folks running around Beijing. Early one morning, I decided to take a walk near the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, to take some pictures. It was about 7 a.m., and I already could feel the heat and see the haze. I had on my shades and an Olympic credential around my neck.

A Chinese man stopped me and asked to take my picture. Within moments, I was posing for pictures with a steady stream of men, women and children. I wondered whether they had never seen a black guy or whether they thought I was an athlete. Hey, I can flatter myself. This was my first taste of what it must be like to be a celebrity. I had to start making my way down the street to get away from the crowd. A polite, but prompt, exit. I've had similar scenes almost every day. Posing for pictures. Even signing autographs.

I'm trying to figure out which athlete I could be. How about Chris Paul? Sure, I'm a good 20 pounds heavier. OK, 25. But we're about the same height, and we have brown eyes and nice smiles. Chris Paul. Hmmm. Sorry, Chris.

Pedestrians beware

Traffic In China Phil Walter/Getty ImagesTraffic in Beijing can be a little trying. But city officials have limited car access in the city during the Games.
Beijing is a city of more than 17 million people. Now, I grew up in New York City, right in the heart of Manhattan. But this is a big city. And it's got big-city traffic. I've lived in New York, Boston, Houston and just outside Los Angeles. Sometimes the traffic here makes me long for those places. We have two drivers to help us get around town, and our vehicles have credentials that allow us to drive in specially marked Olympic lanes. That makes a huge difference in navigating the city.

I know crazy drivers, but I think Beijing has them all beat. It's like thousands of New York City cabbies after 10 cups of coffee. There is an art to cutting off drivers here. It's amazing. What's more amazing is I've seen only three accidents so far. You also have to be very careful crossing the street. Cars don't stop when you're in the crosswalk. Seriously. Keep movin' baby, or you're going to get hit.

Wandering around
After almost a week in the city, I haven't seen as much as I would like. I eventually will get to all the tourist destinations, but for now, I just want to wander around. The area around the Olympic Stadium is vibrant. The streets are filled with locals and tourists. Some main streets are closed, and fans lined up to see the cycling race go by over the weekend. The pride Chinese citizens feel in hosting the Olympics is evident everywhere. There are so many people holding Chinese flags and snapping pictures of family members and children outside the venues. I got a chuckle when I saw a local woman wearing a T-shirt with the words "I Love New York."

At one point, I ruffled the feathers of a security guard when I went under a tape I wasn't supposed to cross. He was frowning, and he had a baton. Quickly, I pulled out an ESPN Olympic pin. The scowl became a smile. Nixon has nothing on me when it comes to diplomacy!

A couple of hours into my journey, I wound up near the Crowne Plaza hotel. As I walked down a nearby street, a young man outside the Hot and Spicy Restaurant invited me to come in. His name is Michael, and he speaks very good English. The place was empty. Never a good sign. Michael told me dinner time had been busy, but things had been quiet at lunch. It was about 3 p.m. I figured I'd take my chances. Also, it was clear Michael wanted to speak English. And, you know, that was just fine with me.

Michael is a student, and he's from Hunan Province, a considerable distance from Beijing. He's going to major in English education. Bingo! I hit the jackpot! Working at the restaurant is just a temporary job for the summer until he begins college after the Games. He warned me his boss had jacked up food prices for the Olympics. The meal cost about three times what I'm used to paying here. No matter. It cost me more than $20, but I've paid much more to park for an hour in a lot in New York City. It was a good conversation. The way I see it, the money was an investment.

The spicy pork arrived with white rice. Hot and spicy didn't begin to describe this dish. It was a five-alarm fire. My sinuses opened up. Sweat poured off my bald dome, and I patted myself dry with a handkerchief. I've sweated less on some of my four-mile runs. But I love spicy food, and this was delicious.

Michael said he's considering becoming an English teacher or a translator. I think he's going to be good at it, whichever one he chooses. We snapped some photos outside the restaurant, then said goodbye. We exchanged e-mail addresses, so it might not be the last time I hear from him. I asked him what he expected in the U.S.-China basketball game, and he said the Americans would win, referring to them as the Dream Team. A Chinese teenager from Hunan Province talking about the Dream Team. Somewhere, David Stern is smiling.

Basketball and the Great Wall

Chris BoshJesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesChris Bosh and other members of the U.S. men's basketball team have taken in the local sights, like the Great Wall.
The U.S.-China basketball game was excellent. Amazing environment. Bright arena. Lots of energy. Former President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush and members of their family in attendance. Glenn Close sat about five rows in front of me. ESPN is not allowed to bring cameras into any Olympic venue since it's not a rights-holder for the Games. We can't even interview players at the arena after games. That goes for every sport. We simply are not allowed to do it. So, you either hope to get interviews at the MPC or try to arrange interviews away from venues. We arranged to meet the men's basketball team after the game. But we had to leave after the third quarter to make sure we beat traffic to get to our meeting place.

We finished our interviews at 1 a.m. Monday. That's 1 p.m. Sunday on the East Coast in the States, and we had to get something on the air for "SportsCenter" at 5:30 p.m ET. Yes, folks, in this glamorous life I lead, we have deadlines. Back to the office. Put together a script. Tape the stand-ups. It was about 3 a.m. local time when we finally went home. Then, we were back up and out the door at 8 a.m. to follow members of Team USA to the Great Wall. I was operating on about two hours of sleep, but the Great Wall might be the biggest reason I was so excited about coming to China.

Two hours later, we were at the bottom of a hill waiting for a tram to the Great Wall. There was a huge crowd of tourists, and I could see Coach K, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and their families packed in among the masses making their way up.

Tayshaun Prince and Chris Bosh made the trip as well. Bosh had a camera with him and took plenty of pictures. I walked near Tayshaun and his friends for a bit. He was enjoying the day and posing for pictures. I asked him how his legs were, and he said they were fine. He added that he was expecting to play only a few minutes a game, so he could deal with all the walking.

It's hard to describe just how impressive the Great Wall is. Extraordinary. For me, these were the best moments of the Olympics.

After leaving the Great Wall, our ESPN crew stopped to eat on the way home. We wolfed down about 100 dumplings between four of us, plus a few beers … I mean Cokes! We still hadn't filed the story yet. The bill was about $18. I was happy to treat. Hey, big spender. No one asked for a picture. My popularity is plummeting.

George Smith is a reporter for ESPN.