- 4 Aug 08, 08:26 AM
Beijing - There are literally tens of thousands of them, the best advert China could have for its Olympics.
The legions of smiling, blue-and-white clad volunteers who are on hand at every turn to help, translate or point one in the right direction - sometimes with almost-frighteningly military zeal.
Gaggles of them are stationed at every doorway, every checkpoint, every bus stand.
Ask a group for directions and they all respond in unison, arms outstretched simultaneously with palms flat (it is rude to point with your finger), as if choreographed.
And any attempt to speak Chinese (xiexie - 'thank you', pronouncedshea shea - goes down well and sounds nice too) is greeted with giggles of glee.
Of course cynics will claim these volunteers have been carefully picked, that they come from the right families, the children of the right officials.
But they are a force of genuine friendliness and hospitality that is hard to deny.
"No we don't get paid, we are volunteers," says Gao Jang, an enthusiastic art student on hand at Media Village 1, where we are staying.
"I do it because it is fun, to come together with my friends, and welcome everybody to the Olympics."
On arrival at Beijing airport we glided through immigration in special Olympic lanes.
An hour or so later, after driving into town on deserted Olympic lanes on deserted dual carriageways, we were checking in at our newly-built 27-floor Olympic Media Village tower block, being handed ice cold bottles of water before being whisked up to our rooms by a posse of bellboys.
(They'd even managed to arrange an extremely auspicious apartment for us - number 08/08.)
But there is, of course, the other side to Chinese organisation - the nastier side of this split personality, as other colleagues have written.
Security is tight and there have already been several minor run-ins over access and filming. And who knows what sacrifices have been made to reach this level of efficiency.
I have never worked at an Olympics before, so I can't compare with other Games.
But tight security is something we've come to expect in this day and age from any large scale event anywhere in the world. I don't imagine London will be much different..
The whole place does have a very eerie feel, but that is mainly down to the climate. It is hot - around 90F in the middle of Sunday when we arrived - and steamy.
Stepping out of air-conditioned comfort is like walking into a giant indoor swimming hall - the wet air slaps you like a warm, wet fish before slowly sliding down your flesh. It has a chemical taste and smell, and slightly stings your eyes.
And all around is the low hum of air-conditioning units, muffled and distorted by the concrete and steel.
Beijing is utterly flat and all the tower blocks look the same - so it would be hard to get your bearings even without the pollution haze, which reduces visibility to such a degree that the horizon disappears in an indeterminate grey fuzz.
It is almost like being cocooned in a giant gas-filled bubble, floating in outer space.
Indeed as we strolled up to the Bird's Nest stadium at dusk last night, it seemed to hover in the tainted air like a giant spaceship, tinged pink by the setting sun, itself looking like an other-worldly red disc suspended in the gloom.
The huge boulevards around the stadium - one fully a kilometre long and a hundred yards wide - were deserted save for one lone cop car.
They'll look very different come Friday when they'll teem with millions of Chinese fans.
But last night at least, it felt like alien craft had landed, just for us.
Fortune cookie motto for today: Cabs are cheap. Beer by Houhai Lake, nice but not so cheap.
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