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Great Wall, Poor Tour

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It’s unforgivable to visit China and not check out the Great Wall. Despite its singular title, the Great Wall is in fact a series of walls, built between the 5th Century BC and the 16th Century, to guard against potential threats from nomadic tribes in Mongolia. Archaeologists estimate that, in total, the walls were over 5,500 miles long.

Most of the wall sections that still exist today were built during the Ming Dynasty, i.e. from the mid-14th Century onwards. The current condition of the wall varies from completely destroyed, through to well preserved/ restored.

Three sections of the wall are accessible on day tours from Beijing, which was our first stop from London: Badaling, a restored section with a reputation for being overcrowded; Mutianyu, another restored section a little further away and less busy; and Jinshanling, an original part of the wall even further away. Usually, there is a 10km hike that can be undertaken from Jinshanling to Simatai, concluding with a cool zip wire ride, but at time of writing Simatai is closed for restoration, so if you start walking along the wall from Jinshanling, you have to turn back and retrace your steps to reach your starting point – a detail that would become quite important for my (Emily’s) experience of the Great Wall.

On our Great Wall day, Adrian and I ended up taking different tours: Adrian to on a ‘guided tour’ to Mutianyu, and Emily on a ‘hike’ to Jinshanling. Adrian was still recovering from a sprained ankle and he wasn’t sure a tour with the word ‘hike’ in the title would be the best idea. Neither experience was quite what we were expecting, however:

Great Wall at Jinshanling, by Emily

Before I start complaining about the crapness of my tour I would like to make the point that a day spent at the Great Wall of China is a day you will never forget, or regret. It’s absolutely incredible, and worth just about any amount of grief to get there. However, whinging about tourist rip-offs is always fun, so here goes:

Essentially, the tour description and itinerary bore no resemblance to the actual experience. I paid £30 for a ‘Great Wall hike from Jinshanling’ to include entry fee, lunch and private bus. The allotted time was 6.30am (ouch!) to 6.30pm, with 6 hours’ travel time built in – so I figured we’d start the hike at 9.30am, stop for lunch on the way, and be picked up by the bus around 3.30pm. I wish. In fact, the round trip was closer to 8 hours, with plenty of faff on both sides. We had less than two hours on the wall, which in no way represents a hike as you simply potter along one stretch of it, then turn round and go back – and you’ve got to allow well over an hour to get the cable car up and down the mountain, due to the enormous queues. “Lunch” was in a canteen next to the car park, and consisted of some cold noodles and egg. The guide simply pointed the way to the cable car (the £5 cost of which was not included in the “tour”) and advised us not to get lost because “foreigner’s face all look same to Chinese”. The private bus, which was the main part of the fee, was so overcrowded they had to pull out special mini seats that clogged up the aisle. We got back to Beijing at nearly 9pm, where the bus stopped outside a random subway station and the guide advised us to get off because it would take a further 1.5 hours to drop everyone off at their hotels due to the traffic.

Summary: If you want to see the wall at Jinshanling (and I recommend that you do), take a public bus for less than £1, stay overnight in a hostel, and take your time hiking along this magnificent stretch of the Great Wall.

Great Wall at Mutianyu, by Adrian

My tour was thankfully a little more successful, primarily as it actually was a tour, with a guide with a suitably fake western name, Harry (Potter’s brother, apparently). The day started with a rather rushed visit to the Ming Tomb which is an underground emperor’s tomb, seeming largely to consist of red boxes containing the emperor and his concubines’ remains. His favourites concubines (from a total of 3000) had the great privilege of being buried alive alongside him upon his death. Nice.

The reason for the rushed tour became apparent as we approached the jade factory. A tour by another fake western-named guide showing the construction of various useless ornamental jade objects, following by a painfully long browsing opportunity. To my dismay, the more moronic looking members of our group actually bought some of the overpriced crap, thus condemning future tour groups to this same depressing ritual.

Next was lunch, rather surprisingly inside the jade factory’s very own massive restaurant. A rather pleasant meal, aside from the omnipresent messages regarding jade’s great beauty and investment potential.

Following lunch, we finally made our way to the Great Wall itself, seemingly alongside the rest of Beijing – despite being the apparently less popular section, the roads approaching Mutianyu were so clogged with traffic that we abandoned the bus and took an impromptu hike to the cable car. Here were were greeted with Tour Pleasant Surprise #2 – the unexpected extra costs. Despite claiming to include admission, our tour cost didn’t include the cable car cost, a rather steep £8.

The wall itself was pretty amazing, though. Three of us were determined to make it to the top of the restored section within the allocated 1.5 hour window, which turned out to be rather ambitious due to the brutally endless steps to climb. We made it, then rapidly turned back again and, after facing a lengthy cable car return queue, arrived back about 30 mins late. The Japanese kid, who’d spent most of the journey looking at his watch, wasn’t happy, whilst myself and the Spaniard considered this a moral victory following the jade gift shop experience.

Brutal traffic marked our return journey, but we were happy to be approaching Beijing city centre again by 7:15 (our planned return was 6pm)… but Harry (the non-magic one) informed us that a second shopping trip was required, and seeing as the silk factory was now closed we would be visiting the pearl factory. As the last group of the day, a rushed demo of pearl harvesting was conducted, before some aggressive sales pitch action, which thankfully even the morons didn’t fall for this time, and we headed off home.

Fairly standard tour action then: a 13 hour day with only 1.5 hours at the key attraction, a 33% unexpected extra cost, and me developing an even greater contempt for fat tourists with baseball caps who buy crap.

Written by Emily

October 9, 2011 at 8:28 am

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