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Shanghi - Cement Dust and the Tea Ceremony Scam


rain 11 °C
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The first thing I did after settling in at the hostel, was to find the nearest convenience store so I could buy some bottled water. I also stocked up on snacks which turned out to be quite tricky, instead of wandering around the store checking for prices, it was a matter of trying to find food that hadn't expired two months ago. This problem turned out to be true for every convenience store I went to in Shanghai. I was lucky if I found something with an expiry date in late November.

By the time I got back to the hostel, it had started raining so I decided to stay in for the rest of the day. The hostel I stayed in couldn't have been in a better location. It's on a street full of restaurants (including one that was part of the hostel itself) and it was only two blocks away from the People's Square which is technically the center of Shanghai. It's about 10 minutes walk to the nearest subway station and about 25 minutes walk from The Bund.

Looking up Xizang Road from pedestrian bridge under Yan'an Road. The People's Square is just to the left of this photo

On my first full day in Shanghai, it was cold and overcast, but at least it wasn't raining so I decided to go to the Shanghai museum located in the edge of the People's Square. I took a leisurely stroll through the paths leading to the museum and just as I reached the back of the museum I walked past a young couple standing by some steps and the girl called out in perfect English, "Could you take a photo of us?". I said "Sure, why not" and proceeded to take a nice snap of them with the museum in the background. We then had the usual conversation, "Where are you from?", "How long are you in China?", etc, etc. They told me they were students. After a few minutes, I started walking slowly down the path while still chatting to them. Then one of them casually mentioned that they were on their way to see a Chinese tea ceremony. For some reason, alarm bells started ringing in my head but before I had the chance to put the pieces together, I saw a man cycling towards us while shouting something in Chinese. He got to us pretty quickly and I realised by his uniform that he was a policeman. He proceeded to yell at the couple some more in Chinese while motioning to them to move along. At this point he moved closer to me and reached for what I thought was his badge from the inside pocket of his jacket. He showed me the back of it and on it was a sentence made up from a collage of English words splashed together, which read, "Do not believe what they tell you". At that moment, apart from feeling like I was in an episode of the X-Files, I also realised exactly what was going on. I said "xie xie" ("thanks") to the policeman and he cycled off. I took one look back at the couple as I walked away and they were still standing there pretending to look all innocent and confused.

Despite not actually having been scammed, I still felt like a complete mug for simply believing the couple were being genuinely friendly. When I was doing reasearch for my trip on the net a few months ago, I had actually read something about a Chinese tea ceremony scam, hence the alarm bells. Apparently the scam involves them taking you to a tea store where they "wash some tea", followed by you sampling lots of expensive teas, this is the so called "tea ceremony". Then the young kids that took you to the store pretend to buy an expensive gift box of tea, and you are then also expected to either pay for them and/or buy some yourself at extremely exuberant prices. Of course there is no such thing as a Chinese tea ceremony.

I have to give it to them, from looks alone, they were very convincing. The "take a photo of us" opening was very plausible (it happened quite often in Japan), they were patient, they made plenty of friendly small talk and when they did bring up the tea ceremony, they didn't immediately invite me, they just mentioned they were going, though they probably would have pushed it if things were allowed to progress any further. Also, they looked very young and innocent, to the point where they were the ones that looked naiive. The girl even had one of those "cutesy" plush-toy backpacks.

So in the end, I was glad this had happened because it was a good wake up call. It is definitely a pity when you can't trust anyone, especially those that initiate a conversation.

Within seconds of me walking away, I spotted a western looking woman walking towards me. She knew exactly what had happend and in fact was on her way to try and rescue me because she had been the victim of the same scam the previous day. I forgot the woman's name, but she was from England and she was very nice. We ended up chatting for a couple of hours while walking through one of the museum floors together. The museum is not too bad actually, it's quite flash, has four floors containing ancient sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, ancient coins and bronze statues and best of all, it's free. But I didn't see all of it that day because my English companion was heading to an art gallery and I was starving so I decided to do the rest another time. The museum was after all, only two blocks from my hostel.

The next day was miserable, it was pouring rain outside and apart from some quick trips to the store and the almost empty roof top bar at the hostel, I hardly left my room. This type of weather turned out to be a recurring theme during my stay in Shanghai.

The next morning, the rain turned to very light drizzle so I took a walk to The Bund to see what the big deal was. By the way, if someone doesn't know what "The Bund" is, it is the stretch of road (also known as Zhongshan Road) on the banks of the Huangpu river opposite the bank containing the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower (which has several spherical shaped levels of various sizes). The road is full of colonial style buildings housing mainly upmarket high fashion stores.

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower from Nanjing Road, Shanghai - This is the best photo I could get of the tower without capturing a large portion of roadworks in the frame.

I had already taken a taxi ride through it on my way to the hostel, so I wasn't expecting much but I thought perhaps on foot I would get to see more. Unfortunately, because of the World Expo being held in Shanghai in 2010, large parts of the city are under construction. The government must have ordered that every building from The Bund down to the site of the Expo undergoes some kind of makeover. On my way to The Bund I ended up walking through seemingly endless maze of bamboo scaffolding. Aside from the sporadic food odours eminating from restaurants and fast food joints, all you can really smell around the city is cement dust. It was no real surprise that on foot, the Bund was no better, in fact it was worse. Wet, muddy and crowded foot paths with no view of the river whatsoever. I'm sure by the time the Expo comes around in about five months, the city will be lovely, albeit superficially so. Right now it's like a war zone with the flooded bomb-like craters to boot.

At the moment The Bund is like this all the way, it's just a huge construction site

Pudong from Zhongshan Road, the actual river bank area of The Bund is hidden behind barriers.

A couple of days later, I returned to the Shanghai museum so I could check out the rest of the floors I didn't see on the first visit. There was a big queue at the door, but this was due to the security checks as opposed to large crowds. Everybody has to walk through a metal detector and bags are scanned through x-ray machines. The museum is big enough that once inside, you can walk around the exhibits with plenty of space around you. Though even the virtual emptiness didn't stop some people from barging right in front of you as if you didn't exist. Sometimes it felt like I was on an episode of candid camera, standing alone, less than half a meter in front of a long glass case reading an exhibit's description and a person would feel an irresistible urge to walk between you and the glass, almost shoving you aside so they could stand there! I couldn't believe it when it happend to me no less than three or four times. My jaw would literally drop in amazement. The queue jumping, well that's another story. In Shanghai, it's everyone for themselves. If you are in a queue anywhere, a restaurant, a convenience store, a museum, a train tickets window, and you leave just enough space between you and the person in front of you, then someone will take it. They even look back at you, knowing full well they just jumped the queue in front of you and give you a blank look like nothing has happened. Getting on the subway is also a "me first" activity. People don't wait for people to get off a train before boarding, it just becomes a big push and shove affair. It's almost the polar opposite of my experiences in Japan.

Some of the ancient sculptures in the Shanghai museum

As I walked out of the museum, I immediately spotted a young couple standing towards the middle of the wide concrete steps, the guy was taking a photo of the girl with the museum doors as a back drop (if this is not a dead give away, I don't know what is). I noticed the guy took a quick look at me. I veered several meters away from them all the way to the edge of the steps to avoid them, but it didn't stop the guy from shouting out, "Hello, you speak English? Can you take photo?". Now this was obviously another tea ceremony scam couple, they could have easily asked any one of the countless other people standing much closer to them to take their photo, but instead they had honed in on me, the foreigner. I continued walking while I looked over my shoulder at him with a smile, pointed to my wrist and said, "Sorry, I'm running late ...I have a tea ceremony to go to". (I have to admit, I was quite proud of my self having used that line, usually that's the kind of thing I think of later when it's too late).

A couple of nights later, the rain stopped enough for me to venture to the shopping mall area of Nanjing Road. I had no actual desire to do any shopping, but since I was in Shanghai, I had to take a look. I managed to get a good 200 meters down the street before I was approached by one of the hawkers (I expected it to be much sooner), he was of course selling watches. They come prepared with a little laminated brouchure containing all of their "cheap" goods. I managed to get rid of this guy with only a few shakes of my head and a single "Bu Yao" ("Bu Yao" means "Don't want"). I thought, "Wow, that was easy!", but it turns out, he was the easiest one to get rid of.

The view up Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Just as I was taking the photo above, another hawker walked up to me offering watches. Once again I shook my head and said "Bu Yao" a couple of times. Then he persited, "No watch? How bout massage, loverly Ladees?", after about the 5th "Bu Yao", I just ignored him and kept walking, that didn't stop him though, he just kept on rattling his sales pitch at me. After a while he finally gave up and returned to his "post". I knew this was going to be one of those walks. This happend a few more times with varying degrees of persistance. It was almost like a game trying to avoid them, but they blend in with the crowds so well, you can't tell who's who. Even ignoring them right off the bat didn't stop them. I found I didn't get hassled if I walked like a local, head down, fast confident pace, no eye contact with anybody, but the reason I was there in the first place was to have a look at the buildings, neon lights and stores around me so I'd break character once in a while to look around like a tourist which almost undoubtedly led to the next hawker approaching me. The very last hawker I got that night was a bit of a joker and it was actually quite fun to see how long he would last. He must have walked beside me for a couple of hundred meters trying to sell me everything under the sun. Even ignoring him wasn't doing the trick, then finally I said "Trust me, there's no way I'm ever going to buy anything. Now think of all the potential customers you've missed while wasting your time with me". I don't know if he had reached his natural limit or whether that made sense to him but he immediately stopped and returned to where he came from. He was the last hawker I got so I never got to test it out on someone else. Needless to say, I took a turn and walked down a different parallel street on my way back to the hostel.

The traffic in Shanghai is quite exicing, in fact people should stop wasting their money on extreme sports like base jumping or free rock climbing and instead walk along the streets of Shanghai during rush hour. If I could use one phrase to describe it, it's "Run for your life!"

Another thing that's been hard to get used to, is the spitting. You see and hear men (though I have seen women do it also) spitting everywhere, the gutter, steps, footpath, train platform, you name it. They don't wait until there's a space either, if you are walking past and you hear a somone violently clearing their throats of phlegm, then you better watch out. I find it very hard to hide my disgust even though nobody else around them even batters an eye lid. A message to the Chinese government, if you want to stop the spread of the H1N1 virus, create a huge ad campaign telling people to stop spitting everywere and let them know it's disgusting and will NOT rid them of evil spirits!

Now I know, not everybody in China is like this, it's just that there's enough of them that are that makes it very noticeable. I've already met plenty of Chinese people in Shanghai that were polite and friendly (and don't spit everywhere), it's just a shame they seem to be the minority.

I know from this blog, it sounds like I hated Shanghai but I didn't really, I kind of enjoyed the challenge. I think if the weather had been nicer and there wasn't so much building work going on I would have enjoyed myself more. Besides, I'm in China! I still can't believe I'm here, and there's still plenty more to come.

Some statues in a small park, Shanghai - Told you it was cold!

As you can probably tell, I didn't take many photos in Shanghai, not only were the views pretty limited, but it also attracted too much attention.

So, am I glad I went to Shanghai? ...Maybe. Would I go back? Probably not.

Luckily I'm expecting better things from my next destinations in China, although the weather is proabably not going to get any better.

Until next time, Hui tou jian!

Posted by joshuag 05:31 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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