Sunday, July 11, 2010

It Isn't That Hard To Get To Jiao Shan

So there we were, standing on a street corner in Shanhaiguan, filling up our Camelbacks with water we had just purchased from a small shack, getting ready for a hike up the crumbling Great Wall. This is the first time this year we have ventured out of Beijing, into what we have taken to calling the "other" China.

"Other" China is different from Beijing in a number of respects. Everything is smaller...the cities, the buildings, the cars. In fact, the entire transportation network is a throwback to the China of yesterday. Rickety old buses. Small three-wheeled "cars." Motorcycles, mopeds, and bikes. All kinds of motorized and pedal-powered vehicles, just waiting for a chance to take you somewhere in this small town where the Great Wall meets the ocean.

In fact, as we looked up from our Camelbacks, there it was...a three-wheeler, put-putting idly on the street corner, while the driver intently watched whatever it was we four waiguoren were doing. Deep down, water delivery devices were the farthest thing from shifu's mind, which had to be fixated on figuring out how to separate us from a few of our hard-earned kuai.

This separation turned out to be an easy task. In a moment of well-intentioned weakness, I encouraged the gang to jump on the back of the car (or whatever you call a three-wheeler that drives like a motorcycle and has a rear cab, complete with two small bench seats and a canopy over the top). Negotiating what I thought was a fair price (actually, in retrospect, too fair), we headed across town, in the direction of the Jiao Shan, the mountain we were going to be hiking for the day.

A bit of the way there, the first ominous turn of events occurred when shifu pulled over to the side of the road and told us he had designs on taking us somewhere different. Shifu argued that if we went directly to the gate to buy our tickets, we would pay one hundred kuai, way too much. Shifu knew of a much cheaper way to make this happen for us.

For our part, we were very skeptical, as we had hiked Jiao Shan last year, and recalled that the price was nowhere near one hundred kuai. But shifu would not be deterred. In fact, thinking we just didn't understand what he was saying, he drove us past a small stand on the side of the road and invited a man to jump aboard. This guy, obviously a local travel broker, tried to convince us that he could arrange a nice itinerary for us, complete with tickets for all of Shanhaiguan's main attractions. It was finally after a lot of explanation that we managed to convince our "kidnappers" that it was they who didn't understand what was going on. All we wanted to do is get to the bottom of the mountain and go for a killer hike...No tour guides with bullhorns...No recitations of canned speeches...Just the four of us, nature, and the Great Wall.

It was at that point, seeing that there was nothing any of us could do for one another, that we parted ways. For our part, we were out of ten kuai. For our kidnappers, there were to be no ticket sales and commissions.

With the base of the mountain still several kilometers away, the four of us started walking down the road, until a tiny car approached from the opposite direction, coming directly toward us. Seeing four waiguoren, the driver quickly stopped (so quickly, in fact, that his car kept rolling as he jumped out, in The Gods Must Be Crazy fashion) and we explained where we were heading. After a brief negotiation, the squeeze was on and the little engine that could was cranked back up again. There was a slight incline to the road as we set out, and it certainly felt like we might need to get out and lend some leg power. But, there we were, just a few minutes later, unfolding our bodies and tumbling out.

"Other" China, it's great to be back! (I'm sure you feel the same way! Nothing like an overeager waiguoren to fill up your coffers...)

~Steve

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