Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An afternoon view from my balcony

I continue to be concerned about the air quality in Beijing. Yesterday, during the short time I was inside an internet café on campus, a cloud descended on the city. The sky looked like dusk, but it was just the smog. It has been lightly raining since last night - and the cloud has become a bit lighter in color – but it still hangs in the air.

I live right next to the sports area on campus, so I see many students outside exercising in the smog. The atmosphere doesn't seem to bother them, so perhaps I'm being overly cautious. But I'm waiting for cleaner air before I go out for a run – I could be waiting a while …

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Travel to the Forbidden City

I love trains! Yesterday, I took my first trip out of the university's neighborhood to see the Forbidden City, and I used the Beijing subway system to get there. The subway was quite easy to use - not unlike most of the big city subways that I've experienced. It was bustling and crowded, but nothing that I haven't seen before in Tokyo.

I arrived at 天安门广场 (Tian'anmen Square) at about 10am, and I was struck with how large everything was. Tian'anmen Square was bigger than I had imagined, and all of the buildings and sculptures were larger than life. I especially like the gigantic Communist sculptures celebrating workers. (See photo.) I didn't have a tour guide or an official explanation - I just assumed the statues are celebrating workers!

There was a *huge* line to get into Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall, where his body is on display. At one point, the staff opened up the line to allow more people to get in, and there was a stampede. Guys with bull horns started screaming at the people who were cutting in line and making them go to the end of the line. (Imagine Mandarin screamed through bullhorns by angry Chinese men. Scary!) -- I decided not to get mixed up in that mess just to see the Chairman's lifeless body. So, I continued my northward journey through the square.

After passing more grand buildings and walking through a tunnel under the main thoroughfare, I reached the entrance to the Forbidden City. The crowds had been quite overwhelming, so I decided to take refuge in 安园 (Peace Park), adjacent to the entrance. Apparently, it's not so popular with the tourists, so for the low-low price of 2 Yuan (about 30 cents) I spent some quiet time in a wonderful garden. Peace Park was not always so peaceful, though, because they used to perform animal sacrifices there. (See photo.)

Once I was rested and ready to fight the crowds again, I left Peace Park and got in line for my ticket to the Forbidden City. Lots of tourists spent the 40 Yuan to get in, so it was slow going through the attraction. The Forbidden City is essentially the center set of buildings - surrounded by inner and outer courtyards and buildings - that was the Imperial Palace from the Ming to the Qing Dynasties. It is truly a fortress on a grand scale. I especially enjoyed the intricate artwork painted on the buildings and the scary statues! (See photo.)

After all that, I returned to campus feeling that my first trip out on the town was successful. Not only did I finally get to see the Forbidden City, I was able to work on my language skills. I recognized lots of characters and phrases, putting what I've learned into better context. It was fun and educational, too!

Scary statue

Animal sacrifice

Communist workers!

The Forbidden City

Very auspicious - and crowded!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Beijing Language and Culture University

An official welcome to the university!

Welcome to Beijing!

After a short eleven hour flight from Seattle, I arrived Thursday afternoon at the Beijing Capital Airport. Despite the best advice of friends, I hopped right into a taxi - because I packed entirely too many bags to carry on the train! The taxi ride was uneventful but long, as there was heavy traffic at the airport and in the city.
I got to the Conference Center Hotel just as the sun was setting over the city. Luckily, I arrived just in time to get dinner before the hotel's restaurant closed. The food was good and very reasonably priced. I was able to get a huge plate of sizzling vegetables with rice and tea for 23 Yuan (that's less than $4US).
This morning I explored the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) campus and 五道口 (Wudaokou) - the shopping area just off campus. It was every bit the bustling metropolis that I expected. Crossing the street seems like a tricky endeavor - the red and green walking men at the crosswalks seem to be optional advisories. In fact, most people seem to cross with the 'don't walk' signal. The throngs of pedestrians along with erratic traffic make for an exciting walk!
Not surprisingly, I found a 星巴克 (Starbucks), and I was able to sit down to enjoy my morning latte in a cafe that looked like it could have been in a quiet Seattle neighborhood!
This afternoon I experienced a bit of bureaucracy as I registered for my course. I visited four different offices in three different buildings to say "I'm here", pay for tuition, get the payment statement notarized and have my 学生证 (student ID) made. (A note to anyone who wants to study at BLCU: There is a box of *free* SIM cards for your mobile phone at the registration office.)
All is not perfect in the Northern Capital, though. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention the poor air quality. Most of you have probably heard of the big 'orange cloud' that was over Beijing for the past week or so. It has dissipated, but I still find the air a bit ... 'thick'. Apart from environmental causes, automobiles and ubiquitous smokers also have a detrimental effect on air quality here. A high pressure system moving over Beijing is supposed to improve the situation. I certainly hope so because I need to start training for a marathon in Seattle in June!
I'm currently writing to you from the BLCU Library, so I'm not able to transfer the pics from my phone or camera. I promise to find a way to do that soon!
I plan on exploring more of Wudaokou tomorrow, and I'll be studying through the weekend because I have a placement exam first thing on Monday morning. I'll keep you updated!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Inaugural Blog

Welcome to my new blog, Global Notes! Over the next couple of months, I will be studying Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University. I intend to take you with me - virtually - on my journey to China, sharing with you all of my adventures. I hope this blog will continue to grow to encompass international affairs and domestic politics, even after I return home.

I leave for China today, and I will update you when I get settled in the Middle Kingdom. 再见!