A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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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.