Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Beijing - Day 5 Great Wall and Forbidden City
We were both very excited about our day long tour today. We were going to see the Great Wall and then on to Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. I had some concerns that with an hour and half drive to the Wall each way and the tour only being from 9 am to 5 pm that we would be able to spend enough time at the sight to actually see everything. It was actually worse than I expected. Our tour guide, Shall, meet us at the hotel at 8:30 am. She used to be a teacher and her English is quite good. She's also a very chatty person. She spent the day asking us what we knew about the various sites and then lecturing us on what we didn't know.
I had read that tour guide often make side trips to "factories" where you can basically buy direct from the factory. You have a little tour and then dump you into a massive store. Who knows if the stuff is actually made there are not. I had assumed that our tour company would screen their tour guides and at least ask if we wanted to go shopping. No such luck. In fact, we didn't even make it to the Wall without stopping at a factory.
The first one, the Jade Factory, wasn't so bad and I had wanted to get some jade jewelry, so I didn't mind so much. We had a short tour about where jade came from, the types of jade and how they carve it as well as viewing some extremely awesome carvings. Scott has some pictures. The store was massive and we did buy some jade. This stop cost us approximately an hour out of our day.
We then headed to the Great Wall. We were going to the section at Badalang. I had read in the tourist guides that this section got fairly heavy tourist traffic, but the reality was hard to envision. The drive up was quite nice with some amazingly beautiful scenery. Once there, it was a bit like an theme park from the 70s that hadn't been maintained very well. Lots of souvenir shops (and I do mean lots - like wall to wall from the entrance of the place to where you started walking up to the Wall. And some zoo-like pens with black bears. The funny thing was that there were a ton of signs that said don't feed the bears or throw things at them. However, everyone was doing so and in fact the bears were standing with their mouths open to encourage people to throw food at them. There were no park workers to stop them.
We elected to take what we thought was a trolley/tram to the top. It wasn't a trolley, more of carts on a conveyor system. Think kiddie roller coaster up a very steep hill. They don't actually stop the cars, you just have to jump in really quick. Not so easy when you have a backpack on. When we got to the top, again the things didn't slow down and the guy just reachs in and jerks you out. I'm going to have a bruise the size of my "rollergirl" bruise on my thigh tomorrow. Once off the carts we still had a decent climb to get to standing on the Wall. The stairs weren't that well maintained and it was more like hiking on a rocky hill that walking on stairs. However, you are also surrounded shoulder to shoulder with about 200 people all trying to get to the same narrow walkway. My favorite is having someone put their hand in the middle of my back and just start pushing. Like I wouldn't be moving forward if I could! My other favorite is those people that just stop dead in the middle of traffic to take a picture, get in their bag, whatever. They can't pull over and get out of traffic, they just stop right in the way and then give you a dirty look when you run into them because they stopped without warning. Cheesh.
We climbed some very steep stairs and made it up to a guard house. Very close quarters with people trying to go both directions in a walkway that was wide enough for about one person. Typical. Once through, we were actually standing on the Great Wall. That was pretty awesome. It was very foggy due to humidity and being up in the mountains, so I'm not sure how well Scott's pictures turned out. We continued hiking towards the next guard house. The stairs are all very uneven. You will have a couple of steps that are about 3-6 inches high and then the next one will be nearly 24 inches high. Man, I was thankful of all the squats and lunges that our trainer has been making us do. Additionally, it was very steep, I would guess about 30 degrees and still packed with people. The shoving and pushing at this point just becomes dangerous.
The sad thing was that we noticed a lot of graffiti carved into the wall. It didn't look terrible to us because it was all in Chinese and their characters are just pretty, however the defacing of such a national treasure is just sad. Another sad thing was there were several spot where it looked and smelled like someone had peed on the Great Wall. I've never been to Wasington, D.C. to see any of our national monuments, but I have to hope we treat them better than this.
The tour guide had only given us about an hour and twenty minutes before we were to meet her back at the entrance. Unfortunately, with all the people, we barely made it to the first high spot in the Wall before we needed to turn around and head back. We were delayed because the line for the pulley cars was quite long. I took some video of coming back down, if it turned out. You could smell the brakes on the front car all the way down. Did I mention it was very steep? Fortunately, on this ride, they did actually stop the car and allow you a second to climb out without injuring yourself. We were late in meeting back up with Shall and then had to walk down passed all the pushy vendors one more time to get back to the van. As it was about noon, we drove off to get some food.
Imagine our surprise when the restaurant was connected to another factory. We ended up touring the factory before we got to eat. It was a cloissene (sp?) factory which was interesting I suppose, but none of these items were on our shopping list and I doubt any of them would make it back to the States in our luggage.
Lunch was good. I have no idea what Shall ordered except that there was no fish. She was gone when the food started coming and we were hungry, so we just started eating. It turns out, the first dish was eggplant. I did fine eating it until I found out what it was. Then I started having a gag reflex. Go figure. I passed on the bean curd this time, but I tried everything else and it was tasty. Again, there was too much even for the three of us to finish. It seems very wasteful, but Shall says it is expected that you leave food or they will think they weren't good hosts.
By now, it was nearly 2:30 and we headed out to Tianamen Square. However, Shall had been spending a bit of time on the phone while we were driving and we ended up stopping and waiting for someone to meet us for about 15 minutes. He was dropping something off. Did I mention the hard sells? Shall gave us a talk about the Olympic running man logo and Chinese stamps on our way to the Wall. She then said she knewn a guy who carved name stamps and asked if we'd like one. Scott said sure and so she had him write our names and the year we were born on a piece of paper. It turns out that we were waiting for this guy to bring our stamps and to take another order. Shall had gotten a call from a previous tour participant who wanted additional stamps. They were pretty cool - watch for your next postcard. However, Scott didn't ask how much and they were more expensive than I think they are worth given how much we will probably actually use them.
We were finally dropped off at the Square at about 3:30. Shall mentioned that we needed to hurry so that we could get to the Forbidden City before the ticket office closed. We essentially ran through the Square and the Forbidden City and "finished" both in an hour. Every time Scott tried to take pictures, Shall would hurry him along. Not at all satisfying, especially given that we had no time due to shopping excursions we hadn't wanted to take. I'm definitely saying no shopping for our tour on the 25th. Scott and I also agreed that we are going to use one of our free days to come back and actually look around the Square and City at our leisure.
Neither of us were that impressed with the service on our tour. To top it off, I could remember the standard tip amount and we massively over tipped for a tour we weren't at all happy with. On the plus side, we will be with Shall again on the 25th, so I'm not tipping again.
We had about 15 minutes left to our tour and Shall wanted to rush us off to a silk factory. We lied and said we had arranged to meet people at the Night Market (mmmmm, scorpion) and needed to be there at 5:00 and asked that they drop us off at the market so they, Shall and the driver, did. It was kind of a relief to get away from the non-stop talking and selling.
We had actually wanted to stop over at the Night Market and the intersecting shopping street because Scott wanted to visit the Nike store and see if he could find a Yau Ming jersey. They had them, but nothing of a size that would fit Scott. They also had some nice country related wear, but it was very expensive in comparison to the Olympic swag we had seen so we passed. Next, we spotted a store that had a ton of Olympic stuff. We braved the massive crowds and purchased a chunk of Olympic history.
Ladden with bags, we headed over to the Night Market and had some dinner. Scott had more pot stickers, a beef mixture wrapped in a thin pancake, a stuffed pork sandwich and supposedly a ball of fried banana. I had a pancake wrap, an ear of corn (which I thought would be spiced up some but it wasn't) and the fried banana. At which point, we were full and just grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. It was about 6:30 pm, one of our earliest nights yet so we'll take the opportunity to post to the blog, download pictures and get a good night's rest. Tomorrow we have the women's basketball semi-finals: China vs. Australia, USA vs. Russa. It ought to be good (if we can buy some better seats!)