Skip to content

Day 1: Lamb Chops

Call me a kid, but I still get excited every time I ride an airplane. The 14-hour flight from Chicago to Beijing was the longest I had been on for years, and, to be honest, I was a little disillusioned that the experience of flying was not as magical (or comfortable) as I remembered it to be. However, I was able to get some great pictures of the sea ice in the East Siberian Sea — I’m a huge earth science fan. Overall, I would rate the flight a 6/10. Customs and immigration at Beijing Capital International Airport went smoothly, and soon we were on a bus heading to Huairou.

The welcome ceremony was already underway when we arrived at the UCAS campus, so we went directly there without changing and arrived underdressed. Oops! The food at the ceremony was wonderful; I especially enjoyed the roasted lamb chops. After dinner, Mebane took us to a small convenience store on campus, where I bought a bottle of water and a dried fish snack that was much spicier than it looked. Arjun thought I was having a heart attack.

And that was day 1, or rather, day-and-a-half thanks to the International Date Line.

Day 2: Privyet (Hi, in Russian)

Up bright and early for breakfast at 6:30. Not that waking up that early was a difficult feat to manage — we four students were all still very jet lagged. After breakfast, we decided to walk over to the competition building rather than wait for the bus. Security there was stringent. Dr. Meyer tried to walk around a little bit and observe the different projects but was very quickly escorted out. The judges who questioned me about my project all seemed very nice, but none of them were native English speakers so I tried to use simpler language without simplifying the science behind my project. One judge, however, asked me to present in Chinese, something I had never practiced doing. It was… quite an experience.

The presenter next to me was a girl from Israel who actually went to a competition in Orlando, Florida that I also attended last year. Small world! I also got to meet Dmitri from Russia and a pair from Denmark who were both in their 20s. Danish kids must go through 3-4 more years of secondary education than us. All the presenters in my vicinity had fascinating projects, but, personally, I was more interested in learning about the other aspects of their lives. I also got to talk to Celia, one of our guides, and she had some very fresh insights into the modern lives of Chinese millennials.

Day 2? Rewarding, but physically (and to some degree, mentally) draining.

Day 3: Running

We presented again, although the atmosphere was much more relaxed this time. Our audience today was not comprised of scientists and judges but instead of local-area students and adults. Over the course of the morning, almost 5,000 people passed through the fair. My aunt and uncle were going to come, but it would have taken them three hours each to make the trip from their home to Huairou, so it wasn’t very feasible.

After lunch, we took part in an exhibition where we made aloe vera gel and got to see a 3D ceramic printer in action (watch out, Jingdezhen!) Then came my favorite part of the day: I got to go on a run! It was short, but I had the opportunity to go over to the opposite side of UCAS campus where I saw the student dorms and maybe almost one hundred students exercising on the tennis and basketball courts. Afterwards, I cleaned up for dinner and changed back into “business casual” (read: business formal) for the special awards ceremony.

For the special awards ceremony, we were bused over to a new building on campus that was essentially a big auditorium. The organizers of the event gave all of us plastic clappers and light-up headgear; the entire thing was very high-energy and exciting, although that didn’t stop us four students, and some of the adults, from dozing off. The ceremony began with a traditional Chinese performance and then a kung fu act where students were invited onto the stage. I remember nothing after that, waking up at the end of the ceremony to see Ana Sofia with a 3000 RMB prize!!

After my brief nap, I felt re-energized enough to hang out with Arjun, Dory, and Ana Sofia a little bit instead of going directly to bed.

Later, some kids from Australia and the Czech Republic joined us and we moved down to the lobby. Andrej (is that how you spell it?) taught us a game where you sit around a table and cross your arms over your neighbors’ and basically play Buzz in that position. It was awkward and uncomfortable in the beginning, but became really fun once everyone got the hang of it.

Day 3 was much better than the previous ones, in terms of fun and of jetlag.

Day 4: Haggling

Even though all four of us won medals at the awards ceremony, lunch was more important. I didn’t have much of an appetite so I just had some watermelon. It was hitting me that the next day, all of the students who had come to Beijing for this competition would disperse and each head our own separate ways. There were so many new friendships I was just forming or hadn’t even begun to form yet. I wondered if we would cross paths again.

In the afternoon, we went to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Arjun fell asleep on the bus.

We four students and Matt decided to form a group together with our guide, Celia. At first, it seemed hiking the Great Wall was a Great Cakewalk, but we eventually reached an extremely steep section. From the base of the mountain, it looked like that section had a grade of 40-45 degrees. Nevertheless, we all made it up! We stopped at the next turret and soon, it began to snow! Ana Sofia and I also had the opportunity to take some very candid Prom pictures.

Day 4: A good day because Matt admitted to us that he had a tattoo (I knew it!)

PS. I was able to haggle and buy a souvenir for 10 Yuan instead of 20.

Day 5: Goodbyes and Hellos

I woke up early today to pack, and the morning began on a somewhat bittersweet note as we said goodbye to all the friends we had made over the four days of the 37th Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition.

The four of us students exchanged gifts and words of gratitude with Jeremy and Celia, after which we boarded the bus and headed for downtown Beijing. About an hour later, we stopped at the Beijing Foreign Experts Hotel to let Jeremy and Celia off. She surprised us with handwritten notes on pink paper, folded into the shape of a heart. I cried a bit reading mine.

Some time later, we arrived at the Wangfujing street Renaissance hotel, which is probably the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed at (well, sort of—more about that later). Not all of the rooms were ready, so I put my stuff down in Ana Sofia and Dory’s room and set out to explore the hotel with Arjun. The highlight of our expedition was the pool, and I rolled my pants up and waded a little bit. We four students were all ravenous by the time Arjun and I got back to the girls’ room. We asked Mebane to walk with us to find food near the hotel and ended up ordering three boxes of dumplings from a small store nearby. Any attempt to qualify how delicious they were using words would be an insult to their deliciousness.

We had to eat them on our way to the Summer Palace because our driver, Mr. Zhang, had already arrived at the hotel when we returned from the restaurant. Of course, the trees and the water there were beautiful, but my favorite part were the rocks that we got to climb on.

When we got back to the hotel, my extended family (both grandmothers, three uncles, two aunts) were all waiting for me in the lobby. I hadn’t seen them since 2012. After some intense hugging and picture-taking, I was whisked away to a restaurant where we were already late for our reservation. I got so caught up in all the commotion that I forgot to tell anyone else in our delegation that I was leaving, so this is me apologizing and confirming that I’m still alive. Dinner was wonderful, but it was a painful to say the second round of goodbyes for the day: I had to leave my dad’s side of the family at the end of the night.

Day 5: Simply wonderful.

Day 6: Plaza Dancing

I stayed with my mother’s younger sister last night, and she let me sleep in a little bit today. After breakfast, we went to a little pharmacy near her apartment to buy some medicine for my mom. Around 10:30, the two of us and my grandmother set out for Qinghua University, known as the “MIT of China.” The Chinese university admissions process is based entirely on test scores. Different minimum scores are needed for certain universities; these scores vary from province to province and are the same for both males and females.

However, members of the 55 ethnic minorities of China are able to earn admission with lower scores. As we toured Qinghua, my aunt imparted pieces of information not only about the Chinese education system but also about the history of Qinghua University. The school was built using American funding in the early 1900s (although that funding was originally given to the US by Qing China in an unequal treaty).

In the afternoon, we made our way to the Yuanming Garden not far from Qinghua. Once the largest private garden in the world, the Yuanming Garden was burned down by allied Anglo-French forces in the 1800s. It has since been restored, though many buildings are deliberately left in their ruined state. One of the restored structures was a maze with a pavilion in the center, and I was able to show off some of my jump rope skills there!

Our third stop of the day was Beijing University, where our sightseeing was centered around the famous Weiming lake. There were lots of koi fishes, and I bought some bread to feed them with!

My aunt, grandmother, and I went back to the apartment for a light dinner and then finished the day off with some guangchangwu, or plaza dancing. Plaza dancing is a common social and physical activity among (mostly elderly) people in China, and it simply is synchronized dancing to music, most commonly done after dinner. I didn’t participate, but it sure was fun watching my grandma dance.

Day 6 is over, and I can’t believe tomorrow is our final day on the trip of a lifetime.

Day 7: Where’s Dr. Nolan?

I wasn’t going to leave Beijing without first visiting Tiananmen Gate and at least seeing the Forbidden City, so my aunt and I hopped on the subway first thing in the morning and made our way to the center of the city. The streets were chock full of students and people making their way to work, and we were surprised to see many tour groups already at Tiananmen Square when we got there. The smog was heavy today, but I was still awed by the sheer size of the Chairman Mao Memorial and the Great Hall of the People. My aunt and I were among the first to enter the Tiananmen Gate when it opened for tourists at 8:30.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to also enter the Forbidden City, but we did get to take some pictures in front of the entrance.

Afterwards, we decided to get back home using a different route. This different route included a bike ride to a nearby subway station using public pay-by-the-hour bikes, which was probably the funnest (is that a word?) part, for me, of the entire trip to Beijing.

My grandmother had lunch ready for us when we got back, and we shared our final meal together for who knows how many years. If you know me, you know I have a flair for the melodramatic, but I really almost began to shed tears thinking that we would once again be separated by an entire ocean in just 12 short hours. I took a quick shower, gathered all of my things together, and we left for the airport.

After a 45-minute subway ride, saying goodbye to my aunt and grandmother, and clearing security, I finally met up with the rest of the delegation…except Mebane. I had forgotten that she would be flying directly to Singapore from Beijing. I wish I had properly said goodbye to her!

The flight from Beijing to Chicago was relatively uneventful, and Dr. Nolan and Robin also split off from our delegation once we arrived.

Passing customs was a bit of a hassle: we had to claim our check baggage, get it cleared, and check it once more. Also, Robin lost Dr. Nolan! If you guys are reading this I hope you’re okay!

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the remaining six of us (four students, Mike & Matt) enjoyed a nice dinner at Chili’s, played some cards, and in no time, boarding began for the final leg of our journey home. Our last flight was unusually lively for a late-night one, although I was asleep for most of it. Finally, we landed at RDU, and, making our way to the baggage claim, I knew that it was finally over. Yes, we talked and took pictures later still, but the moment I saw the Baggage Claim sign, my spirit felt that it was home.

I’m typing this blog on my way back to Chapel Hill, but I already know that our trip to Beijing will be a memory I look back on fondly in 20, 30, or even 80 years. I couldn’t have asked for a better overall outcome, a better group of international scientists, better cultural sites to visit, or a better delegation, both students and adults.

Thank you so much to everyone who made this trip the exciting and truly life-changing experience it was.

Raymond Gao

Raymond Gao is a student at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.