Monday night at Qinhuangdao Peoples Park — a two hectare marble slate area with garden surrounds right in the heart of the city, features flagpoles, 30m high modern sculptures, searchlights, an air raid siren, loudspeakers and two 80m long walls of TV screens that are 10m high. Naturally they show Olympic events in which mainly Chinese athletes feature. Most warm nights there are over 2000 people here, skipping, skating and socialising, playing shuttlecock, roller blading, dancing, talking, flying kites and enjoying the open air.

Few tonight were watching the TV screens. The biggest crowd was watching a local orchestra made up of violins, Chinese flutes, erhus (like a small vertical violin) Qinqin (a banjo like instrument), drums and a small battery PA system who provide the backing for folk karaoke. Locals with traditional folk song skills grab the mike and perform their song in the traditional way accompanied by the ancient orchestra — the higher, longer and louder the note, the greater the applause.

If you are really good, one or two aging ex-professional dancers will perform with you to the applause of onlookers. We love this simple entertainment in the middle of a growing metropolis of 2.5 million people. We always feel embarrassed when the MC, a mountainous battleaxe of a women makes the locals clear out of our viewing line or acquires a folding stool for my wife to sit. (it sometimes pays to look old). Tonight was no different and we stayed for an hour then wandered over to the central area where the latest skateboard toys were being demonstrated.

Other young people aged around 16 to 20 were skipping and dancing in time to rock music. Still others were having roller blade slalom races. This was so unlike the “cool” (read bored) youth activities we usually see in Hindley Street, Adelaide. There was two burley camouflage wearing, batten carrying soldiers, always within 15 to 20m of us, unobtrusively following us for over two hours as we wandered the park. Scary in one way but reassuring in another considering the attack on the American couple in Beijing a few days ago. Nevertheless we feel safer here than in Adelaide.

The next day we passed the guarded football stadium as we bussed it to Bedaihe, the beach resort for China and Russia. A five story soccer ball features on the main corner near the Olympic park, surrounded by sculpted gardens, flags, and other Olympic paraphernalia.

Like most of China, buildings in this town seem to have a lifespan of about 8 to 10 years. This means there are always demolition sites and land being re-developed. We must have passed at least 2- to 3km of temporary walls covered in Olympic pictures and advertising hiding the old, the partly demolished and the vacant blocks, lest they offend the sensitivities of Western eyes.

A visit to a large local market here surprisingly saw a repeat of the previous night’s experience with two muscle men shadowing us until our Chinese speaking friends chatted with them and confirmed our belief that they were indeed ensuring our safety. Locals suggest that 40% of all security police are in plain clothes. Just look for young men in white T-shirts, black trousers, short hair and large muscles.

For the first time ever, all our bags were opened and inspected on the bus before departing homewards as this trip we were stopping at the stadium to drop attendees at the evening soccer match.

This Saturday we will attend the Preliminary Final of the Soccer. We have been told to arrive at least one and a half hours before the match to get through security in time. Local students with free tickets are forced to go to matches to fill empty seats and are bussed straight into the stadium.

Peter Fray

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