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On Tuesday I returned to the UK after 2 weeks in Beijing, China’s capital. The following account highlights the highs and lows of the trip with other blog entries looking in detail at the Chinese painting skills, caligraphy and trips out to The Great Wall, the Forbidden city and other places.

The ‘expedition’ was organised in conjuction with the China Agricultural University and our own University of Bedfordshire, and was a Chinese Language and Culture Summer School course teaching us many different aspects of the Chinese way of life.

Our first lessons were an attempt to teach us the basics of the language. Having never studied languages beyond basic french, mandarin was going to be a huge challenge. For example, the chinese word ‘ma’ has at least 4 meanings. The difference is the inflection you add to the word which separates whether you’ve said horse, mother, to scold or hemp. As the lesson progressed it became clear the chinese have the minutest differences in pronounciation separating many words which if not spoken correctly completely changes what you just said causing endless amusement for the bemused local trying to understand you. Even the phonetic translations didn’t really help. Add in the struggle to time adjust to 7 hours ahead of the UK and the heat and humidity and for many of us mastering the language was just a dream.

The reality of that dream though is that no one outside the University speaks english. Additionally all the menus in all the restuarants are in Chinese (some with nonsense english translations offering no help), most of the road signs and shop signs are also in Chinese so basic madarin was an essential skill or it was back to sign language.

The city of Beijing was intense. The sheer number of people and traffic means that quiet spaces are a rarity. The pollution caused by all the vehicles, many of which would seriously fail a European MOT, hangs over the city in an ever present choking cloud becoming so serious a problem for the Chinese that many pedestrians have taken to wearing masks when walking the street.

Crossing the road in this city is dicing with death. Each highway is eight lanes wide (four lanes of traffic in each direction). A further two lanes (one each direction) is dedicated to bicycles, tricycles, motorised bicycles, motorcycles and any other mode of transport including cars. The pavement in Beijing is where you park your car, bike, rickshaw etc. Pedestrians weave their way through all this whilst keeping your ears pricked for approaching traffic from behind at speed.

Crossing from one side of the highway to the other is done safely by sky bridge, (pedestrian bridges that span the whole width of the road), or extremely hazardously by using the zebra crossing. In China being a pedestrian is a nuisance to the vehicles, they will try and weave between you whilst you’re on the crossing sounding their horn to get you to move, irrespective if the crossing signal is green or red. The same applies to traffic lights, no one really obeys them.

So the first things I learned can be summarised as such. If the heat doesn’t get you the humidity will, if the humidity doesn’t get you the pollution will, if the pollution doesn’t get you, the traffic will, and as I was to find out later, if you survive all that, the food will get you! By day three I was ill.

The cause of my illness I initially suspected was a very spicy dish I had in a restaurant. It was in fact the salad I had in the Uni canteen the following day. I had contracted whats commonly known throughout the world as Deli Belly. Not pleasant.

Needless to say without the right antibiotics the days that followed were a challenge.

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