Sunday, December 16, 2007
What Travel Guides Don't Tell You
Following the advice of our travel guide books (Frommers and Rough Guides), we decided to go to the Great Wall, taking a city-sponsored bus.
There are a few of them leaving from different spots in the city. In the morning we took a cab to Qianmen. We bought our return tickets for 90RMB, which included a 35RMB admission fee to the Badaling section of the wall. We thought that was a deal.
We climbed onto an empty bus that started up right away so we thought we were the only passengers.
We were wrong.
Instead we were shuttled to another spot two minutes away down the street to Tiananmen where another (older) bus with passengers was waiting to go.
We climbed on board towards the back of the bus and soon afterwards we started off at 10am.
Once the journey started, a woman in a red coat began telling us that we would be making two stops on the wall, the first one called Yu Yong Guan, and then Badaling.
When we arrived at Yu Yong Guan just over an hour later, the woman in red told us we had to join them as the bus wouldn't leave for over an hour and a half. That meant we had to buy a 45RMB admission ticket to this particular part of the wall.
We thought about taking a taxi to Badaling and telling the guide we'd meet up with them later, but she tried to scare us saying the taxi drivers would take us for a ride and we would be better off sticking with the rest of the group.
Our biggest concern was getting a ride back, so we relented and followed the pack.
Yu Yong Guan Administrative Center as it's called on the ticket has a steep part of the wall and is quite the stairmaster workout.
The views are fantastic; however when you look down, you see manufactured traditional Chinese-style buildings that probably were never there in the first place.
We made it back to the bus on time and then we were finally headed to Badaling. The ticket stub describes it as:
"Great Wall-soul of China, master piece [sic] of mankind! It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World as well as one of the man made structures visible from space, recognized by the United Nation as the cultural heritage of the human kind".
But when we arrived, the woman in red again told us we had to buy tickets to take the "cable car". This apparently was the only way up.
So again we gave in and had to shell out 60RMB for a return ticket. "Remember to keep your tickets because the other part is for the return portion," she kept warning us.
On our way to the "cable car" we passed by some pens where black bears waited around for people to feed them with cut up apples. It was really sad seeing them in a man-made environment. They knew the drill. They clambered up some posts and when people threw food at them they would catch them in their mouths. They shook their heads back and forth, a sign of boredom and isolation.
Then we got onto the "cable car". I say got on, because they were actually a seated pulley ride. We each sat in a plastic seat with our legs sticking out straight and each seat was linked up to a pulley that dragged us up one by one. A brace held us back like the ones found in amusement rides.
We didn't get to see much on the way up, except for going through a tunnel with funky rainbow lights on the ceiling.
Then we finally arrived to the wall and started climbing again. But this time the path along the wall was quite wide and mostly in a slope rather than stairs. Again the views were fantastic, seeing the wall gliding over the hills like a dragon's tail.
We had two hours to wander around the wall, but after over an hour we made our way back down. And with half an hour to spare, we went to a small restaurant for a bite to eat.
The female manager was very aggressive, asking us what we'd like to eat. We made our order of two bowls of beef noodles and a set meal of dumplings. Then we asked for tea, but she said a pot would cost 10RMB -- the equivalent to a bowl of noodles. No thanks, we said. She still pestered us saying a coffee would be 5RMB.
The return trip back on the "cable car" was fun. It was like a tame rollercoaster with natural views.
We made it back to the bus on time and an hour and a half later we were finally back to where we started, around 5pm.
It seems that tourist traps here have become more sophisticated. Instead of imprisoning visitors in Chinese medicine shops or silk factories, it's taking them to a destination -- oh wait two of them -- and also not telling visitors all the hidden costs of having to shell out for more tickets. In our case we had to pay 105RMB extra each.
If we had known of the extra costs, we would have taken public transit instead, or at least would have been prepared for the runaround. And for a city-sponsored tour, the hassle was hardly impressive. The tourism industry here had better shape up for next year otherwise the anticipated travel boom could be a bust.