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To: Kevin, et al.,

Subject: National treasures (and NOT the ones starring Nicolas Cage)

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Similar to the air outside, you can cut the tension here with a knife. Perhaps even a butter knife. At any rate, you can sense actual competition is near.

This can't possibly be true, but on some level, I feel we're anticipating the start of these Games as much as the competitors (I will concede that most athletes have spent more time preparing, with the possible exception of the French badminton team, which is famously chock full of known slackers, malcontents and troublemakers ... they'll never learn, will they, Kevin?)

It sure felt good to escape for a few hours today. I like the idea of doing another list. Makes me feel like I'm an editor at Redbook or something.

So, five things I learned at the Great Wall:

1. I concur about the relative awesomeness of tour guide Steven. (Though I did feel a bit cheap and used when I later learned that he was also the guide for a buddy, Steve Politi or the Newark Star-Ledger. Check out this hilarious video, which similarly captures our dilemma today.

Steven was certainly a fountain of knowledge. But nothing prepared me for this:

We were discussing famous Chinese figures, past and present. Interestingly, Steven explained that Bruce Lee was probably more popular in America than China. And perhaps not as surprising, Jackie Chan is huge here in China. I asked Steven whether the Chinese were familiar with "Rush Hour," the 1998 buddy-cop comedy. (I did not inquire about "Rush Hour 2" or "Rush Hour 3.")

Steven said they LOVE that movie. He said they also love co-star Chris Tucker. Some even prefer him to Jackie Chan.

"Interesting," I said. "Similarly, Chris Tucker is considered a national treasure in our country, too."

"Ohhhhh," said Steven. "He is like your panda."

Yes, Steven. Chris Tucker is EXACTLY like our panda.

3. Wow, I'm barely mentioning the Great Wall here, but what really freaked me out today: Steve didn't know about David Bowie. Bowie, as I explained to Steven, is also somewhat of a national treasure. A global treasure actually. Anyhow, he'd never heard Bowie's "China Girl," which was a crime that I needed to correct at once.

I dug the iPod from my bag and immediately ordered Steven to take four minutes out of his life and appreciate some Bowie. After soaking in the music, Steven thanked me and noted how "mysterious" Bowie's voice sounded. Oh, Steven, just shut your mouth.

4. The opening ceremony is tomorrow night (still no idea who will light the flame, though there are whispers it might be a non-athlete) and athletic competition finally begins in force Saturday. So we should probably at least acknowledge that, yes?

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Unfortunately, when you take on a competition schedule as busy as Michael Phelps', you don't exactly have a lot of spare time to visit places like the Great Wall. Poor Michael Phelps.

Kevin, I thought we did our best to rectify that problem, printing out photographs of Phelps and taking them with us to the wall. It was like he was there in spirit.

As an added bonus, we brought along the video camera and asked locals what they thought of Phelps. The answers were surprising – from medal predictions to one young woman who bluntly stated that she preferred Kobe. We'll get that edited and posted here on the blog before long.

And Michael, it was good to have you along.

5. Actually, the subject of free time at the Olympics came up in a recent conversation I had with Carmelo Anthony. A profile of Anthony appeared in today's Sun , but among the many things I didn't have space to include: Learning from his 2004 Olympic experience, Anthony is determined to take in more of these Summer Games. He says he'll visit boxing, track and field and – surprise! -- swimming.

Anthony has turned into quite the Phelps fan, in fact. I'll be on the lookout for him at the pool this weekend, but fans should be sure to check out this diary entry on The New York Times' Web site , in which Melo writes:

This is my first time to really get a chance to mingle and interact with (Phelps). We talked about spots back home, but we were talking about getting out to each other's events. He's going to bring some golds back to Baltimore and I'm going to bring a gold back. They can have our parade together in Baltimore.

Special bonus item: The portion of the Great Wall we visited today is called Mutianyu. It was the same section I visited last year when I covered Cal Ripken's visit to China. If you're curious what it looks like, check out the video below:

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