My Beijing Tea Party

Nearly put off for life!

I’ve agonised over whether to post this on my blog and put my gullibility/stupidity out into the public domain, but I told myself when I decided to record my travels that it would be warts-and-all, rough with the smooth – something to look back on to remember the many good times, and if it proved to be the case, the not-so-good times.

Well, in Beijing, what had so far been a very smooth journey suddenly hit a bit of a pothole. I was scammed – although thankfully, I’ll state early on, there is a happy ending.I can just about laugh about it now, but it very nearly put me off my beloved cups of tea for life!

There aren’t many photos, but what follows is my way of a public service announcement, my experience of what happened, how I was taken in, how I confronted it and my advice to anyone travelling to China. If you don’t know me and you’ve come across this page through a search engine, the chances are the same has happened to you and you’re looking to find out what to do about it. Well, along with anyone planning to visit, I feel the following is so important, anyone applying for a Chinese visa should be made to read it before the visa gets granted.

If anyone, nomatter how normal, how nice or how genuine they seem comes up to you and asks if they can talk to you and practise their English, do not, I repeat, do not entertain them.

I’d been in Beijing for a few days, and started to feel comfortable. I knew my way around, the people were friendly, and many of the Chinese tourists were so intrigued to meet a Westerner, many would stop and have photographs taken with you and say how nice it was to meet (that’s my next post!)

Unfortunately, there are quite a few Chinese people around the main tourist sites willing to exploit the friendly meetings and mutli-cultural mix.

I was taking photographs of the main gate to the Forbidden City, taking in the atmosphere and watching the crowds filing under Mao’s portrait. Like any tourist attraction, it was really busy. Being on my own and taking photos, I’ve also become used to strangers coming up to me and offering to take a photo for me. As I was holding out my camera trying to self shoot myself in front of the famous landmark, a Chinese girl comes up to me and offered to help.

She took the photo, gave me back my camera, and I thanked her. She was around 25, looked like a student and not particularly attractive. The conversation then went like this:

“Ah, you’re English,” she said.

“I’m studying English in the south, I’m here with my friend on holiday, how long have you been here for?”

Me: “Ah, a few days now, it’s a great city.”

Her friend then appears alongside and we talk about Beijing for a minute or so

Them: “Its so good to be able to talk English and use what we’re being taught with someone from England. We love your accent – it sounds like someone on the BBC.”

I kid you not, they were her words. Naturally, I said “Well, you won’t believe this, but….”

And so it went on for about five minutes, general pleasantries and conversation like I have already had with countless other people in the weeks since I’ve left the UK.

By now, however, I’m wanting to get on with getting into the Forbidden City, as I had to meet friends at the Olympic Park later that afternoon. I tried to politely say I need to get on and take more photos, and they said they would come with me and help as they like speaking in English.

I reluctantly agreed, as they seemed harmless enough and I thought it was quite nice to be helping Anglo-Chinese relations a little by giving two English students a helping hand with their language skills.

“Its really busy in the main entrance, you should go to the Forbidden City through the East Gate, there’s not as many crowds,” the shorter one with fewer spots told me.

“We’re going that way soon as we’re going to stop for a quick coffee, we’ll show you where it is if you like?”

Thinking it was helping me out, and that if they’re off for coffee I’d at least shake them off, I went with them. We turned left down the main street which runs parallel to the eastern wall, still having normal chit chat, when they invited me to join them. Well, it was lunchtime, I’d not had anything to drink, and the thought of a coffee wasn’t a bad one. The girls seemed harmless enough, if a little geeky, and if I’m honest, it was quite fun learning about how one works part time in a Barbie toy factory, how they had travelled on the train to Beijing and they were genuinely interested in my stories about back home and hearing about my travels.

It was down this street!

“How about this coffee shop here,” she said. It seemed okay, it was a tea shop like id seen all over the place, so in we went. We were ushered into a little room with bamboo all around, and laid out on the table was a fantastic array of Chinese teas of all different shapes and colours.

I was given a menu with other drinks, when one of the girls said it’d be nice to try some of the tea. “You drink it with milk back home don’t you, blurrgh,” the girls joked.

I’d not tried the proper Chinese teas here yet, so I thought ‘why not’ and agreed.

A woman in typical Chinese attire, hair done up like a Japanese Geisha, then came in with a kettle of water and started making tea. I was given a thimble-sized cup, while some tiny satsumas and some strange crisps were put on the table. The girls tucked into the satsumas, and passed me one. I’m not a fan of oranges, but to be polite I ate one, and then was advised to try the ‘nice crisps’ which I did (not particularly nice)

The tea lady then started some weird performance of brewing tea, pouring most of it in a tray, rubbing warm cups over her face and dribbling a little bit into my thimble of a cup.

I had a sip of jasmine tea, fruit tea, green tea, black tea, a tea with a funny ball of flowers in it and a number of other teas that came at me at such a pace, that in about 15 minutes I’d probably still only consumed the grand total of half a normal cup of tea back home.

It was actually quite a performance though, with lots of information about which teas are good for you, the benefits for mind and body of one tea compared to another etc etc. I asked to take a photo – for me this was an authentic way of having tea in China and it’d be good to have a record of it, but was politely told that I couldn’t because of the tea ladies religion (???!!!)

“Which one did you like the best, as now we’ve sampled them we can choose one?” one of the girls asked

“Erm, not fussed really, whichever you preferred,” I replied, thinking I was being a gent.

Along came a teapot filled with a weak yellowy tea that was poured into my thimble.

For the next 10 minutes, conversation continued. They asked to see photos of life back home.

“Oh, you have a lovely house.”

“Wow, you’re dad is so good looking for his age.”

“You’re mum has such lovely hair.”

“You’re brother looks just like you.”

All lines ive heard from so many people on this journey so far (the one about dad was a first, admittedly…sorry dad!) and nothing to raise any suspicion.

And then the bill came: 3,260 Yuan. That’s £326.

Yes, you did read that right – hundreds of pounds for a few sips of tea.

“Oh, it’s a bit more expensive than we thought it would be, we should have checked before we ordered,” one of the girls said, blatantly clocking my suspicions.

I took the bill and looked at it. Perhaps I was jumping the gun at thinking I was being ‘done’, maybe the decimal point was in the wrong place or a nought had been added in error – although £32 would have been way out in any case.

“Well, don’t worry about paying for us, we’ll pay our share,” the girls said.

I told them to hang on, not to pay anything yet and I’ll speak to the manager. Sure enough, biggish female manager walks in and tells me the bill was correct.

“For some tea?” I said, voice getting louder and slightly high pitched as the worry of forking out £100 for my share starts to kick in.

“We take credit cards,” the manageress firmly says, pointing at a Visa sign on the wall.

I’m now starting to think on my feet in damage limitation. One of the first rules is not to hand over credit cards, so even though they’d seen it in my wallet, I told them it was maxed out.

“There’s an ATM around the corner,” she helpfully adds.

I made up more excuses about how I’d taken money out and my cashcard wont let me have anything else until next week.

I knew I had to get out of the situation somehow, and I looked again at the bill. I’d been charged £10 for the poxy satsumas and crisps, classed as snacks; £50 for the ‘tea show’; £5 for each of the 10 or so tea samples, £10 each for the ‘room hire’ and various other charges that my panicked mind wasn’t able to fully take in.

“Tea is a very precious commodity here in China, its valued highly, and you’ve drunk some very rare and expensive tea. You must pay,” I was told.

I threw back that I’d not asked for all of the teas and i’d only popped in for one cup, that I thought they were samples first before deciding which one to have, and that there were no prices anywhere, nor warnings given of how much each tea could cost.

Then they pointed at a price list which had been turned at an angle so you couldn’t see it from the place I was sat. Low and behold, each tea is listed at 50 Yuan per person.

Id been complaining for a while now, and slightly worried that some big burly bloke would come in before long, so I thought id better part with a bit of cash and try to get out of there. Unfortunately I’d been to a cash point the night before and they’d seen how much cash I had. I tried putting 500 Yuan down, but the girls both complained that they then had to pick up the rest of the bill for me that they couldn’t afford, and that they were already helping me out.

Naturally, I was feeling a bit guilty – at this point, I was still half thinking they may have been genuinely on holiday too, and it was in fact the tea shop that was cashing in on all of us. Afterall, one had paid on a card and signed the card slip…it all seemed genuine.

“Put 600 (£60) in and I’ll see if my card will pay the rest, but you’ll have to treat me when I visit England sometime,” the spotty girl said.

I’d got away with not putting all of my wallet’s contents in, so did so, and then made a beeline for the door. The girls said they had to an ATM now as the tea shop had taken all their money, and that I could go around the Forbidden City with them if I wanted.

Suddenly, I wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing. I was confused as to what had actually gone on. I suddenly felt humiliated, stupid, ashamed and vulnerable all at the same time. I walked to a place I felt safe – a McDonalds funnily enough – to have some time out and lick my wounds.

Were the girls genuine? Had they been fleeced too? Is tea sometimes that expensive? Why didn’t I check the prices? Why didn’t I just walk away after they took my photo? All questions which were rattling through my head at ten to the dozen.

I decided, as hard as it was, to put it down to bad luck and a bad experience. But £60 now, to me as a traveller, is a lot of money. Back home, I’d have probably written it off, been in a grump and moved on – but when you’re not earning and accommodation is around £5 a night, it starts eating at you that you’ve basically been robbed of two weeks-worth of hostels in South East Asia.

I met up with Santi and Gali at the Olympic park. I put on a brave face and took in the sights, but I wasn’t in a good mood deep down. I even felt too ashamed to tell them what had happened or to ask their advice, but as soon as I had wifi access back at the hostel, I Googled ‘Beijing tea’ and up came ‘Beijing tea scam’ with an incredible 2.2-million results

Suddenly, it all became very clear, with exactly the same story and circumstances, and yes, those girls were very convincing criminals.  Reading through some of the testimonies, it seems almost everyone that visits Beijing gets taken in by it, and in many cases, for hundreds of pounds. I could console myself that I’d got away relatively lightly – but it still ate away at me.

I decided to tell Santi and Gali, mainly as I’d feel awful if they got taken in by it too. They were shocked, but could understand why its convincing – and then we remembered on the first night a girl talking to Santi and saying it’d be nice to join him for a drink (that’s another scam, not a chat-up)

I woke up the next morning feeling better, but angry. I wanted to confront the shop, I wanted to get my money back, and according to the Web, some people had managed it. I contemplated going in and asking for an official copy of my receipt, which by law all Chinese businesses must keep (of course, they wouldn’t have any for their dodgy scam) Failing that, there’s the slighty risky business of getting a photograph of the business and then revealing I’m a journalist. Whatever, I needed back up, and thankfully there was a police post on the corner of the street.

The policeman I spoke to could understand a bit of English, but the moment I said ‘tea shop’ his eyes rolled and he asked how much. He told me to wait, and ten minutes later another policeman arrived in a police car. He told me to get in and I explained what happened. He said the problem was rife, and they are trying to get to grips with it, but very few people report it as they are too embarrassed.

We drove down the street and I recognised it straight away. The chubby manageress was in the window to see me get out of the police car with my new friend. Her face dropped, and she was already on her way through to the back by the time we reached the door.

“What do you want,” the tea lady who performed the show asked, with a sickening smile.

“Well, ive been reading all about your little tea parties on the internet, so I’d like my 600 yuan back please,” I replied with a stare.

She scuttled off, the copper looked at me and rolled his eyes, and then a familiar looking bill appeared with ‘600’ scribbled on the back. I was asked to sign it, and six red 100 Yuan notes were put back into my hand.

The copper said something in Chinese, which I think was along the lines of “I’m watching you,” to the manageress, and we both left. He generously gave me a lift to the Forbidden City, and on the way told me how the scam was damaging tourism but that there were so many people at it, they couldn’t keep up as names were being changed and different people and businesses were starting all the time. He told me it was mainly students trying to earn money. I wondered why nothing was being done to close down the businesses, but decided not to rock the boat.

Now my conscience was clear again – yes, I’d been scammed, but because I stood up for my rights, for fairness and for what I believe in, I’d been one of the lucky ones to get my money back. If I was at home, I would have quite happily done a story about it if it had happened to someone else, but in this case I had to fend for myself. It’s a despicable scam that preys on everything a good traveller tries to be – helpful and generous to the locals, open to new cultures and experiences, striking up conversations and relaying stories about life ‘back home’ if asked.

But that sets up the platform for the hustle – the pressure to match your new and equally fleeced ‘friends’ at payment, that you are being an ‘ignorant foreigner’ for not knowing local customs if you don’t, and that simply, you don’t know any different.

Unless, however, you’ve been lucky enough to read up on it before you go. I almost shied away from writing this and highlighting what I felt was a gullible, stupid mistake I’d made, but I only found out what to do thanks to countless accounts like this one written by others. I can only hope that by putting this online, it will raise more awareness and possibly help someone else avoid the trap. If you’ve already paid out after falling into it, and are reading this after searching for advice, go straight to the police – they were surprisingly helpful for me and are as fed up with the scam as visitors are.

That night, following examples from others who helped me with my decision, and under the cover of darkness, I got some photos of the shop in question. Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of the perpetrators like some have put online – after all, their ‘religion’ stopped me (this again, I’ve since found out, is a common lie)

And so, for anyone visiting Beijing (or Shanghai – its common there too) please, don’t visit this shop – even if the expert and totally believable con-artists doing their dirty work really do offer all the tea in China.

JHH Tea House, Nanchizi Street: Take a bow.

As a footnote to this, once you are aware of the scam, the full scale of the problem becomes clear. Walking through the crowds on the way back from taking these photos, I saw two separate groups of Westerners being led towards ‘Tea Street’ by some new Chinese friends and engaged in conversation. I was then approached no less than six times by different people – men and women – asking if I’m English and could they talk to me. One even brazenly asked if I’d like to go for some ‘authentic Chinese tea’ with her.

“You probably don’t have Yorkshire Gold,” was my reply. It gave me some amusement, left her puzzled and laid a ghost to rest.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

I can laugh about this now, but that’s because I’m one of the lucky ones who fought back and came out of it without any loss. The tea ceremony, as they are known, was actually very enjoyable…and in my case, free. But id recommend going to a legitimate place if you decide to try it. I look back on it as a little bump in this travelling journey – its scrapes like this that make the whole thing a life experience. It’ll go down as one of my traveller stories – but while the Chinese authorities are letting this practice go under the radar, many, many more innocent people will lose vast sums of money, and have holidays and trips of a lifetime ruined.

Hitting a Wall

I quite like being tall. It helps in the supermarket when the only pair of BOGOF biscuits are left on the top shelf. It’s useful at music festivals when you can look over people’s heads to see the band. It’s also quite good when you’re decorating walls and you don’t have to keep using and moving the ladders to paint up to the ceiling.

However, today was not a good day to be tall.

Not happy!

Our bus to the Great Wall of China picked us up at 6am. It was still dark, slightly chilly and far too early. None of us had slept very well as we knew we had to be up at the crack of dawn. We had chosen to go to Jinshanling, a part of the wall that had been recommended as it was only partly renovated so was in ruins in some parts, while it boasted amazing views of the mountains and fewer tourists than other spots. There’s the odd horror story of not being able to move for hawkers and tourists at the popular spot of Badaling, where it has all been repaired and made to look immaculate. To me, that’s not the proper wall, so we shelled out a bit more, around £30 in total, to go somewhere better.

The only problem was its around 170km north of Beijing and takes over three hours to get there, hence the early start. The bus, however, was made for Chinese people, who are, shall we say, quite a bit shorter than people from other parts of the world like Europe…and Grimsby. Therefore, buses in China can be made smaller, but still contain the same number of seats, as little people mean little legs – producing some of the most ridiculously packed in displays of awful leg room I have ever experienced.

So at 6am, facing the prospect of having my knees up to my chin for more than six hours, it was not a good start to the day. Combined with the fact the bus had seen better days and my chair fell off the base every time the driver stamped on the brake – which he did a lot – even the Mcdonalds breakfast provided by the tour driver failed to crack a smile.

Thankfully the bus wasn’t full, so we were able to at least twist ourselves into a slightly more comfortable position, even getting some sleep on the way.

The scenery on the way was great, and there were plenty of glimpses of the Great Wall as we drove through valleys and passed mountain after mountain, arriving at Jinshangling at 10.30am.

The map...and top of our guide

We were shown a map and told there would likely be a few farmers wives following us, trying to sell us souvenirs. It was pointed out that it was a long way to the far end of Jinshangling’s wall, but the better, fitter people might be able to make it. A five windowed tower was pointed out, but there was a warning that we had to be back for lunch at 1.30pm, and the bus left at 2pm.

Naturally, that was seen as a challenge by the blokes, and we set our sights on it.

By now Id started talking to a guy called Justin. He’d been sat in the seat in front of me on the bus, and I’d broken the ice by letting him know he could recline his chair if he wanted to. Justin is originally from the UK, but now lives in San Francisco and works as a computer chip designer in Silicon Valley. We agreed that we’d stick together and help with photos, and along with Santi and Galli, we set off to walk the wall.

French guys...and an army of farmers' wives

We hadn’t got far when we noticed our small group had more than tripled in size. Looking back was like something akin to the Pied Piper, with about 30 older women following us all. We just presumed they’d get fed up after a while and leave us all alone, but we were wrong.

Justin, Santi, Galli and I set an early pace, marching off up the steps to the wall at a decent pace. Then two French guys took over and stole our thunder, but they were welcome to it, there was no way we could keep up the speed! The old dears following, however, could more than keep up.

'I can see the pub from here'

We soon reached the wall, and after a climb up some final steps, soon had a great view of its twists and turns across mountain tops as far as the eye can see. Its only when you get on top of the wall that the full scale of it hits you. To think that it crosses such an enormous distance, and was built so many years ago, is incredible.

The Great Wall

After a few photos, we noticed others had started moving on, and so the wall walk began. We had been warned that this section of the wall was more of a ‘hike’ and only recommended for people who could manage. It started out as a breeze, with nicely paved, and obviously restored, walkways through watch towers and around lookouts.

Gali and Santi on the wall

The weather was perfect for it, with the sun in a great position and distant mountains shrouded in a slight mist. It was the picture postcard image of the wall that I’d seen countless times on travel programmes or in magazines, but nothing prepares for being there in person.

Nothing prepares for the incessant chase by the farmers wives either!

We walked for around half a mile on the restored wall before we started hitting the crumbling ruins, but still they were very passable. Most of our group were still keeping up, and we’d take it in turns to have a quick joke and a smile as we continuously overtook each other, took photos, got overtaken again and so on. There was a really good spirit among everyone.

Part of our group goes ahead

By now, Justin and I had realised there were two women following us, and showed no sign of giving up. We quietly joked between us – not that they would understand – that we had a couple of chaperones desperate for our money. Me being, well, a bit tight, was having none of it. If I wanted a piece of tat or a book about the Great Wall, I’d go to the souvenir shop at the end. Determined to shake them off, we agreed to step up the pace, and were now almost at a slow run.

And still, they kept up.

Steep!

The wall had, by now, hit some incredibly steep bits. After climbing to one watch tower, the wall snakes down into another valley and up an even steeper climb to the next watch tower. At one point, up to the Flower Tower – so called as it had doors and windows made with flower-engraved marble – there was a rise of around 100 particularly steep steps up an almost vertical hillside.

Help!

Our older ‘chaperone’ somehow shot off up them like a rat up a drainpipe, but not wanting to be outdone, I shot up them even faster, overtaking her halfway up and then struggling all the way to the top without stopping, and somehow without passing out.

Suddenly, the warning you had to be fit started to hit home. Our smiling chaperone decided to give me a round of applause and offered the words ‘do you want a book’. I decided against pushing her off the wall.

By now, Gali and Santi had decided to stop. Gali has a dodgy knee, caused by bad shoes apparently, which has messed up his tendons. It’s why they both have rather snazzy wheely suitcases instead of the usual backpacks, as weight on Gali’s back causes more problems. Justin and I said goodbye at one of the towers, and set our sights on the five-windowed tower about a mile away.

Not a bad view to leave Santi and Gali with!

For a moment, our group splitting in two confused the two women, but they quickly decided to give chase. Justin and I walked even faster, but nomatter what we tried or how fast we went to lose them, they would not slow down. While we were gradually losing layers, gasping for air, having breathers and stopping for water, they were breezing it like an evening stroll along Cleethorpes prom.

On the wall

“Be cawfool,” they would say as we crawled our way up and down some of the worst parts of the wall, at some points on our hands and knees among the rocks and boulders which have come loose. By now, time was starting to get on, and we set ourselves a cut-off point of midday, at which point we would turn back.

One of the watchtowers

At 11.30am, we still had a fair way to go, but we could see the tower we were aiming for. It was a good challenge, and it was fun to keep stopping for photos as every twist and turn in the wall revealed more stunning shots.

We made the five-windowed tower with 10 minutes to spare. It meant a well deserved rest and a Snickers.

A break at the top

The two French guys who overtook us at the start were also there – apparently they had walked another kilometre ahead and were already on the way back. They said the view was stunning from the next tower. I told them I was happy with the view from where I was – I couldn’t go any further!

Justin and I at the top of the wall

Justin and I chatted about what our reasons were for travelling at the top. We both sat on the edge of the wall with a fantastic view of it disappearing into the distance. He told me he’d quit his job as he wasn’t getting on with his boss, and so had a few weeks to travel. I told him about Mongolia and the rail journey and he admitted he was tempted to go stay in a yurt!

It was one of those chats that you have and then suddenly pinch yourself. Looking out, it dawned on you that you were sat on top of one of the wonders of the world. It may not, contrary to popular belief, be visible from space, but how on earth this incredible structure was built is baffling. It sits right on the mountain tops, and if it seems hard enough to walk and climb along it, quite how they managed to cart millions of tonnes of rock to the tops of these mountains to build the thing is beyond me.

Quite how the two old dears had managed to stick with us all the way was also beyond me, as they both stood grinning from a doorway.

Our older chaser racing ahead

“We’ll have to give them something at the end. They’ve earned it,” Justin said.

I had to agree. In the pursuit of the tourist Yuan, they were definitely committed. And I was starting to warm to them too, particularly the older one. She had a big toothy grin, and she held onto me as I tried to take a particularly arty shot by hanging over the edge of the wall (It wouldn’t have surprised me if she’s have held on had I fallen either!)

Wildlife on the Wall

Just after midday, we took in our final views from the top of the wall and started the hike back. The two women told us there was a short cut, that seemed to go along an eroded cliff edge.

We decided to stick to the wall ruins, as precarious as they were in places, but sure enough, we soon saw their smiling faces way below us as we slipped and stumbled our way down some loose and slippery steps.

“Be cawfool.”

A wave from our old dear

We were back to the wall entrance well within the time limit – after all, we didn’t want to be some of ‘those’ people that hold the group up! But before we went for lunch, the final sales pitch came from the older woman, brandishing a book full of details about the wall and I have to admit, some particularly good photography.

“Onwee 120 yuan. I’m poor, no food, fwom Mongowia,” she said.

Yes, that is my follower below!

Justin and I had already agreed on the walk back we’d give them something – we’d deliberately waited until the end incase one or both of us slipped and broke a leg, so at least there’d be someone around to help! And we both agreed, although we didn’t ask them to follow us, nor sell us a book, that they had worked bloody hard for the equivalent of £12.

Except I only had 100 Yuan left in my wallet.

Justin bought his without bartering, but I thought I’d try my luck by offering the crisp 100 note.

“No, 120,” she said, flashing me another toothy smile.

The only other notes in my wallet were three US Dollar bills and a 500 Icelandic Krona note, somehow still languishing in there from my work trip the month before. Its a similar size and colour to a Chinese 100 yuan note, but quite simply, useless in the depths of China. My new friend, however, was intrigued. Unsurprisingly, it was the first time she’d seen Icelandic money.

My final offer turned out to be 100 Yuan, three dollars, a pound coin and 500 Icelandic Krona. I managed to avoid offering some scruffy receipts or the shirt off my back. Justin had only known me a few hours, but I could tell he was rolling his eyes!

“Ok, ok,” she said, mercifully.

Aww!

By now we were all laughing together and we all had some photographs. She had quite a sore lip, so Justin gave her a tube of Blistex cream. She didn’t know how to get it out of the tube, so we helped her squeeze it onto her finger. Then I noticed that inside the book, there was a certificate, so I asked her to sign it for me. She laughed, and wrote her name – Leovantin

We walked back towards the café together, and Leovantin was clearly joking with her friend and looking at the Icelandic note. I was busy working out I had paid far more than the asking price of 120 Yuan – not that she would believe me!

Chuffed - and with a lip of Blistex!

Lunch was cold rice and noodles that I couldn’t really stomach, and so we headed to the bus.

Leovantin was waiting for the next group of tourists to arrive. That afternoon she would do the gruelling hike all over again.