We quickly discovered Beijing was more than just the Forbidden City and historical monuments. The artsy, hipster side of the ancient city can be seen at the 798 Art District, where stalls sell quirky wristbands, leather handbags, retro CDs and film cameras. Part of the gallery district used to be a train station, and the iron rails are a popular spot for tourists to take pictures. Art installations are everywhere - there's a bizarre bronze statue of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with wings, a shiny car painted bright yellow parked on the roadside, and striking graffiti splashed on every visible surface. Finally, we were very tired; we settled down at a stylish rooftop cafe, ordered Vietnamese coffee and watched smartly dressed people walking past.
Our colleagues from the US and Britain were less impressed by the food than we were. We mostly ate at the university canteen, but on the few occasions we ate out, we had a feast of pears, Peking duck and halal beef noodles. Beijing food is famous for its generous use of spices and chilli that can leave your tongue burning even after a few cups of iced water. But the stinging spiciness can be addictive as well.
We paid a visit to the Back Lakes and the Olympic Village, where strangers kept asking to take pictures with my colleagues, an Irish redhead and a blond Scot. It was a great experience for us, as Beijingers were still clearly fascinated by foreign faces.
It was a shame we missed out on a trip to the Great Wall because of rain, but instead a visit to the Summer Palace rounded up our adventure in the capital city.