China’s ugly face.

I always read up on every destination I visit before I arrive, which gives me an idea of what to expect in terms of culture, history, sights, and that sort of thing. It also gives me a heads up on things to look out for – namely con men and scams targeting Stupid Foreigners. I have always prided myself on being clued in about such things. It’s almost 2 years since I left Norn Iron to travel the world, and I haven’t been conned once (that I know of!). Am smart, sassy, independent and worldy-wise traveller. No one messes with me.

The most off-putting thing about China, for me, was the fact that it was crawling with scammers. It seemed that everywhere I looked there were people vying for my attention in an effort to get money out of me. The popular misconception there is that foreigners are all filthy rich, and as a result, there are huge numbers of people cooking up ways of parting fools from their money.

It honestly is quite depressing to not even be able to walk down the street without a constant stream of people tugging at your sleeve, following you, calling to you, trying to force you into accepting whatever ‘generous’ service it is that they’re offering. As a foreigner, you stand out from the crowd (most of Beijing’s tourists are Chinese people from rural areas), and everyone wants your attention. I quickly learned to stop looking up when I heard the word “hello”, knowing that it wasn’t someone trying to be friendly – it was someone trying to get me to agree to parting with cash.

I arrived in Beijing and started walking towards my hostel. Rickshaw, missy, rickshaw yes? I shook my head politely at Friendly Rickshaw Driver, and continued walking. Apparently he followed me, because he appeared at my side as soon as I stopped to check my scribbled directions. I showed him the hostel name. It’s just down here, right?

Friendly Rickshaw Man smiled and grabbed my bag. Lookee-lookee! Is walking long-time! You sittee! Perhaps because I was genuinely surprised and delighted that he was really speaking like Wun Lung from the Billy Bunter books, and also because  I thought the rickshaw thing might be kind of cool, I hesitated. He was just trying to make some honest money, right? How much? I asked, good-naturedly enough. Three! he replied. I nodded. Smart, sassy, independent and worldly-wise traveller got into the rickshaw. Friendly Rickshaw Man pedalled for about 2 or 3 minutes, then stopped. I saw a hostel sign, but it was at the other end of the alleyway he’d pulled into. That should really have been my heads up, but anyway. I gave him 3 yuan. This is not much money – less than 30p – but it sounded about right given that my subway journey had cost me 2 yuan.

Friendly Rickshaw Man laughed and produced a card, pointing at the number beside “Take to hostel”. Three hundred! he said, suddenly recalling the word that had apparently slipped his mind at first. With a sinking heart, I shook my head. You said three, I said firmly. Friendly Rickshaw Man became Angry Con Man. We had a completely ridiculous argument for several minutes, which ended with me marching towards the hostel – which wasn’t even the right one! – with him in hot pursuit. I pleaded for help, and the receptionist called a security guard, who dealt with Angry Con Man and then escorted me to the correct hostel to make sure I wasn’t mugged. Welcome to Beijing.

Yep, that one I escaped – just about. I was not so fortunate with two other scammers.

1. Arriving back in Beijing after visiting Xi’an, I approached a taxi driver and showed him my map, with the hostel clearly marked. I made sure to go to an official taxi rank, and not to the touts in unmarked cars who I knew charged tourists 100 yuan for a journey that costs 15. The taxi driver said something I didn’t understand, gestured me towards a woman I assumed was his wife, and drove off in his perfectly legal taxi. The woman opened the door of the next taxi for me and threw in my bag. It was only at this point that I noticed, in my tired state, that it was not a real taxi.

I know I should have taken my bag back and walked away. But honestly, I was so tired and so cold and so fed up with having to be super-aware of people trying to get my money at every step and turn, I just didn’t have the energy. I got into the “taxi” and just nodded sadly when the driver wrote down “100” and held it up for me to agree to. I sighed heavily most of the way there. Not so much because of losing the money (as it was really only what a taxi ride of that length would legitimately cost in most European cities), but more because I found it incredibly depressing that this was what these people did for a living – that the driver was chuckling in glee to himself, thinking I had no idea that I was being charged nearly 7 times the correct fare. That sort of thing just sickens me. I wonder how many people they steal from like that on a daily basis – and how many people don’t even know?

2. This one annoyed me the most. On my last day in Beijing, I was sitting on a bench on a busy street, having a rest, when a couple in their thirties stopped beside me to cross the road. Hi! said the man. Cold, isn’t it?! Where are you from?

He spoke and acted so casually that I suspected nothing. He was just a tourist, like me, except that he was Chinese. He was also one of few people I’d met there who could speak fluent English. Quite glad of some company and conversation, I chatted pleasantly with him, and then he raised his hand in farewell. Too cold! he said laughingly, we’re going to get something hot to drink! He hesitated as he stepped off the kerb. Maybe you would like to join us?

I did. He seemed really nice, although I felt bad for his girlfriend, who didn’t speak English. She didn’t seem to care that he completely ignored her the whole time, which I suppose should have seemed a little odd to me. We went into the first tea shop we found, and were taken into a little private room… clue number 2, perhaps. A sign on the wall said “30 yuan per person”. A little steep (I’d been buying meals for less than that), but I was OK with it just to get out of the cold and have company for a while. Anyway, so in comes a girl in traditional attire to perform a sacred Chinese tea ceremony for us. Having studied all this in great detail when I was writing 50 articles on the subject of Green Tea (!), I was very interested in the whole procedure. We tried several different kinds of tea – a thimbleful of each one – and continued to talk and laugh.

The laughter stopped at approximately the same moment as the bill appeared and I saw that it was for over 800 yuan. We will split in half? asked my “friend”, looking a little nervous for the first time. I stared, panic-stricken, at the bill. B-b-but… it’s meant to be 30 each!

The waitress pushed aside a plant to reveal the rest of the sign. 30 yuan per person, per type of tea, it said. 100 yuan for fruit platter (I’d had one satsuma) and 100 yuan for cookie platter (I’d had none). There was nothing I could do. I spluttered, I protested, I gazed in utter disappointment at my “friend”, but I had to pay. Not half, mind you. I paid 200, which happened to be all the money I had on me, and dramatically showed them my empty purse. My “friend” made up the rest despite a disapproving look from both his “girlfriend” and the waitress. I wonder how much his cut was. He tried to shake hands with me when we got outside, but I just glared at him, close to tears. Check it’s a rich person, next time, I growled at him before walking off swiftly into the crowds once more. Again, I was more annoyed at being fooled (and by someone I thought genuinely wanted to be my friend) than at losing the money. Still, 20 quid for a few thimbles of tea… gah.

Note to self: in China, trust no one. No matter how smart, sassy, independent and worldly-wise you are!

14 thoughts on “China’s ugly face.

  1. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself about being conned. Conmen become conmen because they’re good at conning people – it’s not just the gullible who fall for it.

    I have been enjoying your tales of China.

  2. I was talking to M about your experiences. He had the exact same tea con played out on him in some other part of China. He had never mentioned it to me, so I had no idea that sort of thing happened.

  3. Ganching – I suppose so. In a way, I think I’d have preferred it if I’d just been ignorant and gullible, and not even realised that I’d been conned! Knowing what was going on and that these people were making a fool of me just made it feel horrible. Still, you live and learn… hopefully!
    Karen – the worst thing is that I knew about this one beforehand! But I’d read about it as a scam where beautiful young girls approach single men and lure them away for the most expensive dinner ever, leaving them to pay for the bill. I would probably have been more wary if it had been a man on his own, chatting me up or something. The presence of the girlfriend made me feel safe. I really thought they just wanted to make friends – it wasn’t a nice feeling when I realised the truth.
    Bevchen – it could’ve been much worse! And I had plenty of good experiences to balance it out. It just tainted the whole thing slightly for me.

  4. Jo says:

    Argh, it’s a horrible feeling not being able to trust the people around you, particularly when you’re in a new country. It’s an alien thing not to encounter people with your best interests at heart, particularly if you’re from the UK, where generally people will be honest and helpful if you’re standing around looking lost and / or trying to find out information.

    I had a similar, but not the same experience in Romania. It was a beautiful country, but I got tired of being stared at for being blonde and pale, tired of being hounded by children sent out to beg by their mothers, and tired of having to have your wits about you all the bloody time.

    It’s part of the reason when I travel on my own, that I’ve stuck to Westernised countries. I just feel safer and experiencing being conned like you have isn’t something I feel I need to add to my life!

  5. Jo – you definitely have a good point there! The constant feeling that people were out to get me did overshadow my trip a lot. I felt it to a lesser extent in Lithuania (mainly just around the train/bus station area), and also when I arrived in Lyon, surprisingly – the train station area there was just crawling with street children and scamming beggars. China’s the first place I’ve been where it goes beyond that particular ‘tourist arrival’ area. It felt like every part of Beijing contained people like this at every turn.

    However, I won’t let it put me off going to other less Westernised countries, because I did love so many things about the trip. I suppose I just have to be on my guard and prepared to be more harsh. Thankfully Korea is not at all like this. Although people stare, they are the most trustworthy people you could hope to encounter. There’s a strong sense of honour and a general desire to help others and be hospitable. I’m glad I picked here and not China!

  6. nelly says:

    At age 19 I was spectacularly conned out of all the money I had on me by an English bloke in Manchester who I thought was trying to help me.

    Great stories though.

  7. Nelly – At least I got to be conned somewhere exotic. :-p
    Geri – The book, the book… yes… people keep asking about that. Still have no idea what it should be, though!

  8. The having to be on your toes all the time is my least favorite thing about Italy. Torino was 100% better than Venice, where despite asking the guy at the train station for a couchette, he sold me a private sleeping car for 200,000 lira. (At the time, about 100 dollars, which I could really not afford.) But I love the food, art, and history, so I keep going back! :)

    Glad none of your scams were at all threatening, though.

  9. I agree this world is so attached on communication and neediness that you never have time to just relax and take it easy for once. Keep your head high you’ll be okay!

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