In August I was selected to go to Beijing on a three-week Study China programme, run by the British Council for undergraduate students across the UK.
Seeing as I had never travelled beyond Europe before, I was excited by the offer and jumped at the chance to experience something completely new and outside my comfort zone!
Despite not knowing anyone going, leaving behind family and friends for three whole weeks and the extremely hot weather forecasts (those that know me know that I am terrible with heat/sun) I booked my flights as soon as I could and didn’t look back.
And I am so glad I went because Beijing is simply completely out of this world!
The 3,000-year-old city is traditional yet vibrant, a place slow and fast simultaneously, and despite spending a whole three weeks there, I felt I had barely enough time to scratch the surface of this phenomenal city.
Here’s a summary (I tried to keep it short!) of what I got up to during my time in Beijing and some helpful tips if you are thinking of visiting this bizarre beautiful and brilliant city.
Beijing Normal University
The study aspect of the programme was fantastic – we were put up in a 4* hotel on campus, made friends for life (shoutout to Beth, Izzy, Boney and Emily!) and had some amazing teachers who encouraged us to utilise our experience and go and explore the city!
We attended Mandarin lessons most mornings, with Tai Chi and Calligraphy lessons every now and then, and had weekly tests to check our understanding and progress.
Another culture experience was that we got to spend a day with a Chinese family! We visited their house, met their families and cooked dumplings together. It was cute and a great way of experiencing the culture for ourselves.
We also took part in a class performance at the closing ceremony to showcase our new language abilities – our group sang a classical Chinese song called ‘The Moon Represents My Heart’.
Here is an official youtube version of the song – much better than our version by miles!
Somehow, I managed to graduate the scheme with 97.5% – yet I cannot speak a word of Mandarin now that I am back in England.
I am so glad I went to Beijing on a study abroad scheme – it allowed me to live in a culture completely different to my own and offered so many unique experiences that I simply would’ve missed out on if I was just travelling. I urge everyone to go on a study abroad scheme if they ever get the chance!
I must admit, I love a good zoo.
Founded in 1906, Beijing Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in China, and has a collection of rare animals’ endemic to the country – such as PANDAS.
After managing to negotiate a student ticket and admission to the panda house and sampling the most disgusting ice lolly in the world (Pea flavoured?!), I got to see them and they were awesome!
Rolling around, eating bamboo, they looked so content with life.
However, I wish I could say the same about the other animals in the zoo. The majority looked bored, and not well kept, with little room and next to no vegetation. Another drawback of the zoo was that I was constantly photographed!
Being tall and blonde, I was slightly creeped out by the constant staring and pointing, but found it bizarre people wanted to take photos of me and with me. I could almost empathise with the animals that were being hassled and stared at!
I left the zoo sunburnt, harassed and regretting my decision to go there in the first place.
Tip – I would not recommend the zoo to anyone visiting Beijing. I suggest a visit to the Panda Sanctuary in Chengdu nstead if you have time, as the money goes towards the care of the Pandas rather than upkeep of the place.
One night we visited Houhai, a large artificial lake, located in Xicheng District of central Beijing, that is famous for its surrounding bar street, traditional courtyards and restaurants.
Whilst on the hunt for dinner, I came across the cutest fan shop and simply had to treat myself to one! Its pattern reminded me of the traditional Chinese rural setting and I thought it the perfect souvernier for myself.
We spent the rest of the night drifting in and out of the bars, watching bands perform and taking photographs of the beautiful scenery. The place was vibrant and filled with local youths and tourists, meaning that whilst we did attract some attention, we were more than comfortable walking around the lake, soaking in the atmosphere and listening to the local talent.
Tip – The restaurants and bars are slightly expensive as it is a touristy place. I would recommend a visit to Wudaokou, a student area in Beijing, which is a lot cheaper and full of bars!
I have always wanted to see a Chinese acrobatic show and luckily for me, the Study China programme had arranged for a trip to us all to see one at the Chaoyang Theatre Acrobatic Show.
Performing were the National Acrobats of The People’s Republic of China – one of the longest running and most distinguished circus tropes in China.
And boy did they impress – ranging from skilful to daring, the troupe performed nail biting and super human physical feats in creative choreographed routines that make you gasp in awe at and think, is that even possible?
Tip – You must watch an acrobatic show when in China – they are some of the best performers in the world and will shock/excite you all in one go!
Seeing as we were in Beijing we had to stop by Tiananmen Square (also known as ‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’) and get a selfie with Mao.
The city square is the third largest city square in the world and is where Mao famously proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Subsequently, it has great cultural significance as it is the site of several important events in Chinese history.
The square was bustling with people ranging from tourists to locals, who are paying their respects to Mao. Interestingly, you can visit Mao’s embalmed body for free in the Mausolean between 8am-12:00pm – though there is some debate whether it is him or not.
We decided not to (on the account of it being a bit creepy) and just settled for trying to get the perfect picture with Mao in the background and wondering around the square.
THIS WAS A BAD IDEA.
Within seconds of posing for the camera, we were bombarded by Chinese people wanting to take our photographs/have photographs with us/pointing and staring.
It all got a bit too much (it was also a really hot day – 34 Degrees Celsius!) and we quickly headed for the subway to escape the paparazzi frenzy that was beginning to form.
Tip – Go early in the morning or evening to avoid the swarm of locals wanting to take your photograph – it will also give you better photographs as less people in the background.
Also go to the toilet before setting off/ try to hold it in – the toilets here were the worst toilets I experienced during the whole of the trip, in terms of smell and cleanliness.
Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple)
If you love the smell of incense then this is the place for you!
Yonghe Temple is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet and is still an active place of worship, despite the masses of tourists that visit daily.
With magnificence decorative arches, Tibetan prayer wheels, red walled buildings and stone lions hidden by dense clouds of incense, it was easy to get lost in thought whilst wondering around and exploring the different themed prayer rooms. We certainly did!
However, it was extremely hot and we found no place on site to purchase a bottle of water, despite the numerous gift shops selling overpriced gems and incense to burn.
Oh, and it threw an unexpected thunderstorm – there wasn’t many places to shelter, since it is an extremely busy place so we ended up getting slightly wet.
Tip – Bring a brolly, bottle of water and asthma inhaler just incase.
Chinese Cooking Class
The Chinese are known for their culinary expertise and I was lucky enough to have a private Chinese cuisine cooking lesson with a 5* chef!
It was so much fun: from chatting to the host Carlye about the culture and his experiences in the capital to learning about how to cut shiitake mushrooms and the correct way to fold dumplings, I enjoyed every second of the class and got to eat some delicious dishes.
The host even provided us with the recipe to make each dish and photographed the whole evening so that we would have some pictures to remember the experience!
Tip – I would recommend going to a cooking class. You will learn so much about Chinese culture as well as sample some of the best foods you will eat during your time in Beijing!
One of the largest, oldest and best preserved ancient imperial gardens, BeiHai Park was a delight to walk through.
Said to have been built due to a Chinese legend regarding three nearby ‘magic mountains’ whose gods had herbal medicine to help humans gain immorality, it was finally opened to the public in 1925 and attracts hundreds of visitors each year.
With its large lake, beautiful scenery and selection of adorned bridges/doors/walkways, it was a sanctuary of peace for us that offered us an escape from the bustling city for an afternoon – despite being situated in the heart of the capital city.
Tip – Go during the day if you wish to climb up to the White Dagoba – nothing worse than climbing all the way to the top to find out it is shut!!
Great Wall Of China
Organised by the Study China trip, we visited the Great Wall of China early one morning. A place I’m sure many of you have heard of!
It was boiling hot and we were at Juyongguan, a section with the reputation of being the steepest!
I took it easy, given the heat and steepness, and progressed up the wall at my own pace, stopping along the way to take photographs and soak in the history of the place.
The surrounding views were magnificent and the idea that this was all built without modern technology simply blows your mind, especially when you realise the scale for yourself in person.
My friend Izzy nearly fainted off the wall at one point, which wasn’t very funny at the time, due to the heat and smog. We must have looked a sight to the Chinese people who were casually strolling up the steps without so much as a sweat!
Nethertheless, I loved my time at the wall, despite its challenging nature, and would happily go back and climb it (although maybe a less steeper section) again.
Tip – Take plenty of water and perhaps a towel to soak up the sweat! It is a physical exercise, rather than a gentle stroll – also don’t wear makeup as it’ll just sweat off!!!
798 Art District
What a place!
China’s answer to Camden, 798 Art District is where all the cool artsy people go and hang out.
Every street corner has something drawn on it and shops and galleries are everywhere, exhibiting a range of weird and wacky artwork that really makes you think!
Unfortunately, as we went later in the day, things were starting to shut, which was a shame as I could’ve easily spent an entire day wondering around the different sections (A, B, C, D, E).
Tip – Go early and explore as much as possible! There are lots of galleries so have a google and see which you think are worth paying entry for!
Despite getting 3 and a half hours sleep and wandering around still drunk, I was amazed by how impressive the Forbidden City looked.
A Chinese imperial palace dating from the Ming Dynasty, it is the largest ancient palatial structure in the world and the culmination of traditional Chinese architectural accomplishment.
It is in the center of Beijing and is a sight to behold, with a maze of bright red buildings with gold elaborate rooftops as far as the eye can see.
However, I found the Forbidden City experience overall a bit disappointing!
It was incredibly busy, as was to be expected, but it ruined the atmosphere of such a huge spectacular site.
Tourists were in every nook and cranny, making it hard to move around and the Chinese people were very ignorant – when they swarmed us for photographs, which we declined (it was way too hot to stand around!), they reacted in disgust and annoyance, rather than understanding why we didn’t want to stand out in the sun and burn.
It just felt overpriced and touristy rather than authentic. Nethertheless, I am glad I went but I wouldn’t hurry back for a while.
Tip – Try and go during off-peak times to avoid the crowds and explore as much as possible!
A vast ensemble of lakes, palaces and gardens, we visited the Summer Palace, the Imperial family’s summer retreat, to relax one Sunday afternoon.
The place was full of pretty promenades, ever changing scenery and lakes filled with Lotus flowers, making it very idyllic to stroll around. We even hopped on a boat ride around Kunming lake to soak in the views!
Personally, I enjoyed the Garden of Virtuous Harmony best. Inside it houses a large theatre building where the Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi watched performances from the Peking Opera. The place was built in honour of her 60th birthday – how romantic!
However, the Summer Palace was also slightly disappointing for a similar reason to the Forbidden City – it was swarming with people.
For instance, trying to walk down the Long Corridor was like queuing to pay in Primark – simply chaotic!
The food was also expensive and overpriced and we fell into the trap of purchasing some simply because we didn’t fetch any snacks with us!
Tip – Buy the ticket that allows you to access all the different gardens as once you are inside you cannot upgrade your ticket anywhere! It is worth doing as every garden contains something slightly different and the ticket covers all the main gardens.
Temple of Heaven
Perhaps my favourite temple in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is an imperial complex of religious buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing.
The grounds are HUGE and there is plenty to see, from the Circular Mound Altar of Heaven – where emperors mediated before proceeding to pray to the gods for good harvest, to the Imperial Vault of Heaven where ceremonial tablets were stored.
Interestingly, the Vault is nicknamed “The Echo Wall” as its shape allows sound to travel much further than normal. How funky!
Moreover, the complex has a dual purpose – it is not only a place for tourists to come and wonder at the religious significance but functions as a playground for residents.
I lost count of the amount of people playing cards or practising Tai Chi as I wonder around the vast gardens and soaked in the smell of freshly cut grass.
It just felt very calm and relaxed here – compared to the hectic Lama Temple – which is why I probably preferred it.
That and I didn’t get asked once for a photograph (hurray!)
Tip – I visited mid-afternoon on a Monday and it was dead. Also take a bottle of water with you as I didn’t come across any places to grab snacks or drinks!
So that is just a snippet of what I got up to during my time in Beijing.
I had the most incredible time and cannot wait until I can afford to go back again – it is simply the most bizarre, beautiful and brilliant place I have visited and I urge everyone to add it to their bucket list!!
Hope you enjoyed reading it (sorry for the length!) – as always, let me know below!