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Broke in Beijing

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Beijing is the final stop for my travel companions.  Our first night we walked along the outside of the Forbidden City and to Tiananmen Square.  Beijing is the nation’s political, educational and cultural capital.  To me, Beijing feels old.  Not in a crazy old lady way, but like that wise, old Grandpa who’s been through a lot and you don’t quite know what he’ll say next.  The show here isn’t Sci-fi looking buildings, but walls and fortresses that have stood for centuries trying to intimidate and ward off invaders.

Mcguiness’s final night we went to eat Peking Duck at a famous restaurant near the hostel.  “Peking” means Beijing, it’s a phrasing of the city name used by westerners back in the day and is reminiscent of the difference in pronunciation of Mandarin centuries ago.  The duck was delicious.  We ordered a bottle of good wine from Chile (my first decent glass of wine this whole trip) and they brought roasted duck out on a platter to get our approval before it was sliced up in front of us.

We went out hard that night to celebrate, bar hopping to at least seven different places.  And then the next morning it was time for them to leave.

I have a ticket from Beijing to Cambodia on the 25th for fourteen days.  I don’t have anything to do until then, except try and recover financially.  Traveling with friends who are on a 2-3 weeks vacation can really take a hit on your budget, especially with a wedding in Taiwan where you’re hitting bars every night.  I tried my best to chill with spending, but it was difficult.  Now it’s just me again, and to make this trip work I need to spend $28 a day, total.  About half of that will be spent on hostels and clean water.  That leaves $14 for food and nothing else.  First thing to leave behind? Booze.  Can’t do it.  Even getting a round of the cheapest beer available for my two friends cost me a third of my budget, and for these past few weeks, “one round” was an understatement.

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But there is a freedom in not having any money.  Money gives you choices, and the stress of having to choose.  Not for me anymore, I go for the cheapest option available, every time.  It’s like when you go to one of those restaurants where there are only two or three choices on the menu, doesn’t it feel good?  It’s a great asset for McSorley’s.  I spend almost as much time browsing in Netflix as actually watching movies.  Felix’s dad gave me two books to read before I left Taiwan, so even though I walk through every bookstore I see here, I can’t actually buy any of the books so I’m forced to read the ones he gave me.  It makes things so simple.

So after I bid my friends goodbye in the early afternoon I took a walk and found myself in front of Tiananmen Square again.  As I was walking, a young man started a conversation with me.  We walked and talked for twenty minutes and he told me that he owns an art gallery near the square.  Later, while I was standing and looking at the building, a young women came up to me and started talking to me.  We chatted for a bit, she was visiting from Harbin, near the border with Russia, for the weekend with her friend.  Her friend was sick in the hotel room and she decided to walk around alone.  She asked if I wanted to get a drink and I responded with, “Oh, I don’t drink alcohol.”  Whoa, I actually just said that.  That sounded weird.  Is she going to hate me now?  Will the world come crumbling down?  Will she see in your eyes the fact that you probably had 14 drinks last night Jim?  It was all clear, she suggested coffee at Starbucks instead.  Hmmmmmm, I actually don’t drink caffeine. She seemed confused by both refusals.  “How about tea?” I said.  Success.  I stood looking at the picture of Mao for another few seconds and she started getting antsy for us to go.  It was strange but I thought nothing of it.  We walked along the wall and found a small tea shop with little private rooms you could sit in.  The tea was expensive, one pot costing double my budget, so I opted for a latte instead.  The only time I can handle heavy caffeine is when I’m hungover, and earlier that morning I had sworn off alcohol for all of eternity.  She got the same.  The owner, a muscular Chinese man in his mid-thirties brought in the small cups and a plate of rice crackers.  We talked about random stuff, she was flirty.  Once or twice she touched my leg.  This was Beijing, and she was 29, so it could be plausible that a Chinese girl would be flirty and assertive with me, but it was unusual.  A solo male traveler learns to see warning signs of prostitution.  When I was twenty and living in Shenyang I would dance with beautiful girls at a club, feeling like a king, and then when our faces were close they would whisper a price in my ear for the night.  Talk about a kick to your ego.

I told her I couldn’t afford anything else, including a glass of wine she kept hinting at, so the owner brought the bill.  Each latte cost 40 yuan, the bill was for 330.  Huh?  What?  No, no, no.  The owner pointed to the back of the menu where it said there was a private room fee of 200 yuan, and then those stupid rice crackers cost 50.  50 yuan!  For crackers I could get in the states for a third of the price.  I tried to fight it, but it was a lost cause.  This guy wasn’t going to budge, and he didn’t need to.  Anqi, my new friend, said she would pay half but that still means I have to spend an entire day’s budget for one coffee.  Brutal.  We exchanged information and parted ways.

I ate a little dinner and walked around some more.  On a popular tourist street outside of a foreign language bookstore another girl came up to me, this one with a mask over her mouth to protect from the smog.  We talked for a few minutes and then she suggested we get a drink.  I replied that I didn’t drink alcohol.  Then she suggested getting tea or a juice.  I asked her to take off her mask.

“I’m not a prostitute” she replied.

“Great, can you take off your mask?” I’ve gotten good at spotting prostitutes from the way they put on makeup.  She took it off, no makeup.  “Ok” I said, “let’s go get a juice.  But I can’t spend much money, I’m on a very tight budget.”  She said that was no problem.

We went into a bar and she pointed to a private room in the back.  I asked if we have to pay for the room.  She looked at the bartender, he shrugged, sighed, and said no not to worry about it.  Good.  We sat down and I ordered an orange juice, the most concentrated orange juice in existence.  She got a cheap tea.  She seemed baffled by my lack of funds.  I think the new Pea Coat I bought in Vietnam is misleading for people.  I asked if she was here alone, she said she was visiting a friend but that her friend was sick in the hotel room. . . . .  Huh?  That sounds very familiar.  What’s happening here?  Oh god, am I about to get robbed?  This is a scam and I am falling for it.  I finished the “juice”, threw down 30 yuan and got out of there.

Two day later I met Matty, a British guy sleeping in the bed below me.  We became immediate friends and he came back frustrated one day complaining about the girls strolling the city trying to get guys to go to specific coffee shops so they can extort insane amounts of money. . . . . . . whoops.  I told him I had fallen for it.  “You fell for it?!!!!!”  Yes I did.   These past few weeks with friends had made me soft.  I’m soft!

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