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Mugged in Beijing: when moneychangers turn

Outside the Beijing railway station two women shout and heckle each other. One is young, one old, waving arms, jerking heads, bobbing necks. I collect my thoughts and shoulder my bags, I have a walk of about seven miles ahead of me. The city smells of damp rooms and coal smoke and the sound of tinkling bicycle bells fills the air. There are thousands of bicycles everywhere and most people are dressed in loose fitting blue and grey Mao suits. Soft rain darkens the afternoon sky and a group of old men squatting beneath an awning draw their rags tighter around their shoulders. One turns and mutters a few words to a boy who holds a white transistor radio close to his ear like a talisman, his vacant eyes lazily following the traffic. When the rain stops, people shuffle damp and disconsolate through the streets. Above them the clouds part in swirls of yellow and purple.

I walk through the Chongwen district and Tiantan Park, past the Temple of Heaven. On Quianmen Daji (Front Gate Boulevard), one of Beijing’s main streets, two girls and a boy fall into step with me. The boy is friendly and talkative, the girls are pretty, flirtatious. They are art students; do I want to see an exhibition of their work?

How can I not? I follow them through back alleys crowded with hurrying figures to a large concrete building, their ‘exhibition’ is on the ground floor. Their artwork is terrible; shoddy, hurried and immature. Nevertheless, I make noises that are vaguely approving but, I hope, noncommittal. They are immune to my display of indifference and tell me the price of each piece and their soft sell has become suddenly pushy. I shake my head regretfully, make an excuse and leave.

I make my way back to Quianmen Daji and stop to eat. As I leave the restaurant I see them again, I wave and say hello but they look straight through me without acknowledgement, their expressions a mixture of hurt tolerance and suppressed rage. When I finally reach the Qiaoyuan Hotel the receptionist is asleep on her desk, her head rests on one arm that sprawls across it. Next to her a sign in English says, Good Service.

The Qiaoyuan Hotel is a tourist ghetto, several Western companies have set up offices in some of the rooms and a huddle of restaurants, souvenir shops and bicycle hire businesses crowd the gate. It is one of the few places in Beijing that will charge a foreigner a reasonable price for a room. It is old and worn and full of rumours. It seems that several people have been robbed changing money in the street, I don’t pay very much attention to these stories, there are always rumours among travellers of people being robbed by money changers, I have changed money illegally so often and in so many different places that I feel sure I can trust my instincts. Nevertheless, when I do exchange some money it is at the hotel reception desk and I think no more of it.

I meet two Swedes who have just arrived, Gunnar and Rahgnhild. We talk about money changing and I tell them some of my experiences. They listen carefully and I am flattered by the attention. I tell them that I changed money at the hotel reception desk but their funds are very limited and they think they can get a better rate by changing money in the street. When they ask me to help them I agree.

It doesn’t take us long to find a money changer, there is one near the front gate of the hotel, he is well-dressed, affable. Two men join us, one older, balding, the second thickset, stocky, I assume they are other money changers come to watch the transaction. We haggle for a while, I take this as a good sign – generally a money changer who haggles is not trying to rob you. The rate they agree to is good, but not spectacularly so; when something sounds too good to be true it usually is. A fourth man has joined the group. He stands to one side craning his neck to see.

Again this doesn’t seem strange, the Chinese love money, they even love looking at money. The Swedes count their bundle of five and ten yuan notes, it is correct so they hand over a hundred dollar note.

The money changer places the hundred dollar note in his pocket then asks if he can count the yuan again. The Swedes hand it back, he counts again quickly but, as he returns it, he removes the bottom half of the bundle and hides it up his sleeve. The movement is quick, but not deft. All three of us see it, we cry out together, “Hey!”, but the thickset one shoves me away and too late I realise that the other men are not merely interested bystanders. I shove him back, but all four of them are on me, kicking and punching. I kick and punch back, one squirts some pepper spray into my face, but I see the upraised can and wince away from the jet so most of it misses.

It stings my left eye a little, I stagger and the action of twisting away from the pepper spray and the weight of my camera bag make me fall to one knee. They hesitate, the Swedes have run off, I should run too, but I don’t.

They are standing around me in a semi-circle but edging away. One has a piece of broken concrete in his upraised hand, another a small stool, the one with the pepper spray is holding it out in front of himself. He looks ridiculous. They all look terrified, I know that I am, but I am angry too and I want to hurt these people.

Steel Nikon lenses prove their worth

I am still down on one knee but my hand has reached into my bag and closed around a 200mm lens, the weight of the bag is off my shoulder and I get up slowly, holding the lens behind me.

Suddenly the one with the concrete lunges forward, he is tense for a blow but it is as if he loses his courage in mid-stride. I bring the lens up over my body and down to strike his head but, seeing the falling blow, he recoils, still the lens catches his cheek and he staggers backward clutching his face. I strike again, again aiming for his head, his arm goes to ward off the blow and the lens strikes the piece of concrete in his hand. There is the sound of breaking glass, they run and suddenly I feel like an idiot. Why hadn’t I run? Who do I think I am? What am I trying to prove?

“That was stupid,” I say aloud. I am shaking with anger and fear. I look around, the street is empty but a few people have watched from shop windows and a Chinese cop has seen the whole incident from his vantage point leaning against the hotel doorway.

His face is a study in detachment. As I walk past him I say, “Thanks” and hope that he will understand the sarcasm in my tone, if not the words.

When I finally stop shaking I examine the lens. It is undamaged. Nikon build their lens bodies from solid steel. I put it on to a camera and check the focusing, it works perfectly, but the Skylight filter that screws into the front to correct contrast in daylight is smashed, the metal ring that holds it to the lens is warped and I cannot unscrew it. In the end I go to one of the bicycle hire shops, wedge the lens into a vice and prize out the ring with pliers, cursing my own stupidity but thankful for my good luck and the quality of Nikon gear.

Extracted from Nicholas Sumner’s new book ‘Available Light‘. His adventures in the Golden Age of travel photography are of interest to travellers and photographers alike. Find out more at

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