One week after the semester ended, and the PTSD from finals had worn off, I found myself back at Pitt; however, this time I was preparing for something much more exciting than exams—I was getting ready to leave for China! After one last meal of American food—hamburgers and shakes at Stacked—me and the other students turned in for the night, as we would have to be up at 2:30 am to catch a bus to the airport.
The journey to Beijing took about 24 hours including the layover we had in Washington D.C., but I was lucky and managed to sleep for most of it. The flight path took us north over Canada and the Arctic Circle, and down over eastern Russia. For the latter part, I had great views of the snow covered Siberian tundra, and the flat orange expanses of the Gobi desert. Once we got within about a hundred miles of Beijing, more towns started appearing, which eventually gave way to the busy highways and apartment towers of the city itself.
Getting off the plane, we were greeted by a life-sized advertisement featuring the NBA player Steph Curry, who it turns out is extremely popular in China. The Chinese cell phone company Vivo has chosen him as a brand ambassador, and one of their billboards with his image takes up the side of a building near our hotel. My first impression of Beijing was that it must be a great place if you’re a fan of the Golden State Warriors; however, I wanted to see what else the city had to offer, so I went out for a walk as soon as I was checked into my room.
Beijing is divided into several “rings” by a series of major roads that encircle the city. At the center is Tiananmen square, which is similar to the National Mall in Washington D.C.; it’s the seat of the Chinese government, and home to several monuments such as the mausoleum of Chairman Mao and the Forbidden city. Our hotel is in Chongmenwen, an area of the city within the second ring that has a lot of hotels and shopping centers. My roommate Brian Randall and I walked the area around our hotel, trying to stay awake long enough to adjust our internal clocks to the 12 hour time difference. Before long we reached a major intersection, and I had my first experience with crossing the street in Beijing.
The roads here are much wider than in the U.S., and have multiple lanes. Traffic consists of a mix of buses, cars, and two-wheeled vehicles that are motorized to varying degrees. Drivers tend to have a loose definition of right of way, and pedestrians have to be aggressive when darting through gaps in traffic. Despite the chaos, we made it across in one piece, and I was no longer suffering from jetlag by the time we reached the other side.
After exploring for a couple hours, it finally started to set in that I was in a foreign country. I knew that we would be packing in a lot in the next two weeks, and I was excited for the experiences I was going to have in China. In the mean time, however, I was ready to go back to the hotel and sleep.