First Impressions: Beijing

Written by Christopher Vandiford, (Middlebury College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Beijing, Fall 2015

For those who have never used the subway system in Beijing, China, trying to take rail line two to the Beijing Train Station is the equivalent of trying to buy the last television set on sale during Black Friday.

Beijing Train Station

Beijing Train Station

Fortunately, this last weekend my group of eleven classmates and I made it to the train station just in time for the 1:15 departure to Hebei, a rural province on the outskirts of Beijing. After a long day of travel, we were relieved to be greeted by a warm host family and a traditional home cooked meal. Steamed cabbage cooked in some sort of vinegar, fried eggplant, which turned out to be my personal favorite, soup, rice, noodles, chicken, green beans, pork, eggs, fried bread, and of course toped off with Coca-Cola (pronounced Kuh-luh) all lay before us. Everything was family style which means dishes were brought out in large platters and placed in the middle of the table. This also means that all “double-dipping” phobias go out the window. Everyone simply uses their chopsticks to grab what they want from the platters and help themselves to additional servings.

After several generous helpings of fried eggplant, I made my way back to the bedroom to get ready for bed. Out of habit, I jumped up onto the bed, a decision I immediately regretted as I was received by a mattress consisting of a wooden board and a sandbag for a pillow. Despite the lack of give, exhaustion took over and I dozed off to sleep, waking once to one of my American classmates speaking Chinese to negotiate food prices in his sleep, a testament to the effectiveness of our language pledge to avoid speaking English. The second time I awoke was to our alarm clock, which had been promptly set for 4:00 AM. Our groggy group slowly crawled out of bed and, while avoiding using English, mumbled out with what Chinese vocab we could our disdain for such an early wake up call (I won’t include any of those translations here).

We assembled our group and then followed our host “Old Chen” off towards the mountains to start our hike. Flashlights in hand we made our way through small trails until we found ourselves at the base of the mountains. With the morning light just beginning to brighten our surroundings, I could begin to see the outline of a wall along the ridge of the mountainside. We began the ascent and climbed and hiked with the rising morning light. Over rocks and through the trees our aching feet were propelled forward by the excitement of our intended destination.

Sunrise from the Great Wall of China

Sunrise from the Great Wall of China

Then at 5:51 AM my winded classmates and I made the final few steps to the summit at the precise moment to catch the first glimpses of the sun creeping over the mountain tops. With our surroundings fully lit, I looked back to see the entirety of the Great Wall of China stretching over the mountains as far as I could see. Without exaggeration, it was the most incredible sight I have ever seen. To my left, I could see the rising sun over downtown Beijing, and to my right was nothing but cascading mountains and the extending Great Wall all the way off towards Mongolia. I yelled out with excitement, high fived classmates, and of course, took a jumping photo to prove our feat.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

My first impressions and experiences here in Beijing have all followed this same course. Whether it is learning to navigate the subway or simply ordering a meal, I am forced to leave the confines of my comfort zone. I leave the dorm each day faced with a new variety of unforeseen outcomes, but much like our hike, each progressing day becomes a little bit lighter and a little bit clearer. I look forward to the road ahead!