With a departure time of 2:15AM, I made the naïve decision to stay awake through the night. We arrived at the airport at 3:30AM, about half an hour before the airline workers would be there to start checking our bags. By the time our bags were checked, and we had made it through security, I was getting loopy from the sleep deprivation and ready
for some breakfast. We wandered through the Pittsburgh Airport, grabbing some breakfast and settling down at our gate. I only remember two parts of the flight to Duelles, departure and arrival. The rest of the time I was fortunate enough to spend asleep in my seat. In Washington D.C. I put in earplugs and spent another five hours passed out on the floor at our gate. While I was originally planning on staying up through the night to sleep on the fourteen-hour flight to Beijing, it just wasn’t possible for me to stay up until the noon departure time. On the flight I found it interesting that the first meal they served was similar to American Chinese food, comparable to General Tso’s chicken and rice, something that was more Asian-influenced than other airplane meals I’ve had. Although it was a long flight, there was a large selection of in-flight entertainment, and the views from the window seat as we passed over northern Russia into China made the flight one to remember.
At the Peking Airport they took our fingerprints and a picture of our faces before moving us past the immigration officers. I was surprised that they needed all of our prints from both hands and it definitely felt like a violation of privacy, but there wasn’t much I could do if I wanted to continue into the country. Moving through the airport it was very convenient that the signs were in both Mandarin and English, a trend that luckily continued into a lot of areas in Beijing. We met our guides for the next few days, Jane and Lilliana from the Asia Institute. Once we had moved onto the bus, our guides passed out welcome gifts to all the students: a travel bag with a printed itinerary, tourist map of Beijing, and a beautiful Chinese fan.
One of the first things that hit me when we drove through Beijing was that the city was incredibly green. There were rows of trees lining the highways and many of the streets we drove down. Parks were crisscrossed with bike paths and flower beds. The architecture of the passing building was a unique mix of ancient Chinese, Brutalist government buildings, and modern skyscrapers standing next to Cold War-era apartment buildings. I noticed was how chaotic the intersections were. When the pedestrian crossing light went on, it was a mad rush of people on foot and on bikes crossing the street as turning cars and scooters moved weaved through them. Drivers were much more liberal with the use of their horns and I dreaded the thought of crossing those same streets later in the week. It was clear that Beijing was a bustling hub of culture.
Once we arrived at the hotel, we only had a few minutes to set our bags down and catch our breath before we were off to the Welcome Dinner. The hostess seated us in a private dining room with three round tables, each with a rotating glass platform like a Lazy Susan. Servers came out with dish after dish, setting them down on the platform, and our table rotated each dish around to each person. Using chopsticks was certainly difficult, especially with noodles, rice, and other especially slippery foods. One standout food were these gelatinous blocks that came on a larger platter. Even after eating a few, I couldn’t decide whether they were really meant to be eaten, as they were nearly flavorless and were placed underneath another food on the platter (we later saw the same blocks on a menu at a different restaurant, so they were most likely part of the platter). A chef brought out a duck and carved it in front of us, separating the skin and the meat for use in small wraps we created on our plate. Although a lot of the foods were unfamiliar to our table of Americans, the meal was delicious, and we left with our stomachs stuffed.
Following the dinner I went straight to bed, exhausted after our day of travel. This first afternoon in Beijing had been a great introduction to the city and its culture.