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Like a lamb to the slaughter, I followed my new friend Chen Chong into the bowels of Qianmen Avenue, home to the first cinema and some of the oldest silk and tea shops in Beijing.
I had bumped into Chong minutes earlier in Tiananmen Square, which I reached from my hotel by using the remarkably convenient Beijing subway system, which cost me just two yuan (about R2).
As I began to scan the vast expanse of the square and nearby Forbidden City, Chong approached politely to ask whether I minded taking his photograph beneath a towering portrait of Chairman Mao.
Having snapped his picture, I asked whether he would return the favour by taking my photo with Mao.
China’s experiment with communism has evolved markedly since the death of Mao in 1976, yet the nature of modern Chinese political policy remains an enigma.
On paper, China is one of just five remaining communist nations in the world.
But my first impressions of the Chinese capital were of an unashamedly modern, consumerist and capitalist state.
The customs and immigration officials were remarkably professional and almost welcoming.
On the journey from the airport to the city centre, the highways and buildings are lit up by a colourful riot of neon lights and brand names.
Visitors to Beijing’s malls and hotels may well think they are in Paris or New York amid all the billboards for Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Marriott, Hyatt and the ubiquitous McDonald’s.
Still, the leaders of modern China prefer to describe the political system as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Perhaps it was my hunger to gain a better handle on the intricacies of modern Chinese politics that led me unwittingly into Chen Chong’s carefully woven trap.
Chong said that, like me, he was a tourist.
He lived in the city of Xi’an, where he and his father ran a steel business.
He was just visiting Beijing for the weekend for a family wedding and had slipped out, hoping to track down a copy of the biography of the late Apple Inc chief, Steve Jobs.
From a previous visit, he knew of a bookstore where he might pick up an English copy. The bookshop was in an interesting, historic part of the city and if I was at a loose end, he was happy to show me the way there.
I like to think I can spot a hustler from a hundred paces, but Chong was slick. Keen to get to know an ordinary Chinese person – especially one so articulate in English – I followed Chong with alacrity.
He led me on a merry tour of the Qianmen district and even excused himself briefly to venture into an old bookstore to ferret out a copy of Jobs’s biography.
He emerged looking disappointed, but suggested we go get a beer or a cup of tea.
Since it was just past noon, I thought tea sounded like a good idea.
We descended a flight of stairs to a Chinese tea shop.
Here we were ushered into a private booth and welcomed by a young hostess in traditional Chinese attire, who had arrayed before her a dozen Chinese teas – ginseng, chrysanthemum, litchi, jasmine and others.
As we sampled each, we quizzed each other about our respective nations, and I began to think I was at last gaining some rudimentary insight into the complexity of the modern Chinese enigma.
All the while, our hostess was deftly wielding a pair of tweezers to rinse and heat our porcelain tea-sampling cups or concocting fresh infusions to be sniffed and savoured.
Finally, she enquired which tea we liked most – and would we like to buy some?
A little warning bell began tinkling gently in some part of my brain at this point, but I said: “I would like some of the litchi tea in the green canister.”
Chong opted for a little red canister of jasmine tea as a gift for his mother-in-law, nicely presented in an ornate paper gift bag.
When the bill arrived, my eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets. Totted up neatly in Chinglish was an itemised account for an obscene quantity of yuans.
Chong was quick to reassure me the bill was reasonable and included service charges and all the teas we had tasted.
And not to worry, he said, he would pay for his red canister, I would pay for my green and we would split the bill for the remainder.
I protested that I simply did not have enough yuan in my wallet to cover this amount. The alarm bells had started to ring more loudly at this point, but Chong reassured me he would pay the outstanding balance for my portion of the bill.
So it was that I dug into my wallet and coughed up an outlandishly unmentionable quantity of yuan notes, amid the dawning certainty that I was being ripped off.
In the circumstances I decided it was time to terminate Chong’s acquaintance and I departed hurriedly on foot in the direction of the Temple of Heaven.
Chong, I suspect, returned pronto to the tea house to collect his commission.
But my misadventures were not quite concluded.
On my way to the Temple of Heaven, I was hailed by a motorised tricycle taxi-rider who asked whether I needed a lift.
“How much?” I barked suspiciously.
When the trike rider held up three fingers I hopped on the back, concluding that this was just one yuan more than my subway trip earlier that morning.
The rider was not as articulate as Chong, but as he steered his bike towards the temple he turned his head to enquire which country I was from.
“Ah, South Africa,” he beamed. It was as though I had just announced the birth of his first son.
But his sweet smile vanished when we arrived at the temple and I fished out three yuan notes from my wallet.
It was as if I were trying to hand him a decayed fish.
Was I trying to rob him? The fee was not three lousy yuan. He held up his three fingers again.
“Three hundred yuan! Three hundred yuan! You pay!” he demanded.
Once bitten, twice shy, I remonstrated that he had transported me a little less than a kilometre and I had no intention of paying him that much.
Besides, I pointed out, I did not have 300 yuan. Chong had taken care of that.
But this taxi rider had eyes as sharp as an eagle. Tucked behind the depleted contents of my wallet he had spotted a small wad of green notes, my reserve stash of American dollars.
“Okay, you give me $30. You pay! You pay!”
I fished out a $10 note, thrust this into his hand and started to walk away. But the taxi-rider blocked my path and then we got into a pushing and shoving match as I tried to make good my escape.
All the while he was bellowing and screaming in English and Mandarin, playing up to the gallery to indicate this foreign devil was trying to cheat a poor, hardworking taxi-rider.
Eventually I parted with another green note to put an end to the spectacle and walked away with his curses ringing in my ears.
Some hours later I returned to my hotel by subway without further incident – but with my tail firmly between my legs after being fleeced by at least two enterprising Chinese with distinctly capitalist tendencies.