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Braving Beijing and Exceeding Expectations

The Great Wall, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing (credit: Emma Riley)

The wonderful University of York provides many an opportunity for new experiences, one ongoing being that provided by the International School Centre. Emma Riley was one of the lucky few to embark on the adventure to the other side of the world: Beijing.

Despite being a quarter Chinese myself, I have never had the fortune of visiting China. So, upon hearing about Emma’s summer escapades, I was intrigued. For any others considering travelling to China, or any other distant land, Emma is here to give you her first-hand experience…

Have you ever travelled such a distance on your own before?

“No, I’ve never been to Eastern Asia before! The flight was eleven hours, non-stop. We left Manchester at twelve (mid-day) and didn’t actually arrive in China till five am the next day, because of the time differences.”

Beijing is seven hours ahead of British time.

How did you feel before the big trip? 

“I have to admit I was slightly nervous. I’ve never been to China before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.”

Personally, I think I would find it especially overwhelming.

“I thought so too, but that really wasn’t the case at all. After a day it felt very normal. Although I didn’t know anyone on the trip, I made a really good friend before leaving, who I talked to quite a bit about packing etc. It was funny because we only met properly at the airport and everyone thought we had known each other for ages!”

You have been taking Mandarin classes; has the language been difficult?

“In week eight of Summer term, you could attend intensive Mandarin classes all week. Sadly, I could only go to a couple as I was working. That made it harder when I got there, but I had learnt a lot of numbers and symbols beforehand from a friend. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking it’s an easy language to pick up though! I can say a couple of sentences, but I mostly had to get by using translating apps. It’s very hard.”

Emma suggests using the camera feature of Google Translate.

Did anyone speak English?

“In my experience, barely anyone spoke English and it was actually quite hard to communicate a lot of the time. However, everyone is very friendly and patient. We had a really nice tour guide called Mr.Chao who stayed with us for the duration and he generally did most of the talking!”

How was the weather and what did you wear?

“The weather was around 35 degrees Celsius all the time. The fashion there is similar to England really. I would recommend jean shorts and baggy t-shirts, which seemed to be popular.”

Was it difficult to find food that you enjoyed out there, as someone who is plant-based?

“I think it important to first say that our version of ‘Chinese’ food is completely different to what it is actually like when you dine at restaurants. Everything is a good deal spicier and the variety of dishes is astonishing. If you’re a big foodie who likes trying new things, it would be amazing.

It was very hard to find vegetarian, let alone vegan food. Being a vegetarian just isn’t a thing over there. I was told by the tour guide that Chinese food is based around vegetables, but then the meat is added for flavour. On the first day, my friend and I (who is also a veggie) ordered everything possible that seemed to be vegetarian on the menu. Nonetheless, 90% of it turned out to have meat in; even the vegetarian spring rolls.

We did find a nice restaurant on campus though, where we found something that was vegan (tomatoes, rice and spinach). We laugh now about how we ate that exact same meal for 16 days straight. Other than that it was noodles, chips and Oreos.”

The Old Summer Palace, Beijing (credit: Emma Riley)

Emma’s heads-up:

  • Prepare to be jet-lagged

“On arriving we spend the day unpacking, exploring campus and sleeping. I didn’t expect the jet lag to affect me as much as it did. The time difference also meant keeping in touch with friends and family was hard. When I got back I was also going to bed at around seven pm, which is something I haven’t done since I was about six!”

  • The air quality is terrible

“I knew that China and in particular Beijing had very bad smog. I thought it would be one of those things you didn’t notice, that absolutely wasn’t the case! The first few days it felt really weird just breathing. I also thought a lot of people would be wearing ‘smog’ masks, but barely anyone did.”

  • Expect to feel like a celebrity

“I had heard that people might ask you for photos and I thought that was kind of funny, but it is very true! I think as a group we collectively took over 100 photos with different people.”

  • Everything is extremely cheap

“A packet of Oreos cost me 3 yuan which is around 33 pence!”

  • You can rest assured you will feel safe

“China is heavily policed and many buildings along with their surroundings are often walled. This is a very common aspect of their architecture.”

Emma’s essential recommendations: 

  • Download a reliable VPN (Virtual Private Network) before you get there

In case you did not know, social media platforms are banned in mainland China.

“A VPN is basically a network which allows you to use social media whilst you are out there. The university has a good one called ‘Pulse Secure’, which is free.”

Fun fact—Chinese people have their own social media platforms. Instead of WhatsApp: WeChat, Twitter: Weibo, Google: Baidu, Messenger: QQ, YouTube: Youku (read more)

  • Buy a Chinese Sim card

“I didn’t get one, but I wish I had. Not being able to use your mobile data can be frustrating when you need to look something up or use maps to find your way. But I just ended up doing it the old school way.”

  • Carry toilet paper as well as hand sanitiser with you, at all times

“If you’re a hygiene freak like me, this is essential. Chinese toilets are (in my experience) extremely unhygienic. Apparently, it’s an inside joke that ‘Westerners’ just expect bathrooms to have toilet roll! Also, you will be lucky if you can find one where you can actually sit down. Most toilets require you to squat. But that is supposed to be better for you anyway!”

  • Always carry a water bottle

“You can’t drink the water in China; not even to brush your teeth! So along with the heat, you will need one with you at all times. Everything is super cheap though, and you could get one for the equivalent of 10p.”

Finally, are you glad that you went? Do you feel more confident to try new things now?

“I am 100% glad I went, I know it’s very easy just to say that, but I genuinely mean it. I didn’t expect to have loved it as much as I did. Every concern I had about visiting China since its culture is extremely different, disappeared as soon as I got there.

‘It’s not about where you go, it’s who you go with’, cliché but completely true. The group was amazing and made things so much easier; I made best friends for life. I didn’t get homesick at all really, you didn’t really have time too! The days went by very fast because they were packed.

This experience has definitely given me so much more confidence to travel. My 2018 goal was to try and visit as many countries as possible and this so far has absolutely been one of the best. Next year I’m looking to travel around Asia more extensively, as it has really opened my eyes to all the incredible things that part of the world has to offer.”

Emma Riley
Emma Riley
  • Thank you to Emma Riley for giving her time to this interview
  • All image credit goes to Emma Riley
  • For more from Emma check out her Instagram account