Traveling takes effort… it really does. What is worse, it is terrifying. Unfortunately, much like everything else in life, it is the bad memories that stick around the longest. Much like anything else in our digital lives, people post about the good parts, and we don’t often hear about what went wrong. However entertaining it may be, traveling can be scary enough without having to read about horror stories online. When I finally get around to write a post about Angkor Wat, I will be sure to skip the part where I got diabolical diarrhea for two weeks after leaving Cambodia.
In my experience, no place is tougher to travel than China. I know what you are thinking (wuss), but like I said before, it is the scams and dangers that linger in our minds, and I passed one of my scariest travel moments in the People’s Republic of China. Here is the story of how I got scammed in Beijing:
I was on my fourth month teaching in South Korea, and a four day weekend was coming up, Chinese New Year’s. Due to some of the best advice I have ever received, I have adopted a mentality that when you have more than two days off, it is a waste to just lay around and do nothing at home. So, I thought, what better place to celebrate this holiday than in the capital of China? I quickly booked a flight to Beijing.
I was meeting someone there, and since she was Chinese, I didn’t really bother to learn the language or any useful phrases that might get me out of a tight spot. All I had was a list of sentences to point at, which I hadn’t even reviewed. I also didn’t bother to look up potential dangers to lower my risk. I was a rookie traveler, and had it written all over my face.
Since I arrived ten hours earlier than my travel buddy, I figured I could go out of the airport, check in to the hotel, drop off my baggage, and return with plenty of time to spare. I took off in one of those airport buses that dropped me off pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Even though I had instructions on how to reach the hotel by public transportation, I was arrogant and ignored them.
“Do you need a taxi, friend?” said the shadiest looking guy outside of the airport bus.
“Do you know this hotel?” I asked as I pointed to a piece of paper with the hotel’s name written in Chinese.
“Sure,” he replied.
“How much?” I asked, in an even more arrogant ‘I know what I am doing’ tone.
“50,” he said without hesitation.
After calculating that 50 yuan was about 8 US dollars, I agreed, despite this being a rip-off rate. I was too tired from my long, one-hour flight to complain. He led me to what looked like a tuk-tuk off to the side of the road. About 10 minutes into the ride, he stops, gets off, and a different driver gets on. This would immediately be a red flag for most people, but I just figured this was normal for China and ignored it. Again, I was a total rookie.
Another 10 minutes later, we turn into a small, narrow alley. The driver acknowledges a group of guys at the entrance as he drives in. I am no expert, but this didn’t look to be a prime location for a hotel which was supposed to be walking distance from Forbidden City.
He stops in the middle of the alley, points at a door and says, “It is there.”
“That is the hotel?” I asked in disbelief. The door he was pointing at looked like a residential house, and no one was outside.
“Yes, it is there!” he said in a more stern voice.
I was a bit too startled to speak up more, and what came next really threw me off.
“Fifty euro,” he said.
I had just come from South Korea, and had seen the euro only a hand full of times in my life, why was he asking for this? I then realized that the first driver must have thought I was a European traveler.
“I don’t have euro,” I said. Just as I was taking out my yuan, he cut me off.
“Oh no, that is Chinese money. Chinese money 500!” He exclaimed as he pointed back to his buddies which were looking at us with interest. While this whole sham is going on, they had quickly cut off that side of the road with their motorbikes, and were not letting any other vehicles in. It was then that I realized that this could constitute robbery, and not just a simple scam.
As some of his buddies were slowly getting closer, I looked to the other side, and realized that the closest street was at least 100 meters away. Given that I had a huge bag, I wouldn’t have gotten very far.
To make matters worse, it was winter in Beijing. I am from Southern California and until this point, had never really experienced a cold winter in my life. My idea of ‘winter clothes’ was putting sweat pants over my jeans, and wearing multiple T-shirts. Needless to say, I was ill-prepared.
“Give me 500!” he demanded again. I tried to diffuse the situation by agreeing but asking again if this was the correct hotel. Paying didn’t really look like an option anymore, and I could lose a lot more than money if I refused. He nodded, so I forked over 500 yuan (about 80 USD) and he vanished quicker than he appeared.
I knocked on the door and a boy around 15 years old emerged. I asked if this was the correct hotel, and he just shook his head saying, “no hotel.”
So, I took my bag and rolled it to the end of the long alley. If I was lost, I at least wanted to get as far away from those guys as possible. It is then that I realized that I had lost the piece of paper with Chinese phrases, had no idea where I was, was out 500 yuan, and did not speak a word of Chinese.
Just kidding! Nobody likes sad endings.
So, I looked back and saw the paper I had dropped. I raced back, got it, and got back on what seemed like a main street. I stopped a bunch of younger people to ask for directions. I figured that I was going to have more luck talking to a younger crowd. Unfortunately, most didn’t speak English and had no idea what I was talking about.
I walked aimlessly for about 40 minutes until a guy in front of an unmarked car came up to me and asked if I needed a taxi. I asked him if he knew the hotel, and he said yes. He described exactly where it was located, behind Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square, then quoted me 20 yuan. I made sure I wrote down the symbol for yuan (one of the only things I knew how to write) to confirm this wasn’t another ‘euro’ trick. He agreed, and looked friendly enough.
You might be thinking that I didn’t learn my lesson, but from my point of view, I didn’t have many options left. Thankfully, he dropped me off at the right place, I paid him, and we parted ways. However, the hotel owner didn’t speak a word of English either, but I wasn’t about to get frustrated over that. After her 8-year-old son translated for us, she realized that I was trying to check-in and had a reservation. I dropped off my stuff and tried to get back to the airport the public transportation way.
It wasn’t until I was waiting for the bus that I actually felt really cold. Even though I did not have the proper attire, I guess the adrenaline had gotten me this far. Now, things were cooling off figuratively and literally. As I was trying to match the Chinese characters on the bus stop map with the ones on my paper, a couple that looked like university students asked if I needed help. I nodded reluctantly, and they told me what bus to take and where to get off to take the airport bus.
I arrived at the airport about six hours after I left, with plenty of time to spare. My travel companion arrived 6 hours after that (did you really expect a Chinese airplane to be on time), ready to start our Beijing adventure. She didn’t realize, that I already had quite the story to tell, and a headache to prove it.
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