It was 9:00 on a Thursday morning and I had just landed in Shanghai, the largest city in China by population and the largest city proper by population in the world. I was ultimately headed to the temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. However, before I could bask in the tropical temperatures and dubiously bathe myself in sunscreen, there was one thing standing in my way: a 9-hour layover.
Originally, I had every intention of just staying put between flights, rendering myself a temporary prisoner of Pudong International Airport. But after talking to a few other survivors of long layovers in this city of 15 million people, I decided that 9 hours would be plenty of time to hop the fence and explore a few of the main downtown attractions, like the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Bund, before scurrying back to the smokey confines of Gate 213. Besides, China was never high on my list of places to visit, so when else was I going to be back here? Plus, my lay-over status gave me up to 72 hours in the country without having to pay the obnoxious $140 visa entry fee, so all the signs were pointing out the automatic doors of the arrivals terminal.
Some simple detective work on Google revealed my two best options for getting around. Option 1: rent a car for a few hours and run the risk of getting ripped off by sketchy, price-gouging drivers. Option 2: navigate the relatively foreigner-friendly high-speed Mag-Lev train and subway system for a much lower price. I was determined to avoid getting scammed and ready to challenge my street smarts, so after innocently smiling at the customs agent whose stare seemed to say, “You better get back on your next flight Mr. American and not get me in trouble for letting you in here,” I collected my backpack at the baggage claim and set off to find the bullet train platform.
Then, out of nowhere, a voice called to me in near-perfect English–it still amazes me how our native tongues can pierce through crowds of people speaking other languages to reach our ears from even the greatest of distances. The voice belonged to a friendly looking middle-aged Chinese woman who was sitting behind the counter of what appeared to be an information center. In need of a map and some reaffirming directions, I happily wandered over to her.
What happened next is still a little unclear to me. In short, one minute she’s asking me harmless questions about what brings me to Shanghai, what I’m interested in seeing and doing, and how I plan to get there. Then, the next thing I know, I’m handing her $80 in Chinese RMB for a private car to take me around the city. A few minutes after that, it hit me, “Shit. I fell for it.”
I vaguely remember trying to assert myself and insist that I could handle using the Mag-Lev and subway on my own; that I knew where I was going and how to get there, I just needed a map. “Oh, but Shanghai is a strange, big new city for you. You don’t know Shanghai. It will be very stressful for you, I think. How about car? We have nice car for you. Only 900 RMB,” she said with a deceiving smile that was subtly tearing away at my traveler’s self-confidence. Then I think I said that that was way out of my price range, to which she responded, “Ok. What is good price for you? What is in your budget?” And that, I’m guessing, is where she got me. Once the negotiation began, that was it. She was about to deliver a blow right below the belt, square into my wallet, and my daily budget would be out for the count. In the end, she conned me into believing I had driven her down to almost half her original price, now 500 RMB or about 80 USD.
It was only once I was sitting down, waiting for my driver that it dawned on me what a rip-off this “deal” was. But by then there was nothing much I could do, so I rationalized my stupidity by telling myself that I was paying for the convenience and expediency of not having to deal with buying train/subway tickets and getting off at the right stops. And at any rate, the train and subway tickets were going to set me back at least $20 roundtrip, so I’d only lost $60, not $80. I also had the privacy of my own car where I could safely leave my bag while walking around. I would be spending more time in the city above-ground, where I could sightsee, instead in the dark tunnels of the subway. And my driver, allegedly, spoke English, so he could tell me all about the city as we went along.
Unfortunately, this false sense of positivity brought on by my feeble attempts at self-validation didn’t last long. In total, between coming from and going to the airport, plus a bit of walking around, the whole ride lasted barely 3 hours and left me feeling cheated, frustrated and underwhelmed. The driver initially greeted me with the clearest, most native-sounding, “Hello, sir!” But it quickly became apparent that his skills didn’t extend much beyond that. Equally bothersome was the pungent odor of cigarette smoke that pervaded the vehicle and his constant hacking, coughing and throat clearing. ‘He can’t help that he’s sick,’ I told myself as I raised my scarf to cover my nose and mouth throughout the majority of the car ride. ‘But he better keep his phlegmmy, germmy cooties to himself cuz there’s no way in hell I’m getting sick on the first day of my vacation.’ Not helping things was the gloomy, rainy weather and cold, damp temperature of the day.
Finally, the straw that broke this traveler’s back, and bank, was when I returned to the car after walking around the Oriental Pearl Tower. My driver had managed to find a parking spot on a nearby street and had been patiently waiting for me. Once I was buckled back in and ready to head onto the next place, he handed me this little white slip of paper with Chinese writing and the amount 40 RMB stamped on it. “Pah-king, you pay me lay-tuh, okay?”
‘Um. What?’ I said to myself. ‘Didn’t I just drop $80 with your boss and now you’re telling me that doesn’t include any parking allowances? We were in this lot for less than 20 minutes, and now I owe you $6?! Is this a joke???’
Nope. No joke. From then on I had to repeatedly make it very clear, “No parking, okay? No. Par. King.”
“Ahhhhh okay okay okay, no pah-blem. No pah-blem.”
‘Yeah, mhm,’ I thought, fuming. ‘No pah-blem.’
“Yah, pah-king Shanghai expensive. Much money. Too many money!”
At that point, I was done. The fact that I was far from getting my money’s worth out of this experience didn’t even matter anymore. For about twenty more minutes we drove through a few more parts of town that might have been interesting if I hadn’t still been reeling over the pah-king incident, or if the driver had actually been able to tell me anything about them in intelligible English. After that we set course to return to the airport where I was able to move on and put all the unpleasantness behind me.
In hindsight, it was stupid to be upset over $6. But in the moment, it was less about the $6 I’d lost and more about the fact that the misunderstanding was just the rotten cherry resting atop the most over-priced sundae ever, complete with cloudy whipped cream, cigarette scented sprinkles, and ice creams flavors of regret and foolishness.
Every traveler has their story of the first time they truly got scammed or hustled. Now, thanks to Shanghai, I guess I have mine.