Beware: The Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam

February 10, 2009

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The fireworks are blasting outside my window as I write. I happened to have arrived in Beijing on the night of the Festival of the Lanterns, which involves hours upon hours of continuous fireworks all over the city. Today is the 15th day after the Chinese New Year on January 26, and thus the fireworks. Here’s a photo from my hotel window about 20 minutes ago.

On the way from Chicago this afternoon, instead of flying West like I expected we would, our plane flew North to the North Pole, and then South down to China. Here’s a photo of what the map looked like from the video monitor on the plane seat. What an interesting way to view the Northern Hemisphere.

So after flying over Canada, the North Pole, Siberia, Russia, and Mongolia I landed in Beijing at 4:30pm this afternoon. I got into my hotel around 5:30pm and although tired decided I’d go out. I decided to go see Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City and walk around a bit.

Here’s where the scam begins.

Walking right in front of the Forbidden City, two English speaking Chinese students came up to me and asked if they could practice their English with me. Having seen plenty of pickpocketing during planned distractions throughout travels in Europe (especially in front of the Coliseum in Rome), I was very aware and was skeptical of what these two young girls were after. They were dressed conservatively, so it didn’t seem like they were trying to sell themselves.

I said sure to them practicing their English. They explained they were in Beijing for two weeks studying English and had decided to come out to see Tiananmen. They asked lots of questions and gave lots of compliments. After about fifteen minutes of talking and them explaining the Festival of the Lanterns and their backgrounds they frankly had gained my trust. Seemed like they were actually two 22 year old college students named Jing Li and Ling studying English. Since I didn’t have anything to do until the morning I said yes when they asked me to get tea with them.

We walked for about ten minutes and ended up at the Si Zhu Xiang Tea House at 15 Nan He Yan Street in the Dong Cheng District. We were led into a room where 10 very small sample teas (less than an ounce) were poured (without ever being provided a menu). When I got the bill for my tea, it was of course in Yuan. I foolishly didn’t know the exchange rate. So I paid the bill thinking to myself, OK 10 small tea samples adding up to about one full cup of tea, this can’t be more than US$20.

When I got back to the hotel, I checked the exchange rate and found out $1 was equal to 6.7 Yuan. They had charged me 2112 Yuan or in U.S. Dollars, $308.90 for the tea.

I then Googled the name of the place, Si Zhu Xiang Tea House and found that I wasn’t even close to being the first to get taken by the now infamous Beijing Tea Ceremony Scam. Those “friendly college students wanting to work on their English” are paid by the tea house. It seems that ‘entrepreneurship’ is alive and well here.

Yep, I was taken on my first night in Beijing. In the very first hour too. Here’s to Visa’s fraud protection.

And hey, I even got a picture with Jing Li in front of the Forbidden City. Here she is, the girl who scammed me with a victory sign…

At least I’ve got a good story now. :-) . Here’s to the Festival of the Lanterns and to “becoming a more experienced traveler.”

Tomorrow, the real work begins.

Quick Observations from Beijing, Hong Kong, and Delhi

February 8, 2009

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I got onto Air India 315 in Hong Kong and arrived in Delhi tonight around 10pm. After police checks, gates, and baggage screenings I arrived in my hotel around 11. I wanted to post some quick observations so far from Beijing, Hong Kong, and New Delhi…

Beijing

Spoken language is Mandarin. Written language is Simplified Chinese.
Need to know 3,000 characters to be literate.
13.3 million residents
Massive highways, drive on right side of road, steering wheel on left, road signs like America
Modern and developed in the business district
Few people know English. Taxi drivers mostly don’t. But numbers are growing.
Overexpanded airport due to Olympics, too much capacity
3G coming in May
Give and receive anything (especially business cards) with two hands
Pollution restricts view
Nuclear power plant visible from airport to downtown
Poor villages clearly purposely hidden from view from highway with new fences
Lots of luxury shopping, cafes for expats
Known for roasted duck
Free speech reduced, political speech against the government not allowed. You would likely be deported (as a foreigner) or arrested (as a local) if you held up a sign in Tienanmen Square saying, “I believe in Free Speech”
Newspapers very thin (4-6 pages), little actual analysis or transparency. Owned by State (Communist Party). Same exact picture of Wen Jiabao watering crops in drought-filled West was on front of every single newspaper.
Massive internet firewall stops anything even close to crude or anti-government on the Internet
Use pinyin (phonetic spelling in Western alphabet) and stylus character drawing to input text into cell phones and computers
Major websites are: 163.com, Sina.com, Tom.com, Baidu.com, Netease.com, Sohu.com, Google.cn, Joyo.com, Dangdang.com, Alibaba.com, TaoBao.com

Hong Kong

Spoken language is Cantonese. Written language is Traditional Chinese.
East meets west (eastern and western cultural melting pot)
Culture toward ‘making money’
Road signs like those in Britain
6.9 million residents
One country, two systems (same country as China but different currency, more political freedom)
Was under British rule until 1997
No internet filter like in the mainland
Drive on left side of road, steering wheel on right
Can get any type of food
Lots of high-rise condos
Safe to walk around
Double Decker buses
Ferries from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island
Lots of Karaoke clubs
Business dealings often happen late at night at Karaoke clubs
Waiters will not come to take your order or bring the check to you unless you ask them to come (the culture is ‘do not chase’)
Business dinners tend to occur in private rooms at restaurants
Lots of Tapas restaurants
Good dim sum (small Chinese plates)
Some roundabouts
Give and receive anything (especially business cards) with two hands
Lots of product sourcing expos (for every imaginable product, produced in Shenzhen or Guangzhou (The World’s Manufacturer) in SE China
Pollution haze ruins the beautiful view. Can barely see 300 yards in front of you.
Beautiful mountain behind the Hong Kong Island skyline
2nd largest skyline in the world after New York City
One of the most beautiful skylines in the world at night, at 8pm every night have light show, best viewed from Kowloon
Gets extremely excited, decorated for Chinese New Year
Billionaire Li Ka Shing seems to own half the city

New Delhi (early observations, only been here 3 hours and it’s night)

Official languages are Hindi and English
Hindi is written in Devanāgarī script
Men who are friends commonly hold hands like in Uganda
Men with rifles at car checkpoints leaving airport
11.9M residents
Main religion is Hinduism
So far, seems to be more like developing country than Hong Kong or Beijing (the chaos, dirt, and guns reminded me of Uganda), but will post more observations tomorrow once I can see the city in the light
Have to go through gate and metal detector and luggage screen to get into hotel
Lots of green and yellow rickshaws
Fewer highways (at least from airport to hotel)
LOTS of roundabouts, thanks Britain :-)
Avoid touching anyone’s head, as it is sacred
Don’t shake the hand of a women unless she offers to shake yours. Instead say Namasté and bow with hands under chin
Namasté roughtly means, I honor the spirit in you which is also within me.

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Comments/corrections/other observations are welcomed!

Oh, and go Tar Heels tonight!!