I’ve heard horror stories about people who have had their travel experiences ruined by hawkers who refused to stop harrasing them. One of the reasons I tend to travel out side peak times to places that don’t have a lot of tourism is to avoid problems such as obnoxious hawkers. One point to keep in mind though is that hawkers are people, generally dirt poor, who are just trying to make a living. When possible, treating them with kindness and courtesy is the best approach.
This news article published recently on the writers experience with a hawker on the Great Wall of China was a great read because it was very human and something that all travellers can relate to.
PING is persistence personified. For the past half-hour, this little middle-aged Chinese lady with rosy-red cheeks has been following me up and down some devilishly steep stretches of the Great Wall.
My legs are twice as long as hers and I’ve set a fairly steady pace but she’s doggedly kept up, navigating the uneven – and, at times, half-broken – surface while still managing to regale me with tidbits in pidgin English. “Big wall,” she says, waving her arms about and pausing, momentarily, for breath. “Big, big wall.”
Ping and her friends had latched on to me and my friends at Jinshanling, the starting point for our 10-kilometre trek to Simatai. We already had a guide – an uninterested student who’d picked us up from Beijing earlier that morning. But Ping’s gang insisted on joining us, sensing perhaps that we were carrying some spare yuan (three of my friends were parading conical straw hats that they’d bought from a Fu Manchu lookalike in the car park below).
We’d chosen the Jinshanling-Simatai route because it was meant to be one of the most isolated and empty stretches of the wall – much quieter than the section at Badaling, which draws busloads of tourists, who go walkies for a few minutes, pose for photos, dodge vendors, then get back on the bus.
However, our desire for a more authentic – and physically gruelling – experience is being drowned out by the running commentaries in nonsensical Chinglish.
We ask our real guide to wave off our pseudo-guides but he shrugs his shoulders and instead quickens his pace. My friends slowly but surely shake off their stalkers but no matter how many times I tell her I want to walk by myself, Ping clings to my side. When she finally starts to flag, I decide to make a run for it. Or more like a climb for it.
The watchtower is 50 metres above and reaching it will involve some seriously hard clambering. Surely even Ping won’t attempt this. I’m halfway up, gasping for air and struck by a sudden bout of acrophobia, when I glance down and see her struggling onto the jagged steps.
It’s heartbreaking to watch. I decide I can’t let this continue, so I stumble back down with the intention of paying her just to stay put. Her cheeks are scarlet. She’s exhausted.
For the first time, Ping delves into her satchel and pulls out some bits and bobs. There’s a few plastic replica walls, a pack of postcards and two bottles of water. “Please buy,” she says, with desperate eyes. I’m thirsty, so pay for a water bottle. It’s an overcast spring day and the postcards show the wall in all seasons, so I take those, too. I pass on the tacky replicas. We haggle gently, settle on 25 yuan (less than $4) and Ping smiles, sits down and takes a deep breath. “Bye, bye,” she says, with a tired wave.
I spend the next three hours, shadow-less, wandering and marvelling at the wall’s size, watching it snake off endlessly into the distance and trying to imagine Mongol hordes rampaging across the plains below.
In all this time, no one bugs me. Not even my friends. It’s wonderful.