This was now our third day in Beijing and we hadn't really seen anything worthwhile, due mainly to the police depressing our mood and our own lack of willpower when it came to resisting the temptation of alcohol. But today was going to be different. Today we were going to see possibly the greatest sight any sightseer could hope to see. Today we were going to see a monument which had stood the test of thousands of years of time and was visible from space. Today we were going to "TGI Fridays". Of course I'm joking. Today was the day we were going to visit the Great Wall of China.
Anticipating a full days worth of being goggled-eyed, camera clicking, total tourists, we had set the alarm for 5o'clock in the morning. It had seemed a great idea at the time but when my eyelids peeled back as the alarm clock dragged me from the world of slumber, I wasn't too convinced we'd done the right thing. Half sleep-walking I staggered around the room grabbing essentials for our trip, sporadically bumping into Lisa who was in a similar zombie-like state. Our linguistic skills had receded to stone age grunts and groans as we attempted to haul ourselves into the waking world.
A shower had cured me yesterday and even though I didn't fancy a cold shower, I guessed it would cure me again today. In I went, shrieked as the cold water assaulted my defenceless skin and, having stepped out into the relative warmth of the bathroom, I resembled a poor copy of an extremely tired person.
My linguistic skills improved to the point of being able to form words, though the constant yawning turned them into an indecipherable mess of sounds.
"AWW YAWWW GAWWWWNG FAWWWW AWWW SHAWWWWWW?" I asked Lisa never once closing my mouth during and between words.
"YAAHHHH EHHHN AHHH MENNNNAWWT" she replied in a similar way. What is strange about this was that we both understood every word the other person had said. "Are you going for a shower?" I had asked. "Yes, in a minute." Lisa had replied.
After ten minutes we were ready to go. Our starting point would be Qianmen once more since there was a bus station nearby and the guide book informed us we could get a tour from there. Big mistake!
It wasn't that we couldn't get a tour. It was that we could have picked any one of a hundred tours, all run by people trying to extract as much cash as they could from unfortunate foreigners.
We left the hotel at 6.15 and once more, it looked like 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in the busiest city in the world. There were hundreds, no, thousands of people going to work. We caught the subway to Qianmen and it was like being on the London Underground at the height of rush hour. I stood on the train with my arms crushed against me, firmly gripping my wallet to ensure that no pickpockets helped themselves to its contents. When the train reached Qianmen I had to fight my way out, raising my arms carefully so that I didn't inadvertently smash a fellow passenger in the face and do my little bit to further sour relations between China and the West.
Getting off the subway train had been difficult enough but leaving the station was a major struggle. We were carried along; my feet barely touched the ground as a huge wave of people marched relentlessly up the stairs. If I had forgotten something or needed to go back down to the subway it would have been impossible. And to make matters worse, waiting for us at the zenith of the steps were hundreds of touts.
As I waited for Lisa to be carried up from the subway station by the tsunami of commuters, I was subjected to a barrage of questions; did I want to buy a map, did I want to join a tour; did I want to buy some food; did I want to buy some water; did I want a tour guide; did I want to take a tricycle to Tiananmen Square; did I want to buy a useless guide book. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!! Lisa arrived and I grabbed her hand and dragged her away from the frenzied tout activity. And it was 6.30 in the morning! I was too tired for this and began to snap as the inexorable crowd of peddlers swarmed around us.
Nearby was a sort of bus station (well not really a bus station, more like a few bus stops). Yesterday we had spotted a few signs advertising bus trips to the Great Wall so this seemed like a logical place to begin our journey. However, there was only one bus, albeit a huge air-conditioned bus, making the trip to the Great Wall and it was already looking full. We were approached by a woman standing next to the coach door who gave us a leaflet with the itinerary and the price. Included in the tour was a detour to see the Ming Tombs. The guide book didn't paint a very good picture of the Ming Tombs at all and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to sacrifice time at the Great Wall to be disappointed. The woman shepherded us onto the bus regardless.
My initial impression that the bus was full was incorrect. The bus was totally full; all of the seats either side of the aisle were occupied by Chinese and Western tourists alike. Little stools were being handed to people boarding the bus in order to fill up the space occupied by the aisle. We were not prepared to spend hours on a bus like this sitting on a wooden stool and being taken to a place we weren't really interested in. So we got off the bus. All of a sudden, three people appeared in front of us almost ordering us to get back onto the bus. Their English was not very good at all but from the little they knew they succeeded in getting their message across; we had to get back onto the bus. Walking away and waving our hands in a dismissive gesture proved to be a totally futile gesture. We were pursued relentlessly away from the bus stations by two very desperate and increasingly frustrated women, trying to persuade us to get back on the bus. Fury at the pressure being applied to us began to boil up inside me and I started snapping at them.
We walked past another woman who seemed to be exceedingly interested in what was going on. She caught up with us and, in almost perfect English asked if there was a problem. She claimed to be a teacher and said that she would help us to communicate our request. Request? Couldn't she see that we were being hounded?
"We don't want to go on their tour," I said, seething inside, "and they won't leave us alone. Could you please tell them that we are going to catch the train to the Great Wall instead of catching their bus?"
After a brief conversation with the two women, the teacher turned to us and said "They say that there is no train to the Great Wall. You have to join their tour to see it."
Lies, lies and more lies. I was totally pissed off with the extent to which touts would go to relieve us of our cash. "There's no train, your hotel is being demolished, this is the only way you can get to the Great Wall." I'd heard it all and was not going to believe another word.
"There is a train," I hissed. "We have a guide book which tells us exactly how to get it."
"There is a municipal bus as well, over there," said the teacher pointing back in the direction we had come from. "You could catch that if she's telling the truth."
That last statement alarmed Lisa. She thought the teacher was in fact a tout trying to secure a chunk of our cash on another highly expensive, comfortable and dubious bus trip. But she didn't strike me as being anything but a kind passer-by trying to help us. She had the look of an educated person and a kind face and, although she had suggested that we catch another bus, she didn't seem to have an interest in getting her hands on our cash.
Lisa grabbed me by my arm and pulled shouting, "Let's just get out of here."
We walked away with the teacher and the two women following us. The two women were shouting at the teacher, imploring her to persuade us to go back. We reached the subway station and began to fight our way down through the commuters. The teacher stood at the top of the stairs, still talking to the two women, who finally gave up.
"I don't think that teacher was part of their fiendish plot to get us on that bus, you know." I said to Lisa as we waited for the train.
"Yes she was," she snapped. "It was bloody obvious." She then proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms why this was the case.
Captain Paranoia had obviously got to Lisa and she was not happy. The teacher came down the stairs to catch a train on the opposite platform. I disagreed with Lisa about the teacher's intentions and the fact that she was here on the subway station waiting to catch a train out of Qianmen confirmed my conclusion. I felt like going over to thank her for helping us get our message across, but I didn't want to antagonise Lisa by doing so. Instead I just smiled at her, a gesture I hoped would get my message across.
The guide book told us that we could catch a train from Beijing station to the Great Wall at Baedicheng, the most popular place to visit the wall, getting off at a station called Qinglongqiao. What the guide book didn't tell us was that Beijing Railway station was the most disorganised railway station in China. I thought that the two stations we had struggled with in Guangzhou were bad enough but this station redefined the word "chaotic". To make matters much worse, the station was being modified. This meant that there was scaffolding everywhere, the normal entrances and exits were blocked off with temporary access to the station via a mazy series of temporary wooden corridors. And, of course, it was in the middle of rush hour.
There were so many people around that I couldn't see the ticket offices. We were approached by taxi drivers and touts, trikemen and tramps, and my patience snapped once more. I started yelling at anyone who asked me if I wanted to catch a taxi, wanted to buy a ticket to one of Beijing's sites or if I wanted a hotel. Ten minutes of barging our way through crowds proved to be fruitful. We found a series of ticket offices and somehow, using a subtle combination of feigned naivety and thoughtless aggression managed to find ourselves at the head of a queue, having pushed in apologising profusely for being unaware of the etiquette for purchasing train tickets. The next train was at 8.32 so we had a while to wait. The tickets had cost us 7 yuan each one way.
We hadn’t had any breakfast and Lisa spotted a place where we could grab a bite to eat. It was a dirty café with battered Formica tables and stools. There were plenty of tables free but each one was full of the remains of half-eaten meals. The floor was totally covered in rice. We found the cleanest dirty table and sat down waiting for the waitress who was overworked and desperately trying to clear up the mess left over from commuters. Eventually she came over and the expression on her face when she saw us said it all. "Just what I need to complete my morning. Two bloody foreigners."
I pointed to a pile of coke cans and held up two fingers. We opted not to try the food. The taste of congee in Guangzhou still haunted my taste buds. We had an hour and a half to wait in this hellish place. After twenty minutes, I received a call of nature and not the kind of call I wanted whilst waiting to catch a train near a station full of semi-demolished hole in the floor toilets.
"Drink up," I said, "We're going back to the hotel."
"We don't have time," said Lisa.
"We'll make time," I said swigging my drink.
I figured that we could get back to the hotel, I could answer the call and then get back to the station in time for the train. We went for it but only because I had to keep my record intact. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as we fought our way through crowds of workers, taxi drivers and touts to reach the subway.
Thankfully, the subway trains are regular enough in Beijing during the rush hour to ensure that the maximum wait will only be around five minutes. We made good time to the hotel and we were able to complete my business and return to Beijing station in plenty of time to catch the train to Qinglongqiao. And what a good thing that was.
Because of the building and renovation work, chaos reigned supreme. It would have been difficult enough in England to find the correct train, but here it was impossible. Instead of the standard LED signs we had seen elsewhere, we were presented with hand-written paper signs hastily posted on the wooden partitions. Even the locals were confused. I saw one person scratch his head and point to the sign with a look of total exasperation. What chance did we stand?
To make matters much worse, not a single official person was in sight. We would have to follow the confused crowds and hope for the best. The throngs of bewildered commuters swept us along into the station building itself. Inside, we found a temporary stall selling drinks and crisps, giving us a chance to stock up for the journey ahead. I looked at my watch and noticed that the time was 8:25; we only had seven minutes to find our train. Lisa spotted a guard directing people towards one of the platforms. We ran to him and showed him our tickets. He pointed in the general direction of three platforms. A train waited patiently on each of the platforms but there were no people checking tickets at the entrances. We opted for the first platform and found an empty train showing no signs of leaving. On leaving the platform, the guard who had directed us in the first place came charging towards us. He gestured in completely the opposite direction, towards another platform. How had we managed to go in completely the wrong direction? When I thought about it, the guard had pointed in several directions; either he had been directing people behind us or we had totally misunderstood him. Still, at least we managed to catch the train.
There are four ways to travel on a train in China. We had already tried a soft sleeper and a hard sleeper. The other two options were soft seat and hard seat. We were travelling to Qinglongqiao in the lowest class: hard seat. I wasn't bothered about this because the journey wasn't supposed to be a long one. Let me correct that. I wasn't bothered about it until I found our seats. The carriage was splitting at the seams, it was so full people. We managed by sheer chance to find two seats together.
The carriage had an aisle running through it with banks of four seats facing each other on both sides. The seats within a bank of seats were separated by a small table. I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the 1930's. The carriage itself was filthy and looked as if it had never ever been cleaned. The floor was covered in litter, cigarette ends, half-eaten food and huge gobs of saliva. One bloke with very few teeth and covered in filth, gobbed just in front of us as if he were welcoming us to the train. The man opposite stared at us as soon as we sat down and continued to do so when the journey began. We were used to it by now but I still found it uncomfortable being scrutinised so much. Everyone who came past us joined in, openly talking about us and pointing. One man pointed at me and rubbed his chin causing another man to laugh out loud. He, too rubbed his chin, then his hair and pointed to me once more. My beard and hair colour were obviously causing much amusement amongst the locals. I would have made a great stand-up comedian in China, despite my lack of linguistic skills. All I would have had to do was stand there like a lemon and allow them to take the piss out of me in their own way.
A group of people across the aisle bought a huge bag of what looked like bird seed and crunched and nibbled at it throughout the journey, gobbing the shells on the floor and the tables with no concern about keeping Chinese trains free of litter. At one point, another train rocketed past and, because all of the windows were open, the seed shells flew up into the air and landed just about everywhere, including my hair, down my T-shirt, in our shoes etc. I was tempted to move seats but chose to stay and suffer.
I caught site of the man behind reading my guide book over my shoulder. I turned to him and he asked, in very broken English, where I was from.
"Manchester," I replied.
No reaction. He just turned round and read his own newspaper. Perhaps he was a Manchester City fan.
We passed the time, playing cards and reading the guide book. There were times when I wondered whether we had caught the right train or not because we had no idea which stations the train passed through on its way to our destination. Then we passed by a section of the Great Wall. One minute there was boring countryside, the next a huge segment of brick running alongside the train track and snaking off into the distance.
"Bloody hell," I shouted. "Did you see that?"
The other passengers seemed oblivious to the sight. I daresay that they caught this train on a regular basis and were used to seeing part of one of the wonders of the world by now. I couldn't wait for the train to stop.
I had assumed that Qinglongqiao station would be very close to the Baedicheng Great Wall, the most commercial and tourist-oriented section but the train just didn't stop. It trundled on for a further ten or fifteen minutes before finally pulling up at the station. The train stopped and we disembarked along with hundreds of other passengers whom we assumed were all visiting the Great Wall. I was hoping that we would simply have to follow them on their way. Instead the platform was full of trolleys each overflowing with steaming hot food. Everyone who had left the train had done so to stock up on supplies - that is except us. Everyone who had left the train, got back on with mountains of food in their arms. Nobody left the station. Furthermore, we couldn't work out how to leave the station. Qinglongqiao was a small station with just one platform and no apparent exit point. The trolleys and their owners disappeared and we were left standing there wondering where to go. Lisa also needed to go to the toilet.
We found a building, which was locked, and a smaller building adjacent to it. Lisa wandered inside and came out a few minutes later stating that, without a shadow of a doubt, she had just been in the worst toilet in China. We ambled back onto the platform and, after a few minutes walking the length of it, found an exit sign pointing to a series of dilapidated steps. The steps descended to a path under the rail track. On the other side we found a sign in English saying "Baedicheng Great Wall" and an arrow pointing towards another path leading through a very dark wood, which was the home to every type of insect life in China.
I hate spiders. I hate flies. I hate wasps. I hate gnats. I hate any insect fond of puncturing human skin, both those which do it for fun, like wasps, and those which actually feed off our blood. I could barely see where the path led, so multitudinous was the insect life. And because the heat was pretty intense, I naturally feared that there would be snakes waiting to make a meal of our leg muscles as we walked past.
"We'll have to run," I said. "Cover your mouth and nose."
"Run?" said Lisa incredulously. "In this heat?"
"Suit yourself," I said and set off into the wall of insects.
To be honest, it wasn't as bad as I had thought. I've walked along country lanes in England where the swarms of insects have been much bigger. However, in China, the one fact which kept me on my toes was the knowledge that insects are bigger and more dangerous than their European counterparts and, as I ran, I could feel their horrid bodies colliding with my own. The good news was that I didn't feel any sharp pains which meant that I hadn't been stung or bitten. When I reached the other end of the wood, I jumped up and down like a demented jack-in-a-box to dislodge any creatures that had decided to come along for the ride. Lisa caught me up, shaking her head and tutting.
The path wound through a couple of buildings I assumed to be houses, mainly because there were a couple of children playing beside one of them. Eventually we reached a road. There were no signs pointing to the Great Wall and no cars. We had no idea which way to go and the only people we could have asked were the couple of five year old kids we had just passed, who would no doubt have been ecstatic about seeing two foreign devils being eaten alive by the wildlife.
I knew that Tonto would be with us, praying that we went in totally the wrong direction. I asked Lisa to choose the direction. She pointed to the right saying "That's where the train came from."
"OK," I said with a smile. "We'll go left then."
I received my umpteenth thump of the holiday. Just then, a minivan pulled up. The driver wound down his window and in a distinctly Chinglish accent said "Great Wall?"
We nodded and he opened the door for us. How friendly was that? A stranger who happened to drive past two lost foreigners and was benevolent enough to offer us a lift. If only the touts could see this. Not everyone was after our cash. We climbed in and he turned to us with a smile. "20 yuan". I knew it was too good to be true. I was about to rant when I spotted an official sign on his dashboard with the word "taxi" emblazoned upon it. Resigned to having to fork out more cash, albeit only a small amount, we nodded and he took us to Baedicheng, the Great Wall tourist hot spot. And that's exactly what it was. The temperature was high, there were millions of people around, most of whom were tourists.
Our first priority was food. We bought dumplings and beer at a small café and relaxed for a short while before joining the melee for tickets. Sitting in the shade sipping beer, we could avoid touts who didn't seem to be allowed near us, enabling us to plan a course of action to get tickets with the minimum of fuss and annoyance. After ten minutes, the crowds died down a bit giving us clear run to the ticket office. We took our chance and hurried to the kiosks.
We need not have worried too much about touts because tourists outnumbered them. After we bought tickets, we wandered around the area outside the entrance, which was full of stalls selling all manner of tacky souvenirs. I could have bought; a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "I climbed the Great Wall"; Great Wall baseball caps; Great Wall models; Great Wall books; Great Wall ornaments; cuddly toys.
Lisa and I must have appeared on numerous videos and photographs as crazed tourists filmed and photographed anything which moved. Touts were deliriously happy because tourists, not us I hasten to add, were actually flocking to them for souvenirs and guidance "from an authentic Chinaman" (as I heard one American say).
At one point the crowd parted for a stretch limousine. A very important foreigner obviously had the Great Wall on his itinerary. The crowd closed up around it again as the person inside was escorted to an unseen entrance for diplomats and superstars. That was my assumption anyway. I wondered who it had been, though I heard another American say that he had seen an Italian flag on the front of the car.
It was time to see the wall itself. We showed our tickets and began our quest. The wall stretched upwards and onwards in both directions, winding out of sight into the distance, making it difficult for us to decide which way to go. In the end, we turned right and began our steady climb up the wall. I was very surprised by the steepness of the climb. The higher we got, the better the view became. The Great Wall coiled around the surrounding hillside, undulating and curling in harmony with the slopes. It was a magnificent sight. The wall in this particular location had been renovated and rebuilt in 1957 on the original parts of the wall to show how it must have appeared in centuries gone by. Every so often, fort like structures interrupted the flow of the wall, each tower being 5 metres wide and 7 metres high. Steps inside took us to the top of the towers giving us a much better view of the surrounding countryside and the Great Wall as it disappeared into the distance. From these vantage points the view was spectacular, if not a little vertiginous, and we could even make out the city of Beijing in the distance, some 70km away. Legend has it that the Great Wall is the only man-made object which can be seen from outer space and, judging from the sheer size and scope of it, I can't say that I am surprised.
We shook off our "brave traveller" image and joined the ranks of Americans and other westerners as stereotypical tourists. We took hundreds of photographs, posing on the walls, the towers and the steps, although we didn't go as far as buying tacky souvenirs nor succumbing to the charms of the touts who were teemed around us like flies around shit. We were pestered continually by touts who even swarmed around local Chinese tourists. I was amused to see an old Chinese couple tell a tout in no uncertain terms that his presence was not welcome; even though I couldn't tell what he had said, the sheer venom accompanying his words reminded me of the feelings I had when telling a tout to fuck off. The touts didn't get to me as much here, simply because the other tourists by and large kept them busy enough to ignore us most of the time. We had our moments though. A tout approached us and tried to sell us something. Lisa immediately replied in French to see if our plan would work. Sadly, in this case, the tout produced a French phrase book. I burst out laughing and, still trying to keep up the pretence of being French, waved my hand and said, "Non, non, non". I was surprised at the lengths they would go to relieve us of our cash. I just hoped our plan might work in the future.
The wall was very steep in places. The constant climbing began to take its toll on my legs and we had to rest every so often. Each time I sat down, I imagined how the wall would have appeared centuries ago. I pictured soldiers on the wall defending their country against armies of invaders. As my mind's eye watched magnificent battles between ancient Chinese and marauding aggressors my thoughts drifted to the design of the wall. Well not, specifically the design, more the shape and how it fitted in with the countryside. I am not a war strategist and I have never performed very well during war gaming (each time my armies have been wiped out due to major incompetence on the part of their leader), but something struck me as odd.
The wall curves around with the hills, so much so in places, that it doubles back upon itself, rather like an elongated 's' shape. I ask myself why the people who designed the wall, didn't just cut across the curves of the 's', like the line across the 's' in a dollar sign ('$'). Whether or not my practical design would have worked, I don't know. Perhaps China would have been invaded. In fact that is the more likely scenario. If I had had anything to do with the construction of the Great Wall of China, China would not be the same as it is today; the country would have been invaded; the Great Wall would have been destroyed because of its ineffectuality; I would have gone down in history as the stupidest and most incompetent person who ever existed. I can just imagine reading a history book about it: "General David Banks was responsible for the largest and most expensive design failure in history. The purpose of the so-called "Great Wall" of China was, in his incompetent mind, to protect the Chinese nation from the scourge of their enemies. In reality, it brought about the most rapid invasion of a country since records began." I think I'll stick to computing and amateur writing! One thing's for sure though. If my design had been used, the Great Wall would be far less impressive than it is. The elongated curves flowing along the hills enhance the beauty of the Great Wall. It truly is a wonder of the world.
The Chinese have certainly cashed in on the popularity of the Great Wall. Not only are there hundreds of touts, more legitimate distractions can be found. For example, you can have your picture taken riding a camel; you can dress up in traditional Chinese costumes; you can try your luck at archery. Tempting as it was to dress up as a Chinese soldier, grab a bow and handful of arrows and ride along the wall on a camel, shooting touts in the name of tourists everywhere, my willpower got the better of me and I decided not to bother. Besides, I would almost certainly have fallen off the wall with hundreds of people laughing as I fell to my death.
Eventually, we reached another major part of the wall where we could descend in a cable car to the main entrance. We couldn't resist it. For a cost of 40 yuan, we were taken down the hills adjacent to the wall and enjoyed a spectacular view. The cable car was extremely high and, at times, vertigo threatened to get the better of me, but I wouldn't have ended my visit any other way. I have seen many things in my lifetime but the Great Wall of China has to rank in the top five. I would never forget this.
All good things come to an end and our trip was no exception. Now we had the problem of how to get back to Beijing. The cable car deposited us at a different area and we had no idea how we were going to get back. Thankfully, it was a tourist hot spot and we found a public bus to take us back to the city.
The journey to Beijing was uneventful. We were dumped somewhere in the north of the city, miles away from our hotel. We were about to get a taxi when Lisa spotted an underground station. After our tiring day, we both agreed to go back to the hotel to relax before searching for food.
The combination of getting up early, hassle with tour operators, uncomfortable train journeys, being stuck in the middle of nowhere, having to use Satan's toilet again (Lisa only) and climbing the Great Wall meant that relaxation quickly changed to sleep. Basically we both completely crashed out as soon as our heads touched pillows. I don't know how long we were unconscious but when I awoke, day had turned to night. Initially I panicked thinking it must have been about three o'clock in the morning but a quick look at my watch told me it was only 9 o'clock. I woke Lisa up so that we could get something to eat.
Once again I succumbed to the desire for Western food. Not McDonalds, but something more substantial. We had been to the Hard Rock Café so that was out - but there was a TGI Friday, on the other side of the city. Lisa agreed and we began our hunt for a taxi.
The woman who picked us up didn't seem to know where we wanted to go (at least that's what I thought) and turned off in the opposite direction to where I understood our destination to be. Lisa pointed to the guide book and she waved a hand dismissively as if to say "Look, who's driving me or you? I KNOW where you want to go!". Once again, Captain Paranoia surfaced and I began to fret. This was not the right direction, I was sure. Then she pulled into a petrol station and filled up. Of course, I knew that taxis ran on fuel which ran out from time to time but I was more used to drivers waiting until they were fareless before feeding their cabs. Not this woman. It took her about ten minutes to fill up and pay for the petrol. I was debating whether or not to leave the cab and hail another one, when she came back. She set off back in the direction we had come from. So not only had she stopped for petrol, she had gone around a mile and a half in the wrong direction to do it. We were a bit annoyed about this. Furthermore, I was convinced from that point onwards that she was taking the scenic and wildly circuitous route to TGI Friday. In retrospect, I wouldn't have known any different but she had awoken Captain Paranoia and I hated her for it. We were dropped off at TGI Friday, eventually, and I paid her the exact amount on the meter. No tips for this driver. She didn't seem to care and just drove off without a wave, a smile or a xiexie. She was yet another great ambassador for taxi drivers world-wide.
TGI Friday was full of tourists and local Chinese people alike. The menu was typically expensive, being a Western chain, and the portions were huge, obscenely huge in fact. China is a country full of poor people yet here I was, sitting in this restaurant scoffing an enormous steak which would have provided a meal for a couple of people at least. Part of me felt ashamed at such self-indulgence but being the hypocrite I am, I ate it anyway.
We paid the bill in cash as usual but this time there was a problem. The cashier handed us one of our 50 yuan notes back and asked for another one. Puzzled by this behaviour, I asked why. Her English wasn't quite good enough to explain to us what the problem was. She beckoned me to follow her (enter Captain Paranoia: "You're going to be arrested."). She took me into a little room and shone an ultraviolet light on my note. I immediately knew what the problem was. To confirm my suspicions, she applied the ultraviolet light to another note. The difference was clear. We had been duped by an unspeakably immoral person and innocently accepted a forged 50 yuan note. We would have to seek revenge.
I handed a genuine note over to the woman, apologising profusely and pleading totally genuine ignorance. There were no smiles or gestures which said "I understand. It's not easy to tell the difference between these fake notes and the real ones." I felt a bit like a criminal and this was wholly unfair.
We left with a forced smile and looked for a taxi to take us back to the hotel. I pocketed the note and selected my victim for revenge; the taxi driver who picked us up. I was still inwardly cursing the female cab driver who had brought us to the restaurant. Not that I bear grudges - I just hate being ripped off. It was time to rip off a taxi driver and exact some form of vengeance.
We only had to wait two minutes for a suitable victim. Off he went, his fate unknown to him, with a friendly smile. I didn't mention the illegal note I was carrying in case the driver had a vague understanding of English. In due course he dropped us outside our hotel and I handed over the 50 yuan note. He nodded and gave us change. I said "xiexie" and walked into the hotel with a smug grin on my face. We walked past reception, waving to the women holding fort and called the lift. Then all hell broke loose.
The doorman was arguing with somebody we couldn't see, but I soon found out who it was. Before the lift arrived, the doorman, who spoke a very tiny amount of English, came running in and said "Wait - taxi man - problem". Bollocks! The taxi driver had sussed me out. He came marching up to me with a look of pure contempt, threw the 50 yuan note at me and began screaming at me in Chinese. All I could do was shrug my shoulders. He was already angry but my gesture infuriated him. I honestly thought for a second that he was going to smack me on the nose. Somehow he managed to regain his self-control and stormed over to the woman on reception yelling at her instead. I picked up the note and strolled over to the reception desk and asked as calmly as I could "What's the problem?". She struggled to translate his ranting but managed to say "The money is erm erm erm wrong". Of course, to consolidate my image of being an innocent and ignorant tourist, I replied "But he told me the fare was 10 yuan. Has he given me the wrong change?" Oscar material!
The receptionist struggled to find the words she needed. "The money is erm …" then she searched for a dictionary. The taxi driver was standing right next to me giving me the blackest stare I had seen in China. He was clearly distressed by my dishonesty. After a few minutes, the receptionist, dictionary in hand, said "The money is fek".
"Fek?" I said incredulously. She handed over the dictionary and pointed to the word she had tried so hard to pronounce. Fake. Understanding dawned on my face as I acted my way out of this situation. "Oh no," I said. "What?" asked Lisa earning herself an Oscar for best actress in a supporting role. "The note is a fake," I said. "Noooo" she said, exaggerating the disbelief. I could see us now marching up to pick up our trophies from Michelle Pfeiffer and Tom Cruise. "How do you know?" I asked the taxi driver innocently. The receptionist translated my question. The taxi driver, slightly less belligerent, grabbed the offending currency and beckoned me to his cab.
I struggled to keep up with him. He jumped into the cab and opened the passenger door. On the dashboard, he had an ultraviolet forged banknote detector complete with alarm. The 50 yuan note made it scream like a baby. Now, of course, I had to feign remorse. I apologised profusely all the way back to the hotel reception and, incredibly, the taxi driver clapped his hand on my back in a gesture which told me that he understood (that I was a stupid foreigner, I guess).
Reluctantly, Lisa handed over a genuine 50 yuan note, but the driver wasted no time checking it at a similar forgery detecting device behind the hotel reception desk. The second banknote passed with flying colours. I pocketed the fake and we left for our room with a painted look of pure shame on our faces. BUGGER! But I vowed in the lift that I would rid myself of this banknote. I know it was only worth a fiver but there was a principle at stake here. I would just have to bide my time.