This story is about a bit of a dodgy situation I found myself in while out and about in the early hours of the morning in central Beijing.
After a few hours at the heaven supermarket, we headed to a rooftop nightclub somewhere nearby - I'm not completely clear on all the details but after a few more hours i'd managed to lose track of the freinds I'd gone there with, and decided it was time to go home.
I went outside the club to try and flag down a taxi...but as I've come to realise in many Chinese cities, this is easier said than done! The taxi's will often ignore you for no apparent reason, or if you do get one they will very often either not understand where you want to go (despite me having the hostel address marked on a little map), or simply not really feel like taking you.
I knew full well that these tricycles are scammy and will do their darndest to rip you off, but it was very late, i'd lost my patience with the taxi's and eventually gave in, though I did make sure to agree the price in advance and to be clear that he wouldn't be getting any more money than we agreed. And so we set off on our way. The guy seemed like a cheerful fellow and everything seemed to be going smoothly, we were headed in the right direction at least....
Then he turns round and asks me if I want to try cycling it! I know, right, the barefaced cheek! That's what I was supposed to be paying him to do!
That wasn't the actual scam though...and, being a bit tipsy, having a go at cycling the tricycle did seem like a great idea at the time. So I started off down the road, with the driver now sitting behind me in the cart and providing encouraging remarks.
It was only about a minute later that I did my sub-concious check of my stuff and I realised that my wallet was GONE out of my pocket! Obviously sitting behind me he was in an ideal position to carry out the nimble fingered manouvre - despite the fact that my wallet is pretty difficult to actually detach from myself, I have it attached on a metal keyring carabina to help stop this kind of thing from happening (see photo to the right) - but anyway with my attention diverted on cycling he did manage it, the cheeky swine.
The thing is, I must have checked at pretty much the same minute he'd just managed to take it - because the minute I noticed I stopped the bike and turned round to confront him about it and saw that my wallet was actually lying on the road, just behind the tricycle.
I don't know whether he managed to fumble up the theft and drop it by accident, or perhaps this was part of the plan and he would drop it in that place and come back to get it later. Anyway I gave him some harsh words and jumped off the tricycle to retrieve it, at which point he also got off and simultaneously went for it too! Luckily, I managed to get it first but he was still coming for me to get the wallet back - I was extremely pissed off as you can imagine and pushed him backwards and went to engage him while shouting at him....
This was enough to get him to back off temporarily... but he went back to his tricycle to retrieve a piece of metal - it was actually one of those D-Locks for locking up a bike. And he was now coming back at me, looking agitated, and aggressively brandishing his rudimentary weapon.
Whether this was a sensible idea or not, I decided to take him up on his offer and raised my fists and went towards him with a pretty determined aim of taking him down, and telling him so - i think he did get the message as when I got close to him, he backed off again, before rounding on me for another two attempts. Each time, I responded with aggression which was enough to get him to move way from me. I suppose that he'd hoped that when he brought out the metal object I would give up and just hand him the wallet, but this wasn't going to happen as I was pretty furious with the guy!
Anyway he did eventually go away and I jumped over a hedge and made my way into the middle of the main road, now pretty empty as it was so early in the morning, but I was in a brightly lit area with some occasional traffic and he was going to have a hard time getting his tricycle there...At some point during our exchange it did briefly occur to me that I was in a position to actually jump on board of his tricycle and steal it. That really would have served him right, and I chastised myself shortly afterwards for not having done so - on sober reflection however, that move could have ended up going badly wrong in a lot of ways!
Overall I count myself lucky for managing to get away from that situation with my wallet intact and without actually getting into a fight. One thing I didn't get away with though was the f*cking map with the name and address of the hostel on it, as i'd given it to that tricycling scoundrel! So as a result I was basically stranded in the middle of the city, with very little hope of figuring out where the hell I was or how to get back to the hostel!
If it had been difficult getting a taxi before, it was now actually impossible, as I didn't know the address - I could only vaguely remember half of the name of word of the nearest metro station to the hostel, and even that I failed to pronounce to the many taxi drivers I attmepted to flag down...Zhong-zig?-hong?? something?....like...that? please?? That wasn't going to fly.
So I was left randomly wandering the streets for the next couple of hours. All the while, several more tricyclist tricksters were spotting me as clearly lost prey and approaching to me offer what would surely be as fantastic a journey as i'd just come off from...in a bit of an rattled mood I started off by telling them exactly what I thought ("NO WAY I am I getting on your f*cking stupid three wheeled bike scam-traption...") but this approach turned out to be counter productive as they take any type of talking as acknowledging their presence, encouraging them to follow you around nagging you for even longer. I eventually realised the best policy is just to ignore them completely, don't even look at them - and to be honest this is now my policy for anyone attempting to solicit transportation, regardless of the number of wheels their chosen vehicle has!
I was still pretty stuck though, and in a pretty desperate move I texted Lisa back home in UK to text me the address/name of the hostel. Sadly, my phone is too crappy to display Chinese charachters so this was not very useful either. In the end, I had a lucky break which was to come across a group of three young Chinese who spoke some English. This was very lucky I think because the streets were really pretty deserted at this point. I talked to them and explained my plight ("Ohhh..you didn't get on one of those tricycles did you...?!"). After explaining to them the rough direction of where I'd been that night and where I wanted to be I got them to list metro stations in the vicinity until eventually I recognised the missing piece of my puzzle "Zhangzizhonglu". With this new info, I was eventually able to get a taxi who understood where I wanted to go and took me back there where I could work out my way back to the hostel.
I talked to several other people that had problems with these tricycle people, ranging from taking you to places you didn't want to go and still charging, changing their mind about the price (no....i didn't say 30 RMB, I said 300 RMB!) - and in one case someone told me they were forced to pull out a knife to ward off an ambush situation but that just sounds like such a potentially nasty situation you don't even want to consider it!
I've also heard that you really don't want to get involved with fights with Chinese people as a foreigner, because this can very quicky escalate to all nearby locals getting involved, rapidly turning a manageable 1-on-1 situation to a 10-on-1 one.
I guess the moral of this story is always to be on your guard, particularly with people that try overly hard to offer their services to you. These pushy people normally turn out to be some kind of rip-off, if not worse and should be avoided!
Scams can be very subtle at times. At one point on our way to the Great Wall, I was with a friend going to the public bus station to catch a bus there the 'proper' way (avoiding the expensive tours). We'd done our research, we knew the numbers of the buses we wanted to get, etc.
As we got out of the metro station, a female bus driver in uniform came up to us and offered to show us to the bus station, which was nearby but we didn't know exactly where. So we followed her there. She even knew a quicker and cheaper bus we could take that would take us directly there. To be honest we would have fallen for this scam if we hadn't been interrupted on our path and warned about this 'bus driver' by some other tourists who had been duped the previous day! She wasn't a real bus driver...the bus she would lead us to was indeed real, but it would have taken us to somewhere in the middle of nowhere, where we would have had no choice but to get into one of the super-expensive taxi's conveniently ready for us in this deserted spot!
This kind of stuff can put you a bit on edge but bear in mind it is primarily associated with the big cities and in particular the touristy areas.
One thing that is a big shame is that there are actually many people that are genuinely interested in meeting and talking to foreigners, practicing their English etc. Hearing about or experiencing incidents like this makes you naturally wary about ANYONE trying to interact you...in my opinion these random interactions with strangers often end up leading to the best travel experiences, so you really can't be over paranoid about this stuff. So here are a couple of simple tips that should help you to make the most of local interaction without getting scammed:
Whenever you want something, whether it is directions, a taxi, a bus, a tour, souvenirs, food, drink, etc. literally WHATEVER it happens to be... ask people to find out where you need to get your chosen good/service, and then go and approach people to get it.
All the main scams or rip-offs start with people approaching you offering this and that bullshit item or scam and they normal don't easily take no for an answer. After a while, they become pretty easy to spot. I've found a good way to deal with these people without having to awkwardly ignore them is just to laugh at them. Or if you are feeling cheeky, enthusiastically offer them some random bit of crap from the bottom of your pocket for a stupidly high price.
Avoid people approaching you offering you stuff, even if it's just directions. You choose who to approach! Anywhere I go, people are more than happy to help you if you approach them, even if they don't speak English. A lot of extremely good info is available from locals in this way, often much better than from fellow travellers or the lonely planet guide.
If people come up and talk to you because they want to meet you, or practice their English, they won't have anything to sell you and they will still be very happy to talk to you anywhere, including just in the street where you are, or especially a place of your own choosing!
Finally if you really want to interact with the locals, which you should, find an excuse to go and talk to them!
You don't need to wait for them to approach you :)