In the absence of anything else we were done. Time to leave.
I turned and made the universal cheque, bill, l’addition, conto sign. I wrote on my hand in thin air with an imaginary pen in the direction of the young girl standing attentively nearby. Immediately she scurried away and I returned to savour the view for what remained of my time in the exquisite Chinese teahouse.
Our day to that point had taken us on a local taxi ride from our hotel in downtown Xi’an central China to the Lintong District of the city. We were deposited close to, but not exactly at, the entrance of the World Heritage site containing 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors built to protect the first emperor of China. The close to drop off point was by design. A barely disguised local conspiracy to funnel the thousands of tourists heading to the famous site through a well constructed street seller ambush. From the drop off point there simply was no other way there. If you wanted to visit it you have to run the gauntlet and judging from the skin colour and girth of our fellow travellers most had travelled some way to be there. It wasn’t as if they could come back later when it was less busy.
In my experience the Chinese are only beaten by the Egyptians when it comes to selling. Persuade, talk, keep talking, be physical, angry, happy, keep talking. ‘No’ is simply not part of a street sellers vocabulary. It doesn’t register. Keep going, keep talking, keep pestering and eventually, if all else fails the customer will buy just to make it stop. Persistence is key and Chinese street sellers have this in abundance.
‘Don’t make eye contact’ I warned sternly as I gripped my girlfriend’s hand and pulled her firmly down the centre. I could see in my peripheral vision tourists being picked off with ease but we didn’t hesitate or falter. We kept going, body swerving the stand in front of you tactics and ignoring the calls, shouts and a plethora of terracotta offerings lining the route. An avenue of naked dancing medusas would have struggled to catch our eye that day. We were seasoned travellers, we had the boots, we had the hats, we had the bum bags. I even had the beard and it would take a lot more than a few shouts or a good price to make us fall into such a well-worn tourist trap.
Arriving at the entrance with our self-esteem and our wallets intact we breathed a sigh of relief and wiped plaster dust from our clothes. Behind us it was a feeding frenzy. A massacre. A lone tour guide held a flag high above the crowd, her flock were being picked off as she walked, pulled away, chewed up and spread to the wind. She arrived next to us. Alone and smiling. Perhaps she was part of the conspiracy too I thought.
We spent four hours wandering around the various marquees protecting the warriors marvelling at the sheer scale and craftsmanship on display. Whatever it was he had done it must have pretty damn serious judging from the protection Qin Shi Huang took with him into the afterlife. Eventually though it was time to leave.
Once more into the valley I thought as we stepped out into the humid spring day but fortunately the sellers were gone. The stalls were deserted. There was the odd tourist left standing outside looking confused and holding a life-sized replica warrior but apart from that it was deserted. There were one or two taxi’s waiting hopefully for the odd tourist not assigned to a bus tour (us) so we ambled towards them.
Next stop the Huaqing Hot Springs and a cup of tea in a teahouse.
Some time later the girl returned with the bill.
She spoke in Chinese to my girlfriend. Her voice was soft and she had a very appealing demeanour. Waif like. She handed me a small handwritten note with both hands, bowed and stood respectfully back. The note was littered with unintelligible symbols.
My girlfriend glanced at the note, looked at me and then said a few clarifying, sing, song words to the girl. Her expression was dark.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked
‘We’ve been charged about €15 for the tea’
We’d been had. Been got.
For all our experience and savvy-ness we had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Don’t turn on the meter in the cab then pluck a number from thin air at the end of the ride. Don’t mention the price before you pull away or consume, then inflate after the service has been performed.
We had fallen for it and I scratched my Indiana Jones beard feeling more like a British accountant on holiday than I ever had during ouradventure holiday. The girl stood by quietly smiling. She was smiling an ‘I got you smile’, that ‘You are so far away from home, try complaining, just try it white boy’ smile.
We looked at each other, the look was enough and we both knew it. That sinking feeling, that realisation we were not as worldly wise or tourist trap resistant as we had led ourselves to believe.
I started to count out the notes onto the table. As I finished I handed them over with a glare to our sweet young thieving hostess. She bowed yet again, smiled and then spoke in a thick, heavily accented English.
It wasn’t the jetlag and it isn’t my memory playing games with me. I am certain that as she spoke and for the briefest of moments her eyes glowed a deep dark red.
‘Each’ she said.