During my last week in China I took a train to Suzhou, which is a city about eighty kilometers west of Shanghai. Suzhou is absolutely beautiful; most of the buildings still retain the traditional Chinese architecture and the city is smaller than Shanghai, so there are lots of trees planted everywhere and the air isn’t as polluted.
The architecture actually caused problems for me. Shanghai is a very modernized city, so the old Chinese style buildings are usually reserved for tourists. This is not the case in Suzhou. At one point I got lost while looking for a historic temple, but I figured that, like in Shanghai, this sort of thing would be easy for a tourist to spot. I came across a yellow building with those pointed, exotic rooftops that everyone associates with China surrounded by a high, thick wall, so I thought I’d found it. The entrance was blocked by a gate and a security guard, and when I asked him if this was the temple he just sort of blinked and said, “This is an apartment building.”
One of my favorite parts about this trip was the bullet train. The train station in Shanghai was noisy and crowded, but the train itself was calm and spacious. I had a window seat so I got to see a lot of the landscape between Shanghai and Suzhou, which was a nice change from the dirty concrete I had been surrounded by for four weeks. Also, the train crossed those eighty kilometers in about twenty minutes.
I wasn’t sure where to go once the train arrived. I knew where in Suzhou I wanted to go, but I needed to find a taxi to get there. I wandered along with the other people leaving the train, looking for the place where the taxis stopped, and then a bunch of men started waving and yelling at me. They were standing beneath a sign that was all in Chinese, so I couldn’t read it, but I did see a picture of a taxi with an arrow pointing to some stairs to the left. Four of these men ran up to me and started jabbering in Chinese. I backed away and started to say, “No, I don’t want whatever you’re selling” in Chinese, but then one of them switched to English and said, “Taxi.”
This seemed odd to me. There were plenty of people that had just come out of the gate with me, but I was the only one these men had approached. The other people (all Chinese) walked right by this group without even giving them a second glance. Were they targeting me because I was obviously a foreigner?
They were all speaking rapid Chinese and gesturing for me to follow them. By this time, I was used to the high pressure sales that you run into no matter where you go as a tourist in China, but it seemed odd for a taxi driver to do this. As I was trying to get away, one man pointed to the stairs and said “Taxi” again. I looked up at the sign. The arrow beneath the picture of the taxi did point to those same stairs. So, even though something about this felt wrong, I followed him.
I should point out that this was a very stupid thing to do. China is a very safe country and a woman traveling alone usually won’t have problems, but even so, a woman traveling alone in a country where she barely speaks the language and can’t read should not go anywhere alone with a strange man who’s acting like he’s trying to sell something. DO NOT DO THIS.
We went up the stairs and walked to what felt like the other side of the train station. The more we walked, the more nervous I got. There were security guards and cameras everywhere, but I still felt like this was wrong. He led me out of the train station toward the parking lot.
I had read about the taxis in Suzhou, and I remembered that most websites said that the starting price for a taxi was about eleven or twelve kuai (RMB), plus one kuai for every kilometer traveled. I had found the place I wanted to go on a map, and I figured that getting there from the train station shouldn’t cost more that twenty kuai.
I decided to ask the driver.
Me: “Qu hu qiu ta, duo shao qian?” (How much will it cost to go to Tiger Hill Tower?)
Driver: “Ba shi kuai.” (Eighty kuai)
I stared at him, thinking that can’t be right. I guess he thought I didn’t understand him, because he pulled out his phone and typed 80 on the screen. I was trying to figure out how to get away from him when we got to his car.
Another thing I had read was that all taxis will have the driver’s license displayed on the dashboard along with a number that clients can call. This man’s car looked like a normal car. There was no light, no meter, no license, no writing whatsoever to indicate that this was a taxi.
It looked like this man had just parked his own car in the parking lot at the train station.
He unlocked the car and got in, but I didn’t move. The was most likely a scam, but how was I supposed to get out of this? He would obviously want to know why I changed my mind, and I was afraid to call him out on it. What if he became hostile? It was the middle of the day, but being alone in a parking lot with a man who was completely ok with stealing from tourists made me feel both vulnerable and paranoid.
My solution was to act like a loud, obnoxious tourist.
As he started the car I pretended to take a phone call and walked away, talking really loudly. I didn’t know how good his English was, but I’ve never been a good liar and I was terrified that he would know I was faking if he understood what I was saying, so I jabbered away in German, secretly hoping that the terrifying consonant clusters of the German language would be enough to scare him away.
When he noticed me walking away, he got out of the car with a “What the hell?” look on his face. I told my imaginary friend on the phone to hold on (warte mal) and started to tell the man a bullshit story about how I made a mistake and my friend was already waiting for me. My Chinese wasn’t good enough to express this very eloquently, but I really wanted him to think that there was someone in the train station who was looking for me. I jabbered to him in Chinese, using words that I may or may not have made up, but I very clearly said “Wo de peng you zai zhe li, wo bu gen ni qu” (My friend is here, I don’t go with you), and then I started walking away as fast as I could, yelling into the phone (I’m sure that if there had been any Germans around, they would have been very amused by the things I was saying).
The man said something in Chinese and started to follow me, but I didn’t stop walking. By this time we were near the edge of the parking lot and I could see some security guards standing next to the entrance to the train station. Walking straight toward them, I put my imaginary friend on hold again and started talking to the man in really fast German. He said something else in Chinese as he tried to keep up with me, and then switched to English. I shook my head and asked him, “Ni hui shuo de yu ma?” (Do you speak German?)
At this, he threw his hands up in the air and walked away from me with a disgusted look on his face.
Later I found the taxis. It turns out that they were right next to the stairs we had climbed. It cost me only 14 kuai to get from the Suzhou main station to Tiger Hill Pagoda.
One thing that I’ve noticed about taxi drivers: they’re grumpy. Occasionally you get a chatty one that will ask where you’re from and try to make small talk once you’re already in the car, but for the most part they all seem to hate their jobs. In my experience, taxi drivers are just as likely to drive past you on the street, flipping you off and telling you exactly where you can stick your goddamn tourist money, as they are to give you a ride. I have never met a taxi driver who cared whether I got in the car or not, so if a taxi driver acts like a salesman, something is probably wrong.
I met other students who told me they had fallen for scams like this. Sometimes the driver just charges you an exorbitant amount for the ride, and other times they drive you to the edge of the city and take all your money.
Aside from this, I had a wonderful time wandering around by myself in Suzhou. It’s one of my favorite memories in China.