Apparently Blogography has been linked to on a China travel forum, and my email address has been posted as well, because I awoke to find two dozen emails with questions awaiting me.
Since I am completely backlogged with my email just now (sorry) I thought I'd write a quick entry to address some of the questions I received, mostly about my driver for the past two days...
Your driver sounds wonderful. How do I get ahold of him? Does he have a web site?
I honestly don't know. I have his mobile number (in case I got lost), but won't be posting it here. The driver was arranged through my hotel's concierge desk, and I'd imagine that all hotels will have a list of reputable drivers in Beijing. When you check in, just ask them to hook you up.
You were totally ripped off at 1000 RMB a day... you can get a driver for 600 RMB!!
As I mentioned, I KNOW I could have gotten a driver for less (or a taxi for even less than that). But I wanted an experienced driver with English skills, and I went through my hotel to get him... all of this adds cost. But look at what I got in return! He looked out for me and got me a second chance to actually see The Great Wall because he knew it was important to me from our talks. How can you put a price on that? He was easily worth 2000 RMB a day for what I got in return. IMPORTANT: if you hire a driver, it is very important to know that the negotiated fee covers ONLY the car and his services... you are responsible for all tolls, parking, and fees.
How much did you tip your driver?
My hotel had told me that the 1000 RMB included tip, as tipping is not customary here. So, on the first day, I just paid him that much. But, after the effort he went through to make my trip (literally) a dream come true... I added another 200 RMB the second day. He was most grateful for the extra, and I probably should have given him more.
Is a driver safer than a taxi?
I am guessing that a professional driver is, though I can't say for sure. Unlike taxis, drivers have a reputation to maintain, so it would be pretty stupid for them to start ripping off their customers. My driver was very sensitive to my comfort level. On the morning of the first day, he was very easy-going through traffic... but as he noticed I wasn't bothered by more aggressive driving, he became more and more daring as to how he worked his way through traffic. By the end of the second day, I felt like I had hired The Transporter because he was whipping through traffic and speeding along at a breakneck pace. Had I acted nervous about what he was doing, I'm certain he would have sensed this and backed off. I am telling you right now, there is NO SUBSTITUTE for a professional driver. None.
You make it sound like you can drive right up to The Great Wall, but I don't think this is true, is it?
I can only speak from having visited at Mutianyu, but no... you can't drive right up to The Wall. Where I was, we drove to a parking area, and then I hiked to a cable car that takes you to the top. You can also walk the 1000 (or thereabouts) steps to the top, but you get a terrific view from the cable car, so I highly recommend it...
When you visit the temples and such, does your driver go with you?
No. He's a driver, not a tour guide. If you want a private guide, they can be hired separately. The driver simply drops you off, explains what to do, and then leaves you to explore. Sometimes, like when I visited "The Spirit Way" or "The Forbidden City" I arranged to have the driver drop me off at one end, then pick me up at the other end after I've walked through. If there was no place for him to park on the other side, I'd simply ring his number on my mobile phone (but hang up immediately so I don't get billed for the call) and he'd drive right up to get me. IMPORTANT: As I understand it, most of China's mobile service is CDMA (like Verizon Wireless has in the US)... and GSM coverage is limited. Be sure to check with your mobile company before you go to see if your phone will work, if you need to have one handy.
What hotel are you staying at?
It's called the "Holiday Inn Central Plaza." Unlike the US, where Holiday Inn is sometimes viewed as a cheaper, low-end hotel, in Asia it's exactly the opposite. I've stayed in amazing Holiday Inn hotels from Thailand to Japan, and they'll all top-notch. This particular hotel is very nice and not outrageously expensive, but the location is not the best, being tucked away in the South-Western area of the city (where there are few attractions). Fortunately, taxis are plentiful and inexpensive... but if you want to be closer to the action (and don't mind paying for it), there are better choices.