Friday, 19 April 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2c: The Great Wall of China

world-map beijing


In this week’s extract, I get to visit one of the most famous sites of them all… and rediscover why travelling in an organised group is really not a very good idea at all.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna


20th July, 2002 – Beijing, China

The Lowlander does not do organised group tours. “If I had to go on one of those coach holidays to the Rhine,” he once said, “I think I would kill myself.”

I do not do organised group tours. The last time that I went on one was in Spain with my mother. We went to a monastery. That was ok. Except that because our two coaches were there, and several others as well, it was very busy. And monasteries are all about peace and serenity. Plus, on the way back, we had to listen to the commentary. Firstly in English (ok), then in Spanish (fair enough), then German (Mein Gott!) in French (Excusez moi?) and finally in Dutch (lekker... not!). And after but an hour or two at the monastery, there was an uncalled for visit to a souvenir emporium, a trip to a winery (never asked for that one either, and there was only one free glass!), and the obligatory meal at a restaurant that would undoubtedly go out of business if it weren't for the tour groups, since I doubt that anyone would ever actually choose to dine there. And all this, for a highly-inflated price.

That's why we don't do organised tour groups.

So why were we both sat at the back of a bus that morning, listening to a tour guide's fascinating commentary... in Chinese?

The fact is, if you go to China, the one sight that you really can't miss is the Great Wall. It's like a eating a Sunday Dinner but leaving the roast beef, (vegetarians, don't start...). Problem was, that seeing the Wall is not easy. Possible yes, but time consuming and an all round pain. Unless of course, you book yourself on an organised group tour. And we, with limited time to spare, well what choice did we have? So there we sat, like the two bad boys at the back of the coach on the primary school trip to the swimming baths, listening to our guide witter on in Mandarin.

'Mandarin?!' you exclaim. 'But why ever did you not book yourselves onto a tour in English, or even Dutch?' Oh, but we did. 'Full commentary in English and Chinese' said the blurb that the travel agent in Beijing railway station handed us. Sounded good. But what exactly did they mean by 'Full commentary in English and Chinese'? Well, we soon found out. About ten minutes solid of Mandarin, punctuated by a brief, 'We are now passing Lama Temple on left. This is temple of religion of Xisang or Tibet,' before it was back into Mao-speak. Except of course, that at that moment we weren't passing any Lama Temple at all, since we'd already done that when she'd been announcing exactly the same thing in her native tongue. No, the commentary was a complete waste of time, and indeed the only bit that I remembered was when she announced who we had on the bus.

“Today we have many tourist from all around the world and China. We have foreigner from America, Singapore, Britain and the Netherlands, and people from many Chinese province such as Guangdong, Hubei, Manchuria, Shaaxi and Taiwan.” The Chinese province of Taiwan. Hilarious!

Our bus pulled up outside a large building that looked disturbingly unlike a Great Wall or Ming Tomb; the only two stops mentioned on our itinerary. “Where's this?” I asked our guide to all things touristy.

“This is jade factory. Here you can see them making the jade jewellery.”

And more importantly, buy the stuff too. The place was more like a hypermarket for green stone trinkets than any factory that I've ever seen. We were not impressed. Thankfully, they served free tea, so we bought some noodles since we were famished after having woken up at a ridiculously early hour, gone without breakfast and then sat on the bus for over an hour whilst they did the rounds of countless hotels more expensive than ours. And so we sat, supped and slurped, and bought not one bit of jade, and yes, made the guide wait until we'd finished.

The next stop however, was the real thing. We knew that since the bus actually passed through a special bus-sized gateway in the wall first, (how foresighted those ancient emperors had been), before entering into what looked like a mass meeting for bus rights in China. Coaches of all shapes, sizes and colours crammed onto an expanse of tarmac. It was the car park.

And so we alighted into a seething mass of tourists, brightly-clad dancers, musicians playing annoying traditional music, and hawkers yelling “Hello T-shirt!” It was overwhelming, but never to fear, our trusty guide led us through the massed throngs to a ticket office. “Queue here,” she said. The price was Y25.

“Wait a minute,” said I to my comrade from a below-sea-level town. “Wasn't the entrance fee included in the tour package.”

“That's what the guy in the travel agent said.” The American in our group, a pleasant, mild-mannered businessman, agreed too.

“Excuse me,” I said, (just remembering to omit 'miss'). “But haven't we already paid to get onto the Wall?”



“Well yes, you paid in the tour price.”

“So what's this for then?”

“The sliding cars.”

Sliding cars? What bloody sliding cars? We'd come here to see a world famous historical monument, not to play at being Nigel sodding Mansell! “But I don't want to go on the sliding cars!”

I was confronted by a glare that said, 'How dare you defy me impudent foreign devil? Nobody questions the wisdom of a trip on the sliding cars!'

“But the group is going on the sliding cars,” said she.

“But we are not!” replied the Lowlander. “Can we have our Great Wall tickets please?”

And so we never did slide on those cars, but to be honest, I don't regret it. Instead we walked the Badaling section of the Wall as far as they would allow us to, and that done, we walked back. And not only was that cheaper than the sliding cars, but it was also healthier and damn good fun.

Most people that you talk to, advise steering clear of Badaling with its tourist mecca by the entrance, and to be honest, you can see why. However, both the Lowlander and I do not really agree. Despite the huge numbers of visitors, Badaling is still one of the most complete sections of the Wall, restored in full, so you can really get a taste of what it had once been like in its Ming Dynasty (I think) heyday. Yet if you do desire a bit of peace and quiet, and a taste of the rugged Wall, then just walk less than a kilometre from the sliding cars and 'Hello T-shirt' stalls, and there you'll find it. A ruined Wall and not a soul in sight, the majority of tourists not bothering to walk any length of the structure at all. And as for all the in yer face tourist kitsch by the car park, well, that's got to be seen to be believed. No, here we got the best of both worlds, which we wouldn't have had had we booked on a trip to a more remote spot. So all I say, is don't knock it until you've tried it.

badaling 01 Badaling

Actually, it's quite fair to say that we both really enjoyed our Great Wall experience. The Wall is remarkable in its construction, its gradients (Jesus, it's steep!), and the surrounding scenery is breathtaking. What's more, at the far end where it fell into ruin, it was quite atmospheric and tranquil, and we descended down the countless steps back to 'Hello T-shirt' Land, contented gents indeed.

badaling 02

The Great Wall: steep

We still had a little time before the rest of our group returned from their guide-orchestrated succession of over-priced pleasures, so we decided to investigate an interesting-looking site just off the main complex that the Lowlander had spotted when we were up on the Wall. It turned out to be some sort of deserted Great Wall Funland, with mock plastic fortifications fading in the sunlight away from today's tourist. And it proved of course that history is forever moving, always moving, always creating and destroying. This was the previous generation's contribution to the Great Wall story. Not the finest maybe, but a contribution nonetheless.

badaling 06 The Great Wall: either you like it…

badaling 05 …or you don’t.

Lunch was of course, included in the price and I'll own that on this count at least there were no complaints from the Pointon quarter. A fine banquet spread of Chinese fayre was laid on, which we shared with the rest of our round table, all fellow bus travellers, all Chinese and all alas, completely devoid of English language skills. We did however, manage to have some fun with one of our fellow sightseers, making monster faces and thus friends with a cute younger member of the crew.

After dinner however, our tour-going gripes continued, since even though we were forced out of the dining room at an allotted time, and the bus was but a two minute walk away, our sage tour organisers had allowed us an hour and a half to make the trek. The reason behind that though was sadly oh too obvious, for that short walk to our mode of transportation was through the Friendship Store, a vast emporium of tack, both cheap and expensive, for tourists of all nations. From scrolls to dolls, silk to jade and fans to drinks cans it was all there, and thankfully we had plenty of time to buy it. To be fair though, I was glad of the opportunity in one respect. My mother collects dolls from abroad and I hadn't managed to get her a Chinese one yet, and so I coolly accomplished the task in the Friendship Store, but that little job took but fifteen minutes at most and for the rest of the time we just waited.

And it was just that waiting that pissed off both me and my companion from a more horizontal place. Around an hour or so at the jade place, another hour and a half here and it was a similar story later on at a Chinese Herbal Medicine Centre that we also hadn't asked to visit. If we'd have just gone to the Wall and Tombs, and then straight back without all this money making crap, then we'd have had time to visit the Lama Temple, or Summer Palace; sights that we wanted to see but hadn't the time to. But alas, we were straightjacketed by the bloody tour, and so we never got to see either. Still, looking on the bright side of a bad situation, (as one often must if one is a Stoke City supporter), at least this was for us a one-off. Oh, how I pity those poor folk for whom such tours constitute their annual holidays!

Back on the bus going towards the Ming Tombs, we struck up a conversation and friendship with the mother of the monster face's kid. That six-year old girl's named turned out to be the rather surprising title of 'Email'. The educated Chinese have a strange habit of picking for themselves an 'English name' because their real names are deemed to be unpronounceable by Westerners. We encountered quite a few of these on our travels, particularly here in the Eastern half of the country, but none so hilarious as 'Email'. Quite why a mother would consider 'Email' to be a beautiful name for her offspring I know not, but I for one was inspired. When I decide to start a family it'll be 'Hard Drive' for the boy, (masculine or what?), and 'Homepage' for the girl (the domestic instinct you see). Not only that, but then her initials will be 'H.P', which is of course also a famous brand of ketchup (now what about that as a middle name?) and what more could one want in a name than that?

Our Email turned out to be from Shenzhen, the ultra-rich Chinese Special Economic Zone adjacent to Hong Kong, and it was obvious that this one-child family were a model of the new Chinese prosperity. Loaded or not, she was a nice kid and I was soon busy teaching her and her ten year-old playmate George, papers scissors stone; how to touch the tip of your nose with your tongue and that age-old and ever-popular trick with the kids, turning one's eyelids inside-out.

email Email meets Snail mail

Typically modern China Email might have been, but George was not since the young lady with him turned out to be not his mother, but his sister. “But how did you get past the one-child policy?” I asked.

“Because we're from Taiwan,” she replied. “This is our first time in China too. We're here to see our homeland.” Taiwanese visitors to the People’s Republic are now welcome, but it's not easy. George and his sister had to go first to Hong Kong, and then apply for a special passport for 'Residents of China's Taiwan Province'; their international ones, like the country itself, not being recognised by the Chinese government. “Do you think that perhaps one day Taiwan shall rejoin China?” I asked, eager to hear an insiders opinion on the China-Taiwan debate.

“Well, looking at how Hong Kong has turned out, I don't think that it would really damage us economically. There's not the big economic difference that there used to be. But it won't happen for some time. Our politicians have their own agendas and many people still mistrust the communists. But as for me, well, why not give it a chance?”

email and george At the Ming Tombs, left to right: Email’s mum, Email, George’s sister, George, the Lowlander and me

The Ming Tombs were for me, a bit of a disappointment. For a start they were crammed with people, and on top of that they were but tombs; white chambers underground with not a lot inside them. I spent most of the time playing with Email and talking to George's sister, whilst jostling with the masses.

ming tombs1 

The Ming Tombs: busy

And after that, it was more pointless waiting around at a Herbal Medicine Centre, where a doctor examined me, informed me that I liked food too much and exercise too little, and proscribed herbal remedies costing a hundred euros, and then doing the rounds of the hotels once more, since first on obviously meant last off too. Oh well, it hadn't been a bad day all in all, after all how often do you see a world famous monument and meet a kid named after an electronic postal service? But we were glad that our tour was over and we wouldn't be answerable to a guide with a penchant for jade, sliding cars and herbal remedies ever again in our lives!

But of course, whilst the tour had finished, the day itself was far from over, for the elusive Ryan had phoned late the previous evening when he'd got back to his hotel, and we had organised to meet up, so after freshening ourselves up after the rigours of a day on the Wall, we took a taxi back through the smart streets of Beijing to meet our American.

Ryan Poindexter was much as I remembered him to be, but that was hardly surprising since it was only two weeks since we'd last met up anyway. He too was enjoying the China Experience, having done the Ming Tombs (yeah, he thought they were crap too), the Wall (a quieter bit mind), Summer Palace and Forbidden City already. And like us, enjoying it all so much, he promptly agreed that it was a great idea to get as far away from any vestiges of the Middle Kingdom by going to a Turkish/ Middle Eastern restaurant to dine, thus immersing ourselves in a rather different Eastern culture to the one that surrounded us. To the Lowlander and I, the falafels, pita and humus were all rather familiar fayre, after our time spent in the Holy Land, but the stunningly beautiful belly dancers were not. One, who looked the spitting image of a Bulgarian friend of mine, was especially attractive, so I asked where she was from, but a received a disappointing reply; she hailed from the wrong end of the Black Sea, Azerbaijan, not the Balkans.

And after that it was onto an Irish bar where we quaffed ales, (boy, was I out of practice), talked travel and watched a laughably awful Chinese group who sang in a sort-of English and thought that they were the Beatles. All good stuff anyway, and a fine end to a long Beijing day.

ryan drinks Drinks with Ryan

Next part: 2d: Beijing (III)

No comments:

Post a Comment