Category Archives: Science and Technology

A Journey Across Continents: The London to Yiwu Train

News and Travel Editor

Today marks the end of a historic 7,500 mile freight train journey from London, UK, to Yiwu, China. Carrying everything from pharmaceuticals to milk powder and soft drinks, it’s the first ever journey on this route and marks a significant moment for trading relations between the UK, Europe and China. But its not been without difficulty – the train has ventured through 9 countries, from freezing Russian wilderness to the mild climate of China’s eastern coast. This blog visits some of the highlights along its route and looks at why this train journey is so important.

This is the first ever direct cargo train carrying British goods from the UK to China. This may seem like a modern innovation, but the train is actually reviving the 2,000 year-old Silk Road, an ancient link between the east and west. As well as contributing to the recent Chinese initiative of the New Silk Road, transporting goods to China from the UK via freight train is twice as fast as transporting them by sea and the costs are tiny compared to transporting by air. This is a time and cost effective solution, not to mention it passes through 7,500 miles of glorious scenery.

Cosmopolitan Western Europe

After leaving London Gateway, the train passes through the bright lights of Western Europe, from Paris and Brussels to Duisberg and Warsaw. This sounds like a great opportunity for a whirlwind tour of Europe, aboard one of the most important freight trains in the world today.

The Freezing Russian Winter

Just as you’ve got used to the mild climate of western Europe, the train was fully immersed in the gloriously tropical  -40°C winters of the Russian wilderness. Beautiful it may be, there’s no doubt the train driver need their winter woolies.

The Plains of Kazakhstan and Xinjiang

Here, the journey becomes even more beautiful. The train has journeyed through thousands of miles of beautiful plains of grassland, mountains and deserts. Where do we sign up to be the driver again?

Yiwu: The Final Destination

After 7,500 miles, the train has travelled through virtually every landscape and climate imaginable, and has finally arrived in Yiwu, one of China’s manufacturing and international trading centres. We can expect the train to make many more trips over the next few years, with other Silk Road trains making the trip up to 500 times each year! Judging from the photos of highlights along the route, one thing is for certain: whoever gets the job of driving the train halfway across the world is the luckiest person in the world.

 

 

Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei: The Electronic Megamarket.

News and Travel Editor

Welcome to Huaqiangbei: The world’s biggest electronics market. Booths are crammed in over 10 floors and each one represents a factory close by. From smartphones and drones to circuit boards and security systems, if it’s electronic, I can guarantee you’ll be able to find it here. If you can’t find the finished product, don’t worry, there are so many components on sale, you’ll be able to make it from scratch.

It’s not the usual scenic attraction we might talk about on China Icons so why visit? Huaqiangbei is renowned for its vast range of products as well its speed and efficiency in producing them. Plus we were in town with a shopping list – a drone and some circuit boards. This is both geek heaven and the place to stock up on all the gadgets you wish you had.

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Its location in Shenzhen, rather than Beijing or Shanghai, reveals something fascinating about the modern history of China. Until 1979, Shenzhen was nothing more than a sleepy fishing port with a population of around 30,000. That year, Shenzhen became a ‘Special Economic Zone’, becoming China’s first experiment in capitalism. ‘SEZs’ were the brainchild of Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader at the time, who wanted to cement China’s place as a global economic powerhouse. They were designed to encourage foreign investment and this meant that zones such as Shenzhen would have different trade and business laws compared to the rest of the country.

Fast forward to today and the population has leaped to 10-15 million (the exact figure is unknown because of the shifting patterns of migrant workers), a larger population than London, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, New York and Washington D.C.. Economically, Shenzhen has undeniably flourished, with its GDP growing from 1.96 million RMB in 1979 to 1.95 trillion RMB today.

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This immense growth and rapid expansion turned Shenzhen into a haven for hardware and electronic startups. Huaqiangbei is simply one of Shenzhen’s most prominent examples of this.

Some of the famous ‘startups’ that call Shenzhen home include world-renowned drone-makers, DJI; BYD, famous for electric cars and having the world’s largest electric bus fleet; telecom giants, Huawei; and the owners of WeChat, Tencent, now worth over $200 billion. Many of these companies were founded in the 1990s during Shenzhen’s economic boom. DJI’s story is more impressive still. Founded in 2006, DJI have snapped up around 70% of the drone market, way ahead of the nearest rival, French firm Parrot.

The next big company to come out of China and dominate the international market may well come out of one of the tiny stalls in the vast Huaqiangbei electronic markets.

So what can you expect to see? Each floor has its own dedicated speciality, from motors, batteries and circits on one floor, to smart phones, drones, TVs, security systems and laptops on the others.

But you’ll still find a bit of everything on each floor. The challenge is giving yourself enough time to look round to make sure you get the best deal.

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So how did I get on? Sadly I didn’t follow my own advice and purchased a mini-drone far too early for 350 RMB ($50). I found a similar one later for just over half the price at 180 RMB ($25). A great reminder that there’s always room for a bit of bargaining and negotiation. If you play your cards right, buying here will almost certainly be worth your while. The custom-made circuit boards we were after were delivered the next day for half the price we would have expected to pay outside of China.

Make no mistake, Shenzhen continues to grow. The city is covered in building sites and there are plans to make Shenzhen one of the greenest cities on earth.

Fancy knowing more about Shenzhen’s history and how it is competing with the likes of Silicon Valley? The documentary visits some of the city’s startups and takes you through the electronics market, showcasing exactly what you can buy there.

 

International Women’s Day: China’s Most Inspiring Women

News and Travel Editor

This Wednesday, women across the world will be marking the 22nd official International Women’s Day, as recognised by the UN, and it’s set to be the biggest yet. Whether out marching (as women on both sides of the Atlantic have planned), enjoying free access to museum (like the ladies of Italy), or being getting pampered by your spouse (its a bigger day in Russia than Valentine’s Day), today is the day to celebrate the sisterhood’s achievements.

Here at China Icons, we’ve been lucky enough to film with a whole host of inspiring women from every walk of Chinese life. To celebrate this year’s theme of ‘women in the changing world of work’, we’ve handpicked our favourites from our channel – from exceptional engineers on the world’s largest telescope to architects and actresses on some of China’s most high profile projects.

1) Zhang Ziyi Meets China Icons

Look familiar?  That’s probably because Zhang Ziyi has starred in one of the most successful Chinese films of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Zhang Ziyi speaks to China Icons about her experiences as an actress, including how she prepares for a martial arts scene and working with John Woo’s The Crossing.

2) FAST: The World’s Largest Telescope

Probably one of the most inspiring stories on our list features Yao Rui, the chief engineer of the focus cabin on FAST. The telescope was built to better understand the origins of the universe and the Big Bang and could be described as one of the most exciting projects going on in science right now.

Yao Rui’s role is centred on the focus cabin, one of the most important pieces of kit on the telescope. The focus cabin receives the radio signals after they are reflected off the dish. Watch our video below to discover some of the challenges that arise for Yao Rui and how she deals with them.

3)  Hangzhou’s Beautiful Bookstore and ‘one of China’s most promising designers’

Described by Forbes as one of China’s most promising designers, Hangzhou’s popular bookstore was designed by innovative architect Li Xiang.  A massive 20,000 people visited the bookstore on opening day. Watch the video below to follow her journey from initial design.

4) Flamenco Pearl: The Life of a Chinese Flamenco Dancer

This short film documents the life of Zhao Zhen, a Chinese flamenco dancer who travelled the world to follow her biggest passion in life before re-settling in Beijing to start her own dance school.

5) China’s Green Roof Revolution

Ma Liya has designed a green roof in Beijing inspiring children to cultivate the garden and get closer to nature. From hand picking the perfect vegetation for the site to her research into different soil types, she is part of a movement leading China, and the world, to a greener future.

6) Fiona Reilly meets…

This was one of our favourite and first videos – Australian Fiona and the Miao ladies may be from different continents but they had a surprising amount in common.  Fiona’s photo assignment introduced us to the stunning embroidery created by Miao women to the dishes in the region.

7) Coco’s Kitchen: Chinese Dumplings

How can we talk about the wonderful women of China without talking about our very own Coco?  Coco brings some of the most authentic and delicious Chinese recipes straight to our kitchens. It was very difficult to pick, but we’ve chosen her recipe for Chinese dumplings as our favourite. Let us know which you’ll be trying out next!

For us, these women personified China’s innovation, creativity and passion. For more stories such as these, be sure to visit and subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

FAST: The World’s Largest Telescope

News and Travel Editor

On Sunday 25th September 2016, China will unveil the world’s largest telescope and begin test operations searching for signals to understand the origin of the universe and the Big Bang.

The Five-Hundred-Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, known as FAST has been constructed over five years in a remote area of Guizhou province, south central China.   It has been built in a 45 million year old crater, unlikely to be affected by flooding and far from human interference.

The 500m dish surpasses Arecibo radio telescope, built in Puerto Rico in 1963, as the world’s largest and is three times more sensitive in detecting radio waves thousands of light years away.

Professor Richard Schilizzi, Associate Director of the UK’s Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre says: China are taking a big step forward in astronomy. The science that is infront of them has great prospects of transforming our view of the universe.’

FAST consists of 4450 individual panels and Chinese project engineers had to design a cable net of ten thousand cables to manipulate it to detect signals. FAST’s focus cabin is also unique thanks to a directional tracking system.

A key mission for the telescope will be detecting pulsars, the matter that remains when a star eight times the size of the sun explodes. These pulsars rotate thousands of times per second and, as Professor Phil Diamond of UK’s Jodrell Bank Discovery explains, are the universe’s most accurate clock:

‘By measuring the sync of from these superb rotating clocks we can measure all sorts of subtle things predicted by Einstein, which we cannot do from earth or even in our own solar system.’

What do you think they will find? Are you excited to find out? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

The World’s Biggest Bike Share Scheme

News and Travel Editor

China is known as the ‘Kingdom of the Bicycle’ and so it came as no surprise to us that it also hosts the biggest bike-sharing scheme in the world, according to figures by the Earth Policy Institute.

But can you guess which city? Nope, not Beijing or Shanghai….

Enter Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province in East China, and home to 9 million people. In Chinese terms, it’s a small city and perfect for cycling! Research shows that three bikes are hired every second, with the bikes rented out around 114 million times in total in 2015.

Known as Hangzhou’s ‘little red bikes’, you can take your pick from around 84,000 of them, all of which are free for the first hour. By 2020 the total number of bikes is set to grow to 175,000.

To find out more, we joined bike mechanic Qiu Shaohua as he went about his work fixing and maintaining bikes. He got the job in 2010, when Hangzhou had a mere 30,000 bikes and in the last six years he’s seen that number almost triple.

Qiu mends around 30 bikes a day but it hasn’t damped his passion for cycling – he still spends his weekends riding to iconic places like the UNESCO listed West Lake.

Have you cycled in China, the ‘Kingdom of the Bicycles’? Let us know how you found it in the comments below.

 

China’s Robotic Revolution

Features Editor

Remember Jia Jia?   Sure you do – she’s the one with the glassy eyes and the stern face, who keeps popping up on your social media feeds.  No, this is not your ex-girlfriend from hell.  This is China’s latest innovation in artificial intelligence, and has been hailed as the first interactive robot.

We blogged on these pages not long ago about China’s technological advances – from FAST, the world’s largest radio telescope, to Solar Valley, where 95% of the new buildings in Dezhou City are powered by renewables.

I knew it would only be a matter of time before we would once again be talking tech.

So back to Jia Jia.  Jia Jia is a humanoid robot who can talk – she refers to her creators as ‘Lord’ – can make different facial expressions and moves her arms.  She was developed over a mere 3 year period by a team at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, who plan to expand her emotional repertoire to laughing and crying.  Right now, in our humble opinion, she looks like she’s had way too much botox and needs a sense of humour transplant, but that’s exactly where her creators intend to go next – giving robots learning abilities and facial recognition so that their interactions with us mere mortals can become more natural.

But why exactly does Jia Jia exist and should we be worried?

Firstly, forget the end-of the-world films you’ve seen where robots seek to dominate the human race and take over the world.  Sure there are serious ethical dilemmas to be considered – one expert believes that we could be marrying robots by 2050 – but behind the scenes and in less glamorous areas of life than our love-life, we already rely on robots and that will only increase, especially in China.

Last year, China unveiled a national 10 year plan, known as ‘Made in China 2025’ focusing on making its manufacturing industry the best in the world.  Robotics is one of 10 industries specifically mentioned in the plan.

That’s because, although China is already the world’s largest market for robotics, the robots are predominantly used in the automotive industry only.  The city of Wuhu for example is tipped to become the first to truly embrace driverless cars.

But other areas of industry are yet to catch up and that’s when the big boost in robotics will come  – when robots are used in everything from creating home appliances to pharmaceuticals.  One newspaper recently reported how in one factory, 9 robotics now do the job of 140 fulltime workers with the company reportedly seeking more ways to replace humans with robots.

These robots, with their more mundane appearances and jobs won’t hit the headlines in the same way as Jia Jia.  And I doubt Jia Jia with her good looks and language skills will be joining them in operating a production line anytime soon.  As David Bisset, former head of Dyson explains, the primary role of humanoid robots like Jia Jia is to make us pay attention and be amused

Nevertheless I continue to be fascinated by China’s development in robots with artificial intelligence and here’s my favourite example – Beijing’s Robot Monk.

Standing at 2 foot tall and called Xian’er, this robot was developed by monks at Beijing’s 500 year old Longquan Buddist Temple to answer questions about Buddhism and the meaning of life for a 21st century audience.

But does Xian’er or Jia Jia know how to clean my house or make me the perfect cup of Chinese tea?  Apparently the computer says no.

China’s Smart Glasses

News and Travel Editor

China is famous for inventions. Gunpowder, paper, printing and the marine compass are often regarded as the four great inventions of Ancient China. Kites, umbrellas, toilet paper and ketchup are some less well-known examples of Chinese innovation.

In this week’s upload, we are joined by tech and travel blogger Hyper Trypsy as he investigates the latest invention-making waves in the tech scene in China and around the world, augmented reality glasses. Hyper Trypsy is invited to explore Beijing based tech company Alto Tech and try on their Cool Glasses.

The glasses will cost between $280 and $430, much cheaper than other Augmented Reality glasses on the market. The wearable tech allows you to text, make calls, navigate, take photos and even record HD video. A touchpad on the side allows users to control the device by swiping through an interface displayed on the screen. The glasses can also be controlled using voice recognition.

What’s the future for augmented reality and wearable tech? Alto Tech believe that their affordable headsets will make what once seemed a novelty become essential to everyday life. Imagine  being able to read recipes as you cook, get directions whilst taking in the views and record a special moment without watching it through a screen. Hyper Trypsy puts the glasses to the test on the Great Wall of China and gives us his verdict. Would you want them on your next trip? Let us know in the comments below!

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