If you follow the blog, you know that my trip to Beijing wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be. To add insult to injury, on my last day in the cold grey capital city of China, I was scammed by two crafty little Chinese gypsies in the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City, Beijing’s centerpiece tourist attraction, was my final excursion of the 5-day Peking vacation. I mean, anything formally dubbed ‘Forbidden’ is practically begging to be explored.
I set out to wander within its walls and see what all the forbidden fuss is about. In a shoulder-to-shoulder mob of Chinese tourists during the Spring Festival holiday travel season, I shuffled my way through the crowded entrance and into the Forbidden City, paying respects to Chairman Mao on my way in.
About five minutes of aimless wandering brought me to a crossroads within the Forbidden City. Alone I stood, admiring the ancient architecture, feeling sad and restless without my camera.
In my apparent forlornness, two homely looking young Chinese girls approached me. “Hello! Where are you from?” Their spoken English was excellent.
We exchanged names and pleasantries, then they asked me if I wanted to walk around with them. I couldn’t think of anything better to do and they seemed nice, so I agreed.
We walked quickly, small-talking about Chinese and American culture. We made it to the northeast streets around the Forbidden City where there are gobs of tea shops, souvenir shops, and plenty of just plain old shop shops.
One of the girls asked me if I like tea. When I said yes, she made a beeline for one particular tea shop and opened the door to hail me in. She led me right into their trap.
We sat at a table in a small dim room, me and the two little gypsies, and they asked what I wanted. I ordered green tea. A pot of green tea was no later on our table and we said a cheers to the Chinese New Year.
The girls ordered more tea. Buckwheat tea, green tea and black tea. Then some Chinese crunchy snacks arrived at the table. Then a glass of wine was set down for each of us. Cheers! To the Chinese New Year! Our impromptu kinship was a little awkward, but amiable.
I took a sip of bright red wine. Judging by taste and appearance, it was clearly the cheap boxed Chinese varietal, but I humored them anyway. “What kind of wine is this?” I asked. Their response: “Oh it’s a very good bottle of European wine.” Talk about a red flag.
After about half an hour of small talk over tea and wine, the girls had had enough. They called for the check from the waitress. The bookworm-y waitress shuffled into our small room and placed the bill on our table.
The check—for 4 small pots of tea, two snack bowls of chips, and a half-glass of boxed Chinese wine for each of us—was 1,500 RMB. That’s $250.
All eyes looked to me to fork up the dough. Now, I’m no expert, but in the four months I’ve lived in China, I’ve never paid more than 100 RMB for tea and drinks at lunchtime.
I was an idiot for stepping into this trap, but I had to get myself out of it. “That’s too expensive,” I said. The girls were undaunted. “No, this isn’t expensive,” they said. “This is the normal price for tea.”
I refused to pay the bill. They tried to explain the charges to me, breaking the prices down for each individual item. One of the gypsies pointed to the bill and looked at me. “And here, we had three glasses of fine wine. The wine is 200 RMB per glass.”
Their comically inflated price explanations were actually pretty funny to me, but not comical enough to alleviate my building rage. This was about as clear of a scam as I’d ever seen. I stayed calm, but urged them to lower the price.
They complained, challenging my masculinity. “A real man would pay the bill! You aren’t a real man! You’re going to try to make us girls pay for this? What kind of man are you?!”
“Call me what you want, but I’m not paying 1,500 RMB for cheap tea and wine.” The gypsies and waitress were upset now.
One of the gypsies raised her voice to me, “You enjoyed the tea and wine and snacks so you have to pay for them. You can’t just order food and not pay!” I calmly reminded her that she was the one who ordered the snacks, tea and wine.
In a show of compromise, I agreed to pay exclusively for the pot of green tea. After all, it was the only thing I’d actually ordered. More attacks on my masculinity followed.
When personal attacks failed, they tried pity. One of the gypsies said to me with puppy dog eyes, “You’re only going to pay for the green tea? Us delicate, precious girls have to pay the rest of the bill ourselves?”
I must have repeated the phrase, “I ordered the green tea, so I’ll pay for the green tea” about ten times slowly, methodically, until it effectively annoyed them into submission.
That damn pot of green tea cost me 240 RMB. That’s a STEEP price for tea (get it?) but I agreed to fork over the money anyway just to get out of that hellish tea shop. When I handed over 300 RMB, the waitress refused to bring my change, trying her best to act like I was the one who had done her wrong.
I walked outside with the Gypsies and asked them how much money they make from these scams. They just played dumb.
I sarcastically asked what the commission structure from the tea shop was like, and if I could join their operation. The gypsies stayed in character, maintaining feigned anger at me for not paying the full 1,500 RMB bill, until we went our separate ways.
If you ever travel to Beijing, don’t let yourself get lured into this common Forbidden City scam. I didn’t know about it until it was too late, and it cost me 300 RMB.