China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 218 (28)


Tuesday 12th October

I kept telling myself at breakfast that a good night’s sleep should have shaken off the problems of yesterday but little did we realise when we set off this morning that those problems would only be replaced by new ones today. It is official; travelling in China is hard work.

Our sole objective for today was to visit and experience the Great Wall of China. What could be simpler? Ha! The Great Wall of China has been one of my life’s to-do list items for quite some years now and, indeed, is one of those few key sites around the world that have contributed significantly as underlying reasons for why we have embarked on this trip to begin with. It ranks right up there with Ayres Rock, the Great Barrier Reef, Easter Island, Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Galapagos Islands and the Taj Mahal. Now that we are finally here in Beijing, we have to deal with the practicalities of how to achieve this goal at the local level. In all my dreams about visiting the Great Wall, I have never given any consideration to how it would be done. I had just envisaged myself strolling along the wall as I’ve seen people do in various TV programmes over the years. Physically getting from Beijing to the Great Wall has never been something that I thought would even need thinking about. Well, as it turns out, getting to the Great Wall does require some thought and consideration after all. Firstly, the Great Wall is not actually a single place. It’s not one continuous wall that follows the landscape in an unbroken line. There are actually several sections of the wall, many of which are separated from each other by great distances. Each of the segments was built during different dynasties by different emperors for different defensive reasons. So the first consideration, when setting out to visit the Great Wall then, is choosing which part of the Great Wall to visit. Some sections have been restored and rebuilt in modern times and attract hoards of tourists whilst other sections are still relatively in ruins and are difficult to access. These are much less visited. Some sections of the wall can be scaled and others again are so treacherous that the authorities have closed off access due to people falling and killing themselves.

In addition to choosing which part of the wall to visit, you then have to choose how to get there. Here again there are several choices to confuse you. The most common choice is to go with a pre-arranged tour group. This is also the most expensive method and probably the easiest since it usually means that there will be an English-speaking guide. Having an English-speaking guide goes way beyond mere convenience as we discovered to our cost. It is very difficult to put into words the grief that can be caused by even the simplest of problems here in China, which can be magnified exponentially when there is no effective means of communication with the people around you. The problem with the organised tour guides, other than the fact that they can be very expensive (our hostel charges ¥180 or $22 per person), is that they don’t by any stretch of the imagination only include a trip to the Great Wall. No, you have to stop off at several places along the way and are taken to ‘shopping’ opportunities and so on. If ever the phrase tourist trap was more appropriate, it is with these types of organised tours, where the Chinese have refined the art of trapping tourist to an exceedingly fine degree.

Neither of us really liked the idea of travelling like packaged tourists and so the idea of a pre-arranged tour through our hostel was not very appealing so we considered going with the public bus instead. We discussed this option with the travel agent here in the hostel but were stringently advised against doing so. The trip is apparently very long and involves sitting on a crowded bus full of Chinese visitors to the wall. The bus could be so crowded that we might even have to stand in cramped conditions for the several hours journey time. After talking this through with the travel agent, we weren’t too keen on this idea either. I have to admit to being just a little bit sceptical about what our travel agent here was telling us. She would like nothing more to sell us a pre-arranged package tour, earning a tidy commission in the process, and may very well have been trying to talk us out of the public bus idea deliberately in the hope of winning our business.

Another alternative is to hire a taxi for the day. A round trip to the Great Wall at Badeling should cost no more than ¥300 ($36,50) but that is still relatively expensive and there is still the problem of communicating with the taxi driver – a seemingly simple challenge that is still practically insurmountable if you don’t speak Chinese. It’s all very well having someone write a few bits of information down on paper but as soon as the taxi driver decides to ask a simple question, that’s when the fun and games begin. I could quite imagine trying to tell the taxi to wait for us for an hour but coming back to find he has driven off, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere to fend for ourselves.

A cheaper option is offered by our guidebook in the form of a government sponsored tourist bus. These are air-conditioned buses that are more comfortable that the public buses, which depart during the day when they are full. At just ¥50 ($6) each, this sounded like the ideal option for us independent budget travellers so we decided to give it a try. All we needed to do was to find the correct bus stop for this type of bus and this should be somewhere in the vicinity of the Beijing train station, which just happens to be a short walk up the main street not far from here.

Before we left the building this morning, I spoke to the resident travel agent about our onward travel to Datong, our next destination here in China after Beijing. Datong is a five-hour train journey due West of here but, again, the simple task of booking a train ticket is insurmountable when you cannot speak Chinese so I asked the travel agent to book this ticket for us. I had hoped to simply leave instructions to buy the ticket and to pay for the ticket when we returned back to the hostel later today but she insisted on making the call to book the tickets on the spot and for us to pay straight away. All of this meant that we were now running dangerously close to missing the last departing tourist bus of the morning to the Great Wall at Badeling. As if to rub salt into the wound she hit us with a ¥20 ($2,50) commission charge for each ticket when the ticket itself cost just ¥32 ($4) each. Ouch! With the ominous threat of missing our bus looming over us, I didn’t have time to mess about with this and simply handed over the ¥104 ($12,75), took my receipt and we left quickly.

We walked in the direction of the train station but quickly came to the conclusion that we really didn’t know where we were going or what bus stop to look for. We had our guidebook with us but all it said was that we should get tourist bus number two near the train station. The street and avenues of Beijing are vast and wide and several of these wide carriageways abut the train station making everything a lot of walking distance from each other. To make matters worse, there are dozens of bus stops and even more buses collecting passengers and departing to all four corners of Beijing and beyond. This is exactly what I mean by a simple problem becoming a major hurdle. We might have been just yards from where we needed to be but with nobody who speaks English to ask and with all the signs on the buses in Chinese, we were completely lost. We were now very tired for all the frantic walking around and both getting irritable and agitated with each with each passing minute. We passed the same KFC that we ate at a few days ago and decided to see if there was someone behind the counter that spoke enough English to direct us. It was just our luck to find that nobody on duty this morning spoke any significant English. Using the pinyin that we took from the guidebook (a kind of English phonetic spelling of Chinese words) we managed to extract from the KFC staff at least the direction we needed to walk in to find our tourist bus.

Ten more agonising minutes later and now really very frustrated with each other due to all the disagreements we had regarding how to follow the directions we were given, we found our bus stop and located a bus with a number two and some Chinese writing on it. We even managed to find the guide that would be travelling along with the tourists but, of course, it was a fluent Chinese-speaking guide with not a single English word in his vocabulary. Nevertheless, we had found the last departing bus of the morning and were now safely on board. A difficult birth but at least we made it this far. I repeated the words Badeling and Great Wall a few times to the guide and he nodded with a smile and repeated Great Wall back to me in a very thick Chinese accent so I took this to be confirmation that we would at least be going to the Great Wall.

For all the rushing we did, the bus didn’t actually leave for another forty-five minutes after several more passengers climbed aboard. It was a small bus, somewhere between the size of a city bus and a mini-van with about twenty seats in all, about half of which were occupied by the time we departed. It was air-conditioned but the eats were very narrow and not particularly comfortable after all. The guide sat up front after a while and spoke to us all about where we would be going, what time we would be getting there, how long we had, how much it would cost to get in, etc., etc. Since all of this was in fluent Chinese, we understood absolutely nothing and no attempts were made to ensure that we had understood anything. For all we knew, he might have been explaining how to prepare the local variety of egg-fried rice with poodle soup and green beans. After this fifteen-minute diatribe using what sounded like nothing but continuous vowel sounds with a rapid and randomly changing pitch, everyone on the bus was relieved of ¥50 ($6) each for the journey.

The guide went back to his seat and we then continued to drive out of Beijing and into the middle of nowhere for the next hour or so. When the guide suddenly resumed his position at the front of the bus and re-started his vowel sound monolog again, we knew that we were approaching something. With still no sign of a wall in sight, great or otherwise, we pulled into the car park of what looked like an amusement park and everyone got out. Somewhat confused by this I asked the guide what was going on. Well, actually I simply repeated the worlds Ming Tomb since it was quite likely that our visit to the Great Wall would include via a brief stop off at the Ming Tombs not far from Badeling. The guidebook does say that these tourist buses often stop there on the way. He nodded and grinned again and ushered us all to the ticket booth. Thinking we were buying tickets that would include our entry into the Ming Tombs, I purchase two ¥55 ($6,70) tickets for Sandy and myself and along with the rest of the group, we went inside. It was at this point that the guide extended a metal tube, stuck a blue flag onto the end of it, held it in the air and walked off with everyone following. My worst nightmare was coming true right in front of me. We were in a tour group, blindly following a guide holding a flag. Ahhhhhh!

We walked part way through the theme park towards a nondescript building. The theme park itself looked rather tatty and worse for ware. It seemed deserted for the most part, although all the run down looking attractions and snack booths were manned. The whole place seemed like it was from another time and had more in common with a small town fairground than anything else.

We were all ushered into a hall and then into strange looking chairs, each facing a large screen. After a while, the penny eventually dropped. We were going to sit through a motion simulation ride. Sure enough, the lights dimmed, the chairs lifted slightly and started moving in sync with a projected animation on the screen. It lasted for about five or six minutes and wasn’t particularly interesting. The show didn’t even have anything to do with the Great Wall of Ming Tombs. That at least would have been something.

After leaving the simulated motion ride auditorium, we were then marched off to the other side of the park where ext up was a water flume ride with a sign warning that we would likely get very wet. It was crystal clear to us now that we had been duped into buying entrance into a very poor theme park and that we would not be seeing the Great Wall or Ming Tombs any time soon. We were really quite annoyed at this once the realisation finally hit and refused to get onto the ride, much to the apparent distain of the tour guide. I decided to up the ante a little and tried to ask about the Ming Tombs with a little more forcefulness in my voice and a little more animation in my body language. The best I could decipher form him was that it was coming. This made me wonder whether this whole theme park was built as a means to provide a little more for the average Chinese tourist when visiting the Ming Tombs. Perhaps we were already at the Ming Tombs and would soon be escorted into the main entrance somewhere. I knew that the tombs were underground so maybe we had to go subterranean first.

With a lot of enthusiasm directed towards the two of us, our guide motioned to us that the next attraction was underground. Somewhat encouraged by this, we reluctantly went into the next building along with the others and boarded a slow moving series of carriages – somewhat like the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot in Orlando. I started to get very excited when the carriages slowly made their way deeper and deeper into the attraction. Perhaps this was finally the means by which we would be taken to see the Ming Tombs, all be it a very roundabout way. The day was looking brighter already. The ride progressed through a whole load of animatronic puppets moving very awkwardly in rooms of various themes, much like a ghost train ride at a fairground. Then, the carriage started to move up a steep incline again. All the puppets slowly disappeared and the music died away. The next thing we knew, we had arrived at our starting point again and everyone was alighting. We had been duped again! Not a Ming Tomb anywhere to be seen. When we got outside this time, I really made my feelings clear to the guide who was by now starting to get impatient with us too. Then he repeated the words Ming Tomb a few times and motioned us over to a wall overlooking a lake. He pointed out over the lake and again repeated the words Ming Tombs. Were they under the lake? Were they on the other side of the lake? What on earth was he talking about?

When the group was then ushered back onto the waiting bus again, we pretty much gave up on seeing the Ming Tombs here and reluctantly climbed aboard. We could have just sat back and laughed at the whole ridiculous situation but for the fact that we had now unnecessarily depleted what local currency we brought with us to the point where we might not have enough money to get into the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. It was no longer funny.

After setting off again in the bus, we thought that we might now be taken to the Ming Tombs but we stopped after about five minutes at what looked like one of those ‘shopping opportunities’ and we were all invited to get out and get spending. This was the last straw for me and I decided to take action. Luckily, we still had one of our get me home cards with us and this had the phone number of our hostel on it so I called them to see what assistance I could summon. Fortunately, the woman that answered the phone was one of the slightly better English speakers back at the hostel and I manage to convey to her the problem of our no longer having enough money to cover the cost of our remaining ticket purchases owing to the fact that we had been duped into buying tickets into that shitty theme park. I had her speak with our guide and they argued back and forth for what seemed like an eternity before I was handed back the phone again. Our guard had apparently told her that he did not pressure us into buying the theme park tickets and that the best he could do for us was to arrange a ¥20 ($2,40) discount for one of us at the Great Wall. This was hardly a huge win but it at least told us that we would still get to see the Great Wall after all. It turned out that we were now at our last diversion before the Ming Tombs and then onto the Great Wall. Our ordeal it seems was nearly at an end.

This latest stop also doubled up as a lunch stop. Of course with very little money with us, we could not really afford to spend any on food so we just sat in the bus. It left half an hour later and we finally found our way to the Ming Tombs. It was the first ray of sunshine we saw during the whole day so far. Still very peeved about the whole situation, I tried to tell our guide that we had no money to buy tickets to get in and he subsequently made a few more phone calls. After a bit of fast-talking, he used hand signs and body language to tell us that we would not have to pay to get into the Great Wall after all. For all the problems of the day so far, it seemed like he was genuinely trying hard to make us happy and we found middle ground here so we bought our tickets and went in with the rest. We had little choice but to tag along with our group but we did our level best to avoid looking like we were following a man with a flag.

The Ming Tombs themselves are, indeed, underground but are truly the most unimpressive thing we’ve seen so far here in Beijing. Perhaps it was the fact that we understood nothing of what was being said but all we really saw was a couple of underground chambers with a lot of people walking through them. In the end, the whole thing was a huge disappointment.

The trip to the Tombs lasted about an hour and the day was now starting to really drag on. Our guidebook says that the Great Wall at Badeling closes at four in the afternoon and it was now a quarter past three already. The guided tour of the tombs didn’t end soon enough for us and we clambered onto the bus as quickly as we could, all the time motioning to our watches to try to impart some degree of urgency to the guide and driver.

The drive to the Great Wall lasted over half an hour and we arrived at around three-fifty. As it happens, it wasn’t the Great Wall at Badeling that we visited but another section of the wall not too far from Badeling. I couldn’t pronounce the name of this place and would not know how to write it either but at least it was finally the Great Wall of China. Another quick phone call and we were ushered through the entrance gate without having to pay anything at all. This was a savings of ¥80 ($10). In the grand scheme of things, $10 is not a lot of money but when it is your only money, it is a lot and missing out on an opportunity of a lifetime to climb the Great Wall of China for the lack of a mere $10 would have been completely devastating.

The Great Wall met and exceeded all my wildest dreams. This particular section has been reconstructed but looks every bit the Great Wall I had hoped to see. It is several meters wide and climbs the mountain peaks with guard towers every coupe of hundred yards or so. I wasted no time in trying to climb up a steep section to get the highest possible view my straining heart would carry me. Our only regret was that it was so late in the day that the mountains were casting contrasting shadows over the hillsides and these were causing lighting difficulties for the digital cameras. The upper half of the hillsides were very brightly lit still but the shadows were a very contrasting darker shade and it was difficult to get a really good composition. Shadow or no shadow, however, we did get some stunning views and I can now finally claim to have climbed the Great Wall of China. All of the problems of the day were instantly wiped clean and we revelled our own satisfactory glow, having once again knocked off another life’s to-do list entry.

Before being let loose on the wall, our guide used his fingers to tell us that what time we needed to be back. We understood him to mean four-fifty and we duly returned to the meeting point at that time, even though we could have spent more time exploring this section of the wall. To our dismay, however, there was no bus and nobody else waiting for us at the meeting point. Indeed the car park was completely empty and a horrific premonition swept over me. I had upset the tour guide so much during the day that they had decided to cut their losses and leave us stranded. We sat there, lonely and desolate for about half an hour, pondering life and other philosophical issues and wondering what would happen now. Perhaps it was that we were still in awe of the Great Wall snaking up the landscape all around us but we were quite numb with a strange emotional void blanketing our minds. Then, quite suddenly, someone walked around the corner. It was the familiar face of one of our tour group members. Apparently, our bus was just around the corner. Within another half an hour, all of our number had reassembled and we all boarded the bus for the last time. We were now heading back to Beijing. For all the crap we had to endure today, none of it mattered any more. We had ultimately achieved our goal and that was all that matters. The rest can be put down to an adventurous day out in China.

The journey back to Beijing seemed to take forever and we must have hit every small back road and dirt track between the Great Wall and the capital. They did show a movie on the way home and even though it was Chinese spoken, it was quite entertaining and we laughed along with the rest of the other Chinese in the bus at all the same funny bits. It was a nice tension relief and helped pass the time away during the long return journey. As luck would have it, the movie finished just a few minutes before reaching Beijing. It now being rush hour, however, this was still forty-five minutes before our arrival back at our departure point.

Once we unceremoniously got off the bus, we went in search of a shopping mall, of all things. Sandy had read in the guidebook that most shopping complexes are equipped with a buffet-style food court where you can pick and choose what you want and it would be cooked in front of you right there and then. These food courts are recommended as a means to try various Chinese dishes that you might otherwise not get a chance to try. We found a nearby shopping complex and duly went in search of the promised food court. Our luck being what it is, however, made us choose probably the one shopping complex in the whole of Beijing that doesn’t have such a food court and we left, slowly getting irritated again.

We decided that the row of restaurants close to where our hostel is located would be the best option now that the clock was ticking and we needed to at least eat something before turning in, since we have thus far eaten nothing all day. We passed up on the first decent looking restaurant that we found as it was very smoky inside but the next looked OK. As we walked through the door, the doorman outside asked if we needed a table for three. Apparently, another young man was also going into the restaurant. Seeing the funny side of the situation, Sandy invited him to sit with us, which he did. He was apparently a young Dutch man working for a few days in Beijing. We had a very enjoyable meal exchanging anecdotes about our experiences in interacting with the Chinese and their culture. We relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and we welcomed and ending to the day on a high note.

We set out this morning shortly after nine with a very simple aim in mind. We returned well past ten at night after what has been one of the most interesting days so far in Beijing. As I’ve said already, China is hard work.