China: My Time in the Middle Kingdom

China has been the object of my intellectual affection for some time now. Whether it’s a bookmarked China Daily article, notes from a Chinese Foreign Policy seminar that I’m revisiting, a Penn China conference I’m helping host, an article I’m writing, or a documentary I’m spending hours watching… I’m a MAJOR geek about all things China.

But, admittedly, I could barely even tell you how to say “my name is…” in Mandarin. Might be jumping into some Rosetta Stone in the coming years, who knows. I do know one word, though- “zhongguo (中國/中国)” translating to Middle Kingdom, which is the Chinese name for China. Its meaning is derived from the Zhou Dynasty’s belief that it was the “center of civilization” and the world. Couldn’t help but keep this etymology in my head as I spent a crazy, amazing week in the “middle” of everything in Beijing and Xi’an.

I was traveling with a good friend from New Zealand, Steph, for this part of the trip which was so much fun! We had not seen each other since age 13 in Year 9 in Wellington so it was great to have a week together in China. We were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get around the country- Beijing’s metro system is very clean and user-friendly, and the trains to and from Xi’an were cheap and efficient. As always, I heeded the advice of Man in Seat 61– did the sleeper train there and bullet train back!  Sleeper train was less than amazing simply because we shared a sleeping cabin with two grown men who lacked some basic courtesies…  But the bullet train was quite an experience- 5 hours of speeding through those famed built-overnight-Chinese-cities. Anyway, we decided at the end that it was a perfect sampling of China to do these cities together.

Beautiful gardens at the Emperor’s Summer Palace just outside Beijing. 

Exploring 798 Arts District in Beijing.

We visited the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Really incredible, especially early in the morning.

Couldn’t leave Beijing without a stop at the 2008 Olympics Park!

Loved this street in downtown Beijing for shopping and an authentic Peking duck experience at De Yuan Restaurant.

Capped off our night with a Starbucks and some shopping. Sometimes you just need to indulge your inner Westerner!

Amazing dinner/cooking class at Black Sesame Kitchen. Came recommended from a Penn friend and we loved every minute and bite of it!

Dumpling demo at Black Sesame Kitchen. Steamed then fried, Shanghai style.

The scene from the top of our hutong for our hostel, Han Tang House. Really recommend it!

Dinner at HaiDiLao, which literally means “bottom of the ocean.” Throughout the meal, you add meats and veggies to the “hot pot” of sauce, and once everything is cooked you scrape everything off the “ocean floor” for what seems like an eternity. If you show up and have a wait quoted for a table, the staff will paint your nails and give you snacks. Also there’s a noodle man who comes around with a stereo and stretches out a pile of dough into noodles while dancing to Michael Jackson. Hilarious and delicious place!

No shortage of security cameras in Tiananmen Square.

Beautiful architecture in the Forbidden City.

Exiting the train from Beijing to Xi’an on a typically hazy day.

Muslim Street Market in Xi’an. Highly recommend going once during the day and once at night for the full range of experiences!

The impressive Terra Cotta Warriors, a UNESCO world heritage site, just 45 minutes outside Xi’an. I’d liken the experience to my first trip to the Grand Canyon- requires 20 minutes of standing there in awe to even begin to comprehend their intricacy and beauty!

Dumplings at Three Sisters in Xi’an. So delicious that I went twice! The first time we went we had some struggles with the language barrier and ordered way, way too many: pictured below.

Beautiful calligraphy shops in the antiques district near the South Gate of the Xi’an city wall.

A tea set that I fell in love with!

Photos of some favorite diplomats near the Xi’an City Wall.

Have a great weekend!

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