In early November 2003 I made a four day visit to Beijing. This was at the invitation of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG). This was to speak at their symposium on the design for the official web site for the 2008 Olympic games. I was invited because of my work on accessible web sites for disabled people and in particular expert evidence on the Sydney 2000 Olympic web site. But this visit was not all business, as well as the meetings with international web experts, Olympic and government officials, technical experts and business people, I rode around Beijing on a small folding bicycle.
This is a technical travelogue, in the style of my my book Net Traveller. It combines both personal observations as a visitor and technical observations about the trip and details of the meetings attended. There are also notes on Research Opportunities, for a seminar at the Australian National University (Wednesday, November 26, 2003). The 2008 Olympics has opportunities for research on large scale, culturally sensitive, wireless, position based web applications with video. In addition a briefing is available on request for government and company organisations on business opportunities with the 2008 Olympics (Brisbane Presentation added 2007).
The first day started pleasantly when along with the other "visiting experts" we were collected from the hotel and walked the few hundred metres to BOCOG HQ. The hotel is outside a metro station so we had to dodge between bicycles, motor tricycles and electric trolley buses.
At the symposium I met the people who I had been emailing for months and then we sat down with headphones for simultaneous translation. The VP of BOCOG, did the welcoming speech. This made it very clear BOCOG were very serious about their web site. "Gather together, communicate with each other and share the Olympic spirit".
One nice touch in the meeting was that each person had a teacup with a lid on it to keep the tea warm. Every fifteen minutes or so staff would refill the cups with hot water from a large flask. I have suggested BOCOG produce Olympic 2008 branded tea cups as a marketing gimmick.
What followed were some serious presentations from IOC officials, academics, business and government people. The details are in the two accompanying presentations, one on the research/academic aspects and one on business opportunities. But as well as the serious stuff there were very generous banquet lunches and dinners and visits such places as the People's Daily newspaper office.
Exploring the City
The first two days of the conference were taken up with meetings. On the final day in Beijing I had some time to . My overseas collogues hired a taxi to see the Great Wall, but I decided to take a less planned and more leisurely walk through Beijing's older areas. My intention was to head in the general direction of the Forbidden City, using the narrow back streets. This proved a fascinating journey.
Beijing's main streets have six lanes for motor vehicles and two lanes for bicycles . These are lined with a mixture of ultra moder high rise buildings and older three story buildings. The most successful of these are where the older low buildings have been kept next to the road and there are newer building steeped behind.
Laneways and Courtyard Houses
Away from the main six lane roads are successively narrower roads, until there are lanes large enough for one car and a bicycle. The lanes are lined with small shops and doorways for the walled, courtyard houses. There are tricycle loads of briquettes (reconstituted coal for heating), all sort of goods, bakeries and barbers. The lane ways are a social meeting place, a place for production and for commerce. There was also coaxial cable strung on the electricity poles, presumably for cable TV. There was the occasional stainless steel and white tile public toilet. On one side of the lane may be old seemingly random dwellings and on the other a wall and gateway to an ultra modern high rise apartment block. Unfortunately I didn't get a good photograph of the streets, as I felt a bit like I was taking photos in someone's backyard.
As I got closer to the city centre, the character of the lane ways suddenly changed to be straighter, better paved and more like a tourist area. At this point someone asked me to buy something, but in a very polite and low key way and they took my "no thank you" with good grace. Suddenly the alleys and one story houses gave way to skyscrapers and underground shopping malls. Then there was the moat and walls of the forbidden city.
Buying a Folding Bicycle
Then I headed south towards the main entrance to the city opposite Tiananmen Square. At this point I was starting to think about turning back because of time, but spotted a shop specializing in folding bicycles. This seemed like divine providence as I had not brought my own folding bicycle with me on this trip. I was thinking of buying an even more compact bicycle and this shop specialized in that brand. So after some pantomime negotiation with arm waving to say "have you got the smaller size model with gears?", "at that price if you throw in the bicycle lock as well" and "hold on while I stamp the warranty book and pump up the tyres" I was off to the square on two small 16 inch wheels. The bicycle cost about one quarter the Australian price (I probably could have haggled it lower).
A folding bicycle turned out the ideal way to see Beijing. The city is dead flat and so you don't need a fancy bicycle. The small folding one kept the tourist touts away and they were too busy laughing at me to bother trying to sell anything. Small children stopped and stared, old men asked me how it folded. About the only one not amused was the guard at the gate to Tiananmen Square who, contrary to the Lonely Planet Guide to Beijing, would not let me even walk the bicycle into the area.
Beijing's main roads have bicycle lanes the width of a two lane highway on each side. Smaller roads still have wide cycleways. Riding is easy, except at intersections , where you have to negotiate the multiple lanes of traffic. There are special bicycle traffic lights, but there is still the turning cars, buses, motor tricycles and other bicycles to contend with. I found the best way was to ride next to one of the slower pedal tricycles. At the very large crossings I folded the bicycle and carried it over an overpass or under the road.
After the excitement of zipping around the centre of Beijing (the whole place is flat) I got a little carried away and got lost on the way back to the hotel. The city is laid out as a massive rectangular grid and so it is not difficult to navigate, but it was an overcast winter's day and so I could not see which way was North (good application for a bicycle mounted navigation system). The main road have the name in both pictograph's and in phonetic spelling, but it still was not easy to tell where I was. On the way I passed a fascinating looking structure with bizarre gadgets on the roof (perhaps an ancient observatory). Eventually I found I was a few blocks east of where I needed to be and pedaled back to the hotel in time to be collected by the car for the airport. There were then a whole lot more people to explain the bicycle to.
From the excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Beijing, I was aware that hotels in the city are expensive and a bit dull. The hotel was adequate and seemed to be continually filled with UN delegations. Ignoring all the supposed luxuries in the room I first tried to check my e-mail. This became a "find the plug" game: there was a helpful note on the desk saying broadband was available, using the supplied cable, for only $US10 a day. This didn't seem a bargain, but I couldn't get my dial-up or mobile GPRS to work, so I tried it. The problem was there was no sign of a socket or cable. There were two super-multi standard power plugs (China uses the same plugs as Australia, by the way) and two modem sockets, but no broadband. The next day one of my collogues told me they had the same problem, asked, and found the cable in a hidden drawer in the desk and the socket on the wall underneath. Sure enough there they were. I just had to place my hand under the desk to find the hidden drawer and then pull the desk out from the wall and get down on my hands an knees to plug it in.
The LAN connection was easy enough to make: plug in the Ethernet cable, reboot the computer and click on a button on the default web page. But the broadband was not very broad, with uploads at about 136 kbps (and appearing slower than my 100 kbps Transact service at home). Also I had to retry about three times each time I tried to collect my mail. But it did work almost well enough as a substitute for dial up, but no good for serious on-line work. This is a point I made in evidence to a Senate broadband inquiry the following week in Canberra.
The business class seat of the Boeing 777 is not so much a seat but a collection of electrical and electronic gadgets you sit on. I am not sure the result is entirely successful. One arm rest contains a fold out tray table, the other a small LCD TV screen. Folding these out is about the only manual process involved. The foot and back rest are electrically powered by switches on the left arm rest. These are laid out in a reasonably ergonomic way: back control at the back, front control at the front. But there are two front switches and I have no idea what each do. I have to bend down to try and read the controls and they don't glow in the dark cabin (just about everything else glows).
The controls for the audio glow and are in the right arm where they usually are. But if you push a button the control unit pops out on a cable and reveals itself to be a marvel of audiovisual control. One side of the panel controls the light, calls the attendant and operates the TV. There are also what look like video game buttons at each end. Turn the unit over and it is a telephone, with a credit card slot on the side. The whole unit feels so solid you could crack Queensland nuts with it. The way the unit operates one way as a phone one as an AV control and another as a games controller deserves several PHD theses to be written about it (no doubt they were).
The aircraft is not that new and no doubt all this is all old technology to those who travel business class regularly. It is all new to me. I couldn't even find the business class queue at the counter and stood in an entertaining queue of tourists each with a large "genuine" Australian woollen bed quilt. These must be taking up most of the cargo hold of the aircraft below me. Some bright marketing person should sell these quilts for tourists, compacted into a miniature replica of a wool-bale.
While the hardware works, the AV system is, as usual, let down by content. Multiple audio and video channels are good to have, but they quickly run out of content on a long flight and you find yourself watching the same movie over and over again. In addition to the useful moving map display showing where we are, I was startled on takeoff to see the view of the runway ahead projected on screen. This was fascinating over central Australia, with the red earth and dry riverbeds showing clearly, but boring over the ocean. No doubt I am supposed to get bored and start calling people on the satellite phone. But when will there be a camera as well, so I can show people the sunset out the window?
Getting credentialed for the flight proved to be the most difficult part of the whole trip. A physical paper ticket was issued in Beijing and sent by courier to Canberra. While I was registered in the airline's booking system I couldn't get on the plane without the piece of paper from the other side of the world. The ticket arrived 6pm the day before the flight. The ticket had my given and surnames reversed (as is usual in China) and so did not match my passport.
Once I had the ticket all went well. The one hour stopover in Shanghai was unexpected. Flying in was mysterious, with fog shrouding the city and the immense airport terminal. The airport building looks about two kilometres long and is a looming glass wall out of the set of a science fiction movie.
On arrival in Beijing there was an airline official holding up my name, there to escort me through to the waiting car. They had a walkie talky into which they reported my arrival to someone, in they style of "the eagle has landed". It was after midnight and I have no recollection of the drive to the hotel.
Research opportunities with the 2008 Olympics, Australian National University seminar, Canberra, 4pm, Wednesday, November 26, 2003
A briefing is available on request for government and company organisations on business opportunities with the 2008 Olympics.
- See also books: Web Accessibility; Sydney 2000 Olympics; Beijing 2008 Olympics
Austrade, are conducting Beijing Olympics Opportunities Seminars.
Technology for Competition in Broadband Services, Submission to the Australian Senate Inquiry into competition in broadband services, by Tom Worthington, November 2003
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