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.


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.


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 <>.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.