I had the longest journey ever making my way from Hong Kong to my new home in Beijing in one day: flying into Shanghai, taking the Maglev train (it uses magnetic levitation — so fast!), the metro to Jingan, picking up the rest of my belongings from an FSO’s house, and taking the high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao to Beijing South Railway Station, and then a taxi to Wudaokou. A tiring day, but I was super excited to finally be in Beijing and start my exchange year abroad at Peking University!
Adjusting to Peking University
My first day in Beijing was Registration Day for international students at Peking University (referred to as PKU or Beida 北大 – short for Beijing Daxue – in Chinese)! I went there in the morning with my new flatmate Joe, a post-grad student from Oxford who’s also studying Chinese at PKU. We walked around the campus a little, picked up our student ID cards (which are our entire lives inside the school campus), and went to the Beida branch of Bank of China to open bank accounts (very important step for finally being able to use WeChat pay & Alipay — through which you can pay for pretty much anything & everything entirely cashless). It was kind of an overwhelming morning, but only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to PKU paperwork & admin. I still had much more admin stuff to do throughout the first two weeks, including a “health check for foreigners,” class registration, elective class registration, textbook purchase, police registration, and purchasing of many more things like insurance and rent, charging the student card for the canteens on campus, and registering for the library, etc. I also had to get a lot of stuff for my apartment, like laundry & shower supplies, some practical decor & storage, & groceries. The first night there, I met up with some Swedish students, and ended up having a super fun night out and making some quality friends! 🙂
The whole next week was essentially just meetings and admin stuff at Beida, but we were all surprisingly busy. There was a lot of waiting around and confusion as to what we were supposed to be doing, and of course, all the exchange students were all trying to meet new friends! I’m studying in the School of Chinese as a Second Language this semester, meaning most of my classes are Chinese language classes, with up to 6 credits of English-taught electives. Figuring out our class schedules was actually very confusing, as was our orientation schedule in general. It definitely helped to have other exchange student friends, so we could all navigate the confusion together, and collectively figure out where we were supposed to be & when. I was placed in the “Advanced III” class, which is the highest level Chinese language class. It will definitely be a challenge, and I’m trying to adjust to learning Chinese intensively again, but I’m hoping my Chinese level will increase a lot! My goal this semester is to pass the HSK 6 so I can take subject courses taught in Chinese next semester. My required Chinese language electives are Advanced Business Chinese, and a “Survey of China” course on culture, politics, society, etc. taught in Chinese. I’m also taking a Chinese politics class & a macroecon class in the National School of Development that I’m really excited about, so 6 classes in total this semester. Class hours here are really long compared to the US. My Chinese classes are “2 blocks” which equals 2 hours, with a 10 minute break in between. My politics class is actually 3 blocks, so 3 hours long. Blocks run from 8AM to 9PM, but luckily, I only have a few 8AMs, and my latest class ends at 6PM.
That first week had many ups & downs — or what we’ve begun to call “Bad China Days & Good China Days”. Everything is new & exciting, and making new friends and going out together has been really fun. But on the other hand, all the paperwork and bureaucratic administration is really tedious. We have to navigate not only the university regulations, but also all the procedures for foreigners living in Beijing / China in general. It’s been the cause of much stress, confusion, and time-wasting, but thankfully it’s almost all finished now. It’s also harder than expected being an exchange student vs. studying abroad with a specific program with either a group of other Americans or a group of people from the same university. I’m the only exchange student here from UVA, so I came in knowing absolutely no one with no idea what to do. So it’s sometimes tiring and downright sad trying to make new friends & figure out what to do on your own. I felt extremely lonely at times in the first week, but all my efforts seem to be paying off, and I’ve already met some really awesome new friends from all over the world.
Now we’re in the 2nd week, classes have started, and I’m absolutely loving life here. I usually use Mobike (the orange shared bikes) to get from my apartment off campus in Wudaokou to PKU, which takes about 10 minutes on a remarkably flat road. At first, it took me forever to find the class buildings, but slowly but surely I’m learning the campus. The campus itself is pretty nice. There are lots of green trees, so many bikes, and even a lake. The class buildings are fairly large, and actually nicer on the inside than expected from the outside. The Guanghua School of Management, the International Relations building, and the Second Teaching building are among my favorites. Most noticeably, there are so many Chinese students. Especially in the cafeterias. The lunch rush can be overwhelming. But campus life is very convenient. The food in the cafeterias is actually really good and really cheap, and there are a lot of options. They even have lots of fresh fruit, and are open for breakfast, lunch, & dinner! I have been eating lunch there most days and dinner there occasionally, since it’s really easy to meet up with friends there. I was really worried about not seeing my new friends during the day due to having different schedules, but since most of us are taking Chinese classes, we all usually meet at least once a day, and hang out after/between classes. It sometimes feels a bit like high school, since we’ll have classes in the same building on the same floor, and all go in the hallways to chat during our breaks. It’s a very fun & social environment.
So I already love PKU life. The vibe on campus is really great, and I’m still kind of in awe of the fact I’m here at the top university in China. I also love the international student environment. Everyone is super open to making new friends, which I love. It’s been a good balance of studying, having fun, and exploring Chinese college life together so far.
Beijing Bucket List
I created what I call my “Beijing bucket list,” or a list of 2-3 things per month I want to do in Beijing while I’m here this year (seems like a reasonable amount). I want to take advantage of the fact that I’m in Beijing, and explore the city as well as surrounding, interesting places. My September list included visiting the Summer Palace and camping on the Great Wall, and I’m happy to say I’ve already accomplished them! One night, we also met up with some other friends to go to bars in the hutong area of Beijing, which was super fun. It’s been nice to get outside the “Wudaokou/Beida bubble” and explore the rest of Beijing!
The Summer Palace 颐和园 is actually pretty close to the Beida campus in Haidian District, and used to be a summer escape for the emperor and royal family back in imperial China. It was quite peaceful for lunch and an afternoon of exploring, with pavilions, temples, a lake, and interesting architecture.
Camping on the Great Wall
This was one thing I had always wanted to do in Beijing. It just so happened that all my friends wanted to as well. We booked the trip through a group called CET, which arranged the logistics and transportation for us, and provided the camping equipment. A group of about 13 of us from PKU went, so it was quite a fun weekend.
We went by bus about an hour & a half outside of Beijing to a small village, where we began our hike to the wall, backpacks & camping gear in tote. After a steep 2 hour hike through the bush, we finally climbed a ladder up the the Wall itself. Then, we climbed further up the Wall’s steep stairs (some as big as my leg — quite the workout), to finally arrive at our campsite, where we pitched our tents, and boiled some water for our dinner of instant noodles and peanuts. We spent the rest of the night playing games, drinking an eclectic international mix of baijiu, soju, & minttu, and having a dance party! In the morning, we woke up to rain & fog, which thankfully cleared, giving us great views of the surrounding mountains. We made our way back down the Wall & the trail, had lunch in the village, and went back to Beijing. All in all, it was such an incredible experience with really awesome new friends.