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Bamboozled in Beijing

It was a blistering cold December morning and my first day in Beijing.  I had been living in Asia for quite some time, but this was my first trip to China.  I thought myself a rather experienced traveler, having dealt physically aggressive shopkeepers in several countries, but apparently, I thought wrong.  My first encounter with some Chinese university students left my wallet a little lighter and me, a little more humble. 

I arrived in Beijing early Christmas morning and took a shuttle to the International Hotel in the heart of the city.  I had a general idea of where I could find some inexpensive guesthouses, so bundled up like an Arctic explorer; I got off the bus and was greeted by high winds and –30C temperatures.

Does this man looks like he’ll buy art?

Moving as quickly as I could down the frost bitten streets, I could not help but marvel at my surroundings.  The main thoroughfare leading to Tiananmen Square was so wide and grand.  Urban planning in communist states always seems to be on such an exaggerated scale.  I decided that I had time to appreciate communist architectural philosophy later; my main goal was to find a room, get rid of my giant rucksack and find some hot coffee.

After passing the gigantic Beijing Mall and modern shopping area surrounding it, I found a small motel at the end of a quiet side street.  I paid for my room and booked another one for my friends who would be joining me in a few days.  Once I had everything sorted away at the guesthouse, I again bundled up and made my way outside to find a restaurant and explore a little of downtown Beijing.

I turned the corner and found myself standing in a very modern shopping district, obviously Beijing’s display of its’ emerging economy.  The street was lined with extravagant designer shops, McDonald’s, Starbucks’ and all the signs of globalization.  I was amazed by the stark contrast between this street and the nearby Hutongs, which seemed to have remained the unchanged for centuries.

As I came to the end of the street two friendly young women approached me.  The introduced themselves as university students.  Their English was quite good and they began asking questions about life in Canada and my impressions of China.  Shortly into our conversation, they asked me if I was interested in traditional Chinese art and that they would be happy to take me to an art exhibition.  In my shameful naiveté, I agreed.

They lead me off the main street and down a winding alleyway.  A few flights of stairs later I found myself in a long corridor lined with doors.  They opened one of the doors and inside was a room no bigger than a closet; its’ walls lined with calligraphy and paintings.  It finally clicked that I was in a questionable situation.  I sat down with a polite elderly man who said that he was an art professor.  We talked briefly as he showed me various paintings and explained their symbolism to me.  Then he came to the point, “Would you care to purchase some of the artwork? It will help fund my students’ studies.”

I am not sure what happened.  I suppose I was confused and my defenses were down, but I found myself stumbling back onto the frigid street, carrying three pieces of art and forty dollars lighter.  Once I realized that I had been taken for a ride, I kicked myself.  Vowing that it would not happen to me again this trip, I decided to find a warm restaurant and a bottle of beer.

Yes he does.

A drink and a bowl of noodles later, I was back on the street to meander around Tiananmen Square.  As I marveled at Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Gate and the Great Hall of the People, I felt overwhelmed.  I remember as a young teenager, being glued to the television as the tanks rolled into the square to squash the student protests.  As I stood there attempting to absorb the surreal moment, I was approached by at least six more people inviting me to art exhibitions.  I was on to their scheme now so I would politely reply, “No thank you.  I’d just like to enjoy the sights alone.”

Several days later, my friends arrived in Beijing and I filled them in on the scam.  Even with my warnings, a couple of my friends fell for it as well.  We later discovered that we could buy the same type of art work at outdoor markets for a fraction of the price charged by the “art exhibitions.”

Now as I look back upon my art exhibition fiasco, I laugh at how minor an incident it really was.  If anything, it added to my China experience.  The wonderful food, warm people, arguments with bus drivers and watching the police shake down one of my cab drivers all made Beijing a wonderful city to visit.  A mixture of modern and old, a visit to China’s capital city will leave you with a wealth of memories and stories.

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