I have very little expectation that anyone—with the possible exception of myself—will read this, so writing this is both solipsitic and onanistic. The advantage, for some, however, is that you may learn cool new vocabulary words.
The stupidest thing I did in China, I did within about an hour of arriving there. Feeling smug from the hours and hours I'd spent with my friends at Pimsleur, practicing valuable phrases in Chinese ("young lady, would you like to come to my place for a drink?"; "I'd would like to take a walk, and then go buy ice at the drug store"; "I like bowling more than tennis": needless to say, none of these sentences was ever uttered by me while doing anything but practicing Chinese), I decided I would save some dough and rather than take a cab, I would take a city bus to my hotel. This was before I realized how cheap cabs generally were (and just to maintain the cosmic yin-yang balance, I screwed up in precisely the opposite way in going to the airport in Shanghai).
I went up to a woman and told her where I was staying (the Taiwan Hotel in Beijing, pictured above), and asked what bus to take and how much it cost. (This is all in Chinese, mind you, which brings with it all sorts of cultural baggage from many directions.) She told me, so I got on, and took the long ride, trying to read whatever signs I could, at least in PinYin (at this point, I knew very few characters). Naturally, I could have been headed for Kazakhstan; I was the only Big Nose on the bus, and assumed (probably correctly) the only English speaker.
Fortunately, I knew that the bus's last stop was supposed to be the one close to my hotel, so I waited for that one, and got out. At this point, I was in Beijing, knew absolutely no one, and wouldn't have known how to contact them if I did. I had a vague idea of where my hotel was from where I got off the bus, and a less vague idea that I was still a couple of miles away. I only had one suitcase and a carry-on computer bag, but that was going to be a drag, carrying it while hoping I was headed in the correct direction.
While mulling this all over, a local came up, asked me where I was going, I told him, we haggled over the price (it went from 30 yuan to 10), he grabbed my suitcase, put them in the back of what was, more or less, a motorized tricycle, and we headed out, with me sitting in a caged-in back seat, taking in the sights and wondering just what the hell I was doing.
We then drove up a main street, and then he headed down some alleys. Folks out doing their wash, playing cards, fixing food: this was about 10 pm local time. As far as I could tell, I was in a standard, but anonymous neighborhood of Beijing. As far as I could tell, he could have stopped, and alone or with a partner, taken my stuff, killed me, and turned me into DaBiZi Fried Rice, and no one would have known about it for some time. (This may have just been the paranoia of an American traveller.) In any case, a few alleys and main roads and then a few more alleys later, he dropped me off at my hotel. I gave him the 10 yuan, which along with the bus ride, had saved me about 10 yuan off of a cabride. One way of looking at it was that I saved a little more than a buck to risk my life with a stranger, one with whom I couldn't really communicate. Another was that I had seen some local color I would otherwise not have seen, and successfully negotiated my way from the airport to my hotel. As I was mulling this over—China involves a good bit of mulling, I discovered—I was greeted by a young man in front of my hotel.
Hey! You hot! We have massage! We meet up; I give you room number!
For the first of many, many times in the next six weeks, I said "Shieh shieh, bu yao"—roughly thanks, but no thanks. Little did I know that this guy just hung out in front of my hotel, seeking to make new friends. Eventually (probably the next day, since I only stayed there three nights) he became a little more direct, and one night as I left the hotel he greeted me succinctly:
I never figured out if he said with a question mark or an exclamation mark.