Actually Immersing Yourself
I know when I was in Scotland, I took every opportunity that I could to go travel around Europe. I was able to visit a large number of cities and countries, and I don't regret any of my travels one bit. However, if there's one thing I could've changed, I wish I would've spent a bit more time actually exploring Scotland. While we went on a weekend tour of the Scottish Highlands not too long after we started school, other than that and the occasional trip a few towns over for fish and chips, I didn't really do as much as I would've liked to really dig into Scottish culture.
During my vacation time here in China, for a number of reasons, I wasn't really able to travel to other countries. In fact, I didn't really even leave Beijing. I realized, however, during that time I was able to experience and understand a lot about Chinese culture, and while I didn't make it to the beaches of Thailand over winter break or to Japan for New Years, I actually managed to learn a lot about where I chose to study abroad. This post isn't meant to discourage traveling to other countries, rather, promote the idea that you don't need to leave the city or country you're studying abroad in every chance you get.
Here's a few things I've done in both Beijing and China:
Liulichang "Culture Street"
Liulichang is a road famous for showcasing Chinese culture, both real and fake. It was actually one of the lesson topics in our textbooks, and I decided to venture over there during our October break after realizing how little of Beijing I had actually seen. I ended up spending an entire afternoon there checking out bookstores full of texts written in traditional Chinese, getting a free lesson in a back alley calligraphy shop, learning a bit about the ivory business in China, chatting with some girls my age who ran a tea pot shop, and practicing my bargaining skills with store owners who sold less-than-authentic traditional Chinese souvenirs and memorabilia.
Hiking Xishan Mountains
The Xishan Mountains are a mountain range located in the Haidian District, in the northwestern part of Beijing, China (where I actually now live). Our hike was lead by an NGO that cleans up trash while hiking mountains. It's a concept most people probably don't think about - if you want to enjoy nature, you should probably help clean it up. There were some great views from the top, and it was nice to actually breathe somewhat fresh air. We did most of the trash pick-up on the way down (which was good because it would have been a little challenging to make the climb while carrying both tongs and a trash bag), and finished the day walking through Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Park).
The Great Wall
A lot of people may not realize this, but The Great Wall (or part of it) actually stretches across the northern part of Beijing. The section of Wall we climbed (Jinshanling section) was an hour and a half to two hour bus ride from the CET campus, but the Juyongguan and Badaling sections are less than an hour away. We hiked, camped, and did early morning yoga on The Great Wall. It was a great way to experience something that's been part of China's history for the last 2,000 or so years, but if you're looking to do something a little less intense, you can easily make a day trip out of it.
A Night At The Olympic Park
My night at the Olympic Park was also part of my October break adventures. It's an awesome place to visit for a lot of reasons. First, it's a great example of the fusion of traditional and modern China. Second, it's the basis of a lot of news and debate - one of the designers of the Bird's Nest is now wanted under arrest by the government, a big chunk of the real estate is either empty or no longer useable, etc. And lastly, it's a great place to chat it up with some locals and practice your Chinese like I did with the Math professor I randomly met while staring at the Water Cube.
Out West In Xi'an
Xi'an was our big CET weekend trip, and one I really loved. There's shortage of things to do or learn about since Xi'an has more than 3,100 years of history, is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, is the eastern end point of the Silk Road, and home to the Terracotta Army. I admit, it took us 13 hours to get to Xi'an by train, which in Europe would mean you've probably traveled through 2 or 3 countries. I mentioning it more so to emphasize the fact that many countries (China, Scotland, Italy) have different traditions, culture, and geography within their borders, meaning you don't have to fly to a different country to taste something new (both literally and figuratively).
Again, traveling is one of the best parts of studying abroad, and if you were to travel to different cities and countries every free moment you had, you would be missing out on one of the most important parts of the study abroad experience: cultural immersion. Whether you have a few hours, a few days, or a few months, there's plenty of exciting and interesting things you can do to absorb some of the culture of the place you're studying abroad in.