Friday, 24 May 2019

First time in China

Just under a week ago I mentioned that I was heading off on a business trip, so wouldn’t be posting for a while, but last night I arrived home, tired and bleary-eyed from my first visit to the People’s Republic of China.

The purpose of the visit was to carry out an audit on a potential new supplier, who will be providing plastic tubes for a new prophylaxis paste (dental tooth polish), we are developing in conjunction with our parent company in Japan. Because of the importance of this project to both our companies, it was deemed necessary to send representatives from the quality departments of both firms, so I was joined on the trip by three of my Japanese colleagues.

Travelling to China is relatively easy for them, as it’s only a four hour flight across from Osaka. Furthermore, Japanese citizens do not need visas (rather surprising considering the past history between the two nations), but UK citizens definitely do. Applying for the visa was the reason behind my two visits to London, earlier this month, and in addition, as I was visiting China for commercial reasons, I required a business visa, which meant obtaining a "letter of introduction" from the company we were going to audit.

Fortunately, the whole process was relatively straight forward, so last Saturday morning, I took the train from Tonbridge, across to Gatwick Airport, to begin a two-stage flight to the city of Guangzhou. Formerly known as Canton, this sprawling metropolis of 14 million inhabitants, is situated on the Pearl River, in the south of China, fairly close to Hong Kong, and whilst South China Airways do offer daily direct flights, these operate out of Heathrow.

Heathrow is a pain to get to from where I live, and also the timings of the direct flights were not particularly convenient. Instead I booked return flights from Gatwick, with Qatar Airways, which involved  a short stop-over in Doha – the capital of Qatar, and the venue for the 2022 Football World Cup. For the aircraft buffs amongst you, the Gatwick –  Doha stage was operated by Boeing  Dreamliners, whilst the Doha – Guangzhou leg uses Airbus 380’s; the world’s largest passenger planes.

I arrived at Guangzhou sometime around four in the afternoon, and after disembarking, joined the queues at immigration. As the crowd  approaches the first of the checkpoints, an electronic temperature monitoring system is in place for recording the body temperature of each individual. I noticed myself on a screen,  surrounded by a swarm of humanity, but fortunately there was a green ring showing around my visage.

The reason the Chinese authorities are looking for individuals running a temperature is because they are concerned about people carrying the flu virus. I wasn’t able to see what happened to those who failed the test, but presumably they were either denied entry, or were quarantined somewhere.

After having my fingerprints taken again (I’d already provided them at the visa application centre in London), and  passing through Passport Control, I collected my suitcase which was then screened. I then found myself in the People’s Republic of China, and free to head off to my pre-booked hotel. My Japanese colleagues had also booked the same accommodation, but as they wouldn’t be arriving until later the following day, I had an evening and the best part of a day to myself, free to explore and get to know my new surroundings.

First I had to journey into the centre of Guangzhou, and locate my hotel, which was situated close to the main railway station. I had already decided to take the Metro, as I am no fan of taxis, particularly foreign ones. This decision was to prove correct the following day, after my colleagues and I “enjoyed” a white-knuckle ride of a taxi journey to and from the company we were visiting.

The Guangzhou metro operates around nine lines which connect with most parts of the city. The trains are fast, spotlessly clean and air-conditioned. The system is also incredibly cheap, with the trip from the airport costing just 7 RMB (CN¥). With just under 9 RMB to the Pound, this was amazing value for a journey of around 25 kilometres.

But first I had to suss out the ticket machines and access the system, and to do the latter I had to have my bags scanned yet again. I don’t know whether there’s been some sort of security issue in China, or whether the authorities are just being cautious, but at the entrance to every metro station, there are airport-style bag scanners manned by security staff. Bearing in mind that most stations have several entrances, that’s a lot of people employed in keeping passengers safe.

After a 45 minute journey, and one change of line, I arrived in central Guangzhou, and now had the problem of finding my hotel. The Google street-car  seems to have been denied access to most of the city, so "Street-View" was out of the question. Instead I had to rely on an old-fashioned map which I’d downloaded back home. The temperature was in the low thirties and the humidity sky high. There was that much perspiration running off me, it felt like I was melting!

I had a photo of the hotel, but try as I might I just couldn’t locate it. I tried phoning, but I ran into the same problem I always seem to have when using my mobile abroad, as the number was “not recognised.” I was just beginning to despair, when I found a local security guard who could speak a little English.

After I’d asked him where the Baiyun City Hotel was, he grinned, and told me to look up above me. I looked up at the sign and found to my immense relief that I was standing right outside the place! Happy or what?


Ian Worden said...

I was told that the scanners are actually targeted at firecrackers, large quantities of which are used as part of Chinese festivities. However, they can be quite unstable - especially the cheap ones.

Paul Bailey said...

That makes sense Ian, but with two scanners at each entrance, and several security staff looking after each one, it's a costly operation to maintain.

There is also the increased risk of exposure to X-Rays. Not a problem for visitors like me, but it could be if you are traveling to and from work each day via the Metro!

Anonymous said...

the 2020 Football World Cup.

I think you will find the World Cup is in 2022.
Nothing wrong in getting there early though!

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks Anonymous. I was going to blame the incorrect date on jet-lag, but I don't really suffer from it. I did however, pick up a stinking cold either whilst in China, or on the way back.

Whatever the excuse, the error has now been duly corrected!

retiredmartin said...

Really looking forward to your posts on China, Paul, and particularly the level of detail you bring.

You have the same issue with Chinese hotels as I have finding English micropubs 😉

High on my and Mrs RM's wish list

Paul Bailey said...

I'd have liked to have seen a bit more of Guangzhou Martin, but as it was a business trip I didn't want to push my luck too far.

As it was, I had a day and a half free for some sight-seeing and a bit of shopping. My Japanese colleagues were excellent company and were especially good when it came to choosing places to eat and, more importantly, what to eat!

I'm certain you and Christine would love China, so if you get the chance to go, take it. The visa process was relatively straight forward, and the wait on entry, at passport control no worse than what you experience when entering the US.

The only thing I found was a scarcity of information for the solo traveller - as opposed to organised tour groups. A little preparation ahead of trip comes in useful, and I will touch on this in the next post.

The only negative I found was the poor air quality, and whilst this probably applies to most major cities in China, I did end up with a rasping cough and an uncomfortable sore throat.