When we first arrived in Beijing, we were exhausted from staying up late to finish packing and from the emotion of saying good-bye to our families and friends in Xi’an. We were counting down the days until we could see our families and friends back in Brookline. But it was not long before we got swept up in the excitement of seeing Beijing’s famous sites.
Straight from the airport, we visited the Summer Palace on a beautiful, clear afternoon. We walked along the famous long corridor and took a boat ride across the lake. Next, we went to Olympic park, where we saw the “Bird’s Nest” stadium lit up by the setting sun.
The next morning, we went to the Temple of Heaven, where Ming and Qing emperors prayed for a good harvest. In the park, we saw Chinese people exercising and singing revolutionary songs. Next, we shopped for souvenirs at the Pearl Market, putting our Chinese skills – and our bargaining skills – to good use.
That afternoon, we saw Tiananmen Square, which is more expansive than I imagined – our tour guide Kelly said that when her friends tell her she’s thin, she jokes that it’s from walking around the square – and we were all excited to take photos in front of the iconic portrait of Mao hanging outside the Forbidden City. Inside, we wandered through the spacious courtyards of the palace and learned about the lives of the Ming and Qing emperors. Since Beijing’s history as a capital is so much more recent that Xi’an’s, its historic sights are more well preserved, so it is easier to imagine the events that took place there.
On our third day in Beijing, we took a trip north to see the Great Wall. It would be impossible to exaggerate the impact of this stunning architectural feat. The wall curves up and down over green mountains as far as the eye can see in both directions. We panted up the steep stairs, pausing at the watchtowers to take in the view, as butterflies flitted around us. After our climbing, we took toboggans down the side of the mountain!
We then returned to the city to visit the 798 Art Zone, an area Beijing that is totally different from anything else we saw in China. Once a factory complex, it is now home to a thriving art scene, full of contemporary art galleries, shops selling unique handicrafts, and trendy cafes.
The next day, we spent the morning in one of Beijing’s famous hutongs, the old neighborhoods full of courtyard homes. We went on a rickshaw tour and had lunch in a family’s home. In the afternoon, we learned about Beijing’s unique local culture at the Capital Museum.
For our final full day in China, we did not have a tour guide, so we decided to visit the Dandelion School, a middle school in the south of Beijing for the children of migrant parents. We watched the students sing and demonstrate their morning exercises, then we performed our dance for them. We toured the school, had lunch with a seventh-grade class, and taught them some English songs.
Beijing was a fitting capstone to our trip. We had many opportunities to use our language skills and see how much we had improved our Chinese. We also got to enjoy Chinese food one more time before heading back to the states; we devoured huge bowls of traditional Beijing noodles and feasted on roast duck.
And though we enjoyed all the “must-see” sites, we also used our free time to go beyond the well-worn tourist paths. Several of us visited with Chinese friends who live in Beijing, and a group of girls went to a Friday night service at a Jewish community center. The boys explored Beijing in a different way by doing some geo-caching, and Sophie, Olivia and I took advantage of a Brookline connection and visited Bamboo Bicycles Beijing, an organization started by a CHEX alumnus.
By the end of the trip, though we were still excited to get home to our families, we had fallen in love with China again through our time in Beijing. The most frequent farewell we got was “you are welcome to come back to China again.” I for one, am excited to go back.