Adventures in Beijing

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I wrote this true story to be read as part of a showcase at the Chichester Festival Theatre in March 2024.

One week, two stories. Both sides of adventure and humanity.

I was walking around old town Beijing. It was like stepping back in time, where the pace of life slows down and you can get a glimpse of what the world might have looked like centuries ago. There were people washing their pots and pans by their front doors. Everyone waved at me.

After about 5 hours of walking around, I was completely lost. So I tried getting a taxi, there were lots around but each one said it was “too windey”. I was really starting to worry!

…And this is where I learned to trust the locals. Albeit… that was nearly my downfall!

A man who spoke very small amounts of English beaconed me over. He said “come”, “come”.

I followed into the alleyways, then a courtyard. To a large object covered with a white sheet… a sofa? He was smiling and I was certain he was inviting me for dinner or something.

Then as if a magician, he pulled the cloth off... to show a trailer connected to a scooter. Then he grabbed a lump of wood and put it on top of the trailer.

I now... had a taxi! I held tightly onto my makeshift seat while we zoomed around Beijing for what felt like an eternity.

When we got off I was so thankful. I gave him the equivalent of £10 and he seemed to be horrified that I was offering him so much money but I made sure he took it. It felt like he had saved my life!

Tiananmen Square is a place of horrors, I know that now. But as a naive 20 year old, it was just a large empty square far less interesting than others I had seen. This was lacking the rollerskating, the lanterns being lit, the dragon-styled go karts.

So in complete ignorance of the cultural significance, I proceeded towards the Forbidden City. I could see where I was going I just had to go through the underpass and up a road.

So, I had no idea what was about to unravel when a woman started talking to me.

We were standing in the dark, dusty underpass. This woman I was talking to was wearing a pearl necklace. She told me she was from North China and in Beijing on holiday and after 10 minutes of chatting as people brushed past us she offered to walk me to the Forbidden City.

A few days earlier, most of my friends had gone to Shanghai... I had barely spoken to anyone. So I was more than happy to continue our chat over a coffee.

I'm quite certain that I was not coerced into a particular coffee shop. I'm sure I chose one myself, but maybe Derren Brown would disagree.

The first red flag I had was that we were ushered to a private room. The second was that when I put my camera down in front of me, she seemed very uncomfortable so I moved it.

I was unaware of the cultural differences so I wanted to be as accommodating as possible. Maybe private rooms are totally normal there!

We had a nice conversation over coffee, I don't think I felt worried at this point. That's until, she offered to go dancing together that evening. I cannot dance and it seemed a bit awkward coming from a woman far older than I was.

She seemed fine that I declined the offer, but then proceeded to offer me to try Chinese Tea. I figured, when in Rome!

To this day I cannot work out if my anxiety was due to the offer of dancing, or if the tea itself was spiked. It tasted nice but I convinced myself I had been drugged.

I didn't know what to do. I was in a private room with this woman who may have just drugged me. For all I knew there could be a bunch of scary people out there ready to steal my kidneys.

What would you do in this situation? Scared for your life in a country far from home?

I asked for the bill. And offered to pay for hers too. I paid on card and quickly got up to leave. She walked me to the entrance and said I hurriedly said goodbye.

As I walked into the cultural heart of the capital city I felt a level of overwhelm that paralysed me. Was I drugged or was it just anxiety, I honestly don't know. I was worried what might happen to me, so I bought a couple bottles of fanta and left the Forbidden City without looking around. I headed straight for the metro and was bobbing along like a madman trying to stay awake and alert. I was worried if I fell asleep what may happen, so I got back to my hotel and did all I could to stay awake.

The best thing I did that day was paying by card. That, to this day, remains my only proof that anything awry actually happened. My bank was able to refund the money I had paid, for the two teas and coffees, which turned out to be £200. For reference, a pint of beer was 50p.

I cannot prove I was drugged or that there was any threat to me. I still feel convinced the threat was more than just the money. But it means so much to me that I can prove I was scammed, and didn't just make the whole thing up.

It's fascinating to me how a situation that is so vivid to me in many ways still has so many unknowns. I felt true terror as I tried to escape from this woman.

I can't help but distrust my memory. My retelling of these days in China are tainted by time and by my naive interpretation of the world at the time. It felt truly scary to me. I have no idea if the offer of dancing was just a friendly gesture. If the tea was really drugged or was my anxiety just heightened? All I can prove is I was in Beijing and £200 was taken.

I've told two stories of strange encounters, two stories that shaped who I am today.

Imagine if only one of these stories had happened. I could believe that all adventuring is safe and fun and someone will turn up in the end with a scooter as if he had been waiting for just that moment. Otherwise maybe I would believe that it's dangerous and no one should explore and no one can be trusted.

Most interestingly of all to me is that the story that showed the good in people was at a time I was lost and felt extremely anxious. The bad happened when I felt perfectly safe.