Charl Engels – My first experience of China on the Hunan Liaison trip was of efficiency. My flight from London had arrived almost an hour late, it was 10:30am and my connecting flight was leaving at 11:30am. To say I was panicked doesn’t begin to describe the emotions running through my veins.
Needless panic, I might add, for by the time it was 11:03am I had cleared customs, collected my baggage, checked in for my next flight and found my seat. 33 minutes had passed from the time I stepped into Beijing Capital Airport until I was seated on my next flight. That is an indication of the efficiency that drives the Chinese mentality and workforce. Everyone is constantly busy, going from place to place on a mission. Smartphones are everywhere, everyone is plugged into the digital age – be it the slightly censored and Chinese government-sanctioned digital age.
Two hours after leaving Beijing, I arrived at Changsha International Airport – as we were coming in to land I glanced out the window at something akin to the airstrip at Bloemfontein. Wondering what I had let myself in for, I was pleasantly – no, happily – surprised by the airport terminal. It was absolutely amazing – clean, efficient and bilingual. Again: not a moment’s worry or waiting for my baggage to arrive, it was revolving on the carousel before I entered the luggage hall!
The arrivals hall – Changsha International Airport
The drive into Changsha took half an hour, the most interesting half an hour of my life to date. In China road signs and markings are merely suggestions, lanes a vague indication of the number of cars the road can carry. In Changsha it seems as if drivers are out to prove you can fit five cars abreast on a 3-lane highway and that overtaking is to be conducted on both shoulders and down the centre lane of said highway.
Arriving at our accommodation, I was greeted by the group that had travelled via Dubai. I will admit to being rather glad at seeing familiar faces, as up until this moment, my attempts to communicate had been met with blank stares all round.
We dropped our luggage in our rooms and then it was time to orientate ourselves and organise some local currency. An experience of note as Lovelyn Nwadeyi was able to “break” the ATM within seconds – the machine inadvertently swallowed her bank card. After spending some time retrieving the offending article from the bank, we ventured forth to enjoy a meal with our host, Madame Zhe.
It was a feast that caused some raised eyebrows and some very intrigued palates. The dishes ranged from whole fish (head and tail attached) to slices of watermelon and very “interesting” soups. Tucking in with gusto, the group was fearlessly led by Lloyd Blake and Dr MacMaster, who may have bitten off more than they could chew at some stages.
After our meal, we split into groups to explore the neighbourhood around our hotel. It was quite an interesting experience – the variety of what is sold in the shops and market stalls is remarkable!
Day Two began with a welcoming at Hunan University by Professor Clark Zuo, one of the directors of the university. Following the welcoming, Prof Zuo presented a discussion on innovation and the roles that universities and students play. This discussion served as a very interesting introduction to the liaison opportunity. After the discussion we were given a tour of Yue Lu Academy, the oldest and most prestigious college in Hunan University. Founded in 976 AD by imperial decree, Yue Lu Academy has long been a centre of excellence in China.
The afternoon session was “A brief history of China” presented by Madame Zhe, which was decidedly brief considering the volume of history – but still filled an afternoon with relevant and interesting information.
That evening we were taken on a tour of Changsha and to a local scenic spot, Orange Island. Orange Island is so named because of the groves of orange trees, but it is a scenic spot because of the 35m tall statue of Chairman Mao Zedong’s head and shoulders. The island also has numerous pagodas and reflecting pools that are beautifully lit at night. The local populations reverence for Mao is reflected in the continual use of his fullname as Chairman Mao Zedong, although some of the younger generations are less enamoured by him.
Statue of Chairman Mao Zedong – Orange Island
Beautifully lit pagoda’s – Orange Islan
Day 3 and the start of the serious talks. The morning’s talks began with a seminar presented by the Hunan Student Council Vice President, Zoe Liao, on the role of student leadership at Hunan University. Other presentations that day included talks on South Africa and our current social context, the role of students as business leaders in South Africa, the rural education problem in China and Social Enterprise – the model started by Mohammed Yunus was covered by one of the Chinese students. Active discussion followed each and every topic, with the day being capped by Burger and his discussion on “The Need and Means for International Communication”.
After the seminars the entire group adjourned to dinner to continue discussing the issues at hand and partake in some cultural exchange. The Chinese definitely know how to host an extremely successful liaison.
Day 4 began bright and early with a bus trip to Chairman Mao Zedong’s childhood residence. It is an acknowledged local tourist site, but the throngs of locals still amazed all of us. Despite everything Western culture and governments perceive as wrong with the man and his ideology, he has created a cultural leadership context that survives long past his death.
After our visit to Mao’s residence we proceeded to conduct an intensive 2 and a half-day scenic beauty and cultural enlightenment tour of Hunan Province,visiting breath-taking places like Zhang Jia Jie (the original location/scenery from Avatar) and Bailong Lake. We traveled in 326-storey elevators and took heart stopping bus rides at the top of cliffs. China showed us a side rarely seen in the Western media –unbelievable beauty and a desire to share that beauty with the world. Access to all of the sights is remarkably easy, with first-rate facilities and wonderful transport mechanisms.
One of the stunning views – Zhang Jia Jie Scenic Beauty Spot
Bailong Lake – Zhang Jia Jie Scenic Beauty Spot
Returning to Changsha on Saturday evening was rather sad; it signalled the end of an extremely insightful and eye-opening experience. The Sunday morning was taken up with travel arrangements before we met up with the Chinese students for a last round of cultural exchange. After a fantastic final lunch it was time to greet the group that was leaving that evening. Some of us were fortunate enough to be able to stay an extra few days – Clinton, Burger and I were off to Beijing the following day while Helet and Carel were off to Shanghai.
Our tour group on the Saturday morning at Bailong Lake – (L to R) Lloyd Blake, Mariechen Puchert, Lovelyn Nwadeyi, Tanya Fouché, Helet Botha, Clinton Du Preez, Dr Llewelyn MacMaster, Robina Macario, Burger Fourie (back), Carel Kleynhans, Charl Engels, Kai Zhou (Hunan Representative)