A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009 entrant

Author: Clare Kane


“My name is Richard and I want to be your friend.”

Fellow travellers, if you hear these words, let the alarm bells ring. Don’t let Richard be your friend. Richard is easy to identify in his stomping ground of Shanghai – he is twenty-seven, tall, skinny and nervous with a loping walk.

Despite the fact I had spent two months living in Shanghai, when my family arrived I agreed that hiring a guide and a driver was a brilliant idea. It was the easiest way to make our way around a colossal city home to some twenty million Shanghailanders. None of us had factored Richard in as part of the plan.

Richard took us to the ancient city of Hangzhou, home of the famous West Lake and according to Richard, many “moist skin” beauties. At the Lingyin temple, we asked Richard who the various Buddhas in the Hall of Kings were. His response to each and every one? “The government bring many Buddha from all over province here.” We’re sure he meant to inform us they were the Laughing Buddha, or Budai, one depiction of the Maitreya Buddha whom devotees believe will arrive on earth to rekindle the faith when Buddhism is long forgotten. There is also Sakyamuni Buddha and an intricate statue of Guanyin, goddess of mercy, standing on the head of a fish and surrounded by a sea of 150 Buddhist personalities on their woeful paths to the truth. Richard told us Guanyin is “especially for lady”. If you want to get pregnant, you pay your respects to Guanyin and Richard, despite his scant knowledge of Buddhist theology, promises, “it really works.” We then toured the West Lake for “four zero minutes, no getting off boat”. We saw a huge golden dragon boat and managed to ascertain it had been moored in the lake since someone important had taken a tour on it. Who was this elusive person? “The leader man.” We spent the rest of the journey in silence. As we disembarked Richard told us, “Many important things have happened here. I did not tell you because you are foreign and you don’t care. You don’t know our leader man, such as Mao Zedong.”

We thought our day in Hangzhou was over when Richard pulled another trick out the bag with the casual mention of a show. “China number one water show,” we were assured. We protested we weren’t interested in the show.

“Sometimes it sells out, if so, I’m sorry. No show.”

“That’s OK. We don’t want to go.”

“OK, let’s go to the show.”

Thankfully the show was sold out but our Richard adventures were far from over. Next stop, “China number one genuine tea village.” One problem: no village. There were a few fields and low-lying buildings. We were ushered into one room where we were instructed to remain for “three zero minutes”. Here we learnt the benefits of green tea (“it really works”) and were offered tea at the bargain price of three hundred yuan a tin.

We felt we had paid our dues with respect to Richard’s commission but there was more to see. The Hangzhou Silk Museum was calling us. Here we were sat down and barked at by a Chinese woman who had bizarrely picked up a Bronx accent – “Hey, you! This silk most beautiful, you want it? Hangzhou China number one silk city! Hey, you want light this silk?” We learnt how to tell the difference between real and fake silk. It appears if you apply a lighter to either material, it will go on fire but the colour of the smoke is different. Not sure I would recommend trying this one as a bargaining tool.

Day two – Shanghai. We had higher hopes for this day and it started well with a visit to the stunning Jade Buddha temple but after a quick culture injection, we were ferried off to a mysterious building. “We must go here so I can get signature, OK?” We all nodded in agreement and sat still in the car as Richard jumped out. He looked puzzled then opened the car door. “Come on.” It seemed we were following Richard to wherever he was going to get his signature. It turns out that was a pearl factory. Here we discovered how to tell if pearls are fake – beware if they are too even or if the surface rubs off too easily. We stayed for as long as politeness required then left. We had a pleasant lunch, but as we got back in the car afterwards, Richard turned to us and said gravely, “We have a problem.” We looked at each other with raised eyebrows. “In Hangzhou, you were very good. Today you are bad. Only stay ten minutes in pearl factory. Must stay three zero minutes for me to get signature. Now we go to jade factory. You stay four zero minutes.” So, like lambs to the slaughter we filed out of the car and into “China number one jade factory”. Here we learnt the many health benefits of wearing jade (“it really works”). Twenty sales assistants preyed on us five innocents. The result was the purchase of a “very low quality” jade bracelet at ten times the market price.

So, a word of warning to all considering a trip to the Middle Kingdom – not all guides are as disinterested or commission hungry as the hopeless Richard but travellers should be aware that guides are an unnecessary expense if most of your days are going to be spent touring factories where you will be expected to pay over the odds for a host of “China number one products”. The best advice is to buy a good guidebook and take it around the sites with you; it should hopefully offer deeper insights than “it really works”. Sightseeing in China is very cheap and usually highly enjoyable. If you are seeking some genuine Chinese products or want to experience a unique take on Shanghai, however, you are very much advised to give Richard a call.