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Details are emerging from this morning’s protest near the Olympic Village.

Four protesters from Students for a Free Tibet were arrested this morning after unfurling banners in the shadow of the National Stadium aka the Bird’s Nest. Students for a Free Tibet has short bios on the protesters and photos of the action on their Web site.

All this happened on the day the torch ceremoniously made its way to Tiananmen Square and through Beijing.

Arty Berko of ESPN has a first-hand account of the early-morning protests and his (intimidating) interaction with security officials.

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Many countries set up hospitality houses during the Olympics to entertain their officials, sponsors and athletes. Most are in a secret location and closed to the public. Some, like Switzerland’s “House 2008“, will be open to the public. The House, located in the trendy 798 artists’ district, features a bar/lounge, restaurant, cinema and exhibits.

I was able to get a sneak peak at the facility on Friday night after the expats I was hanging out with negotiated (uh, barged) us inside. The house was still closed to the public and was hosting a private party for invited guests. After standing stubbornly at the entrance for five minutes, the security guards called the director of the House. He promptly whisked us inside, even apologizing for the minor commotion.

He took us to the bar, where we enjoyed drinks on the House. A view of the bar area:

The Swiss House

The Swiss House

A few interesting notes from our conversation with the gracious and gentlemanly director:

— He said security procedures have been much tighter and stricter compared to 2004 in Athens. He had to wait six months for the Chinese government to approve the site. He not only brought his own security from Switzerland, but he also had to hire Chinese security as well.

— When he visited the U.S. hospitality house in Athens, security was so tight and the location so secretive that he was blindfolded before getting into the car that took him there.

— He was proud that Switzerland has one of the few hospitality houses that’s open to the public. Perhaps that’s why Switzerland hasn’t been in a war in nearly two centuries.

The director sat with us for an hour or so before he had to head out to dinner. We probably had three rounds of drinks, all supplied by our hosts. After experiencing such hospitality, I’m booking my flight to Zurich for 2009. Anyone care to join me?

The highlight of the night, however, was the man who walked right into a glass partition thinking it was the exit out of the bar. If you’ve ever had a bird crash into your window, then you know the sound he made — a loud bang that reverberated the glass. Sadly, I neglected to get the photo of the smudge his face made on the glass.

Journalists are none too happy about the working the conditions at the Main Press Center. The internet is slow, they complain, and sites are being censored. This after officials promised open access to the internet for the Olympics. One of the sites being blocked is Amnesty International after the human rights group released a critical report on China.

I can only imagine what the MPC is like right now — literally. I’ve decided to set up shop at my hutong guest house 20 minutes away from the Olympic area. After two days of trekking to my designated Olympic work area and dealing with a slow internet connection, I’m spending today in the hostel’s computer lounge. The connection has been faster and more reliable.

Moreover, I can connect to any Web site I want, including www.amnesty.org. Of course, it’s most likely because I have a personal VPN. Journalists who live in China also use proxies to get their way around China’s Great Firewall. Both were recommended by Human Rights Watch for journalists covering the Olympics.

It’s a little ironic that I have a better work station in the middle of a gritty, rundown hutong than at the sleek, pristine MPC.

My two cents on the situation: Journalists are a surly (and demanding) bunch, especially sports journalists (I should know). China should just open the gates of the Great Firewall for the next month to avoid any more grousing and controversy.

Officials must be happy — and a little vindicated — today. The weather cooled off, the breeze came in and the visibility improved. You can actually see buildings off in the distance, which is a vast improvement from the weekend.

Perhaps the traffic restrictions and factory closures are making a difference.

Lastly, I met an NBC producer on the media bus this afternoon. He’s an veteran, having covered multiple Olympics. I asked him how the security in Beijing is compared to Athens in 2004. Athens, he said, was much worse, much more strict. He did point out, however, that he hadn’t gone within the Olympic compound yet.

For a newbie, the heightened security definitely has an impact. But after three days of entering and exiting the Olympic area, I’ve gotten used to all the screening and checkpoints.

Buses

These are buses awaiting passengers within the Olympic area. Journalists will ride the buses to the venues or to their hotels. One thing I noticed: They were all idling their engines to keep their air conditioners running. These buses, however, should be newer — and greener — than the older buses in Beijing’s transportation system. But they aren’t the zero-emission ones powered by lithium batteries. So I wonder just how much effect they’re having on the environment. We might get an answer Tuesday, when officials hold a press conference on transportation.

The air quality has emerged as a thorny issue in Beijing. It’s a topic of conversation everywhere, from the press center to local bars. Officials are sticking to the party line that the air is improving and that athletes will be able to compete in 12 days. Few people believe them. And the comment by an IOC official that the haze over the city was just “mist” has been widely mocked.

A couple nights ago, I asked a couple expats if they the air had improved within the last month. Both of them chuckled. “No” was the quick and easy answer. I think one of them answered, “Hell no.”

Athletes will decide for themselves if the hazy sky they see will be mist or smog. My own opinion? Well, I don’t want to gross any one out, but when I blew my nose today, it came out black.

James Fallows of the Atlantic has been keeping tracking of Beijing’s air quality from his apartment for weeks. Many, perhaps Chinese nationalists, are saying that it has improved following the government’s restrictions on cars and factories around the city.

I just got here a couple days ago, so I’m not sure what constitutes an improvement. All I can say definitively is that I haven’t seen a patch of blue since I’ve been here. The first full day I was here (Wednesday) I didn’t seem to notice the smog hanging over the city. But today, while I was walking around the Temple of Heaven, I definitely noticed the gray haze that enveloped Beijing.

Here’s a picture I took from the Temple.

Smog

Two weeks and counting, folks. Two weeks and counting.

Beijing Road

That’s Beijing Lu, a shopping promenade in Guangzhou. It’s just like the Promenade in Santa Monica but with more flavor — and knockoffs. You can slip into a building that’s filled with tiny stalls selling shirts for a couple dollars or watches for 10 bucks; it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. If only I was in the market for a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.

After three days of touring and crisscrossing the city with my cousins, resulting in a blister on my foot, I decided to spend a leisurely day by myself. I was able to find space at one of the many local Starbucks to read (Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze), study my Mandarin flash cards and reflect on my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

It’s been illuminating to be in Guangzhou following a week in Hong Kong. My aunt’s family has been wonderful, opening up their hearts and homes to me. My cousins spent three days as my tour guides, shepherding me to nearly every sight in Guangzhou and insisting on paying for everything. And one of my aunt’s daughters invited me into her home for a home-cooked meal. I’ve been touched by their kindness and warmth.

If there’s one thing I take away from my trip, it’s that family is as important as ever. And that bonds last despite distance, sorrow, misery, even death. My only wish is that I had met my aunt and her family sooner.

Walking around Guangzhou, it’s easy to notice the differences with Hong Kong. I felt it the moment I stepped out of the train station. The heat, the smells, the grime, the dust, the noise — it was all turned up a few notches. It’s rougher around the edges, more unkempt, with a wild streak. I can only imagine what Shenzen, or one of the metropolises in central China, is like.

The energy of the city and its residents is palpable, it pulsates from the swoosh of the newly built subway, the sparkling neon lights advertising beer or whitening creams, the nightclubs that are open all night and morning, the cheesy but well-intentioned “light show” along the Pearl River, the cacophony of noise amid the plume of smoke in a dim sum restaurant, the crush of people jostling for position on the street and in life. I’m enjoying ever minute of it.

I took this video of a crosswalk in Guangzhou, south of the Pearl River, which is considered to be less civil than the neighborhoods north of the river. The light is red and the crossing signal is green — but no matter.

I think the video conveys the pace and energy of the city, which I’m growing to love. Guangzhou is preparing for its own coming out party, as it hurriedly prepares for the Asian Games in 2010. Don’t you change on me, Guangzhou.

But my time in Guangdong province is coming to an end. I’ll be heading to Beijing on Tuesday, eager to stay up for two weeks straight and pump out thousands of words a day. I’ll have a couple weeks to explore the city before the Olympics start, so I hope to keep updating my Flickr feed and blog.

It’s a little ironic, but being in Guangzhou is the calm before the storm.

Just a quick observation from my trip to Macau.

Twenty days from now, when the Olympics kick off, you’ll be hearing a lot about hurdler Liu Xiang. Some people might remember him from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he surprised the world with a gold medal performance in the 110 meter hurdles. But he’ll be a mystery to many Americans watching the Olympics next month.

Just how popular is he in China? Is there a comparable athlete in the U.S.? When I passed the Nike store at The Venetian, I saw Liu Xiang’s picture adorn one window.

Liu Xiang

The other athlete the Nike store chose to feature at the opposite window? Kobe.

Kobe

I think the placement of the two pictures shows just where Liu Xiang ranks in the national psyche here. One big difference, though: Liu Xiang doesn’t have many (if any) haters, he won’t have any hecklers yelling “rapist” at him when he’s on the track.

It’s been a mad scramble over the past few days to get prepared for the next three months in the Middle Kingdom. Trips to REI, Nordstrom Rack, Walgreens. Two days of laundry and shrunken T-shirts. Frustrating phone calls with Sprint to turn off my phone. A maddening Fourth of July when I discovered I was shipped the wrong traveling backpack. A sweet save by backcountry.com when they had the bag I was looking for and had a retail store in SLC and were open over the weekend.

I won’t even mention the copious amount of copy I’ve read on China in the past six months– it was one Long March for my fragile, little mind. 

And now I’m 12 hours away from boarding a flight to Hong Kong, where I’ll begin my journey through China. I’ve planned as much as I could (six months of free time to plan should be enough, right?) yet I have no idea what to expect. The last time I was in Hong Kong was in 1992, when I was 12. Hong Kong was still under British control.

From all the advice I’ve gotten from friends and family, it’s as if I’m taking a journey into heart of darkness, a netherworld of criminals, gangs, swindlers, prostitutes, conniving migrants, rude urbanites — basically the worst scum of the earth. I should also look forward to days of debilitating diarrhea, painful stomach cramps, unforgiving vomiting and total loss of body control. So if you see me in China, I’ll be one of the living undead, suffering from diarrhea and cramps, dry vomit on my shirt, while every Chinese I pass will take advantage of me. Good times.

If my dear and lovely mom had her way, I wouldn’t even be going. Or she’d be traveling with me, using her broomstick to beat away all the con men and loose “pretty women” who are so eager to prey on me, the paragon of innocence and virtue.

I find it all amusing, if not exhausting. Interestingly, the view I’ve gotten about China has been mostly negative. Not just from the recent media reports about Tibet and human rights, but from people close to me. People who were born and had lived in China. Many of their concerns aren’t about China’s record on human rights or its treatment of Tibetans. They’re about the regular Chinese people: how uncouth, how uncultured, how nefarious they all are.

(One aside which deserves its own post some time: It’s interesting how people of the same ethnicities create conflicts and bias against each other. How paler Asians are more desired than darker ones. How urbanites look down on and denigrate farmers and peasants. This isn’t just exclusive to Chinese people. Look at Indian people and their caste system. Or the rest of the U.S. vs. West Virginia.)

Well, as gullible and trusting as I am, I’m still going. I’m going with an open mind and open heart, ready to experience a trip of a lifetime. I hope China’s emergence on the world stage this summer is genuine, that its people will finally shed its inferiority complex and that every Chinese person — those in China and in the States — can be proud of the Olympics.

Sure, I’m being idealistic. I’m not so naive to believe that the Olympics will go off without a hitch, without some protest breaking through the security blanket, without some athlete making a political statement, without some controversy that will be part of the legacy of the XXIX Olympiad. But I’m giving it a chance and trying to be as objective as possible.

I’ll be trying to update regularly and posting images on my Flickr feed. I’ll also try to make a video or two (I promise it’ll be better than the “highlight” mix I produced). So hopefully — if you haven’t already been bored by my long-winded and self-indulgent posts — you’ll have a reason to stop by often.

Just pray I don’t get abducted by a gaggle of miscreants and streetwalkers and put under for some diabolical Chinese government experiment.

See y’all in Hong Kong.

Sports Illustrated’s Sign Of The Apocalypse (SOA) is supposed to be fun, a bit facetious, and a little zany. You’re supposed to chuckle over your morning coffee after reading one. You’re supposed to shake your head at the insanity and idiocy of the sports world. You know, laugh at those people who just don’t get it, those people who are precipitating the end of the world as we know it.

I bring this up because I came across this week’s SOA (the issue with Tiger):

More than 4,000 baby boys and girls in China have been named Aoyun, the Chinese word for Olympic Games.

This one, however, didn’t make me guffaw. This week’s SOA shows just how different — and misunderstood — the Chinese culture is with the so-called West. Aoyun is a perfectly fine name in Chinese culture; no one will look down on some one who’s name is Aoyun (although it would be a conversation starter). Yet, in SI, it’s a Sign Of The Apocalypse.

Parents in China — and other Asian countries — go about naming their children differently than Western countries. They name the children after mountains or rivers or revolutions or current events or whatever. A kid could be named Strong Donkey after some beloved ass that belonged to the family. Who knows. The point is that the naming customs are vastly different than the ones in the United States or Europe.

The thing that many people get hung up on are the literal translations back to English. Aoyun sounds comical to them. Who would call their child Olympics? Oh, those silly Chinese. (Olympia Dukakis is probably fine with Aoyun, methinks) What they don’t know is that the child could have been given a Westernized name. Something like Michael or Michelle.

Here’s my own example: My Chinese name, Wu Jia Le, literally means Excellent Happiness. If my parents hadn’t given me a Westernized name, people would call me Jia Le, never really knowing what the words, or characters, meant. I probably wouldn’t have gone with Excellent Happiness Wu, even though it has a nice ring to it. And if they hadn’t named me Sunny, I most likely would have chosen for myself a Westernized name, which many, many Chinese people do.

I don’t want to make this a big deal (because I don’t think it is),  but it’s these nuanced misunderstandings in coverage that pop up from time to time that show there’s still a cultural gap that needs to be bridged.