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Looking for cash in all the wrong places

You might think the big event of my single day in Beijing was the Great Wall. Or even the Lama Temple. Or walking around Beijing, buying $2 umbrellas when we’re caught in a downpour, or finding a restaurant and ordering food in a hutong near our hotel.

But no. The big event was finding someplace to change money. For a cash-based economy, China really makes it incomprehensively difficult to change US Dollars into Chinese RMB.

See, Steve and I had hired a guide and a car to take us to the Great Wall. Steve had also had the same guide show him around Beijing for a couple of days before I arrived, so we owed her a substantial amount. We had to pay her in RMB, and in cash. (You pretty much can’t pay for anything in China with a credit card, hotels excepted.)

Knowing about the whole cash thing, I made sure to bring some. Only I had no idea where to convert it to Chinese Yuan (more commonly referred to as RMB, although I’m not sure why).

On all my previous visits, I’ve stayed in a big hotel that has an exchange machine in the lobby. But the little hotel where we stayed doesn’t have that. (Incidentally, I really enjoyed the HuLu House. I would stay there again if it weren’t so far from the office.) And unlike other places I’ve traveled, there aren’t exchange stations at strategic locations throughout the city.

We thought a bank would do it. But the first bank we tried turned us away.

Pressure was building.

What if we couldn’t get the money?

And we wanted to stop at the Lama Temple, which closes at 4:00. Already it was 3:15!

We drove to a second bank, approaching with trepidation. I walk in and approach an offical looking woman. I show her my US money. “Exchange?”, I ask hopefully. I imagine there was a smidge of panic in my eyes.

But she nodded! Relief!

Only I had 9 people ahead of me in a very slow line.

Our guide came in to explain the situation, and the Official Looking Woman agreed to treat me as a VIP. In short order I was in front of a teller.

She took my passport, copied and studied it. She noted down my passport number and my visa number. She trippled checked everything. She had me sign two papers. She checked her papers a fourth time. Then she gave me the money, two receipts, and a rather large paper bag (approximately the size of an airplane barf bag, only–if you can believe it–more substantial.

So mission accomplished, but it must have taken an hour.