Travel Fiasco

Broken & Bungled in Beijing, 1

by Mark Kunzman

Ling and the author, among cases of watches.

After posting requests for our Travel Fiasco Storyteller Contest, we received an email with all the elements we crave: drama, intrigue, a split lip, bribery, blackmail, and lots of cold, hard cash. We'll present it in installments over the next few weeks.

You can buy anything you want on China's black market. Anything. Walk down most streets in Shanghai, and eager teenagers will accost you, "iPhone? Fendi Bag? Sexy girl?" Torren and I made the mistake of following one such salesperson, which turned into a fifteen-minute walk down narrow alleyways, past outdoor market stalls selling every fruit, vegetable, and pig part imaginable — much farther than we had anticipated — and we soon regretted the detour. When pressed, our guide would reply enthusiastically, in broken English, "Not far, not far. You come."  We eventually entered a sketchy looking storefront and were led up a narrow, dark staircase. Torren and I exchanged weary glances, communicating with a look of mutual certainty.

We were both relieved to see other Westerners (read: suckers) in the room, all perusing the same knock-off watches. After a few minutes we headed out, buying nothing. Torren scraped his arm coming down the stairs, and I gave him some hand sanitizer (luckily, he got his tetanus shot before he left the states). Torren, who had seen a lot worse as a kid growing up in Venezuela, wasn't the type to let a mere flesh wound spoil his day.

We bought Tsing Tao beers and continued on our way — the open container policy in China is fantastic. Laughing, we pondered what would have happened had we been mugged in the store, or if Torren had gotten seriously injured, requiring medical attention. Who would we call? Who would help us? How would it go down?

Having to fulfill an international requirement through my MBA program, I opted for Fudan University in Shanghai and was beyond excited to explore a country I had longed to visit. Maybe I was excited to be on my own and abroad for the first time in a long time — away from everyone and everything I knew — no cell phone, no immediate internet access, no obligations or expectations. Just me, the easily excitable and curious kid, who while on a bike trip in Europe at 15-years-old, convinced his group of tentative travelers and chaperones to bike 50 miles in the dark to see a Michael Jackson concert. "I know Michael Jackson's cheesy and our bikes have no lights, but when will we ever get the chance to hear Billy Jean live, in Europe?" My argument won them over, and everyone thanked me after the show. That kid from Jersey was now a man, but the sense of wonder and craving for random adventure remained.

I had solicited recommendations from every person and their mother about this foreign land and now carried a thick binder full of lists and articles about random things to do and see. And while I naively sought out non-touristy spots, upon landing in Shanghai, I instantly became aware of the extreme language barrier that would prevent me from finding most of these gems. Even ordering in a restaurant proved trying — pantomiming my request for another Coke often resulted in a bowl of ice or a pair of chopsticks. Fortunately, I have never been afraid to speak to strangers, so locating a hidden restaurant from the New York Times' "36 Hours in Shanghai" could be enjoyed even though it meant asking twenty people for directions. Persistence was the key.

The program was a one-week intensive, with native professors explaining the economics of China before and after the market opened in 1979. We were educated on the exponential expansion and success of China in a short time.  And while we were itching to get the skinny on Tiananmen Square, the one child policy, the blind eye towards intellectual property rights, and the seeming lack of sustainability, the closest we came to an answer was a professor who stated, "In China, economics first, social change after." This may explain how the world's third tallest skyscraper can be erected in four years on the Pudong while the World Trade Center Memorial takes nearly a decade. It's easy to expand when unions, people's right to organize, and the media can be turned on and off by the government like a light switch.

After the course, I planned to spend a few days in Beijing. I had told my friend Stuart about my mini-vacation, and he urged me to get in touch with his dad's "watch man," Ling.

"This guy is legit," Stuart said. "I have a fake Breitling from him. When it broke, I sent it to Breitling, and they repaired it — they had no idea it was a knock off!"

Stuart gave me the guy's email and asked me to pick up another watch for him while I was there. I contacted Ling once I arrived in Beijing. Torren, my classmate, co-traveler, and a big watch aficionado, was eager to meet him as well. We speculated as to whether Ling would show up with a trench coat lined in Rolexes, or if he would carry them in a suitcase or the trunk of his car.

Ling met us at our hotel early Monday afternoon.  And while I expected an older businessman in his fifties, he arrived dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, a 29-year-old with the frame of the 15-year-old girl. His features were so delicate that if you slapped some rouge and eyeliner on him, he could maybe pass as an attractive girl.

His English was pretty good, considering the immense language barrier in China. Every sentence, though, seemed to be punctuated with an exclamation point.  

"I like you right off! Today we start lifelong friendship!"

But he had no merchandise in hand. Instead, we all climbed into his brother's Buick and drove to his office for tea. Ling's office was actually an apartment, the walls lined with glass cases filled with watches. Room by room, the watches increased in quality. We had enough tea to be polite before we began browsing. Other customers trickled in: a Japanese businessman, an official from the Canadian consulate.

Torren was a kid in the candy store. He moved methodically from case to case, making his selections. I didn't know much about watches but picked up a few gifts: Cartier for my mom and fiancée, a Patek Philipe for my dad. Torren took two hours to decide.

Ling took us back to our hotel at last, but just to eat and change. He was taking us out that night — he insisted! — to show us The Real Beijing. 

Read the second installment of this travel fiasco, wherein our hero tangles with a broken nose, lost paperwork, and the Chinese police.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.