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.