Carmarthenshire County Council assistant chief executive Chris Burns and dean of faculty of arts and social studies at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Roger Maidment, visited the city of Xiangyang in China for four days last month as an exploratory visit to consider a proposed twinning link between Carmarthen and the Asian city. Here’s their story...
How did this visit come about?
The county council, and Carmarthen Town Council, were approached to ask if we would send some representatives to the Xiangyang annual cultural festival and to discuss the possibilities for future co-operation.
For their annual festival, which commemorates the city's main historical figure, Zhuge Liang, they had wanted a more international flavour and had invited the Amman Valley theatre group, Organised Kaos, to perform a short piece on Merlin.
It was the link with Merlin, and Carmarthen as the town most associated with Merlin, that first suggested Carmarthenshire to them as a potential partner for the event.
During the visit we were also joined by the BBC television director Jeremy Webb, who directed many of the episodes of the Merlin TV series and who has also worked on Doctor Who, and very recently, in directing numerous episodes of Downton Abbey.
What were your first impressions of Xiangyang?
Xiangyang is a huge city, with a population of more than five million, including the surrounding rural areas. In the city centre there is a large impressive central square containing a 50-foot statue of Zhuge Liang, surrounded by a large open space, a new 30,000-seater sports stadium and an impressive indoor sports arena.
From the airport to the city centre we drove through huge industrial areas and it was immediately evident that the city was highly industrialised.
Going out early on the first morning to take photographs there were large numbers of people exercising, doing tai chi and even playing badminton in the town square at 6.30 in the morning.
At this point it was clear that we were somewhere different from home.
One over-riding memory will be the friendliness of everyone we met, and their openness and honesty. Whether out walking alone early in the morning or late at night you always felt very safe.
What was the festival like?
The opening ceremony took place in the sports stadium in front of an audience of around 20,000. There were three hours of spectacular music and dance numbers, many including local children, and the whole event was highly professional.
They had brought in a number of nationally renowned stars who were greeted with excitement by the crowd. There was also an exchange of gifts between our two communities, ours being a figure of a Welsh Dragon, and we were warmly greeted by those attending.
The event ended with a fireworks display and aerial acrobatic performance.
What else did you do?
We met with a number of local business and development partners, including the new high-tech business park which is over 5,000 acres in size and which will provide jobs and housing for up to 100,000 people.
This was more like a new city under construction, rather than a business park, with work going on everywhere you looked.
We also visited the university, which is set on a modern campus a few miles outside the city in the tourist area associated with the home of the historical figure Zhuge Liang.
There we discussed future possibilities for student exchange and collaboration.
We had a number of meetings with city officials, and on the final day we took part in a national television show as part of the closing ceremony which looked at the experiences of the visit and the plans for future co-operation.
What are the plans for the future?
Business opportunities would be our ultimate priority. China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and presents a great opportunity for business.
Although their manufacturing base is huge, there seems great potential for businesses with technical innovation and high-tech products. There may also be prospects in some types of agriculture.
At one meal we were served lamb and told, proudly, that it came from New Zealand. Who knows, perhaps in the future they might serve Welsh lamb with equal pride.
Tourism is also a promising prospect and we were able to hold talks with one company who plan to bring coach tours of visitors from Xiangyang to the UK, including a visit to Carmarthenshire as part of their itinerary.
They are keen to promote cultural links, and might like to send a Chinese performing group to take part in the Merlin festival next year, and we will discuss with the organisers of the National Eisteddfod whether something might be suitable to include as part of that event in Llanelli in 2014.
Links with the university, through students coming here to study and through other collaborative ventures, are also a good prospect.
It was clear that the new opportunities presented by the extended university for study in South West Wales were of interest to colleagues at Hubei University.
There could also be an opportunity for exchanges between businesses and other organisations who might like to host someone here for a while or send someone to work or study in China for a period.
And, finally, two-way school and college exchanges where young people visit and stay with local families is another area they would like to develop.
There is a growing interest in our schools, colleges and the university to learn Chinese and this presents a great opportunity for them in particular.
UW Trinity Saint David already has a Confucius institute, which runs Chinese classes.
To look at the prospect of developing these various options we will be organising a meeting shortly to which we will invite anyone who might like to be part of the future plans.
These could be local businesses, schools, colleges or other organisations, or simply individuals with an interest in being part of what could turn out to be an exciting journey.
We are also quite happy to come along to give a presentation to local organisations who might like to have a first-hand report about the opportunities that we found.
Anyone interested in becoming involved can email Chris Burns at CPBurns@ carmarthenshire.gov.uk.