August went by unbelievably fast, with two weeks on the road or rather two weeks in the air. 11 flights in 14 days saw me travel from the UK to China via France, to India via Malaysia and finally to Australia before heading back to the UK via Qatar.
The first stop of my Asia-Pacific SKA tour took me to Beijing, China, for the General Assembly and Scientific Symposium of the International Union of Radio Science (URSI).
The meeting brought together some 1000 radio scientists from around the globe to discuss all things radio. With the Director General of the SKA as a plenary speaker, we were also invited to exhibit, the only non-Chinese exhibitor at the meeting, which certainly drew some attention. We received the VIP visit of the Chairman of the Chinese Institute of Electronics, who also happens to be the Governor of the Shaanxi Province, escorted by a number of directors and media.
But the most interesting parts of the trip happened on the sidelines of the meeting. We were able to witness the huge progress made by some of our partners in China who worked tirelessly in the past two weeks preceding our visit to complete their prototype dish design for the SKA.
Three different SKA dish designs (a Chinese, a South African and a Canadian) are competing against one another. After extensive testing, the final SKA dish design will be based on one of those designs. The stakes are high, as the contract for manufacturing the hundreds of dishes of SKA to be located in South Africa and Australia represents a large portion of the cost of construction. All three designs have made enormous progress this year and it is very exciting to see them taking shape so fast.
It was also the opportunity to catch up with our colleagues from the SKA China Office to discuss some concrete communications initiatives as part of our global communications strategy. It is indeed necessary to adapt the strategy to the realities of each country, and for that one needs to witness them first hand. For example? None of the four social media channels on which the SKA is present are accessible in China, hence the need to adapt and find alternative ways to reach the millions of young, educated and highly connected Chinese people eager to learn more about science and astronomy.
This was my fourth trip to Beijing, and it was great to find familiar sights in the city, although it keeps changing at an incredible rate and new buildings spring up all the time. I almost felt like a local, finding my way back to my favourite areas of Beijing like HouHai and NanLuoGuXiang and recognising familiar streets and shops, and catching up with old friends.
The food and drinks scene in Beijing is fantastic if you know where to go, and we had some delicious Beijing duck at the famous Da Dong restaurant in the city. Beijing is also still a great place for tailor-made clothes – once again, you need to dig around a bit – and I certainly did not miss that opportunity!
The city is of course growing into a monster, with well over 20 million people living within its 7 ring roads. Yes, 7. We were on the 5th, and it took us a good 45min to get into the centre of Beijing by car. Driving on the packed ring roads during rush hour, surrounded by tall building with giant flashing screens and bright neon lights shining through a dark smog reminded me how lucky I am to live in a small town 15min away from work driving on small winding roads surrounded by green meadows and forests…Space is luxury they say!
After a fantastic week, as always I left Beijing – a city I’ve always found attractive, exotic and strangely familiar – a little sad, on my way to my next exciting stop: Pune, India.