Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Beijing Scammer #2 and the Great Wall of China


After visiting the Forbidden City I make my way back to my hotel and get off at the wrong subway station, again. This time however I recognise the street corner from the last time I got lost. I look at the city map on the sidewalk (NOT conveniently pointing in the right cardinal direction or even facing the right street), then look at my own map, then at the subway lines map on the back of my city map.

Like an awesome advanced computer I triangulate my position and realise that there are stations missing on my street map!

No wonder I keep getting lost! 

For the folks at home, the Beijing metro stations are not so close to each other like in our beloved Montreal. The stations of Beijing are easily an hour's walk from each other, so you can imagine the amount of walking I have had to do.

This time though, I get back on the subway and go one more station in the right direction and here it is, the streets near my hotel greet me. Confirmed: my map is either old, or stupid.

Tired of eating 50 cent noodle soups to save money and needing to forget about the scam I climb the stairs to an ultra-posh (word I picked up in the U.K. that means "fancy" to us Canadians) Pizza Hut and sit down at an empty table, picturing a giant all-dressed monster oozing with cheese and steaming sexy calories. I was going to destroy that betch.

What I instead receive for my order is a tiny pizza for kids, what we call bambinos back home. False advertisement is the norm in China it seems.

I eat it slowly, eaves dropping on the table next to me and watch as the 3 westerners make one special demand after another to the staff, quite rudely at that.

I was wondering if the chinese workers would pull a South-East Asia style of service, the one that goes something like "You are making my life difficult therefore I will stoutly ignore you until you exit my sphere of existence" but no, these people look at the clients in all seriousness, but as soon as they turn the corner (where I am sitting) they laugh it off amongst themselves and proceed to meet every demand (not enough vegetables on this side order. Can I get more ice? Ice? ICE? No no mine was with NO ice. Can I get my coke colder, but with no ice, like her? Can I get different vegetables this time? Can I get a second pizza for free this one was not big enough?)

Later, in the hobby of the hotel, I meet 4 Polish girls, 2 pairs of travellers that just met. I tell them of my debacle at the Forbidden City and everyone has a good, long laugh at it, including me (the beers help swallow my pride). One of the two pairs invites me to join them on their trip to the Great Wall for the next day. They announce that they are leaving at 6am because they are going to a secluded portion of the wall that also has a slide, and then they retreat to their rooms.

I get back to mine, to shave off all that curly hair and beard I was letting grow, having bought a cheap shaver the day before.

The next morning I grogilly meet them in the lobby and I immediatly find myself walking top speed through the streets on an empty stomach. I think to myself that if they plan to keep this rhythm all day I would strike out on my own fairly quickly.

About 40 minutes later we arrive at the subway station that connects to a bus line that should take us to our ultimate destination. I am calmly looking for directions when suddenly a wild woman dressed in bus driver uniform appears!
"Hello! I am a bus driver, do you need help? Where are you going?"
Why, this is almost too good to be true! We tell her our bus number and the lady informs us that this line no longer exists, it has changed to a new bus line. She gives us clear directions to reach it.

The girls get into this gear, this special speed where you're more than jogging but not quite running yet. I reluctantly follow, trying not to lose them in Beijing-level rush hour traffic. As we make our way through the human river I keep an eye out for the bus signs. No indications about the old number at all.

We finally arrive in a giant indoors garage where dozens of buses drive by and tonnes of stops are identified with big green signs, metal fences forcing people to queue up (as forming a line to wait is not a concept that has yet to reach the average chinese person's mind, in 2014).

Still no sign of the original bus number but we find our new number fairly quickly and magically the lady bus driver appears to guide us in the right direction.

We manage to get on the bus after fighting our way through the pile-on that forms outside the railings and the 3 of us sit together. I fall asleep.

I wake up about 40 minutes later and we are still on the road, the Polish girls are still sitting next to me, still smiling and full of energy and good will even this early in the morning. They share a portion of their snacks with me.

Another 15 minutes go by and suddenly the lady bus driver reappears! She is now changed in civilian clothes.

"Bus stop! Here!"She says urgently and we all disembark right in the middle of a giant street corner, in a distant suburb of Beijing. There are some small stores and a few high-rises, a park where people are playing ping-pong. Smog still covers the sky,

The lady walks us a few meters down the street and from her pocket produces a car key. She unlocks her vehicule - we all stop in our tracks. The mood becomes very sour, very quickly. The girls that were making fun of me not even 12 hours ago just felt for a scam. All of a sudden, the woman's english language drops in quality, as if she just practiced a few lines over and over again.

As we grimly look on, she matter-of-factly gets a book of bills out of her car and uses the hood as a table. She leans down comfortably and gets a pen from her pocket.
"60 km" she writes. "60 x 3" she adds, pointing at the 3 of us one by one.

"Fucking bitch" we all say in perfect harmony.

I tell her that she is a thief, all the while keeping my voice calm and level, because if you make an asian lose face things can get very ugly, very fast.

She keeps smiling. "50 x 3", she writes. It's only $10 each, but a trip to the Great Wall normally costs about $3 a person, by bus. I tell her that the only way we are getting in that car is if she charges us 50 Yuan total.

The girls say they are never getting in that car, and I agree. For all we know, we'll have to stop at her friend's place for tea, then at her cousin's for cheap jewels, then pay extra still to get to our real destination.

The lady doesn't understand our logic. "You made it all this way, surely you can't just go back?" she tries to emulate with basic mimes and a few sparse english words. "No way to Wall from Beijing! No way!"

At this point I start to lose my cool a little bit. All the while smiling but speaking a little bit louder I go "You are a liar, and a thief, and a bad person. We will pay the bus again then we will go to the Great Wall from Beijing. People do it every day, all the time, for years now. Just because we're white doesn't mean we're stupid".

We crossed the street to the bus stop where a small gathering of people were seemingly just passing time. The lady follows us screaming in her language. One man seems to be very angry at me, gesturing me to get out of town with his hands, quite intensely. Everyone else is just looking on quietly. People don't like to get involved here in China, I would learn as I travel. I take the Lonely Planet book of one of the girls, find a picture of the Great Wall and show it to the man who was so agitated. He seems to understand a little bit. "Aaaaah" he says, tapping the picture with his finger and showing the curious man who was looking over his shoulder. After all, there are no mountains around us. The lady starts screaming and pointing at us, probably trying to win her case.

A quiet young man suddenly comes up to us and asks us in English what happened. We explain our predicament and he calmly translates our story to everyone. The lady is losing face. She starts yelling even more. No one seems to believe her, or care at all.

More than an hour later, back in Beijing, I walk side by side with the student. The girls are walking ahead of me and I can tell they feel terribly bad about wasting my time. The young chinese man eyes me up and down calmly and says out of the blue "You are strong". I laugh, tell him chinese people are stronger, and try to talk about his studies but he says he does not understand what I mean. Soon the group splits up. I refer to my written down notes from my original plan and make it to a more touristy section of the Great Wall in about an hour.

To try and describe the Great Wall without sounding like I'm exaggerating... The idea behind the structure sounds like something out of A Game of Thrones. The scope of it is Tolkien-ish. But this is real life.

Like a giant stone snake, the Wall rides the tops of mountains and hills, rocky and sharp, sometimes foresty. While walking it, the steepness of it - coupled with the fact that the stones are made completely smooth by centuries of feet walking it - makes my cheap shoes slip and I almost lose my footings a couple of times.

Some places offer a few flat spots. They have to be navigated shoulder to shoulder with the masses resting, taking selfies, catching their breath, spitting.

I look back at the way I came to take in this picturesque view of small poking mountains protruding from the fog... or is it smog?

I reach a high point where a small guard tower sits patiently. Totally exhausted, I watch a tiny chinese lady, as old as the wall, climb the stairs quickly and mercilessly. I feel weak.

I look at the time: already 3pm. With the climb back and the fight to get on the buses I estimate I should head back already. Some people do several days of hiking without ever stepping off the wall. It must be an amazing experience.

In retrospect the first destination considered by the girls would have probably been better and more exciting only for the fact that I wouldn't be drowned in a sea of chinese tourists but another scammer has almost ruined my day, again.

The next day was spent planning my next destination, giving a break to my dead-tired feet who have been through a lot of walking in the past month in really bad shoes. I make an effort to visit, in the late afternoon, a park close to my hotel, called the Temple of Heaven.

There, I am magnetically pulled towards a group of Chinese standing in a circle with an accordeon player and 2 flutists. They are under the direction of a jovial chore leader singing Chinese opera with all of their heart and all of their lungs.

I listen for a while, in trance. After half an hour I take my leave to calmly walk on paths lined with tall trees. Here, in the heart of the city, the air is cooler and the ambiance quieter. An old man with 3 teeth left is very delighted to meet me. All smiles he asks me a few questions about where I am from and if I like China.

I answer politely and keep walking, taking deep breaths and relaxing.

A smile appears on my face as I think about the funny, mispelled, engrish T-shirts I have seen so far. The list is infinite and I was too lazy to write them down as I saw them but here are a few:

-Prosche, instead of Porsche.
-To better love than today alone.
-A very old lady wearing a playboy shirt.
-BING (instead of bling?)
and many, many instances of a word missing a letter or a P or B or S printed upside down.

My theory goes like this: A man makes an order from a chinese company. The company goes and prints a few thousand shirts and sends a picture to the man. "Yo, is this cool?", to which the man loses his shit and refuses to pay for those. The chinese man, knowing full well his fellow countrymen can't read english, proceeds to sell the shirts here himself, for a nice profit.

End of story.

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