Torch arrives in China to warm welcome

 

Thunderous applause and cheers greeted the Olympic torch on Sunday as it began the first leg of its marathon relay through mainland China after a protest-harried overseas journey.

"Go China," people lining the streets chanted, waving Chinese flags as the flame made its way from a man-made island just off the tropical resort city of Sanya, on the southern tip of the island province of Hainan.

Some of the thousands who turned out climbed up trees to get a better view of the torch, which has already been paraded through the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau to an overwhelmingly enthusiastic welcome.

"As the first stop for the torch relay in mainland China, we are very honoured and proud," Sanya's Communist Party boss, Jiang Zelin, told a carefully selected audience of dignitaries, celebrities and ordinary people, before the relay set off.

A bold plan to take a special flame to the top of Mount Everest faced a possible setback at the weekend as snow fell on the world's highest mountain.

The climbing team has been at 6,500 metres in advanced base camp or higher for at least three days, waiting for better weather to take the flame to the 8,848-metre peak and claim the crowning moment of a relay that was marred by anti-China protests on its round-the-world journey.

The demonstrations that dogged the main torch, which were mostly over China's crackdown against protests in Tibet, deeply embarrassed Beijing and provoked retaliatory rallies at home and abroad by patriotic Chinese.

Talks with envoys for exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing blames for inciting the Tibet protests, were scheduled to start in southern China on Sunday.

Some in the Hainan crowd wore nationalist T-shirts reading: "Tibet was, is and will always be part of China".

Others wore T-shirts emblazoned with the calligraphy of Chairman Mao Zedong: "A sea of red over the rivers and mountains of the motherland".

JOURNEY OF HARMONY

Security in Sanya was low-key but noticeable, with police speedboats patrolling offshore and officers helping marshal the crowds, where a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed.

The chances of any further disruption to the torch relay as it snakes its way through China ahead of August's Beijing Games appear remote.

"The sacred Olympic flame relay will have a 'Journey of Harmony' through the land of China," organisers said in a statement, using a Beijing-coined phrase to express a sentiment much lacking in cities like London, Paris and San Francisco.

Thoughts of Tibet and the problems that marred the global leg of the relay appeared to be far from the minds of the people who flocked to see the torch on Sunday.

"That we can reach the stage where we can hold the Olympics shows that we are a developed country [that] is becoming rich and powerful," Wu Qi, 23, a teacher from Hainan, said.

Though the weather in Sanya was sunny and warm, meteorologists expect showers in the coming days across much of Hainan and relay organisers have prepared raincoats for the torch runners, a website of state news agency Xinhua said.

Chinese Olympic speed skating gold medallist Yang Yang was the first person to carry the torch.

"I don't believe this is real!" she gushed in an interview with Xinhua. "I have no way of describing how excited I am."

The torch was to be carried by 208 runners – including businessmen, celebrities, athletes and "model" Communist Party members – and run over a course featuring both beaches and coconut groves, ending in the early evening.

After Sanya it works its way up to provincial capital Haikou and then onto every province in China, including Tibet and the restive far western region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has accused Al Qaeda of working with Muslim separatists. 

 

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