China Journal #10

by August 27, 2008

by Nick Rotunno

Well SLAMonline, this is the end. My last post from Beijing, the glittering city at the end of the earth. I write this with a heavy heart, because I have really enjoyed posting these journals and reading your comments. You have made my stay in Beijing a truly worthwhile experience, and I thank you all.

Now there is only one thing left to do: smoke that final victory cigar in honor of Team USA! After all the speculation, the trepidation, the great fears and minor worries, the Redeem Team at last brought home gold. It all came down to the final, an epic clash of Spanish flair and American brawn. We played a great game, and while the contest was a little close for comfort, the good ole’ USA came out on top.

I’m very proud of our team. All that superstar talent, all those millionaire egos, and yet Team USA played as a singular entity. They took teamwork to heart, and it paid off. Let the talkers jabber and the writers scribble; let the doubters eat their words. Dr. James Naismith can rest in peace – the world may have gotten better, but USA still rules the hardwood. We have once again established ourselves as kings of the basketball world, and while we Americans have never been fond of monarchies, this time I think I’ll let it slide. The kings of basketball…it has a nice ring. Look out FIBA, we’re here to stay.

Now, I would go into a more detailed analysis of the gold medal game, but unfortunately I didn’t watch one second of it. That’s because I was exploring the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, riding a horse across the plains. By the time I found a television, the buzzer had sounded and the handshakes had already started. But while I was disappointed that I missed the final, the grasslands were definitely worth the trip.

Inner Mongolia is wide open and limitless. The plains stretch forever toward the horizon, a vast and rolling ocean of grass. Shepherds tend their flocks under endless skies, and horsemen spur their mounts against the screaming winds. It’s a unique and forgotten place, where an ancestrally nomadic way of life has given way to hokey tourist traps and encroaching farmland. Just a few decades ago, almost all Inner Mongolians were herders, constantly leading their livestock to new grazing lands. They raised cows, sheep and horses, fended off hungry wolves, and their lives involved constant movement from one patch of grass to the next

Nowadays, the Inner Mongolian lifestyle is far more static. Most still raise small numbers of sheep and cows, and many still ride horses (though motorcycles and ATV’s are just as numerous), but there are no more nomads, and permanent housing is the norm. My friend Ana and I traveled by train from Beijing to Inner Mongolia, expecting to enter a primitive landscape of wild horses and herdsmen. What we found was a very modern city called Houhot (the capital), a friendly English-speaking hostel, and a touristy overnight trip to see the grasslands.

Horseback riding was an adventure. It was all gravy at first, when the horses were walking meekly along the trail, but then our guide snapped his whip and we started to really move. I was having fun for a while, but after we started galloping faster and I racked my marbles on the saddle a few times things got painful. Eventually I figured out a way to stand in my stirrups, effectively avoiding any further intimacy between my saddle and I. We rode for two hours, and when it was over I felt like a true Mongol horseman. Despite the soreness in my legs and rear end the next morning, the ride was a blast.

That evening we watched the Closing Ceremonies from a tiny house that looked adobe, though I wasn’t sure. We stayed with a generous Mongol family who made us dumplings and stew. I enjoyed staying at that cozy homestead; it felt real, unlike the tourist village where we had ridden horses. Though traditional Mongol life is all but gone, that little home was as close as I could get.

As the torch was extinguished after two weeks of Olympic glory, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness. These Games had been on my mind for the past two years, and now, in one melancholy moment, everything ended. My trip to the Far East was nearly over, the Olympics were in the books, and my summer of adventure was about to be replaced by an autumn of uncertainty. Outside, the stars shone brightly in a sky devoid of smog, the lonely wind moaned across bleak Mongolian plains, and in faraway Beijing the Olympic torch burned its last fiery breath.

That night was cold, and the wind was bone-chilling. But I was warm beneath my blankets, tucked inside a yurt in the front yard. A yurt is like an elaborate tent, rounded and tall, composed of a metal skeleton and synthetic fabric walls. The ones we slept in were permanent, with a concrete base and a carpet-covered bed. Old-school Mongolian yurts were like Native American tepees, disassembled and moved often. Their frames were lighter, and they were covered with animal skins or other kinds of fabric. The yurt I slept in was slightly more modern, and it was more than enough accommodation to give me a good night’s sleep.

So that was Inner Mongolia, in a nutshell. Beautiful, tough and forlorn, I will never forget those grasslands, nor the people that live on them.

I returned to a recovering city. All the cars are back on the road, and Beijing is returning to its haphazard normalcy. Yesterday afternoon I wandered around the Olympic Green one last time. The Bird’s Nest, Water Cube and National Indoor Stadium still impress me, especially now, when they stand as testaments to the greatness that occurred within. But even though the venues stand tall, everything else has changed.

The Green is like a ghost town. The athletes and spectators have gone home, the journalists have packed up, and even the once-innumerable volunteers are hard to find. The place is still beautiful, but very depressing. There’s no more Olympic excitement; the pageantry is long gone. All that’s left are ghostly stadiums, flapping banners and a gray breeze. It’s time to go home.

As a writer I tend to search for meaning in everything that I do, be it a pick-up game or a summer spent in China. Looking back on my experience here, I know that I learned a lot about sports reporting, the Olympics, Chinese culture, and basketball on the other side of the globe. Beijing was a wonderful city to live in. While it may be polluted and overcrowded, it still put on one hell of an Olympic Games, and the people here are terrific. If you ever get a chance to visit China, do it. You will not be disappointed, and I guarantee, it will be like nothing you’ve ever done before.

I hope you all enjoyed my journals, because I loved writing them. Thanks again for all the kind words, and I’ll see you on the court, fellas.