Today began with a 4:30 wake-up call. Our goal was to leave the hotel by 5:00 to make it to the Summer Palace by 6:30, exactly when it opens. We were planning on taking a didi. I questioned aloud if there were any available so early in the morning, but they all said that there probably was. Come 5:10, we were all waiting in the lobby for the didi that was not coming. We had to think of a Plan B immediately.
Luckily, I did do a bit of research and knew that there was a subway line that would take us to the Summer Palace. We made a mad dash to the subway station. This was the first time that I have been there when there was no one. We could not figure out how to use the machine since the stop that we wanted was not an option. We had to wait to ask one of the customer service assistants.
Finally, we figured we would just go to the nearest stop and go from there. We also were so early that the first train would not arrive until 6:30, so we had some time to just chill. After two transfers, we made it to the Summer Palace. My roommate had helped me buy tickets in advance and so we had no problem getting in. We entered through the West Gate, which was something out of a storybook. The river had arching trees that created a canopy of serenity. The reflection from the lake mirrored the prestige of the palace’s history.
The palace seemed like a mismatch of different aspects of Chinese culture. From the picturesque gardens to the traditional temples, there was a range of history to absorb. We walked up and down the steps of the temples and made our way downhill to the eastern part of the palace. I assume this was the main entrance because there were much more touristy attractions: gift shops, large signs, huge crowded. We took a quick break in the gift shop just to enjoy the AC. We were deciding if we wanted to get lunch or go directly to The Great Wall. We said lunch, but when we exited, we could not find a restaurant, so we just all agreed that we could find something to eat at The Great Wall.
You know when you have a gut feeling that something feels wrong, but you can’t really explain it? Well, this was us in the didi just kilometers away from the Great Wall. We had already had an early morning at the Summer Palace, and this was our final destination before heading back to Shanghai.
Right when we got on the car, we asked him about the ride situation to leave the Great Wall. His immediate response was to ask us if we wanted him to wait for us. We said sure why not. He did not want to discuss it any further because apparently didi records the rides. This should have been a red flag, but we just laughed it off.
He seemed trustworthy enough. He asked us about ourselves and he told us about his life and his daughter who was just a year younger than us. We all even took a nap on the one and a half hour car ride. He even took us to a gas station for him to fill out gas and for us to get snacks.
Red flags did not start appearing until he was able to go through the gate at one of the entrances. It was there where he told us we going to have lunch, emphasizing how cheap it was. He told us that that restaurant would also drive us to the top of the Great Wall at no extra cost. That definitely sounds too good to be true. It then got sketchier when another guy came over, and he told us we had to switch cars since his car couldn’t get up the mountain. The other guy was a bit more forward. He told us he already got us tickets, and we were all set. At no extra cost, this isn’t practical. We all agreed that this must be a scam. [Side note. This reminded me of the “tea ceremony” scam. They would be very inviting, take you to a restaurant, and then leave you with a hefty bill and scary person who would make you pay one way or another.] We told them we just wanted to go back to the bottom to check our tickets. They grew super frustrated and the other guy said these were non-refundable. I did feel bad for him, but it was extremely alarming that he would just go down with us to check it out. Honestly, if he went down and things checked out, I think I might have gotten into his car. Native, I know; please don’t tell my parents.
Anyways, the driver did take us down and followed us to the information booth. We used English to try to bypass his present, which somewhat worked until we explained how he was involved. The desk clerk then just turned to him and asked him what was going on in Chinese. She kept asking if he was sure he could get us up there. That just confirmed that he could not fulfill his promise. We told him we did not need him to get us to the top of the Great Wall or even back to the city center, which was going to be our original plan. [Most people will hire a driver to stay at the Great Wall to ensure a way back to the city.] In other words, we were in a way stranded, but we just wanted to see the Great Wall and escape his overbearing presence.
The Great Wall
“Who thought it was a good idea to build a wall on top of a mountain?” I asked myself as I climbed the hill that would lead us to the cable cart entrance. We were outside of the city, so the sun was actually shining. A little part of me actually missed the pollution because the sun was blazing. We finally found the right entrance after going to the top of the hill only to have to run down back half of the hill. [I use the term ‘hill’ because it was small compared to the surrounding mountains, but it would be considered a mountain in Texas.]
I had never ridden on a cable cart before, so it did not occur to me that I really had to just hop on. I thought it was just something in the movies, but I guess it makes sense because stopping the cart would disturb the whole system. We were off. The view was amazing. It was not until we were near the top that we saw a tiny piece of The Great Wall peaking over the greenery. We did it. We made it to The Great Wall. We walked along the wall for a bit. By that I mean, we walked maybe a few meters, took some pictures, then could not handle staying under the scorching sun.
We got in line to toboggan down. It was just a large slide. We were not allowed to record, but I did not know at first. [I still kept recording after passing two workers who told me to stop, but I finally felt a bit guilty and stopped recording after the third worker yelled at me.] For the cart, you had to push the level forward to go faster and pull it back to stop. I was cautious at first, but then I was ready for an adrenaline rush.
However, I must have not been too wild because a few of the workers told me to go faster! I thought I was going to fly off the track if I went any faster. It ended too quickly (it was about 10-15 minutes max). I would say it was worth it. The shuttle, cable cart, and toboggan all together was 180 yuan, which is all less than $30. In the states, it cost at least $180. This is also a national (possibly global) treasure, so US’s capitalism would definitely take advantage of that.
Once we got to the bottom, we had a few things on our mind. First was food. We had not had lunch yet. However, we were also concerned about how to get back to the city. We got sidetracked a bit because one of my friends wanted to buy an “I heart BJ shirt” (I bargained my way down to 60 yuan, but I think I could have done better.) We had asked a few people how they were getting back. Most people said that they hired a personal driver. However, someone told us that we could take a bus that would drop us off at another bus station that would take us back to the city center. That seemed like our best bet.
Murphey’s Law of if anything bad can happen it will happen could not have been truer. We couldn’t get a didi in the morning, but we solved it by taking the subway, which was fine. We almost got scammed by our didi driver at the Great Wall, but we were smart and did not go through with it. Our last hurdle was getting to the train station to go back to Shanghai. We figured out a different route that would take us back to the subway station. This was a long, crowded bus ride down the mountain. Then we transferred to a more comfortable bus that was stuck in traffic for an hour and a half. I thought that was it. We could get to the subway station and then go to the hotel, grab our things, and subway to the bullet train station.
Obviously, that was too easy. As we were getting our tickets, the machine decided to crash. We were left with one printed ticket and eight yuan. To say we were panicked was an understatement. As a few of us were trying to figure out this situation, some of us just used the remaining coins to get tickets to go to the hotel to get our luggage. The three of us who remained somehow worked it out and got tickets (even though this is not the correct amount to get out of the bullet train exit). And we were off.
We got to the train station and figured everything out: we tried to use old tickets that we purchased not knowing what we were doing to make up for the difference, but he did not let us, so we just paid the difference. Now we were just playing the waiting game. We had to wait for the other group to come from the hotel with our stuff. We met up with another friend who was also in Beijing and got us water! I was dying of dehydration. On the subway, there was a kiddie bottle hanging from the stroller on my right and someone’s water bottle constantly hitting me from his backpack on my left. The temptation to just take a sip had never been stronger than in that moment.
I might have been cursed. Every time I ride the bullet train back to Shanghai, it is always accompanied by an almost anxiety attack of missing the train. We barely made it on my first day trip in Wuzhen, we arrived just in time in Suzhou, and for Beijing we had 30 minutes to spare (by some miracle). I am going on two more trips, so we will see if this streak continues.