I went to China for the IFAC (International Federation of Automatic Control) world congress in Beijing, July 1999. Although I was only there for the conference I did manage to see some of the country and meet some great people. In all, I stayed for about a week in Beijing, before returning from the heat of summer back to the cold of winter at home.


Hotel Room View
In going on the trip, I didn't really know what to expect in advance, although, of course, that's one of the reasons for wanting to travel in the first place. On arriving at Beijing airport late at night, the first hurdle was to find the way to the hotel. Fortunately we had a Chinese person in the small group I was travelling in, and so the language wasn't such a problem. We ended up taking an unofficial taxi at an only slightly ripped-off rate. With heavy tinting on the windows, it felt suspicious, and then soon after leaving the airport we were in some deserted back-street for a fuel stop. It seems that is the technique they use for ensuring they get their money from the passengers.

On a dark night, in a dingy back-street, in a foreign land speaking a foreign language.. I can see how that could be a bargaining tool. After getting some fuel though, we went on to see some more of the city. That trip felt quite surreal, as I was tired at the time, and the driver seemed to have no use whatsoever for the lane markings on the road, seat belts, or the indicators, but the horn appeared to be a basic tool of driving! After a while though, I restrained my worry, and just hung on for the ride. Ah, that was my introduction to the ways of the road in Beijing..

Tiantan Park

Tiantan Park
Tiantan Park
Tiantan Park was one of the first tourist sites I visited (apart from the airport - which was quite an experience in itself). I was quite struck by the buildings, and just how different they are to what we experience in the west. The ornate detailing and curved forms are quite remarkable.

In this park I was surprised to see signs banning both using the trees for exercise, and the selling of kites to foreigners. Who would want to do that anyhow? I was then even more surprised to see someone using a tree for exercise, and to find a vendor trying to sell us a kite!

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square
On a trip to Beijing, I guess it is almost essential to see Tiananmen Square. Many Chinese people are proud of this square, but in my mind the name was mainly linked to the events there ten years previously, which was not a bright time in its history. Anyhow, I was told the joke that on leaving the country, customs ask the questions “Did you see Tiananmen Square? Did you see the Great Wall?”, and if the answer is “no”, then they tell you to go back and visit them before trying to leave!

Still, It was good to be able to see the place, after having heard of it for so long from the media. It's a big area, but even more than that, there is a sense of formality and significance that isn't there in public places in the West. While there, we saw one section closed off with this human barrier. This is quite effective in preventing people entering the area, but unfortunately any people who are inside the area, like the family we saw taking photographs, cannot be seen by the guards. Maybe they were important people..

The Great Wall

Unrestored section
The Great Wall at Badaling
The photo shown is of the Great Wall at Badaling. The trip out to the Great Wall took the most part of the day, being a couple of hours drive out of the city. The township of Badaling is a tourist centre to service the people visiting the restored section of the wall there, and was full of vendors trying their best to sell merchandise to the tourists.

From the entry point, you could walk along the wall either in either direction. We tried the direction that seemed to have fewer people on it, and that turned out to be the shorter of the two, so I couldn't pride myself in climbing to the top of the taller side.. Even so, it was quite steep in sections with big steps. Being in the middle of a sunny summer day, the shade in the towers was something to appreciate.

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace
On my final day, before leaving China, I went to the Summer Palace in Beijing. There was not enough time available to really see much of the palace, but I could gain some appreciation of the age and history involved. Coming from Australia, there is very little visible history of life from more than one or two hundred years ago. The contrast here was that I could see the buildings and furniture of civilisation many hundreds of years old. The other contrast is that the buildings showed extravagance rather than function, which seems not as evident in the budget-driven modern world. The surrounds there felt beautiful too, as a peaceful park in a big city, but the grey skies dulled things back a bit.

After leaving the summer palace, it was time to head for the airport and say goodbye to China for this trip.