I will admit that there have been times when I enjoyed being the center of attention, but not when I’m surrounded by angry people fighting over who gets to rip me off. We survived two such foreigner feeding frenzies (feeding frenzies in which foreigners were the main course) in one morning–it was quite an adventure getting to church last Sunday.
My wife and I began our day in historic Yangzhou, China, a beautiful small town (by Chinese standards) with only 4.5 million people and hardly any foreigners. 1,500 foreigners is the estimate, but we only saw two obvious foreigners among the crowds we encountered during our stay there, apart from the American woman whom we visited after my work activity there was finished. Very few foreigners go there as tourists, which is a shame–it’s worth a visit.
Our goal was to attend church with the Nanjing Branch in the southern part of Nanjing where I was speaking on assignment as a District Councilor in the Shanghai International District of the Church. Nanjing is about 90 minutes away by car and about 20 minutes away by train, once you get to the train station across the Yangtze River in Zhenjiang, requiring a 45-minute cab ride. There are a few trains from Yangzhou, but none that would fit our schedule. So we asked the hotel to arrange a cab for us, and then we would pick up our LDS single adult friend and take her to g with us via train.
The cab we got in was obviously in bad shape. It’s motor sounded rough, like old cars I’ve had on the verge of drying. I worried that it might not get us across the river to Zhenjiang. Normally I might have said no thanks and asked for a cab that inspired a little more confidence, but I also felt sorry for the cabbie and thought that he could really use the big fare he would get (about $30 US, which is huge over here, though part of it would be for fees to use the bridge) in order to fix his car. Turns out this might not have been the most logical decision-making basis. But with a prayer in my heart that we’d be able to get safely to our destination and maybe even do a little good, away we went on another adventure.
About 5 minutes after picking up our friend, his car stalled at an intersection. OK, now it was clear that he would not be able to get us across the river. Now what? I asked him to call for another taxi to come. He seemed a bit slow, I’m sad to say, and didn’t seem to know how to do that. We tried waiving down another cab, but there were none in sight apart from one that already had passengers. Our friend explained that this part of town, while busy with lots of traffic, was not frequented by taxis. The cabbie, though, was able to get his car started again and said he would take us to a place with other taxis. He did so. I paid him a little too much, hoping to help with car repairs, and then started asking if someone could take us to Zhenjiang. But as I looked at the time, I realized we might not have time to catch our trains with all this delay, so we decided we should abandon the tickets we had already purchased and just take a can straight to Nanjing. In theory it should have cost just a little more more.
A group of cabbies began competing for our services. It was a bit boisterous but not yet a feeding frenzy. We quickly selected the one who was closest to us, who offered to take us to Nanjing for 260 RMB (about $40 US) and then we began putting our bags in his trunk. He said no, don’t do that, and that we would need to wait just a moment. He then hopped on a motorcycle and drive off. We were puzzled and asked others why he had left. We learned that he wasn’t the driver for the closest vehicle after all, but was going to get a friend with a car to drive us. We had no idea how long that would take and who this friend was. We said that was unacceptable and then asked if someone else there was ready to take us. Now the first feeding frenzy began. A lot of people began clamoring for our business, while those in league with the man on the motorcycle began arguing and yelling to oppose the others and have us stick with him. Smelling blood from afar, another driver passing by drove up near us and got out of his car. He was the first one in this group who looked friendly and trustworthy. I would learn, as Joseph Smith did in Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants, that you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, and that a friendly face and “trustworthy” look doesn’t necessarily count for much.
I told the “trustworthy” man that we needed to go to Nanjing, and that we already had an offer for 260 RMB. Could he do it for that? Sure, no problem. I showed him the address of the hotel in south Nanjing where we needed to go and asked if he could get us there. Sure, he knew the place, he said, and would be no problem. 260 RMB. Sure thing, easy. The three of us got in and off we rode, but in a strange direction. He seemed to be going away from Nanjing back toward the center of town. Then he pulled into a gas station. I asked what was going on. “I need to get fuel and something to eat,” he said. But instead of going to a gas pump, he pulled up to a group of people near the street at the gas station and began talking loudly with them. They were discussing money, and we made the wrong assumption that he was asking them for a loan to fill up his gas tank for the big trip to Nanjing and back. This was taking more time and we didn’t want further delays, so I said, “Hey, if you need money for gas, I can help with that.” “Sure, pay me the 260 RMB now.” I was puzzled, but did so–stupidly. Never do that!
Then he got out of the car and continued shouting with the others. Turns out they were negotiating over who would take us to Nanjing and for how much. Finally we could see that they agreed on a price of 170 RMB which he paid to a driver. He was pocketing 90 RMB, equivalent to about 10 or local fares–pretty crooked. He told us we needed to get out of the car. We objected and said he was supposed to take us to Nanjing, not someone else. He said that he and all the other cabs here were not licensed to go to Nanjing, so they had to use someone’s personal car. This is known as a “black cab.” It’s dangerous to use black cabs–sometimes they will charge you more than you agreed to or take you to dangerous places with thugs who will rob you, as happened to a Chinese friend of ours (something we just learned tonight). A private driver arranged through a hotel or a transportation company can be OK, but random black cabs on the street are dangerous. Yet that seemed to be the only option for us at the moment. (Actually, one of our Chinese teachers said that the cabs probably could have gone to Nanjing and that the guy was just lying. He was better off
He pointed to a car that already had a passenger in it and told us to get in. No, there won’t be room, we said, since our friend had a large suitcase that wouldn’t fit in the trunk with the two bags we had. Now the second frenzy began in earnest. Multiple black cab drivers began yelling that they would take us. One man grabbed our bags to put them in his car, while another woman yelled and him and grabbed our bags, trying to yank them away from the first man. My precious computer was in the bag that had two or three people yanking at it. I had to shout to get them to stop and put our bags down. I told the cabbie to give us our money back but he wouldn’t. All this contention and shouting and yanking was really distressing, and I could see that it was not exactly cheering up the others in my group of three. We then contemplated just starting over by waving down another cab or going back to the hotel (in retrospect, going to any nearby hotel and starting over should have been step 1 after the first taxi died).
The cabbie then said that he could split the three of us up into two cars that each already had other passengers. No, that was ridiculous. Then the driver who had already taken the money quickly arranged the solution: he booted out the passenger in his car, a kindly looking elderly man with a sweet smile, and had someone else take him to his destination, making room for all of us to fit in his car. Without really understanding what was happening, presented with a nice vacant car that would now take us straight to church, we got in and were just grateful to get away from the shouting match and tug-of-war were had just experienced.
The cabbie we had was not a shouter and seemed pretty nice. He actually drove safely and directly to where we needed to go, and we got to church on time. Not surprisingly, though, we learned that the price he had negotiated with our original cabbie was just the price to get to Nanjing, not all the way to south Nanjing where the Nanjing Branch meets in the Yu Hua Jingli Hotel in Xiaohang District. So we would have to pay yet another 50 RMB, making what should have been a 200 RMB fare reach a total of 310 RMB. But we did get to the church on time and had a good visit with the people of the Nanjing Branch, and then returned to Shanghai by train that afternoon.
If you do travel in China, avoid using black cabs when possible. We were quite lucky.
Tonight our Chinese teacher told us her story. A few years ago she and a friend were trying to get to a nearby city during a trip to northern China and couldn’t get train tickets (10 RMB) because they were sold out. They tried to take the bus (30 RMB) but just missed it bus by seconds, and the next bus wouldn’t come for an hour. A friendly black cab driver walked up and told them that he could help. He would take them to their city for just 40 RMB per person. That seemed better than waiting an hour, so they agreed to that. There were two other people in the car already, going to the same town. Our teacher was worried, but upon inquiring, decided that they were legitimate passengers (a father and son). She was right about that, or thinks she was.
The driver began taking small back roads instead of the highway. Our teacher asked why, and the driver said the fares on the highway were too high. When they were halfway to the destination, he went into a small town and stopped. A group of seven big guys with large muscles came out and started knocking on the windows, telling everyone to get out. The driver said this was where they needed to change vehicles, and that that everyone now needed to lay 160 RMB per person. He said he had no choice. The father and son said they could see that the men outside had knives and decided not to resist. They caved and paid the money and got out. (I wonder if they were actually in on the scam.) Our teacher and her friend finally felt they had no choice but to pay, but said they only had 300 RMB and paid that. As they got out, the bus that they could have waited an hour for came down the road and stopped as some of the gang waived it down. They cheated passengers now had to pay the normal 30 RMB bus fare to get on. An interesting scam, possibly involving collaboration with the bus driver. But as always, things could have been worse. Avoid black cabs unless you are prepared for these kind of learning experiences.
Here are some photos from our trip to Yangzhou: