So, Beijing, China. I had been waiting for this trip for almost a year, ever since I got accepted to this project last May. To give you some information, this is my one of my high school’s international projects. We have a friend school in Beijing, so last August a group of students came to Helsinki and we hosted them, and now it was our turn to go and visit them. So, on April 17th, 12 students and two teachers left to Beijing for a week, and damn, if I could just put all my overwhelming experiences here. But there would be no point in trying to describe everything, that’s why you have travel guides, so I’ll tell my bits, my tales, the ones that made the trip what it was for me.
I remember the first impression being not so great to be honest; the smog was quite bad the day we arrived and everything looked very grey. It reminded me of some ghost city, like we had arrived in a different planet. In a way we did though, because China is something I really cannot compare to any country I have been to before.
Our weekend was planned to spend it with our hosts and let them be our guides. Here I think I should tell a bit about my host, Katherine. I still cannot understand the stroke of luck that I got last August when I got Katie as my guest. Maybe she was some sort of gift from the universe or something. We clicked then, almost on the first day we met and what had been a name on a list of hosts and guests, became one of my best friends. It’s funny how some people just are immediately on the same exact level as you are, making you feel like you’ve known them for ages. So that’s what happened with Katie and me, I simply knew I had gained a friend for lifetime. We had kept very close contact during these months in between so one of the things I was most looking forward to was seeing her again. She’s the most energetic and enthusiastic person you could ever imagine, so full of joy of living and seeing new things, and I just love people like her.
So obviously our weekend was incredible. I would never have believed that it was humanly possible to see that much during one weekend, but because of Katie we did.
We went and wandered on Beijing’s most known hutong, Nanluoguxiang. Hutongs are basically alleys, narrow streets, where people used to live, very close to each other. They can be found on different parts of Beijing and could be described as Beijing’s Old Town. I loved them, the atmosphere and the people and the houses. There were lots of people, tourists but also locals enjoying their free time. Shops were selling different Chinese handicrafts and food, for example fried squid in a stick like a popsicle and ornaments made by blowing hot sugar. Everything was so overwhelmingly new that I must have looked like an Alice in the wonderland.
Near the main hutong was a cat cafe that I had been looking forward to far too much that is normal. But hey, can’t help being a crazy cat lady. I obviously loved the cafe; it wasn’t too new and stylish but a bit funnily decorated and full with mostly sleeping cats. We lured the cat to sit with us with bacon from Katie’s pasta, even though you’re not supposed to feed the cats. Apparently he was really called Noodles, but we named him Waffles, because of the waffles I ordered. She was absolutely beautiful, gorgeous looking cat. I could talk about the cats for hours but maybe I won’t, maybe some of you aren’t that interested. I forgive you. But I’ll still add some photos, bear with me 🙂
Even though Beijing is a huge metropoly with about 20 million people and many environmental problems, I was surprised that there were so many beautiful parks like Beihai and little lakes like Houhai which we visited during the weekend. Those places really felt Chinese to me, as far as I feel what’s Chinese. Old buildings and gates etc. were so pretty and skillfully made that they made me feel like I was walking in history in a way. Flowers like tulips and pionis were blooming on parks and were so stunning and refreshing after walking in the busy streets. I love flowers. They just make this sometimes ugly world so much prettier.
I also saw two amazing Buddhist temples, Llama temple and Temple of Heaven. If I could just trap the atmosphere In Llama temple and describe it here. For me, it felt very different from any Christian churches I’ve been to. Personally the feeling for me was much more still and free, if you get what I mean. The air was full of smoke: if I didn’t know that it came from the incense I would have thought a fire had broken out. The smoky smell from the incense made the place feel like out of this world.
Llama temple also has the largest Buddha in the whole South-East Asia: 26 meters tall, made of one single piece of wood. Needless to say, all different little temples and statues on the area were very impressive. Buddhism really fascinates me. We were talking about this with Katie’s mom, about how the way of living is so different in different cultures. In Western countries it’s admirable and desirable to do things all the time and move forward, constantly developing yourself and being busy, whereas in Buddhism the desired state is to be still and that’s the way you can truly be happy. I myself have thought about this a lot and I think it’s something we all could learn from some Asian cultures, appreciating stillness.
We also visited Forbidden city and Summer palace. Forbidden city was much larger than I expected, I mean it was huuuuge. Plazas and temples one after the other, and then smaller alleys to courtyards and cute little houses where the emperor’s staff and relatives lived. We had a very eccentric guide who had this hilarious way of speaking English. He pronounced “h” like an ”r” and always wanted to tell us Chinese stories and legends. He was so heartfelt and kind that even though I couldn’t make even a half of what he said, our tour in Forbidden city was still very interesting.
And Summer palace was one of my favourite places on the whole trip. There were lots of gorgeous peach trees blooming in pink, and the color was just so bright and stunning that it made the trees seem unreal, like fake or animated trees or something. Pretty bridges and water around us I could easily imagine why the emperor spent his summers there. I mean I would, walking beside the lake and drinking some tea in the old boat building.
Great Wall was probably my favourite place there. Saying it was amazing would be an understatement, because the feeling when you’re there, seeing it all that you’ve seen before from history books and movies, is just incredible. Knowing the Wall’s history and how remarkable it is, I mean it’s the only human-made thing that can be seen from space, walking there was so surreal. Everyone had told us that ”oh, it can be sooo cold at the wall, you should really bring a lot of clothes, it can even snow there!” Oh well, it didn’t. It was probably the hottest day there, easily over 20 celsius so after 50 meters of climbing, my shirt was wet from sweating. Somehow I had expected the wall to be more flat (silly me, it’s on the mountains…) but I very soon discovered that it’s actually veeery steep. In the beginning it was so crowded with lots of tourists but as we reached higher people got fewer and fewer.
Even though I consider myself to be in quite a good shape, climbing the steep steps upwards was physically incredibly exhausting and hard. Climbing stairs isn’t exactly the exercise I’m used to doing at home. Most of the people didn’t climb all the way up, but me and a bunch of my friends decided that ”we’ve come up all this way so there’s no way we wouldn’t go right to the top.” So we did, stopping quite often to take pictures and admire the breathtaking views. And the feeling when we reached the top was just so magnificent and even though my legs were so sore, the experience and the endorphin from exercising made me feel incredible. This is what winners must feel like, I thought.
Coming back down my legs were so tired that they were shaky and I wasn’t the only one. I was practically hanging onto the trail because I just didn’t know if my legs were going to let me down any second.
It was so weird to think that we were only about 1,5 hours away from Beijing, and it felt like it was a different country. I’ve been on mountains before, like the Alps, but somehow the wall and climbing added so much into the experience. It was so unique and something I’ll never forget.
Our stay wasn’t all sightseeing, we also got to know the life of the students in Renmin High School. It’s affiliated to the Renmin University and it has than 6000 students. Coming from a school of 700 students it was quite a change. We watched the flag rising ceremony that takes place every Monday and it was maybe one of the most unbelievable events that I’ve ever witnessed. Somehow it reminded me of Hunger Games, you know the part where they choose the volunteers. 6000 students, all dressed up in their similar uniforms, gathering to the field to straight lines in about 10 minutes while some national Chinese music is playing in the background was really something to watch. Then I got the feeling that hey, I’m now really in China, a country where being true to your homeland and traditions is crucial.
Observing the lessons was so fascinating and eye-opening. The amount of work and studying they do is something unbelievable. It felt like many students’ only life is studying, they simply don’t have time for anything else. And while I admired their work and accomplishments, I also partly felt a little bad for them because I felt like many of them are missing one essential part of human life: being young. To the class where we went to we quite surprisingly got to talk about some controversial topics such as human rights and politics as well and I found those wonderful conversations so enlarging and teaching. I felt like a little window had opened for me where I got to see how some young people in China see the world, their country and most importantly the future.
There are really a lot of things wrong in China, I mean how the country is ruled, all the propaganda, environmental problems and human rights issues such as freedom of speech. And it’s easy to see things as black and white but it’s not as interesting as seeing the whole picture.
Now in Finland I’m so thankful to live here and appreciate some things I used to take for granted but still there are things that I’ll miss very much from China. I miss people. Honestly, I’ve never been ANYWHERE where people would have been more hospitable, welcoming and helpful. When I arrived I didn’t feel like a tourist, the people made me feel like I was one of them, equal. Many thanks to Katherine’s family for making me feel that way and especially her mom who completely smothered me and made me feel like their own daughter.
Another thing I’ll miss and that’s often missing from the Finnish culture, is the sense of community. I loved seeing old people gather in parks and these outside gyms to exercise, to play cards or just to spend time together. One of the most precious moments in the trip for me was in a park in Temple of Heaven area. There was this choir of both women and men singing some Chinese songs together. There was a choir director and another man playing the accordion. As a person who sings as well, it was so wonderful and touching to see that the people really enjoyed it and that singing really gave something to them. It was coming straight from their hearts: they weren’t performing to anyone, just being together and singing, without microphones or anything additional. I admire that sort of singing so much and I was so glad to see that some people still sing that way; so genuinely for their own and each other’s joy and happiness. I believe that is how people feel well in their lives, by going out and spending time together, living.
And then I should (or want to) of course tell something about the food. So the first thing I discovered is that Chinese people eat a LOT of meat, especially pork. So as a person who eats mostly just fish and plant based foods it was sometimes tricky but not too hard, you just have to be flexible. The thing I really liked was that when we were eating we had no ”own foods”, there was always this round glass ”table” on the table that rotates and everyone can take what they like, so it was pretty easy to avoid meat. I loved the seafood like shellfish and squid. There was eggplant in many dishes and it was so good and well made and marinated as also was tofu that was very common as well. Seaweed and peanuts which were in many dishes were also very delicious. One interesting experience was this way of eating called hotpot. Basically you order a broth that goes in the middle of the table where there is a little stove. Then you order all sorts of foods like meat, squid, crabs, tofu, noodles, seaweed and mushrooms and just throw what you like there and let it boil. And then dip it into a sauce and it’s ridicilously good.
I guess now it’s the part where I should sum this up and I’m really bad at putting things shortly, as you may have noticed if you’ve made it this far. So as you maybe understood, my trip and Beijing were wonderful. Also very teaching and different. It truly widened how I view the world and for me that’s the most important thing in traveling. And it was fun, too, and it was the people who made it fun. Our group was so great and we had so much fun together, so if they read this, thank you. And most of all, this is for Katherine, my sister far away, who made my trip the best it could possibly be. Thank you.
So if you are even considering going to China, please do. I can almost promise that it will teach you crazy much and show you so many beautiful things. And personally I think I’m so much more conscious now somehow, I know more. And I find that to be very important. And I’m just terribly grateful.