HJDS Travel Group

A Barrier-Free Olympics

by on Apr.08, 2010, under Travel

  • Sumo

As China gears up to welcome the world to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Welsh ex-pat Christian Saunders – who now lives in Beijing – gives us the lowdown on this vibrant and bustling city.

Some half a million foreign visitors are expected to descend upon China’s vibrant capital city between 8 and 24 August to witness the 2008 Olympic Games. But since China is still classified as a developing country, there has been some concern about the standard of facilities on offer in Beijing – not least for the many disabled people who will travel to the city to participate in and support the following Paralympic Games, which take place from 6 to 17 September.

To its credit, the Chinese government has addressed the issue with aplomb, ploughing vast resources into making much-needed improvements in many areas. By the time the games kick off, it’s anticipated that every major pavement in the city will boast not only a central raised path for blind people, but also ramps to enable wheelchair users to move around freely. More than 2,000 such ramps have already been installed.

Beijing has also opened a centre to train 30,000 volunteers to help international visitors and, when the Olympics are over, the training centre will be transformed into a school to develop vocational skills amongst Beijing’s sizeable disabled population. There are almost 800,000 registered disabled people in China’s capital, with an estimated 81 million – roughly the population of Germany – distributed throughout the rest of the country. Living conditions for disabled people in China have been described by an official as “less than ideal”, with many facing discrimination and employment problems. For instance, largely due to the prohibitive costs involved, only 2% of people in rural areas who need equipment like hearing aids and false limbs actually receive it.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE However, Tang Xiaoquan of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) recently told a news conference: “We believe that the Paralympics will enhance the international influence of China’s disabled people and give them more self-esteem, as well as make them more confident and self-sufficient.” In fact, BOCOG’s executive vice president said that the preparations for the Paralympics have helped to accelerate the improvement of conditions for China’s disabled population.

Many disabled people in China will certainly benefit from the government-funded improvements, and they see the Olympics and Paralympics as the ideal stage to highlight their plight. A campaign to raise public awareness has been in place for some months, resulting in a regular “barrier-free day” in Beijing, during which people are actively encouraged to be more sensitive to the problems that people with mobility impairments face.

THE GREAT WALL Most of the government’s expenditure has gone towards making 60 of the city’s most famous tourist attractions more accessible to disabled people. Some 600 million RMB (42.6 million) has been spent on renovating the Great Wall at Badaling where, until now, anyone who visited in a wheelchair would have had to rely on other people to lift them up the many steps and other obstructions. Badaling, the section of the wall that lies just an hour outside Beijing, has been dubbed “the mother of all tourist sites” and the revamp means that – for the first time – wheelchair users can enjoy the experience of the Great Wall essentially unaided.

Local tourism official Wang Fengbin says that ramps, lifts and a range of other access solutions have been introduced on the Great Wall at Badaling, with many more changes to come: “A sloping path will be built into the wall to allow wheelchairs to reach the platform of the first beacon tower.” Signage will also be improved, one of the ticket office windows will be lowered and a voice guidance system is set to be installed allowing easier access for all.

THE FORBIDDEN CITY Another famous tourist attraction to benefit from the recent funding boost is the Forbidden City. So called because commoners were not allowed to enter it, this sprawling Ming dynasty masterpiece was built as the political centrepiece of the Celestial Empire. The impressive Wumen Gate, the southern entrance to the Forbidden City, is now accessible via a wheelchair lift. Once inside the 72 hectare Forbidden City, disabled visitors can enjoy this spectacular walled palace complex thanks to a kilometre-long accessible avenue and a series of lifts. This links all the major halls and palaces of the inner and outer courts, from which China’s emperors exercised their supreme power over the nation for almost five centuries. Yan Hongbin of the Beijing Disabled Persons Federation explains: “The barrier-free avenue starts from the south gate and ends in the north, permitting disabled tourists to enjoy a truly barrier-free tour.” What’s more, the impressive Palace Museum – home to thousands of ancient artefacts from the Ming and Qing imperial courts – has been fitted with wheelchair-friendly pathways, while a specially designed map highlighting accessible facilities and routes will soon be available.

WORTH SEEING Nearby Tiananmen Square – the site of the infamous 1989 student demonstration – is also fully accessible. Head out before sunrise to watch the daily flag-raising ceremony at this, the world’s largest open urban square. Just north of Beijing, the Ming Tombs are certainly worth a visit. 13 of the 16 Ming emperors were laid to rest here, although only three of the mausoleums are actually open to the public. Another site of note is the luxurious Summer Palace in Haidian district, where disabled visitors can enjoy half-price entry. With scenic lakes, imperial gardens and classic buildings, it’s a popular destination on the tourist trail.

GETTING AROUND Several companies now run specialised tours which include visits to the traditional tourist hot spots as well as trips geared towards exploring forms of traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture. But for those determined to make their own way around, the government has also invested heavily in improving Beijing’s transport network. An accessible bus service runs from Tiananmen in central Beijing to Xizhimen in the west of the city, offering a low boarding platform and wheelchair-friendly layout. The service runs from 6.30am to 8.30pm, while the fare – a very reasonable 2 RMB (28p) for a single journey – is the same as the city’s standard buses.

Beijing’s subway system has also seen a dramatic improvement, with 55 subway stations already classed “barrier-free”. Trains on the new line five are wider and taller than those on older routes, and carriages are equipped with a wireless communication network so that passengers can use laptops and mobile phones without fear of losing their signal. Construction of the new line began in 2002 and eventually cost 12 billion RMB (about 800 million).

According to the Xinhua News Agency, renovations are nearly complete in more than 120 hotels set aside for the Olympic Games. The renovations have an emphasis on accommodating disabled guests and, according to the Beijing Tourism Bureau, member hotels in the city can now offer a total of 168 accessible rooms, while more than 390 three-star hotels have undergone renovation to improve accessibility. The Beijing New Plaza Hotel offers specially designed rooms, private parking spaces and accessible ramps along with large capacity toilets.

WHEN YOU’VE GOT TO GO An area of particular concern for tourists in Beijing is public toilet facilities – to the extent that, at one time, a third of all complaints received by the Beijing Tourism Administration involved public conveniences. Much to the horror of foreign visitors, traditional Chinese toilets amount to little more than open troughs over which the user is expected to squat. Thankfully, many toilets – especially at popular tourist destinations – have been drastically upgraded. Facilities must now provide at least one cubicle suitable for wheelchair users, as well as emergency call buttons. In addition, a rating system has been introduced to indicate the quality of the toilets, with four-star facilities providing luxuries such as lotions and hot towels. At present a small fee must be paid to use them to cover costs, but the ultimate aim is to provide free access to all. In total, 747 toilets at 168 attractions are involved in the scheme.

So from toilets to transport, ancient palaces to public awareness days, it appears that the ‘new’ China is determined to make a good impression on the rest of the world when the Olympic and Paralympic Games arrive in Beijing. All things considered, it looks like doing just that. INTERESTING FACTS

TOP FIVE ACCESSIBLE TOURIST DESTINATIONS IN BEIJING:

1: The Great Wall at Badaling 2: The Forbidden City 3: Summer Palace 4: Beijing Museum of Natural History 5: The Ming Tombs

GETTING THERE You can fly direct from London Heathrow to Beijing Capital International Airport with BA (return prices in September starting from 706), Air China (about 900) or connect with flights from most European airlines including Air France, Lufthansa, KLM, SAS and Finnair. It pays to look around, though; book through Expedia.co.uk (0871 222 9483) and you could fly with United Arab Emirates (including a stopover in Dubai) for just 437.20 return.

AIRPORT Beijing Capital International Airport is located about 12 miles (20km) northeast of the city. Most international flights now use the new 1 billion, Norman Foster-designed Terminal 3, which came into operation during February and March 2008. Currently the best way to travel between airport and city is by taxi (fares around 90 Chinese Yuan/about 6-7) or airport shuttle bus (CNY16/about 1.15), but a new direct metro line is set to open before the Games.

BEIJING WEATHER Hot, humid and wet summers (up to 30C) are balanced by cold, dry and windy winters (down to -8C). Good for the Games, autumns are dry and clement.

TRAVEL TIPS: CHINA

* Have a full medical check-up before you leave the UK and take your doctor’s name and contact details with you in case of emergency.

* Plan ahead; inform the airline you are travelling with and the hotel where you are staying of your needs, and gather information on your destination from guidebooks and the internet.

* Ensure you have the correct documentation (a standard tourist visa will usually suffice).

* Make sure you have adequate medical insurance.

* On arrival at your hotel, ask a member of staff to write down the establishment’s address in Chinese and keep it with you at all times. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English.

* Allow plenty of time for journeys. Airports and stations in Beijing are efficient but notoriously crowded, and at peak times the roads are often gridlocked.

Published by Able Magazine The UKs largest disability equipment

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    My name is Harry Delgado and I am a full time Internet and Small Business developer and marketer. Over 30 years in the Computer systems development, programming, hardware installations and support. Currently making a living from blogs like HJDS Computer Services , HJDS Investment Group and HJDS BlogBiz. You can connect with me via social media sites at Facebook - LinkedIn - Twitter - YouTube.

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