I spent my first day in Beijing wandering through Hutong to avenue and back to Hutong, gradually getting my bearings and discovering the city’s idiosyncrasies.
For example, unlike Vietnam, where it’s blatantly evident that crossing the road is a death wish, Beijing leads you into a false sense of security by feigning organisation. You’re given a green man and the number of seconds you have him, while not being informed that the traffic carries on regardless. You only discover this once you are halfway across, with a local bus up your backside and an angry taxi driver blocking your path.
Despite being a very nervous pedestrian, things were going well. I had sampled an authentic mutton hotpot for lunch (being taught how to properly use chopsticks in the process – much to the locals’ amusement), before escaping the touts and tricksters outside The Forbidden City to explore Jingshan Park and it’s five pavilions. In the process I stumbled upon a 360-degree view of the city. I had even used my newfound language skills to purchase a locally priced bag of pistachio nuts: “Hello”, point at goods, “thank you”.
By late afternoon, following a trip around the Winter Palace, a few more hutongs and some over-enthusiastic photography of the mandarin ducks speckling Beihai Lake, I was feeling somewhat smug. I’m rather good at being a tourist, I thought. I was about to be an even better tourist than I had imagined.
I saw Zhang Li before she saw me. A Chinese girl roughly my age in a smart baby blue winter coat, she was snapping away at the walls of the Forbidden City. Smiling, she came over to me and introduced herself, asked where I was from and before I knew it, we were strolling towards my hostel like long lost friends. She’s an English teacher from Xian visiting friends here; she has a boyfriend but they’re struggling to save money to buy a house and get married; her grandma lives in a country village and she visits her twice a month; and would I like to stop in a tea house on the way home to carry on chatting? Yes, of course, I said.
The tea was great. And I really mean that. We tried Hu Long, green and a third that tasted of lemon but the name escapes me. We chatted for almost two hours. Her favourite Spanish actor is Javier Bardem, (ah so is mine, what are the chances!) she has been to Beijing many times but is saving to travel through Europe; She loves movies in general; what is Australia like? Where are my brothers from? And can she take my email so we can keep in touch? Yes, of course, I said.
“Maidan!” I shouted with glee at the end of our encounter. Not only had I spent the last few hours interacting with a local, I had also just learnt another new word to add to my vocabulary – bill please! My heart sank as the waitress descended on our table and the reality of the situation hit me. I could barely focus on the figures as feelings of anger, confusion and disbelief rushed through me. I looked across the table at this unassuming young lady, more smartly dressed than me, with a big smile and geeky glasses. Could she really be such a good liar?
Three pots of tea totalled 300 Australian dollars. I protested the expense but was quickly forced to get my bankcard out. Being cornered and alone, I quickly realised that an altercation would risk my safety. I reluctantly succumbed to the scam that had unfolded; resigning myself to the fact that my new alliance was one of the very tricksters I had dodged successfully only a few hours earlier.
Once back in the relative safety of the hostel, I slumped onto a sofa and drew out the email address that Zhang Li had exchanged with mine. My weariness overcame me as I acknowledged the absolute heartlessness of my new friend. It read: “You know” @hotmail.com. I did now.