Cambridge Linyi Summer School 2012 – Part Six – Jinan and Home

Thursday 23rd August

Whatever conspiracy theories were proposed yesterday were proved unfounded, as today we do indeed go to the mountain. First, however, are the student presentations. I am paired with Jonas, so my students present first to his group, then the reverse. I am extremely pleased with the Markov Chains presentations – it is clear that the speakers have not only understood much of the course than I’d suspected, but have put a great deal of thought and time into preparing a talk that would be well-selected, interesting and intelligible. Given what a disaster would result if I had to give a talk on probability in a foreign language, we were all very impressed with the standard of English shown in all the talks as well. I think everyone is agreed that this was an excellent high point on which to end our trip to Linyi.

Anyway, finally we are off to the Meng Shan mountain. The first stop is a family-run restaurant at the roadside on the edge of the forest park. While we drink tea on stools, we see a chicken being fetched from the outside coop by a Chinese lady with a cleaver and a determined glint in her eye. Sadly, our meal is meat-free, though some of the seasoning and spices go a long way to disproving the assertion that all vegetarian food is bland. The toilet is out back in an ominous brick hut in the middle of the apple orchard. To describe it as a ****hole would be inaccurate. There was no hole. Chris has evidently chosen a bad day for his experience of what our illustrious leader in absentia Marj Batchelor euphemistically defined as V&D. I view this as divine retribution for his shameless attempts to peer pressure me into the club last night.

The mountain itself is a maze of paths through forests, rocks and waterfalls. We are relatively pleased with the cardiovascular exertions of the journey to the main waterfall, until Georgios, who has forsaken the climb for a cable car tour, informs us we saw merely a quarter of the resort. Highlights include the questionable English on pretty much every visible sign, attempting to identify the silhouette of a sleeping Buddha apparently formed by a valley (topology in action?) and the tourist’s t-shirt declaring ‘Love Oneself. Slow. Vicious.’ Glibness aside, the view from the summit was astonishing, and rounded off an excellent visit.

Friday 24th August

Our final morning in Linyi is a ceremonial one. First we each receive a scroll, featuring a quotation by Linyi’s most famous philosopher, as notated by Linyi’s most famous calligrapher. Then we trek across campus for the obligatory photograph next to the stone commemorating the first edition of this summer school, adorned with sage words from Confucius and Dr Marj Batchelor. All that remains is to pack and brace oneself for the four hour drive across Shandong province to the capital, Jinan. Some of the students (who have come from universities in Jinan) are travelling with us. Evidently they had limited faith in the Linyi University accommodation, as we are sharing the bus with twenty duvets…

This is probably an excellent moment to thank the staff at Linyi, in particular Dr Lu, for everything they’ve done to organise and run this summer school. Everyone has been entirely helpful and welcoming, and we’ve all enjoyed our stay a great deal. Also Yuan, my teaching assistant, for her assistance with everything from translating probabilistic notation to advice on ice cream flavours!

I spend some of the journey thinking about whether you can think of measures and metrics as the same thing. I decide that you can’t. More accurately, I decide that I can’t. We are being housed in an impressive hotel on the campus at Shandong Polytechnic. A reunion with hot showers is most welcome. Dinner with our host professors is an astonishing spread. After everyone receives an amuse-bouche of a lightly sauteed sea cucumber, a dazzling array of local dishes arrive. The highlights are oysters, a ferociously spicy brain soup and a trio of donkey meats. We are strongly encouraged to try everything, and though it is a pleasure I am enormously full afterwards, and slightly nervous about maintaining my digestive composure during a 9am research talk tomorrow.

Saturday 25th August

If two attempts at delivering ‘Coalescence: various modern perspectives’ have taught me anything, it’s that I really need to improve my title selection skills. The schedule runs fairly late today, so the four speakers are asked at the last minute to cut the talks to 20 minutes, including time for questions and non-simultaneous translation, which proves a challenge too far. I overrun slightly so as to make sure I have actually got somewhere in terms of content. Many of the audience leave directly after my talk. I can only assume there is an unmissable commitment elsewhere in Jinan at 10.25 rather than any reflection on the quality…

After lunch, we are taken on a tour of Jinan, with stops at the two most famous sites, the Baotu Spring park, and the Daming Lake. As with some of the sights in Beijing, these are very much places of simple beauty and quiet reflection, and so are rather spoilt by the presence of crowds of tourists. A group of locals poke a floating log with umbrellas in an attempt to persuade a shy turtle to emerge from underneath. I can understand its reluctance. Nonetheless, the more peaceful areas were delightful. There is mild panic when we hear by email that the group departing on the late afternoon train are facing five hour delays. Ruadhai, Richard and I are starting to have misgivings about choosing an overnight train to Beijing for the ’experience’. In preparation, I am cautious in observing calls of gan bei, and avoid all dishes with visible chillis. The lack of any signs at Jinan railway station using the Western alphabet is a bit concerning, especially as our train, the illustrious K47, has a different display to all the other departures. After some pained gesticulation we ascertain that it is running half an hour late, so enjoy the additional time with the packs of people sleeping on the concourse. Eventually, just after midnight, the sleeper from Qingdao pulls in, so we join the human tide down to the platform, to see exactly what awaits us in coach 6…

Sunday 26th August

Well that cliffhanger was entirely justified. It turns out that hard seats rather than beds of some kind have been booked for us. Whether this was out of necessity or to enhance the sense of ‘experience’ I do not know. That said, we still feel like emperors in comparison to the scores of travellers who have standing tickets only. I had been worried that my suitcase might be anti-socially unwieldy, but it was as nothing compared to the guy who was travelling with only a 100kg sack of rice for company. Eventually, with everyone safely on board, and luggage stored in a variety of increasingly improvised locations, we steam off into the night. There is initial confusion when it turns out we have arrived at a different station in Beijing to what we had been expecting, but all is forgotten as we find a McDonalds and so by extension, coffee. Richard is suffering somewhat, but Ruadhai and I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep, so decide to head across town to the airport. After check-in, I come across Ben – or at least, I think it’s Ben, but then all these Westerners look the same… – so we fill the time by talking about stochastic analysis and trying to spend our last handful of Yuan. The flight home is long and uneventful. The modern art instalment next to Gate 37 at Helsinki airport provides brief distraction, but finally back to London. An excellent trip is at an end!

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