Apologies in advance for the slight lack of photos- My iPad card reader has failed and I’m struggling to find a workaround!
If travelling was a video game, China would be travel level 100+, with occasional bonus rounds and special challenges.
The train from Mongolia turns out to be much nicer than the one to Mongolia… The carriages are Chinese and fairly new and shiny. Aside from faffing around at the border changing bogies (snicker) we have a hassle-free relaxing journey to the capital of China.
We arrive roughly on schedule, just before midday. I’ve not really known what to expect from this place, but upon arrival it feels like it should. Central Railway Station opens onto a large square bustling with people on the move. On the fringes of the square are what I now realise to be the omnipresent watchers, Police defending against an uncertain threat, and then in a corner 3 soldiers, watching. Armed to the teeth. Identical sinister Aviators.
The smog isn’t as obvious as I’d expected, there aren’t buses belching out black smoke as you’d see in India, but nonetheless it’s there, a slight haze on the horizon and a feeling that you aren’t quite breathing as easily as you would like.
The hostel turns out to be a good choice as it’s directly opposite the station, zero navigation with heavy bags required. Here I receive more strong hints that I’m simply the wrong dimensions for Asia, as I have to traverse the entire corridor to the room with a slight stoop. Sarah comments that it would be a good location for a serial killer movie and I tend to agree. Dark, dank creepy corridors, but the room’s OK.
Shortly after arrival we head out, to get amongst the city proper and its alleys (Hutongs). These winding arteries of life criss-cross the city and provide a glimpse of the real China in amongst the glittering skyscrapers and hilariously expensive Starbucks. Everything can be bought, sold or repaired on the Hutongs. Whole alleys filled with scooters under repair give way to eating streets, with all manner of delights (or otherwise) on offer.
This doesn’t make for easy navigation, as we struggle to reconcile our map with the jumble of side streets and local parks filled with elderly residents practising T’ai Chi and enthusiastically dancing to local music. We eventually, by luck rather than judgement, pitch up at Tiananmen Square.
It’s an iconic but slightly sinister location, with the same tight, paranoid security as seems to be common throughout big cities in China. Limited access routes, airport-style security and unsmiling guards posted at strategic locations. I also noticed that throughout the centre of Beijing all of the manholes were sealed down.
Other than its historic significance there is actually little to see or do in Tiananmen. There is also nowhere to sit! We moved on.
Our wanderings led us to the Forbidden City, whose opening times we had narrowly missed. However, more local entertainment was about to be laid on with a random cultural exchange which led into my first Chinese scam… I will explain.
The Great Chinese Teahouse Scam
Both Sarah and I (possibly the former more than the latter) are very open to meeting new people out and about and hopefully getting to know some of the locals. So neither of us were initially perturbed when we were approached by two pleasant middle-aged ladies introducing themselves as schoolteachers from Xi’an and explaining they were there for a conference. We started happily chatting with them as we wandered away from the Forbidden City, and all was well. They suggested we go for some tea, or a beer.
Again, all good. They led us to a nearby teahouse where a private room was assigned and we sat down. So far, so good.
My spidey senses began to twitch slightly upon seeing the bilingual menu with some weasel words about prices being “per tea, per person” and I mentioned to the ladies that it seemed expensive so they ordered two of the cheaper teas on the menu. These arrived in pots, along with some nuts and fig rolls. We continued chatting.
My spidey senses continued to tingle somewhat as I reflected on the menu, and the Visa sign on our table- a strange and uncommon sight in small local tea houses. I decided to test the water, so I told everyone to turn around for a “selfie”. The Chinese love selfies, the amount of selfie sticks around over here must be the highest per capita in the Northern Hemisphere at least. However, one of our two new friends was very keen NOT to look at the camera… BINGO.
I tapped a short message on my phone asking Sarah to follow my lead as I though we were about to be scammed, and showed it to her under the pretence of reviewing our selfie. She nodded. I then announced that we had friends to meet, etc etc. The waitress appeared very quickly with our bill, and the menu too… Odd. It was of no surprise to me that the bill was an extortionate £25 for our two pots of tea. BINGO. I’d already prepared a few small bills so chucked these on the table announcing that we were leaving, ignoring their protestations and barging past the waitress before they had time to argue the toss. This seemed to work and we were not followed.
A rudimentary Internet search revealed this to be a common scam, and that actually in terms of monetary demand we had got off very lightly… I suspect that if we had let it reach fruition a seriously overblown dinner bill would have followed.
A shame, really. The women involved have seriously bad karma coming their way, even telling us about their children as part of the grooming process. It certainly won’t stop me making the casual social connections that make travelling a good experience, but I certainly won’t be visiting random teashops with strangers again!
The next morning we embarked on a fruitless and frustrating search for the South Korean Embassy for Sarah’s work visa, a mystery which only resolved itself when we asked an expat for directions and it turned out that Lonely Planet’s map of its location was about 2 miles wrong. Brilliant.
The afternoon marked a less-than-fun traverse of the city via 3 subway lines. Three very hot packed subway lines with full kit, in order to get to Liuliqao Bus Station en route to Datong.
Our testing afternoon was, however, rewarded when we arrived in Datong as the first taxi driver who approached us (These ones are usually the Robber Barons of the taxi world) proceeded to take us immediately to the correct hostel and charged us the correct fare… Staggering. This was compounded by the hostel possessing the comfiest beds I’ve experienced on my travels thus far.
Next instalment: Down to Shanxi Province