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Scheming, Scamming, and the Great Wall at Simatai

CHINA | Sunday, 1 July 2007 | Views [1502] | Comments [2]

So, Michelle and I had our trip from Beijing to Simatai very well planned out.  We checked our guidebook, and it recommended that we go the long distance bus station, from there catch bus 980, and once the bus made its last stop at Miyun we were supposed to hail a taxi/minibus to take us to Simatai.  It all seemed simple enough, but the trip was a little more complicated than we expected.  When we arrived at the long distance bus station, we could not find bus 980.  There were plenty of people that wanted to take us to Simatai--for a rate much higher than the normal bus fare of 15 RMB--but there was not a 980 bus.  We checked with some official looking people in an office at the station, but they did not speak English and we did not speak Mandarin.  They pointed in the direction of the parking lot we had just checked, and we tried to tell them that we had just checked that parking lot.  Despite our attempt at charades, they had no clue what we were asking.  They did know, however, that we wanted to find bus 980 and one woman got up and motioned us to follow her.  We obliged, and we discovered that for all practical purposes there were three bus stations.  The bus that we needed was about a block away.  Along the way we saw a minibus with a "980" label in its window.  Our guide looked at us, shook her hand back and forth, and said either "sur" or "shur."  Judging from her sour expression, we believed that she was trying to tell us that this bus was "fake" or "bad" or something along those lines.  When we arrived at our destination, we were pleased to discover a clean, shiny, and air-conditioned city bus.  We thanked our guide, stepped on board, and sat down relieved that the rest of the trip should be less stressful from there on out.

When the conductor headed toward the back of the bus to collect the fees we were pleased to discover that she spoke English, but we should have remembered the general rule for travel in China.  In general, if someone approached us and they spoke English it generally meant they were trying to scam us.  From street vendors to "art students" to unofficial taxi drivers, English speaking Chinese people are generally trying to part you from your RMB.  Having just finished a delightful trip up a mountain with a most friendly, honest, and kind person who spoke English though he was of Chinese dissent, however, we had become just a little too trusting. 

Michelle and I relaxed in our seats but we really should have been paying more attention.  We felt that we didn't really need to pay attention to pay attention since we were getting off at the bus's last stop and our conductor had seemed very helpful.  Suddenly the bus came to a stop, and our conductor hollered, "Simatai" to the back of the bus and motioned for us to get off the bus.  Still a bit surprised and startled, Michelle and I rushed to bus's exit.  When we got off we were a bit surprised by what we saw.  It didn't seem like we were at a bus station at all, and there was only one driver who was willing to take us to Simatai.  He asked for 250 RMB for the round trip--our guidebook suggested paying 120 RMB--and we thought that negotiations had started.  We offered something less than what he was asking, but our driver refused to go any lower than 250 RMB.  Our options being rather limited, we simply had no choice but to take his offer.

The views from Simatai were breathtaking.  It had just rained the day before, and I think this had helped to clear the smog out of the next day's sky.  This must be what China had looked like twenty years ago.  It was quite beautiful.  Michelle and I debated whether to take the cable car, and since we had been doing a lot of walking the past few days we decided to pay for a round trip.  We were glad that we took the trip up to the Great Wall at Simatai.  Getting from where the cable car had dropped us off to the Great Wall was a bit of an uphill clime.  We were exhausted when we got to the top.  I can't imagine how arduous the journey would have been if we had walked the whole way.  At Simatai, the ascents are steep and the drops are dramatic.  The wall literally snakes from the base of mountains to the summit.  It makes for some really awesome photos, but it leaves this visitor wondering of what practical military value this part of the wall could have served.  Surely, the mountains themselves should have proved enough of a barrier without sticking a wall on top.  If our exhaustion was any indication, an army of soldiers carrying their gear, weapons, and food would have had a difficult time getting through this portion of the mountains with or without a wall to block their path.  Perhaps China's emperors had the foresight to recognize that they were building a totally awesome tourist location from which future Chinese could reap a tremendous profit.

Unlike several other locations at the Great Wall, portions of Simatai are in disrepair and other parts are completely ruined and hardly resemble a wall anymore.  In fact, the portion of the Great Wall past the twelfth watchtower is closed to visitors because the erosion is so extensive.  Two PSB guard that spot to make sure no tourists go beyond the twelfth tower.  If anybody goes beyond they have to pay 200 RMB as a fine.  My wife joked with the PSB that she would gladly pay 200 RMB if they allowed her to venture on.  One of them said that they would take 50 RMB and smiled back.  I got the impression, however, that he was not kidding.  The Chinese government and our tour book pointed to the disrepair at Simatai as a shameful fact.  I guess the government plans to do some extensive renovations here soon.  We thought the crumbled and ancient appearance of the Great Wall at Simatai were authentic looking.  Who, after all, would want to travel to the Coliseum in Rome only to discover that the Italians had completely redone the Coliseum.  Everything was new, but the Italians had managed to keep much of the original design.  I imagine that most people would be horrified.  Yet the Chinese tend not to leave their historic structures in disrepair.  Everything has to be fixed so that it is better than new.  Even at relatively unkempt Simatai we noticed that the completely ruined sections of the Great Wall were different from the portions that had been repaired for the tourist trade.  The older guard towers have different windows and the bricks are different in color.  I hope that the "repairs" never take place and that the Chinese government realizes that something would be lost if they made all of the Great Wall better than new.

We talked with a couple of other tourists from British Columbia after they had managed to ditch their shadow--a hawker who was desperately hoping to sell some souvenirs--and we heard about their complicated journey to Simatai.  Instead of taking the official 980 bus, they took a minibus to Simatai.  They each paid the driver 100 RMB to get them there, but they had to wait another hour until the driver managed to pick up a few more passengers.  Once they finally got going, the trip progressed quickly, but the driver did not drop them off at Simatai.  Instead they had to pay another driver to take them the rest of the way to Simatai.  Having heard their story, we were able to put the breathtaking scenery out of minds for a minute and remember that something was fishy with our trip as well.

Having had our fill of the Great Wall, we made our way to base camp and our driver who promised to be there at 4:30.  Having only paid him half our agreed price for the round trip, we hoped that he would come back to get the rest of our fare but suspected he may be happy with 125 RMB.  As soon as we got back to the ticket window our driver waved at us enthusiastically and shouted "haloo."  We got in his minibus and he started to drive us back to the bus station at Miyun.  We drove a block when he announced that he needed to visit his mother, and he would drop us off so that his wife could take us the rest of the way to Miyun.  We pulled up behind her car, and we asked our driver to make sure that she knew where to drop us off.  He said that she knew the way, and we got in.  Our new driver started to pull away when she said, "haloo again...conductor."  I was confused as to what she was getting at when I noticed her pulling on the sleeve of her uniform.  To my furor it was the conductor on the bus that was supposed to take us to Miyun.  Michelle and I looked at each other and said nothing, but we were both thinking the same thing.  This explains everything that had been odd about our journey to Simatai.

I would like to encourage anybody else out there who wants to venture to Simatai to take the 980 bus to Miyun, but to wait until you get to the real bus station.  You really are supposed to get off at the last stop, and there will be many taxi drivers there.  If you run into the same conductor and she asks you "Simatai?" you have two options: you could pretend you don't speak either English or Chinese and just shake your heads no or you could confront her with the fact that she plans to drop you off with her husband so that the two of them can take advantage of you.  For my own personal satisfaction, I would like to suggest the latter rather than the former.  I'm not sure, however, if confronting her would do any good.  I don't think that she would get mad and do anything violent to you.  I just don't think that she realizes that what she is doing is quite evil.  When we got into her car, she acted like we were meeting an old friend.  If you tried to confront her, I half suspect that she would smile, nod her head, and say "Yes, my husband is a very good driver."

Despite the schemers on the road to Simatai, a visit to this portion of the wall simply cannot be missed.  If you disagree, simply look at our pictures.  We think that they hardly do justice to the grandeur of the Great Wall at Simatai, but they are still beautiful pictures.  I simply suggest that you plan ahead and take the Line D tour bus that--our guide book claims--leaves Beijing for Simatai Friday and Saturday.  Any other method of getting to Simatai requires that you depend up the services of some charlatan.  Even if the bus had taken us all the way to Miyun, we still would have had to hire an unofficial taxi to Simatai at the station.  If you are like us, however, and don't plan well enough to go to Simatai on either Friday or Saturday, rest assured.  Even though we were swindled, our fare was not that expensive.  Our four hour long bus ride to and from Miyun cost us about $4.00 per person, our cab driver charged us about $17.00 per person for a two hour long cab ride to and from Simatai, and our cab driver got us an admission ticket for about $5.00 per person.  By American standards, it's still quite a deal for such a great experience.  We were just annoyed that we had been swindled.


Tags: Sightseeing



The same happened to me one month ago. I wish I had read this info before. When we were dropped off at that bus stop, looked around and didn't see any wall at all, I thought: "Prepare a few extra bucks. You're being swindled ..."

  Ruben May 17, 2009 10:13 AM


Well done ! You are so brave and adventurous! These are great pictures of the Great Wall! Which reminds me... I should go through my India pictures and post some. Having read this I thought it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.

I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it! In return, I also found a great blog of Great Wall travel tips, I'd love to share it here with you and for future travelers. http://www.wildgreatwall.com/which-part-of-the-great-wall-is-the-best-to-visit/

  andy Jun 27, 2013 12:00 PM

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