I have been very fortunate in my career to have the opportunity to travel to domestic and international locations while conducting company business. My adventurous spirit led me to always try to mix a bit of pleasure wherever these journeys took me, as I might never have the chance to visit there again. It astounds me the number of people that never take advantage of a situation such as this and only see the inside of the hotel and boardroom – what a waste. I have found no matter the size of a city, I can always find something interesting and of value to make it worth the effort to venture the extra mile.
Such was the case in January of 2011 when I found myself in Beijing, for the second time. My initial visit in 2009 was an experience I never thought I would repeat, so I took in as many sites as I could. I was entertained by colleagues that introduced the local cuisine, which was an experience in itself. I toured a jade factory, the Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, and the Great Wall. I also met with a traditional Chinese doctor that assessed aliments and prescribed herbs for relief – none of which I purchased, but it was definitely a unique experience. I shopped at the Pearl and Silk Markets where I perfected my haggling skills and purchased many wonderful gifts.
Being an avid photographer, I was of course photographing everything. On my visit to Tiananmen Square it was late in the day and the sun had set. I could see a portion of the square shining brightly with lights and I desperately wanted to shoot this scene. I was busy setting up my tripod and ensuring I was at the best angle while being totally oblivious to what was happening around me. Luckily, I was with a colleague who let me know it looked like the square was closing. What? How could this be? This is a famous location and they close at sundown? Well, sure enough, guards (and I mean armed guards) approached and were telling me what I can only imagine meant pack up and get out now. We were escorted to the nearest exit.
I share that experience and a glimpse into all I tried to squeeze into that visit so you can understand how much I can pack into limited time if I set my mind to it. I thought I would never have the opportunity to return and I tried to take in all I could. To my great pleasure I was able to return and on this occasion traveled with two colleagues who had never before visited the city, naturally they wanted to experience many of the same attractions I had seen before. I took them shopping at the two markets and to a different section of the Great Wall.
I was expecting each area of the wall had the same transportation system up the mountain, but I found this not to be true on my second trip. On my initial visit we rode in very comfortable gondolas, but on my second visit (to a different area of the wall) there were only open air single seat cars. It was very cold and windy that day and once we were atop the mountain they actually shut down the cars due to the high winds. There was no way down other than to walk for miles or wait for the cars to reopen. Luckily the cars did reopen briefly and we were able to ride the cars back down to rejoin our tour.
We duplicated a few other attractions I had previously seen, but I had my heart set on visiting the Summer Palace because I had not been able to see it during my initial visit to the area. My colleagues were equally as determined to see the Forbidden City. We decided to go our separate ways and meet back at the hotel for dinner. I discussed what I wanted to do with the hotel concierge, who instructed me in the proper transportation to take and what I could expect in the time it would take to tour the gardens. I had it all planned out and had no fear in venturing out on my own.
So off I went to the Summer Palace despite being the dead of winter. Upon arrival I was immediately approached by a local teen offering to take me on a tour of the gardens. I had seen teens and young adults doing this at other tourist attractions and I decided to take him up on the offer given I had limited time and I wanted to see as much as I could. He was very fluent in English and agreed to take me on a tour of the gardens for $10. You might be thinking this is where the story takes a turn for the worst, but it’s not. He was actually a great tour guide and we zipped through the gardens in about an hour. My only regret was that it was not in the spring when everything would have been in bloom, but I was thankful I did get to see it. It was stunning.
The Summer Palace was a good distance from the hotel, close to a 45 min drive. The hotel concierge discussed with me the proper transportation to take for my return and to ensure I did not take any black taxis or those that did not have the green and white light on the roof. As I exited the gardens I immediately saw two black taxis and an assortment of other cabs, none of which had the green and white roof light the concierge had described. I also noticed the exit was not at the same location as the entrance. Perplexed, I decided to head to the right, as I felt the entrance was in that direction. I walked about 30 yards and realized I was heading into an area that did not look very safe, especially for a lone female toting a backpack full of expensive camera gear and looking like a lost tourist. I turned around and headed back to the taxi area. They all were trying to get me in their cars. None spoke English very well and I got the impression they had no idea where I wanted to go. I turned around again and headed back into the area I had just deemed unsafe 10 minutes earlier.
A voice inside my head kept reminding me of the advice from the husband of one of the colleagues traveling with me – be aware of your surroundings. So instead of keeping my head down I stood tall and observed everything around me, including the setting sun. If someone looked at me, I stared right back, all the while searching the streets for a green and white taxi. I walked for what seemed an eternity and a distance I thought should have brought me back to the entrance where I might have more luck finding a taxi. I saw green and white taxis, but none would stop. I proceeded walking a bit more and finally a taxi did stop. I gave him the hotel card which the hotel provided to guests and included instructions in Chinese for the taxi drivers, as most were not well versed on hotel locations. The driver spoke no English, but it was clear he was not making the 45 min drive to that location, so I was back on the street. I thought of calling my colleagues, but I had no clue where I was and trying to decipher a Chinese road sign would be impossible. I felt I had to keep going. I was beyond worried at this point and told myself never again would I do something like this if I could only get out of this mess. I was at the corner of a busy intersection when I saw a green and white taxi on the other side signal to me. I could not believe it. Was he signaling to me? I watched as he made the U-turn to get to me. He spoke broken English, but looked at the hotel card and motioned for me to get in. I made it safely back to the hotel in time for dinner with my colleagues and to share a very adventurous story.
I hope I am never in that situation again, but I did fulfill my mission to visit the gardens. I would be remiss if I did not mention I found hailing a taxi to be very difficult during each of my visits to Beijing. My recommendation for anyone traveling in China under similar circumstances is to stay within the gardens and have the hotel send a car or a taxi and notify you when they arrive. If you do not have international service on your phone, you should consider picking up a prepaid SIM card or local phone. Plan ahead and have a great trip!
Please visit my Travel Gallery to see the photos from Beijing and what a beautiful place this is to visit. I will be providing additional travel adventure blogs as I add more experiences to this gallery, so stay tuned!
©Sydney Busch, ©Sydney Busch Photography