24: The Great Wall of China


Day 1 of Beijing, we arrive on a plane.  Get lost on way to hostel because China bans google and google maps doesn’t work.  Nicest person in China (not joking) helps us find our hostel. We arrive and it’s a nice social atmosphere with a bar/restaurant downstairs.  We make friends with Sherif, who is from Egypt but lives in Germany, who mentions he’s going to the Great Wall of China tomorrow.  We agree to join and sign up for the same tour.

24: The Great Wall of China

Are there any 24 fans out there?  If you have ever seen the show you always find yourself amazed at how much can take place in 24 hours and how Jack never needs to pee or eat.   The contents of this post take place in real time over a 24 hour time span during our 2nd day in China.

Fresh into China we have made our first friend Sherif from our first day hanging out at the hostel all day catching up on work.   We wake up early to catch the tour bus that will take us to the Great Wall of China.  There were a number of other people from our hostel also going on the trip so we all load onto the tour bus that came to pick us up.  It took about an hour weaving our way through Beijing where we come to the first stop.

The tour operator (who speaks pretty decent English) explains to us that we are about to get off the bus at a market.  However, we are not here to buy anything.   For the bus to park near the great wall it’s required that it stop at the market and allow people time to visit.   We shuffle off the bus and the tour guide walks near speeds consistent with competitive walking through the market.    We hop back on the bus and we’re on our way again.

We drive all of 200 yards (very uphill though) and we arrive at the parking lot.   We exit the bus again and gather around the tour guide as he gives us a brief overview of the wall and our options (right or left).  The first thing we have to do is get on a gondola that will take us to the top of a mountain where the Great Wall of China is.  I was unaware just how mountainous the area would be the wall is way up there!

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The great wall is largely run down except in certain areas for tourism purposes.   If you choose to go left, you have to hustle and you can make it to the old parts of the wall for a more authentic view of the original wall.   Alternatively if you go right you can take a leisurely stroll and arrive at a slide that takes you down to the bottom.  While the slide sounds fun, seeing the old part of the wall draws us in and we decide to head that way.

Upon arriving at the top, there is a first set of stairs that takes you up onto the wall.   We make our way to the top and get some of our first views of the wall.  Unfortunately it’s a smoggy day in China (as it was most days) and the visibility was not good.   The great wall is thousands of miles long but when you finally see it in person it’s one of those things that sticks in your head.  It’s very impressive and you imagine the amazing amount of work that went into building a wall on mountainous terrain with none of the technology we have today.

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For us to trek to the old part of the wall, we have to go beyond the bare patch you see at the furthest point of the wall in the picture above.   We quickly find out that this isn’t the Great Wall of China, this is the Great Hike of China.  Parts of the wall are easier to walk, and some of it is just straight up.   One particular staircase is just wide enough for 2 average people to squeeze by each other and people are nearly on hands and knees to get to the top.  There’s no good way to grip the wall so you either hang your hand over the edge or lean really far forward.

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We have a certain amount of time to climb the wall and then we have to turn back and we’re getting close.  We pass a group of guys that was on our tour bus and they tell us we don’t have much further to reach the old wall.   We press on and eventually make our way to the old wall around 2 hours into walking.

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Exhausted, we turn back and head down from there.  On the way down, Sherif, Ashley, and I strike up a conversation with a German couple which makes the trip that much easier.  We didn’t bring enough water for our trip and we’re happy to finally see the Gondola up ahead.  We make it to the Gondola and realize that there’s a 45 minute line to get to the bottom.   We make it down to the bottom with 15 minutes to spare before lunch.   We head into the lunch area and at this point we’re so hungry we’ll eat anything!  The meal actually turned out to be decent and we had a fun group of people at our table along with Sherif.

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After finishing up lunch, Sherif, Ashley and I head back to the bus and we’re on our way back to the hostel.   Upon arriving we all head to the bar area to talk about the Great Wall for a bit.  A group of three girls (all individually traveling) join into our group as Sherif (a social butterfly) had previously met them at the hostel.     Sherif mentions that there is a night tour that the hostel does and asks if anyone is interested.   We’re excited to finally get a little bit of a hostel experience after we struck out in Japan so we say we’re in.  The three girls also agree to join so now group has now doubled to 6.

Rather than do the night tour through the hostel, we asked the hostel where the night tour goes and they were very cool and told us to just do the night tour on our own.  They provided the locations and we decided we could knock it out on our own.    We decided to all take a couple hours to shower/get read, and then meet back downstairs at 6:00.

We all meet back up at 6:00 and head off with our new group.   The first stop is the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The area is completely packed but we make our way through the crowds towards the large stadiums in the area.

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As we make our way through the crowds, we’re approached by an Asian couple with camera in hand.  One of the members of our group is happy to take a photo of them so they ask for the camera.  There’s some miscommunication and eventually we realize they don’t want a picture of them, they want a picture of us…..because we are white.   This was a first for us.  We had heard this happens in China but people were not shy to walk right up and ask for a photo with white people.    We obliged and here is the result:

DSC04404 (Large)From left to right (Ashley, random asian girl, Lovisa, Amanda, random asian girl, Danielle, and Sherif)   Make note of Amanda, she’s to the left of the girl wearing the “cowboy culture” shirt.   She’s a key part of the story later on.

After spending some time checking out the Olympic park area and providing free photos with white people to the locals, we are all starving and decide it’s time to eat.   At this point it’s roughly 9:00 and everything in the area is starting to shut down.  We make our way through a mall and sit down at the perfect place but the waiter tells us the menu is basically 90% off limits because it’s too late.  We decide we’ll head to the next night tour location and hope that there’s more food available there!

We take a few metro stops and show up in an area that looks completely dead.  We seem off course but decide to head forward and see what turns up.  A few white people pass us going the opposite direction which is a good sign we’re getting closer to a touristy area.   We make our way around a corner and we’re at a nice night life area that skirts around the edges of a small lake.

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Since we’re all staying in a hostel and all on a budget, we pass over the expensive restaurants in the area hoping we’ll find a few cheaper options.  We work our way all the way around the lake and we are nearing the end before we realize there aren’t going to be any cheap ones.   We find a spot tucked away in a corner and the owners are outside asking us to come in for a rooftop view.  We’re a little skeptical but it’s 10:30 at this point and everyone is hungry.   We head up to through 3 flights of stairs, pass the the loudest band on earth on floor 2, and arrive at the rooftop.   We end up with a perfect table with a slight view of the lake and the surrounding area.    The prices for food aren’t bad, but they are charging a ridiculous amount for drinks so everyone sticks to water/coke for the night which turns out to be a good idea.

We finish our meal around 11:30 and decide it’s time to call it quits for the night.  We were up early for the Great Wall hike and we’re exhausted.  We head over to an area that seems like a major street and decide to grab a cab since all the metro’s have been shut down at this point.   Before heading off, we have to split into 2 groups as we have a total of 6 people.   Ashley, Amanda, and I all take one cab with the other three going in another cab.

The first group quickly finds a cab but Ashley, Amanda and I aren’t having much luck.  We decide to walk down the street a little ways until we eventually manage to hail a cab.   Upon entering we have a card the hostel gave us that has the location written in Chinese.   The cab driver seems to understand and we ask him to turn on the meter.   He argues with us about turning on the meter which is a red flag but we decide to just negotiate the rate up front.   He agrees to do the cab ride for 50 Yuan which works out to about $7.50.   We’re exhausted at this point so we agree and off we go!

It’s worth noting at this point how we are arranged in the car.  Ashley and I are in the back seat and Amanda is in the front seat.  I’m behind Amanda, and Ashley is behind the driver.   I told Amanda I had a 50 and I’d pick up the cab and she can give us cash later.  I was holding onto the bill for a while and noted that it was an older one when I handed it to Amanda.   Upon nearing our hostel, the cab driver instructs Amanda to pay so she hands him the 50.   Approximately 5 seconds pass and the next thing we know the cab driver is unleashing on all of us about FAKE MONEY!

He now has a crisp new 50 that’s bright green and demands that it’s fake and that we are trying to scam him.  He keeps saying “FAKE MONEY” over and over again because he does not speak a lot of English.    However, the bill he is holding out (which is obviously fake) is a very bright green and I immediately notice it’s not the one I handed to Amanda.  Amanda also notices that this is a crisp 50 and she had it wadded up in her hand tightly so it wouldn’t have looked like that.

The cab driver starts getting extremely agressive and yelling at all of us that this is fake money while Amanda calmly tells him, “No sir, it’s real, good money, good money”.   He’s having none of it at this point.  We pull up to the outside of our hostel (which is down a dark alley about 50 yards away), and the driver stops the car.

All the sudden the tone in Amanda’s voice changes and she says: “Please let go sir” in her extremely courteous and polite British accent.   Ashley is sitting opposite of Amanda in the car and looks up to see that the driver is physically holding Amanda in the car at this point.   She tells me we need to get out of the cab so I hop out with Ashley just behind me.  Once we exit, Ashley tells me that he’s holding her arm which I could not see because I was directly behind her and it was very dark.

Amanda’s car door is open and I look in and sure enough he has BOTH hands firmly grasped around her forearm.   As soon as I started reaching in towards their arms locked together the cab driver let go and she quickly got out of the car.   The next thing I know the cab driver pulls out what looks like a sharpened chop stick (definitely wood and very skinny) and starts pointing it at me but at this point I’m way outside the car as well.    He gets out of the cab as we are all walking (quickly) away from him.  He’s screaming at us through the whole ordeal and follows us a few steps into the alley before eventually heading back to his cab.

Upon heading back into the hostel around 12:30 we are all full of adrenaline.  The other group left before us and had no issues at all.  We asked them how much they paid and they said it was 30 and he used the meter.

There are some interesting things worth noting about this experience. This was a legitimate cab, not an individual or private type car.  It was a fully marked cab.  We definitely ignored a red flag by not making him turn on his meter.  However, if you set the price up front at worst you get scammed a bit.   I’ve done this multiple times with no issues.

The odd thing is that this guy scammed us by charging us 50, then proceeded to try and scam us a second time by switching out the bills on us, then proceeded to get hostile to the point of being physical when we called him on his very obvious scam.   I don’t know what he thought would happen when he’s outnumbered 3 to 1.    He was at least 4 or 5 inches shorter than me and extremely skinny so I’m not sure what he thought grabbing a girls arm and refusing to let her leave would accomplish.

Things like this can happen anywhere in the world and I’m pretty sure this guy was somewhat mentally unstable.   At the end of the day, no one was harmed, we paid a couple extra bucks for our cab, and we got a good story out of it.   We are now a few months into our trip and this remains our most action packed day of any we have had so far!


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  2. The photo looking down at Ash on the tiny staircase made me a little nauseous. Glad I’m only visiting in pictures don’t think I could do in real life.

  3. I was waiting for this story!

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