Upon arrival in Beijing, there were many things that seemed daunting; calling a cab, buying clothes, and even teaching. The one thing that did not register as being overly difficult was something I had taken for granted up until this point in my life: ordering food. Usually, eating out consisted of grabbing the same menu from the same place down the street. I knew them, they knew me, and the entire process from start to finish was easy. Enter: Beijing dining. The first couple of times out, especially on your own, can be worrisome. The waiters hover while you order food and often times, people are looking at you from the minute you walk through the door. At first, what seems scary and even rude, slowly morphs into curiosity and acceptance. The looks become smiles and the hovering turns into broken, but joyful conversations in Chi-English: something that you will learn not to take for granted. Ordering food can be difficult, but it’s the most difficult times that end up being the most fun and memorable. So explore, try new places and get your pointer finger ready for the most exciting restaurant experiences you’ll probably ever have.
Prior to moving to China it is safe to say I had very little interaction with Chinese people. Coming from a small rural town in the west of Ireland I had little idea of what to expect from the culture and the people itself. A quick Google search before setting out for pastures new left me with more questions than answers. With the ‘rules’ I had learnt on the internet for etiquette and conversation with Chinese people swimming around in my head I set off.
My first conversations with Chinese people tended to consist of a lot of blank stares and pointing on my part. Things taken for granted back home became quite the struggle such as ordering food or trying to tell a taxi driver where you want to go. In the majority of these situations however I found the locals to be very patient with me. A few months later and my broken attempts at conversing in Chinese have not improved a whole lot! Despite this I am more often than not greeted with warm smiles and bucket loads of patience, many natives are more than happy to wait for me to try and remember the word for ‘take away’ or ‘bill’. By simply making an effort to learn a few words and key phrases my life is made easier on a daily basis.
My Chinese co-workers are some of the most helpful people I have ever encountered. From helping me to find a way to watch my favourite sports, giving directions, tips on things to see in this vast city and translating I honestly don’t believe my experience would have been as enjoyable without their much appreciated input. They also poses the amazing ability to speak confidently in more than one language (something I fear is a skill beyond my grasp). A group of people every bit as kind as they are clever, I had not meet before. My advice to anyone worrying about how they will talk to people from such a different culture, don’t be! Don’t make my mistake, don’t Google it.
“How will you cope living in such a crowded city?” “Are you going to be ok in the smog?” “How are you going to cope living day to day without knowing the language?” These were the main concerns from my family and friends when I said I was moving to Beijing for a year. Having travelled before, moving to China was going to be a huge challenge due to the language barrier and cultural differences. However four months later I have seen the beauty of Beijing and found I have settled in quite well. I have taken advantage of the lovely summer days in August to go explore the city and even though it is difficult to so in the winter, I’m trying to make the effort.
I love to go explore on my days off, bringing with me nothing more than my travel card and my camera. The amazing Yuan Ming Yuan Park is a fantastic place to visit when you have a spare day. The park is massive and there is a mixture of busy trails and quiet ones. I spent a majority of my day here and it’s easily accessible by subway with the park being located directly opposite the station entrance.
One of my favourite places I have visited has to be the Summer Palace. We went late August and there was a lot of smog around the city. Some of my favourite photos were taken when I was there. The smog added a different atmosphere to the area, it seemed more fairy-tale like and now I find I will go out and explore more often on those smoggy days. The Summer Palace has a lot to offer and is a great starting point for your list while you are in Beijing. Not as expansive as Yuan Ming Yuan but still just as stunning. It is a lot busier though and going on a weekend day you may have to battle your way through the crowds. It is undeniably worth a visit.
Lastly I have to say living in the Shijingshan area is remarkable. You are close to the city, and far enough away to find some peace and quiet. There are many little parks and recreation areas dotted around. Laoshan Park is great to take a break away from the hustle and bustle of the area. It’s a small park located near the Bajiao subway station. It has an old Olympic mountain bike track which you can walk around and some fantastic viewpoints of the Shijingshan area.
It really is the case of don’t judge a book by its cover. All we hear about is the smog, the crowds, our differences etc. When you actually arrive here in Beijing, it is really astonishing how quickly it feels like home. Take advantage of days off and where your located, there are many wonderful sights in Beijing and I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of what this incredible city has to offer.
I never dreamed that I would visit a wonder of the world three times in one month. I did just this in October. It’s quite easy to catch a bus out of Beijing to many of the different sections of the Great Wall. There are several tour companies that cater to those without cars. If you don’t feel like leaving the city district entirely, but want to escape the hustle, catching a bus to the west hills is a breeze. Shijingshan, the district where most Aihua schools are and where first year teachers live, borders the west hills with many gorgeous temples among them. Popular hiking spots in the west hills are Badachu and the Fragrant Hills. Hiking in these areas is not so much of a rustic dirt trail endeavor as it is a cultural exploration. What a nice departure from most western hiking to be able to appreciate intricately designed temples, practicing Buddhist monks engaging in their chants and prayers, beautifully manicured gardens, and the smells of many varieties of incense.
The Fragrant Hills is a huge park of several different historic and holy sites. It served as a military stronghold of Mao and his army during the early days of the Communist Party. Badachu translates to eight great sites, of which it contains eight temples and nunneries throughout the west hills. Badachu also features some 600 year old trees. If your feet are hurting from a day of walking around Beijing, or if you’re lazy, you can pay to take a cable-car to the top, afterwards you can ride a toboggan down. Go to the west hills during September and October to enjoy fantastic fall colors! As far as my Great Wall expeditions go, the highlight was visiting one of the oldest sections at Gubeikou also known as Crouching Tiger. The oldest portions were built 1400 years ago and feature construction from 5 different periods including the Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
It’s easy to find a Great Wall tour with as little as six people through a company like China Hiking (at chinahiking.cn). Others like Cultural Exchange Trips run large bus tours splitting the seating between 25 Chinese and 25 foreigners. For less than $200 USD you can join an overnight Great Wall trek and camp tour, with food and camping gear provided. For less that $30 USD it’s possible to take a day trip to one of the many Great Wall sites. There are several Great Wall sites in the Beijing area, all within two hours or less of city center. Whatever you do, don’t go to Badaling: it was built by the Mao regime to boost national pride. I hear it’s a tourist trap these days. Instead, go to one of the many historic spots. Come to Beijing and experience great hiking mixed with amazing culture!
When you come to China, it’s not just a matter of simply arriving in a new country, it’s more like entering a whole new world; a fascinating, inspiring and mesmerizing new world. I would advise anyone and everyone to experience China for themselves and I am confident most people will love it. I say this so often that people always ask me why I love China so much?
The answer is simple. Like I’ve already said, China is so much more than just another country. It’s like nothing you’ve experienced before. In the event, however, that you get to China and you find yourself unsure about it, here are a few tips on how to love China.
1. Straight face
Learn to shop like a local and you will learn more about the people than you thought possible and also save a ton of money in the process. Shopping like a local entails going to the various markets and buying everything from fruit and vegetables to furniture. In order to get the best deal, however, you should never look excited about your purchase, at least not until you’ve more than halved the price and paid for the item and you have it in your hand and you’re walking away with it. If you show your real emotions about your prospective item you will always pay more because the seller will clearly see how badly you want it. But if you simply just go to the markets and look around you will always learn something about the culture and the people of China in the process. Without even realizing it, you will find yourself falling a little more in love with China as a whole.
2. Zero expectations
When you come to China, it is best not to have any pre-conceived notions or ideas about the country because it doesn’t matter how many books, blog posts or articles you read, nothing will prepare you for what you will experience once you arrive. It’s really best to arrive with a blank slate and form your own opinions about the people and the country. China is very different and you will be disappointed if you try and put it in a box before you’ve visited. Best to let the people and the country make their own first impression than you trying to create one out of thin air. I personally didn’t read anything before coming to China besides living cost comparisons and I am so grateful for that because I honestly didn’t know what to expect and it allowed me create my own opinions based on my own experiences and now I absolutely love the city of Beijing and China as a whole.
3. See the city not the sights
The best way to see a city for yourself is to go off the beaten path, explore by foot and definitely take the road less travelled. Beijing has incredible tourist spots and great sights, but the best way to see and experience the city is definitely not by restricting yourself to those. The side streets next to and behind the major sights are some of the most marvelous to see. I once got lost somewhere in the middle of the city and as I was walking through the streets I stumbled across a beautiful, traditional Church. Something I didn’t even know existed in the city. It was such a beautiful building, it reminded me so much of home but it being surrounded by traditional Chinese buildings made it even more special.
4. There’s always more
The number one way to fall head over heels in love with the majestic country that is China is to go travelling across its enormous spaces. China is a country of extraordinary size and the different landscapes found in this one country are impressive. When you get the chance go to different cities and towns you should try the local cuisine. You will also get to meet more of the local people and get a better window into Chinese culture. You will never be able to see all of China in one lifetime but you can have an amazing time trying. The nature this country has to offer is incredible and you can’t help but fall in love with China when you’re surrounded by mountains.
I have no doubt that anyone can fall in love with this country and this city as much as I have if you simply open your mind, shop like a local person, forget about your preconceived notions, go off the beaten path and explore the natural beauty of the country. Try it for yourself, you just might love it as well.
There are few adventures that match riding an electric scooter through Beijing. Best of all, this adventure can be had every day. The electric scooter has replaced the bicycle as Beijingers’ transportation of choice, and as such they are everywhere. Little dealerships are located on almost every street corner, and you can pick one up for less than $500 new or $200 used. They’re great for getting around, too, so long as you can develop a Zen attitude when it comes to traffic.
Traffic rules are fluid here; people do what’s convenient when it’s convenient. For every person going along with the flow of traffic there is another person going against it, and for all those people there’s going to be someone coming at you from the side. I don’t know how it all works out, but somehow between the slaloming between oncoming traffic and slow moving grandpas no one gets hurt and everyone makes it to where they’re going more or less on time.
Although in the first month or two a scooter, new or used, feels like a big investment it’s worth it. The freedom it gives is great. It makes getting around so much easier. I don’t have to figure out the bus schedules or wait for the buses. I just walk out my door, hop on my scooter, and take off to wherever I want to go (within about a 20 kilometer range).
The only word of advice I have for buying a scooter is to expect nothing, and that way you will expect everything.
I have been in China for almost three months now. Before I came to Beijing I didn’t really have any expectations for what it was going to be like. However, after only a short amount of time here I have come to realize that not only is China an extremely diverse and interesting country but the people here are also some of the most interesting individuals I have ever met.
Chinese people are welcoming, hard-working and very family-oriented. They are also rather curious about foreigners, which often leads to funny encounters with the locals on daily basis. That being said, one of the things you have to get used to China is getting your pictures taken. The way Chinese people do this is not subtle to say at least and I often spot someone taking a picture of me on the subway, bus or on the street without even trying to hide it. It can come as a bit of a shock in the beginning when random people approach you and suddenly you realize you are posing for a “selfie” with a Chinese family. Especially for a lot of the mainland Chinese people, it is very exciting to see a westerner and it just adds to their excitement if you try to speak some Chinese with them. I have no idea of what they actually do with the photos of my confused face but I’m just trying to embrace it and get used to these moments in the spotlight.
Probably the funniest encounter I’ve had so far was a couple of weeks ago on my way to work. I was walking towards my center from the bus stop when an older Chinese man spotted me. His whole face lit up, he raised his hands in the air and joyfully started running towards me. Speaking in extremely fast Chinese (way beyond my non-existent Chinese skills) he excitedly pointed at my hair and did a funny dance around me. Then for my amusement he got on one knee, took my hand and obviously jokingly proposed to me. People around us were clapping and cheering. Then this sweet man disappeared as fast as he had appeared and I was left on the street with a confused smile on my face.
It’s little encounters like this with the locals that add to the experience and make your stay in Beijing so much more memorable.
For two weeks every year, inter-city transportation in China is buzzing with tourists. Famous attractions and sights have queues around the block. Chinese flags sprout up everywhere, and in the most unlikely of places.
But these are not foreign tourists. It’s time for a ‘Golden Week’, when residents of China travel, relax, and spend time with family and friends. These are two seven-day national holidays around Chinese New Year, in January or February, and National Day, at the beginning of October.
So, three of us lovely teachers at Aihua – residents of China – were faced with a problem: how could we visit a national treasure, during a national holiday, and avoid the crowds? Our solution: a two hour bus journey, followed by three hours of hiking on challenging terrain, to a remote section of the Great Wall.
The scenery during the hike up the mountain was spectacular, but nothing could surpass the views along the Wall at the top. Did you know that parts of it are over 2,300 years old? Whilst much of where we hiked had been restored we were still, literally, walking on ancient history.
Having spent some time exploring and taking photos, we set up our tents and our guides cooked us dinner. We looked at the stars, sat round the fire and – rolling back the years – roasted some marshmallows. Eventually, we went to sleep. How many people can say they have slept on a ‘wonder of the world’?
The next morning we climbed down the mountain and began the journey back to Beijing, safe in the knowledge that our memories (and photos) of the trip would always be with us. If you decide to work in China, which you should, camping on the Great Wall is a priority. That is, if you like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Back home I was not someone who would typically use public transportation. That option is usually a last resort. In America we are so accustomed to driving our own cars everywhere that we forget about the benefits and possibilities of such a service. Since the traffic in Beijing is scary and daunting at all times of the day, I told myself I would not purchase a scooter or motor bike for the fear of ending up at the hospital. Therefore, public transportation is the way to go for me and after my first month it has really grown on me now. I am both a fan of the busses and the subway system, however I tend to use the busses on a more regular basis to get to and from work. I never learned the schedule because they arrive five to ten minutes in between each other so I can catch one at any time essentially. Most of the time I stand because they are crowded, but this too has grown on me. I don’t expect a seat anymore. It is very cheap to ride the bus so when another coworker mentions grabbing a taxi instead I find myself declining the offer because what’s the point? Sure it may take a little longer and you make be squished in with what feels like 100 other people, but you get to your destination in the end. As a foreigner you do get stared at a good amount, and this is no different on public transportation. Many people stare at me and if they are close enough, try to look at my phone and see what I am doing or what music I am listening to which I find pretty funny. You most likely will hear people practically yelling into their phones, but odds are they aren’t mad they are just having a regular conversation. A tip to remember about riding the bus though is to make sure you scan your card before getting off, otherwise you pay more in the end. Trust me its happened once or twice and I wonder where all my bus money went after only a handful of rides. All in all it’s an interesting experience each day I go to work.
As I am writing this, I am marking the end of my sixth week with Aihua in Beijing. Every day presents new challenges, however these challenges have made this experience more enjoyable and I am definitely looking forward to the months ahead. My impression of Aihua from the outset was positive. Throughout the interview and visa application process, communication was clear, comprehensive and prompt. Since my arrival, this professionalism has continued and helps to make life in Beijing somewhat easier.
During our first two weeks, we complete a training course with the school’s Training Managers. For somebody coming from a non-teaching background, we were provided with practical advice on managing your class. Beyond this, our Foreign Centre Supervisors are on-site to provide us with help and support when issues arise.
Following the training period, we were allocated to one of Aihua’s six centres in West Beijing. I was assigned to Wanshang. I work alongside four foreign teachers, our Foreign Centre Supervisor, five Chinese teachers and the Chinese sales staff. From the outset, we were made very welcome with offers of food on a daily basis, as well as a welcome gift following our first month. Besides working with a fantastic bunch of Chinese and Foreign Staff, I was pleased to discover a coveted “Western loo” on the third floor of our building! It’s the small things…
Aihua provides all Foreign Teachers with accommodation in Shijingshan. West Beijing is traditionally not frequented by many westerners and consequently, we are a novelty for many of our neighbours who frantically force their grandchildren to speak English with us. Nevertheless, people are very welcoming and friendly.
The accommodation is of a Western standard. I share a two-bedroom apartment with one other Foreign Teacher. We have been unfortunate enough to experience a number of maintenance issues over the last few weeks, however Summer (foreign affairs officer) has come to our rescue on each and every occasion.
Aihua provides Foreign Teachers with a Z visa, which is necessary to work legally in China. Luke (foreign affairs officer) completed this timely and complicated process on our behalf. We had to make one visit for a medical check and one visit to the visa-processing centre. Both visits were uncomplicated and fast. During the first few days, Summer and Luke also helped us to open a bank account and buy a SIM card. Again, without Summer or Luke, both processes would be timely and almost impossible.
Food is cheap and plentiful in Beijing. You can enjoy a Chinese meal for 10-30RMB. Nevertheless, after a few days of fried food, a trip to a Western restaurant is welcomed. Many Western dining options are available in Shijingshan, however they do tend to be somewhat more expensive than a Chinese meal. Grocery stores are also common and offer a variety of Western products.
Beijing is an awe-inspiring city. As the capital of the PRC, it has a long a long and varied past and this is seen in it’s people and it’s architecture. Over the past six weeks, I’ve visited many of the tourist sites in the city, as well as making a visit to a village outside of Beijing. The highlight of my experience thus far has been visiting the Great Wall. This mammoth structure is something to reckon with and I will most definitely return.
As week seven approaches, I’m looking forward to our October holiday and the coming months. I’ve yet to experience a “bad China” day and I am confident with the support shown so far, these days will be very few and far between.