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Day 97 – Assaulting The Great Wall With My Indians (Simatai Section)

June 8, 2010

Dateline: Simatai Section of Great Wall, China – Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Great Wall is big and long, you know, just like my posts. That presents a bit of a problem. When you go to see the Great Wall, what part of the Great Wall should you go see?

Most tourists hit the Badaling section which is thirty minutes outside Beijing and can practically be reached by subway. I didn’t want to deal with crowds and wanted to go to Simatai, a section two hours out that hasn’t been restored (much) and has fewer tourists. The challenge was getting there. A cab supposedly cost 500-700 rmb for the day. That’s way too much for just me.

Enter the Indians. Last night I was hanging out in the hostel lobby when I overheard three middle-aged Indian guys asking the front desk about going to Simatai. Like a good traveler, I butted my way in and asked if I could tag along. They were happy to oblige. They promised to secure transport and we’d meet at 7 a.m. in the morning. Sounded good to me.

At 1 a.m. I got a call from one of the guys that we’d instead meet at 8 a.m. When I showed up at the lobby at 8 a.m. I got a text that we’d be meeting at 9 a.m. No problem. As long as I didn’t have to pay full price for a cab, I didn’t care.

By 9 a.m. we were on the road. Everyone fell asleep in the van and we all came to about 10 minutes before we hit Simatai. Turns out this section of the wall is on the crest of a high mountain and you have to hike up a couple of kilometers before you can actually set foot on the wall. The Indians decided to take a sky tram up and I joined them. Turns out this was a fantastic idea.

The sky tram offered fantastic views and skipped a long walk up a paved road. I came to walk on the Great Wall, not on some fire road. If I wanted to do that, I could have just stayed at home.

I skipped out on a shorter ride on a funicular-type thing—I wanted to do a little walking (and save a few rmb). This also turned out to be another fantastic idea. The ride was too short to justify the cost and I caught the guys just moments after they disembarked.

I left my new friends to walk up to a more remote part of the wall while they rested from one of the climbs. After I cleared the first watchtower, I was totally alone. The wall was much older here. Sections were falling down. This part of the wall is on a razor edge of the mountain. The wall faces down a steep slope and is backed by a cliff. If invaders breached this section, they’d have to fight along the edge of the wall to find a part of the mountain where they could descend and start a proper invasion.

The Chinese used this inevitability to their advantage. First off, they didn’t really put much work into making a high battlement. The wide walkway narrowed to what amounted to a catwalk on the side of the mountain. The piled stones were almost short enough to climb with a ten foot ladder. This section might more appropriately be called “The Great Fence.”

Second, they had walls that ran perpendicular to the main wall. As invaders moved along the wall trying to find a way down the mountain, the Chinese guards could shoot arrows at them through holes bored through the perpendicular walls.

I got to the end of the public area of the wall. A sign warned that people who walked along a chained off section of wall would be fined 200 rmb ($33). A teenage kid in a uniform stood watch by occasionally looking up at me from his cell phone.

I stood there, admiring the awesome view into the valley, wishing I could hike further along the wall. The kid gestured at the chain blocking the way and said, “You go?” I asked if he was letting me and he said, “Two hundred.” Ahhhh. Turns out the fine was just a starting point for negotiation.

I told him no and offered 50 rmb. I immediately regretted my offer. I should have gone with 10 rmb and worked from there. He laughed, and said, 200. We went back and forth, I walked away once. He came down to 70 rmb. I said, 60 and he let me walk away again, this time a little further. When it was clear I was willing to leave he said, “Hello! Sixty!”

With that, he accompanied me over the chain and we walked along a dilapidated section of the wall to the next tower. From there it looked like a section of the walkway further along had collapsed. Hard to tell, though.

I left my “guide” and rejoined the Indian guys about four towers back. They’d bought some souvenirs and as we hiked down the wall they bought even more stuff off some old ladies. The ladies claimed there was no work on their farm and so were selling souvenirs. I think this moved them to purchase more than they would otherwise. Me, not so much. I’ve been on the road too long to buy sob stories or to pick up nicknacks just for the sake of getting someone off my back. Siem Riep will do that do you.

I hiked down to a rope bridge but turned back when I heard it cost 5 rmb. I’ve been on bridges before and the view off this one didn’t seem to justify the price. The Indians had stopped up the hill to wait for me and when I rejoined them they bought me a large bottle of beer. They wouldn’t accept my money when I tried to pay.

Two English girls heard me talking about the bridge. Their guide had told them not to pay the guy sitting on a chair waiting at the end of the bridge. They just walked past him and didn’t pay. Wish I’d known that before I’d hiked down and back up for nothing.

Instead of hiking back down to the parking lot, my group opted to take a zipline down. For some reason, there’s one set up over the lake next to the Simatai section of the Great Wall. I’ve never been on a zipline, so I threw down the 40 rmb ($6.50) for the experience. When am I going to get a chance to zipline next to a Chinese national treasure? I paid for all four of us since the guys had paid for my beer. I figured we’d sort it out back at the hostel and this way I’d at least not be in their debt. An older lady put us in rock climbing harnesses, hooked us into a cable, and sent us off down the mountain.

I’ve sky dived, jumped off rocks into the ocean, snowboarded, and gone scuba diving. Ziplining does not feel anywhere near as dangerous and any of these things. It was actually peaceful coasting down the mountain and over the lake water. The most exciting part was when the harness from the guy before me whizzed past me on the other side of the rope on its way back up the mountain.

We boarded the van back to Beijing, fell asleep, and woke up right as we hit the hostel. The Indian guys insisted on getting a snack of fried potato wedges from a nearby hole in the wall. I again offered to pay, they insisted I not. Here’s where it started to get really weird.

We got back to the hostel and I handed the Indian guys money for the van. They said, “No no no. It’s okay,” pushed the money back to me. I said, “Sure it’s okay, but this is better,” and forced the money into the guy’s hand.

Then he said, “Then we must pay you for the zipline.” Then he gave me money for the zipline. I got confused with the math, they kept insisting that I had paid enough, and I finally relented.

Now, hopefully someone can help me out on this. These were full-on Indian guys with the head bobble every now and then and everything. Am I missing some cultural thing where I’m supposed to keep insisting that I pay or that I pay for something and they pay for something and we don’t worry about “splitting” the costs perfectly evenly? I say this because the youngest of the three kept trying to pay, but the two older guys kept telling him “no” in Hindi and even playfully wrestled him down to the ground when he got insistent.

I was totally out of my element. In the end, I paid about half of what I would have paid if we’d split the cost of the van evenly. Worked out for me, I guess.

I’ll tell you this, I didn’t expect to have to maneuver Indian bill-splitting culture while in China.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see even more pictures of the Great Wall and pictures of Mervyn (inevitably) squinting into the camera.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. tutz permalink
    June 13, 2010 3:56 am

    Hi Sir, I’m enjoying reading your stillnonameblog. I’ve decided to read it from day 1, I’m now on day 40, I started last Friday… it was really fun! I never thought that you’re amazingly good writer. I’ve learned a lot from your adventure… from snacks to washing machine and more… you gave so much life to it. Now I’ve learned to appreciate them more… Hoping you could also drop by here in the Philippines… we also have great places here… have you been in Amanpulo Palawan? They said, “Amanpulo is an escape from the markings of mankind and is a dive into island life where nature has been unashamedly boastful.” I don’t know if that’s true! Well, anyways you’ve really been in good places in the world.
    Uhmmn, I never thought you’re such a funny man, ‘coz in class before you are soooo serious… like bond, James Bond, that’s why I don’t wanna talk to you with your guns and gadgets, superdetective brain!
    Well I just wanna say, I love your blog esp. during my MBA class. haha!
    (Sorry with my not so good english… just like you, not good in tagalog!) Peace! ^_^

    • June 16, 2010 8:53 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying. No Philippines this time. Perhaps next year. I would like to do some scuba diving in Palawan.

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