May 22 – Climb Every Mountain

Dr. Burgess, Becky, Celeste, Christine, Emily and Sherry were up early this morning and headed over to Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Gongyuan, 香山公园) which is about an hour northwest of Beijing city center.  The park is almost 400 acres and used to contain a series of old imperial palaces before the British burned them during the Opium Wars.  Now it has a few restored buildings, some ruins and acres and acres of trees. The park is a very popular local destination – the most famous season is the fall when the trees change and everyone and their grandmother heads for the hill to see.  There are no vehicles of any kind allowed inside the park, so if you are going in you are going in on foot.  The name implies that the hills smell nice but the name actually comes from the highest point in the park. It’s called Incense Burner Peak because the very top has a stone shaped like an incense burner.

Celeste and Dr. Burgess had no trouble beating the rest of us to the top, they made it up in about an hour.  The rest of us found it a tough climb. The path we took was rough cut stone stairs that ascend 1900 feet in less than a mile – very steep, very winding and very few railings.  There is a general lack of safety features in China, the philosophy seems to be that if you are dumb enough to fall off the ledge then you get what you deserve.  The views from the climb were fantastic and you get lots of chances to check them out because you have to take a lot of breaks. We were slow, but not as slow as some climbers.  There were a surprising number of elderly people and women hiking the stairs in high heels, and we are proud to say that we were faster than most of them.

We hiked down a different trail and explored some of the palace ruins.  A few places are restored, but many have been mostly returned to nature. We also hiked past wishing trees, which is a Chinese tradition. You write a wish or a prayer on a red ribbon and you toss it into the tree’s branches. If the ribbon hangs on the tree the wish will come true, but if it falls to the ground the wish will not come true.  Most ribbons we saw were securely tied to the trees, just in case.

Wishing Tree at the top of Incense Burner Peak

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May 21 – Visiting the Forbidden City, along with 24,991 other people

We have lucked into two sunny days in a row, which made for perfect sightseeing weather!  It hardly ever rains here but some days are quite overcast and hazy. Today was gorgeous, and of course the setting is fantastic.  The Forbidden City (Zijin Cheng, 紫禁城; literally “Purple Forbidden City”) is absolutely everything that it is cracked up to be.  The central path from the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony is wall to wall tourists, so you have to be willing to shove a bit if you want to see inside the buildings.  Luckily the side palaces and courtyards are just as beautiful, much more accessible and very peaceful.  The grounds cover 187 acres, which is a daunting prospect for a single day of sight seeing.  The sheer scale of the place is almost unreal, and if only walls could talk. Here’s story from the Forbidden City: when the Allied troops were invading Beijing in 1900, Dowager Empress Cixi used the opportunity to dispose of a rival, Zhen Concubine. She demanded that Zhen Concubine commit suicide, and when she refused the Empress arranged for the palace eunuchs to drown her in a well. The well dried up and remains in the Forbidden City with a plaque and a small shrine to the spirit of the Zhen Concubine.

Change me?

Forbidden City

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View from a side courtyard

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One of the inner courtyard palaces

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May 20 – Visiting the Third Hospital


We went to the Third Hospital today to get a first-hand look at acupuncture in a clinical setting.  It was so interesting to see a hospital in another country – the contrast between hospitals in the United States and here is very stark.  Hospitals in the US focus on being clean, bright, and steel – sometimes to the point of overkill.  The Third Hospital wasn’t dirty, but it wasn’t what Westerners would consider “hospital clean.”  We visited the acupuncture clinic and met with the acupuncturist. She has a very close connection with her patients even though her patient load seems to be higher than doctors in the US.  Doctors here seem to be valued for their knowledge and experience in addition to their physical skills. The patients also seemed to be more medically knowledgeable than American patients – we saw one patient one administer his own laser therapy!  It seems as if the patients, especially older patients, know about their condition and treatment and are better able to engage with their doctors than geriatric patients in the US.

The acupuncturist demonstrated a variety of procedures including needle acupuncture, acupressure and cupping.  The acupuncture needles were stimulated in various ways, including electric pulses and red-hot “fire needles”. Acupressure is performed on areas too delicate for needles, such as on a patient’s ear where the ear is too vascular and the skin is too thin for needles. Acupressure consists of seeds taped to a Band-Aid applied to the appropriate acupuncture points; the patient can then stimulate the points on their own. This is helpful because many of the patients are from the rural areas outside Beijing and cannot get into the city easily. Emily volunteered for cupping, and our acupuncturist’s specialty – fire needles. Fire needles are heated before application.  It hurts more than regular acupuncture, but the relief should last longer so the patient does not have to come in as often.

We were not quite sure what to expect form the Third Hospital, but we left with a more concrete understanding of acupuncture and a glimpse at how the medical system in Beijing works.  Successful trip!


In the afternoon, we had our third class in Mandarin.  The class followed the same pattern as the previous ones, review, quiz, new material. We have moved on to more complicated sounds, but are still lacking some basic phrases to help us communicate with locals.  For example, we can now say that we are going to the bank and ask if someone wants to come.  We do not know how to say, “I would not care to eat any intestinal puddings.” 😀

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May 19 – TCM, Mandarin and the Legend of Kung Fu

We started Mandarin class by reviewing the vowel and consonant sounds as well as the tones introduced yesterday. We also had our first quiz today, and we will have a quiz every day of class. Our first quiz consisted of a dictation full of vowels and tones, tracing stroke orders and pinyin for our little vocabulary list, and finally a translation from English to characters and pinyin. Then, we moved onto the next section with more complicated vowel sounds and new vocabulary. Today we learned to ask, “Are you busy?” which will come in handy because this program keeps us quite busy.

Today was only the second day of TCM class, but we have already learned so much! After reviewing the yin and yang theory, we focused in on the focused in on the five phase and zang-fu organs that were introduced yesterday. Dr. Li concluded with a short discussion on the meridians/collaterals of acupuncture to prepare us for our first clinical visit tomorrow. Sherry was sick with a cold today so Dr. Burgess took her to the campus medical clinic. The doctor gave Sherry TCM herbs to use and a facemask to wear, which is quite commonplace over here. Sherry reported that the pills were fine, the powder was gross, and the syrup tasted like licorice but had a bad aftertaste. In TCM class this afternoon we learned that the doctor gave Sherry conflicting medications, one for “wind cold” and one for “wind heat”, so she decided to take the wind cold medication because it tasted better.

This evening we went to see The Legend of Kung Fu, a performance centering around a legend where a little boy grows up in an ancient temple learning kung fu and zen in order to become a warrior monk, an abbot, and finally achieve enlightenment. Overall, the show was interesting and displayed the acrobats’ strengths well. At one point the monk, Chun Yi, balanced himself on three sword tips which was quite impressive. The kung fu sequences were exciting as well – the boys doing flips and landing on their heads was just unbelievable. It must have been painful to learn; imagine how much training was required to learn how to do that properly and in sync! The coordination and timing overall was amazing; everyone was in the right place at the right time. This was especially key during the kung fu sequences, a personal favorite. One great scene showed off the different forms of kung fu. A woman who played the fairy that distracts Chun Yi was incredibly flexible. She could bend herself in half as if it were nothing. Talk about loose ligaments! The woman who played the monk’s mother was flexible too, but not nearly as bendy as the other was. The entire performance was pretty cool, but the English narration was a bit jarring. It would have been just as enjoyable and more authentic (less touristy) if the performance was in Chinese with English subtitles. We are in China after all.

Afterwards Dr. Burgess took us to a vegetarian restaurant that serves imitation meat – it sounds odd but you would swear it was real! They whipped us up tofu fish, tofu beef and tofu chicken. Ruchita is a vegetarian and Dr. Burgess is a vegan, and they definitely appreciated a restaurant where they could eat everything.

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May 18 – First day of classes

The day began at 8AM with Dr. Yang and Taiji. Christine and Becky attended and reported that it was a peaceful way to begin the day. There seems to be no end to Dr. Yang’s areas of expertise!  He will lead Taiji every morning before class for all the interested students.


Xiaoli Li (her English name is Apple) is our TCM instructor; she is a professor at the TCM University and is a TCM practitioner. She taught us all about the fundamental theories and practices of TCM, including concepts such as qi and the balance between yin and yang. Furthermore, we learned about the organs and their relation to the human body, and more importantly, what organs are affected when one becomes ill. It is completely different from the Western model of medicine and completely intriguing. Towards the end of our session with Dr.Li, we were presented with several cases of patients with a variety of syndromes, and we had to devise treatment plans as if we were TCM doctors.

We also met our Mandarin professor this afternoon. He is a charming man that we call Ding Laoshi (Literally Old Master Ding).  Since most of us know absolutely no Mandarin other than “ni hao” (hello), he definitely has his work cut out for him.  Today he began teaching us Mandarin tones and pronunciation, which are quite different from English.  Chinese is a tonal language, which means that changing the way you speak a word changes the meaning of the word. Words are also represented by characters, which are beautiful pictograms that depict the meaning of the word but unfortunately give no clue as to either the pronunciation, the tone or even the word itself.  These characters consist of multiple strokes, which must be written in the correct order.  There is also a second written language called pinyin that consists of roman letters with tones.  Here’s an example:

Teacher                    Characters: 老师                     Pinyin: lǎoshī

Ding Laoshi hopes to teach us to speak Mandarin as well as read and write characters and pinyin.  He has a wonderful sense of humor, which he will definitely need while teaching us!

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May 17 – Visiting the Summer Palace

We took our first official cultural excursion field trip today and visited the Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan or 颐和园 in Mandarin). The Summer Palace was built in 1749 by Emperor Qianlong to celebrate his mother’s birthday.

Sun Wu Kong from Journey to the West

One of the many painted panels of the Long Corridor. Sherry and Emily told us the story of the Monkey King.

It was occupied by the imperial family until the last dynasty ended in the early 20th century.  Our guide was wonderful and told us many stories about the imperial family and the Dragon Lady (Dowager Empress Cixi). Here’s one about the Long Corridor: Qianlong built it so that his mother could walk through the gardens without being exposed to the elements. It’s over 700 meters long and every panel features a different original painting. Since there were no cameras in the 18thcentury, the emperor commissioned his painter to reproduce views and images that he found pleasing.  The grandeur and size is reminiscent of Versailles, although of course the style is entirely Chinese.  The architecture, the gardens and the lake were extremely beautiful – definitely a retreat from the stress of ruling a country!

It doesn't float.

Empress Cixi built this stone boat with the funds meant to build an entire navy. Small wonder she was conquered.

Dude with massive brush

Man writing calligraphy at Summer Palace. He's using both hands at once!

This afternoon our TAs introduced us to some Peking University students and we all got to know each other.  Their program is very different from ours, they have a BS/MS program rather than a BS/PharmD and the students must decide in their third year whether to pursue research or retail.  The students spoke very good English and were just as interested in American culture as we were in Chinese culture.  Several mentioned that they would be interested in a study abroad program at UConn (hint, hint!).

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May 16 – Opening Ceremony

Dr. Yang held our first official class today and introduced us to some of the major concepts of TCM.  Unlike Western medicine, which focuses on curing sickness, TCM focuses on maintaining a healthy balanced state within the body and therefore tends to emphasize prevention and prediction of disease states rather than treating a specific illness. TCM is also deeply rooted in philosophy and lifestyle rather than western medicine, which consists mostly of medical care. Dr. Yang also gave us a very abbreviated history of the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of a unified China. The Qin Dynasty began a war between the Magic Farmer, who ruled an agrarian and agricultural society in central China, and the Most Ugliest Person, who ruled the eastern shore. The Magic Farmer fled to the land of the Yellow Emperor, who ruled a nomadic society in the western grasslands. The Yellow Emperor, with the help of the female tribes of the northeast, defeated the Most Ugliest Person and was chosen to rule the four kingdoms. The Yellow Emperor also wrote a TCM textbook, a manual for physicians that outlines some of the underlying principles of TCM – that the best physicians avoid disease altogether. Other important TCM texts date back to 200 BCE and physician manuals were available by 200 CE. The Compendium of Materia Medica was compiled in the 1500s and lists over 2000 herbal species in 60 categories used to create 11,000 different prescriptions.  Dr. Yang explained that TCM practitioners believe that the body can produce everything necessary to cure disease, and that a good and balanced life will eliminate the need for external medications. The interaction between the mind and the body is called “Qi” (气) which is a manifestation of the interaction between the body and the mind. An imbalance of qi (pronounced “chee”) will lead to negative consequences or disease.  The holistic nature of TCM makes it very different from the western medicine we have been learning about in pharmacy school, but we are all looking forward to learning more.

Our TA Michel took us to the Peking University main campus this afternoon, which was extremely beautiful. The campus was an imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty and many of the old buildings, bridges and landscape features remain. It’s hard to imagine studying in such a distractingly lovely environment, and we greatly enjoyed our tour.

Here’s a picture of Peking University main campus!

It looks like a pagoda, right?

It's actually a water tower. It was the tallest building on campus, which meant all the other buildings could get water. Yay physics!

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