It was a great trip. Our hotel in Beijing, by total and accidental chance, happened to be across from the Catholic church in Beijing. We awoke early on Easter Sunday to take in bits and pieces of mass before heading to the Great Wall, the whole service being an awkward, trilingual affair, equal parts piety and spectacle. After Christmas in Zhanjiang, I’ve learned to enjoy foreign holidays celebrated in China in decidedly different ways, but the subdued sobriety of the whole affair felt too, well, normal. It didn’t matter, though, because we were going to spend the afternoon on The Great Wall of China.
Trusty Lonely Planet informed us that one could easily access the most popular section of the wall, Badaling, by gonggongqiche (that is, public bus) 919. So we follow “the guide’s” directions to get to the 919 buses, and sure enough, the terminal was right where they said it would be. As we approached the chaotic sea of exhaust-spewing buses and scattered groups of people, I noticed a dearth of Great Wall-hungry foreigners boarding the buses. I began to fear that a route change or some other Olympic-preparing chicanery had rendered the LP inaccurate. But then, just as I was about to give up hope for a quick-and-easy trip to the Great Wall, a helpful bus driver informed me that the last 919 bus to the Badaling left at eleven, and, it now being nearly noon, we would have to find another route.
Well, wouldn't you know it, but this friendly bus driver (I could tell he was a bus driver by the ID necklace he wore around his neck, written in indecipherable Chinese but stuck behind a thick, official-looking wedge of plastic) informed us that it would have be a full 80 yuan to go to and return from the Wall, had we caught the bus, meaning a total of 320 yuan for the whole trip; far more than LP’s quoted 12 kuai a head, one way! This kindly old man, who we affectionately began to call “Bob,” offered to take us to Badaling (in his own personal car no less! He must be a great bus driver!) and back into Beijing for a mere 350 kuai. What a bargain! It was his day off, you see, and he loved nothing more than to help travelers thirsting for China lay lip to the overflowing font of the Great Wall!
The danger of trusting strangers while traveling in a foreign country, I have come to find, is almost always aimed at your wallet, and not your life. There was not a doubt in my mind that we would be safe with seed-eatin’ Bob (he always spewed a cloud of well-chewed sunflower seeds when he spoke), which was why I was so inclined to get into that car, convince Meghan, Deirdre, and Patrick that it was safe, and write off the steep bill in favor of convenience. In retrospect, it was a dumb decision. ‘Ol Bob wouldn’t have been able to hurt a large group like the four of us even if he wanted to. But I didn’t investigate the situation before agreeing to his offer; I took this helpful man at his word, that the busses really had been changed, and that this was the easiest of the scant few options available to us for getting to the Great Wall on last day in Beijing.
We set out on the road, I got to talking to Snake Oil Bob, and I came to understand that in order to get to Badaling quickly, we would have to take the Badaling Expressway; to do that, I would have to foot the twenty kuai toll. Okay, Watergate Bob, you old jokester you, it woulda been nice to let me know about that before we got in the car. I agreed, and we popped on the expressway. We drove for a bit, Slick Bobby and I bullshitting in primitive putonghua, and soon we’re all wonderstruck by the tall mountains and small chunks of decrepit yellow wall that we spy clinging to the mountainside. As we drove closer, we could see more of the wall, towering up the sheer face of hills and cliffs.
We got off the expressway, but Meghan said that this wasn’t Badaling, pointing to a sign that most certainly did not say Badaling; I queried Honest Bob, and he responded with what I could only understand as “wait and see.” We got out of the car, and Bob insisted that this was Badaling, and that we pay him 250 kuai to wait. I eventually bargained him down to accept 150 kuai, but as we walked toward the ticket booth, we could see clearly that this was some other part of the wall. We returned to the car and told Bob that this was not Badaling; Bob had another “cabbie” translate to us no, “this is no Badaling,” but “this wall better.” No dice, Hotpants Bob; this is not Badaling; “bu shi ba da ling!”; take us to Badaling, Unflattering Adjective Bob! After some grumbling, we piled back into the car, got back on the expressway (five more kuai, Bob, you son of a bitch), and finally arrived at Badaling. I should have remembered, the name should have struck a chord, but it didn’t; it was the same section of wall I had climbed three years previous, during my first foray into China, complete with aggressive hawkers, steep inclines, impressive views, and bear pits. That’s right: bear pits.
Climbing the wall was truly breathtaking. You begin on a low section of wall, low despite it being at the top of hill. You begin to climb, and you realize the wall casually snakes around the mountains, rising steeply to surf the ridge and dipping precipitously to block the valleys. Any time you turned from the long, steep road to the top, you’d be struck by the immensity of the landscape, the jagged mountains that stretch out into the impenetrable haze, each lipped with a quiet, proud bastion of wall. You climb higher, turn and look; where you began is a tiny splotch of activity in a huge frozen landscape of hills and trees and wall; higher still, and you can turn to see the section of the wall you just completed, marveling at how it was built right on the very edge of some precariously rocky crest that would be nearly impossible to build anything on today, let alone thousands of years ago. It was a crisp and cool late-winter day, a beaming, cloudless blue sky, just cold enough to dress warmly but too warm for that jacket to last as you exert yourself climbing the wall. We made our way up the hill leisurely, pausing for pictures, often just staring silently into the colossal expanse below, and when we finally got to the “top” that had loomed over us from the beginning, it was easy to hear us all say, at one time or another, that this was one of the greatest moments of our lives.
On the way up, I happened to ask a (for lack of a more precise adjective) European woman how she got to the wall. By now you can probably guess: she took the 919 bus, of course. The wall conquered, we now had to figure out how to get home without paying Good ‘Ol Bob that 200 yuan balance. Knowing that the 919 bus was out there, somewhere, ferrying people to and from the wall for a pittance, just made me angry: at that asshole Bob, at all those other assholes waiting outside the wall to offer you some outrageously expensive ride back into the city (or some outrageously cheap ride that magically turns into an outrageously expensive ride after hidden tolls and fees are paid); at all the other asshole cons that people try to get you with while traveling; and, most of all, at assholes like myself, that stupidly play right into their hands when they should know better.
I snuck into the parking lot alone, looking for the 919 bus as Meghan, Deirdre, and Patrick waited inside the souvenir-and-bear-pit area. But I found Bob first. I can’t find my family, I lied; let me check down there. We’ll drive around and look for them in the car, Bob insisted, but I knew if I stepped foot in that car, that 200 kuai was as good as his. No, no, it’s OK, they’re probably just down here; I’ll come back. I walked down, out of sight of Bob, and found the 919 bus; and yes, it was the cheap twelve kuai express into the city. But to get to the bus, we’d have to walk right in front of Bob, and there’d be … trouble. I walk back up the hill, past Bob – Don’t worry, they’re just buying things and looking at the bears (hey, I remembered the word for bear!), I’ll look for them, I’ll come back – and I made my way back to the group to report. We needed to get on that 919 bus, we all decided; screw Douchebag Bob. That 150 kuai we already paid him was more than enough for the ride there, and not getting the other 200 would deliver some long-overdue karma.
Standing at the top of the hill, trying to decided what to do, preparing to go back and bargain with Bitches Brew Bobby for an honest fare, we spied another sign for the 919 bus; a sign that lead to another parking lot, near another part of the wall; a sign that lead us away from Bob. We followed the endless parade of signs for probably a half mile, expecting at any minute for Bob to come speeding past, spitting seeds and sweating in his ugly monochrome tracksuit, insisting we get in the car. At last, after even more ambiguous signs promising deliverance and some mind-bogglingly idiotic security “guards,” we found it: the 919 bus stop, an island promising home amid a sea of push-and-shove Chinese eager to swamp the bus. One bus pulls up, and we drink in the modus operandi: push-kick-tackle, rinse-wash-repeat, do whatever the hell you have to do to make sure you’re on the right side (that is, the inside) of that bus’s door when it closes.
I prepped the siblings like a general preparing for war, and we made a mad dash at the next bus, lifting smaller Chinese so they wouldn’t get crushed, boxing out, and generally pushing ourselves aboard until everyone was contorted in Dr. Seuss positions, standing in the aisle, the doorway, hell, behind the driver. We were all in, and the bus finally took off as a cute big-cheeked Chinese girl squirmed like a worm in limestone through the solid mass of humanity to collect money and dispense tickets.
Sure, it was an uncomfortable hour-and-a-half ride back into Beijing; and yeah, we should have told Old Con Bob to take a long walk before boarding that bus; but we got to have another “this is China” moment on that bus oozing with people, a bus packed so tight that you could barely exhale. We had little sympathy for Bob, and we reveled in cheating the conman.