A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Who turned the heating off?

It snowed this week. Just a little bit, but there was snow all the same. Outside right now the temperature is a heady +2 degrees, but according to Weatherbug it will fall to -2 tonight and to -4 again later in the week. Not that that’s any real guide I know. Right now my Weatherbug desktop app seems to have got it into its thick head that Beijing is a suburb of Qingdao – so maybe we are in for some blizzards in the next few days?

So what, you are probably wondering? So look at the calendar. We’re not even at the end of March yet, but according to some crazy regulations dating back to the centrally-planned economy of the 1960s the central heating is switched off across large swathes of northern China and people are left to shiver in their apartments or wear coats at their office desks simply because of this, to me, ridiculous outdated regulation.

Across from me now there is a colleague wrapped up in a blue and white fluffy blanket; while sitting next to me another is dressed up to kill in a fur-trimmed trench coat.

What happens is that the majority of the older apartment blocks and office blocks across the city have their heating piped to them centrally from a local neighbourhood heating station. It is either on or off. According to the calendar, it is switched off around March 20th and on again near the end of November.

Now, I fully understand that China, along with many other countries, has to keep an eye on its energy bill. Apparently the energy needed to run the central heating systems in northern China accounts for a quarter of the total energy consumption of the entire country and costs around 70 billion yuan. But it’s exactly because of these huge figures that to my mind this centralized heating system is anachronistic, belonging to an age long gone.

Consider this, for example: since last November the radiators in my apartment block have been churning out massive amounts of heat keeping me, and my fellow residents, warm as toast. There are no controls on the radiators allowing me to turn them off or even down a little. There are no thermostats either, meaning that when the temperature becomes just too overpowering I have to open a window or two to bring the heat down to an acceptable level. In fact, for most of the winter I have left two of my windows partially open to compensate for the overpowering heat being served up.

What a waste!

But there’s more. In a typical 24-hour period, I am in my apartment for maybe 10 hours only. So for 14 hours every day – or 60 per cent of the time – my apartment stands empty; and yet still the heat pours out and escapes to heat up the winter chill outside.

Isn’t it about time someone mentioned to the powers that be here that hey guys, we’re actually in the 21st century nowadays. Surely it would make a lot more sense to install thermostats straight away across the entire area. Compared with half a century ago they’re dirt cheap; and the costs involved would be recouped many times over, as most countries in the West could testify.

Additionally if a metering system was introduced, so that everyone knew how much energy they were using, then even more energy would be saved – especially if people were ‘encouraged’ to switch off their heating when they were not at home.

Or maybe even, it’s high time that the authorities considered replacing the centralized district heating system with individual gas boilers that not only produce hot water, but serve the radiators too. Again these gas boilers are hugely more efficient than they ever were in the past.

So now I have on my electric heater, which I purchased last October, and which has been sitting idly by since mid November, sitting in the hallway and warming up my entire apartment, whose doors are all left open to waft through the hot air. My apartment windows have finally been closed too. So worry not dear blogger readers; until the temperatures take a turn for the better I, for one, will remain perfectly comfortable sitting inside my temperature-controlled igloo.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Who Pinched all the Trains?

I’m confused. No, really; your favourite blogger, whose brain power is surely the envy of many a lesser mortal, has been having a hard time trying to work out whom to believe.

On the one hand Wikipedia – that fount of all knowledge - tells me that The China Railway Museum (中国铁道博物馆), which I visited not many weeks back in the north eastern outskirts of remote BJ, should not be confused with the Beijing Railway Museum (北京铁路博物馆), which was opened in 2008 in the former Zhengyangmen East Railway Station of the Jingfeng Railway, just southeast of Tian'anmen Square.

Only problem is that as the next photo well and truly shows, the museum just southeast of Tian'anmen Square is called the China Railway Museum (中国铁道博物馆)…

… while postings to a number of travel related sites get both of them thoroughly mixed up with photos of the outside of one coupled with photos of the innards of the other. It’s enough to make you weep.

Anyway, this past weekend has been totally grismal outside, with a flurry of snow and a grey overcast sky that hardly tempts one to step outside the front door. But your intrepid blogger braves the cold winds and makes his way to Qianmen – admittedly with the intention of going to see Chairman Mao; but Mr Zedong, it appears, has a previous appointment (rumour has it that he is seeing his beauty therapist…again) so his mausoleum is well and truly closed to visitors.

Across the road, the sign for the China Railway Museum rings a clarion déjà vu, and I am tempted inside its portals, if only to see what could be lurking on the other side of the walls.

And this is where I now become doubly confused. For has anyone ever heard of a railway museum that has no trains in it? The more I discover about Beijing, the more you’d think I’d learn not to be surprised any more. But not a single train, carriage or even engine is anywhere to be seen here. This has to be a rail museum with a difference!

The museum is actually spread out across four floors and charts the history of China's railways. A sign near the entrance, though, warns against premature expectations that cannot be met: During the 38 years from the Revolution of 1911 which led to the end of the Qing dynasty to the founding of People's Republic of China, Chinese society with political unrest and depressed economy was faced with troubles at home and aggression from abroad, all of which led to slow headway of Chinese railway industry. With the distribution biased towards the northeast and coastal areas, railway in China has a total length of more than 20,000km till 1949. Because of outdated equipment and backward management, the transport efficiency of Chinese railway was very slow at that time. Well, that’s telling it like it is!

Of course, like every museum in this part of the world, the walls are smothered in photographs; and though few of them have any translation beside them, they are still fascinating to look at.

There are also intriguing little bits off trains – like this bit of an engine whistle…

… while the regulations for a Qing dynasty railway company look like heavy reading material.

I particularly like a ticket printing machine on display, though,

together with some ticket stencils for printing off said tickets…

Of course, though there are no real trains here, you would certainly expect there to be a number of models on display; and on this score the museum comes up trumps. Here’s one of a steam loco named after Zhu De - Golly! It looks almost identical to the real train in the other China Railway Museum. How uncanny is that!

While it would appear that General Zhu De only had one train named after him, Mao Zedong had at least two named in his honour. Here’s a photo of some happy workers posing in 1977 in front of a new diesel loco parked next to Mao’s Class JieFang JF-Liberation No.304 which it replaced.

And as if to drive home the point, the loco badge is on display here – a living piece of history if ever there was one!

Actually, Mr Zedong is much in evidence throughout the museum. Here’s an original copy of the People’s Daily, dated 1st October 1949, for instance – with the Great Helmsman taking pride of place …

And what’s this? Did Mao have to queue up like all the other plebs and buy his own ticket before boarding his personal train? Unfortunately the caption gives no further details, just mentioning that he inspected Beijing station on 14 Sept 1959…

Throughout the museum, the signage – as I have come to expect from so many of BJ’s museums – is immaculate, leaving little room for doubt as to where visitors are not allowed to set foot…

Hey, there’s even part of a clock that was used in the 1990s at one of BJ’s stations. How awesome is that! 

Even though there are no real trains here, someone has thought fit to install a life sized model of a small part of one of the new high speed trains.

But as we have all got used to small-is-beautiful by this time, there is a 1:10 size model of the whole train … errr…actually I count four such models of this train…

though if you miss any of them, you can always buy yet more train models in the museum shop starting at around £50 a pop.

At the end of the museum visit one is left in little doubt about the state of Chinese railways. They may not have any trains in their rail museum, but in this country there is always a reason to be optimistic.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Beijing’s Flight of Fancy

It seemed like a great idea at the time. Like most small boys I love aircraft – and it’s not for nothing that I used to work at both Heathrow and Manchester Airports, ogling the planes as I went about my daily business. The wonder is that I also got paid to work there!

So when I read up on the web about China’s brand spanking new Civil Aviation Museum which only opened in November of 2011, it was definitely one of my must-see places to add to my ever lengthening list of must-sees…

 Once again I thank Mr Google and his merry men for making my life so much easier – in this case he has taken the trouble to add the new museum to his map of Beijing. And thank goodness he did as I am sure I would never have found it otherwise on a side road to Beijing’s Capital Airport near Weigou. No one I have spoken to has either been there or knows how to get there.

Using Brian’s-unique-way-of-finding-a-bus-that-goes-from-A-to-B-in-Beijing, I plot myself a route to this remote part of the northern capital. It takes only two buses from where I live, and all I have to do on the second bus is to count my way through to bus stop 26 and it should then be within easy reach. Unfortunately I have not reckoned on the bus driver missing a couple of stops, and by the time I have worked out where we are, I find I have a 15 minute walk back the way I came to get there.

I finally arrive at the front gate and make my way to the ticket office. First problem. I need to show my ID. But guess who has left his Foreign Expert Certificate in his other manbag (I have only ever been asked to show this on one occasion so have got out of the habit of carrying it with me).

I trawl through my wallet for any kind of ID. An IKEA discount card? No, that doesn’t have my name on it. Nor do WuMart’s or Shouhang’s cards have it either for that matter. My bank card also just has a number on it; no name. What to do?

The three girls in the ticket office go into a whispered conflab (though even if they shouted their conversation at 100dB I would have been none the wiser). Eventually one of them has a brilliant idea. You write name, she says, proffering a piece of paper torn out of a notebook, together with a pencil. I write my name in neat capital letters. This seems to do the trick. How could I possibly be a terrorist hell bent on laying waste to their museum if I write my name in English? For everyone knows such a baddie would have written his name in Chinese? It appears I have passed this test with flying colours and as my neatly scribbled autograph wings its way into the waste paper bin, I am waved through. Duo shao? I ask…. (How much?) No charge. It flee I am told as one of the girls pushes a ticket at me, while a colleague rushes to the door to hold it open for me.

I flash them one of my devastating smiles and waltz through into a parkland setting with the museum building straight ahead of me.

The whole area of China’s Civil Aviation Museum covers 15,724 square metres, I have read, including the Museum building itself covering 9,500 square metres, an Audio-Visual Education Centre of 4,409 square metres and 32,000 square metres outdoors for the display of aircraft.

I head for the main building, whose exterior appearance is apparently designed to resemble the shape of an aircraft engine. It appears the place is totally deserted, save for a couple of girls in the museum’s reception area looking busy being busy doing nothing busy in particular. Another devastating smile from your favourite blogger before I head off into a corner of the building devoted to artifacts from China’s civil aviation over the past 70-odd years. 

Want to see what a well dressed trolley dolly in the 1940s looked like?

 Or the 1970s?

Or more recently than that?

It is clear I’ve come to the right place. I can also gaze at timetables and route maps from yesteryear; or private pilots’ licenses or little bits that fell off the backs of aircraft – it’s all here. Uniforms, compasses, tickets… you name it, it’s here.

OK, there are no notices in English whatsoever, save for being told I am standing in section ‘Part 1’ or 2 or 3 or whatever. But who needs an explanation when it is perfectly obvious what is on display?

Actually I lie. There ARE other notices in English, prominently displayed on all the carpets leading to one of the must-visit corners of this palace of aviation…

It seems the Chinese have worked out their priorities. Full marks to them, I say!

Moving on from the collection of memorabilia I find myself in an exhibition area – or rather loads of exhibition stands that look like they have been parked here because no one wanted to dismantle them after some amazing travel show.

Airlines, training academies, regulatory bodies, and much else besides, all in beautiful condition, but with no one actually manning them.

But then, I am the only visitor, so what else do I expect?

I pass by a number of model aircraft and am just admiring yet another collection when I spy a posse of officials heading ominously in my direction. Five, to be precise. I concentrate my gaze on a model of an engine as a girl from the group takes it upon herself to be their official spokesperson.

Ni Hao, she calls out, coming up to me. You foreign visitor yes? I have to admit that she is spot on, while her colleagues look on admiringly at her perspicacity. Word, it appears, has got around after my contretemps at the gate, and I submit to her third degree interrogation. How you find this museum? How you hear of it? You passing by perhaps? It appears she is gobsmacked that anyone has actually heard of it, least of all a foreigner.

You lucky we open, she tells me as she offers a running translation from what appears to be a superior. We close museum again next month for refurbishment. Refurbishment? What can she be on about? It’s not even four months old. We get in new aircraft and we refit museum then, she adds, as if this explains everything. I ask her when it will reopen. After a hurried flurry of words between the five of them I get ten shoulders shrugging in unison. She doesn’t need to translate.

They want to know what I think of their museum. Beautiful, I tell them. I have said the right thing. They take it in turns to shake my paw and happily march off back the way they have come.

Now it’s time to make my way outside the building itself. Where are the aircraft, I ask myself? In the distance, over a piece of rough ground is a Trident and an Airbus A310 – which, I have read up, was the very first Airbus plane imported by China in 1985 and which was flown by China Eastern Airlines for a total of 39,053 hours.

Airbus apparently bought the plane from the Chinese airline in order to donate it to the museum. Talk about creating a PR opportunity! China is now one of the most important markets for the European aircraft producer. In 2005 alone, China ordered 219 planes from Airbus; so maybe the gesture wasn’t as OTT as all that.

There are also a handful of other smaller planes, including a Mil Mi-8, twin-turbine transport helicopter (that could also act as a gunship) and some flight trainers.

But no sign of what should be the prize exhibit - the IL-14 transport aircraft that Stalin sent in 1954 to Chairman Mao as a gift. (All references on the web to the museum have centred on Mao’s Ilyushin.)

But super-sleuth is on the trail and having spotted a piece of airplane tail peekabooing out from behind a shrub in the distance, I high-tail it out of the museum and down a side road where behind an overgrown fence I can see various bits of old aircraft sitting unloved in a deserted field.

I have to admit that I’m not an expert on Ilyushin aircraft and even though the web references explain that Mao’s IL-14 is 21.31 metres long, 31.7 metres wide and 7.8 metres high, it is only once I am back in the confines of my apartment that I can compare like with like and reassure myself that I was indeed looking at this hallowed plane.

There are other pretty planes too, not least an ex Peoples Liberation Army Air Force AVIC Y-5 biplane, a C-46 which had flown the Hump Route supplying Chinese resistance fighters during the Japanese occupation and a Lisunov Li-2.

So enthralled is Mr B with these aircraft that he manages to step backwards through a thorn bush and finds his trousers ripped in three places. Hmmm… now all that’s needed is a way of getting home without the world staring at this round-eyed gui lao looking like he’s stepped through a hedge backwards.

I wander to a nearby bus stop and find there is an even more direct route to get home than I had previously worked out. Instead of a 90 minute journey, I am home in 50 minutes, all the while sitting in a dark corner of the bus with my ripped trousers well hidden.

But all in all, I am glad I made it to the museum before it closed for refurbishment. Though next time I go, if indeed there is a next time, (who knows?) Chairman Mao’s Ilyushin might have made it out from behind that thorn bush and I won’t have to scurry home like a demented rabbit.

I am indebted to Captain Richard Coward who wrote to me in August 2013 with the following update:

Things look to have improved a lot since you visited but it is desperately under-funded and the condition of the aircraft are appalling, close to being wrecks if nothing is done about their conditions soon. To their credit, there is some work being done on Chairman Moa's aircraft and a Mil-Mi 8 helicopter. They are both inside now but many of the older aircraft are outside and easily accessible (read: able to be scrambled/climbed over) by the public and not fenced off for their protection. The Airbus-gifted A310 and the BAC Trident are on hard standings, as are the steps to the aircraft. The two turboprop aircraft you found tucked away in some scrub area are now free to walk around but again look a little damaged and in poor condition.
Although we visited it on a Sunday and many of the aircraft were locked up, from what our guide told us they are normally open to the public. But he describes the aircraft as being unguarded, meaning it would be easy to damage or destroy the exhibits' instruments or interiors if left unattended. They really need to visit IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire or The Science Museum to see how it should be done.
There is still no cafe there, only a very small counter/shop (unattended) with no fridge or coffee making facilities. The smaller exhibits inside are kept to a good standard and there is ample space for more exhibits hanging from the ceiling or on stands. There are a lot of models of modern aircraft and a nice path to follow around the different exhibit areas but, like you saw before, there is little English signs to explain what is being shown or any guide book or audio guide machines to help. We did have a guide who spoke VERY good English but he was more of an enthusiast working there than a professional guide. He told us that a lot of the exhibits were donated by a local businessman and former pilot.
This museum has great potential but is so badly underfunded that some of the exhibits will soon corrode and become dangerous if left to rot or be damaged. It is a shame but it needs private or corporate investment long-term to survive and then it will provide a peep-hole into a very little known part of the global aviation history.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Come Qatar Airways is Still in Business?

It seems to be a sad fact on this little planet of ours that when companies (or individuals for that matter) become successful, they often “take their eye off the ball” and start behaving like jerks, treating their customers like nobodies and expecting them to dance to the company’s tune.

I’ve written before about falling out of love with Qatar Airways; but their fall from grace (in my eyes at any rate) continues relentlessly, such that when my Gold Privilege Card runs out at the end of this year I can’t say I’m going to miss it that much. I mean, sure – I can get a generous luggage allowance on their aircraft, but being spared some of the nonsense they dole out to their customers will not be something about which I will feel totally bereft.

Take my recent visit back to the Middle East, as an example. You’d think that getting a flight from Beijing to Dubai, transiting through Doha, wouldn’t be such a big deal, would it? Well, naively I thought so too. Hey, what better than to use up some of those accumulated Privilege Club air miles that I have been earning for so long with them?

The first problem is actually trying to log on to their web site. To get to the point of actually trying to book a ticket though their Privilege Club takes me some three or four weeks. I kid you not. Every time I try logging on to their micro-site it is either down, or busy or just doesn’t work. Every time I try putting in the originating airport it won’t recognise Beijing. Nor the IATA code – PEK.

When I DO finally manage that little hurdle, I discover that these precious privilege miles are pretty useless if you want to travel at a reasonable time on a reasonable day. They are only valid for the flights the airline has difficulty filling. No worries; I will adjust my time in Dubai accordingly.

Then you find that you still have to pay an exorbitant amount for airport taxes and fuel surcharges, so your “free” flights are now starting to add up. I book the ticket, only to find the site crashes at just that moment when it has accepted my credit card, but before I can reserve my seats, give meal preferences or even get a receipt. Luckily I am quick to write down the reference number it gives me, for now I cannot even get into “manage bookings” as it doesn’t recognise my booking, even though my bank account has been debited.

I write to Qatar Airways “Customer Service” – and get a reply four days later that my booking is OK. They eMail me the receipt which gives the flight details. Only problem is I still cannot get into the Privilege Club bookings manager to reserve my seats. That takes another four weeks!

Finally I manage to get my seats reserved and print off the eBooking which I will take with me to the airport. As I am leaving Beijing on the 2350 flight, I get to the airport in plenty of time, only to discover that the check-in desks are closed. Strange. I go to Airport Information to discover that the flight doesn’t leave until 0140. So I sit around aimlessly with the other passengers who likewise have turned up in plenty of time to check in for a non-existent flight.

Finally the check in girls arrive. I query the change of flight time. Oh yes; it was changed two months ago! But no one from the airline ever bothered to let me – or the other hapless passengers - know that. The Qatar Airways girl couldn’t be less interested.

By the time I am through immigration clearance I find all the duty free shops are closed.

I make my way to the Qatar Airways Privilege Lounge which I happen to know from a previous trip is actually the Air China lounge. Outside is a list of partner airlines in the Star Alliance but for some strange reason Qatar Airways isn’t listed. Perhaps Air China knows something we don’t.

I stock up on the calories as there are some excellent steamed dumplings in a variety of fillings shouting out Eat me Eat me from their little baskets; and wash it down with some reasonable plonk and a couple of Tsingtaos.

Eventually it’s time to board. Naturally I am sitting in the only area where the videos don’t work and it takes over 45 minutes after take off – itself delayed a further 35 minutes - for the air crew to reboot their blessed computer so that those of us that are still awake can try to enjoy the show.

By the time the food is served, there is practically no one awake.

I check out the local weather in Dubai. 20 degrees apparently. I check the weather in Doha – hardly spitting distance from Dubai – and see it is listed as zero. It remains at zero for the entire flight. A great advertisement for the national airline when they cannot even get the weather in their own capital right!

Of course, my turn around time in Doha has now been reduced so much that there is no time to pop into the Gold class lounge to get some refreshment, (maybe, reading some other blogs, that is no bad thing); nor is there time to go to the Duty Free and use up some old Qatari riyals I have had stuffed in my travel wallet for what seems like millennia.

We rush through the bag controls to the Dubai flight, which according to my ticket should have been boarding for the past 20 minutes; and when I reach gate 9 I find that the indicator board is now showing a flight to Manila that leaves in just over an hour's time. Could I have missed the connection? No. It’s just that this flight is also delayed.

“Breakfast” is a carton of orange juice and a cardboard box containing a shawarma-type roll which, it turns out, has not been cooked properly. I count at least a dozen passengers cursing Qatar Airways’ catering, trying to remove the remains of their shawarmas that have collapsed into their laps.

We finally arrive well over an hour late in Dubai.

The return journey is not a lot better, though I am glad to stock up on yet more calories in Dubai’s Business Lounge (a word to the wise: always ask for the Business rather than Gold lounge, as the latter is always overcrowded and there isn’t such a good selection of food on offer).

We board the aircraft, only for some Qatari guys who have got Economy class tickets to decide they like the look of Business class better – and as it is empty they park their ample bottoms in these wider seats. Only after they have been served a welcoming glass of champagne does the crew realise they shouldn’t be there in the first place and it takes 45 minutes to eject them back to Economy. Why doesn’t someone just kick them off the flight, I ask one of the tired looking trolley dollies? They’re Qatari, she sighs, as though that excuses everything.

We arrive an hour late in Doha – on a flight that takes all of 35 minutes flying time! I pop quickly into the Gold lounge to use their (disgusting) facilities and marvel that a “Gold” lounge can have the nerve to offer such paltry fare to its “privileged” customers.

And then we are driven across the entire airfield in a bus journey, which takes 18 minutes, to board the Beijing flight.

I am the only non-Chinese in my section of the cabin; and before I am comfortably settled in my seat an Indian stewardess has started to chat me up… Where do I live in Beijing? Is that anywhere near their hotel? What is there to see near there? How much time do I get off from my job?

Cute though she undoubtedly is, this girl must be even younger than my daughter, and finally she gets the message that I’m not really interested in taking her and her friends out for a gallivanting good time around Beijing. She leaves me in peace to enjoy a film and get some shut eye.

We arrive 45 minutes late. We tumble off the aircraft. And I for one am so glad to be back on Chinese soil.

Friendly, polite immigration officers (not like those awful ones in Dubai … no, don’t get me started!); and loos in which you could happily eat your lunch, they are so spotless (as opposed to the disgusting rest rooms in Doha and the slightly less disgusting ones in Dubai).

I collect my bags and head for “home”. It’s great to be back.