As the captain announced our descent into Beijing, I peered out the window and down at the thick layers of cloud that the plane was heading into. As we emerged from the other side of those clouds… well, it’s hard to be sure if we ever did. I’d heard about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, and as I stepped off the plane and looked out onto the smoggy runway, it was clear – unlike the air – that these tales had been no exaggeration. It took me a while to get out of Beijing airport, considering you have to take a short train trip to get from customs and passport check to the baggage claim area, but after about an hour I was on my way in a taxi. As we drove along the highways and into the heart of the city, I sat staring out the window in something close to a state of shock.
The sky was a distant memory, hidden behind a thick layer of cloud and pollution. It could simply have been overcast, except there was no chill in the weather, nor did the air feel particularly humid. But it was a different kind of heaviness, a weight that hung in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and something that I have great difficulty trying to explain. But every now and then the blanket of smog would ease up a little, and the glowing disc of the sun would be visible through the haze, burning a deep, demonic orange and bleeding into the sky around it. Buildings and warehouses and construction sites whizzed past me on the roadside, and even the regular clusters of trees and other greenery didn’t help to diminish the feeling that I had landed in some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial realm. Even with a population of some 18 million people, all I could see was the gridlock vehicles on the highway, feeling slightly alone in the big grey smog. As far as first impressions go, I guess Beijing was living up to its intimidating reputation.
The next leg of my gap year was going to be a tour – the bucket list-worthy Trans-Siberian Railway trek, starting in Beijing and ending in St Petersburg, Russia. I had flown into China a day early, and had a full 24 hours to spend in the city before meeting my guide and the rest of my tour companions the following afternoon. After settling into the hotel room and taking a quick rest, I decided to go for a wander and see what I could discover, and make my comparisons between Northern and South-East Asia.
A short walk from where I was staying found me at the beginning to Wangfujing Street – one of the most famous and busiest areas in Beijing. Though of course, I had set out into the streets with nothing more than my trusted sense of direction and definitely without a map, and had stumbled across the strip by accident. I have to admit, it didn’t look much like what I expected from China. There was obviously a huge Western and/or American cultural influence on this particular street, with an Apple Store, Forever 21, and the Beijing Foreign Language Book Store. It kind of reminded me of the main strip of Pitt St back in Sydney, except it was four times as wide and probably at least ten times as long – I can’t say for sure, since I never made it to the end. There was the occasional car or bicycle nudging its way through the crowds, but for the most part it was a street heavy with pedestrian traffic.
After a short time I was approached by a small Asian woman, probably in her mid-twenties, asking me where I was from. The cautious, mistrusting nature I had developed in South-East Asia suddenly kicked in. Until now, I had just been thinking how less geared towards tourists this place had seemed. There were a few souvenir shops and English speaking shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t someone on every street corner trying to sell you things or screaming at you to get into their taxis. I’d also read that Chinese people are often just naturally curious about Western people, so as she asked a few more questions about myself, I began to slowly warm up to her. She told me her name was Charlie, and offered little bits of information about herself in return to all her questions. I let her walk along with me as wandered down the street.
“What are you doing? Are you shopping?” Charlie asked me as I gazed at the buildings round me, the neon lights developing their own glowing aura within the clouds of low-hanging pollution.
“I’m just looking for something to eat, actually.”
“Ahh… You want to try the night markets? They have some very good street food.”
“Umm…” I hesitated for a moment, but so far Charlie had seemed relatively genuine. Surely there was no harm in going for a little walk, right? “Sure, okay.”
Charlie lead me a short way to a street joining onto Wangfujing, lined with market food stalls on their side. The delicacies were like Khao San Road on crack – there were starfish, dried seahorses on skewers, and even scorpions that were so raw that their legs continued to wriggle and twitch. While I’d been game to try tarantulas served in a Cambodian restaurant, the street food is just one step too far for me, so I settled for a cob of corn. We wandered for a little bit longer, and Charlie suggested finding a place to sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. By this stage I was starting to feel a little more comfortable, so I followed her through another street and into a small tea house. There we sat and chatted for quite some time – we talked about ourselves, the kind of music we like and our different hobbies, about travelling and where we’ve been, and where we want to go, about China and the differences in our cultures. We had two pots of tea, and Charlie explained to me the subtle differences in the flavours, and the Chinese delicacy that is a good brew. Afterwards we also had a glass each of Chinese wine.
I was just thinking about how I hadn’t had wine in a little while, since the beer had been so much cheaper in South-East Asia, when our bill finally arrived. The waitress handed it to Charlie.”Oh, it’s not too much. Do you want to grab this?”
I have to take some of the blame – I wasn’t looking at the menu, so I failed to look the prices as Charlie had ordered. I was a little taken aback by the way Charlie just assumed I was going to pay, and when I looked at the bill and did a rough conversation from Chinese yuan to Australian dollars in my head, I nearly spat out my mouthful of wine.
“What the hell, Charlie? This isn’t cheap!”
She looked surprised, and stammered through her words for a moment. “This isn’t too much, this is what it usually costs for two people.”
I was skeptical. The total amount could have got two people blind drunk in a moderately priced bar in Sydney – it was a lot more than I was prepared, or willing, to pay for two pots of tea in China.
“Can we split it?” I’d asked her. Not for the first time on this trip, I cursed myself for going along with a girl on what could easily be interpreted as a date. I was not going to foot the whole bill for another night out, and especially not this one.
“Oh, I only have 100 yuan,” Charlie said as she offered me a few notes from her wallet. It was approximately $15, and only about a tenth of the total bill.
“That’s a start,” I mumbled to myself as I snatched the notes up, abandoning any pleasantries or niceties. The whole thing had gone pear-shaped, and only now – obviously too late – but my suspicions started to kick in. I even considered just walking out without paying, but I didn’t want to risk causing any more trouble for myself.
So I paid and stormed out of the tea house, Charlie hot on my heels.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said as she shuffled along beside me.
“Know what? How much if would be?”
“I’m sorry, I just thought that Australian are wealthy, I just wanted to show you some nice tea and Chinese culture.”
“I’m a traveller, Charlie. I’m on a budget. I don’t have that kind of money to waste on tea.” She almost seemed offended, as though I was devaluing her culture or tradition, but I refused to believe that Chinese tea should have costed so much in China.
“But, you can just ask your father to send you more money, can’t you?”
I was shocked. “Ahh, no? My dad doesn’t give me free handouts to waste on expen-”
“But you’re his only son!” Again, I was almost shocked into silence. Almost.
“Well I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it works in Australia!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Australia! I only know China!”
It was a slightly profound moment. Here we were, voices raised and arguing in the middle of Wangfujing Street, and suddenly I was the one who felt bad for Charlie. I was getting quite rude and annoyed, but I hadn’t even considered that maybe she was just acting on the limited knowledge that local Chinese people seem to have of Western culture and customs. Maybe all abroad Australians are very wealthy compared to her. The bill had been paid for, yet I suddenly felt guilty for berating her in an attempt to take out my anger to feel better about the situation.
I let out a long sigh. “Okay. It’s fine, just forget it.”
“I’m really sorry, Robert. I had a really good time chatting to you. Maybe we can go to karaoke, I can buy you a beer?”
I still couldn’t figure her out, but I wasn’t going to risk my wallet taking another beating. “I should really get back to my hotel now, I’m feeling pretty tired.”
We awkwardly bid each other farewell after our argument, and I quickly paced home through the backstreets of Beijing, the sense of excitement I’d had from being in a new city replaced with the awful feeling of having another country and currency get the better of me.
The following afternoon I met with the tour group I would be travelling the Trans-Siberian with, and our guide gave us a run down on the basics of the city. As she warned us about some of the potential tourist traps and scams, I hung my head in shame as she outlined a scenario so similar to the one I had experienced last night – it was almost as though our guide had been there and was recounting the scene blow by blow. I’d been warned that there are lots of false taxi services at the airport who will try to charge you exorbitant amounts to get from the airport to the city, and I had been so proud of myself that I had managed to spot and avoid them and make my way to the hotel in a legitimate taxi. So it was rather deflating to learn I had quickly fallen into the very next scam to come along after that.
It turned out to be more than just a shallow than a culture clash, but I guess I leant something from the experience in the end. In these unfamiliar places, learn to trust your suspicious instincts. Though I can only hope that every tourist trap I do fall for will better prepare me for avoiding the next one.