The other day, a friend posted on Facebook: “Hell has never been very vivid to me. But [an arena] just announced a concert with REO Speedwagon, Styx and Loverboy, and now at least I know what the soundtrack would be down there.” I chimed in to say that adding Journey to the bill would send me even further into the raging inferno. But now I know how I’d get around—or not—down there, too: the bus system at these Olympics.
Before I get into the demonic details, I’ll say there are a lot of things to like at these Winter Games: most events have gone off without a hitch; the races and ski jumps have been amazing to watch; athletes seem to really like the courses; the required daily Covid testing is seamless; Internet access is reliable and unrestricted (at least with a VPN, which, as we’ve learned from pushback to Eileen Gu’s social media posts, is apparently not available to most citizens here); the amount and type of info that the media office provides on each competition and all of the competitors is beyond comprehensive; and the breakfast spread at my hotel is downright awesome.
Moreover, our Chinese hosts—I’m talking the everyday workers on the ground, not the human rights–denying national government—have been uniformly polite and friendly, eager to welcome those of us from around the world crazy enough to come here during a seemingly endless pandemic to celebrate extraordinary humans who push their bodies to mental and physical limits. For instance, on learning that I’m from Colorado, a server at breakfast eagerly told me (via translation app on his phone) that he knew of the Denver Nuggets, then wanted to trade Olympic pins and asked for a photo of himself with me.
The efforts are not going unnoticed by the athletes, either. After yesterday’s team sprint, U.S. cross country skier Ben Ogden said he wanted to give “a huge shout-out to everybody who put this whole thing on. Every single person that we’ve met, be it Covid testers or the people in the dining hall, has been extremely friendly. It’s been a really, really pleasant experience in China.”
Ben has obviously not had to navigate the bus system.
Before I arrived, a journalist friend who was already in China emailed a warning: “Leave lots of time to get lost.” I’d add misdirected to that. My first morning here, a volunteer at my hotel asked if I needed help as I peered at a posted bus map and schedule. I explained I needed to get to the cross country center. She told me to take the No. 13 bus and get off at the first stop, transfer to the No. 6 and finally get on the No. 2. I repeated those numbers like a mantra as I set out.
After getting off the 13 as directed, I encountered another volunteer who asked where I was headed. He shook his head emphatically when I told him. “Oh, no, you can get there from here, and no 6 stop.” Since he didn’t have any other advice, I was contemplating my next step—when up pulled the 6 bus.
The way home was less successful, as I got one of the route numbers mixed up and wound up getting off and on different buses as I was directed this way and that. Several volunteers stood at each stop, offering help, but they spoke only a few words of English and none seemed to have heard of my hotel or knew which route I should take.
The next day I met a fellow journalist at my hotel and learned there’s a direct bus from here to the cross country center. The ride takes all of about 10 minutes.
Now I begin every morning feeling confident that today’s the day I got this. And then…I’ve encountered totally different routes that share the same number, ridden a bus that lapped back to my hotel with no stops and no explanation, scrolled through a 56-page schedule on the Olympics app, seen routes change direction overnight and been driven in more circles than I can count. Oh, and trying to read the bus number, which appears only on a small placard propped inside the windshield, sometimes requires standing in front of the bus as it approaches and hoping you don’t get run over.
Yesterday I met a U.S. team doctor outside my hotel headed to the same place I was; it was fun to have a companion along as we ended up on yet another absurdist journey. He could confirm that I was neither an idiot nor actually losing my mind as I tried to make sense of the nonsensical routes. We also traded stories with a couple of Japanese guys and a Russian while riding around. So, you could say the bus system actually fosters international relations. And that’s a good thing, right?
The saving grace? There’s no music on these buses, or for sure it’d be Styx or Journey on an endless loop. There is one soundtrack that seems appropriate, though: a song by ’90s band Soul Coughing. It’s called “Circles.”