If you're going to Beijing Olympic Games, congratulations, whether going as competitor, official, or spectator.
I recently was in China (not related to fencing, and before the recent, tragic earthquakes) and want to share some tips:
Official business and politics:
- Get a passport (Duh!) If you don't have one yet, get one now, because the delay can be long. You also need a passport that has an empty page with NO stamps on it, so get a new passport if yours is full.
- Get a visa from the Chinese government. You cannot just go to China with your passport: you have to have a visa that is authorised for a given starting and ending date. There's a fee for this, and this may be complicated to do if you're not near a Chinese consulate. You will need to present this before boarding, and when you pass through Immigration in Beijing. It's a little slip of paper that will go on the blank passport page.
- Don't fire up a political discussion. You're not in the West in a democratic country or on fencing.net's Politics board. Communism may no longer be communist in the economic sense, but it still is in the sense of "autocratic single source of power that controls all the media and organs of government". So, no picking fights about Tibet or the Falun Gong. If you go there with that attitude, you will not have a good time. Also, the Chinese do not have a "fair and balanced"(tm) view of the world consistent with our media. The party line (as the expression goes) is that Tibet is a province of China with "splittists" and "successionists" trying to separate it from their mother country, Taiwan is just a runaway province, and China is attacked by a one-sided and unfair western media. And "Mao was 70% right". The people you meet will believe all this, and will not believe that they have a repressive government that locks up people who don't toe the line.
- Do not call it "Communist China". As far as they're concerned, they're the only China that exists. Just say "China", or you want to be formal "Peoples Republic of China".
- Pack all the medication you use or think you'll need. Pack meds for upset tummy and diarrhea. Get your doctor to write you the appropriate prescriptions. Get Hepatitus A and B vaccinations. No, I'm not kidding: there's a lot of food-borne disease. Don't go to a tattoo shop either, because that's Hep C, and there's no vaccine for that.
- The air is really bad. Not much you can do about that, especially if you're competing. Hope for one of the better days. Maybe wear a surgical mask if you're outside.
- The water is not drinkable. For the entire trip you should only drink tea, beer, and bottled water and soft drinks. Don't drink anything from the tap, and nothing with ice, because the water to make it may have been contaminated too.
- Do not eat raw foods. If it isn't boiled, grilled, steamed or fried don't eat it. Only exception is thick skinned fruit like a banana that YOU peel yourself. No salads, no ice cream. Otherwise, you'll spend a lot of time in the bathroom.
- Speaking of bathrooms: in the hotels and (I imagine) the Olympic village, you'll have western-style facilities. Outside at restaurants, street, and other public areas you will have, er, primitive facilities. Bring toilet paper and have it on your person (or: do your business at the hotel or any place that has a nice loo. Don't pass one without using it - you don't know when you'll find the next one), and hand disinfectant.
- If you do some of the things I don't recommend, you might get awfully sick. On the other hand, you might get lucky and have nothing happen to you, or you might get sick even when you were being careful. Try to keep the odds in your favor. Some of the party I was in ate street food and were fine; one person got so sick we thought he would have to be hospitalized. Not fun.
Getting along and getting around:
- Traffic is horrid. However long you think it will take to get where you are going, add more time. There is a rising middle class that has cars, and the streets have traffic jams that are incredible. If you're staying at the Olympic Village and fencing is at the Olympic stadium right nearby (I don't know if that's the venue) then you may be fine, but otherwise it's possible to blow two hours going point to point in Beijing.
- Personal space: there is none. People will stand basically right on top of you and even little old ladies will shove you aside. Get used to it. It's a crowded place, and notions of "you're too close" don't exist. The famous tourist spots (Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven) are especially packed.
- Crime and street behavior: Beijing (and China in general) is supposed to be pretty safe. On the other hand, observe normal cautions for being out, especially late and by yourself. If nothing else, it's very easy to get lost when you can't read the signs or speak the language.
- There are VERY aggressive street peddlars, souvenir hawkers and beggars, especially in tourist locations. Ignore them and they'll eventually go to another prospect. These are desperate people, so you can't blame them for trying, but they are persistent and will try to sell you all kinds of crap.
- Ripoffs and scams (1): a lot of stuff for sale is fake. Very unlikely you will find a "real" antique, so if something is offered to you as antique, it's almost certainly phony. You will also be offered "Rolex" watches and other fake luxury goods. A watch you buy this way might work as long as it takes to get your return flight. Use common sense.
- Ripoffs and scams (2): street vendors, and especially the hawkers I mention will frequently cheat a customer by giving them change in counterfeit bills. Happens all the time. If you are tempted to buy something from one of these guys, pay with small bills so there isn't much change.
- Speaking the language: learn a little, even though it's a tonal language and difficult for a Westerner. It's nice to be able to say essential words and phrases like hello, goodbye, thank you, you're welcome, yes I like that, no I don't like that, beer. Mandarin only (putonghua). Nobody there will speak Cantonese. English speaking is not common - and some people have been taught what they think is English but isn't understandable. Some people who speak it in customer-facing situations (hotels and restaurants catering to foreigners ONLY) will have moderate ability. No other languages, though.
All these aside - I was there on vacation and had a great time. Whether you're going there to fence, watch fencing, help one of the teams, or officiate, or just go on vacation, you can have a great time - it's fantastic and I plan on going again - long after the Olympics are over and things calm down again. With a little preparation and care you can make the trip memorable in the positive sense.
On another personal note: I was there 25 years go on a computer science delegation, and it is incredible to see the changes in the country. Back then, even the main boulevard of the capital was dimly lit at night and there were just a few cars. Now there are streets to rival Times Square, even in provincial cities like Hangzhou. There's a rising middle class eager for luxuries, and with money to spare. Just an amazing change.