By Nick Dao
The frigid bite in the September morning air in Beijing, China made me glad I had brought along a jacket. With the help of the hotel clerk who had acted as my interpreter, I had hired a taxi to drive me to The Great Wall. I thought that my request was simple enough to avoid any confusion with the taxi driver, but I thought wrong.
Because of the demands of the 50th Anniversary celebration under the communist rule that Beijing was carrying out that day, a lot of the streets had been barricaded and the normal traffic flow had to take alternate routing. Instead of driving me right up to the entrance of The Great Wall, the taxi driver had to drop me off about half a mile down the road from the wall. In that universal sign language that taxi drivers use to talk to us tourists, he told me to walk to a nearby ticket office where I could buy my ticket to go see The Great Wall. I promptly followed his directions without even contemplating that I might have misunderstood his directions.
Off in the far distance, I could see some winding sections of The Great Wall that was miles from where I was. Now, all I had to do was buy a ticket and step through the official entrance to The Great Wall. Excited that I was finally going to see one of The Seven Wonders of the World, I crossed a parking lot, bought a ticket at the ticket booth, and got on a bus filled with the local Chinese tourists who were enjoying their government-endorsed day off.
The bus didn’t start up right away. We sat there for at least thirty minutes. While we were sitting there in the parking lot, a bunch of monkeys kept running up to the bus to be fed by the tourists inside the bus. Just about everyone in the bus was throwing peanuts, slices of bread, and pieces of bananas out the window to the monkeys who were jumping on each other and shrieking at one another as they competed for the bits of food. After about half an hour of this monkey business, the bus finally started up, and we started driving down the road.
Our bus stopped in front of a large, solid, iron gate that was twice as tall as the bus. I saw that there was a fence that stretched out on either side of the gate and couldn’t figure out the reason for that fence. Maybe, I thought, that was just their way of keeping out the people who didn’t want to pay the entrance fee to see The Great Wall.
The iron gate opened up, we drove through it, and came to a stop in front of a second set of solid, iron gates. This second gate also had a fence that stretched out on either side of it. I automatically surmised that the second fence was an additional measure to keep out the people who didn’t want to pay the entrance fee to see The Great Wall. The bus sat idling by while the first gate behind us closed up. After that gate had closed, the second gate in front of us then opened up. We drove through the second gate, stopped, waited for the second gate to close up behind us, then proceeded to drive along a winding road.
I thought it was odd that they had taken such extreme measures to keep out the people who didn’t want to pay for the tickets to see The Great Wall. Two solid iron gates and two sets of fences? Wasn’t that a bit extreme? I was stuck on those erroneous assumptions until I saw the sights right outside my bus window.
I saw lions and tigers running loose around the bus, and that was when I realized I had gotten on the bus for an outdoor zoo! I can’t believe this, I said to myself. How could this have happened? How did I end up on a bus to an outdoor zoo?
In a not-too-graceful scamper, I scooted out of my seat and walked up to the bus driver. “Excuse me,” I said, “but I got on the wrong bus. I was trying to go see The Great Wall.” The bus driver stopped the bus and turned to look at me. He gave me a quizzical smile and shook his head to tell me he didn’t understand what I was saying.
I’m Vietnamese, and since the moment I had arrived in Beijing, everyone I came across in China assumed I was Chinese. When I spoke to them in English, they looked at me as if I might have been an expatriate Chinese who had to resort to speaking English because he had forgotten how to speak his native Mandarin.
“The Great Wall,” I peeped out to the bus driver one more time. He maintained a quizzical smile that told me I wasn’t getting anywhere in my communication with him. I looked back at the crowd on the bus to see if anyone might have understood what I’d just said so they could give me a hand with what I was trying to say. The crowd on the full bus looked back at me with a collective, confused expression. I thought about peeping out, “The Great Wall,” one more time to anyone on the bus in a last ditch effort to get some help, but I saw my effort would have been futile. Nobody had any idea what I was saying, and I had no idea how to tell them I had boarded the wrong bus. Furthermore, it was all too obvious that I was holding up the zoo tour. The only option available to me was to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the zoo tour, so I sat down, shut up, and enjoyed the zoo tour.
Almost two hours after I had seen more lions and tigers than I had planned on seeing, I finally found the entrance to The Great Wall. It was about half a mile up the road from the zoo. After I had bought the correct ticket and had walked through the correct entrance, I walked for a mile on top of The Great Wall that I had only read about in books.
I returned to my hotel that afternoon thinking about how much my visit to The Great Wall had been well worth the effort. Not only had I seen and walked on the centuries-old slabs of stones that make up The Great Wall, but I had also seen and ridden through a zoo tour that will always remain in my memory as The Great Zoo.
I left China two days later thinking how fortunate I was to have a job that would allow me to fly to Beijing for the weekend to see The Great Wall. I also left China thinking about a side note of curiosity about my image in America and in China. In America, people keep mistaking me for Chinese, and in China, they also keep mistaking me for Chinese.
Writer Nick Dao is based in Southern California. An American originally from Vietnam, he is able to offer a unique perspective on travel to Asia and elsewhere.