On Tuesday August 16, I arrived in the capital of the People's Republic of China. Although I travelled alone, I was accompanied by about 20 million inhabitants of Beijing. Considering most Chinese are not concerned about a private space of at least 16 inches around their body (=40 cm for those who do agree that the metric system makes more sense), the thought alone of such a quantity of Chinese city dwellers is already quite scary. Nevertheless, even though I have factually been squeezed by volunteer squeezers who professionally push you into the metro train in a similar manner that sardines are stuffed in a jar, I have not felt unsafe. The squeezing is by far the most extreme during regular rush hours, however, late at night it is still very common that the train is packed. Hence, going by metro is quite an adventure.
The Olympic Green, where the CNCC is located, really stands out of the rest of Beijing. It is a spacious park where, for a large part, traffic is forbidden. The ambience is great, loads of families are enjoying themselves, artists of all ages are showing their skills on paper or on roller skates, and toys, in bright colours and various shapes performing the most astonishing tricks, are sold at every corner. It is an excellent place for Beijingese, and all visitors, to escape the chaos of the city.
Being a runner I explored bits of the city while running. The best bits are most definitely the parks, where you enter a different universe comprising soft music, singing birds, and sometimes a gentle flowing stream. The paths are wide and surrounded on each side by neat green lawns with well-managed young and some very old solitary trees. Throughout the park you can find squares with plenty of benches where people are relaxing and little circles with pavilions where a choral group is singing Chinese opera. Various types of sports and exercises are carried out, from Tai Chi and line dancing, past gateball (a Japanese version of croquet) and fitness (eighty-year-olds who put their leg on a bar at shoulder height), to partner dancing and rolling hoops. As the only runner present, I was as much of an attraction for them as they were for me.
After two days of adjusting to my new environment it was time to exchange scientific knowledge on ‘landscape ecology for sustainable environment and culture’ with 845 researchers from all over the world. The organisation by IALE China Chapter was superb. Everything was arranged and if you needed something, ten Chinese students were ready to help you out. I must say, most Chinese people are very eager to help. When I was looking for the venue, the building consists of several entrances and I entered the wrong one, I was kindly directed to the registration of a conference on healthcare. Noticing that this was not IALE I went over to them to ask for the right directions. An extremely enthusiastic girl showed me a catalogue with all the topics of the healthcare conference and asked me in which one I was interested. I explained her that I was not attending this conference but giving a talk at the landscape ecology conference. She then kindly showed me another list and asked me in which of these I was going to give a talk. After 5 minutes trying to explain, she almost got me to join the healthcare conference, let me speak about viruses, and signed me up for the formal dinner that evening. It was almost impossible to thank her for her service and leave. Gladly, I was saved when I saw another person who was also asking the way and looked like an ecologist. I joined my colleague ecologist and together we spotted the IALE flag only 50 metre down the big hall.
With an impressive number of participants in the capacious Plenary Hall, Professor Bojie Fu opened the 8th World Congress of IALE. Let the ‘meets’ begin. My ‘meet’ began at the session “Designing multifunctionality in local landscapes”, where I had the honour to present my research on integration of scientific and governmental approaches to map landscape services. In my audience there was a lot of recognition in the mismatch between the provision of knowledge by scientists and the acquisition of knowledge by governments. To give a Dutch example: Most Dutch environmental scientists publish their work in international peer-reviewed scientific journals, and none of the governmental spatial planners read papers from international peer-reviewed scientific journals (I distributed a questionnaire amongst 72 municipalities and 24 Universities). In our session, different methods and approaches were presented to map landscape services and comparable subjects like ecosystem services and landscape functions. This led to nice discussions and suggestions, and various ideas were exchanged. I would have loved to obtain ideas about mapping social factors that influence the location of landscape services, unfortunately, I did not find anybody using social factors other than population density. For instance, the price of land and the fact it is for sale or not, might have an influence on allocation of landscape services, but spatial data is, as far as I know, not available. Please, let me know if you are acquainted with social spatial data.
During three long days of interesting sessions I only managed to meet about 20% of all participants, and probably exchanged thoughts with only a few percent. I even managed not to encounter Marc Metzger till half through the second day, which is especially surprising considering the largest part of the participants were small Asians. To stretch our legs a bit and to experience some of the conservation and nature development projects in China, several excursions were organised on the third day of the congress. I like these outdoor trips where you can have pleasant informal discussions and where various point of views from people with different backgrounds are conveyed. I was amazed by the vastness of Chinese conservation projects. Mountain after mountain is planted with trees and shrubs. Peter Verburg, who lived in Beijing 10 years ago, told me that all these mountains were not more than bare rock back then. He witnessed the first attempts of the planting scheme, he also witnessed that most of the trees died. It was a delight to see that such an improbable conservation action is successful after all. And hopefully, one day the dreadful conditions in which a lot of Chinese have planted those trees, and probably are still working in, will improve as well. Gladly, it does seem that at least freedom of speech has enriched. Ruishan Chen, a Chinese PhD and friend who guided me around Beijing for a few days, told me a lot about the suppression of the Chinese people, and that he could not have answered many of my questions ten years ago, but now they can talk about politics and policies in public and give their opinion.
This trip was my first visit to Asia. I have enjoyed the Chinese culture, missed real nature (I did not get further than 90 km from Beijing, although I did visit two National Parks), and was disgusted by Chinese toilets. Gladly, the restrooms of the congress venue did not have excrement on the floor and walls, did have seat toilets (including seats), and did actually flush. The congress was really inspiring and I am really pleased that I was able to participate. I am truly grateful for receiving the Student Conference Travel Award from ialeUK, giving me the opportunity to exchange my research, broaden my horizon as a scientist, and expand my professional network!