Diplomacy 101

The faint sound of knocking and muffled, but clearly panicked shouting raises me from a jetlagged sleep. I look at my phone: 9:30. Shit. I was supposed to be in an 'expert discussion panel' 30 minutes ago. Cedric is visibly relieved to see my zombie-like, half-dressed form opening the door. If diplomacy was the aim of this visit, I've probably already blown it.

Less than ten minutes later, and I'm in a suit - half-awake, half-presentable - in a smart room, complete with numerous international flags, in the built environment laboratory. A small group of students is gathered around a table along with a softly spoken American chap in a suit, who reassuringly seems to know what is going on. The Chinese academic in charge effervesces about having visited Cambridge, whilst on a large screen on the wall a number of pixelated faces appear and then disappear, doing battle with the Chinese version of Skype. The academic, Professor Meng, gives a presentation about the project I'm going to be part of, during which a large number of clearly senior delegates swiftly enter and then exit the room. I offer up a few questions on the methodology, but the students around the table remain silent. The American, Robert – who is an academic with a background in architecture – later explains to me that the gathering may well have been for the benefit of the delegates and that serious discussions on the science are probably best saved for later. Ok, good. It seems I haven't caused an incident with my lateness. Maybe I'll get the hang of this.

Not quite. I have a couple of hours off before the scheduled lunch and return to my hotel room. I shower and try to write something in an effort not to fall asleep. The scheduled time for lunch comes and goes. I expect a knock at the door, but after 30 minutes of waiting I become anxious and head down to the hotel restaurant. With a simple lunch in front of me – thanks to the translation skills of some friendly fellow diners – the senior delegates appear from the upstairs room. I was supposed to be with them. Strike two.

But then again, maybe not. Everyone is very happy, having successfully secured a significant amount of financial support for our project. Get out of jail free number two. I join the party for an introductory discussion on our project. The first task: data collection on a citywide scale. Of course, freedom of information is a sensitive issue: Google Streetview doesn't exist here and we will have to be resourceful to get the information we need. More on this later.

A couple of hours off gives me a chance to visit Ciqikuo ('porcelain port') – the local old town area – with Cedric and his friend David who is excited about joining to talk about his interest in music. Our stoic driver, who looks like he should be in a Chinese boyband, also tags along quietly. The old town reminds me of Camden: busy alleyways lined with brightly lit shopfronts and all sorts of different smells. My favourite is the popular local snack, máhuā ('twist'), a sweet-savoury bitesize pastry; the most off-putting is the pungent bean curd soup. We visit a Buddhist temple, and I get my first genuine feeling of peace since I've arrived. David prays to a statue of Buddha while a watchful older woman gently strikes a gong. We all pick up packs of three incense sticks, lighting them and then bowing – three times – before placing them in a small prayer shrine. I'm asked about my beliefs, to which I'm typically British in my deference, but inside I want to know more about the belief systems in China. Something about the peace, contrasted by the panorama beyond of endless blocks of flats across the Jialing, is deeply satisfying.

Returning to the university I'm quickly ushered to a gathering of the senior academics who have just exited a lecture theatre. We're off for a celebratory dinner at a surprise location. This turns out to be at a Mexican restaurant in the faux old town area near the centre, built on the precipitous bank of the Jialing. We sit outside in a busy walkway with views of an impressive newly opened bridge. I feel like we're a bit of a spectacle in our own right – a group of western academics chaperoned by senior members of the Chongqing engineering faculty. I sit next to Professor Baizhan Li, the energetic head of the team in Chongqing, and we talk about shared acquaintances and our forthcoming work. He is clearly very influential here and I'm genuinely enthused when he toasts the successful start of the project. Clearly the day has ended better than it started. Here's to more of the same!

Residential tower block on campus.

Ciqikou old town area.

Lighting incense sticks.

Buddhist temple in Ciqikou.

Restaurant area in the downtown Jiefangbei district, overlooking the Jialing.