A Beginner’s Guide to the Beijing Subways

There are over 12 million people living within the urban areas of Beijing, and if you extend that to include suburban Beijing as well, the numbers will jump to over 20 million. There are a number of different ways to calculate and rate cities in terms of their populations, but no matter how you calculate it, Beijing usually finds a way into the top ten. According to Wikipedia, in rating the most populous cities using the concept of city proper, Beijing ranks number 3 in the world, following Shanghai at number 1 and Istanbul at number 2.

Just to reiterate, there are a LOT of people in Beijing. Always. No matter where you are – no matter what you are doing – no matter the time of day, there are people around simply because they are everywhere.

One of the best ways to experience just how crowded it is in Beijing is to take a ride on the subways during rush hour. If you hop on the subways during non-rush hour, by most standards the subways will still be crowded. However, if you have the unfortunate chance to take the subways during rush hour (下上班:”when people are going to or getting off work”), you will…well…you will definitely have an experience in store.

I really can’t describe how crowded the subways can get. In the states, they would never allow a carriage to move filled with that many people. It just wouldn’t happen. But in Beijing, while the subway is expansive and expanding all the time, it still cannot meet the demands of the city’s people. Slowly it seems that the idea of “queuing up” seems to be catching on, but it is still a loosely held courtesy, and as soon as things get hairy, the lines fall into mobs of people pushing feverishly to board the subways. At every subway door, there is usually a trained subway worker there to help the process of guests getting off and guests getting on move more smoothly. Sometimes, however – when there are just too many people – they spend their time pushing people into the subway carriage and then trying to get the automatic doors to close so the subway can continue on its way.

It’s an exciting, and often terrifying, way to travel around the city.

For the subway newcomer, here are some key points of advice I have put together to make your first ride in a crowded subway car a little more bearable during rush hour:

1)     GET TO A HAND RAIL: Often times the subway carriage will be so crowded that, like sardines in a sardine jar, you might think that being tightly pinned between your fellow subway riders is enough to keep you standing. Good and well-intended logic, but an inherently flawed assessment. The subways are prone to sharp jerks and stops, phenomenona which tightly packed crowds of people seem more vulnerable to – indeed, without the ability to move your feet for balance, the crowds sway and sometimes during the worst cases, people will fall over to be knocked into the walls or bars of the carriage. BUT – problem easy solved! Make any and all efforts to GRAB A HANDRAIL!

2)     THE BOX-OUT TECHNIQUE: Once you have managed to board the subway, you might think that the difficulty is over – NOPE! At every stop there will be a jostle of people getting off and a jostle of even more people trying to squeeze their way on. This is a technique that has taken me months to master, but I call it the BOX-OUT TECHNIQUE. When you are being squished ever closer and tighter to your fellow subway riders, the trick is to claim your territory – stick out your elbows, bend your knees to make yourself a little wider, and broaden your shoulders. In essence, BOX OUT the territory just around you. That way, when the subway finally gets moving again and there are no more people trying desperately to squeeze aboard, you will not be left SUPER SUPER SUPER squished, only mildly discomforted by the 20-or-so people squeezed against you.

Note: During especially crowded rush hours, this technique is less effective. When it’s really bad, just put your hands in your pockets and casually stick out your elbows. This is just to monopolize the room you need for basic functions, i.e. breathing!

3)     PLAN YOUR GETAWAY: Some subway stops are more popular than others! If you are getting off at one of the less popular ones, plan on preparing to get off long before you actually arrive. If you don’t, you WILL miss your stop. Ask the people around you if they are getting off at the next stop ( 下车吗?xià chē ma?), and slowly begin the arduous process of making your way towards the door.

4)     WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO: Just follow the crowd. You will not be considered rude, out of line, or inconsiderate for acting as the rest of the thousands of subway-goers do. This includes waiting in line. As said before, queuing is a relatively new phenomenon, so if the queue dissolves, be prepared to fight with the mob to get on board and don’t worry about it!

Christmas in China

My first Christmas away from home was successful! Because the semester ends on January 5th, we are in the middle of finals right now, which meant that going home for the holidays just wasn’t in the cards. The demands of work and school have made the past several weeks seem to fly right by, and before I knew it, Christmas was right around the corner. As to be expected, Christmas is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in China. However, more and more young people in China observe Christmas (either religiously or just with holiday spirit) so there were decorations, parties, and festivities to be had for my first holiday away from home!

Christmas trees sprouted in the most unusual places – in store shop windows, shopping squares, and curiously in the entryway of my lecture hall. In the week before Christmas, Wudaokou (the main shopping district near BLCU) was decorated with some of the fanciest lights I’ve ever seen! If nothing else, the Chinese are very enthusiastic about Christmas lights. They are everywhere, and they brighten even the darkest, coldest nights in Beijing.

So, swapping Christmas ham for dumplings, a family celebration for one with a bunch of my Chinese friends, and opening Christmas presents for sending Christmas cards and e-mails, my holiday was both untraditional and unconventional, but I had a fantastic time and it was an experience that I will certainly never forget.

圣诞快乐!(Merry Christmas!)

Autumn Alumni Reunion Recap

As anyone who has studied abroad will tell you, the experiences, the places, and the adventures are among some of the most unforgettable aspects of any study abroad program. However, undoubtedly one of the most memorable parts of any experience abroad is the people you share these experiences with. Lotus Educational Foundation’s study abroad programs bring people together from all over the world. After our time in China, we all return to our respective homes with our memories and experiences together – and while modern technology has allowed us to keep in contact with relative ease via e-mail and Skype, somehow when we’re brought back together, it’s easy to fall in step again and feel like no time has passed at all.

While reunions are difficult given the international scope of Lotus’ reach – people from all over the world come together to study in Beijing through Lotus – it is an exciting thing to be apart of when they can happen. Recently, Lotus Educational Foundation hosted an alumni reunion in Washington D.C. Joined by Lotus alumni, their friends and family, and students interested in studying with Lotus in the near future, over 40 people attended to discuss their experiences and learn more about what Lotus Educational Foundation has been up to in the international community.

With new programs on the agenda for next year, alumni from a variety of different past programs, and students interested in studying in China in the future, the reunion was a wild success. Alumni had fun sharing and swapping stories – students interested in studying abroad learned more about Lotus – and some of Lotus’ directors had a chance to talk about some of the exciting things ahead for the non-profit study abroad organization. Indeed, it was such a good time that we have hopes to host another reunion soon!

Check out some of the pictures!

 

HSKing

Beijing Language and Culture University has been around since the early 1960s, when it emerged as the first university to specialize in teaching Chinese to foreigners. Since then, the university has grown and undergone many significant changes – it now offers a multitude of languages to Chinese students and foreigners alike and offers a variety of postgraduate degrees as well. As to be expected, BLCU is involved in a variety of research in regards to the acquisition of language, specifically with regards to Chinese as a second language, and it is this effort that has allowed many of my classmates and I the chance to take the HSK for free.

The 汉语水平考试 (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is the internationally recognized standardized test with regards to Chinese. With the release of a “New HSK” there are two commonly recognized formats of the test (predictably the “new” and the “old” HSK). In exchange for answering a simple questionnaire for basic statistical research, we get to take the HSK for free!

With the end of the semester approaching, I already have several Chinese tests on the horizon. So, why not throw in one more? My brain is overloaded with characters already (courtesy of our impending oral and written finals for class), so shoving a couple more in there definitely won’t hurt. The test is on a Sunday morning – I’m steeling myself for several long days of study before Sunday hits!

Capital Museum

There was a big group of us going for an afternoon at the Capital Museum. While I’ve been to many of the famous sites throughout Beijing, I had yet to go to the Capital Museum – which I found a curious oversight on my part, seeing as how Chinese history is over 5000 years old and there is a wealth of both interesting and beautiful artifacts to explore.

A professor and two graduate students of philosophy joined us for our excursion. All three were fun to talk to, and we had a good time looking around the various exhibits and using a combination of Chinese and English to explore our thoughts about them.

Particularly beautiful were the featured works of calligraphy and Chinese painting. I had a really interesting discussion with one of the graduate students about the nature of Chinese painting and calligraphy. He described that it was often much deeper than Western art. Where realism is often a tool of Western artists to convey a meaning or idea, he described that Chinese paintings are mostly intended as an expression of “feeling” and “interpretation” much more than realism. Regardless, the art was beautiful, and it was enlightening to hear other opinions and thoughts on the work we encountered.

Excursion to the Llama Temple

Our visit to the Llama Temple fell on a brisk, bright day. Beijing has a habit of short-lived rainstorms, and while the rain brings about complaints along with a wild rush of street vendors trying to sell an umbrella to the unfortunate commuter, I love it when I wake up to a rainy day. Not only does it make me feel more at home (Seattle’s often harsh characterization as a city built beneath constant cloud cover and drizzle (drizzle in Chinese: 毛毛雨,  pronounced máo máo yǔ) is a well-deserved one), but rainstorms send the smog running in Beijing. The days following rain showers are always bright, clear, and beautiful. So, bright and beautiful, albeit bitter, bitter cold – we embarked on the subway to the Llama Temple.

It was a very small group of us touring the Lllama Temple, which I found fantastic because it allowed each of us more time to work on our Chinese and ask as many questions as we could. Zoe brought along a list of common phrases in Buddhism and their English translations – not only profound and wise suggestions for a peaceful, enlightened life, most of them were lyrically beautiful as well.

The cold hadn’t scared away any visitors. The temple was awash with the potent smell of incense – it was calming to stroll throughout the many courtyards with incense burning all around as people prayed. We were also quite lucky with our timing; a group of new monks was practicing chanting in one of the halls, and so we crowded in with other guests to listen to the harmony of their voices rising and falling as one.

The spiritual and historical nature of the Llama Temple was one that I found enchanting. It was an absolutely beautiful site to visit, and I plan to return before I leave Beijing.

Here are some of the phrases we learned:

知足常乐

zhīzú cháng lè

Happy is he who is content.

 

助人为乐

zhùrén weílè

take pleasure in helping people

 

有缘千里来相会 无缘对面不相识

yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì wúyuán duìmiàn bù xiāng shi

Fate brings us together even we are thousand miles apart; but if we are not destined to meet, though we are face to face, we may not be acquainted with each other.

 

 

 

Countryside Exploring

This past weekend I ventured out on another fabulous hike with the Beijing Hikers Club. We hiked a loop through the Spring Valley, starting and ending at a small village called Sancha, where our gracious guide treated the lot of us to a delicious meal after our 12 kilometers trough the rolling valley.

The scenery was a sharp contrast to the beauty of my last hike – there was none of the lush, green trees along the hills and mountainside. Rather, the landscape was painted in varying shades of matted brown and muted green at best. Even so, however, the beauty of the hike was not one to be forgotten. The day was crisp and clear – cold by all standards, but it was a fantastic reprieve from the city air in Beijing. The valley was filled with rows upon rows of what was a vaguely lavender-smelling flower, and while late autumn had dried them all up, they still tossed around their smell in the afternoon air, making the valley even more fragrant.

An outdoor enthusiast back home, I love the chance to get out of the city. Beijing is full of culture and excitement so that there is never a boring moment, but I miss the chance to get outside. The countryside of China is beautiful, and so it’s an excuse to get out and do some exploring!

 

Excursion to the Summer Palace

Beijing has no shortage of destinations for the tourist to explore. With so much culture and history, the city is littered with historic sites – from temples to gardens to palaces. One of my favorites is The Summer Palace (颐和园), a magnificent garden originally built for the one of the Qing dynasty’s ruling emperors. With a lake, rolling hills, and awe-inspiring architecture, it truly is a sight to see and should not be missed for anyone spending any amount of time in Beijing.

Lotus Educational Foundation led the afternoon outing to The Summer Palace, which was fantastic because Zoe and Linda (employees here at LEF) had been there several times before and were able to give us an unparalleled tour of the garden grounds. Although the weather was overcast and cloudy, the sites did not disappoint. I enjoyed trying to read as many characters as I could (helped along gently by Zoe and Linda whenever I would falter) and the short hike up Longevity Hill for a sweeping look over the entire garden was absolutely spectacular.

The various buildings, shrines, and artwork throughout the garden are really marvelous. The lake was speckled with paddle-boats and canoes for the more adventurous and even had some people reclining, sipping tea on the fancier tour boats. I especially enjoyed the giant marble boat (no longer up and running) that somehow used to maneuver its way across the water.

Alumni Reunion

While living in Beijing has left no shortage of excitement, I will admit that I feel a pang of home sickness when I think about the next couple weeks back in the states. Halloween, while certainly one of the most bizarre holidays both in origin and celebration, never fails to disappoint.

Furthermore, Lotus Educational Foundation has some excitement going on back in the home in the next couple weeks as well. The Alumni Reunion, which is being held on November 6th in Washington D.C., sounds like it will be an exciting opportunity for students who have studied with Lotus before. Having studied with Lotus before and now working as an intern for them here in Beijing, I would love to be able to attend.

I would encourage alumni to attend if possible. Family and friends are welcome to come along and dinner will be provided. Check out the invitation by just clicking on the link below!

Alumni Reunion Invitation

A Trip to the Senior Centre

My first volunteer excursion with Lotus involved a trip to the nearby senior centre by bus to visit, chat with and generally entertain the elderly folks who live there.

This particular day was chosen as it was the 重阳节 (Chóngyáng jié – Double Ninth Festival), which as of 1989 has also been known as ‘Seniors’ Day’, when the elderly should be visited and should enjoy themselves.

The first activity upon our arrival was to give balloons to the elderly and play with them. The game essentially involved hitting the balloons back and forth, and whether they were cherishing them, hitting them back or just popping the balloons, the elderly folks seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Next came the entertainment. Each volunteer performed a routine for the elderly spectators. One was Taijiquan, one was a violin recital, a few people demonstrated their superb solo vocal skills while I myself joined in with a group rendition of 北京欢迎你 (Beijing Welcomes You). It wasn’t only us that performed however, as a few of the elderly folks also gave a performance of some kind. Following this, it was cake time, as all the seniors with birthdays in the last three months were wished happy birthday with a huge cake and celebration – a truly heart-warming sight.

After this the seniors retired to their rooms, and it was time for the volunteers to visit each room with gifts of bananas and apples. They all seemed thoroughly thrilled to see us, and I even had the pleasure of meeting one lady who said she 110 years old!!