Beware of cheats in China

Old Nov 17th, 2001, 08:41 AM
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Beware of cheats in China

I wrote this to warn all travellers to China of the professional way the cheaters operate.

My friend and I (we are both Chinese) were in Beijing recently and we booked a 1 day tour by private car to the Great Wall which also included the Ming Tomb. Before we went to the Ming tomb, the driver(somehow also act as a guide) brought us to a medical hall which we were not interested and thus didn't make any purchases. We finished the Ming Tomb about lunch hour and we asked the driver where we can have some food before we hit for Great Wall. The driver advised that the food at the Great Wall would be very expensive and so he stopped his car outside a restuarant by the name Spring Court, just outside the Ming Tomb. We didn't have any chance to see anyone dining in the restuarant and were ushered into a private room. The driver went in the room with us as we invited him to have lunch together.

The waitress came with a menu, which we selected a vegetable(30yuan), a soup(20yuan) and a fired rice(20 yuan). The waitress recommended many dishes and we were not interested and she pestered us. Finally we agreed to have what she described as minced chicken fillet deep fried. We were rushed into ordering the food as the driver was looking impatient and said that we are running short of time.

After we had ordered the food, the driver refused to eat with us giving the excuse that he cannot eat with the customers.

Our food soon arrived. The chicken dish was 8 pieces of bit-size chicken fillet as with some jelly in the center. The waitress anounced that this shark's fin with chicken meat and we said that we didn't order shark's fin. She insisted that we did order the minced chicken and it comes with shark's fin. Well, we didn't argue over it because it may be expensive but should be of reasonable price. Anyway after tasting the so-claimed "shark's fin", it's nothing but jellyfish.

After the meal we asked for the bill and we were shocked that we are told to pay 600yuan. We asked for the price and was told the chicken disk cost 530yuan(USD70!). We often had shark's fin at home and it never cost that much. Moreover food is so cheap in Beijing. We had no choice but to pay the bill because the driver is not around and we are not good with our the Mandarin language though we are both Chinese.

When we got back to the car where the driver is waiting, we told him the incident. His answer was - "You should have asked the price before you placed your order!".

I was fuming mad because I realised that we are cheated by the resturant and the driver who were cohoots over the whole incident. With the rush and anger, we didn't ased for the menu to verify that there is such an item of 530yuan in the menu or ask for a receipt.

I really want all travellers to Beijing to be very careful as these Chinese folks are real cunning. Though I am a Chinese, I come from a country where I have never heard of anyone being cheated for so muhc money over a simple meal. I was so upset with myself being such a fool. It's a really a downright disgusting way that these Chinese guys go out to cheat the tourist!

Old Nov 17th, 2001, 02:18 PM
Peter Neville-Hadley
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Some basic advice on dealing with restaurants in China arising from Elaine's experience above. Things are better than they used to be, but encountering situations where restaurants think it right to overcharge foreigners is still commonplace. Here's how to avoid being cheated:

1. When not part of an ordinary group tour, and where you have a choice, think twice about relying on the advice of your tour guide, especially if he or she seems particularly eager to hustle you into somewhere, or says things like 'There's no where else to eat.'

2. On your own, always refuse to be put into a private room. The restaurant may feel licensed to slam on a charge for the room (and this happens to out-of-town Chinese, not just to foreign visitors) or up the prices for dishes. And if it's in the mood to double prices just to see if it can get away with it, in a separate room you're without support from others, and any resultant fuss from the attempt to cheat you is hidden away.

3. Beware, even in central Beijing, of apparently regular restaurants which advertise an English menu. Yes, of course, this makes things much easier for you, but it is almost standard practice either only to have the most expensive dishes on the English version of the menu, or to have the same dishes at twice the price.

4. Don't eat at small restaurants close to five star hotels or opposite major tourist attractions. They're ready for you. Eat randomly elsewhere, and most times you'll have no problems at all--in fact anywhere not used to foreign visitors is more than likely to be fine. It might be said that away from deliberate cheats such as those described above, it's getting pretty difficult to find a bad meal in China.

5. When ordering, point clearly to every dish and particularly to the price. When you are pointing to a second dish, also point at the price and add up the numbers in your head as you go along. Let the waitress see you are doing this. At the end confirm the total amount you expect to be charged, if necessary by writing it down (the waitress's mental arithmetic may well not be up to this and she may have to go away and use an abacus or calculator to confirm. Be patient.)

6. Do not assume that because you've always paid Y1 for rice, that it will be Y1 again. This is the time it will be Y5 ro Y10. Confirm the price of rice, too.

Old Nov 17th, 2001, 02:20 PM
Peter Neville-Hadley
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7. Tea, if it arrives without you asking for it, is FREE. If you are asked if you would like to order tea, then you are ordering something special and you can expect to pay for it. Check the price first.

8. If a tea cup arrives with what looks like a handful of builder's rubble in the bottom, this is 'sanpao cha' or 'ba bao cha' and there will be a charge of perhaps Y5, but if you haven't confirmed the price, stop them before they add water. This tea (a mixture of tea, herbs, dried fruit and rock sugar is delicious, however. So if you like the price, try it.

9. If a package of paper tissues arrives, you may be charged a token some for these, too. Should be Y0.50, but might be Y5, or more. Ask, and send them back if you don't want them. Restaurants with credit card signs on the door are more likely to have this kind of cover charge (but they probably don't accept foreign versions of the cards).

10. Always carry change. You already know how much you should pay, so in case of shenanigans with the bill, have the exact money ready so that you can just put it down and walk out. Remember, there is no 'service charge' at any except the most upmarket and Westernised of restaurants, and then it should be clearly on the menu. There is no tipping anywhere--don't do it. (You'll get cheated of enough bits and pieces during your trip as it is. If you must give charity, save it for the obviously ill and maimed you'll see on the street.)

Finally, balance the concerns above with your sense of your enjoyment of your visit. Although you can be 'nickel and dimed' to death, you can also nickel and dime yourself by introducing a constant level of fretting about such matters. The main issue is to avoid the serious rip-offs of the major tourist sites. Even the original prices Elaine quotes are pretty high, unless the restaurant interior was sumptuous and the food wonderful. At regular Chinese restaurants away from sights and big hotels even in the capital, a good diced chicken with peanuts, for instance, should only be Y12 to 14, and vegetable dishs Y6 to Y10. Waitresses will often lean over you and say 'I've heard this is good' pointing to a dish that's far and away the most expensive on the menu and may well be something which, if you're not of Chinese descent, won't appeal to you or impress you anyway. If the attitude is insistent then you may well be in the wrong place. There are so many restaurants chasing custom these days that the genuine ones are just glad to have your business whatever you care to order, and the fact that you are foreign may just be the highlight of their day.

Finally, if budget is everything and you are travelling by yourself, try asking for a 'ban panr' or half portion. This will usually be and will cost about 70% of the full dish price.

Peter N-H
Old Nov 18th, 2001, 12:56 PM
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Let me add a few points based on my best guess and personal experience.

1. The driver and the restuarant waitress were indeed conspired to cheat customers.

2. Not having lunch together with customers seems to be a common practice for tour guides/operators. I don't know why but in most cases, China or other countries, it works that way.

3. They cheated you. But I doubt that the dish they were supposedly served you was not on the menu at all. You really should have asked to see the menu and a receipt. Even without those proof, I think you still should complain to the authorities; it might work.

4. Your last comments might be a little bit too harsh. I think the majority of Beijing drivers and restuarant owners are honestly doing their budiness. Of course I would have been very upset too if I were treated that way, but knowing this isn't a perfect world, China or any other places, just take it as a lesson, and enjoy the pleasant part of your memories in China.
Old Nov 18th, 2001, 04:02 PM
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I had an unpleasant experience in Chengdu also, but I wasn't cheated out of so much money.

I had the worst and most expensive (relatively speaking) food in my journey to Jiu Zhai Gou because I trusted the driver and let him decide where to stop for lunch etc. He also took us to a temple that was a sham so I refused to go when he suggested taking us to see the origin of Min River. I am most upset that this had costed us 3 hrs of precious time in Jiu Zhai Gou!

Later on in the trip, I met a group of tourists who also hired a driver but they were having a great time. They told the driver where and where to go ALL the time, and so they never felt being cheated.

After that, my group started making the same demands of the driver but he was not co-operating. For example, we tried to look for a hotel on our own, the driver would follow us in and we found that in those cases ALL the hotels in Songpan were quoting us Y600+!! We later had to ask him to park the van and a few of us stop him from entering the hotel while the rest look for rooms.

I don't know if our discontent was a factor, but the driver was really reckless after our complaining. It took him only 6 hrs to go back to Chengdu when it took 9 hrs on our way there! There were twice that we thought the van was going to fall down the cliff or crash into on-coming traffic!

In the end, we found that if we book our own accomodations or pick our own restaurants the driver does not get his room/food free. But I still do not think that justifies taking us to crappy restaurants and hotels when we had paid the price for better ones.

My question is where one should go to hire a reliable driver? What other extra costs should I be aware of?
Old Nov 18th, 2001, 06:18 PM
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We (Chinese) were nearly cheated last time in Suzhou. We went to visit the village and no big restaurants around. We stopped at a small house (family-run, not exactly a restaurant). The driver sat next table to us and ordered a set menu. The lady gave us the 2-page menu. All the items were really expensive costing around 100 yuan each dish (4-5 times of that in 5-star hotel in center Suzhou city). We, of course, did not order the food on menu. Fortunately, we can speak Mandarin and asked for any noddle (and the price) available. Then, I guess the lady knew we would not be cheated easily and the price for noddle was more reasonable.

Advise: if you think the food is overpriced, simple ask for some most simple, basic food. Ask for the price or even keep the menu with you (in case any argument over the bill). Of course, leave the restaurant without ordering food, if possible.
Old Nov 18th, 2001, 07:35 PM
Peter N-H
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To answer Ellen's query: Hiring a car or van and driver without being cheated in China takes a little care.

There are two kinds of situation: one is where you charter a vehicle to do a trip frequently undertaken by foreign visitors (from Beijing out to Badaling and the Ming Tombs, for instance) or in a 'scenic area' or other tourist area (Jiuzhaigou being one example). These are the trips where you are likely to meet with the most difficulty. The other case is when you charter a vehicle in an area not much visited by foreigners, or from a place with many foreigners to a somewhere they don't often go (a trip from Beijing to the Western Qing Tombs, for instance).

In the first case you may find yourself actually unable to get a driver if you demonstrate a level of canniness which suggests it won't be possible to rip you off. Either that, or you may have to pay more than you should to travel anyway. In the second case you may find drivers unwilling to take you because they don't know the way themselves, or the distance, or how much they should charge. But this latter case you can negotiate around.

Begin at least one day in advance, knowing exactly what you want to do. It's important to realise that once you clinch the deal, most drivers' first priority will be to find some way to demonstrate that you have broken the agreement, therefore licencing either further charges or the driver's abrogation of part of his own responsibilities.

Begin by ignoring the vehicles hanging about for guests at your hotel as these are more likely to cause you trouble than any others, and walking away a little, start flagging down passing vehicles. You aren't going to hire any of the first few you talk to, although if you do happen to find someone who strikes you as really honest and reasonable, make sure you get his phone number.

The point of these first efforts is to try and establish some kind of going rate. Your lack of any real intention to strike a deal with the first few will give you the best chance of getting the lowest acceptable figure out of them--remembering that they may start as high as quadruple what is reasonable.

You should anyway have some idea of the rate by calculating the number of kilometres you want to travel, and multiplying that by the km rate posted on the side of the vehicle. You should under no circumstances pay as much as this. If the local rate is Y1.6 per km you should perhaps pay about Y1 or a little more. Remember that in most cities, most times of the day, most vehicles are charging round empty, and all the drivers are complaining about this. A one day hire (or more) is a windfall for them, and will save them a lot of wasted driving around.

If you are not sure of the exact number of kilometres involved then never give a figure to the driver, not even an approximate figure. As the odometer clicks over the figure quoted the light of battle for renegotiation will enter his eyes. If the halfway point of the trip has not yet been reached when 50% of that figure has clicked over, he may refuse to continue without the guarantee of extra payment. Remember, too, that if the driver is not familiar with the route he is almost certain to get lost--not entirely his fault--signage is terrible, and frequent stops will be necessary to ask for directions from people who equally have no idea what's beyond a few kilometres away, at least on the second kind of trip. Even if you are holding a map in your hand and you've seen the signpost, he'll probably still want to check. Of course, every wrong turning adds to what's on the odometer, and wrong turnings are always your fault, never his.

Old Nov 18th, 2001, 08:02 PM
Peter N-H
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The software manages to lose part two of this, but I'll try to reconstitute it.

You'll also need to arrange who is to pay for road tolls, parking fees, meals, and accommodation (if any). If you are just arranging a one-day trip then save the free lunch as the last clincher to get the deal made. Essentially you should offer to pay for all of these elements one by one as you negotiate. If the driver pays for the tolls (and if this is a type one trip where he knows the area) he may opt to take slower toll-free side roads so as to maximise his profit. You'll also relax him by taking care of the other issues. He doesn't expect more than a dorm bed in a zhaodaisuo (all he'd buy for himself, unless on a crooked deal with a hotel), and you'll probably feel obliged to get him more than that. Similarly if you invite him to eat with you he'll get more than he would have bought for himself (and yes, he will join you unless he's off in the kitchen getting his free meal and a kick-back from a dodgy deal, safely out of sight).

Once you've made your deal stick to it 100% unless an emergency arises. Any changes of plan, however minor, will likely lead to grief. However, once you've made the deal, be generous. If you buy a chilled soft drink for yourself, offer him one, too. If he wants to fill up the tank before leaving town, don't pay for the whole thing, but make a reasonable contribution, as long as most of the sum you've agreed upon remains to be paid at the end (never pay in advance). Pay the tolls directly yourself, rather than expecting him to dig in his pocket and then refund him, but make sure you get the receipt. Usually, unless the driver is of the kind Elaine and Ellen encountered, I buy him an entrance ticket to whatever site is being visited and invite him to be a tourist, too. Also pay the parking fees directly--note that somewhere like the Western Qing Tombs you'll have to pay every time you move. Again, get a receipt--attendants will sometimes raise the price for foreigners.

Occasionally, the driver may be helpful with accommodation negotiations, but it remains best just to leave him out of it, and essential if you're on a well-worn trail.

Final part...
Old Nov 18th, 2001, 08:09 PM
Peter N-H
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Of the many times I've hired a driver and vehicle in locations all over China, including many out of Beijing, only twice have I never had some attempt at renegotiation, although a couple of other times the attempt has been half-hearted and laughed off with no ill-feeling early in the trip, which has then been enjoyable. Several times the driver has been good company, and his own enjoyment of a change of air quite obvious.

Really it's the trips into well-trodden tourist territory, and trips with drivers who work mainly with foreigners which throw up the most problems of the kind described by Elaine and Ellen, and as long as the precautions outlined above are taken, problems are usually minimal. But to leave any detail unconfirmed is to face the possibility of the same results as Elaine did when ordering her dish without checking the price. This may seem like sharp practice to us, but it's the way things are done over there, even with deals involving millions of dollars.

But this may well seem to the casual visitor like all too much of a fuss, although I tend to see it as part of the fun.

In passing I should mention that when things go wrong they can really go wrong, and Elaine got off lightly compared to some people. At one case I know of in Xi'an near the Banpo Neolithic Village, chefs holding choppers surrounded a table with two hapless foreigners demanding Y100 each for two Y10 bowls of noodles. They kept their nerve and got away with paying less, but still far too much.

In another case in Tashkurgan in Xinjiang Province when a group of foreigners refused to pay double they were locked in the restaurant and had to break out of the back door.

There's some nice window-dressing everywhere these days with tourism hotlines, but the three times I've called the Beijing one they've had next to no English, much preferred speaking Mandarin, and never knew the answer to a single question I asked. The chances of these people agreeing to help in a case of overcharging is very high. The chance of them bothering to do something, secure as they are in the knowledge you'll be thousands of km away very soon, are as near nil as makes no difference--I have tried to persuade tourism bureau people to help me out in disputes in three provinces but never with any success. In my experience even hotel managements in Chinese hotels cannot be persuaded to sort out disputes in their own restaurants.

Peter N-H
Old Jan 30th, 2004, 11:55 AM
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My own pracitice is to never eat at a restaurant volunteered by a cab driver whose advice hasn't been solicited. The one time I broke this rule I saw the driver sneaking into the back of the restaurant and then getting paid-off by the owner. I found it telling that he never had to say a word.

One way to test, is to mention a nearby restaurant recommended by more than one guide book. If the driver trashes it, insists it's too far away or puts up any significant kind of resistance, that'll give you a pretty good idea of what you're dealing with.
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Old May 22nd, 2005, 03:08 PM
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This old thread came up when I was searching things about Xi'an. Does anyone know if any of this stuff is true nowadays???
Old May 24th, 2005, 01:59 AM
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Yes, and specifically to Xi'an in my case. I visited a few weeks ago before the May holiday. We had a guide that collaborated with the shops at the Terracotta Warriors, with a cab driver that we just so happen to find 3 times, and tried to charge us twice for eating a prepaid meal. If you use a travel agency like CITS, make sure you know exactly what you have paid for and make sure that you have printouts of itineraries and costs, etc. You can bargain down the price too, CITS starts out extremely high. Way too many coincidences that screwed us and left her happy.

The one that we caught her before we got scammed was she showed us a brochure of a famous Tang Dynasty dinner and theater show. She told us a story of how Bill Clinton came to eat dumplings and watch the show and many other famous people have done the same thing. We asked the price since it was not written on the brochure. She said 200 yuan each. We agreed and thought it would be nice to treat ourselves. Later (after Terracotta Warriors) in the taxi, she said that the dinner was booked but the show still had openings. So we could have dinner at an equally good dumpling restaurant and watch the same show. After questions, it turned into "a similar show and a different place." We told her we didn't want to do it and she tried the "I already made reservations!" and we said "Cancel them, we haven't paid yet." Later we called the original Tang Dynasty place and there were in fact still openings for that night's dinner and performance and the cost was actually 400 yuan each. We later found the show she was selling in a guidebook at 200 yuan each. She was using another show's brochure, history, and fame to sell a lesser show. I have a huge list of things that happened on this short (3 day) trip. Extremely frustrating, and it's a live and learn thing because I'm sure that the guides are encouraged to nickel and dime as much as possible.

My guide in Beijing on the other hand was quite excellent. She listened to us (my girlfriend and I), didn't rush us or encourage us to buy anything and she even helped bargain in a random setting. I say if you want help in finding restaurants, you should prepay meals ahead of time if you like that kind of structure. That way the guide or driver cannot charge you again (even if they try). And remember, demand receipts, price lists, and everything else others have said in this thread.
jimdrew is offline  
Old May 24th, 2005, 02:24 AM
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jimdrew, Thanks for your comments. Very helpful. Looks like we'll have to be on our guard all the time - takes some of the fun out, and makes for a mentally tiring time... Since we can't read Chinese it makes it easy for them to take advantage...
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