Archive for May, 2009

Is that a bike path I see?

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

76 km, 5 h

We were both feeling rather sluggish at the start of the day – the result we are sure of colds that we are trying desperately to avoid. Fortunately, our bus ride to the south west of South Korea brought us to some much less busy roads. We started off on a minor road that brought us through the artificial lake at Bomunho Resort. As we rode up the hill around the lake, we passed many recreational cyclists out for a ride around the lake, including several on tandem bikes. We certainly received a lot of puzzled looks and waves of encouragement.

To avoid the tunnel on highway 4, we had to climb for about 2-3 km up over a hill. We were surprised at how tired we were finding ourselves, so we opted for an early lunch break. Becky was in desperate need for a coffee, but unfortunately the “coffee shop” turned out to be a bakery with an instant coffee machine with no real coffee to be had :(.

Taking a closer look at the map, we decided to forgo highway 4 as it would bring us too far north, and we were hoping for a little less of a climb further south at highway 14. We jumped onto highway 7, which was a little busier, but had a nice shoulder and a gentle downhill slope. At highway 14 we turned off, but missed the turn in the small town and ended up back on highway 7. When we took a closer look at the map, we decided not to turn back to highway 14, as is involved at least a 200m climb (we could see the foreboding hills in the distance). So back onto highway 7 and the gentle downhill slope.

About 10 km outside of Ulsan we noticed a bike path. For the first 5 km it followed along a river. It was very reminiscent of the Ottawa River pathways except the river had very little water. After the river the bike path remained, although at times it was no better than a sidewalk. We followed it for 20 km, before turning off onto a less busy road. Unfortunately, that less busy road took us through a large series of industrial complexes. There was at least 20 km of beach front industry – yuck. It was a big relief when the industry stopped and we passed through some green fields before entering Jinha Beach.

In Jinha Beach we found a lovely sea side community. There were a ton of hotels in town, for the most part they were a little older and less flashy than any of the ones we have seen so far. We looked at one, which had a nice large room for 35,000 Won. The second one we looked at also had a large room for only 30,000 Won. The room was clean but rather than LCD monitors and TVs, they were CRT – not a big deal for us.

Sadly, neither of us were in the mood for seafood, which is what this town specialized in. We decided we needed to try out a Korean Fried Chicken place. The chicken was good, as fried chicken goes – certainly less greasy than KFC, but they did not serve anything else – no rice or any form of starch. We ended up picking up a couple of boxes of crackers at the convenience store. Overall, dinner was a bust – oh well, you can’t have yummy Korean BBQ every night!


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A restful day in Gyeongju

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

We mostly took today off to relax. We had considered doing a day ride around town, but in the end neither of us was feeling up for it. We both felt colds coming on, and we don’t want to be sick when getting on the boat – there is a risk that we may need to go through departure screening for Swine flu like we did in China. It would really suck to have a fever when trying to depart.

In search of a place for lunch, we did ride around town a bit. We saw many of the Tumuli (grass-covered burial mounds which are often equated to underground pyramids). So far, we are finding the streets much less chaotic – with the occasional bike path too. We are looking forward to tomorrow riding on much quieter roads.

For dinner we went back to the same BBQ restaurant we visited last night, so it must have been good! (Actually it was, although the fatty pork wasn’t terribly healthy). BBQ with lots of vegetables, mushrooms and little bits of pork for flavouring is really yummy. We may have to look for a Korean-style BBQ stone when we get back to Ottawa.

Busing in Korea

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Knowing our time in Korea was running short, and to escape the busy highways near Seoul, we decided to take a bus to Gyeongju – a town about 100 km from Busan that is known for its many ruins and monuments. It should allow us a couple of days of riding without feeling rushed such that we can explore more side roads and avoid busy highways.

Taking the bus in Korea turned out to be pretty easy, once we found a real bus station. Scott showed the bus ticket agent where we wanted to go, and we were sold a ticket for a city where we would need to change buses, in this case Daejeon. Once we arrived in Daejeon, we were able to purchase tickets to Gyeongju. The buses ran frequently enough that we did not need to wait more than an hour at either station. There was no surcharge for bikes (nice), but the luggage area was smaller than other buses we have travelled on, so we needed to remove our gear and seats in order to load the bikes. Fortunately, most people travelling on the buses have little or no luggage, so we could take over two complete compartments without a problem.

The day before we arrived in Korea, former president Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide.

All week, we have seen the mourning and outpouring of grief: there have been shrines set up everywhere we’ve passed, with huge condolence cards, flowers and people in black suits. Many of the people we saw at the shrines were in tears. Today as we were travelling, every television we saw was tuned to the funeral coverage, and many people in the bus stations were glued to them. On the buses, we got continuous radio or television coverage.

We also noticed a visible presence of military in South Korea, both on the ground with uniformed soldiers using public transit, and jets and helicopters in the sky. We wonder if this is normal or if this is related to the recent threats by North Korea. On that note, we are glad that we decided to forgo the DMZ tour on Wednesday, as the tension would have been extreme, if we had even been allowed to go.

After 6 hours (2 hours waiting and 4 hours on buses) we were in Gyeongju. We looked at a hotel near the bus station. It was a bit old but nice, clean, and cheap at 30,000 Won ($30 CAD); however, it did not have an elevator or Internet. Given those requirements, our best option was another “love motel”. Becky continued to be entertained by the tackiness of these places, such that she had to check out several before we made a decision. We ended up staying at the Sky Motel – mainly because they gave us a better deal than anyone else and the room did not smell smoky. When we went to walk away, the price for two nights dropped from 130,000 Won for two nights to 100,000 ($87 CAD). Given that tomorrow night is a Saturday (weekend), the price was the best we could find.

While Becky was checking out rooms, Scott was taking photos of the motels, especially their methods for preserving the anonymity of guests, from license plate covers to fully enclosed guest-lockable garages. He was also fascinated by the decor, especially the nighttime lighting, which gave a Las Vegas flair to the Love Motel districts.


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That tree just passed me!

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

distance 58 km, ride time 4:15

Today was another slog on busy highways. It seemed like we would never escape the city. At one point we were moving along so slowly we were being passed by trees! OK, so maybe the trees were on the back of flat bed trucks, but still we were passed by several of them today.

Since there was no way we were going to make it to Chungju-si tonight, we decided to try and catch a bus from Yangji (the intersection of highways 42 and 17). A nice man, Stephen, found us and tried to help us find the right bus, but we would need to take 2 buses to get to Chungju-si. He talked to the driver on the first bus, who said our bikes were too big (it did not have luggage space). The driver did say that after 2 more busses, there would be one that could take us. We looked at our map again, and thought that it would make more sense to go to Icheon (not to be confused with Incheon where we started), and try to catch a bus south from there. So we hopped back on the bikes and continued along to Icheon (another 22 km).

Icheon being a much bigger city, was listed in the Lonely Planet. With the help of a lot of pure luck (the LP did not have a map, and our map showed Icheon in a huge area and did not indicate which part was downtown), we found the Now, It’s the Moon Time Hotel – yes, another Love Motel. We noticed that the hotel had neat little sandwich boards that went in front of each car to cover the license plates. Unfortunately they had nothing available to disguise our bicycles. The room we chose was not quite as well equipped as last night’s, with only a small CRT television, and much less floor space. Quite adequate for our needs though.

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Not quite escaping Seoul

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

60 km, 4 h 15 min

Our plan today was to get to Chungju, southeast of Seoul. Unfortunately, riding in the city in Korea is not the most pleasant (or quick) experience. Incheon is riddled with road construction, which added to the hellishness of today’s ride. We often found ourselves breathing in dirt and dust as big trucks passed us. Fortunately, the drivers were all great, either waiting behind us or passing us with lots of room to spare.

At one point, we needed to cross some water. We came to several large bridges. A group of Korean cyclists on mountain bikes rode by us, and we flagged one down to ask for a recommendation on how to cross the body of water. Unfortunately, their plan was to climb 3 flights of stairs with their bikes to access a pedestrian walkway on the highway over the bridge. That option did not really work for us, so the next recommendation was to ride over the bridge. We found that the Korean cyclist was not at all familiar with the map or able to point to where we actually were. This is the second time we have encountered local cyclists who can’t read the map – and this map was in Korean! They were able to confirm that we needed to cross the bridge that we saw above us, so we waited for a red light to give us a lead over the traffic, and hopped on. In the end, the experience was not bad. Cars gave us plenty of room, so no problem.

It took much longer than expected to get to anywhere – too many deviations to avoid highways and traffic, plus when we did get on a roll, we hit an exceptionally large number of red lights. Eventually we decided to stop in Suwon, a city of about 1 million people, just south of Seoul. We are navigating using a 2009 edition road atlas as we were not able to find a good GPS map. This is the third time we are navigating without the GPS (the first was in the US and the second was in southern Italy). It has pointed out to us just how much the GPS simplifies our lives, and we are definitely missing it.

Using our Lonely Planet as a guide, we found the neighbourhood in Suwon hosting a large number of “Love Motels”. Becky could not believe just how cheesy the area is. Scott had the first try at finding a room, but for some reason they would not allow him to see it. Becky walked down the street to a slightly less cheesy area and tried a hotel – the Shangri-la resort. The room was amazing – lots of space, shower and Jacuzzi tub, computer with Internet, 42 inch LCD TV, fridge, the necessary “Sterlet nano ultraviolet sterilizer” (useful for ensure the glasses and mugs are clean and, well, you can use your imagination for what else it may be used to clean), and of course a free condom too. All this for a 40,000 Won ($40 CAD), great value for tired cycle tourists.

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A day trip to Seoul

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Our main task for the day was to get some decent maps of Korea and some Korean cash. There are so many big expressways (especially in Northern South Korea) that we needed to find a detailed map of some of the smaller roads. Also, many hills also means many tunnels and bridges, so we wanted a map that indicates tunnels, so we can do our best to avoid them.

We took the bus from Incheon to Seoul and were immediately struck by how modern the city is and how western it feels. At one point we walked for several blocks looking for food and only saw western fast food outlets. We had to duck down onto a side street to find Korean food.

Finding an ATM that took foreign cards proved to be more of a challenge than we anticipated. We used the “5-star hotel” trick, and headed to the Ritz Carleton. Upon climbing the entrance ramp to the lobby, Scott immediately had a sense of déjà vu. It turned out that this is where he stayed on his first visit to Seoul for business back in 2002. Fortunately, they did have an ATM that accepted foreign cards, so we were able to get some cash (hopefully enough to last us until Busan).

We found two book stores selling English titles. Bandi and Lunni Books at Jonggak Station on the 1 line had a good selection of bilingual English/Korean maps, and we picked up a (rather heavy) road atlas. Unfortunately we visited Kyobo Books first, so also have a map of South Korea which we don’t need.

You know you’ve been travelling too long when you take pleasure in using a public washroom. After so much filth in Chinese toilets, it is a downright pleasure to use Korean washrooms. They are clean, free, and even include toilet paper most of the time. It feels just like home – in some cases even cleaner than home! Life is good!

Tired out from a late night chatting with Jessica and Terry, and running errands, we did not actually do anything touristy in Seoul, other than walking past the Boskingak bell tower. We bought some groceries to make dinner, and headed back to Incheon. We spent the evening visiting with Jessica and Terry and preparing to get back on the bikes tomorrow. It was very interesting to exchange perspectives on South Korea and China, since Jessica has been here 12 years, and Terry his whole life.

Welcome to Korea

Monday, May 25th, 2009

We arrived in Incheon later than expected, which meant that we would not arrive at the Memorial Monument at the appointed time to meet with Jessica – our Couchsurfing host. We needed to get a phone card so we could call Jessica, as we couldn’t find anyone who would lend us their phone. We found the lack of people with cell phones on the ferry to be rather odd actually. We suspect that many of the people on the ship were Chinese, and since Korea uses a different mobile phone standard than the rest of the world, their mobile phones wouldn’t work. Of course getting a phone card required that we first get some Korean Won. Fortunately, the port had an exchange both. Unfortunately, they only exchanged 100 Yuan notes – so we changed the 300 we had left and are stuck holding 97 Yuan in small notes (oops).

Yes, this is a church, not a museum, office building or art gallery

Yes, this is a church, not a museum, office building or art gallery

We got a free map of Incheon from tourist information to supplement the map in the Lonely Planet. This is the first time since the since the US that we have ridden into a city without a city map on the GPS. The lack of a decent map certainly posed an additional challenge!

We were surprised to find the riding rather stressful, although all the cars and trucks left a comfortable space as they passed. We did not see any other bikes – the streets of China were filled with pedal bikes and electric bikes. In Korea, we saw hardly any scooters and no bikes. We have entered the land of the automobile. The lack of bikes means a lack of bike lines, add to that road construction, and the riding stress levels increase. With the not so great maps, we ended up running into large overpasses without shoulders and tunnels – both of which Becky refuses to ride on unless there is no alternative. Fortunately, we were able to find an alternative route. What should have been a 7 km ride, turned into a 12 km one. Our other observation about Korea is that it is not flat. We can expect to ride through more hills here.

When we got close to Jessica and Terry’s house we called again, saying we were close to the LG and Hyundai apartment blocks and in front of a Korea Telecom building. We rode a little further and Jessica found us, but as she pointed out later, apartment blocks which say LG and Hyundai are everywhere, as are KT buildings, so a more unique landmark could have been useful. The Ferris Wheel was just around the corner, but we hadn’t seen it yet.

Before meeting up with Jessica, we noticed there were a large number of churches in Korea. Many of them had exotic modern architecture, but we didn’t take pictures – sorry. We had expected to see many Buddhist temples, but did not expect to see so much Christianity. According to the CIA World Fact book (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html#People), South Korea is comprised of 26.3% Christian (19.7% Protestant, 6.6% Roman Catholic), Buddhist 23.2%, and 49.3% claiming no religion.

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Ferry to Korea

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

We wrote some postcards over breakfast, and planned to ask the hotel to mail them for us. We had purchased stamps yesterday, so all we needed was a mailbox. This turned out to be more of a challenge than we planned. The hotel reception had no clue what we were asking of them, so we decided to find a post box ourselves. Fortunately, Scott had a keen eye and spotted the China Post sign, and a long line up of people waiting for it to open. Since we had stamps already, Scott went over and asked several people if they would mail them for us. After many puzzled looks, someone who spoke a little English pointed out the post office box. It was on the street and lacked any English signage and was a different colour than the standard China Post boxes – white with red instead of green with yellow. It have what appeared to be a postal slot though, so we hope the postcards get to where they belong.

With the postcards successfully mailed, we headed to the ferry terminal. Upon arrival, Scott checked us in and we were assigned bunks. Becky looked at them and noticed immediately that they were in two different cabins. When Scott went back to ask, he learned that he was in the men’s cabin and Becky was in the women’s cabin. Not exactly what we had planned for when we upgraded to business class! By this time, Becky was definitely feeling more stressed out than she should have been – she guesses it was related to not enough sleep (the ATM issue yesterday meant a late dinner and an even later bedtime).

The next step involved getting our bags screened twice. The first time was to enter the terminal building – so everything had to come off the bike and be run through the metal detectors – the bikes were allowed to just roll through. Then when Customs opened, we again had to go through another metal detector. After completing the second one, we were ushered to the front of the customs line (not sure why) and were signed out of China. We found it interesting that China customs does not recognize us as a “family” unit. When we entered and when we left, we were required to go through customs separately. China is the only country where we made to separate.

Loading the bikes onto the boat posed yet one more challenge. They allowed us to ride the 200 meters to the loading stairs, rather than load onto the bus, which would have been painful and inefficient. Once at the stairs, we had to carry the bikes and gear up three flights of stairs to the boat. On the boat, the bikes and most of our gear was stored in the disembarkation gangway, which was locked during the voyage. We were not charge any extra for the bikes.

The Tanggu/Tianjin port was massive, with huge bulk handling berths as well as many container berths. This is the largest cargo terminal we’ve seen, and it appears to be still growing. Apparently it is the third largest port in China, and fifth largest in the world. Singapore is apparently larger, but not the part we saw. Most of the bulk cranes and container gantries were idle, with only a few ships docked. Scott thought this was due to the economic slowdown, but apparently year-over-year volume is still increasing.

Once on the boat, Becky asked at information about being moved into the same cabin. Shortly before the ship departed, they reassigned us to a cabin for just the two of us. The ship was rather empty, with many of the sleeping areas closed and locked off. We were very happy once the rooms were rearranged, and Becky quickly took the opportunity to take a much needed nap.

There was a cafeteria that was open only during meals that served three options for each meal: Chinese, Korean, and Western. The prices were pretty reasonable (about equivalent to tourist areas in China and quick food in Korea). We ate one mediocre meal at the cafeteria and decided to see if there were any other options. We discovered the second restaurant which looked more like a bar – which included karaoke rooms for small groups. The menu was listed in Korean and Chinese only. We had a struggle at first trying to order food, since we had no idea what most Korean food was called. Becky has never been to Korea and Scott has only been once. We haven’t found a good Korean restaurant in Ottawa, so the food is almost entirely unfamiliar. Scott remembered Bulgogi (BBQ beef)and Bibimbap (rice, vegetables, egg and meat) but that was about it. Once we managed to order something, the food turned out to be wonderful. We ate the rest of our meals in the bar – a little more expensive than the other, but the food was much better.

For the entire journey, the sea was covered in a hazy fog. It was very similar to our journey in the Indian Ocean. The hazy fog meant that there was very little to see. We passed the occasional fishing boat, but otherwise, it was not particularly exciting. We noticed that the ship carried neither a South Korean, nor a Chinese flag. Rather, it carried a Panama flag. In our experience, it is odd to see a ferry carrying a flag of convenience.

We had been told the crossing was 25 hours. Although that is technically true, it does not account for the 2 hours of maneuvers necessary to dock in Incheon. The Incheon ferry terminal is located inside the Incheon port, which requires entry and exit via a lock. So, the ferry is ushered into a lock, and the water is raised, such that the internal port has a consistent water level (i.e. it is not subject to tides). So, dock-to-dock it took 27 hours.

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Onward to the coast

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

31 km, 2h 20 min

We got packed up quite quickly this morning, and the front desk guy helped us to figure out the correct bus station to get to Tianjin. The staff at the New Dragon Hostel have been very helpful whenever we’ve asked them for something, even when it has been strange requests like phoning a travel agent to figure out about the Incheon ferry. We suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised, but the reviews on TripAdvisor had us expecting the worst.

We made it down to the bus terminal after a longer ride than planned, and initially we were afraid that we would not be allowed to bring bikes on the bus with us. Unlike the bus stations in Yunnan province, here we found a separate Baggage Check area, different from the waiting room for the buses. Fortunately, with the help of the baggage staff, and a friendly woman who spoke fluent English, we ended up with tickets to TangGu (the Tianjin port city) for ourselves and our bikes, and were quickly on a bus. So quickly in fact that we didn’t get a chance to get lunch. Oh well – Oreos and water it was. We had thought we would have to take a bus to Tianjin and then ride 45 km to Tanggu, so we were lucky to have found the helpful staff and friendly English translator.

The baggage check had a drive on scale so Becky tried it out while Scott was buying tickets. Becky’s loaded bike 50 kg, Scott’s unloaded bike plus panniers, 58 kg. Guess Becky isn’t carrying that much less than Scott after all! She thinks we may need to do something about that 😉 Scott thinks that since Becky’s bike was loaded, and his had the panniers scattered around the scale, they read differently. Certainly when we push them up an incline or over some steps, Scott’s feels much heavier!

After arriving in Tanggu our first stop was for lunch – we were starving. We spotted a sit down restaurant and pulled up. As Scott was preparing to bring his bike up the stairs, three staff from the restaurant came running outside to assist him. They helped both of us get our bikes up the steps and ushered us into the restaurant. Ordering food posed a challenge, but they had some samples out so we could point. After pointing and struggling a bit with the phrasebook, we discovered that one woman spoke a bit of English. We ordered what she called “Garlic chicken” which turned out to actually be curry chicken – yummy and something totally different.

The people in Tianjin are much more interested in our bikes than those in Beijing. We guess that in the smaller town, they do not see many cycle tourists.

We found the Tianjin Passenger Terminal without difficulty, and confirmed with a woman sitting outside that the Incheon ferry is scheduled to leave at 11am tomorrow. (To be completely honest, we said “Incheon”, “duchuan”, and we think she said “mingtian” and “shiyi dian”. “Incheon Ferry”? “Tomorrow 11 o’clock”. With that sorted out, we went searching for a hotel. We found the Today International Hotel, only 2 km from the port with several restaurants across the street. It is a 3-4 star property for 268 Yuan a night. One of our thoughts was that an International Hotel would be able to help us find an ATM or be able to change money.

Our initial search for cash was a complete failure. The two Bank of China branches nearest the port lacked ATMs, and the offices were closed before we arrived, so there is no place to exchange Euro or USD. There were 6 or 7 other ATMs along the street, but none of them accepted foreign bank cards. Becky checked at the desk for either currency exchange or an advance on the Visa, and the hotel could do neither. An Internet search told us that the ferry would only accept Chinese Yuan or Korean Won, so we had to get some cash or we would get very hungry on the boat!

After some more Internet research we had a potential answer. An HSBC ATM at the Marriott Renaissance hotel, only 4 km away as the crow flies. Scott left Becky at the hotel, and headed out. Looking at the map, he saw a railway line between us and the centre of town where the Renaissance was. There were a couple of ways to cross, so “no problem” he thought. He soon proved himself wrong. Shortly after turning north, the street lights vanished, and he found himself on a large dark avenue, among many partially-complete apartment buildings. The road soon filled with throngs of people, and he found himself in the middle of a night market. A few oncoming cars advanced slowly through the crowd, and even laying about with their horns they couldn’t move very fast. He was able to sneak between crowds mostly unscathed.

Once through the market, there were pockets of people everywhere around the sites. He wondered if they were construction workers and their families, living in a semi-legal slum near the construction. He travelled along the railway for a bit, then noticed people entering the road. He turned off, and found an unofficial path across the tracks. Carefully placed stones and piles of dirt made an easy pedestrian path, but he carried his bike.

When he arrived at the Renaissance, his first observation was the contrast between the port area where we are staying and the typical plush Marriott interior with more Western businesspeople than we’ve seen since Singapore. There were lots of tall modern buildings and huge sculptures in the centre of the roundabouts. It is like this was “expat” China and we are staying in “local” China.

On the way back, he decided to take a different route, again crossing the tracks at an unofficial crossing and carrying his bike. Unfortunately, he got his water hose caught in the chain again (oops). Fortunately, no apparent damage. Heading south again, he passed many more partially-complete apartment buildings, then found a lady kneeling in the middle of an intersection tending a small fire. It looked like a bunch of papers, and all the traffic drove around her without a second glance. He wonders if she was burning “ghost money” to send to a recently dead ancestor? Note to self – bring a camera when going out on little jaunts like this!

Every mouthful is a different taste sensation!

Every mouthful is a different taste sensation!

Little Sheep logo

Little Sheep logo

When Scott finally reappeared at the hotel, Becky was starving. We planned to go to the Seafood restaurant across the street. When we walked over, we noticed that no one was in the Seafood restaurant, but the “Little Sheep” restaurant next door was packed – always a good sign. The staff found both an English menu, and a fluent English-speaking waiter for us, but then we got concerned. Lamb, lamb and more lamb! (With a name like Little Sheep, you’d think we would have recognized the possibility, but no…) Our friendly waiter reassured us that there was no lamb in any of the broth choices, and that the beef contained no lamb, so we decided to try anyway. In the end, we had the best hot pot meal ever! Apparently, it is an international chain and we were told there is at least one branch in Canada – we’ll need to figure out where (anyone know?). The hot pot was divided into three different sections, each with a different flavoured broth. You then ordered the various items to cook in the pot. We got lots of vegetables, and some beef and mushrooms- very yummy and the price was less than a third of what we paid in Beijing!

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A Great day at the Wall

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

When we arrived in Beijing, Scott was pretty touristed out, and wasn’t that enthusiastic about going to the Great Wall. Becky insisted, and by day three, he was feeling much more excited about the idea. We decided that rather than taking a tour, we would try to get to the wall using public transit. Scott did a lot of reading and research on the Internet about the Mutianyu section of the wall, since this was the section Becky had been to before, and she really enjoyed it. She also remembered that it wasn’t too full of tourists.

We had a plan:

  1. Take the subway to Dongzhimen metro station, and walk to the Dongzhimen long distance bus station nearby.
  2. Take bus 916 from Dongzhimen to the town of Huairou, near Mutianyu.
  3. Stay on the bus until the Huairou terminal, ignoring the taxi drivers who jump on the bus part way, and tell you their taxi is the only way to get to the wall.
  4. Find the nearby bus stop for the smaller bus to Mutianyu.

Our plan lasted until step 1, the Dongzhimen metro station. As we were looking around for the signs to the long distance bus station, and a friendly English-speaking Chinese lady decided to help us. She pointed us in the direction of the bus station (where she was going too), then when we said we were planning to go to Mutianyu, said “No, No, Mutianyu very small, Simatai very big!” After a bit more convincing, we threw our carefully researched plans to the wind, and hopped on the 980 bus toward Simatai.

Once we got on the bus, our trusty Lonely Planet Beijing guidebook told us the 980 bus only went about half way, and we needed to take a minibus or taxi the remaining 70 km. The bus attendant told us to get off at Miyun, as we expected, but when we looked around, there was no minibus (or bus station) in sight. Instead there were several taxi drivers surrounding us like vultures…

To stall for time, we asked about a toilet, and the “lead” driver pointed us at some nearby bushes. We went and did our business, and quickly discussed our tactics. We wanted to try to find the minibus station, but knew we couldn’t get away from the taxi drivers without some negotiation. Unfortunately, the driver came to join us, notebook in hand, before we had time to agree on a top price. Scott decided our top price would be 150 RMB (about $30 CAD, and a bit more than the 2007 Lonely Planet listed as typical). The driver started at 250 RMB one way, or 400 RMB round trip, so we figured this wasn’t going to go very far. After a bit of back and forth, Scott said 150 RMB was his top price, and asked where the 980 bus back to Beijing stopped. As we started walking there, the prices dropped dramatically. First 250, then 200, then finally 150 RMB. At this point we were fed up, with no minibus in sight, and no information where it might stop. We were about ready to give up on our Great Wall goal for the day (and this trip), since part of the fun was to get there by public transit. Unfortunately, when the driver reached 150 RMB, Becky felt honour-bound to accept. Another change in plans!

We got in the taxi, and started driving toward Simatai, when the driver received a phone call. Around we turned, and returned to near the bus stop. Another 980 bus was there, and several white-looking bodies were piling out. Another car pulled up, and our driver unceremoniously ushered us into it, and roared off to meet the new bus. We guess he was the driver with the best English or best negotiating skills, and was needed with this new group.

Our new driver spoke absolutely no English, and Scott’s attempts at Mandarin were met with either bafflement or rapidfire Chinese which we couldn’t understand. After a few attempts, we chatted between ourselves, and looked at the (admittedly spectacular) scenery. After 90 minutes or so, we could see the Great Wall. It did look impressive, but we weren’t there yet. Our driver mimed hunger and food, and when we agreed we were hungry (reasonably so, since it was just after noon), he pulled over, and brought us into a restaurant. We sat, and were presented with a menu. Great! It has English! At second glance, it also had the highest prices we’ve seen in months, with entrees at 50 to 80 RMB, instead of 5 to 15! We quickly picked two of the cheapest things on the menu, order drinks and wait. Another woman came out, pulls the driver over, and tried to convince us that we want the expensive stuff. We used our handy phrase book to indicate stomach distress (which was at least slightly true), and stuck with our bland order of noodle soup and plain rice, which turned out to be quite delicious.

After all this buildup, a few minutes after lunch, we were at the Great Wall. Now our driver wanted partial payment for our trip. At first he asked for 100 RMB then 50 RMB later, but we finally agreed on 80 RMB, and 70 RMB later.

The wall looked spectacular from the ticket office, and we decided to take the Cable Car up, rather than walking. It turned out to be 30 minutes on the worlds slowest cable car (a re-purposed ski lift), but it did give us some nice views, and got us to the top both faster and with more energy for the wall itself. At the top, Becky decided to take the Funicular up the next steep stretch, but Scott wanted to walk. It turned out to be 15 minute either way, although Becky did get to the top first.

This left us about 10 meters below the wall, so we started to climb. Within a few minutes, we had picked up a friendly guide – an English speaking woman who started to follow us and chat. Could this be another good Samaritan? No, as it turned out. Although she was very friendly, she was clearly most interested in selling us souvenirs. Once Scott foolishly said we would buy something on the way down, she became inseparable. No complaints though – she gave us a guided tour of the wall, and chatted with us about life as a farmer in Northern China. She has two children, which was apparently permitted because the first was a daughter. Perhaps a way around the female infanticide problems caused by China’s “One Child” policy?

We could not have asked for a better day for our climb on the wall. Beautiful blue sky with no haze, a light wind, and comfortably warm temperature. Absolutely perfect. We took a pile of photos, and Scott was very happy with his. Becky was complaining about the colour of hers, and wondering if her screen was going. Finally, Scott asked if she wanted him to look at it, and did. It was set for indoor (Tungsten) white balance, instead of the Automatic White Balance she normally uses. Scott had switched it to take some dinner photos two nights before. Whups! Anyone know a good way to correct the White Balance on JPEG files? (We did try with a few of the photos from Olympic Park, but the results were not outstanding.)

The wall itself was spectacular, seeming to go on forever, climbing over knife-edge peaks. We wouldn’t want to have been building it! There were a few flat stretches, but in many cases the wall climbed steeply, following the ridge-line. There were battlements so we could walk along the wall most of the time, but in a few places we had to hide behind the wall instead.

Becky remembers the awe she felt the first time she visited the wall, ten years ago at Mutianyu, but didn’t feel the same awe this time. Scott was pretty impressed though. Her knee started bothering her after the first two hours, so it’s good we didn’t do anything more strenuous.

As we were contemplating the long walk down to the parking lot, we came across someone selling tickets for a zip line. The zip line would take us all the way down to the river where a boat would take us back to the parking lot – all for 40 RMB each ($8 CAD). With Becky’s knee acting up, this was an ideal way to get down – and a lot of fun too! On the boat, we met Ann from Holland (although we didn’t know her then). At this point, it was already 30 minutes after the time we had agreed to meet our driver, so we hurried back.

Our driver was waiting for us, and we hopped in and both quickly fell asleep. Our typical reaction to car rides, but it may have caused our driver some anxiety. With us sleeping most of the way back, we were a bit disoriented when he said we were here, at a different spot than he’d picked us up. After a bit of mimed communication, we figured out we were around the corner from the Bus Terminal. We walked the 100m to the station, and got on a 980 bus about to leave. Here we met Ann again – she had a taxi of her own, and had beaten us by a couple of minutes. We got to talking, and invited her to join us for Peking Duck, since more people allows for more choices.
We arrived back in Dongzhimen, and agreed on a restaurant.

Unfortunately, we felt quite ripped off by the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant (on Wangfujing Dajie) – we ordered a half duck, expecting the full treatment – skin course, pancake course, stir-fry course, soup course. Instead we got only a small amount of skin and meat (most of the meat was still on the carcass). We separately ordered some pancakes, so were able to make the duck wraps, but it seemed very expensive for what it was. Being frugal about our choices and leaving a still a little hungry, 330 RMB ($66 CAD) for 3 people is a bit excessive! If we’d gotten all 4 courses and actually received the meat from half the duck, the price would be have justified.

Anyway, the company made up for it. Ann and Becky chatted constantly, which should give Becky her “people” fix for the next few days. Ann is interesting – she just finished her undergrad in Health and Public Policy, and is planning to go back for a Masters in Urban Planning so she can design and build healthy communities. Interesting career plan! She has been in China for 3 months, on an ISIC grant working on HIV/AIDS in Shanghai, but that’s now finished, so she is touring around China for a bit, then heading to Vietnam shortly to meet up with a friend. Scott remembers looking into ISIC when he was in university, but doesn’t remember any opportunities which were that interesting.

We talked about how to eat better when we get back to Canada, and one idea is to make and eat lunch ourselves, making sure to stop for at least 30 minutes, and to ensure we eat something as soon as we get off the bikes. We have found that when we eat in restaurants, it’s difficult to get a good nutrient balance, but when we pack lunches, we never really stop. Scott suggested that we plan to record what we’re eating and how we’re feeling, so we can get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. We’ll see if we can manage that!

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