This happened on the same day as the counterfeit currency fiasco I indicated before. I had been wandering around Beijing in the winter. My local Beijing friend, exhausted from our harrowing trip to Xi’an the day before, had gone home for a nap, leaving me on my own. We agreed to meet some three hours later. She was, however, so drained that she overslept and was late… by about four hours beyond that. During this time I, who had no working cell phone in China, kept asking people (well pantomiming really) if I could use their cell phones. I was elated to discover one young couple that spoke English quite well compared to most people one might find in Beijing.
Before I continue, let me offer a disclaimer. While I am not from New York (30 minutes away in New Jersey), I was raised by two New Yorkers who taught me never to heed people trying to talk to me on the street because they were likely trying to sell me something. I’m pretty good at ignoring people on the street in general. Thus when I saw a sign taped to the hostel’s bathroom mirror warning people to not engage in conversation with people who come up to them on the street, all I could think was “Duh…”
I had spent the day avoiding people who would address me with some variants of “You speak English?? I STUDY English!! We talk!” I smugly thought I’d gotten the hang of not getting conned. Oh dear, was I wrong… So back to the young couple. I assumed given my lack of gloves and hat, as well as my shaking from the cold, the girl asked if I wanted to go to a tea house with them. Since I was freezing cold, I saw no issue with this. Upon entering the tea house, we were ushered into a room and given menus. I was starving, having not eaten since around breakfast and it being about 6 PM. Looking over the menu, I was very surprised. Food is typically cheap in China. One of my favorite dishes, baozi, typically cost 4 yuan (about 80 cents at the time). I was shocked to discover that food at this place ran to 80 yuan and up! Being hungry and cold, I tried to overlook this and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, some chicken at 80 yuan. The couple ordered a pot of tea. This turned out to be the most delicious tea I had ever had! Just as I was beginning to feel that life wasn’t so bad, the check came. The bill said 600 yuan (almost $100) for six cups of tea and my plate of chicken! I was outraged!
I’d consider myself a fairly composed person when in public, but with something that insane, I made a bit of a scene. A hostess came over and, in response to my yelling, offered to “take off the 100 yuan room fee”. “Room fee, ROOM FEE???” I was fuming. “What is the matter with you? You BROUGHT us in here, we didn’t request it!” Because of my outburst, the “discount” was taken from my portion, making what I’d pay 200 yuan (about $30). Even though the hostess took both of our cards, I’m pretty much convinced that their card didn’t actually get charged. After we paid the bill, the couple was in a rush to leave, instead of letting me finish my chicken or tea. They said that we should hurry to meet up with my friend. Because I just wanted to leave, I obliged. As soon as we were out the door, however, they vaguely said something about having a prior engagement and instructed me to walk “that way for five minutes” (pointing to the right, down a fairly dark street) “and turn right to go to the subway”. With that, they left.
I am not a person to wear watches. Out of habit, I tend to rely on a cell phone to keep track of time. However, I did not have a working cell phone in China. Had you been on that street in Beijing, you would have seen a very distraught looking foreigner trying to maintain composure and count to 300 (a meager attempt to measure five minutes). Of course, counting to 300 is harder to do when you’re fighting negative thoughts. “They have my friend’s number in their cell phone,” I realized. “What if they’re calling her right now, demanding a ransom payment after having sent me to the middle of nowhere? I wouldn’t put it past them, after conning me at that tea house…” Fighting tears, I tried to see the positive in my situation. I stopped above a small pretty brook and went to take a picture. My camera battery died. Why me?
I walked a little more, until I realized I couldn’t go any farther. Faced by a wall of traffic, I realized where I was. I was facing Tiananmen Square! I turned right and sure enough, a short walk down the street was the subway entrance. I managed to borrow one more person’s phone to contact Emily to tell her where I was. I thanked them profusely for letting me use their phone and went on my way. While waiting for Emily, I strolled along the street, half in curiosity, half in order to keep warm. I saw what I would later discover was Tiananmen Gate, a brick-red wall with a large portrait of Mao Zedong in the center. It was bathed in white ground lights, with what appeared to be a temple behind it lined with its own strings of lights. I was so angry at my camera battery for being dead. I took some cell phone pictures with my otherwise useless Korean phone which did these gorgeous sights absolutely no justice.
Soon after, Emily showed up on the back of her boyfriend’s scooter. She looked thoughtfully from me to the scooter and back again, trying to gauge the success of putting three people on it. Deciding in the negative, we instead hailed a motorcycle cab bound for adventure…and dumplings!