I’m doing field work in the Alps”: NJU students’ journey to France in the summer

Today, we identified rocks in the wild.

One student picked up a stone he did not recognize,

and went to the teacher for help.

All others approached, also puzzled and curious.

“This is not cement,” said the teacher.

This is the field work on the fifth day

Of 27 teachers and students from Nanjing University

In the western Alps.  

Starting from the coast of the Mediterranean sea in southeastern France, extending through the center of Europe and stretching approximately 1,200 kilometers across seven countries, the Alps, about 3,000 meters above the sea level, is called the “roof” of Europe by Europeans. Apart from this name, the Alps are also labeled the “palace of nature,” the “natural museum of landforms,” and the “paradise of adventurers.”

The Alps is not only a popular destination for tourists, but also a sacred place for extreme sports and winter sports and the cradle for modern mountaineering.

However, in the eyes of these 23 students, the Alps is more than a popular tourist attraction. The classic glacial landforms, the famous orogeny, and many unsolved riddles have made this place a cradle for theories of geosciences—and the Mecca of these students.

This 15-day trip to France and Italy was not merely a relaxing study tour as imagined, but a bittersweet, exotic one during which the students from Nanjing University had such experiences as riding on rugged mountain roads, travelling with car sickness, walking on foot under the glaring sun, and staying up late to write reports in the western Alps.  

An Appointment of Eight Years

“It has a great benefit for the startup of young scientists’ academic career.”

The Joint Expedition to the Alps was an item in the agreement of cooperation in talent cultivation and scientific research Nanjing University (NJU) signed with Orléans University in 2006.


By this agreement, students from the School of Atmospheric Sciences, School of Geographic and Oceanographic Sciences, and School of Earth Sciences and Engineering applied to the school or department and went through strict review and screening before they were finally selected to be the participants in this expedition.  

In 2008, the first group of NJU undergraduates went to the Western Alps, starting the first joint expedition to the Alps by Chinese university undergraduates.  

One student in the group, Jin Zhengyu, wrote an article, “My Travelogue on the Joint Expedition to the Alps,” which was the first of its kind by a Chinese person.  

The French university’s authorities were so impressed by the Chinese students in that expedition that, according to Chen Yunhan’ recollection, they decided to increase the quota of the Ph.D. students they admit from Nanjing University.  

Last summer’s expedition marked the resumption of the project after eight years.  

Nineteen undergraduates and four graduate students from NJU’s three earth science schools, all excellent ones, followed their predecessors’ footprint to the Alps for field study of the processs and mechanisms of the geomorphological and geological changes in the Western Alps.  

For Nanjing University, this expedition marked the progress in the internationalization of education and deepened its cooperation in earth science and other subjects with Orléans University.

The students benefited much from the expedition. Just as Zhao Tian said, it had a great benefit for the startup of young scientists’ academic career.  

They gained experience and improved their field work ability, and this laid a good foundation for their future study and scientific research.

Vacation in France

“It’s not so free as what it looks in the WeChat.”  

What should a vacation in the Alps be like?

Walking up along the mountain path, and watching as one walks, where there are grass and flowers, they saw high and great mountains. After the climbing, they went down to rest in a cabin lying against rivers and mountains. There, they had a well-prepared western meal in a decent manner.

The vacation the NJU students had in the Alps only sounded relaxing. Their real life there was not so comfortable as what they showed in their WeChat moments.

“Have you ever seen Orléans at four o’clock in the morning?”

This is a joke all the students experienced in person. Indeed, they went to the most famous scenic spot in Europe not for vacation. 

Besides watching and experiencing this “Palace of Nature,” they had to show what they had seen and heard in a scholarly way. At the night of the day they went back to Orléans University, they stayed up till the next morning writing their reports. They also had to prepare their personal reports and reports on special topics.

They did not have a single relaxing day during this “vacation.”  

Every day, they went out in dawn and came back when it was dark.  

Due to the high altitude, the daytime there was long and their field work was demanding, and they had to work at night, so they had little time to relax.


They rented a van to enter the mountain, in which the roads were so winding with twists and turns that they quickly finished all carsick pills. 

It was dangerous when they climbed on foot the oceanic crust to get from 1,000 meters to 2,800 above the sea level, with glaciers, stiff slopes and slippery roads.  

The weather changed to make the matter worse. It was hot and stuffy at the foot of the mountains, and they got sunburns, but it was showering higher in the mountains and they even got caught in a hailstorm when they reached higher up. Then, as they climbed, they had to collect samples from time to time.

Getting accustomed to French food was another challenge. They were not used to what French eat, such as baguette, cheese and ham. The baguette was too hard to chew, and the cheese and ham smelled fishy.  

Besides hardship, however, they also learned to enjoy themselves amid the hardship.

Zhao Tian recalled, “On July 8 in Italy, when we went to the Ancient Roman Road, we drove into a wrong alleyway. It was too narrow to pass through, so the drivers had to back out one by one. When they did this, some cars got prangs, and one of them had the tire rubbed hot, with a stinky smell.  

“When we were waiting for our van, we were lucky enough to enjoy a house by the road, a beautiful building adored with flowers and grass in the front. The resident was an elderly man in short pants under the sun. He came to talk to us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand Italian and he couldn’t understand English.”


Windfalls/Unexpected Gains

“It was like opening a door”

What kind of gains can be called “unexpected”?

“That must be some team members becoming couples, which made us single men and sing women really envious,” Wang Leyi laughed and said.

To be serious, for many science and engineering students, the field trip is an experience many humanities students do not have. However, for students from the three earth science schools, “due to the large proportions of theory study and lab work in our daily life, the opportunities for field trips are few and far between,” said a student.


This trip to the Alps, in particular, had many differences from other field trips.  

When asked what kind of differences they meant, all the interviewed students agreed that it was the French professors’ spirit of professional dedication spirit and the breadth of their knowledge.

Climbing up the Alps with French professors and students of Université d'Orléans, the NJU students felt the rigorous and realistic working attitudes of French professors and even French students’ breadth of knowledge.  

“The professors presided over discussions and their rigorous and realistic attitudes towards science impressed every team member,” said Zhao Tian.  

What benefited us most was the attitude of being rigorous and realistic, emphasizing practice and discussion, and the spirit of professional dedication.

“Professor Faure is over 60 years old but is still energetic,” said Chen Yunhan, sharing a detail of a professor. “He drove the car and led the way. In addition, he answered our questions. Every time we expressed our thanks after he answered our quesiton, he always said, ‘No problem, that's what I do.’”  

Like the French professors, the students of Université d'Orléans also inspired these excellent undergraduates from Nanjing University and even “shocked” them.  

“The way Chinese students study is mainly through the teacher’s explanations, supplemented by self-observation. By contrast, the French students do the opposite: the teacher encouraged students to show their own ideas and even to refute the teacher’s ideas.”  

This amazing “independent learning mode” shocked the students from Nanjing University.  

“I realized that what we have learnt cannot reach the level of many foreign students,” said Zhao Xinhao frankly.  

“The teaching method on the French side points out a good direction for the educational reforms at Nanjing University,” Wang Leyi believed.

Apart from the experiences gained from interacting with French teachers and students, the Nanjing University students also obtained “unexpected gains” from their peers. One student said: “Our Chinese team consisted of teachers and students from the School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, School of Geographic and Oceanographic Sciences, and School of Atmospheric Sciences. Different disciplines may have different ways of thinking, so their discussions often brought about surprising praises like ‘The question can be tackled this way.’”

The trip to the Alps was neither a leisurely holiday nor a simple field trip.

What they saw and experienced was not only natural scenery, starry sky, mountains, grasslands and forests, but also local conditions and customs in Italy and Orléans, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, classical art palaces such as Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and Musée du Louvre, and special French meals, which were full of the milk flavor.  

Like opening a door, they experienced things they could not experience on a field trip at home. This was a “cultural exchange.”  

“Garbage classification in France is conducted better than us,” said Zhao Tian when he talked about some details he had found in daily life. “In France, paying by credit card is much more convenient and popular than paying in cash. The roller rail system and the way of charging of the Paris subway are distinctive. French drivers strictly observe the traffic rules…”

Breathing the cultural air of France, the students gained an international perspective and gradually learned “how to communicate with people coming from other places and countries, and with different research cultures if we do scientific research in the future.”  

This is another treasure the students found apart from the scientific expedition.

Thanks to Zhao Tian, Zhao Xinhao, Wang Leyi and Chen Yunhan for this interview.


Youth in Nanjing University

Article | Wu Jiani

Interview | Lu Songlin, Wu Jiani

Photos | Zhao Xinhao

Art Editor | Yang Chendi

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