Beijing, TUESC: Blue G Take Charge!

Cue the Class Trip!

 

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A few weeks into Camp, the Blue G group teams up with another class to take us Volunteers on a trip to the nearby Temple of Heaven, and the Beijing Hutongs. Dan, Christine and teacher, Cindy joined our Blue G teacher Jennifer, Stefan, my co-volunteer and myself as we toured Beijing with out students –  Cue Class Trip!!

Blue G had everything down to a T, from note-cards with readings describing the history of the 15th century building to the symbolic architecture in excellent English, especially by comparison to the rather bizarre translations given on the public signs, and in addition, carried rucksacks of speciality treats for hungry teachers!

I managed to escape the hoards of tourists, foreigners and Chinese alike, to snap a few shots of the Temple on its own… I can only imagine how tranquil and silent it must have lay until the original harvest ceremonies performed by the Emperors.

Now it’s quite crowded.

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As we headed into the Hutongs of Beijing, we soon realised the depth of preparation our classes had gone into as we were split into five groups and handed a bundle of photographs and a camera: we weren’t about to get off easy as our students tested out tenacity and endurance of Beijing summer heat with a Hutong treasure hunt!

The Hutongs themselves are a one-story maze of traditional Chinese courtyard architecture separated into neighbourhoods; a strange time-warp of history, not preserved, but living. The Hutongs are packed tightly with small grey-brick houses, the contents of which splay onto the surrounding streets: chickens, cartons, washing lines and old, stained vested men hunched over mahjong gesticulating with abandoned, plastic flip flops – barefoot.

Some tight alleyway doors are opened, giving brief glimpses into a cool, shaded life; a woman washes her vegetables in a worn, red plastic tub; a small child, jet bowl of hair, squats beside a docile white rabbit; a tiny, floral patterned 阿妈 ( (Āh mā) fans herself with a child’s cartooned fan. Others are tightly shut, windows curtained, front step swept and lintels hanging faded red 門聯 (ménlián) from the New Year. There are no personal bathrooms behind these low-beamed, red doorways, and instead residents from a block will share a public toilet and washing facility.

It’s hot and sticky, and our curious team of Hutong explorers have many a trailing eye following our path through these sharp turning streets as we search for the originals of our photograph clues. The winning team will take a new photo, with the clue, at the original clue site and return to the meeting point once all five clues are solved. There are moments of desperation, and even flickers of weakness, until at last we make all five clues and return, last.

Green tea ice-creams all round!

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Beijing, TUESC: Camp does the Great Wall

The Great Wall

Mu Tian Yu

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Hot. Misty. Muggy.

The wall is a restored section.

We decided to walk up.

These are all bad things.

However there’s a donkey on the wall! He’s not looking particularly happy with his Great Wall of China experience, and to be honest, neither am I. Probably not the best day for it, but I’m paradoxically enjoying being mildly grumpy and too hot to be comfortable. Grateful, none the less, that the Summer Camp has organised our trip to the world-renowned Great Wall! The entire camp of volunteers and teachers, split up into several luxury coaches have been schlepped up to the base camp of the Wall and left to wander for three hours.

We decide to walk up, for the full experience –  one which I don’t regret in hindsight, but relished little on the uphill. I’m not that unfit, but have a tendency to turn a spectacular colour of scarlet in heat.

And it was hot.

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The weather, and by weather I mean perpetual overcast with cloud, means that we can’t see very far from the Wall itself. But it does give – the less tourist crowed areas of the wall –  a touch of the mysterious. And certainly this section, restored to its full glory is nothing short of stunningly impressive; our climb up proves what a powerful and seemingly impregnable boarder the wall provided. Even more so in it’s contextual era. I’ve heard great stories of climbing unrestored sections and camping on the wall (all of course, not strictly allowed) and would definitely recommend second-hand to other adventurous travellers with more time to spare.

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I’m pretty happy to get this muggy wall experience checked off, and clamber back in the air-conditioned coaches.

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China: Flowers, TUESC

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This wouldn’t be my photoblog if I didn’t stick in some photos of flowers.

How beautiful are these pink beauties?

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of taking photographs of them.

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Beijing, TUESC: The Summer Palace

A Note On Pollution

I’m getting blasé about the sheer level of smog/overcast/pollution here in Beijing and even looking at the U.S. State Air Quality Guide – constantly assuring me the concoction of chemicals in the air I’m breathing in is a big fat red ‘Unhealthy’ – is something that I’ve resigned myself to as being consistently depressing. Most of my fellow Brit volunteers have a mild cough, with one insisting he’s snot is black with pollution.

Not really feeling like checking the medical accuracy of this fact myself, I’ll just report it here and leave it to your readerly decision on its possible validity.

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Summer Palace

However, this weekend the girls have braved the sweltering Beijing summer heat on a rare, what sort-of could be classified as clear, day to explore the city’s Summer Palace!

From the elderly gentlemen practicing water calligraphy that evaporates almost instantly from the stone grey paving round the lake (which I half-expect to be steaming in this Saharan temperature), to the Chinese hawkers selling hats (with remarkable English speaking skills) and actors in full traditional regalia including beard, it’s a cultural paradise enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

Even in the smouldering heat, the boats on the lakes make small circles loaded with barely shaded tourists and the heat burdened ant-lines of marching tourists make their way to the steps of the Palace itself, located a 15-20min walk up steep steps – depending on your relative fitness and willingness to swim with sweat.

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Thank goodness I was in excellent company, Emma and Ellie ♥ Exeter travel companions!

Suggestions:
Pick a non-weekend, and go in winter.

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Light relief!

Three wide-eyed girls and the cutest, chubby Chinese triplets known to man. I’ve actually never seen triplets before. We were innocently ‘Aww-ing’ and ‘Ahh-ing’ watching these little guys being attacked by a hoard of snap-happy Chinese tourists when suddenly we found ourselves being shepherded into centre-shot – in what must have been our five minutes of Chinese fame we were trapped sitting against the back-drop of a sandy-stoned, ancient Chinese temple, being blinded by the sun and flashes of cameras that did not need to have the flash on (Chinese-tourist speciality).

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Three exhausted foreigners and their new favourite way to eat cucumbers! This lovely lady saved us from melting completely when we bought three shaved, cooled cucumbers in a stick 小黃瓜 (xiǎo huángguā) for great refreshment; brought down from near-heat stroke by the absurdity of these salad fruit, served only in slices of course, (we’re Brits, after all) on a stick was enough to warrant a snap.

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Definitely worth the trip!

…But I can’t even remember how we got home.

Too hot.

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Beijing, TUESC: Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens

When they do parks in Beijing, they really go all out.

Yesterday Emma, Ellie and I (all of us Exeter University girls!) headed out to a park not 15 minutes cycle from us; it’s just outside the east entrance to Tsinghua and was a perfect post-teaching day relaxation for three worn-out volunteers. It can be hard to muster up the enthusiasm for trips post 9am-4pm days as it takes huge amounts of enthusiasm, coaxing, encouragement and hard-work to keep next to 60 students motivated!

But a good wander round the park, however, is just what the volunteers ordered!

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The parks are not only absolutely alienly beautiful, they’re full of people! From school children to gossiping women, to old oba-san and oji-san walking arm in arm, the park is at some points along the clean paved paths bustling with Chinese talk and laughter between long, wafting fingers of the willows that tickle the crowd.

We’re drawn into a silent crowd of transfixed children and parents by one of Beijing’s ever present back-drop of hawkers and stalls; this man shows children how to blow a balloon of liquid sugar as he shapes them into animals of their request. This is a real life Willy Wonka and us girls are dumbed as the crowd listening to his heavily accented commentary. It’s something strange to see a late fourties man peddling his sugared sweets in a park, there’s something reminiscent of another age here, which he no doubt capitalises on, but it’s only really looking back at these photos that I think that. That said, his well-prepared mic and sound system bring this fabulous talent well into the 21st century.

Amazing.

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Moving away from the crowds for some peace and quiet we take some of these obvious tourist shots! And I’m mesmerised by an old man weeding glacial pond surface of pond weed – traditional style (Awwww yeah.). It looks like heavy going, but his back remains turned to us and his slow, practised movements are other-worldly.

Maybe I’m just too tired today, but everything seems a little surreal.

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Well, things don’t get much more surreal than the incessant paparazzi style photography that goes off all around us at any tourist spot. Looking foreign (given, some more than others) the girls attract all manners of sly photographs, but none in the realm of surreal as this.

A man, in full camoflague, tripod and ridiculous zoom lens, obviously originally taking nature shots, turns without a single trace of embarrassment to snap several of Emma, Ellie and I as we walk along from the pagoda. It’s impossible to miss the click of the shutter, and completely baffled, we can think of nothing better to do in retaliation than to catch this shot of our perpetrator (courtesy of Emma).

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I’m left pondering what exactly what I should have done in that situation, what I would do differently, and what kind of personal invasion of privacy I feel I’ve experienced. It happens so often here in Beijing that I’m baffled as to any power we have to stop it. I laugh, but I wish I was a law student so I could recite some rights…

Law students, do I even have any in this situation??

Another typical day in China, folks!

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Beijing, TUESC: Post-Orchestral Torrents

A Night with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra

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For a wonderful night in, the University treated us with complimentary tickets to the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in the Tsinghua campus. They played all the good ones, and it was frankly, one of most exhilarating and wonderful experiences of my life.

Thank you, TUESC.

On the way home, the heavens open with a torrential downpour, the thunder rumbling hungrily and promising lightening  – which I can’t see, as I’m being blinded by rain on my trusty bike.

It’s really something else, coming down with monsoon thickness and great painful gusts as I have not yet seen in China. Dressed for the summer heat that was appropriate until three minutes ago, and on my rickety Chinese bike pedalling furiously into darkness – my chain comes off.
Obviously.

After calling the cavalry – who have made it back to the forms already sans mechanical problems – and several well-practised attempts to fix my chain, I embrace the rain and saunter back the mile to my dorms in the orange-lit dark through warm Beijing downpour, to be met by a huge group of soaked friends, about to dash out and find me.

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The Attendees - pre-downpour!
The Attendees – pre-downpour!
The after-rain shot!

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Smiles all round. It’s been a great, fantastic, wonderful evening.

Goodnight.

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Beijing, TUESC: Food Time Cacophony

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FOOD TIME

Everyone’s rushing to get lunch in a technicolour of student cycling madness. Driven by hunger. Ruthless in traffic.

It’s lunch-time at Tsinghua University Summer Camp and we can barely keep our students in their seats till the last minute.
And with good reason.

There are at least six canteens over campus, best travelled by bicycle, each serving variations of Chinese food in building ranging from high-class, lazy-suzan and lace rooms to three floor mess halls of university appropriate din – and you want to get there fast (it’s blood-curdlingly hot), chain up your bike, bag a table and enjoy a hot plate of Asian food goodness. With students coming to Tsinghua from all over the continent, there are dishes to cater for every province and taste and with the excessive RMB on our dinner cards courtesy of Tsinghua Camp organisers, I’m aiming to try everything.

Having been in Taiwan a lot over my lifetime, I was expecting food to be a walk in the park, but even for me it was at times a frustrating trial of experimentation and error, and at others, absolute delight.

It’s saltier here than I’m used to, some dishes are particularly oily and the service is entirely English-speaking free. Forget the lack of English, the canteen staff barely have time to speak in Chinese.

It’s a nippy task of tense queue waiting (with much spectator curiosity from your Chinese queue-buddies), and random pointing at  dishes with an internal monologue that mostly consists of tense exclamation (at the contents of previously tame looking vats) , prayer (that the dish you choose is edible and non-spicy), expletives (when they refuse to ladle from the dish you want) and resignation (when you get your finished tray of food).

It’s a swift in-out of the ol’ meal card – it’s never more than around 5-6RMB per meal out here, including drinks – and you can get back to your table and heave a relieved sigh with your fellow volunteers.

Oh, and of course, it’s chopsticks and spoons only.

chopsticks.

“Everyone goes to Qing Qing Burger.”

I never went to Qing Qing Burger.

But then again, I was able to stick out the vast array of dazzling (and sometimes disarming) food on offer. For some of the volunteers, it had to be Western food, and that is on offer here too. Although word of warning – it’s easily four times the price of the chinese meal equivalent, and lots of Qing Qing Burger-goers soon ran out of their Tsinghua given cash.

My solid favourites remained the aubergine and mince, egg fried tomato and rice combo dipping in and out of various meat and veg sides, with an iced black tea.

Meal-times with an element of risk makes every good choice taste better.

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Beijing, TUESC: Tienanmen Square Tourists

Thanks Mr. Hu!

There’s no cutting corners with the volunteer’s first trip outside the safe confines of the Tsinghua University campus.

We’ve get ourselves kitted out with bikes, locks and keys from Mr. Hu (Mr. Who?) the local tough-bargaining student-bike specialist (150RMB for three weeks all-inclusive hire) and we set off to the scene of the 1989 Tianamen Square Protests.

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Tiananmen Square

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It’s a typically over cast day, and though I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see the sun, I’m fairly glad that I’m out of its rays given the current sticky heat.

We chain up the bikes at the gates of the campus (I’m feeling pretty attached to my transportation already…) and navigate the Beijing Metro to unearth ourselves by the quiet of the square. It’s literally just across the dual carriageway, but it’s a five minute roundabout way to the square’s entrance past politely round-topped fences, and when we get there, we share the space with several other Chinese tourists taking happy photos of the surroundings.

We’re the only foreigners here, and cause some hubbub by sitting wearily in a circle, resting our sagging jet-lagged backpacks in a pile on the ground. And it’s not long before our presence begins to draw attention.

We’re firstly bombarded (although mostly the English looking girls in the group) by Chinese, accents belying their own status as non-Beijing Chinese, and tourists in their own right. We are bemusedly frogmarched into photographs with their children – and them – until a blank-faced khaki guard steps down off his half meter square carpeted block and makes motions for us to move on.

Besides our careful tourist chatter of the revolts in 1989, there’s nothing of the area which would which suggest the murders of peaceful student protesters by military police, but the heavy surveillance, strictly marked walking lines and the relative inaccessibility of the square itself, make me feel like we should take the guards direction and move on.

Luckily, we bypass President Mao’s body entombed in his mausoleum by the square – and in hindsight I think I’m just as happy with the imagined knowledge of the iconography of Mao himself; certainly the other volunteers relish telling us about it.

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The City Gates

The City Gates by the square are a jarring palette of red, blue, green on a back drop of grey; flashes of bright colour in a concrete city. We traispe rather tiredly around the gates, somewhat stunned by their looming structures around which blaring taxis and bicycles and motorbikes fight on the dual lane road. In and out of the market streets, taking many breaks on huge two meter square stone blocks that have been in Beijing over four times our live span, and deciphering dubiously translated English information leaflets.

I had my first green tea flavoured ice cream today.
Ah-mazing.

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