Monday, October 31, 2011

Don't shrink me, gypsy!

This weekend in Beijing was one of my favorite weekends since getting to China. Our hostel was amazing, despite the annoying Australians that were staying there.

Our train got in pretty late that night, so the five of us just stayed in at the hostel bar and had a few beers. The local Beijing beer is AMAZING. I was surprised at how good it was, considering beer in China generally tastes just like lightly flavored water. We had a good time, even though there was a group of extremely annoying, chain smoking French kids next to us. By annoying, I mean this is a list of the things they did that night: played a guitar (badly), played bongo drums, snuck back to the bar in attempts to get free beer and left the tap running for at least 2 minutes so it flooded the floor, cheered and sang/yelled some song for their soccer team, sang/yelled their national anthem, stood on bar stools for no apparent reason, and threw food.

Waiting for our train in Shijiazhuang.

At BeijingXi train station -- Dan is not allowed, apparently.
(It was supposed to say No Danger.)

The outside of the hostel.

The lobby.

Our bathroom that WASN'T a closet.

We were extremely happy to have our private triple.

The previous guests left some gifts...
 The next morning started bright at early, at 7am. We were supposed to meet Matt and Dan in the bar for breakfast at 7am. That means Lauren woke up at 6:35, I woke up at 6:45, and Emily woke up at 6:59. We were winning that morning.

The breakfast in the hostel was amazing, and we all had omelets. We set out at 7:30 for our adventure to the Great Wall. The Great Wall is quite a bit of a trip outside of Beijing, which was why we got up so early. We were headed to Mutianyu, the part of the Great Wall that is supposed to have the least amount of tourists. The Lonely Planet guide just said that we were supposed to take the subway to this bus route, take the bus about 1-2 hours, and then get a minibus or taxi the rest of the way. We headed out, took the subway to the bus route, and loaded ourselves onto this charter bus. Thankfully, the subway station was the beginning point of the long bus ride, so we got seats. We met a man in the station who didn’t speak any English, but who kept pointing in our guide book, and then pointing at what bus we were supposed to take. We figured he was being friendly, which was nice, but wondered what his motives were.

About an hour or an hour and a half into the bus ride, which made us all a bit carsick, we figured out what his motives were. He quickly poked Dan, while making motions at us to get off the bus. We did, figuring that he was going to show us to a depot for minibuses or the like.


He walked us over to his car. Uh-oh. We were adamant that we didn’t want to get in his car, even though Matt and Dan seemed like they were considering the option. Seeing how scared we were, he quickly dropped his price down to 20 yuan a person to ride up to the Great Wall. We were not really having any part of it, especially since he kept badgering us. He must have heard us say the word minibus when we were reading the guidebook, talking about how it says we’re supposed to take one of those. He then shows us his very own minibus. Dan called the hostel to ask what was going on, and was informed that there was pretty much no legitimate form of transportation up to the Great Wall if we weren’t going on a tour, so we may as well get into the gypsy cab minibus. We were off on our first adventure in a gypsy cab, but I had planned my attack if anything went wrong: I positioned myself behind him in a way that would allow me to first bash him over the head with my water bottle, to be quickly followed by hitting him in the jugular. No one can tell me that I’m not the most paranoid person they know. 

Thankfully, our gypsy cab was successful, and we arrived at the Great Wall around 11:30. He informed us that he would be waiting for us when we were done, and would take us back to the bus stop. We had until about 4:30. One of the first things we saw upon arrival was a Subway. At the Great Wall. Of course, we had to eat there. The last time we had a sandwich was in Shanghai. After lunch, we bought our entrance ticket, and decided that we wanted to take the cable car up but a toboggan back down. That was one of the best decisions we made all day.

Lunch. In our defense...we live in the Shiz.

Cable car up the Great Wall.

You can't really tell, but the people on the left are me and Lauren.
Emily took this from the car behind us.

Unfortunately, the day was extremely hazy, so a lot of my pictures didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. That’s the reason why I stole a lot of Emily’s, because she has a much better camera than any of us.

The Great Wall was beautiful, and it still seems surreal that we were actually there. The fall colors made everything even more beautiful than I thought it could be. I couldn’t believe how long it went for. It was truly breathtaking, and pretty unbelievable that we were even there.

The three 42 Middle School girls at the Great Wall.

Group picture on the way back down.

We started our adventure on the Great Wall in the areas that allowed tourists. Basically, that means that they were the restored areas. It was amazing, and we took quite a few of the typical touristy Great Wall pictures. After getting to a certain point, however, we got to a sign that told us no tourists were allowed past that point.

Naturally, we kept going.

We weren’t the only ones, of course, as there was a pretty distinct path cut out for us to follow. This was the part of the Great Wall that hadn’t been restored, so it was much more crumbly and the bushes and things were overgrown and covered most of what was there. We followed the path until we got to a stopping point that used to be a watchtower. There were at least 15 or so other tourists hanging out there. We stopped for a while and took some pictures.

The sign that we disregarded.

As you can see, there was a pretty distinct path.

Unrestored part of the Great Wall.

The watchtower that we got to in the restricted area.

Then, Lauren spotted another watchtower in the distance. This was definitely not on the tourist-allowed list. It was even further than where we were, and there wasn’t really a path; people apparently stopped at this first place and then headed back.

With a cry of, “We’re only young once!” we headed out to forge our own path down the Great Wall.

It ended up being more than worth it. It was a higher point than the other towers, so we got to look out from the mountains and see EVERYTHING. We were the only five people out at this point, so we could do whatever we want and take as many pictures as we wanted. We stayed there for a half hour or so, and carved our names into the rock. I took a piece that had crumbled off, so I could always have a piece of the wall.

Heading to our destination.

Leaving my mark on the Great Wall.

I signed the restricted path sign, to show that I had done it!

After our climb, we headed back to get the toboggan back down the mountain. The last time I had done that, I was about 14, and we did it going down the Alps in Austria. I remembered it being fun, but this was a BLAST. We were admittedly pretty obnoxious, taking our toboggans as fast as they would go around corners and yelling about how much fun we were having. Oh, well. You only live once, right?

Back at the bottom, we decided to do a little shopping. I knew I wanted a sweatshirt that said I climbed the Great Wall. Because there are so many tourists there who don’t know how to haggle, the vendors start out at ridiculous prices – something like 380 yuan for a sweatshirt. I paid 50 for mine, and honestly probably could have gotten it for less. I also bought one of the “silk” robes with embroidery on it, also for 50, also probably a bit of a rip off. (For those who don’t know, it was a little less than $10 for each).

This is the kind of bargaining that goes on at the Great Wall that I overheard:

Vendor: Hey lady! Want to buy a robe?
Woman: Yes, these are beautiful! How much?
Vendor: For you, 380. Other people, 420. Very good deal, very good deal.
Woman: What about for these two?
Husband: Two?
Woman: I need one for my friend.
Vendor: Yes, yes. For two, 300 each. Very good deal for my friend.
Woman: Oh! That’s a good deal!
Husband: I just don’t want you to get ripped off…


Well, anyway, I got what I came there for, and didn’t pay a ridiculous amount for it.

For dinner that night, we stayed in the hostel again. We were going to go out to some of  the bars around, but none of us really had the money to pay for taxis there and back, so we just stayed in at the hostel. It was a really hilarious and fun time.

The next day, we decided to sleep in. Instead of trying to cram the Summer Palace into a short time before we had to catch our train, us three girls decided to head to the silk market. We definitely are going to have to go back during a time when we can really shop around and we’re not carrying our heavy backpacks with us. As it was, I still ended up buying two scarves, for 30 kuai each, or about $5. It was the same there, where vendors started out trying to sell scarves to us for 300 or 400 kuai. Once they realize that we’re actually going to haggle with them, and don’t mind walking away if we don’t get the price we want, it drops dramatically in a matter of a few minutes.

After the silk market, we headed out to Tian’anmen Square to walk around. It was an even hazier day than the one before, so we were just looking for a place to hang out and people watch. We figured that there would be a bench or somewhere to sit in the square, but we were wrong. Built for the people; nowhere for the people to sit. CHINA!

We got to the square and walked around. We didn’t really take too many pictures, because we know we’ll be back, and it was a gross day. We decided to sit down, on the ground, by one of the monuments. Homeless in Beijing again. We sat our backpacks down by poles and leaned against them, just hanging out. Of course, we had at least 4 different groups of Chinese people come crouch next to us for pictures, in addition to the numerous other people who just took our picture as they walked by. It’s starting to feel normal to have complete strangers take my picture…

Backpacking through Beijing.

Homeless in Tian'anmen Square.

See? I was actually there.
After Tian’anmen, we walked back to the bouza place by Sunrise and had lunch. We caught our train with plenty of time to spare, and I’d say we had a pretty successful trip to Beijing!

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