I have written on how my arrival in China was such a shock that I almost decided to leave the country right away and fly back to Canada. My anxiety eventually calmed down, but that first day in Beijing had other things in store for me.
After my anxiety attack of the morning, I finally found enough courage to visit my new city. I headed for Beihai Park which was not far from my new apartment. Beihai Park is probably Beijing’s most popular park. It used to be an ancient imperial garden, and it is one of the largest parks of its kind in China. It also has several historic buildings and sites, such as the famous Nine-Dragon Wall.
Beihai Park gave me the opportunity to see for the first time the China that I had dreamed of: lotus flowers, ponds and their Asian carp, pagodas, round doors, old pavilions with unique architecture… My anxiety of the morning finally gave way to the wonder of discovering a new country.
While going through one of the old pavilions in the park, I was intercepted by a girl who asked me in a broken English if I wanted to take a picture in traditional Chinese costume. She showed me some examples in which tourists were dressed in a colorful costume and posing in an imperial-like setting.
The idea at first seemed ridiculous, but the girl seemed pretty nice and when I asked her the price, she answered me that it was 50 yuan, the equivalent of about 7 Canadian dollars. It seemed very little to me, and I thought it would be a funny memory to bring back from China.
So I accepted and the girl kindly helped me put on the costume and led me to the false throne where I tried to take my most imperial pose.
After a few shots, the girl made me change my headdress. Then added accessories. Then asked me to put on a new hat, to strike a new pose, while she took more pictures. Whenever I thought the picture was taken, she shook her head laughing, motioned me to sit down and handed me a new hat to try.
As I was starting to get impatient, she took my hand and brought me outside the pavilion. She made me pose again in a staircase, then in front of a tree. I started to protest, but every time I tried to take the ridiculous hat off my head, the girl took me by the hand to quickly pull me to a new place.
I eventually found myself in front of the famous Nine-Dragon Wall, the one I was so eager to see. There were many other tourists on site and they all gave me curious glances. I felt completely ridiculous in my costume, but I was too ashamed to protest as the girl asked me, once again, to pose in front of the wall.
Finally, she took me back to her booth in the pavilion and I could finally get rid of the costume.
After having put my normal clothes on and feeling less like a fool, I went back to see the girl to buy the photo. She then asked me to give her 500 yuan. I protested, saying that it was ten times more than the price she had indicated previously, but the girl told me that it cost 50 yuan PER pictures. And there she put in front of me ten pictures that she had time to print and laminate while I changed. Ten pictures in which I looked like a ridiculous tourist.
I felt too shameful to protest. I gave 500 yuan to the girl and I buried my ten photos in my bag in the hope of forgetting this incident. I continued to visit the park, but that improvised photo shoot left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
I know, 500 yuan (about $ 70 CDN), it’s not that much. But for the student I was, it seemed like a big expense. Especially for photos that I have never shown to anyone (I share them here for the first time!).
But the incident served as a lesson. I learned to always agree on a price before buying anything. I learned to negotiate. I also learned to be wary of what seemed to me like a tourist trap.
Because that’s the essence of traveling solo. Make mistakes and learn!