A Day in the Life of 戈爱玛

戈爱玛 (Ge Aima), that’s me! I thought you all might be interested to see what a typical day in Beijing looked like for me.

At 未名湖 (No Name Lake) in north campus

Peking University (PKU) is in Beijing’s university district (Haidian), in the northwest part of the city.  I was about an hour-long bus ride from the Forbidden City, which is at the heart of Beijing. Despite the distance from many things, it’s actually very accessible with both a bus stop and a subway station right outside the east gate. Being a little farther from the center of town allows PKU’s campus to be larger than most. In addition, because it’s the most highly-ranked university in China, it’s a tourist attraction and gets a lot of money from the government for beautification. The main reason I chose PKU was, in fact, because I heard it had a gorgeous campus.

Also at PKU’s on-campus lake
On clear days, I could see the distant mountains to the west. This day was so smog-free, I could open my window!

I lived in an international student dorm just outside Peking University’s southeast gate. I was on the eleventh floor (out of twelve) and, although I had a double room, I had no roommate. Somehow, in the four months I lived there, I forgot to get a single picture, so you’ll have to take my word for it – the room was massive. Probably four times the size of my freshman dorm room in Oklahoma. The best part about it was the view. One entire wall of the room was a floor-to-ceiling window. My window faced south, towards 中关村(Zhongguancun), known as China’s Silicon Valley. At night, it would light up, and it was like I was living two blocks from Times Square. It was hard to get out of bed in the mornings because it was so peaceful to just lie there and look out at the city.

I would watch the sunset from my room every night.
On top of the world!
Usually I would check my air quality app just to be sure.

Most days, my first class was at 10:10. I would wake up at 9:00 and look out the window to see if I needed a mask or not. Most days, it was pretty obvious I did.

I didn’t go outside this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would leave for class around 9:45. On the way, I would stop at a street food cart just outside my dorm for breakfast – 煎饼(jianbing)。Before my eyes, Jianbing Man (as we international students affectionately called him) would create a breakfast masterpiece in just 30 seconds from wheat batter, egg, green onions, and some mystery ingredients. It cost USD $1, and it is one of my top 3 foods from China.

Campus at night, taken from the bridge once after it snowed.

To get to campus, I had to cross a pedestrian bridge. Besides the two flights of stairs (which got progressively harder as the smog worked away at my lungs), I really enjoyed this part of my commute. At the top of the bridge, I could see a lot of the city and the campus. It made me feel like such a big-city girl.

My classroom building
My reading professor

The walk to my classroom building only took about 10 minutes total. Most days, I had just two classes – reading, and then either speaking or vocabulary. They lasted two hours each. I really loved my classes, my professors, and most of all my classmates. The 13 of us represented 8 different countries: United States, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Spain, Russia, the Philippines, and Brunei. My closest friend in the class was Carlota, from Spain, in the blue dress next to me in the photo below.

My class with my speaking professor

In between the two classes we had an hour-long break for lunch. PKU’s biggest and best canteen, Nonyuan, was also the closest one to my classroom building, so that’s where I normally went. This is what one of my typical lunches looked like: baked chicken, fried rice, a fried egg, steamed Chinese cabbage, and an Asian pear. Oftentimes I would also get milk tea or red bean sesame cookies for something sweet. All of this cost me less than USD $2! And it was, obviously, delicious.

Twice a week I would go to the fruit store after my classes. This is one of the parts of my daily life I miss most. Walking into the fruit store, my senses were immediately overwhelmed with the sweetest aromas of fifty different kinds of fruit, half of which I had never seen before. The store wasn’t very large, but they packed a lot of goodness in such a small place. I would always get enough pears for the next few days, since I had at least one every day. The pears in China are like an American pear and apple combined – sweet, unbelievably crisp, juicy – you could never go wrong with a pear. In addition to pears, I would usually also get some fruit to snack on, like kumquats or grapes.

After the fruit store, I would get started on my homework. Sometimes I would work on campus with friends, other times I would head back to my room to introvert and get stuff done. I always looked forward to dinner, though – another opportunity to have more of China’s amazing food. On the right is another of my top 3 dishes from China, 涮羊肉. Its English name, instant-boiled mutton, doesn’t do it justice. The cook drops thinly sliced lamb into a massive vat of boiling water for a few minutes, then scoops it into a bowl with some noodles and Chinese cabbage. Ladle some sesame sauce on top and sprinkle some Sichuan pepper if you dare, and you’re good to go! It was so incredibly savory and satisfying. The watermelon was a very nice spring and summer treat, too. This meal was also only USD $2.

After dinner I would usually work some more and often Skype my family or friends, drinking lots of tea all the while. Towards the end of the night I would have dessert: lychee nuts. If you haven’t had them before, they taste like a combination of a plum and a grape. You have to peel that spiky shell to get to the slippery fruit inside, but that’s just part of the experience. I also miss having lychee every night.

That’s what a day looked like for me! When I think about China, the things I miss most are the things in this post: the food, the friends, and the habits that made up my days there. It was a good life.

Two Adventures in Xi’an

Question: what has 11,000 legs, lives underground, and has been around for thousands of years but was only discovered 4 decades ago?

Answer: the Terra Cotta Army (兵马俑)!

If Nate and I look a little stressed, it’s because a third of China was pressing towards us at this moment.

In April, Nate and I traveled again with CET. This time, we went south to the famous city of Xi’an, resting place of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his thousands of terra cotta soldier statues. After a 10-hour bus ride (we drove through the night on this trip), we rolled up to one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions. It was a Chinese national holiday so not only were lots of foreign tourists there, all the Chinese tourists were too. There’s an expression in Chinese, “人山人海”, that literally translates to “people mountain, people sea”. This phrase could be used to describe both the tightly-packed rows of earthen warriors and the seething masses of people who mobbed them.

With piles of labeled body parts, it was like a witch’s pantry.

The terra cotta soldiers were very cool. We first went through an exhibit that presented some history, which then opened up into three massive excavation pits that contained the soldiers. My favorite part was actually getting to see the excavation in progress. In two of the pits, there were ladders, tarps, and tools laid out among the bodies. The soldiers themselves weren’t finished – apparently it takes longer than 40 years to rebuild a 9,000-piece relic that was first built in the third century BCE.

This horse got stuck in a wall.

 

 

 

After we were done with the Terra Cotta Army, we went to Xi’an’s most famous street food market for dinner. The food there was mainly in the style of the Uyghur, a Chinese people group in the country’s northwest that has been largely influenced by Middle Eastern culture. The best dish I tried there was a spiced roasted lamb skewer, a street food delicacy I got to enjoy several times while in China. Nate and I also bought massive cotton candy spools for $5 each. It was luxury in excess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thus climbing, we ascended.

The next day we tested the limits of the human body. Mount Hua is one of China’s most famous mountains, and parts of it make it one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do those parts. We didn’t have time.) Hiking the mountain means ascending a neverending series of staircases carved into the mountain itself. There are 5 peaks on the mountain, and we made it to two of them. It took 9 hours. Up.

Somehow, the view and the experience were worth the extreme physical pain we were all in by the time we reached the summit. China’s dramatically jagged mountains rose around us in green and yellow.

Us with Brian, a friend from South America we made on the hike!

Thankfully, we got to take a cable car down so we didn’t have to try to not fall down the mountain as we went down the stairs in our weakened state. Although the rapid descent through the mountains we had just climbed did make me question the merit of ascending the mountain on foot, the experience of flying through China’s mountains in a glass box was truly breathtaking.

The entrance to Mount Hua Park

By the time we made it back the bus, my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand for lack of balance. Sleep was such a relief that night.

We got up super early the next day to drive back. I managed to stay awake most of the ride, and I was pleasantly surprised that the scenery on the daytime ride back was more diverse and beautiful than I had realized. I got to see mountains, plateaus, terraced rice fields, farms, and other manifestations of the landscape that must be unique to China. It was like driving through the China section of a world history textbook.

That was my last out-of-town trip while I was staying in Beijing, and was it ever a good one.

A Beijing Birthday

Because few memorable Beijing days start with a low air quality index (AQI), here’s an unedited photo of what the view from my dorm window was like on that day

March 19, two months after we had arrived in Beijing, was Nate’s birthday. We took the opportunity to explore the city a little bit and do some things on our Beijing Bucket List.

I knew that starting the day with waffles, even in Beijing, was a prerequisite for a good birthday. So we took the bus to the hippest coffee spot in Beijing – Maan Coffee: Waffle and Toast. Even the name, although magnificent, couldn’t do justice to the two-storied, rustic, delectable food paradise that it adorned. Seriously, though – I have never had better waffles than these. In my life. I would fly back to China just to have these once more.

After waffles, we went to an international church we were trying out. We didn’t end up settling there, but it was nice to have a place to worship with other Christians again.

For lunch, we went to the cool part of Beijing – Sanlitun, where the parties go down. For us, the part was authentic Italian pizza – pricey, in China, but worth it since it was the first good Western food we’d had in 2 months.

Next stop, Beijing Zoo! We spent a long time at the Giant Panda exhibit – we connected on a deep emotional level with this fuzzy beast that pretty much just wanted to lie on its back and eat food without moving its head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a lovable lump.

 

 

Nate and me trying to really get into the mindset of that slouchy panda in the back

 

As it was quite late in the day, a lot of the exhibits were already closed. The upside of this was that, for a Beijing public attraction, the zoo really wasn’t that crowded.

 

The zoo also had some really incredible birds.

For dinner we went to a hutong, which is a narrow street that is historically filled with shops and restaurants. They still are, but now they’re more touristy and less quaint and traditional. We found a Peking Duck place and enjoyed Beijing’s most famous dish!

Finally, we went to a European restaurant called M for dessert. Little did I know when I looked it up online that it would be the fanciest restaurant I had ever been in. Because most of the desserts on the menu were upwards of USD $20, Nate and I split this tiny lemon pudding. It was very tasty, but we vowed never to return there until we’re rich.

We got to see so many different pieces of Beijing that day, and eat a lot of good food. On a related note, if anyone wants to fly me to Beijing to get Maan waffles for my birthday next year, you know I’m down.

At Maan with one of their teddy bear order holders!