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WORKSHOPS IN SHANDONG AND HEBEI PROVINCES, or TRAVELS TO AND AROUND BEIJING, January 2015

All right, the sub-title sounds rather hackneyed, but it’s actually the first time I have been to Beijing. I have written a more technically-oriented blog separately about the workshops themselves, so jump to that  now if you are after that. This is a bit rambling as I have been ill for two weeks since returning, and writing it is an easier thing than report researching and writing in order to get back up to speed.

Getting there by Emirates business class, with one change, was a pretty good experience, from the excellent chauffeur service to Gatwick, to the extremely good business lounge food quality and selection, to the highlight – the beautifully fitted out A380 flight for the onward flight from Dubai. It all made up for the extra travelling time. But a lot of people coughing and sneezing on the first (less interesting plane) to Dubai were a little unsettling…

I had some spare days, on arrival, because of rearrangements to the programme. Andrew and Xing were working so hard in that period but I was mainly waiting for the workshops and felt useless, so decided to make these unpaid days off, so I could feel more comfortable enjoying some of the tourist attractions.

The first thing to do when planning a trip to Beijing is to read up about it, including any pitfalls. I didn’t (no time), and so, being naturally naïve, did get fleeced. I won’t admit how, but the city has got well up-to-speed in possessing its fair share of scavengers preying on the tourists in the popular areas. But I recognise that all exceptional destinations are marred by it. One problem that does relate to China is the large number of fake 100 Chinese Yuan notes in circulation. I am pretty sure that a non-licensed taxi man swapped a good 100 Yuan note for a fake when I was arguing with him for a full five minutes over change (clearly a ploy, in retrospect) before getting out. Fake notes abound, unfortunately.

The Great Wall

That first day I spent nearly four hours at the fantastic Forbidden City (a must-see), with its numerous palaces. The moat was frozen, but the weather was not as cold as it is normally. I later climbed the artificial hill beyond, with a commanding view over the Forbidden City. After hours of walking south around the Forbidden City, passing through security, I reached the huge Tiananmen Square, which was very quiet.

On another day, I took an excursion to the Great Wall, at Mutianyu. That section is quieter than the other stretch that people visit, and in fact it was extremely quiet. The Wall is steeply stepped in places. It had been very dry, and there was, unusually, no snow, and the air was clear. Tremendous views, yet it felt quite intimate up there, between its enclosing, crenellated walls.

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace (and the old ruined palace nearby) made an excellent day out at the weekend, via the subway, for Andrew and me. The marble boat is amazing. There were hundreds of people skating on the very large artificial lake.

Another day I took the subway and went to look round some Hutongs (traditional residential areas). I picked some less visited ones and they were interesting and charming, but obviously provided pretty basic living for local people.

On Monday, we at last moved on to Jinan, Shandong Province, where we met up again with Xing, who had been working her socks off for this project ever since October.

As I write this paragraph, the sound of the lifts in the hotel at Jinan, Shandong Province, where we have come for the first of the two workshops, reminds me of the incredibly smoothly running, and punctual, high speed (304 km/h) train that brought us here. The city is a typical medium-sized place for China (population 12 million), and the hotel gives commanding views, although the pollution haze is evident. No time to explore the city (‘City of Springs’), unfortunately.

The Marble boat at the Summer Palace

Later, we travelled 300 km by hired minibus to Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province for the workshop there. In this Province, the pollution was very bad: visibility was extremely poor, and the sun could only be made out as a dim disk during the afternoon. Very soon after arrival, we were hosted at a banquet given by Mr Li Pu, Secretary General, Hebei Provincial People’s Government. It was in a lovely room at a different hotel from that used for the workshop. The Chinese people there, including our local experts from Beijing, made period visits to others around the large table during the meal. This Chinese custom is most entertaining. The evening ended suddenly, when the host stood up – a good system actually, as it saves you wondering whether it is appropriate to leave or not.

Inside our hotel the air quality index was shown as high (bad), and a haze was distinctly visible.

The high speed train to Beijing was good again and there was a day or so to have a further look round and visit some vegetarian restaurants (Buddhists seem to run these). Xing was an excellent guide for this, and showed me the Temple of Heaven and other sites. The sun shone, and air quality was pretty good.

The A380 back to Dubai with Emirates was a dream again.

Unfortunately, Andrew was unwell from the pollution after he returned, and I had increasing signs of some nasty bug. It is only almost gone now, two and a half weeks after getting back – hence the lateness of this blog.

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