It's my personal policy to travel quietly and respectfully through a foreign country. While in China simply being Caucasian buys one an unwarranted amount of respect, I generally strive to be visibly humble and avoid drawing attention to myself.
One thing I know about travel in foreign lands, however, is that one begins to miss their close friends who see the things the same way. Seeing poverty, starvation, and sadness on a daily basis in a third world country gets to you after a while, and I've found that simply having a fellow traveler at my side for a few days allows me to see the humor in the midst of the seriousness of the surroundings.
That's where I think George was at when we got to Beijing and started traipsing around Tiananmen Square: he was tired of taking China seriously and was dying for someone else who could see the humor in this regimented land. Initially I cringed when he bought a giant fur Chinese military winter hat and donned it. I was ready to hail a cab when he took things a few steps farther and bought two plastic communist flags which he stuck into his hat.
So here were the fucking tourists. Those guys. As if George's six-foot-something stature, freckles and aviator shades didn't draw enough attention, here he was with two red flags and a fur hat just begging to be had by any scam artist that saw us a mile away.
But I saw that I wasn't going to be able to convince George to tone it down one bit, so I figured if I couldn't beat him, I might as well join him. So I did, by buying a faux-emperor's hat, complete with mock-ponytail that reached down to my ass.
And while I braced myself for looks of scorn and insult, I was surprised to find ourselves the center of good-humored attention. The Chinese youths, in particular, took a liking to our outrageous, blasphemous use of their historical symbols, and numerous groups asked us to pose with them for photos, everyone flashing peace signs, of course.
George was a masterful negotiator, and I was experienced in dealing with touts, so when we were approached by a tour guide named Dick in the Forbidden City, we negotiated clear stipulations regarding an outing to the Great Wall. Since we knew we'd be drinking that night, we wanted the car to pick us up at 11AM. It would come complete with a driver, and a knowledgeable guide who was proficient in English. We'd pay 500 yuan for the car and would be returned to our hotel at 9PM. Hands were shaken and we left with Dick's card and phone number, should we need to talk with him in the morning.
As planned, the evening before the Great Wall adventure was replete with whiskey, beer, dancing, taunting of pimps and prostitutes, and finally, a broken curtain in the hotel room. When the phone rang at 8:00, scant hours after we'd finally stumbled back to the hotel room, George mumbled to the receiver something about it being entirely too early and that we'd see them at our prearranged time, 11:00. When the phone rang again at 9:00, we ignored it. And when it rang again at 10:00 we tried to ignore it, but George finally threw it at me and muttered "you deal with them."
I heard a female voice stammering through broken English telling us that she was ready to show us the Wall. She told me her name was Sofia. "But you are too early." I said. "We drank lots of whiskey, need to sleep."
"But I am here, at the hotel. We go."
I covered the phone and negotiated with George. We would be able to sleep on the long drive to Simitai, I argued. He groaned but finally agreed.
We showered and came downstairs to meet Sofia. She was the guide, and there was a driver who didn't speak English, and whose name we never got. As the car pulled into the morning Beijing traffic, alongside hazy construction sites and myriad bicycles, we began to gather some details on Sofia.
We began by apologizing being difficult in the morning, and explained that we'd had a very late night. In the general get-to-know-you questions, we gathered that Sofia had originated from Inner Mongolia, and was a college student learning English at the time. She admitted that she was a first year student, and still struggling with English.
"How many tours have you given so far?" I asked.
"Is OK. I think four or five." Sofia said.
"What can you tell us about the Great Wall?"
"Well, it is a very big wall..." she said, before trailing off. OK, strike three, Dick. We weren't getting what we had agreed upon. But we let it slide. Too hung over. We knew we'd get to the wall and could just read our book if we had to.
About a half hour into the drive, George asked whether we could make a quick stop for some food, as we hadn't eaten yet that day. Sofia consulted with the driver in Chinese before responding.
"OK, go to jade museum and eat there. We be there soon."
This seemed suspect. No, neither of us had mentioned a museum, and if I wasn't interested in a jade museum, I could bet that George wasn't either. Besides, anyone knows that food at a museum would be lousy and overpriced.
"Can't we just swing off and get some baotze at a stall on the side of the road or something? We're not sheltered tourists, and George has lived here for a year. We don't need to eat at a museum," I explained.
"We stuck at museum because driver," Sofia said.
"We need gas and have car checked before we go; long trip and steep mountains." As she said this, the driver pulled off a freeway exit and pulled into a gas station. Sofia changed the subject as we pulled in.
"The driver forget his money. Can you pay 100 kwai for gas?"
"Sure, we can pay 100, but we agreed to 500 kwai total, so if we pay, we will be taking that from what we owe you." There was some discussion with the driver and this was agreed upon. I handed the bill forward and the driver stepped out to fill the car.
"I on'td-ay usttr-ay eseth-ay uckersf-ay one itb-ay. I inkth-ay eth-ay arc-ay usinessb-ay is a unchb-ay of ullshitb-ay." I said, switching to Pig Latin so we could speak freely.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Sofia asked.
"OK," George leaned forward closer to the driver and Sofia, "Adam and I know a thing or two about cars. What exactly needs to be 'checked' before we go?"
Sofia stammered through some random English words before pulling out her pocket English-Chinese translation computer. She tapped at the keys for a moment and then showed us the display.
"Procedure" was all it read.
George was persistent. "What do you mean by a 'procedure'? There is nothing wrong with the car, is there?"
Sofia looked at her knees and shook her head.
"The jade museum is not a museum, is it?" I asked. "It is a store, right?"
"OK, Sofia, what you are doing is called lying." George said, audibly and visibly cross. "We are not stupid tourists and we know what you are up to. We have agreed to a trip with Dick and you need to live up to that. We do not want to go to a jade store, we do not want to be lied to, and we want our trip to go as we had planned. Do you understand?"
Sofia nodded and quietly began updating the driver, who had returned to the car and was driving us back to the freeway. "Now just take us to a restaurant so we can get some lunch and then get on with this trip!" George demanded.
We were taken to a restaurant at a highway junction in the midst of some nondescript Chinese suburbia, and the driver stopped in a parking spot out front. George and I stepped out but paused when we saw that Sofia and the driver had remained in the car.
"What are you doing? Come on in," George told Sofia.
"No, not hungry," she said. George was getting more skeptical by the moment. "No," he said with firm authority, "you are coming in with us. I am not going to have you two drive off without us while we eat."
Tension was mounting for such an early hour, but in the end she acquiesced.
Sofia entered the restaurant with us, but the driver stayed outside in the car. Sitting at the table and having ordered, I tried to sew things up between us. "Sofia, I think we got off to a bad start here. We want to have a good time today, and I think we can get past this and have a good time. We just want you to be honest with us, and to take us on the trip that we have agreed to with Dick. We don't want to make you feel bad, and you don't want to make us feel bad. Let's move on, OK?"
Sofia used her chopsticks to poke at the small amount of food she had taken. "Yes, I am sorry."
"OK, so from now on, we will all tell the truth, and we will all have fun, OK?"
"How much commission do you get from the jade store?" I wondered.
"120. Uh - 100."
"Sofia! You were just about to lie again, right there! We are serious. No more lying. You got that?!"
She seemed to. I changed the subject and dug into more questions about where she came from. Turns out Sofia's village in Inner Mongolia was a very rural one; she had grown up in a yurt and rather than cars, her family got around on camel. We liked the mental image of Sofia's boyfriends approaching her family yurt on camel to pick her up for a date. Rather than honking a horn to announce his arrival, the boyfriend would clearly need to kick the camel to make it bellow, at which point she would grab her animal-skin handbag and dash out the front door to the sound of her father reminding her of her curfew and the amount of dowry they'd be out if she slept with her boyfriend before marriage.
We had some fun with Sofia and her stories. We warmed her up again, and reassured her that we weren't mean people, just not ignorant tourists. We wanted to have fun and we would make sure she had fun with us. We finished lunch and got in the car, where Sofia instructed the driver we'd be heading straight to Simatai, without stopping at the jade store.
"So Sofia, what can you tell us about the Great Wall of China?" I asked, finally beginning to feel somewhat recovered from the night before.
"Well, it is a very big wall..." Sofia trailed off.
"Well," she stammered, "it is made from brick."
"That's all you got for us, eh?"
Sofia looked at her knees again. We sighed.
Improving the overall morale, George and I told stories and sang songs to Sofia. We even sang the Mormon Church's Lying Song and explained the trouble that occurs when you begin lying. Being experienced travelers and a couple of pretty smart guys, we even brainstormed some ways for Sofia to run a tour business without having to lie, as she had agreed that she didn't like the feeling of lying and that there must be a more honest way to make a living.
We suggested that she just be up front, suggesting to tourists that they visit the jade store, rather than fabricating some excuse to go, and sucking it up if they declined. We suggested that she drop Dick as her middle man and just solicit tourists herself in the Forbidden City. We suggested she create a notebook with traveler testimonials that she could show potential customers to convince them to join her. We suggested that she post her services to thorntree.lonelyplanet.com and get her name out there herself, without relying on someone who was sure to take the bulk of her money for doing a minimal portion of the work. We began listing off some basic facts that she'd need to learn to satisfy tourists that she was supposed to be guiding. Sofia smiled, she nodded, she took notes. Things were looking up as we drove through tiny rural villages, and forests of deciduous trees precisely planted in perfect grids.
Arriving at the parking lot at Simatai, we could see the Great Wall of China snaking across the crests of brown, jagged mountains. The air was chilly, and for the first time since arriving, I could see blue sky as far as the eye could see; we'd finally escaped the all-enveloping haze of urban China.
"OK, you go see Great Wall we see you in two hours?" Sofia asked.
"Wait a minute, you aren't coming with us?" George said, disappointment and suspicion once again permeating his voice.
Sofia shook her head.
"Sofia, have you ever seen the Great Wall of China, the thing you are supposed to be guiding us through?" I asked, also incredulous.
"No, no go."
"OK, we're going to change that. I will pay your admission," George said.
"Oh, no I have bad shoes," she said, pointing to her impractical high heels, "and no jacket; too cold."
"OK, I will buy you shoes and a coat. You are coming with us," George declared. He haggled for a few minutes with the few vendors that were at the base of the mountain and procured said items. And, fully assembled, the three of us procured admission tickets, three tickets up the gondola, and three tickets up the funicular. All at our expense.
We were finally at the top of the Wall. The view was as breathtaking as its name implies. A massive testament to the efforts of humanity to acquire and secure resources. The Wall near Simatai is relatively untouristed, so we had the place to ourselves. It was a good thing that we had insisted on not going to the jade store: by the time we'd ascended the mountain, the sun was quickly approaching the horizon, and we could tell we would only have a couple hours before dark.
George had taken a three-month motorcycle trip across China for his summer break, with his colleague Jared. At some point on their trip, they had pulled off some rural dirt road and went in separate directions to look around. The story goes that George found a river, so he stripped and hopped in for a few minutes. After getting out, he stood on the bank, looking off into the distance at the stunning scenery. Just then Jared came over the hill to see George's rotund tanned body and pasty, white ass, as George gazed at the horizon. This scene was so hilarious to Jared that he took a photo and started a tradition where George would strike such a pose in various parts of China, with the intent of creating a calendar of 12 photos. They had 11.
So George and I managed to ditch Sofia for a few minutes and George hastily stripped down in the frigid air, flashing that fat, pasty white ass for the camera. Priceless.
Sure enough, after the photo and walking along the wall for a while, we realized we were in a bit of a daylight deficiency: within the next 30-45 minutes we'd be in pitch darkness and we had a fair amount of wall to cross before picking our way back down the mountain to try and find the car. We walked at a brisk pace, given the incredibly uneven terrain, but things were not looking good.
At one viewpoint, I looked down the mountain at the river below and heard a faint zzzzzzz sound. I squinted. It looked like something was crossing the water at a fast speed. I thought it was a boat but I then realized it wasn't leaving a wake. It was something moving over the river, not on it. It was a zip line. And it connected the Wall to the shore below, close to where we thought the car was. And it was long and fast.
I pointed the zip line out to George and we didn't even need to discuss the situation; it was already set in stone.
"OK, Sofia," I said, "we are about to do something and you will be doing it with us and you do not have a choice in the matter."
"Look down there. That is a cable that will take us to the car. If we don't go down this way, we will be stuck up here in the darkness and cold. It will be fast, but this is the way we are going, and you will be going too."
"Oh no! I can not! No!!"
"Sofia, repeat after me: 'I can do it'. This is your mantra and you will be doing this." So we continued along the wall, me chanting "I can do it" and eventually Sofia joined in.
When we arrived at the zip line, I could see that this was by far the longest and steepest one I'd seen. No matter; you either live or die on things like this and it'd be pretty difficult to die on one of these. The admission was again a fee that we paid for Sofia, and while she was visibly shaking and reluctant, the man operating the line harnessed her and clipped her and I to the line together.
With our collective 230 pounds, the line took us to a decent speed. Sofia alternated between panicked screams, and holding her breath. Eyes open and then squeezed shut. I loved it. "Wooooooooooo!!!" I screamed.
At the bottom, once off the line, Sofia had a huge smile on her face. "I did it!" she exclaimed. She had done it, and she was still alive. She never thanked us for the experience (or the clothes for that matter) but she was obviously excited and proud that she had done it.
We were having fun. When we got back to the parking lot, the driver had been hanging out with a few locals and was blasting bad Chinese dance music from his car stereo. George and I started dancing in the lot, and with our beaming guide, things were looking up.
With darkness having fully arrived, we drove off down rural roads, descending from the mountains to the frenetic rhythm of Chinese dance music.
George asked the driver to turn it down for a minute and then addressed Sofia. "So we'd like to swing by some place to get dinner on the way home. We still have a couple hours, so we can eat and then we can go back to the hotel."
Sofia conversed with the driver for a minute and then responded to George. "No, all restaurant here too expensive. We take you to hotel and you eat there."
The hotel was another three or so hours away from where we were. And hell, we were paying to have this car take us where we wanted to go, and we knew sure as shit that rural restaurants were cheap as dirt. We said as much.
"Well, no, restaurant here no good," she stammered, knowing she was going down the lying road again.
"Sofia, this is bullshit! What did we talk about today? Did you not learn anything? You are lying and you are going against our agreement! Why won't you just take us to a restaurant?!"
"Um, ok, I sorry. The reason is I need catch a bus to my home. Bus is at 730 so we drop you off before the bus comes."
"What?! Sofia! We have agreed that we have this car until 9PM! And if you need a ride home, why doesn't this driver take you home! You have a fucking car! This is ridiculous!" George was clearly at the end of his rope.
"Sofia, you have to understand that at this point you have told us so many lies that we don't have any idea what is truth and what is a lie now. It doesn't make any sense to us that you would need to take a bus home. You understand why we can't trust you now?" I was with George.
"So can you take us to a restaurant, please?"
"No. Sorry." She turned around and faced the front of the car.
George and I were livid. We sat in the back, each scheming as to what could be done about this situation, when the driver turned off the freeway onto an unlit, unpaved road.
OK, so we're in an argument over our itinerary, the guide has just taken a stand against us, and we wind up on a dirt road?! Things don't look good for our heroes!
We were driving parallel to a set of train tracks, and the car was moving slowly, to navigate the numerous pot holes.
"OK, where the fuck are we going?!" George demanded.
"This is the way." Sofia said.
"The way? We didn't come this way on the way to Simatai!"
"Short cut?! Why didn't we take this short cut on the way here then? Where the hell are we going?!"
Sofia stammered through some nonsensical description of how this road bisected some long route we'd otherwise have to take.
George snapped. He leaned forward until his nose was practically touching Sofia's and he said in a voice that would strike fear in the most cold-blooded mobster "Sofia, I want you to hear me and I want you to tell this to the driver. If you have some plan to stop on this dark road, have your friends show up, and take our money, you might get it. But I. Will. Fucking. Kill. You."
Sofia panicked. I did my best to regain control of the situation.
"Sofia, calm down and listen to me. My friend here may have taken things a bit far, but you need to understand where we are coming from. I want you to think for a moment and imagine that you were traveling in our country, alone, and your driver pulled off the road you were familiar with and started driving down a dirt road very slowly. Would you be a bit nervous?"
"OK, then I need you to turn this car around. You have created this situation with your lying. We have no idea if this is really a short cut, and we are willing to sit in this car an extra three hours to go the long way because we don't trust a single word out of your mouth. Now tell the driver to turn this car around. Now."
Sofia and the driver debated for a minute, the driver clearly upset that we wouldn't be continuing down this road. Finally, he caved, slowed the car, turned around, and retraced our tracks in the dirt.
Back on the main road, the driver pulled into the first gas station we approached. The diver spoke to Sofia, who turned to us and asked for 400 yuan, the balance of what we owed them. We outright refused. I handed over 100 and said we'd pay the rest when we got home.
"What about the 100 from the jade store?" asked Sofia. The fucking nerve!
"We never agreed to pay for your commission!"
"But we would have gotten 100," she protested.
"Look, Sofia: if we stopped at that store, we would have been arriving at the wall at dusk, and wouldn't have been able to see anything and we didn't want to go to the damn jade store in the first place! There is no way we are paying you that commission. We agreed to 500 and that is all you will get."
George for the first time started using his remedial Chinese to address the driver, explaining to him that they will get 500 and that was to be the end of it.
The driver started the car, pulled onto the highway again and accelerated to about 20 miles per hour. He muttered things to Sofia, and slowly pulled the car over to the curb twice while Sofia repeatedly turned around asking "are you sure you won't pay the commission?"
We repeatedly insisted that we wouldn't, and after the third time the driver stopped the car, I told George to phone Dick. Enough was enough.
"Dick, it's George, from the Forbidden City. I want you to know that we are having a very bad experience. First, your guide doesn't speak good English. Second, they wasted half our day trying to get us to go to a jade store we didn't want to go to. Third, they are trying to take us down shady unpaved roads, and now they are demanding money we do not owe them! We've had enough, and we want them to just take us back to the hotel and leave us alone!!"
Dick apologized and said he'd take care of it. George hung up and the driver's cell began to ring. The driver spoke with Dick in Chinese for a few minutes, and shortly thereafter we were traveling again, still no faster than 20 miles per hour.
"Adam," George turned to me in the darkened back seat, speaking Pig Latin again. "If they pull over again, what do you say we get out? We passed a gas station a minute ago, and at the speed we're going, it won't take long to walk there."
"I'm OK with that." And we both quietly put our possessions into our day bags.
Sure enough, we didn't travel another mile before the driver pulled over again. George and I nodded at each other, and silently turned towards our respective doors, opened them, got out, shut them, and began briskly walking the opposite direction of traffic.
There were about 15 seconds where all that could be heard were the rush of the occasional passing car. The road was sparsely driven, accompanied by no businesses or homes, and streetlights were spread far apart.
I was shaking with a hefty adrenaline rush, not knowing how this situation would play out.
Suddenly, behind us, we heard the car doors burst open and then slam shut. Both the driver and Sofia were running full bore after us.
George and I continued our initial direction, but jogging backwards to see the oncoming duo. Both were shouting in Mandarin at us, and the driver was pushing his coat aside and fiddling with something on his hip.
"He's got a knife!" George shouted. "Tell him to put it the fuck away! Get the fuck away from us!"
The driver was shouting in Mandarin and George assumed a defensive martial arts position, ready to strike. With every step we took backwards, the driver got closer and closer to George's face, screaming a mile a minute, the moving lights of passing traffic only adding to the disorienting confusion of the situation.
"Get the fuck back! Put your hands up! No knife! I will fucking kill you both!!"
Sofia was screaming, tears streaming down her face.
"Get the fuck away from each other!" I shouted. "Step the fuck back!!"
"I call cops! Cops! Police!! Police!!" George screamed, pulling his phone out of his pocket with one hand, the blue lights demonstrating that he was ready to start pushing the buttons. The driver followed suit, both lighting up their phones and dialing. Little did the driver know that if George connected with a cop that he'd have no idea how to explain the situation.
The mention of the police seemed to resonate with the driver however so he backed down and said in a much calmer voice "We go. Just we go," he said in English.
"No fucking way! You go!" We turned and began jogging away from them again, and just then George saw a city bus approaching. He instantly shot his hand out, flagging down the bus, which pulled over and opened the door. We hustled on board and the door closed behind us, shutting off the sound of the shouting driver, the crying guide, and the passing traffic.
As the bus pulled away, George called Dick again.
"OK Dick, it is George again. We have a big problem. We left the driver and Sofia; they were coming at me with a knife! ... No, we are not in the car anymore! ... No, we did not pay them, and we won't! ... Look, Dick: my friend here works for the #1 travel agency in the world. If you give us any trouble, you'll never get another tourist!"
George and Dick ended their conversation so that Dick could call the driver. A minute later George got another call from Dick.
"They are following this bus? Dick, listen very closely. When we get off this bus, if we so much as see their car, we're calling the cops, and that will be the end of your entire operation!" George hung up.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again, but George turned it off. Enough was enough. Sure enough, when we got off the bus a couple hours later, in Beijing, the car wasn't in sight.
"I'm glad the trip ended this way: we get an adrenaline rush, a story to tell, and the whole day only cost us about half of what we thought we'd pay."
"Do you think any of them will have learned a lesson from all of this?"
"I doubt it, I really do."