China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 220 (30)

Beijing

Thursday 14th October

Today is our last full day In Beijing and we decided that we would take another trip out to another section of the Great Wall, but this time by public transport and without any of the superfluous stoppages for shopping and other diversions. The idea is to go straight to the wall, do our thing there and come straight back.

The 919 public bus ferries people to the Great Wall at Badeling and beyond all through the day and this would be our chosen method of transportation today, but first we had to grab a taxi to take us the twenty minutes across town to where the bus departs from. Once we arrived, we flashed our note that the hostel reception staff had given us, which indicated where we were going and immediately someone nodded and lead us away from the bus stop. We soon realised that it was a taxi driver that was attempting to hook us into an expensive trip in his cab so we ditched him rather unceremoniously and went back to the waiting 919 bus, where I flashed our note again but this time at the bus driver, who nodded in acknowledgement so we got in and made ourselves comfortable.

There were several buses at the bus stop but the particular bus that we got on was a very large city bus that was a rickety old thing and rapidly falling apart at the seems. It was nearly full and we had to wait for just a short while before it finally closed its doors and we departed. A lady in a brown uniform got up and walked through the isle with a handful of ticket stubs and collected a few Yuan from each of he passengers. She relived us of just ¥4 ($0,50) each for the one hour and thirty minute ride to Badeling.

Even though the bus was very old and chugged along the city highways with extreme effort, the ride was nevertheless no less comfortable than with the cramped seats of the tourist bus the other day. It stopped just a few times along the route to let people on and off and we passed several sections of the great wall before arriving at Badeling, where there is considerably more tourist infrastructure to cope with the hoards of daily arriving pilgrims.

Our first order of business was to orientate ourselves in and around the immediate area. A map posted on one of the billboards helped and we set off first in search of a bite to eat. It was still relatively early in the day and the majority of tourist buses had not yet made it to Badeling and so it was consequently very quite and relatively devoid of people. This didn’t stop each and every market stall owner immediately waking up and shouting a well-rehearsed series of chants in our direction each time we passed a stall. Our persistence at ignoring them in turn did nothing to quell their enthusiasm to yell out at us in Chinese. The stalls were arranged in rows along each side of the street and were about two meters wide and a couple of meters deep with all of their wares neatly displayed on tables outside. One by one, each stall owner would stand up and yell at us we approached and fell silent again as we passed. I felt it was very similar to the Mexican wave effect as a sports stadium and it made us both chuckle to ourselves. The range of souvenirs on offer was mostly cheap, plastic, tourist crap with photo film and T-shirts thrown in for good measure. I really don’t understand this method of attracting tourists into buying the sort of rubbish that each and every stall owner sells, most of it the very same junk. We saw nobody buying anything and I can hardly see how the whole experience would make any tourist feel welcome.

It was whilst pondering this dichotomy in the local tourist trade that we realised that I’d left my wind jacket on the bus. Bugger! Ironically, today was the fist time that I used the jacket since leaving Europe. The weather has been very good up till now but the climate here in Northern Asia is slowly starting to turn, now that we a re well into Autumn here, and we have noticed that we are starting to wear more and more layers of clothing in anticipation of the steadily cooler evenings we’ve been experiencing. Loosing my wind jacket it not a major catastrophe but it is a setback nevertheless. We’ll see about contacting the bus depot when we return to Beijing. There is little hope that a lost item on a public bus will resurface but it won’t cost us anything to at least try to inquire.

We never did find anywhere suitable for a bite to eat. The much-hyped KFC that was also posted on the map turned out to be some sort of local copycat restaurant, which looked none to appealing. We decided to get the exercise of climbing the wall out of the way with instead and set off to find the ticket office.

Out tickets into the Great wall were ¥40 ($4,90) with a 50% discount for my ticket since I had a valid student card. Still a little bit gloomy for having lost my wind jacket, we decided to take the easy option of taking the chair lift up to the summit and meandering along the wall back down again. We paid an additional ¥40 ($4,90) each for the five minute chair lift ride to meet the hundreds of other pilgrims already swelling in numbers at the top.

The scene at the top of the summit was not too dissimilar from that below to begin with. More tourist trappings and the odd snack vendor proved to be our immediate obstacle to getting our first actual significant view of the wall. The wall at the top is fairly narrow but the strain we had to endure in fighting our way through the crowds of Chinese tourists was every bit worth the effort. The Great Wall ad Badeling is probably the most visited section of any part of the wall and with good reason. The views of the wall snaking along the mountain ridges as is meanders away from us are truly spectacular. We also had the good fortune of very clear and bright weather and this made for some fantastic photography.

The wall splits at several point and veers off into different directions. It’s almost like there are several walls with some of them converging at tee-junctions. There seems to be very much more of the wall here than we saw at the other section the other day. For the most part, the wall is about three meters wide and there are guard towers every couple of hundred meters where you can ascend a couple of stories for some great vistas. The ground between the two walls that line the entire length of the Great Wall is flat along the relatively horizontal sections with steps starting to form whenever the incline gets too steep to make walking on the flat surface comfortable. The steps are extremely erratic and no two are the same size from each other in any orientation. This unevenness and unpredictability makes for an interesting dilemma. Do you look at the awe-inspiring wall or at where you are walking? Most people end up doing neither very well and the two of us tripped and nearly fell just as frequently as everyone else did.

We spent the better part of an hour or more, slowly making our way along the wall and slowly descending as we went. There were ups and downs still, as the wall followed the contours of the hill on which it is perched but we eventually made it down to approximately ground level again. We could have started to ascend again as the wall started to climb the next mountain but the walk looked extremely strenuous and there was no chair lift at this section to assist so we decided that we’d seen enough and made our way through yet more rows of tourist stalls accompanied by their chanting proprietors and out into the other main car park, a short walk from where we started. There were a couple of very tall America tourist dressed in cowboy attire Stetsons also near the exit and apparently also trying to get out just as we were but they were attracting quite a crowd of on-looking Chinese tourist each clambering to get their photo taken with them. They acted like magnets drawing the crowd away from our path, allowing us free access to the exit turnstiles.

We decided to give the KFC look-alike that we had passed earlier a try. Despite the growing number of tourists now showing up (I shudder to think what it would be like at the top once they all made their way there), the place was completely devoid of any customers (always a bad sign) but we braved one of their set menus of a piece of chicken, a couple of chicken nuggets, some French fries and a coke. I have no idea when the food was cooked but it was probably not today and we soon realised why the place was empty to begin with.

It was at this moment that we wondered how we would communicate with the people at the bus depot back in Beijing about my lost jacket and I had the brilliant idea of calling the hostel to see if they could help with the translation. The depression that we felt earlier at loosing the jacket swiftly returned when I suddenly realised that our trusty mobile phone was in the jacket pocket. Bugger and double-bugger!

With the stakes now very much higher than just a simple wind jacket, I decided to try my luck with the one bored looking bus stop attendant sitting idly in the little kiosk in the middle of the empty car park. Using a pen, I tried to convey the fact that we had left something behind on the bus that left Beijing and arrived in Badeling at the times we had travelled. I’m not sure if she really understood but she did make a quick phone call before shaking her head at me solemnly. Fortunately, a young guy approached with a small crowd of other passengers and was very helpful with offering to translate for us. The net result of the following commotion was that we would be better off asking at the bus depot back in Beijing where all the buses would return to after their jaunts around the countryside.

There was a different type of bus waiting at the bus stop at Badeling than the one we arrived on, which was smaller and looked like it might be air-conditioned. The ticket attendant on-board beckoned us over but the fair was quite a bit more expensive than we had earlier paid and we thought this might have been another example of a look-alike scenario. This is a common phenomenon here in China. Anything that is successful tends to be copied or emulated to trap unsuspecting tourists into paying over the odds for a similar, and often inferior, service. We decided instead to follow the same young chap that had helped us with the translation since we knew that he was also heading straight back to Beijing. This was also a different bus and was quite a bit more comfortable than our morning ride and I asked the young man why it was now ¥12 ($1,50) per person when the earlier ride was just a third of that. He pointed to the cold air coming out of the air-conditioning vents. Being quite a bit more comfortable, the return journey was very much less eventful and we both managed to nod off for a bit. There was a TV screen with a movie playing but this time we had no English subtitles to help us follow the action.

Back at the bus terminal in Beijing, we made our way to the small ticket booth where a woman was dealing with several ticket attendants and I tried again to communicate our problem. Between the three of them and my sometimes animated body language, I did finally manage to convey the gravity of our situation and they set about making phone calls and scanning down the various lists they were using to keep track of departing and arriving busses and which attendants were on board each. I wanted to add that our particular bus was a very old one and my impression of a frail old man walking with a walking stick seemed to go down a real treat ad they all burst into fits of screaming laughter. Perhaps it made me look quite the madman but the point was nevertheless adequately made and this seemed to add fervour to their efforts – once their laughter eventually subsided, about ten minutes later!

Eventually, all of the women that were trying to help us seemed to reach a conclusion and put all the phones down. The looks on their faces clearly conveyed the fact that they had been unsuccessful in locating our lost property. They all seemed genuinely saddened by this. The jacket was mostly likely picked up by one of the passengers, who by now is probably feeling quite chuffed with their new winter wear.

Once again using the services of our hostel to assist in translation, we were directed to the nearest police station to fill out a lost property report for our insurance. It was just a five minute walk away and even though we would much preferred to have went to get some food, it seemed prudent to at least get the police report out of the way with as quickly as possible.

And so it came to pass that we spent the better part of the remainder of the evening in a police station in the middle of Beijing. Although we had directions, they were written in Chinese so we asked a passer by along the route to confirm where we were going. Luckily, our guidebook also has a series of useful words and phrases translated in both directions, which we though would come in very handy. When the chips are down, however, you find out just how useful or useless your guidebook really is. In our case, it was the later that proved to be a more accurate description. Those few translated words that they include in the appendix of the guidebook do seem like they would be useful when you first buy the book but really do turn out to be quite useless for anything more than the most basic of translations. Anything with even the slightest bit more complexity to it leaves the guidebook’s few translated words woefully insufficient and rather useless.

We did find the police station, although we later learned that it wasn’t actually a police station after all but more some sort of local office, but the next hurdle was trying to communicate with the small group of officers and officials that slowly accumulated around us once we arrived. We were a little unsure about the whole thing as it appeared in the surface to look like we were unwelcome or that we had in some way drafted them into a situation that they didn’t want to deal with. Eventually, however, a young man with spiky hair in civilian dress arrived who could speak a few words of English. We’ve found that if anyone is going to speak any English here in China, it is going to be the younger generation. With his help, we managed to explain the situation, or so we thought, and we were led upstairs into what looked like some sort of control room. A rather stern looking and smartly uniformed police officer surveyed us severely and I rather got the impression that he was put out by our presence. We were nevertheless asked to be seated and several intense conversations subsequently took place with lots of phone calls being made. Although Mr. Spiky hair was very pleasant towards us, it did seem like an awful lot was happening just to accommodate the simple matter of a lost property report.

After a few more attempts to communicate a more fine tuned explanation of what had happened (an exercise in pulling teeth if ever there was one), we finally figured out that they had understood us to have been robbed and our passports stolen. By flashing our passports and a little more intense explaining, we finally convinced them otherwise and the whole atmosphere suddenly became very much more welcoming. Mr. Spiky told us to relax and that they were going to help us. After about two hours of being there, I was seriously considering cutting our losses and calling the whole thing off. I told him that we were very hungry and needed to get something to eat. He told this to the stern looking guy, who was obviously top dog here and very much the man in charge, who them immediately and very severely motioned something to the controller. The controller sprung to his feet and raced out of the door. He came back a couple of minutes later with an arm full of biscuits and light snacks and Mr. Stern looked at us and smiled. It suddenly became very apparent that Mr. Stern had our very best interests at heart and that his severe pacing posture and attitude was probably more something along the lines of his being put out by the fact that we had been disadvantaged on his watch. He actually seemed to genuinely care about us and our well-being. I went abruptly from feeling slightly anxious and even a little afraid of the whole situation to a feeling of warmth and security.

After several more phone calls back and forth between myself and the hostel, the idea suddenly struck to simply call the mobile phone in my lost jacket and see if anyone picks it up. Just why we didn’t think of this earlier astounds me now. It has to be said, however, that we’d probably be lost if we did make the call and someone did pick up the phone anyway. This way, at least the person making the call could identify them as a police officer and I figured this would give us the best chance or making any progress on the off chance that the phone was answered. Naturally, neither of us knows the phone number to the new SIM card we bought just a few days ago so we had the hostel receptionist go into our room back at the hostel to look for the card that had the number on it. With my description of where to look in the room, they were successful at this and the police officer made the call. Alas, the phone was apparently switched off. With that turn of events, we pretty much resigned ourselves to a sealed fate. Fortunately, the jacket and mobile phone combined cost us little more than about $200 so it wasn’t the end of the world, but still enough of an inconvenience nevertheless.

Mr. Spiky kept telling us to wait ten minutes (he did this about five times over the course of an hour) and I thought I’d use the time to perhaps try to give our insurance a call. I have a little laminated card that I keep with me, which has all sorts of useful buts of information printed on it, such as the toll-free twenty-four hour hotline for emergencies. Unfortunately, international calls, even toll-free ones, could not be dialled from the police station.

About two hours after our initial arrival at the police station, an English speaking man arrived with the paperwork and authority to provide us with a lost property report. He was very nice and explained that we had actually turned up at a regional security office and not a police station after all. Had we made our way to an actual police station, the whole process would probably have been much quicker and smoother. He wrote everything down and I completed a statement form. The requisite stamps were applied and we were on our way. If nothing else, it turned out to be an adventurous evening.

Wasting no time in grabbing a taxi back to the hostel, we quickly ditched our bags and went off in search of one of those famed shopping complexes with a buffet-style food-court. One of the travellers we chatted with yesterday evening had read over my shoulder when I was writing that part of my log entry that explained our frustration at not having found one of these as yet and he had given us directions to one of the better ones in Beijing. We followed what I thought were his instructions to the letter but arrived instead at what looked like an empty construction lot. Things were definitely not going our way today and we were now feeling quite dejected at having once again failed to achieve a relatively simple goal. It was quite a walk to get to this derelict construction site and just the sort of thing we didn’t need to happen to as after the earlier events of the evening. Now quite depressed, tired, hungry and, notably without my jacket, now quite cold too, we quickly scanned the area to see where else we could eat.

As luck would have it, there was what looked like a large shopping mall just across the road so we made a beeline for it. It was quite big inside with several levels but we couldn’t find anything that looked like a food-court and we were slowly resigning ourselves to one again having to rely on the arches of golden yellow of the bucket of endless chicken when we stumbled on a down escalator and decided to give it a try before completely giving up. As luck would have it, we found the Holy Grail we were looking for after all and I had simply misunderstood part of the directions I had previously been given. The food-court consisted of many counters of staffed cooking facilities with every type of oriental food dish that you could imagine available in bite-sized portions that you could pick and choose. The idea is to buy a smart card and load it with money. As you walk through the food-court and slowly stock your tray, the staff at each counter would tally up your total and swipe this from your remaining balance. After wandering around trying to take everything in, we each found a few things to our liking and enjoyed the meal. I wouldn’t say that it was a gourmet experience but it was tasty enough and quite filling. We cashed our card back in at the end of it all and had spent a combined total of ¥78 ($9,50) altogether.

Back at the hostel, we sat and told the other travellers all about our fun and games at the Great wall and subsequently at the security bureau. After a nice meal and a bit of a rest, we found it much easier to laugh at the whole situation and could put it all into perspective. We then called it an early night so that I could catch up on some backlogged journal entries. It can take me anything up to a couple of hours or more to write up each day’s events and a couple of times now, I’ve had enough energy only to write down some notes before dozing off. If it backs up too far, it can become a chore so I like to keep on top of it as much as possible. I find that I can quite easily recall all the events from the day either that evening or the next day but like to make sure that I get everything down before failing memory starts to shift some of the finer details out of focus.

We have our confirmed train tickets for the trip to Datong tomorrow and will probably pack first thing in the morning before making our way to the Beijing West train station. We have no idea where that is and will probably just grab a taxi.

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