This article was originally published in Contact magazine in October 2009
Think back to the news reports in July. Remember that story about a group of British students on a Chinese course in Beijing being quarantined for suspected cases of swine flu? I was on that course. While not myself amongst those in quarantine, several of my friends were (having had the misfortune to be seated next to some infected students from a London boys’ school on our flight), and it was a frightening experience for us all. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the entire trip was a disaster and that we didn’t get our money’s worth; we made dozens of new friends from England, America and China, saw all of the best sights that Beijing has to offer, and got some souvenir swine flu masks. What’s not to like?
Sixteen Tonbridge Grammar School students from all different year groups set out to China’s capital city in mid-July, on a mission to learn Chinese and soak up the native culture. We joined 1,500 other students, from both the US and UK, on the Beijing Foreign Languages School campus – not to mention our long-suffering teachers and the buoyant, if occasionally mad, on-site Chinese supervisors. Despite a distinct lack of sleep over the past seventeen hours (fifteen of which had been spent on two different flights), we soon made friends with an Arizonan boy called Will Smith (yes, really). The first few days were spent socialising, exploring and visiting both The Bird’s Nest Stadium and Beijing Zoo – shortly after which our friends were quarantined. The ten remaining students visited the highest point of The Great Wall – those of us who dared to climb to the top were rewarded with a medal with our names etched on, claiming that we were now ‘real men’. Climbing to the top has gone down as one of my greatest personal achievements (although, unfortunately, the person who carved my name onto the medal misspelt it slightly – my medal now states that someone called “Jennifes Steadman” reached the top).
Several other quarantine cases later, and we had to endure two days of campus lockdown – however, we were treated to a spectacular Opening Ceremony in which we broke a Guinness World Record (greatest number of students sitting on tiny seats at one time, I think). As everyone else on campus was leaving to visit a different province, wild celebrations ensued after the ceremony, including a rave in one of the dormitories! Although originally scheduled to visit the Jiangsu province, our quarantine quandary left us stranded on campus for another day – during which time the staff forgot to make us any dinner, and ordered in some beef that looked like intestines on a piece of string. Unappetising as it was, the predicament only grew when it became apparent that they hadn’t provided any chopsticks for us, and I was forced to eat my dinner with a bottle-cap. Never again.
By some unprecedented luck, we were saved from the interfering dorm staff and were sent to a five-star hotel in the centre of Beijing. Our day got even better when we were allowed to go shopping (a terrifying experience – we were pounced on and manhandled by virtually every shopkeeper we passed), and discovered that our six quarantined comrades would be returning to us the next day. I left the Pearl Market with a silk kimono-style top (a bargain at 250 yuan, considering I’d originally been offered it for 380) and various other goodies, and returned to my luxurious new surroundings. The relief of being somewhere with a lift, a carpet and a comfy bed left us slightly exuberant – so much so, that we found ourselves rolling down the corridor from sheer joy.
A touching reunion scene followed the next morning, as did more shopping. In the next few days, we visited Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and some Buddhist/Confucian temples: all of which were increasingly ornate. We also made another venture to the Great Wall for those who hadn’t been able to experience it the first time, but knowing that it took such a devastating physical toll on us, we stayed at the bottom, feasted on cheap chocolate ice-cream and gossiped for an hour and a half!
All too soon, our Chinese adventure was over – not before we were reacquainted with some of our buddies from the campus, who had returned from their provinces, much to our delight. As would befit such an eventful trip, however, the first flight home was disturbingly turbulent (although I was incredibly relaxed, having contented myself with the fact that – if I died – at least I’d be listening to good music). The fact that I’m writing this article would suggest that the plane made it through the turbulence, and we all returned safe and sound.
Distressing? At times. Fun? Usually. Interesting? Always. It was a phenomenal experience that I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to repeat, but the memories will stay with me forever. Zie jian!