Within five hours of landing in Beijing, I was having the most frightening experience I’d had since having to escape from a smoke-filled burning building last year.
Lured in to a bar tab scam (which I since discovered is a common way of extracting money from naïve foreigners in China) I had been on the receiving end of an aggressive Chinese heavy (think Odd Job from James Bond) adamant that I hand over £300 for a bottle of wine that I had been tricked into ordering.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately as it turned out), being a wisened traveller, I had brought just ¥100 (£10) out with me, and had left my credit card safely in my hotel room. But now I was in a Chinese pickle. Odd Job wanted the money; I didn’t have it.
The hour that followed was one of the most scary and stressful I have experienced in a long time; jetlagged, alone and fearful of what might happen to me in this backstreet Beijing bar, my camera was held hostage whilst I was marched to my hotel by Odd Job, who was on orders to extract my cash and card. I was subjected to the ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ routine; Odd Job barking hostile Mandarin at me, his female accomplice translating into broken English:
“His meaning is very clear. You must pay.”
I knew that I had been scammed but I just wanted out. I was willing to pay for escape. So, with Odd Job in tow, I was coerced into collecting my Visa from my room and gathering all the Yuan I had.
It was at the ATM that I discovered with increasing panic that I had already reached my daily bank limit, and could therefore withdraw no further funds; I could not pay tonight. So I handed over all the cash I had (the equivalent of £157, only half of the highly-inflated bill) and explained that my card would yield no further fruit.
This didn’t go down well. Odd Job was only too keen to get me back to his lair and run my Visa through his machine, but the risk of having my card cloned, my bank account emptied, and unspeakable horrors inflicted upon me with machetes, meant that I quickly concluded Odd Job could keep the camera. I would buy a new one. There was no way I was going back to that bar.
This notion wasn’t what the female accomplice wanted to hear either. Perhaps realising that her cut was now going to be much smaller than what it could have been, she clawed at me, trying to physically pull me back to the bar, and when I finally snapped and told her exactly what I thought of her and her scam, she turned into bad cop too and hurled alarming threats of what was going to happen to me.
When not to ‘go with the flow’
In the end, even though I had to change hotel rooms twice, I did get my camera back. I even shook hands with Odd Job. I was on edge for a couple of days after, wondering if they would hunt me down, but thankfully, I never saw them again. Ultimately, no lasting harm was done; just a somewhat expensive travel anecdote acquired and a lesson learned: sometimes ‘going with the flow’ is not advisable.
Thus was my £157 introductory lesson to China. It’s a small example of how China can be a difficult place for foreigners to navigate; both for travellers (even those who should know better; seven years ago I spent a month travelling here and came across all sorts of scams) and for foreign companies.
But the country is big business; with 1.3 billion people, an emerging middle-class thirsty for domestic travel and overseas experiences, it’s a market that no company wanting to be a global player can ignore. Because China is so vastly different in its thinking, culture and values to what Westerners are used to, local knowledge and language is even more important here than perhaps any other country in the world.
Hence when it comes to Skyscanner, or Tianxun.cn as it’s known in the ‘Middle Kingdom’, we have to do things a little differently to other markets. Our staff of five (soon to become 30), are all native Chinese, and allow us to operate in what can be a bewildering place for foreign businesses. Following our Singapore office, Beijing is the second of our Asian bases, where it’s vital for a web based business to have a physical presence. Already Tianxun has almost a million visits a month, and is growing rapidly, aided by partnerships with the country’s biggest search engine Baidu, and fuelling our growth in what is likely to become a major market in the next five years.
Looking out from our Beijing office on the 19th floor, to the not-so-distant skyscrapers that are merely silhouettes in the thick smog that so often hangs over the city, I feel a buzz of genuine exhilaration for what lies ahead.
China is important, exotic, infuriating and incredibly exciting. We’ve only scratched the surface of the travel market here, and with the right strategy, right local knowledge and the proven Skyscanner model, Tianxun will become a big player, in a big country.