Archive for August, 2007

Clipped Wings

30 August 07

Working at a flight school in China that isn’t yet flying is frustrating. Here’s a clue as to why we are not in the skies:

Clipped Wings
Wealthy mainlanders want to fly in their own aircraft but the growth of private aviation is shackled by prohibitive rules and lack of facilities, writes Joey Liu – South China Morning Post 29 August 2007

Zhejiang businessman Wang Bin had it all worked out when he decided to buy a helicopter from France last December. It would relieve him of the tedium of a six-hour drive from his building materials company in Yiwu city to factories in Shaowu, in neighbouring Fujian province. It would also impress clients and help win more contracts if he offered them a whirl. And when not in use, he could charter it out to make extra money.

Wang forked out 12 million yuan for his Eurocopter EC120B, 6 million yuan for related equipment and another 2 million yuan for maintenance and operating fees. But the helicopter turned out to be a white elephant. It was used fewer than 20 hours during the past eight months, and never flew outside Zhejiang province. Most of the time, the helicopter was parked at an airfield in Dongyang city, the nearest approved site, about two hours’ drive from his head office. “It’s too hard to get a flying permit, especially to fly in a different province,” he says.

The businessman is so fed up he advertised in the Zhejiang Daily last month to sell it, but has yet to find a buyer. The adverse publicity surrounding his purchase was another reason to sell the helicopter. “[The media reports] made it sound like I was showing off,” Wang says. “People were talking about how rich I was and turning to me for help. It’s a lot of pressure.”

Wang’s woes are typical among the few owners of private aircraft on the mainland. Although there are a growing number of people in the country who can afford to have their own aircraft, tight control of airspace and inadequate airport facilities are hampering the development of private aviation.

According to official statistics, the mainland had fewer than 70 private or corporate aircraft in 2005, while Brazil, whose GDP is half that of China’s, has more than 700. The US has about 200,000 private jets, the largest number in the world. “The problem of developing the private jet industry in China lies more in the policy than the funding,” says He Chi, vice-president of Beijing Jingong Flying Club.

Military control over all airspace on the mainland makes for a lot of red tape. For a private jet to secure a landing slot at a civil airport within a flight area that may encompass three or four adjoining provinces, the pilot must submit a flight plan 24 hours in advance. That compares with a couple of hours in the US or Europe. To land at an airport in a different flight area, the plan must be submitted anywhere from a few days to a week in advance, He says. Before the Regulations for General Aviation Control came into effect in May 2003, pilots had to apply at least 10 days ahead for the right to fly between two civil airports.

The hold-up is due partly to disagreements within the government. In April, Beijing Business Today reported the chief pilot of Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), Yu Zhenfa, as saying it had drafted a plan to open up low-altitude airspace. But this was immediately contradicted by an anonymous top official from the CAAC, who told the Legal Daily that the military controls all mainland airspace and the administration can’t make unilateral decisions.

Political considerations weigh heavily on decision makers. “The CAAC has been looking into the issue of opening up low-altitude airspace for years and even made some plans. But after 9/11, all these moves stopped,” says an industry insider who requested anonymity. “In fact, in places like Beijing, the airspace control is becoming more restricted.”

For instance, flying clubs in Beijing have been ordered to stop flights in March, when the two key annual political meetings, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, are held.

In Wang’s case, he couldn’t get permission to fly from Zhejiang to his factories in Fujian because the two provinces come under different flight areas, and Fujian is under tight control due to its proximity to Taiwan. “Fujian is a sensitive place, where a lot of airspace is out of bounds,” Wang says.

Technical limitations also hinder the expansion of private flight. The radar systems in some regions aren’t advanced enough to identify small planes, so the military decided the simplest and safest step was to prohibit private flights, says the industry insider.

The lack of suitable airstrips for private use is another barrier. Wang earmarked some land near his Yiwu office and Shaowu factories and applied to aviation authorities to use the plots as helicopter landing sites, but has had no response. “We’ve submitted applications for months, but didn’t get any feedback,” he says.

Although most of the mainland’s 156 airports are accessible to private jets, many lack suitable ground-handling facilities. In some cases, the refuelling nozzles or battery recharging couplers are incompatible with some types of aircraft. Only Beijing Capital Airport and Shanghai International Airport have separate facilities for private jets. But traffic at both places is so heavy they can’t handle many private jets. “Beijing Capital Airport can only manage private jets for VIPs like state leaders. Corporate jets often have to wait for hours for landing or taking off,” He says.

The mainland also lists 68 airfields for general aviation and 329 temporary airstrips, but most are located far from urban centres, which means they’re inconvenient for aircraft owners such as Wang, who wants to use his helicopter as a flying taxi.

Beijing businessman Xing Jizhu loves to fly. After receiving his pilot’s licence for fixed-wing aircraft in 2001, he considered buying a plane but dropped the idea when he learned about the tough restrictions on flight and the types of aircraft he could buy.

Individual purchase is restricted to the domestically produced Bee series, and small planes from three CAAC-approved manufacturers – Cessna, Diamond and Cirrus.

The safety of locally made planes is also a concern for potential buyers such as Xing. In April, Tan Chengnian, dubbed by the media as the mainland’s first peasant pilot, died when the Bee-4 that he was flying crashed into a hillside in Shandong province.

“[The Bee] is no fun. I can’t fly it over long distances. The most common use is to fly it over the golf course to study the holes,” Xing says.

He shares that view: the mainland’s nouveau riche is only interested in advanced, imported aircraft, he says. “Rich men despise the cheap planes.”

That’s why he started the Jingong, a high-end flying club with its own airfield at Badaling, near the Great Wall. It will open next month after taking delivery of four new Cessna-172 planes. It’s also expecting four helicopters at the end of the year: two Sikorskys and two Robinson R2s.

He anticipates a big demand for use of club aircraft within adjacent Hebei province, but says it’s hard to offer flights to other provinces, which businessmen such as Wang want, although he’s negotiating with airfields in Shandong and Inner Mongolia.

Despite the high concentration of rich Chinese and expats in Beijing, its status as the seat of power means the authorities are unlikely to loosen their grip on surrounding airspace anytime soon.

The regions where private aviation will first develop are the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, most experts say. “There’s stronger demand for private jets and less control,” He says.

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Catch-Up

30 August 07

Hmm. Again, no posts for a while. I can’t really say that I’ve been too busy to write, just lazy, enjoying the end of summer. According to the Chinese lunar calender, we are now in autumn. This month I have finished my summer semester of Library School, had a two week break, and am now back “in school” (over the Internet) for the fall semester.

How about some photos of the best expat hang-out in Linyi?

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Water’s Edge

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Close Up

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Ruin’s Pub, Hidden by Crazy Trees & Foliage

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Inside Water’s Edge

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On the roof at Ruin’s Pub, the river/lake in the background. We live on the other side.

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View across the river/lake from Ruin’s Pub

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View from Water’s Edge

 

Water’s Edge and Ruin’s Pub play excellent music (reggae, blues, classic rock) and serve good coffee, tea, drinks & beer. It is a great place for relaxation and conversation.

MOOooo

20 August 07

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Niu – Cow soon to be Niu Rou – Beef?

That’s the question I asked when our company bus pulled up beside these bovines on a Linyi road. They are riding in the back of a small truck and didn’t seem too stable. They were clearly unhappy and uncomfortable.

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Poor girls.

I grew up on a farm and I have a soft spot for cows. I’ve become more and more of a vegetarian eater in recent years. Except for the occasional meat feast at a Xinjiang people’s restaurant, my diet usually consists of vegetables, noodles, rice and fish. If you were to see the way meat gets sold here – usually half the pig or cow displayed on a table on the sidewalk – you might understand why I eat less and less of it.

Ribbet-Ribbet or Gua-Gua

18 August 07

I’ve just come from my upstairs balcony, where I spent the last 15 minutes listening to the sounds of thousands of frogs who are sublimely happy with all the rain we’ve been getting.

I wasn’t happy about the rain today, as I sat inside the apartment, enduring power cuts every 10 minutes or so. I wanted to go shopping. We needed food! Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I grabbed my umbrella and out I went.

This is what confronted me.

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That’s the entrance to the little dirt road that leads to our apartment complex. You can see that it is completely underwater. I HAD to get to the main road, in order to grab a taxi. So, yes, I waded through that mucky water. I don’t even want to think about what is swimming in that water. Let’s just say sanitation in our neighborhood could use some improvement.

Many of the small roads and lanes in our neighborhood were underwater. The “urban” sector of Linyi, across the river, didn’t seem to experience the flooding like we did. I guess that is why the urbanites call us rural.

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This morning I complained about the rain, but once I finally got out of the house, it didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, it let me feel like I was back in a tropical city, like Kuala Lumpur or San Jose. The air was humid and hot, but a light breeze kept it cool. The kids were all out in the streets, splashing around as much as their mothers would let them. Girls were walking along in their high heel shoes and umbrellas, oblivious to the conditions. The rumbling thunder and dark skies gave way to drizzle and soft light. Despite the dampness, there were still plenty of people in the street. And that is the thing I love about a tropical city – a raincloud can’t stop life from happening.

I don’t think we have seen the last of the rain – I’m sure we’ll be seeing the remnants of Sepat soon.

**Gua-Gua is the sound a frog makes in China. Not sure if that is spelled correctly, though.

Link of the Week

13 August 07

I wanted to share an interesting website.

Saudi Aramco World

Saudi Aramco World is a magazine devoted to sharing the culture, history and geography of Arab and Muslim lands, through articles and photography. It is available online, as a downloadable PDF and, free, as a print subscription.

It is of great interest to anyone who wants to know more about the Middle East.

Freakonomics and Gangs

7 August 07

And one more post, before I get washed away with yet more rain… It has been raining here in Linyi for weeks now! Thunderstorms every other day!

I’d like to share a blog post that I think is fascinating, although it has nothing to do with China, or Asia, or travel, or any of the things I usually blog about. Heard of the book Freakonomics? I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it. I have, however, read the blog associated with the book, and today there is an interesting post about gangs, of all things. Judging by the blog, the book is probably pretty interesting.

Go Ahead, Listen In!

7 August 07

Is anyone else concerned about the fact that we, America, now have a law that allows warrant-less eavesdropping on emails and telephone calls going in and out of the country? Just wondering…

From Bears to Tigers to Snakes, Oh My.

7 August 07

Hey, did I forget to tell you I ate a fried scorpion the other day? Well, I did and it tasted like a potato chip. I was having dinner with my students and, although I was totally freaked out (I grew up in a house full of little non-deadly scorpions and I fear and loathe them.), their encouragement bolstered my nerves. I popped it in and… seriously, like a potato chip.

Anyway, that wasn’t supposed to be the point of this post. I wanted to talk about a movie I just watched, Two Brothers (called Two Tigers in Chinese). If you haven’t seen it, it should be available on DVD. Watch it. Do you remember the movie The Bear? I remember seeing that movie in the theater. It was incredibly moving. Two hours of the life of a bear – “bear-ly” any human acting. (haha). Still, the emotions and motives of the bear were clearly visible and anyone who did not empathize with that giant beast and little cubs probably needs to watch it again. Two Brothers is like that. The tigers are actors, too. I don’t want to give too much plot away, but when they meet again after all that time and recognize each other – I bawled!!

The movie was filmed around Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In fact, the temples of the Wat complex feature prominently. The temples and landscape are stunning, and other than the obvious addition of  extra plants and vines inside the temples, that is how they look. (Add in a few hundred package tourists posing in front of everything!) Warning, watching this movie will make you want to visit. And why not? South-east Asia is fast becoming my favorite place and I’d love to go back to Cambodia. We might be in Vietnam soon…

And what are the snakes I refer to in the title?  In the opening scene of the movie, a close up is made of a particularly vile looking snake. Seeing that snake instantly catapulted me back to Monteverde, Costa Rica. Years ago, the DH and I took a weekend trip to the cloud forest and jungles there. (Extremely beautiful, supposed to be full of amazing wildlife. Unfortunately, we clomped through the jungle a bit too loudly and saw nothing! In fact, the highlight of the trip was when we both fell asleep, in the shade of a tree, waiting for the bus back to San Jose, and woke up an hour later only to find the sun had moved slightly and the right sides of our faces had turned bright red!)

One of the features of Monteverde is a small serpentarium – a reptile house with examples of all the slimy, creepy fauna that inhabit the nearby jungle. We spent a good hour or two going through, looking at all the snakes, spiders and lizards. When we reached the Fir de Lance, one of the deadliest snakes in Costa Rica, we couldn’t see the snake. We kept looking and looking, with our faces right up against the glass. Oh well, we thought, he is pretty hidden in that tree branch. That is when we realized that not only was there no padlock on the cage, like many of the other cages, but the whole locking mechanism was wide open.

I cannot confirm that the Fir de Lance was on the loose…nor could I deny it. Once this realization dawned on us, we got the hell out of there. Looks like I am not the only one. When searching google for the name of the snake, I found this: scroll down to the picture of the boulders and read.

Serpentarium in Monteverde – I’d think twice. Cuddly, feel-good movie about two tiger cubs in Cambodia – a better choice!

Celebrating 6 Years

4 August 07

Ivan & Heather

The DH and I

August 2nd and Kuwait Reflections

2 August 07

Every year, I pause and give a few moments thought to what occurred on this day, 17 years ago. Seventeen years ago? How is that possible? Children who were born that year will be graduating from high school soon? To think that 15 years ago I landed there, in Kuwait, in the hottest place I had ever been in my life.

When I close my eyes and think of that day, almost two years after the invasion, when I stepped out of the airport…

My dad had been in Kuwait for a month already. He’d be waiting for us at the airport. This was the first international travel for my mom and me both. I was sixteen, and not too sure of this move. We had a lot of luggage and I remember what a nightmare it was trying to get it all from Gatwick to Heathrow in London. Or was it Heathrow to Gatwick? Whatever it was, it was via a big passenger coach and in it I saw my first peek at the English countryside. I was so nervous about the whole experience I hardly noticed.

We were traveling to Dubai first and since it was the middle of the summer, no one was on the flight with us. Who in their right mind travels to the Middle East in the summer? Everyone who can gets the hell out. We arrived in Dubai very late at night and the arrival hall was deserted. I was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt and for some strange reason I was carrying a black Stetson hat. I felt instantly out of place among the dark robed women herding their children through the immigration lines.

We spent the night in a hotel near the airport. At check-in, the clerk told us to just leave the luggage we didn’t need in the lobby. Sounded highly suspicious, but they seemed so serious and sincere about it. One of my mother’s old hard-sided Samsonite suitcases had popped open on the flight over. It didn’t want to go back together again. We left it there, in the bright lobby, with its guts exposed along with a few other suitcases and settled in our room for a short sleep. An attendant came by a few moments later with a tray full of canned drinks. We took a coke and the only can of Fosters beer. We planned to smuggle it into Kuwait for my dad.

The next morning, our luggage sat in the same spot, waiting for us. A well-intentioned repair had been attempted on the broken suitcase – it was closed with a good amount of tape wrapped around it. We were soon at the airport, anxious for our arrival to Kuwait.

We flew first class from Dubai to Kuwait City. It was my first and last experience in first class for another 16 years! The flight had been chartered by Bechtel, a construction company rebuilding a great deal of Kuwait’s damaged infrastructure. Economy class was full of Indians and Bangladeshis who would be doing all of the work.

At last we landed. Immigration and customs was ahead of us, and we wondered if the agents were going to look in every suitcase we’d brought. The agents in the immigration booths were polite, but we noticed that every so often, one would get up and take a passport over to the others. They’d look at it, laugh, and then the agent would return. Were they conferring over some visa matter or were they laughing at passport photos? The customs agents made a half-hearted attempt to check our things and we were allowed to pass.

One of the things that I like least about international travel is the “Miss Universe Runway” phenomenon that every traveler encounters upon exiting the customs area. You know, were you are confronted with the masses of people, kept back only by a bar or fence, all of them straining and staring, calling out and holding up name placards. The wall of anonymous faces stares at you from top to bottom as you walk along, until finally, one of the faces looks familiar (if you are visiting friends/family), you see your name on a board (if you are a businessman or tourist) or you manage to get past all the family reunions and awkward introductions and leave the building wondering just how the heck you get to the beach (if you are an independent traveler). Like the Dubai airport, the Kuwait airport was nearly empty, too. We didn’t have to walk the gauntlet with too many faces watching us and we easily found my dad, who greeted us with a smile and a pat on the back. (No hugs and kisses in public!)

Then, there they are, the impressions I still feel so vividly – I walk through the exit doors and a whoosh of hot, dry desert air pounds at me. A kind of heat I had never experienced before. Like someone opened a furnace door in front of me.

I am mildly amused at the Kuwaiti men and their long dishdashas – like a Monty Python movie, four men in dresses and headscarves, piling into a Land Rover. Later it would become so commonplace that when I return to America it will seem odd that no men are wearing it.

We get in my dad’s company car – an old Jeep Cherokee, the kind with the wooden panels on the sides – and make our way home.

I hardly listen to my dad’s commentary. I am too busy staring out the window. It is so barren and brown…and flat. Where are the sand dunes? I’d mistakenly imagined the Sahara. Kuwait is flat. The sky is brilliant blue, no clouds in sight. The sun, intense. Just like you imagine it would be in the desert. I thought about the oil fires and what it must have looked like here to my brother, who had been among the allied forces at the airport in February the year before.

Everyone drives very fast and before long, the city appears before me. Concrete houses the color of mud. And huge. Like palaces.

I am still thinking about the heat when we reach our apartment building. It takes several days more to realize that I have arrived.

Kuwait shall never be forgotten because it completely changed me. My parents thought it would be a great opportunity for me. Little did they know I’d never stop traveling after that move. It’s been 13 years since I left…I’ve completely changed and they say Kuwait has too.