TECA STUDIO ROADTRIP
As one of the first UK Design companies to establish ourselves in China the experiences and adventures over the years have been exciting and at times bewildering but always memorable. We first decided to drive ourselves in China after years of scary taxi rides, the crunch came when we were trying to return to Shenzhen from Guangzhou one evening 2009 and found the last train had already left. Stuck at the station at just ten in the evening we only had the choice of a private taxi so took the best price we could negotiate to get back home. This was one of the more dangerous journeys in the back of a clapped out little car with no seatbelts and an inventive view of traffic law. We had both experienced frequent near misses and accidents since moving to Shenzhen in 2004 and it was clearly just a matter of time before one of us came of worse from the terrible driving. This time we made it back home in record time and in one piece but it was no longer fun. We had been talking about getting our own vehicle in China for at least five years but never quite had the courage to do it. Maybe now it was time.
After some research our car of Choice was the Greatwall ‘Hover’. The Greatwall Motor company was setup ten years ago and is the biggest SUV maker in China. With a sturdy box section chassis, overweight and underpowered many of the models are made for tough driving conditions and the occasional accident! The ‘Hover’s predecessor the Greatwall ‘Safe’ says it all, this is a vehicle which can handle a front or rear end collision and still drive away. So this is how our life of China Driving began and a whole new experience and View of this vast country was reviled to us.
Being independently mobile without having to rely on a local driver opens up many new possibilities and opportunities. Arriving at a local client’s office or factory by your own steam is often greeted with surprise and delight. Entertaining and transporting visitors becomes a new experience with a ???at the wheel instead of in the back seat. And a western style life of shopping for groceries for a whole week becomes possible again. So with this new found freedom it seemed a good idea to explore beyond the indistinguishable train stations and airport terminals which define so much of the China traveller’s experience.
China now has the world’s largest motorway network with over 50 thousand miles of road built in the last ten years alone, many of these new roads transverse dramatic landscape and scenery with fantastic views. With around 18 million new cars built last year one would expect the roads to be heavily congested but in reality much of the connecting motorways between the cities are far less congested than Europe and better quality too. A first journey took us out of the city and into the karst hills of Yangshou along the Li river to Xing Ping the famous scene depicted on the 20 RMB note. To arrive here with so little effort and in the comfort of your own car is a great feeling and one example of how car travel beats taking a bus hands down.
We have now explored West to Nanning, Kunming and the fabled Shangrila on the Tibetan boarder. We have driven down across the tea-clad mountains of Puer, and deep unspoiled forests through the boarder at Mengla and into Laos. The crossing from China to Laos is a breeze compared with the cues and crowds of the Lo Wu crossing from Hong Kong. Exploring Laos by Chinese car is indeed another fascinating experience and by no means unusual judging by the hotels and tourist attractions we saw clearly geared towards the Chinese. Crossing into Vietnam however has so far defeated us and remains on our great journey to-do list.
Having seen all the major cities intermittently over the past ten years it seems clear that a true view of China is impossible as the changes take place faster than one can keep track of, and any impression one has is purely historical. Much of our professional work now requires us to identify the trends and dynamics of Chinese consumer society and habits. In Europe little has changed in the past five years but we have to work much harder to monitor the Chinese market, things really do change in the space of a year in a way no other market currently does. Part of this knowledge is to actually go out and experience the real China on a regular basis and this has now become part of our annual routine. So we saw our recent engagement in Shanghai to attend the British Business Awards as a good chance to catch up on the Eastern Port Cities and make a journey by Car to see as much as we could along the way.
Our journey took us around four thousand kilometres and five provinces, along the coast to Shanghai across to Nanjing and back inland along another route to Shenzhen. We wanted to visit Second and Third Tier Cities on our trip as well as the First Tier and to get a feel for the China of right now. Our first stop was Shantou, still in Guangdong province and around 350 KM from Shenzhen , one of the original Treaty Ports and an Special Economic Zone in the 1980’s. The city is still quite underdeveloped, it has not boomed and expanded the way Shenzhen and most of the other coastal cities have. It’s notable for its reputation as ‘toy town’ which is why we visited. There is a lot of specialisation in small toy manufacture much of these carved by hand with great skill.
Our next stop was Xiamen in Fujian Province. Another Treaty Port (originally called Amoy) now seen as one of Chinas best leisure cities with high living standards and a large population of overseas Chinese. Xiamen has had a lot of investment and has built much dynamic infrastructure since our last visit, it has a more relaxed feeling than Shenzhen but still supports some leading industry and companies. Next we stopped at Ningde city, Fujian. This is a prefecture level city of around three million people. It has no great history as a treaty port or SEZ but is a typical Third Tier City. It was interesting for us to meet some locals and see what shops and facilities were there. There is still no major industry or infrastructure investment in NingDe from what we could see; we met some students from the local university here.
We travelled though Ningbo and around the Yangzi River Delta to Hangzhou the capital city of Zhejiang Province. Hangzhou has an impressive history with its location on the Qiantang river and Chinas Grand Canal, it has been an important trading port and is now a city of about six million people. It has an impressive Hi-Tech Zone where there used to be agricultural fields just a few years ago. We visited a UK company working in the Energy sector before heading on to Shanghai.
The changes in Shanghai were breathtaking, especially Pudong. The new road infrastructure which was put in around the 2010 expo is amazing. There is a whole new city we simply had never seen and another one we hunted for but had vanished. The real impression from driving extensively around such a large city is the scale of the urban sprawl, it becomes possible to see how over 23 million people can function, and how well developed the transport systems and planning has been. This is really highlighted by a visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center which shows a scale model of the city together with the changes and planning that went into making them. It seems clear that Shanghai really is the number one city now in China both in population and development.
Our next stop was Suzhou only a short drive away and famed for its Silk and Beauty. Our last visit was 2006 and although the development had already started it was a real shock to see its present state. The expansion and economic success has really transformed this City which reputedly has now outpaced Shenzhen in GDP and growth. Despite the impressive transformation it seems something has been lost here which will not return.
We continued on for meetings in Nanjing, crossed the Yangtze River on the famous double-decked roadrail bridge towards the north then headed south stopping at little known towns and cities for the reaming 1400KM to get back home.
Setting out on our journey and promoting British Design and Creativity along the way we were amazed and inspired by both the people we met and the changes we saw. Having visited most of these cities previously it can be a wakeup call to see the transformation that has been made and at times difficult to accept. But we are actually part of the development in China; the fastest industrial revolution ever known which is now in the process of moving from engineering to innovative design and strategy which is set to play a significant if not dominant role in the world over the coming years. Our journey is really a reminder to us that it’s a great privilege to be witnessing and actually taking part in such exciting and dynamic times.
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