Tiananmen Sqaure is a terrific melting pot. All sorts of people congregate there at all hours. Many are there simply to soak up the site, to say they have “been there” before moving on to other icons around the city. The majority of visitors are Chinese who seem to wear an air of surprise – is this all there is to this place?
Milling through the group photos, ambling couples, bemused tourists, running children and plainclothes police are the touts who, more good natured than most touts anywhere else I have been (or are they keeping a wary on the plainclothes?), gently press you to buy a kite. Or Chairman Mao watch. Or some other gimmic. OK, sometimes not so gentle but never abrasive or hostile. You soon learn to keep them at bay and develop a finely tuned eye for people bearing down on you with some sort of sales agenda on their mind.
Two who slipped through our defences were English language students who engaged us for a good fifteen minutes or so in pleasant, conversational chat. After which we insisted we were heading off to the markets. They seemed pleasant enough and we were only too happy to have them accompany us for the stroll. And they seemed keen to continue rehearsing their language. So we found our way into the markets and after some indecision, upstairs in a tea house. Hosted by a young nineteen year old who was as cute as a button and clearly had been going through this routine for as long as she could remember.
We were walked though the traditions of tea drinking, how to behave, where to put our fingers, how many sips to take, the reasons behind the various rituals – all while perched on tiny stools at one of those tree tunk carved tables for which the Chinese are so famous. Pleasant company, idle chat, fragrant tea, good humour, experimenting with the language, sloshed tea, all crammed into a tiny wallpapered room under the leery gaze of a fat buddha.. Round after round of sampled tea we went.
Until one of our English language students suggested we pause and check the bill. In the back of my mind I was suspecting that we might be up for fifty dollars or so. You can imagine the silent shock at discovering we had carelessly run up a bill of about $350.00. Extraction with honour becomes less of a priority than extraction with bank account intact and the tea ceremony was closed down immediately. No thanks, no more samples. No thanks, no more rounds. Actually no, I don’t want a kilo of tea leaves. OK, happy to take that cheap tea cup as a souvineer. Need to have something to show for the madness.
Walk in complete silence for a kilometre or more, playing the scenario over in your head. Were you had? If so at what part did the con kick in? After more than twenty years of travelling in Asia how can you still be caught? Then buy a plate of chicken, pork, rice and fried beef and vegetables along with a Coke, all for $1.60 and wonder at the earlier sips of tea that should have been gold plated. That cheap meal only served to convince us that we had been soundly duped.
So put a comic spin on it and claim that you have purchased two Ming Dynasty tea cups and these were cheap at $350.00!! You somehow need to save face in front of your travel colleagues!
The near to last word on the experience – a Chinese friend asked the next day if we had enjoyed the tea. Answer, yes. If we had enjoyed the company. Yes again. Ergo, “enjoyed a lot, paid a lot. What is the problem?” Pretty hard to argue with the logic.And we had had a good time.
The last word – sit down, rather gingerly in Shanghai a few weeks later at a tea house and decide water is probably the only choice. Tea proves an affordable option but a sanity check of the menu shows that this tea would have proved just as costly as that in Beijing if we had gone for as many rounds. Maybe we were not duped after all. But I can’t look at that cheap teacup on the shelf at home without shaking my head, and making a cup of coffee instead.