the (un)kindness of strangers

so we took the bus to wutai shan, leaving the stopover port of datong (proud designee of one of the most polluted cities in china) gratefully in our wake. in South america, they’re affectionately known as “chicken buses” – here they’re just impossibly crowded, ancient, and dirty buswes with roadside farmers jumping on and off every few miles. However the fact that they require automatic purchase of life insurce awith your ticket should give you some idea of the quality of vehicles we were travelling in. At one point during the 6 hour trip, there was a heated discussion between a group of farmers over one guy who got on waving a packet of old polish zlotys – not sure what the gist of that was all about, but the outcome was that he was unceremoniously dumped off the bus.

wutai shan is one of the most holy buddhist spots in all of china, but it’s farily remote, and has, as yet, been relatively untouched by foreign tourism. we had been running low on cash, as there wasn’t a working atm in datong, but weren’t particularly worried, as there was a national bank of china in wutai shan. so we checked into our hotel, did a little wandering, and stopped off for lunch, with about 70 yuan in our pockets. given that even the most expensive dishes usuall only cost about 20 yuan (the equivalent of a little less than 2 pounds) we had more than enough for a light lunch of some noodles and rice. the proprietors of a small cafe off the sqaure beckoned us in, and poured us some tea as they handed us teh menus – completely in chinese. when it became clear that we hadn’t got a clue, they started pointing to the 120 yuam dishes, to which we replied a firm “no”. paging through the guidebook for “everyday dishes”, I ordered a bowl of wonton soup, and j ordered some chicken fried rice. what emerged from the kitchen, however, was a bowl of wonton soup, a plate of fried rice, and what can only be described as a small vat of chicken stock, complete with gristle, bones and neck. it was the size of a small washing up tub. of chicken soup. unsure how to attack it, j decided to leave it untouched and we asked for the bill. which came to… 186 yuan. (as a further point of reference, our two nights in a dodgy hotel only came to 160 yuan).

seems that even after firmly declining the exact dish they’d originally pointed to, we’d somehow *magically, and inadvertently* managed to order the very same thing. what a coincidence. it suddenly became crystal clear that they were taking the piss, and had decided to see not only *what* they could get westerners to eat, but *what* they could get them to pay for it, and pulled something off the back of the stove and put it in a bowl. after hemming and hawing amongst ourselves, we emptied our pockets on the table, shrugged, apologised, and left. what could we do? my first “dine and ditch”.

this little expensive lesson, however, left us with not a single yuan to our name. so we headed off to the bank. with no atm in sight, we dug out the reserve travellers’ cheques. which were met with a clear “no”. we went slackjawed in disbelief. we clawed out the emergency cash – pounds and u.s. dollars. negatory.

at a loss, we pondered out options – starve for the next 24 hours and try to buy a bus ticket to the nearest big town on credit, or um….. that was it. in a village without an atm, without a proper hotel, and without even the slightest concession to the tourist, the sudden very real probability of being stuck here without any resources available – well, panic set in. luckily, i do some of my best thinking under pressure, and marched up to the cits office. (explanatory note: the cits is the governement office in charge of the safety of tourists, and basically they usually act as glorified travel agents, but their ultimate responsibility is for the foreigner’s well being.) the lovely cits woman had about 10 words fo english to her vocabulary, and basically sent us back to the bank – who again turned us down. returning to cits again, we were getting nowhere fast until in a fit of desperation i showed her my american dollars with tears in my eyes. appparently the greenback still talks. she marched off to the bank, then came back eith a friend of hers, whom she’d persuaded to withdraw 300 yuan from their own account in exchange for $40 bucks. we were saved.

i’m pretty sure i got sscrewed on the exchange rate, but i’m not complaining.

One Response to “the (un)kindness of strangers”

  1. k
    April 23rd, 2006 17:41

    The boy laughs, but I always have a bit of the “green” on me when we travel; it comes in handy. Glad to hear it all worked out and well done on being resourceful! k

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