Thursday, 25 September 2008

Blown to Tianjin by Typhoon Hagupit

It's not every day that you set foot on a new continent. In fact this is something you will do a maximum of 7 times in your life, so you should relish the experience.

Today I relished the experience of setting foot on the continent of Asia for the first time in my life, as I landed first in Hong Kong en route via Beijing to Tianjin, China to represent Garlik at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2008.

The journey to this "one small step" was not as smooth as it might have been. Typhoon Hagupit hit Hong Kong the previous day, delaying most flights. So I actually spent about 6 hours "setting foot" on every bit of Heathrow Terminal 3's departure lounge and barely resisted setting foot on the necks of the rather unhelpful Cathay Pacific ground staff who seems unconcerned about the connecting flight that I would miss as a result of the delays.

However after a 6 hour delay we boarded the 11 hour flight to Hong Kong, followed by a 3 hour wait at HK International, a 4 hour flight to Beijing and a 3 hour coach drive to Tianjin. Allowing for my journey from home to Heathrow at the beginning and it took about 33 hours door to door. Phew!

So, what are my first impressions of China? Well there's no sunlight for starters (but that might just be because it's night time. I'll find out in a few hours I guess).

And it feels very different. I have travelled in Europe, America, Africa and the Middle East so I am used to "different" but this is a new kind of different again which is very interesting. A few things have struck me already.

China is confidently big. We all hear the stories about China being big but it's difficult to appreciate until you see it. Starting from the international airport in Beijing which I am told (by one of the lead engineers who happened to be on the coach with me) has the largest roof in the world, you are hit with "bigness".

But it is confidently big. It doesn't feel like it's building big things just to show that it can (take note Dubai). It just has a lot of space, a lot of money, a lot of people so it builds really big stuff. When the coach rolled in to Tianjin at night and we saw the lines of top flight hotels and conference centres lit up and the huge straight roads stretching off in every direction the immediate impression was of a very new, very clean, very big version of Las Vegas without the gambling.

The second thing that strikes me is that I don't understand anything. Even though I don't speak any other languages (and believe me, I've tried) most places I visit I find that the odd word, phrase, written sign feel vaguely familiar and I can feel my way along. Even in the Middle East I got the hang of "hello", "thank you" and "is that my barrel of oil?" pretty quickly. But here unless there is a direct English translation, I understand nothing, I can read nothing, I have no sense of what things mean and left to myself I think I would come to a complete halt.

The third interesting things is that I am back to being a sub-group of one. In this day and age it is pretty difficult to go anywhere and be literally the only black person in sight, particularly in a very busy international airport. Last time I noticed this was in the 90's when I visited a place called Snellville, Georgia, USA, and the hotel staff kindly advised me not to go for a stroll in the evening for my own wellbeing. But this time the furtive glances in my direction are looks of curiosity rather than hostility.

However this has the potential to be a fascinating place. I am looking forward to learning more about China over the next few days and I hope I don't have to stay huddled with hundreds of other visitors in the conference centre all the time. In the meantime "míng tiān jiàn" as we say in China :)

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