Week 5: Museums and Parks

I’ve had a good time in Beijing so far, and I feel my Chinese has improved a lot in the mere month that has transpired, but I sometimes can’t help but feel frustrated and discouraged with how frequently I have trouble communicating. After living here a month, I feel I understand pretty well how most common interactions should go: ordering food, bargaining, etc. And yet I am still often struck speechless by how little I understand of what someone has said in their super-rapid Chinese. It goes without saying that Chinese is a very difficult and exotic language for a speaker of English, but this is of little consolation when you’re struggling to understand someone. It may sound cliche, but I honestly the best way to avoid feeling defeated is to take heart in the small victories, the times when you understand something you couldn’t previously that are proof of improvement. I trust that simply given more time this frustration will slowly occur less frequently.

This week proved to be another fun weekend of exploration and adventure around the city. I had some free time during the week, so after classes concluded I packed some water and walked to Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace. Unfortunately it was overcast all day, so my photos weren’t the most brilliant, but I’ll attach a couple nonetheless. This park is easily the largest I have visited thus far. It used to be a massive palace complex that was destroyed by a European coalition force in the late 19th century. All that remains of the buildings are the foundations, with a few exceptions, but the park is nevertheless beautiful. It features a large lake in the center and the surrounding lands. I didn’t venture as deep as I might have because I was forced to leave at the parks closing, Which I find unfortunate: who knows how many nice, particularly beautiful spots may have been hidden deep within the park?

_IMG_1551 _IMG_1554 _IMG_1556

That Saturday, a group of students were planning to go the Summer Palace, perhaps the most famous park in Beijing. I had planned to go with them, but unfortunately overslept and by time I woke up they had already left. So I decided instead to visit the Beijing National Museum, one the best museums in the city. I had also planned on visiting the Beijing Capital Museum, but I ended up staying at the National Museum much longer than I expected. The museum is located on the east side of Tiananmen Square, right near the center of the city.


Entry was easy and free, and the museum was huge, hosting an array of exhibits. I started with the largest exhibit, the one about the history of China from prehistoric times up to the fall of the Qing dynasty and found of the Republic of China. After slowly meandering through this exhibit I feel my understanding and appreciation for Chinese history is a little better. Afterward I wandered through the several other galleries the museum hosted, for example, ancient Chinese coinage, history of Chinese script and calligraphy, ancient jade artifacts, porcelain artifacts. Here too time forced my departure: I ended up staying just about up until closing time (which was 5 o’clock).

Midpoint: Travels to Xi’an

And with the passing of our trip to Xi’an, we have officially reached the halfway point of our studies in China, which I find strange to think about. On the one hand I am eager to rejoin friends and family in the US, but on the other there are so many things here in China I haven’t yet seen or experienced, and there are so many things here that are simply nonexistent in the US. I suppose you could say I feel bittersweet about being halfway done. It makes me all the more want to make the most of my time here, because I don’t have much of an idea of when I might return.

That said, this past weekend was without a doubt my favorite weekend thus far. Thursday, after finishing the midterm exam, we all went to the dorms to pack and prepare for the weekend ahead. We went to Beijing’s western train station so we could board the over-night train that would take us to Xi’an. We had the nicer soft-sleeper tickets, meaning that the bed were soft and the rooms were a bit nicer, as opposed to the hard sleepers, which are more crowded and less comfortable. There were four beds to a room, two sets of bunks directly across from each other. The program bought whichever tickets were available, which meant that some rooms were entirely filled with Notre Dame students, some were partly Notre Dame students, and a couple people were alone in that respect. I happened to one of those few. I was the only Notre Dame student in my room. However, what I thought was going to be a boring and lonely night took an interesting turn. Soon after I moved all my things onto my bed, a small Chinese family, composed of a man, his mother, and his young daughter, entered the room. With my limited Chinese and his limited English, we were able to have some interesting conversations. His mother was also very kind, sharing some of their snacks with me. His 3 year old daughter seemed very smart for her age. She already knew a handful of English words and expressions, and also had an interest in natural history, so that night I learned such Chinese words as ‘fossil’ and ‘dinosaur’. Additionally, they were all natives of Xi’an, and gave me recommendations for food and drinks to have in Xi’an, as well as places to go. At the end of the train ride, we exchanged emails and he even invited me to have a meal at his house, should I return to Xi’an. So I guess if I go back to Xi’an anytime soon, I might just have a place to go! Here’s a picture of me and his daughter taken on the train.


After pulling into Xi’an that next morning, we first checked into our hotel and then set out for Xi’an’s most well known attraction: the terra cotta soldiers.The soldiers are located a little ways outside the city, amidst the hills that surround the city. The soldiers were impressive. Before us lay a number of rows of intersecting pits, each containing rank after rank of clay soldiers. The most incredible part, at least for me, was not how many soldiers there were, but the ridiculous amount of detail and work that went into each one. Literally every soldier was unique. And when they set out to build a clay army, they did just that. There were soldiers of varying ranks, distinguishable by their attire. The army had its share of slaves, foot soldiers, archers, field officers, foreign conscripts, horsemen, you name it. There was even a separate pit that depicted generals and officers having a meeting. The levels of detail was truly unbelievable.


Later that evening we returned to Xi’an proper to attend a performance. Going in, we really had no idea what to expect from the performance. We knew it was based off poem or story from the Tang dynasty era, one of several dynasties that made Xi’an their capital. The performance took place just after sunset, while the sky was just turning gray. And it was soon evident why they waited until after dark to begin. The performance wasn’t a play in the usual sense. The actors had no dialogue, just a narrator speaking in an archaic Chinese, of which I could understand scarcely a word. Instead, in a way it was a dance performance on a huge scale. The set was huge, very wide and it extended deep towards the mountain behind it, at whose foot it was strategically placed. The music was excellent and the dancing was enthralling, but the most impressive part was the huge and varied amount of special effects used to help tell the story. I’ll attach some pictures that will hopefully illustrate my meaning.


The next day we had another favorite event scheduled: biking along the city walls of Xi’an. Unlike Beijing, whose walls were demolished a few decades ago, the walls of Xi’an yet remain, and have been for the most part restored, so they are smooth enough to bike on. It was very interesting (and tiring) to bike through a significant portion of the city. In addition to old bell towers and other assorted old buildings upon the wall itself, you could also make out other landmarks within the older part of Xi’an, like Buddhist temples and pagodas that once dominated the skyline of the old city, before the advent of skyscrapers.

_IMG_1504 _IMG_1520

Afterward we went to an area of the city called ‘Muslim Street’. Xi’an has a decently large number of Chinese Muslims, and this area surrounds the mosque and is a huge marketplace, dotted with Muslim restaurants. It was fun to spend some time exploring the winding streets of the marketplace. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but all the food we ate in Xi’an was great. The Xi’an cuisine seems to have been influenced by the Muslim population, as there was no pork and it was dominated by beef and lamb. Just as in Beijing, I wasn’t always aware of what exactly I was eating, but it was all delicious.

The remaining destinations in Xi’an were a Buddhist temple and the Small and Large Goose Pagodas. Unfortunately the larger pagoda was being renovated, but even still you could tell they were impressive structures. And although most Buddhist temples share similar elements, I appreciated the peacefulness in the garden of this particular temple, and they were nice to explore.


Sunday morning we made our way back to the train station to catch our bullet train back to Beijing. It had been a particularly full and exhausting weekend, but also particularly interesting. I wish we could have stayed in Xi’an a bit longer and become more familiar with the city.

Weeks 2 and 3 in Beijing: Forbidden City and Imperial Gardens

Time continues to fly in the capital. I feel like there is so much I could write about that these posts might as well have not end. Every new day presents new opportunities, and you are only limited by how adventurous you are. Never seen, let alone heard of, that dish before? Try it for yourself. Wondering what’s off to the east of campus? Go for a walk and explore. In Chinese, there’s a saying: 入乡随俗, literally “enter village, follow customs”, which is essentially the Chinese equivalent of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. And in order to experience Chinese culture to the fullest, you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone. Instead of ordering beef dishes every meal because they are what you are most familiar with, try something new. There are so many foods here that don’t even have proper English names (they tend to just attach “Chinese” to the front, e.g. Chinese broccoli and Chinese yam). You never know when you’ll find something new you really like. For example, I have discovered that I really enjoy red bean, common in deserts, and a fruit called Chinese hawthorn.

This goes for exploring as well. On more than one occasion my classmates and I have gone to an area called “Wudaokou”. It is not far from campus and has tons of good restaurants, bars, and other attractions such as karaoke. Exploring the area we found a place to do some karaoke and a cool little bookstore with a bunch of children’s books, that are quite frankly at around our reading level. Similarly, to  the south of campus is a large mall complex called “Zhongguancun Mall”, that I haven’t even completely explored yet, despite being there on multiple occasions. We found a pizza place there whose pizzas are not only larger than any I’ve ever seen before, but whose taste rivals, and even surpasses,that of many pizza places back in the states. On the Fourth of July, we went out to yet another area of Beijing, known for being home to many Americans, and celebrated with some very good barbecue sandwiches. What I’m trying to say is keep exploring and don’t settle, because you never know when you’ll find something you’ll really enjoy.

A week after the Great Wall expedition, we found ourselves headed towards the heart of Beijing: Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tian’anmen Square is a massive city square south of the palace. There are many buildings of interests along its edges, including government buildings, the National Museum, and Mao Zedong’s final resting place. The large scale of the square prepares you for the grandeur of the Forbidden City, where it seems everything is larger than life. Multiple layers of towering gates, spacious courtyards, shrines, and countless buildings, all in traditional Chinese architecture. It was very crowded and incredible hot that day, but I was still rather awestruck by the place. I’ll attach some photos that will hopefully give an idea of what I’m talking about.

_IMG_1304 _IMG_1335 _IMG_1320_IMG_1355

After exiting out the north gate, we walked through some of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, called “胡同” (hutongs). These areas are characterized by thin, winding alleys and lots of small shops. They definitely have a unique vibe. Afterward we went on to Houhai, a really nice area around a small lake, which contains shops, temples, bars, restaurants, etc.


It’s especially nice after sunset when all the lights reflect off the water and live music abounds. The next morning we went to Beijing Zoo. The zoo is huge, we were there for at least of couple of hours and I don’t think we saw even half of the displays. If you’re a fan of zoos, it’s be a great place; most of us just got exhausted and left a little early.

That next Saturday we went to an area of Beijing simply known as “798” (qijiuba). This district is most famous for its artistic significance: the area of home to tons of art galleries of various kinds, from contemporary, traditional, and everything in between. Some of them were solely on display, some places were selling art. There were also a lot of small shops selling all sorts strange or unique things. Shirts, cloth, postcards, model trains and cars. An exhaustive list of the wares of these shops would simply be ridiculous. You could probably spent an entire day just exploring the shops of 798 and not see everything available.

The following day is probably one of my favorite days so far. That Sunday I woke up fairly early and took a long subway ride to “潘家园” (panjiayuan), also known as the ‘Dirt Market’, on the other side of Beijing. This is a huge open-air flea market that primarily sells more traditional Chinese objects. There are literally hundreds of vendors, selling jewelry, art, calligraphy, pottery and ceramics, books, and other assorted goods. It’s immense, and to be honest I liked it better than the Pearl Market. Vendors weren’t as obnoxious, and don’t call out to you as you pass by. Additionally, a lot of stuff sold there is more uniquely “Chinese”, and make good souvenirs (at least in my opinion). You still haggle, like at the other markets (unfortunately my bargaining skills are rather deplorable). This time around I didn’t buy much, mostly some ceramics, but I plan to go back some time.

Afterward, on the way back, I stopped at 北海公园, Beihai Park, a large public park not too far west of the Forbidden City. Like Houhai, Beihai surrounds a small lake. I personally loved this park. It was a beautiful day, if a little hot. Besides the wide roads the went around the lake, there were many smaller paths weaving around the trees that surround the lake. Every so often along these paths were pavilions of various sizes, places to find shade from the particularly relentless sun. Besides those seeking refuge from the heat, many pavilions also had musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments (admittedly I don’t know what any of them are called). After walking around the market all morning and standing on the subway, these pavilions were a nice reprieve. One particular pavilion caught my attention. It was a bit large, built over a small pond and surrounded by trees. It was far enough away from the city and the more crowded parts of the park that it was very peaceful. You could have painted the scene. The only noises were the birds and an older man playing some sort of flute instrument. Nearby a family was having a picnic, and occasionally people would pass by. I must of stayed there a half hour, just relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere.


Finally I got up to explore the rest of the park, which now mostly consisted of the island in the lake. The island housed the “White Pagoda” and a Buddhist temple. It was a small island, but it hid a deceptively large number of old, traditional-style buildings. I tried to wander through as much of it as I could, but I’m sure there’s plenty that I missed. Afterward I finally returned to the dorms. And I think that is where I’ll leave off this entry. Until the next time!

From Chicago to the Great Wall

It’s hard to believe it’s already been two weeks, time has seemed to pass so quickly. It doesn’t seek like all that long ago since I landed in Beijing. The flight itself, however, seemed like it would never end. Fortunately, I was lucky to share a row with two kind Chinese people who every so often would start a conversation with me, which I think made the time pass a bit quicker. One of them even helped me read a page of a book she was reading. The conversations were mixed Chinese and English, so it was also good practice before I got on the ground in Beijing. After settling into the dorms, I and the other students had our first authentic Chinese dinner. That next morning I woke up at 4:00 AM, and continued to wake up early until I recovered from jet lag, which took a few days.

That first weekend we were given a tour of the campus and were introduced to our language partners, who all seemed friendly. Campus is beautiful (the northern half of campus could easily be mistaken for a park), complete with a lake (未名湖 lit. “nameless lake”), trails, and traditional Chinese architecture. The other half of campus is replete with school buildings, supermarkets, dining halls, and other shops. The dorm rooms are very good; they are larger than I expected, plenty of outlets that are compatible with American electronics, strong air conditioning (which is excellent because this city can get incredibly hot sometimes), and hot water. You share a common room and a bathroom with at least one other person, which for most of us was another Notre Dame student. These are both pictures of campus:


The first days of classes weren’t so bad, but it didn’t take long to get up to speed. There are four hours of classes in the morning, as well as a half-hour long one-on-one session with one of the teachers in the afternoon. Every school night also has a two-hour long study session in the classroom for which attendance is optional, but most people tend to go as you are awarded extra credit for going to a certain number of there. At these you have time to do much of the homework and ask questions if you need to. It’s also a good time to preview the next lesson, which is necessary as every class starts with a quiz. The speed of the class is very quick, but not unbearable as long as you put in the time every night.

My first impressions of the dining halls are good. They can be rather chaotic, and the foods available are only posted in Chinese, so we end up more or less pointing to get what we want, but the food is good and very cheap, usually less than 10 RMB a meal. There are several dining halls nearby, and they all work a little differently and offer different dishes. The restaurants we’ve gone to so far have been very good. The food here is very different but I’m getting used to it. Meals in restaurants are served family style, and chopsticks are always used, both in restaurants and in dining halls. Also, beverages are seldom served chilled; Chinese prefer most drinks either hot or lukewarm.

Our first program-sponsored weekend trip was to the Great Wall, which we went to on Saturday. And I can honestly say the Great Wall is the most, if not second most incredible thing I’ve seen in my life. This far from Beijing there is no smog to obscure the skies, and you can clearly see the mountains that lie all around Beijing. The hardest and most exhausting part was simply the climb up to the Great Wall. After climbing flights and flights of stairs, and then a few flights more, we managed to actually stand atop the great wall. The view from the wall is truly magnificent. Standing, surrounded by forests and mountains, seeing the Great Wall extend in both directions, meandering through the peaks. We walked along the length of the wall for a while before turning back. Here are a few pictures I took there.


That Sunday a few classmates and I went to the Pearl Market, a large market in Beijing. They sell tons of things: cheap electronics, clothing, bags, chopsticks, fans, shoe, you name it. No items have price tags and you have to haggle with the vendors to reach a price. If you come to Beijing, you should go to at least one of these such markets. To get there, we rode the subway for the first time, and my first impression of the subway was very good. It’s cheap and fairly quick, and there are stations all over the city. Classes resumed the next day, much like like the week before.