Summer School in Běijīng (北京市), China

Běijīng (北京) literally means northern (北) capital (京). The name "Peking" is the official name in English and German and corresponds to the same city. I just prefer to use the Chinese name. There is also the city of Nánjīng (南京), the southern capital. Depending on how you count there are 23 million people living in Běijīng, which is completely beyond my comprehension. Compared to Wǔhàn that is just a factor 2 adding to the factor 50 Wǔhàn has to Bonn.

To really get an idea about Běijīng, compare these maps with the same scaling comparing it to Bonn. You can see that the metro area of Běijīng easily fills both Bonn and Köln and all the space in between.

Screenshots from OsmAnd with OpenStreetMap data showing the same scale.

Hotel

For the summer school in Běijīng I got a room booked at the Zhongguan Xinyuan Global Village PKU together with another student attending the school. This is the guest house of the university.

The organizers have paired me up with a Master student from Frankfurt, so it was very easy to communicate and get along while we shared the room. I wondered whether pairing up with Chinese students would have made more sense to learn more of the culture. But as there were plenty of discussion opportunities pairing the students roughly according to culture seemed to make more sense after all.

Our hotel room was significantly smaller than the one that I had in Wǔhàn for myself. We still managed, but it would have been nicer to have some more space for week two to four instead of having all that unused space in the first week.

The toilet was a very US-American style: You have to press the flushing handle for quite some time until slowly a vortex emerges. I really do not get these toilets that are filled with large amounts of water. At least we did not have a standing toilet which seem to be common in public locations in China.

One day I have tried the gym of the hotel, one just pays 10 CNY and can use all the equipment and badminton and squash courts that are there. It is below ground and fully air conditioned. While I was running on the treadmill it just hit me how ridiculous this actually is: There are many parks there where one could be running. But during the day it is so hot that it would be extremely taxing. Also with the pollution the exercise will be like smoking a full pack of cigarettes. So there I was running on an artificial running track, breathing air conditioned air and seeing artificial light ...

I have also tried running on the PKU campus. There are much less cars there and a surprising amount of parks.

One evening I went to the swimming pool of the hotel. Before they would let me swim I had to acquire a "Běijīng deep water license" though. This meant I had to pay 15 CNY and got a sheet of paper that I would have to show the life quard. Also they seemed to insist that I buy a bathing cap, which I found a bit peculiar. Their cheapest option costed 18 CNY, so I just also bought that. My room key card was taken as a deposit, I got a locker key bracelet that looks like a wrist watch. With that I went to the locker room and started to change. There was a lifeguard/janitor sitting there in the locker room, watching me. It felt just weird as I had the impression that he was watching me undress. He had brought me a pair of flip flops that he handed to me via a stick. So I presume that they have been disinfected just before. After taking the usual shower I went to the actual pool and saw that the lifeguards have a little table set up. On that table one could find a bunch of driver's license like plastic cards and a few paper sheets like the ones that I had. I just waived with it, put it there and the lifeguard signaled me to swim five lanes. This was of course rather easy in a 20 m pool, and I quickly finished it with proper turns on the side. Eventually he just signaled that it was okay. At the reception I had read that the test would also including free floating on a spot for a whole minute, but they did not make me do it. So I guess they had a pretty good sense that I would not drown and therefore just let me pass.

After that I just continued my laps, there were few other people there and I only had to share my lane with one other person. There were a few people learning to swim there. When I was finished I went to the lifeguard's table and picked up my sheet of paper. It then had some additional markings on it, as well as a red stamp. I presume that this means that I have passed.

If I had a one inch photograph of me I could also have gotten a proper plastic card that would be valid for the next three years. I really wonder why they have this measure in place. It seems to be local to Beijing as the name suggests. Perhaps they had a bunch of tragic accidents and therefore now required people to show that they can swim before letting them into pools. And "deep water" there just meant two meters, so it is not really deep, you cannot stand, though.

During the breakfasts I never really noticed music. One day one of the group pointed out that they are playing the same playlist every single day and that he is going to snap if he is going to hear that particular song one more time. Then I started listening to the music and recognized the song. The days after I could not overhear the music and noticed that the same song came up every single day. They seem to have some short playlist that is just looped endlessly. I guess since most of the people there do not understand the English lyrics they do not mind as much as I would do.

In both hotels the room service would change my towels every single day. They have an explicit dirt towels basked under the sink, yet they still change all the ones every single day. I really would like to keep my towel for a week at least. It feels like such a waste of resources. Also they have taken out the shower mat every single time, so I had to put it back into the shower every single morning. I guess it is nice, but it really feels like a waste of resources for no real benefit.

Summer school

The summer school was held at the physics department of the Běijīng Dàxué (北京大学). The building itself does not seem particularly fancy compared to all the other buildings.

We had a first lecture on Monday morning, then a photo session. In Wǔhàn there already was a group photo with all the 300 conference participants. They had set up a set of bleachers which they did not deemed too safe. They told us to not lean against the back rail. Although I thought that this would be totally unsafe and an exception, the bleachers they put up in Běijīng were rather unnerving. There was the attempt of a guardrail, some hollow poles without an end cap. There was rope taut between them, but well below my center of gravity. If I had lost my balance just for a bit, I had either impaled myself on the hollow pole, been tipped over and fell head first to the ground or suffered some other horrible injury. Luckily nobody got hurt in the process of taking the picture.

The physics building is not part of the campus, it is just slightly off to the east. We crossed the large street and entered the actual campus. Our badges have a special sticker on them which grants us access to the campus. There are guards at every entrance actually looking at them. This was a strange sensation as I have never seen a university campus that was access restricted.

The campus is very nice, on the first day after lunch we have walked to an artificial lake which gave a really great sight.

Weather

When we arrived in Běijīng and left the air conditioned train the 37 °C with high humidity hit us. It took less than a minute for me to feel horrible. The subway was air conditioned again, the walk from the subway station was in the heat again. The buildings are all air conditioned, which only made the transition worse. This aspect really felt like being in the USA where I have experienced extreme differences in temperature due to air conditioning as well.

I am not very good with direct sunlight, so I wore my likely ridiculous looking hiking hat. After everyone made their snarky comment I enjoyed the shade. Locals just carried umbrellas which seem to be the better choice.

Most days we had an UV index of 7, and everything beyond 3 means that I need to wear sunscreen. Others had similar issues, but apparently just going for lunch and back was fine for most people.

At the lecture hall they had a large stack of water bottles for us students. They were usually all taken by the end of each day.

The amount of water bottles that have been drunk during the summer school is really mind boggling. Take around 76 people there, 15 days of summer school and each drinking perhaps six bottles a day. Then you are at a staggering number of 6840 bottles. They have been collected and apparently they go into recycling. But even if that plastic is recycled, it still takes a huge amount of energy to process all that material and make new bottles from it. I am really happy that I can just drink the tap water at home and not produce plastic waste. The hotel has a sign next to the sink that explicitly states that it is no drinking water. so it seems to make sense to drink bottled water there.

The lecture hall was also air conditioned with the large appliances that blew cold air into the middle of the room from the two back corners. This made a bunch of seats having a constant draft, which is exactly what I do not want. I already caught a cold during the last days in Wǔhàn and it got worst in the first days of Běijīng. I was reminded of the worst cold that I ever had, which I got in the USA during the summer.

Although it was really sunny in Běijīng, on some days there were no really sharp shadows on some days. I am still not sure whether it was just a light overcast weather or whether that actually was light scattering from pollution in the air. The levels of PM2.5 and PM5 were usually really high during my time there.

Taken from <https://aqicn.org/city/beijing/>.

There are some people wearing breathing masks but much fewer than I have expected. Perhaps the amount of pollution is not as bad as it is on the bad days, so that could explain it. Some of the other international students voiced concerns and had the feeling that their airways were being a bit irritated but could also not differentiate between air conditioning and micro particles.

Traffic

I was very surprised to see that Běijīng has quite a bike infrastructure, at least close to the university. The campus of course is full with bikes. But just outside the campus there is a dedicated bike lane and tons of rental bikes.

The intersection at the East Gate of the university is notoriously crowded. In the morning one can wait up to four minutes (exactly) in order to pass. People do not seem to care much about the traffic lights. A red light is a mere suggestion to cross the street a bit more careful than usual. We started taking the subway tunnels to cross the street as this is much faster and more reliable.

A very interesting feature that I had only seen in some intersections in the Netherlands is a traffic light phase where most pedestrians and cyclists have a green light. This looks rather amazing.

In general I found that navigating the streets wears me out rather quickly because it works so differently from what I am used to. People cut me off all the time, I get honked at (like everyone else) and sometimes people also bump into me. This makes everything more taxing than in a Germany city where I do not have to think about the traffic. The following panoramic image might give an impression how busy this city can be.

There seem to be many competing bike rental companies having their bikes scattered everywhere in the city. I have no idea how many companies there are, but there are at least eight different companies with nine different products. The companies do not have a share for a particular part of the city, its just that there bikes from every company are abundant in the whole city. I have seen people having multiple apps on their phones such that they can just pick up any of the bikes.

Metro

The metro system is very nice in Běijīng as well. It is very accessible with everything available in English as well. The awesome thing is that Běijīng has a few ring lines and a few straight lines. This means that you can go virtually anywhere by taking the straight line, going a bit on the ring line and then going on a straight line again. As the transfers are rather painless, this means that you can get to places very efficiently.

In every subway station there is a speaker announcement every minute:

Please stand firm and hold the hand rail.

It is announced by a speaker with a Chinese accent in the English, and there was just too long of a pause between "hand" and "rail" which made me flinch every single time I heard the announcement. In the third week I really disliked being at the stations because of this perpetual announcement.

Laundry

According to a colleague there are no public laundromats to be found, even in Běijīng. This might sound strange, but apparently laundry is done by hand in the sinks at home. I do not have enough clothes for four weeks, and even if I had it would be tough to fit that into a single suitcase with not more than 23 kg weight. Packing a bit of laundry detergent and clothes line allowed me to get by just fine. The alternative would be giving clothes to the dry-cleaning service either in the hotel or in the city, but that feels like overkill for my clothes.

I bought a tube of detergent and a clothesline and brought it with a handful of pins. It turned out to be difficult to have it hang in the hotel in Wǔhàn because the only suitable suspension anchors made it hang right across the bathroom. This has been much better later in Běijīng where I could just deploy it over the bathtub (there was an additional shower that we used). One has to be careful because hand-washed items start dripping after a few minutes.

The hotel already provided a single retractable clothes line, but the capacity was not enough for the two of us. Eventually we got a letter which told us to put it down and just use the one that is supplied. Luckily we were already in the third week and did not need to wash more clothes.

As many other people have this issue the organizers of the summer school have found a laundry shop on campus where you can wash a load for 6 CNY. That is a very affordable price, though it does not include drying and one still has to come up with a way to dry the clothes.

While I was in the USA I had the impression that people were washing clothes excessively, wearing a pair of pants only for two days at a time and then washing them again. In China I have seen people wearing the same t-shirt for four consecutive days, so it seems that the perceived need for washing varies quite a lot between the countries.

Nightlife

According to a local there is not much nightlife in Běijīng. I do not really understand this for a city of this size. German cities like Hamburg or Köln have vibrant night life, and even Bonn has some. Cafes and restaurants close really early. I have been to a bar which is famous with the locals and they had live music from 22:30 to around 00:30. It seems really odd that on a Saturday night they would not have been going until like 05:00 or so.

Sightseeing

As I was legally required by the tourist statues of the internet I needed to to some sightseeing. There are so many interesting places to choose from that it is hard to pick.

Old Summer Palace

There are two summer palaces north of PKU, the large old one and the slightly smaller newer one. The older one is supposed to be nicer as tourist attraction, so I just went there first. As I have walked through the university campus to get there I saw that it was just graduation season. Just like one knows from US universities there were many graduates in cap and gown walking on the campus, together with their friends and family. People would get together for photographs, everyone just seemed very happy there.

One needs to buy a ticket in order to enter the old summer palace, they charge 10 CNY for admission to the park and another 15 CNY to see the ruins in the north. That ticket can also be bought later right there, so one does not need to get it directly at the south entrance.

The entrance goes through very traditionally looking buildings with a pagoda, which is quite a sight. The number of figures on the corners of the roof give the importance of the building, this way everyone can see it right away.

The park itself seems endless, I have been walking in it for over two hours and did like 8 km and still only covered a small part of the areal.

There are many tourists there, and lots of tourist groups that just trot behind their flag carrying tour guide. I ventured off to the side paths and found that there were virtually no tourists there, a quite pleasant experience. There are many lakes and canals with bridges to cross them. I have taken many pictures, you would need to take a look into the album to see them all.

One of the key exhibits are the ruins in the north. Unfortunately all the explanatory text was in Chinese, so I did not manage to learn anything significant from there. Still I got to look at a lot of interesting things.

The whole atmosphere is amazing and very calm. I spend the better part of an hour just sitting on a bench in the shade near a lake and enjoying the breeze that we had on that day. Also the view with the mountains in the back is quite majestic. This is a nice place to really relax I would say.

Just like around the lake of the PKU campus there are many cicadas that make a really loud soundscape, making it feel really typically Chinese.

Tienanmen Square

While roaming around the city center I had already come close to the forbidden city and the Tienanmen Square during the night. It does not have an outrageous light show but subtle lights to it. In the bus that we were taking past the square there were two security guards. One was in the middle of the bus in the luggage area and stood at the open window. He noticed that I was trying to take pictures and traded spaces with me. So I got do stand right next to an open window that was large enough to easily bend my whole upper body out of the vehicle. It was a very strange sensation as something like this would certainly not be legal in Germany.

On the second weekend I wanted to go to the Forbidden City and the Tienanmen Square. I took the subway there and needed to walk up to the security screening. By that time I was completely used to all the security screenings everywhere. There are also passport controls there. There were endless amounts of tourists. The curious thing is that these usually come from less cosmopolitan areas unlike Běijīng or Shanghai. Therefore they are not used to the sight of westerners. While I was in the queue one woman just took a picture of me with her cell phone, and she was not shy about it when I noticed. A second took a selfie with me in the background. On the square a young woman asked me to stand next to her friend to take a picture.

The square itself was not really amazing, it is just a big square. The sheer size is impressive, though. And you can see the entrance to the Forbidden City. So I did not spend much time on the square and just progressed to the next thing, following all the other pilgrims.

Forbidden City

The number of visitors to the Forbidden City is limited to 80,000 per day. That just seems mind boggling. This means that in four days the whole population of Bonn would have been there. And they do this on more than four days a year. Other people from the Summer School have told me that one would not need to reserve a ticket. Locals have told me that one should reserve a ticket. I took the risk and went there without a reservation. Some others went on the same Saturday and arrived at around 10:00 and just got in. I arrived at 12:00 and it was already booked out. So no Forbidden City for me.

I then just walked around it and found a nice park.

From there one has a magnificent panoramic view over the forbidden city.

If you open the picture, you can see the stream of tourists leaving the city. Other people told me that most of the buildings are closed and that one constantly has to fight against masses of tourists. So perhaps it was not too bad that I missed out on that and got more time and energy to look the Jǐngshān park north of the Forbidden City.

Jǐngshān Park

The Jǐngshān Park (景山公园) north of the Forbidden City costs just 3 CNY to enter. They had no English/Arabic prices set up, so I just gave the clerk a 100 CNY bill and got a lot of change back. On the south side of the park there is a hill with a pagoda from which one can see the whole city. As the Forbidden City defines the city center you can really look around and see high rise buildings in every direction. Perhaps take a look at the photo album to see the various panoramic images that I took from there.

Further up north there is a facility that has been used in sacrifice rituals. At least that's what I understood from the bit of English writing that was to be found.

In order to enter that part I did not have to pay anything more, they just wanted to scan my passport.

In front of the main gate there are two lions that both look like this one:

They differ in the item that they have below their claw. The left one has a lion baby below her, the right one has a ball. The baby symbolizes fertility and makes it a female lion. The ball in contrast resembles power and therefore the right lion is a male on.

New Summer Palace

On my last day in Běijīng I went to the New Summer Palace. It is located two metro stations to the west of the Old Summer Palace. Other people had already went there at that point and had positive feedback for it.

When you enter, you cross a bridge over a canal where the Suzhou Street is located below. The emperor had the problem that he could not just go shopping like regular people could. So in his palace they created a whole shopping street just for him to play normal person once in a while.

Behind the bridge there is what I would think of a Buddhist temple. The square really looks impressive. There are the usual male and female lions in front of it.

I could not wait to climb all these stairs. Inside the temple there are huge golden Buddha statues, one was not allowed to take pictures there. The sheer number and size of them is impressive! Behind the temple going further uphill there was one of the most amazing views that I had one this trip.

You can see the large lake, the island with the bridge. Also a bunch of people on boats just going for a little cruise on the lake. Right in front of you are a bunch of trees, you can comfortably stand in the shade while you enjoy the view. And in the very back you can see the skyline of Běijīng, which just seems endless. A professor from Seattle (Washington, USA) got a good view from the plane and said that it looks like one would have taken quite a bunch of Seattles and merged them together into one sheer endless city. I still have no comprehension of the size of this city.

On top of that hill you can hear a loud chatter from people, but also it appears rather far away. When I got down to the marina I realized that there are endless tourists there. It is amazing, they arrive in endless buses, are being guided by professional tour guides with microphone and speakers and then get back to the bus.

From the marina I could also see the actual palace. I did not realize that when I was up there, so I did not buy the extra ticket to enter it. But time was running on short on that Friday anyway, so I could only look at part of the whole areal anyway.

In the north eastern sector of the park there was a really nice spot to just chill out. They played some Chinese ambient music and one could watch the fish and birds move around. I spend a little while there, quite relaxing! Also there were virtually no tourists there. It is amazing how they are just confined to the tour routes and not look at anything besides that.

The New Summer Palace has much more to see than the Old Summer Palace. But I found that the latter had a more beautiful scenery. So for relaxing in nature I would prefer the Old Summer Palace.