Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Great Wall of China - DIY

It's very easy to plan a do-it-yourself tour of the Great Wall of China at BaDaLing (八达岭). And it costs only RMB12x2 (total USD4) for the journey there and back.

The Internet is full of postings on how people signed up to tours only to be held at ransom to cough up more money after the bus has moved off. Do not be another victim.

By the way, most of the victims are Chinese nationals from out of town or people who speak some Chinese. The swindlers, or enterprising businessmen depending on how you view them, tend to leave the non-Chinese speakers alone as sign language is harder, I guess.

Follow these steps carefully for a low-cost and enjoyable tour. We just did it last week.

1. Make your way to DeShengMen (德胜门). This is once a city gate of which only the archer's tower is now left standing. The archer's tower is a huge structure that cannot be missed once you are in the vicinity. There are a few bus terminals there. The one you must go to is north of the tower. From the air photo below you can see the buses lined up for the journey to the Great Wall.

2. The nearest subway station is JiShuiTan (积水潭), 500m to the west of the tower. You can also go to to find the buses to DeShengMen from where you are. Each city bus trip costs RMB1, or RMB0.20 if you have a multi-trip card. Taxis can be a cheap option especially if you have three or four persons in your party. Taxis start at RMB10 and covers some good distance before the fare increments.
Be careful about taxis. A seasoned taxi driver seeing an obvious foreigner wanting to go to DeShengMen in the morning would know that you are going to the Great Wall and would try to take you there himself. The driver of the first taxi we flagged pretended that he didn't know where DeShengMen was but asked where we wanted to go from there. We waved him off. The driver of the second taxi we flagged was a brand new driver who really didn't know where DeShengMen was and I had to guide him with the GPS in my Nokia phone.
3. The bus you need to take is number 919, a green and white bus. And that is where the problem is. Every bus going out of this DeShengMen terminal is 919 but they go to different places!  The signage is havoc. There are touts aplenty. They do not look like touts. They speak to you nicely and appear to be offering friendly advice. Ignore them totally and speak to only people in the bus company's uniforms.

On my trip, they put in extra buses to the Great Wall.  The bus had a sign as in the picture below, which actually means "extra direct bus".

When the staff saw me taking a picture, she helpfully flipped it over to the more meaningful one which says "Direct to BaDaLing" (八达岭).

Anyway, the bus-stop should have this sign.  But the crowds there could have moved it from its proper position.

The bus moves off only when filled. The whole journey is on the BaDaLing Expressway, which starts right at DeShengMen. The trip will take about 1.5 hours with the traffic jams on the expressway.

For the return trip, board the same 919 from where you alight at BaDaLing. I guess it is prudent to double check it's the express to DeShengMen.

Have a nice trip!

The entrance fee at the Great Wall in November is RMB40. Credit cards can be used.

The futility of expanding wi-fi

Remember CT2 or the initial incarnation of PCN?  They have gone the way of the dodo.  The technology is now used in DECT phones.

Efforts to expand wifi to provide wide area coverage will meet the same fate.

CT2 was marketed as a poor man's alternative to cell phones.  It is a neat engineering idea.  You get to use a wireless phone when you are in range of a base station.  But it is just that, a neat engineering idea.

Using wi-fi as a poor man's wide area data network is in a similar situation.  The reason is not un-obvious.

If only, say, 20% of the time that you need to use the Internet you find yourself outside wi-fi coverage, you would need to pay for a data subscription from your cell-phone company.  And, if you already have paid for wide-area data why would you still pay or need wi-fi?

Wi-fi has its uses, just like DECT phones.  You use it at home or in the office, when you are pretty stationary and there is no point expending power sending data a few miles away when you can send it down the hall.

Good communications equal a bad plan?

One of the fundamental principles of communications is that the amount of planning is inversely proportional to the efficiency of communications available.  The better communications you have the less planning you have to do.  The more planning you do, you are less dependent on the need to communicate.

To illustrate: a family hits the shopping mall.  In the old days, a detailed plan would have to be worked out, something like: "Everybody, it's free and easy for the next 30 minutes.  Then we meet at this water fountain.  If by 35 minutes, Johnny doesn't show up, this is what we will do,......"  Lots and lots of if's then else's to cover all conceivable contingencies.  Today, when a family reaches the mall, everyone takes out his or her cell phone, does a battery check, and everyone do whatever he or she likes.  When someone feels it's time to go, the phones start ringing.

This similar scenario occurs everywhere.  When an army wants to conduct an attack, a detailed plan with all sorts of contingencies covered means there is less need to rely on battlefield communications, which can be very poor.  A haphazard plan means everyone will be screaming into their radios when something unexpected happens.

A corollary from the above means that it is idiotic or sheer arrogance not to switch on your cell phone when you have one.  For if you know when you need to use the phone (ie you have a good plan), you wouldn't need a phone.

There are opposing arguments on whether having efficient communications is good or bad overall.  There are some who say that relying too much on good communications means there is no plan or no good plan.  But there are others who say detailed planning to avoid communications is impractical and would only lead to rigid and uncreative plans.

Extending the paradigm further, remember the times when an author writing a novel means inserting a piece of paper into a typewriter.  The writer has to compose mentally to some great detail before he commits onto paper.  With word processing software, it's type, delete, cut and paste at no extra cost or effort.

The same goes into finance budgeting.  If you work in a company where everything you want to purchase must be in the annual budget, you would be forced into detailed planning and forecasting the year before.  But if there is no such need, you would be making purchases every now and then and may over spend.