Beware the Great Wall of Tourists | News

Beware the Great Wall of Tourists (November 19, 2005)

By Peter Davies

Beijing is gearing up for the 2008 summer Olympic Games with zest and vigour as Peter Davies discovered on a recent visit.

The taxi driver who ferried me to the Great Wall of China was a friendly guy, the closest I came in Beijing to finding the chatty stereotype of cabbies the world over.

A language barrier of Great Wall proportions means that most journeys in China are undertaken in stony silence, or with a background of shrill, tinkling music, but this particular cabbie was animated and eager to expand his limited English vocabulary.

'No work in 2008 if no Engrish'

As we inched past the grey expanse of Tiananmen Square in morning gridlock slower than the last day of school, he snapped in an English for Beginners cassette.

"No work in 2008 if no Engrish," he reasoned.

I was impressed. Beyond the front lobbies of Beijing's bigger hotels, such as the Marco Polo where I stayed, virtually no one speaks English, and few seem inclined to learn.

Hotel staff need to jot down your destination in Chinese. Indeed, the Marco Polo has business cards printed with all the tourist sights, so you just have to tick the appropriate block and show the card to the taxi driver.

My Great Wall cabbie was thus a double rarity - jovial and semi-English-equipped.

You can't help being awed by the sheer scale of things

On the eastern side of the fabled Tiananmen Square, in front of the Chinese Revolution and History Museum, stood a great digital display counting down the days, hours and seconds to the start of the 2008 Olympics.

The opening ceremony, dubbed One World, One Dream, is set to begin at the eighth hour of the eighth day of the eighth month of the millenniuum's eighth year.

A colourful floral display of giant sports equipment - basketball, table-tennis bat, soccer ball - provided a vivid contrast to the endless grey asphalt.

In addition to his smattering of English, my tax driver's counting skills were sharply honed, as I discovered when we negotiated a price for the 80km trip from Beijing out to the Badaling section of the Wall.

He chanced his arm with an opening gambit of 900 yuan, sufficient for 30 return trips if I was prepared to take the local bus, but we finally agreed on half that amount. The rand and Chinese currency being almost equal, this was a decent return for a couple of hours' driving.

I could have done it more cheaply but I was on a tight schedule and also wanted to avoid the sock-and-sandalled loads of coach tourists who descend on the world's greatest tourist attraction like soccer journalists at a free Safa lunch.

So I was up at dawn and on the road by seven, giving me a 40-minute lead over the chasing mob, and listening to a slow, robotic American drawl that seemed to be aimed at a slightly backward 4-year-old: "Get in Please,"; "Don't worry about being late,"; "How far is it?" "Special price for Chairman Mao cigarette lighter" etc, etc.

My merry driver dutifully repeated the phrases, bursting into a manic chuckle before inviting me to crit his pronunciation.

We arrived at the Wall quarter of an hour before the cable car opened.

In contrast to Beijing's balmy autumn weather, it was bitingly cold in the raw Badaling mountain air, and I spent a dismal quarter-hour blowing into my hands and furiously hugging myself until my grinning cabbie unearthed a jacket from his car boot like a white-gloved magician unveiling a turtle-dove.

The garment was three sizes too small but, no matter, I almost began hugging him instead.

We were eventually ushered into the white six-berth gondolas for the five-minute ride to the Wall above, taking note of big TO BE NOTICED notices detailing rules such as 'Don't smoke', 'Don't stick your body outside' and 'Don't scratch the cabin'.

The Mongol invaders are long gone, but another nakedly aggressive horde lurk hereabouts. Souvenir sellers.

Impressive though the Great Wall is, my abiding memory is one of unyielding knick-knack pedlars. As we rose towards the summit in our silent capsule, we could see tacky tourist shops laden with cheap and cheerful 'Climbed the Great Wall' bric-ˆ-brac gently stirring to life.

On the Wall itself there was no respite. Hawkers everywhere - lurking in the watchtowers, surprising you round corners, lying in wait at the top of steep staircases - thrust trinkets under my nose and badgered me to ride two-humped camels draped in colourful livery.

If you are searching for some early-morning peace and reflection, then the sections at Simatai and Jinshanling may well be better bets.
Badaling was good enough for me, though - hawkers being a small price to pay for the thrill of knowing you are standing on the planet's most famous man-made structure.

The grey brick-and-stone barrier snaked through dusky green hills off towards the horizon and was already crawling with people - soldiers in olive-green uniforms posing for photos; large families of locals fiddling with lenses and "saying cheese".

You can't help being awed by the sheer scale of things but, when the climbing sun started warming my back and the first busloads of Westerners began spilling over the ramparts in the distance, I knew it was time for another hour's worth of English lessons on the road back to Beijing.

At the southern end of Tiananmen Square I joined the queue to look at the preserved remains of Mao Zedong, thus completing the 'dead icon double'. I'd gazed upon Lenin's body in Moscow's Red Square a few years earlier, and eagerly queued to file past another enbalmed leader.

I was the only westerner in the 300-strong queue, and it was surprising to see how revered Mao still was. Just in front of the mausoleum was a flower stall.

People would dart out of line, fling money at the stall owner and return to find their place, bouquet at the ready.

Just beyond the entrance was a huge white statue of Mao, and this was the depot for the literally hundreds of cellophane floral tributes.

We split into two lines and shuffled past the late leader, who lay under glass with the bottom half of his body covered by a blood-red Chinese flag.

Mao died in 1976, so has been marinating in three decades' worth of embalming fluid.

He looked even more waxy and inhuman than did Lenin - and that's saying something. Trust me, I know my pickled statesmen.

Back out into the bright sunshine, I headed past a group of kite-fliers towards the northern extreme of the square, back under the pedestrian subway and up to Tiananmen Gate, where Mao and the Communist Party honchos used to lord it over the masses in the immense square down below.

The gate's huge portrait of Mao was apparently pelted with eggs during the 1989 student riots, but the party faithful had a number of reserves and quickly covered up the evidence with a new one.

At roughly the same spot where the slight Chinese student put his hand out to try stop an army tank during those famous riots, I was hounded by college kids peddling art works and teams of little old ladies brandishing Mao watches, Mao musical lighters and Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong books.

These small red tomes were offered at Y100 but could be had for Y10 with a minimum of haggling.

Chapters include Building our Country Through Diligance and Frugality, Imperialism and All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers, as well as the intriguingly titled Relations Between Officers and Men.

Dusk was lengthening the shadows on the square and turning the sky a pleasing shade of pink.

I watched literally thousands of commuters queue for the bus home: each bus stop had a warden holding a flag with bus numbers, not unlike the tour guides waving coloured flags in the air to identify themselves to confused tourists in the Forbidden City.

I was in no mood for the bus or the subway at peak hour. The Beijing metro is a bit ponderous.

It is very easy to use, even for non-Chinese speakers, as there are only a west-east line and a circle line around the city's periphery. All stations are identified in English.

But the wonders of automated ticket machines and swipe-card turnstiles have yet to hit the Chinese capital.

You must stand in line to buy your ticket (Y3 for any trip), and then stand in another line a few metres further on while an aged inspector seated on a plastic chair tears your ticket in half. With the Olympics beckoning, this will surely have to change.

So instead I hailed a green-and-gold taxi for the short journey back to my hotel. I flashed the Marco Polo business card at the driver and settled back to enjoy the ride in stony silence. Apart, that is, from a background of shrill, tinkling music.


Peter Davies flew to Beijing courtesy of Qatar Airways, which flies to Beijing and Shanghai several times a week. Log on to for details.

South African passport-holders need a visa to enter China. Visit either the Chinese Consulate, 25 Cleveland Rd, Sandhurst, 011-685-7540, or the Chinese Embassy, 965 Church St, Pretoria, 012-342-4194.

Getting there:
Qatar Airways, 011-523-2928; Cathay Pacific, 0860-228-429; Singapore Airlines, 011-880-8560; Malaysia Airlines, 011-880-9614.

When to go:
Summers are hot and humid, winters cold. Best times to go are in spring from April to mid-May or in autumn (October or November).