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16-18 May 2018. I don’t see her coming. I’m walking through Beijing’s Jingshan Park and suddenly there she is beside me saying hello. We begin chatting as we walk along the main pedestrian thoroughfare through the park.

She says she wants to practice her English, and in retrospect I realise I must have looked like a walking duck, the only westerner for miles around.

I say I want to climb the hill to the tower for a view of the Forbidden City. We should go to a teahouse and relax she says, and then go to the tower. We should take time to talk she says. I’m a little afraid that I’ll not be able to shake her, that she’ll be a leach and follow me all day, but anyway I’m in a mood to be compliant so I go with her to the teahouse nearby. I’m alone in Beijing and happy to meet someone local. It’s the reason we travel isn’t it – to get to know the people and the culture?

I’m about to order coffee, but no, the coffee’s not good, it’s better to get tea and take our time she says. It’s better to get a pot rather than individual cups of tea, and relax she says. So I go along with it.

We have Dragon Green Tea served in a big elegant glass pot that is then poured into a small glass jug that is then poured into tiny individual porcelain bowls. As the British say – she’s “mother”, and does all the pouring. Good thing. I probably would have missed a step. She’s confident and fluid in her movements and orchestration of the “ceremony”. I’m encouraged to order something to eat so I order a plate of cookies (similar to shortbread) to go along with the tea.

Anna tells me she is 25, an accountant at the beginning of her working life, and pressured by her parents to marry. She lives in a city about two hours by fast-train from Beijing and is on holiday (or perhaps she means she has a day off from work). She says that because she’s Buddhist and had been to see a lama that morning I’m not allowed photograph her. I take this at face value since I know little of Buddhist practice in China. I’m so gullible. And way too trusting. I shouldn’t be let out alone.

At one point she suggests we also have a pot of black tea so I can taste that as well as the green tea. I’m thinking she’ll sit there with me for several hours if I allow it. I’m not that compliant. When we finish and I say I’m ready to go she calls for the bill. I’m told (by the English speaking waitress) that it is 200 Yuen. There is not even the slightest hint from Anna that she will pay her half; not even a movement to her purse. I’m too polite to say anything.

I pay and Madam Anna politely says thank you. Not Thank you so much, not oh that’s so nice of you, thank you! No. It’s just a neutral polite thank you, as if she’s entitled. Hmmmmm. I know her English is better than that. This is not something lost in translation. Perhaps a cultural difference, a nuance that I don’t understand? Either way it felt weird.

I’d thought she wanted to climb to the tower with me and am relieved when she says that she’s already been up to the tower, so we say our goodbyes and off she goes. It has overall been an interesting and pleasant experience. It’s only later that I do the calculation and realise that 200 Yuen is $40! Tea or coffee and a treat for two in Vancouver costs $15, in Australia $20, in New Zealand $25. I never thought I’d find a place that would be more expensive than New Zealand!

Subsequently I find out about the tea scam in China wherein tourists are taken for hundreds of dollars. Young women with good English approach westerners and, after becoming your new best friend, they take you to a teahouse. Many teas are tasted. Food is ordered. And the guest is expected to pay for it all. A couple of the stories I read cost the hapless visitor about $100. Others have paid upwards of $300. By those standards I got off lightly. Two hundred Yuen is, after all, only $40. By far the most expensive cup of tea and cookies I’ve ever had, or ever will have, but it was definitely worth it. And here’s the thing – after I found out about the scam I went back to the same teahouse and looked at the menu. Sure enough the Dragon Green Tea was listed at 180 Yuen, and the cookies at 40 so the total should have been 220. I’m now certain it was a scam, but really so gentle and a small price to pay for the experience. I think the scam was for her to get people to come to the teahouse. She did a good job. Well, at least she did with lonely gullible me. If I’d known ahead of time that her whole story was a fabrication for gullible tourists I’d still have done it, but I’d have asked a lot more questions!

I’d arrived in China not much more than 24 hours before. I’m met at the airport by a driver who expects me to be male. Showing him my passport sorts it out and we begin the long smoggy drive into the city. I’m three days early to join a three-week tour of China with Intrepid Travel and have opted for a single supplement. Little English is spoken by the people on reception at the hotel but we manage to communicate enough to get me to my room. My jaw drops.

I have what amounts to a suite! It is old and shabby and basically brown, with décor circa 1960, but it is palatial in size with a living room and bathroom downstairs and a bedroom upstairs. After a hostel room in Japan for 18 days it feels luxurious to be able to spread out. I have six nights here so I get settled in.

Later, looking for something to eat, I wander out into the hotel’s courtyard and so to the street. On the way I meet another westerner who tells me that there is a small restaurant at the end of the street where they speak some English. The plate of pork dumplings is not great but fills me up, and I discover a convenience store very close to the hotel to get some snacks, and milk for my morning cup of tea. It’s as soft a landing as possible considering how much I’m missing Don and feeling disoriented. In retrospect I’m regretful about how off-kilter I was during the whole journey. I want a do-over!

From the street you’d hardly know there was even a hotel there except for a small sign. There’s a parking attendant box and boom gate across the entrance to the courtyard. The street is quiet, almost a suburban street – people coming and going on foot, bicycles, electric motor scooters, the occasional car, but it is never crowded. There are three or four down-home local restaurants, a couple of small fruit and vegetable stores, a small pharmacy, a small supermarket, the convenience store, and another hotel. It feels safe, local, easy, authentic – just an ordinary small Beijing back street a short walk from two beautiful parks, and main roads for local buses.

I’m told that breakfast at the hotel is from 7-9.30. I arrive at 8.45. After years of travel I know that western breakfasts in three-star Asian hotels are usually pretty awful, and I love Chinese food, so I opt for the local food from the buffet. A quick segue here – I must say that the scrambled eggs I had every morning in the hostel in Tokyo were the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had, anywhere, ever!

The buffet is a disappointment. The two vegetable dishes and the meat dish are all cold by now, and there is no rice left. I ask for more rice but am told no more rice! The service is appalling. And shocking after being in Japan where the service is always impeccable.

I spend the day doing a huge pile of laundry, writing, and photo editing. For lunch I eat a truly awful sandwich from the convenience store.

That night I have one of the best meals I have in the entire four weeks in China.

This is the aftermath of the meal. I do wish I’d taken a “before” shot but I was too busy learning about, and eating, Chinese Hot Pot. The huge black thing in the middle is used to keep the broth warm, the remains of which can be seen surrounding it. We have fresh lamb, thinly sliced frozen lamb, vegetable greens, straw mushrooms, dark brown tree fungus, and tofu, all cooked by us in the hot pot at the table and dipped in a sesame sauce. It is so good.

The fabulous person to orchestrate all this is Karen from Intrepid. She collects me from my hotel and we take a long local bus ride. We arrive at a beautiful lake

and follow a canal nearby as the sun sets, and the city comes to life with neon lights glowing in the darkness.

We wander on into a “hutong” area, defined by the style of housing dating back centuries. I’m suddenly aware that I’m surrounded by the same familiar and comforting aroma found in Chinatowns everywhere.

By now we are famished, our hunger increased by the tempting aroma of dinner cooking in the hutong area, so we make our way to the restaurant for the hot pot dinner. Thank you Karen for a wonderful evening!

The quick postscript to this is that ten months later Don and I are in Rishikesh, India walking along the ghats of the Ganges River. There are thousands of visitors, including us, in town for Mooji, a spiritual teacher. At the same time there are two five-day yoga festivals taking place, attracting hundreds more people to the city.

Suddenly I hear my name called by a person walking towards me. It’s Karen! The chance of each us even knowing the other is in Rishikesh is millions to one, let alone actually meeting, and yet here she is, greeting me by the banks of the Ganges. What a sweet meeting. I love the serendipity of travel. And the special people you meet along the way.

The next morning I walk from the hotel to Jingshan Park and meet Anna and the forty-dollar cup of tea.

Jingshan Park, covering 57 acres, sits right in the centre of Beijing. It is a royal landscape garden built on Jingshan Hill. The hill has five summits, with a pavilion on each summit.

Sometime during the Yongle era (as in Emperor Yongle 1360–1424) the hill was constructed from earth dug to form the moats and nearby canals of the Forbidden City. Jingshan was originally a royal park accessible only from the palace. It became a public park in 1928.

It’s spring, the trees are bursting with green, and in the well-tended flowerbeds lupines, petunias, marigolds, and peonies sing their bright colours.

I climb the hill to the highest pavilion

and get my first glimpse of the legendary Forbidden City. I’m completely blown away by it’s magnitude. It’s huge! To give some perspective those tiny dots in the centre foreground are people.

In other directions there are more views of Beijing looking over the Jingshan and Beihai Park areas to the city beyond.

The park is overflowing with life. Up on the pavilion there’s a young artist at work.

In a hidden corner a man practices the sax,

and there are several groups of card players.

It is one of the things I come to love about China – people get together in large numbers in public parks to participate in: a game of cards, ballroom dancing, tai chi, aerobics, martial arts, sword and fan dancing, tai chi tennis, Chinese chess, kite flying, and my personal favourite, playing and singing traditional Chinese opera. I come across a couple of groups in Jingshan Park and stop to take it in.

Sitting on a bench outside a gazebo – singing their hearts out:

At the end of a couple of songs I clap and everyone is delighted, especially me. The sheer joy in their activity lifts my spirits and fills me with joy too. Inside the gazebo, just on the other side of that brick wall is another group including this woman playing the yueqin,

and several people watching and enjoying the music.

Beyond Jingshan Park you can walk for miles on pedestrian pathways alongside a series of lakes.

To the south is Middle Sea and Southern Sea. Jingshan Park is adjacent to Northern Sea where you can cross a bridge onto the island of Beihai Park. To the north is Qianhai Lake and Houhai Lake. There are pleasure boats on the lakes, and the whole area has the feel of being Beijing’s playground.

Beihai Park covers 175 acres, more than half of which is the lake known as Northern Sea. I walk all the way up one side and beyond to Qianhai Lake. Crossing a small bridge there I walk down the other side by a curious group of buildings. They appear to be abandoned bars and restaurants.

I peer inside, and building after building is heavy with neglect and thick with dust. Perhaps this was the place to be at one time, but has since lost favour as other parts of the city came into vogue, such as the area by the canal where I went with Karen and which was teeming with nightlife.

I have one more meal to find for myself before joining the tour. I walk into one of the restaurants in the street next to the hotel and look at the photos on the wall. The waitress brings me a menu with the photos and then a smaller one in English. I point at noodles and vegetables expecting chow mein type noodles and a big pile of mixed veggies but get fat flavourless noodles in a flavourless broth with lots of bok choy leaves and half a hard-boiled egg floating in it. Just awful. I suppose the good news is it only costs $4. The even better good news is that almost all the other meals I have in China are drool-worthy. More to come on that.

Next couple of posts: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and the non-event of the Great Wall; also Beijing’s hutongs, and street food.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.