As some of you may know, I made a conscious decision to leave semi-prepared, hoping this would make the trip more interesting. I checked the "essentials" online a few days before leaving to make sure I wouldn't miss out on any cool things to do or have problems at borders and that was it.
Well, it has certainly made things more interesting.
On my way to the Forbidden Palace, about to exit the subway station, I am intercepted by two Chinese women of about 40 who could speak english very well. They offered me to join them for the Forbidden Palace, they would act as translators. They were part of a bigger tourist group but decided to split for a day.
That's what they said.
"Cool", I thought to myself, some company.
My top, best, favorite thing in travels is to mingle with the locals.It's not always easy. It is also one of the reasons why I love Laos so much, they let you right into their life.
After we exit the subway, they guide me to the forbidden city, all the while making small talk and invite me for some tea before we proceed.
This is when the spider-sense would have been tingling, have I read a little bit more about Beijing beforehand.
We had some tea, I had a beer and they ordered some cocktails and snacks. We had a good conversation about China and Canada and some laughs, and then came the bill.
One. Hundred. Dollars.
Even better, the tiny place where we are is dead silent. Then my brain starts working out some details I should have paid attention to. There's only one table in this place, a tiny spot in the corner. Looks normal for a chinese place though, but still. Also, the sign for open/closed is switched to Closed in the window facing the street.
The waitress and both ladies are staring at me expectantly. I raise my eyebrows and say that this is really expensive and ask for a discount for my beer, which was $10. Considering there's 50 cents cans right next door to my hotel, this was ludicrous.
The waitress, upon hearing my request, immediately starts shouting! "YOU PAY! YOU PAY!". One of the ladies says that it is chinese customs for the man to pick up the whole bill. "That's fine but I'm not chinese, and you were the one to invite me." I offer to pay for my beer and 1/3 of the tea ($50 alone!). I calmly take out my money and put it on the table, then stare at the other two ladies without saying a word. No one picks up my moneys. After a few, very tense seconds, one of the two ladies starts laughing and says she will pay the rest. I ended up paying $35 for beer and tea! More than the price of my room for a night, or even a full day in South-East Asia.
Later on in my travels I would meet other people, men and women, who would fall for this scam. One french man explains "It is the most expensive water I have ever drank".
Very bitterly I exit the restaurant and tell the women that it was over-priced and ridiculous. It still hadn't crossed my mind that they were working in tandem with the store owner, just that they wanted to be spoiled.
"Tea made me hungry, do you want to come with us and eat some noodles?"
At this point I realized that I had been a huge idiot. I stopped in my tracks and stared at them longer. I told them I was going to go on, on my own. They said their goodbyes cheerfully and went their way, probably back to the subway station to hook more tourist-fish with their deceptive worms of smiles.
I hope that once in a while, lying in their bed in the evening, they think about what they do, and they can't sleep at night.
Moments later, I find myself in front of the ticket office for the Forbidden City. There is an inner battle in my mind: Cost for my day - scam included - versus memories. In the end I tell myself I made it all the way to freaking China, might as well. I'll skip on some other things.
Inside the walls of the Forbidden City I look around wide-eyed. This had been a dream of mine since I was a kid, hearing about it in a movie.
The entrapment scam had unfortunately left a sour taste in my mouth. I can honestly say that I did not enjoy walking the confines of this ancient, sacred place. Everything looked too new and rebuilt as well.
Surrounded by chinese tourists I climbed up and down white stairs sculpted in rock, up white balconies, always decorated with intricate railings where heads of what looked like dragons equipped with short elephant snouts pointing up stare out in every direction, for ever.
At the top of these stairs - always in red walls roofed by ornate green tiles supported by wooden beams lacquered in gold - are the buildings used by emperors centuries ago, where they prayed and held ceremonies. The first building was situated maybe 10 feet higher than the court but the more you moved towards the middle of the Forbidden City, the bigger these buildings became and the higher they were situated.
Amassed at the doors of said buildings are waves and waves of people - all chinese, all with black heads - pushing and shoving to get a cellphone picture of an ancient throne of gold or a giant gong or the empress's living quarters, separated only from the onslaught of chinese tourists by a metal bar, chest-high, and a quiet guard sitting bored on a chair.
Walking absent-minded I go through the process, seeing a series of buildings almost identical to each other for about an hour. I don't even feel observed any more, even if I am the only foreigner for long stretches.
Finally, I see something that truly impressed me.
In the middle of these stairs, always laid down and following the incline are stone carvings depicting various scenes.
In the center of the complex however, following the longest stairs, this stone is HUGE.
As you walk up the stairs you can watch the scene unfold, of dragons emerging from a stormy ocean to go dance in a sky occupied by clouds of tempest.
The giant white stone has apparently been dragged there centuries ago, from thousands of miles away. This piece of rock is enormous. I'm not good with dimensions but if it was laid up and straight it would probably be about 20 feet high at least, and 7 feet wide. It was brought there by very determined people during winter time. They would sprinkle water on the ground to form an icy path and slid the stone that way across China.