Solo travel trip to the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall. It was always on the list of things to do…dramatic pause: ‘Before I Die!' My students were on their annual school trip and I had five days. It seemed enough time to visit Beijing but I had recently promised to become a more relaxed traveler. Patient, easygoing; less would be more, that was the new motto. My past is littered with vacations sullied by over-ambition. Maybe it's an American thing. We seem to have less vacation time than any other civilized country on Earth. But no way was I going to go to Beijing and not see the Great Wall.

In spite of the fresh promises, it was still important to see the Wall in my own way.=2 0I didn't want to take a tour, didn't want to go with people who looked or sounded anything like me. I wanted a little challenge. As the world gets smaller, easier, less personal, life's little tests seem harder to find. With some planning and a seven year old, water-damaged Lonely Planet, I could get myself to the Great Wall. Faster, cheaper, on my own terms and without a guide to ring at my hostel door; transportation arranged, my breakfast in his hand. Couldn't I?

Departure morning had all the elements of disaster. A last minute decision to go made in a haze shockingly early on the second day in town. I lacked quality information, had made no plans and was hung over. It was 7am and I was already sweating. But the spirit was willing and I was still determined to get to, hike over, and photograph The Great Wall on as many of my own terms as possible. I would skip the booking agents and cover the 75 km to a secluded portion called Sinatai. On my own.

Locating the proper subway terminal was the easy part. Finding my way out was considerably more difficult. After trying what seemed to be every conceivable combination of stairs, passageways and exits, I swallowed my pride knowing I would otherwise miss the morning bus into the countryside. I needed somebody who knew where I could find the bus terminal as I sure as hell couldn't. Fol lowing a tried and true method, I held up my hands in a most passive way, made eye contact with the first well-dressed young professional walking past and asked, “English?” As I was to discover throughout the trip, the people of Beijing were more than willing to help when they could and I was soon on my way with a warning to “have a good time in Beijing”. Will do, my new friend. Will do.

Apart from the fact our old bus never exceeded 50 mph, the only notable episode from the journey were the trees. Row after row after row of new trees stood guard at a uniform distance from the roadside. I read earlier that the governments of Japan and S. Korea recently gifted the Chinese millions of trees in an effort to combat the effects of “Yellow Dust” from the deserts in northern China. The Chinese only agreed to accept the trees after assurances they could plant them where they damn well pleased. If these be the trees in question, it seemed their purpose had much more to do with an upcoming Olympics than stopping the Gobi Dessert from blowing over their neighbors to the southeast every spring. Where they damn well pleased!

Tiring of the view and still feeling the previous night's Tsingtao, I quickly dozed off. My eyes hadn't been closed for long but when they opened again a middle-aged Chinaman was grabbing my shoulder and barking out "Sinatai! Sinatai!". The word of the day! I had committed it to memory and written it on my hand as a backup. A magical word and the starting off point for a 10 km hike of The Great Wall.

Dragging on shoes, closing books, jamming everything in the vicinity into my pack. I stumbled off the bus in an excitement-tinged fog. But where was I? It seemed no more than an average bus certainly wasn't a sanctioned tour spot and The Great Wall was nowhere to be found. A dozen pairs of Chinese eyes searched me curiously as I managed a small smile and past them to an aged and worn Toyota. This was no taxi but the man who just woke me stood beside the dusty vehicle and motioned in an exaggerated manner to get in.

I wasn't concerned so much about the condition of the vehicle or the fact that this was obviously a 'pirate' taxi; I could live with that. Besides, the bus had already left in a diesel-clouded lurch and my choices were severely limited. Get in and take my chances…or don't. In the end there really wasn't any choice and as I got into the compact I remember thinking any bargaining position was seriously compromised by that fact.

I settled in and the driver immediately scribbled ‘300' onto a piece of scrap paper. I should mention now that he hadn't stopped talking since I got off the bus. I couldn't understand anything but that was all part of the game, of course. He might as well20have been telling me the price of bananas. Or the local custom of swindling foreigners stupid enough to come out to the sticks without a tour group or a Chinese speaker. I guessed 300 was his opening offer (everything is negotiable in China .) Unfortunately, it was twice the price I had expected to pay. Assuming my sternest expression I started into my custom variety of “fast forward English.” Using lots of words, speaking as quickly as possible, not saying anything. A similar performance that got me out of a speeding ticket in Poland and numerous other close calls throughout central Europe.

But the driver was a crafty negotiator and had a trick up his sleeve; he handed me a small placard written in English, Chinese characters below.
'Because the price of oil is very high.'
'The price I give you is the lowest price.'
'My microbus is convenience and safe.'
'Express Way Fee' and 'Parking Fee'
'I will await for your return from the GW'
I was stuck here. That little card had given him the ability to “speak” in both our languages with just a quick wave of his hand. I had no way of communicating in Mandarin. I had only just remembered ‘thanks” and “ hello”. It was a difficult spot and he had me off guard. So, I fell back on a trick I used with increasing frequency since arriving in S. Korea months earlier. Cursing; in Norwegian and in Hungarian. Of course he didn't know anymore what to make of this than the English from before but I felt better somehow and it bought me time to think.

A good five minutes passed; him pointing at the placard, me cursing like a madman, the both of us scratching out the other's 'final'' asking price. Eventually we came to an agreement and our high level negotiations to an end. After all the dramatics and posturing, wouldn't you know the final price was exactly halfway between what he first asked and what I had been prepared to pay?

Still, he seemed somewhat exasperated. I offered my hand and a pat on his shoulder to signal there were no hard feelings from my end. He offered me a cigarette and I guessed we were even. My new driver banged the shifter into first and we were off. As he drug away at the cheap Chinese tobacco a kind of post coital satisfaction came over his expression. I don't know, maybe I had been screwed after all? Regardless, nothing to do about it now; a deal was a deal and I was off to see The Great Wall!

All that was left was the driving. And my friend who only minutes before had been so concerned about the ‘high cost of oil' now seemed to be without a care in the world. Gunning the li ttle diesel and abusing the gears downward at every incline, his chief concern now seemed only to coax every available horsepower from the overtaxed engine. We passed other vehicles littering the road with an abandon nothing short of reckless. The tarmac in front of us was freshly paved and laid out like a landing strip. It was a road scattered with a little of everything: mule powered carts, mopeds, bicycles and the other wee, diesel spieling trucksters so common there. Our road was without a median, without lane striping but nothing could have made the least bit of difference; this journey was Darwin's evolutionary theory playing out in real-time. Survival of the fittest, it was. 'Love thy neighbor' it was not. And he'd be damned before giving an inch to another driver or a thought to the safety of the local slack-jawed yokels. If they were thick enough to leave the safety of the roadside shoulder...let's just say venturing across the road that day was a very real game of human Frogger.

Another close call and this time with a soldier transport. I wonder if my dear mother would remember the life insurance policy and how to contact Virgil if that day turned into my last. More than a few times I cursed my judgment and thinking tour groups for the weak and uninformed. Oblivious to my discomfort, the driver pressed on with the kind of carelessness I can only assume was a badge of confidence. I considered my options once more; a ) check the seatbelt and muster the courage to sit quietly or b) place both hands together, palms pushing downward in the international signal to 'slow it down, take it easy man'. I laughed quietly as I realized my concern about offending this man by telling him how to do his job. This man taking no real heed with my life or concern for my comfort. But no matter where I am or how far the journey I will always be from a place where politeness is expected. So I sat back to take whatever came next.

Just as I was able to find some peace with the situation, the driver stopped abusing the accelerator long enough to jerk the wheel to the right and us off the ‘road of death.' We had entered a large and empty parking lot. The Sinatai section; against the odds we had made it and it seemed I would live long enough to hike the three hours to the next station. My guy would be waiting there to take me back and we could tempt similar fates from the opposite direction! He would be hoping his return fare (me) didn't fall off the Wall. I would be hoping he wasn't drinking away the first half of the payment in some dingy, pirate taxi man's tavern.

Starting up the steep incline to begin my hike under a brutal afternoon sun, I considered my transportation options not for the last time that day:
My driver and I, we had an agreement on the one hand. On the other, I felt endangered the entire journey. We had made an agreement, he would be waiting for me! But he was reckless and unsafe. I had promised to be there! But he was an illegal taxi and we were breaking the law. Maybe I could talk my way onto a tour bus back into Beijing? There would be a driver who respected the safety of his passengers. As well as those sharing the road. There would be people who looked and sounded like me. That's always nice when you're on holiday after all.

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