They say the best scams are when you’re not sure you’ve been scammed. But you do have to decide and the options aren’t great: you’re either a sucker or a cynic. Marty and I, after extensive deliberation, decided that anything is better than being a sucker.

We had been in Shanghai less than 24 hours when we rose up the escalators out of the Yuyuan Garden metro station and into the midday haze. At the top we were immediately intercepted by three sprightly early twenty-something girls. They wanted me to take a shot of them standing on the edge of a busy intersection with a needle like tower barely discernible through the apricot smog in the background. I clicked, shot and was immediately suspicious. The “can you please take picture” is the perfect (not to mention well documented) in for scam artists. Turns out they were students from Tsing Tao (“like the beer?” “Ha, yeah! Like the beer! You know it?”) studying English.

I was partially disarmed. I had the assumption laden thought that no one who had the dedication to make the crossover from Mandrin to English so successfully would have to resort to grifting to make a living. One told us that the Yuyuan gardens were full this time of day but it was OK because they were going to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. What luck! I could tell Marty was having second thoughts. “What do you reckon?” he asked me.

The question was a loaded one. Imagine a set of scales — on one side there’s the fact that these three had caught us just at the top of the Metro in a tourist area, we had taken a picture of them in a less than picturesque location and they were trying to shunt us away to a strange location. All sensible points. But then there was the counter-weight, a series of voices urging me on: “There’s nothing so eye-rollingly dull as an eternally suspicious Westerner”, “Dammit man, you’re on holiday” and, every backpacker’s favourite “Here’s your chance to lift the veil and get to the real so-and-so-a-place”. The voices were louder than sense.

So off we went, along a main road, down one of the small alleys, and with a bang on window and a loud “Ni Hao” we were let into a small tea shop. We went along a corridor and into the first room. Strange Chinese muzak played, distorted, through speakers not up to the task. The roof was low and the printed wallpaper was close, but it was tranquil.

Five chairs were arranged around a table with a stocky polished wooden altar on it. In front was five jars containing tea, all different. We sat in the middle, surrounded, one girl to Marty’s left, two to my right. The ringleader Tiffany maintained a constant train of witty and light conversation. Silence was never permitted. The other two were called Bei Bei, a plump, quieter but similarly enthusiastic student, and Fanzhiya, who was thin and silent. A new young lady entered in traditional silk garb, she was to be the host. She explained everything in short flurries of Mandrin which were translated immediately by Tiffany. Their one-two pace was relentless.

We were given a quick history of tea in China, shown a statuette of a three footed toad (the God of Tea) with inset gems in his back in the shape of a constellation, each gem a different colour, one representing luck, love, etc.

“All this comes from the Book of Tea. Over three thousand years old.”

“Oh yeah I know it,” I said.

“You should be teaching us about tea!”

To their credit they flashed us a menu in Han characters with a price next to each item.

“Plus you’ll have to pay for the room. But we’ll all split it. Do you know these teas?” Tiffany changed the subject smoothly.

We worked our way through the five teas, the host displaying dexterity with the tiny white cups and pots, a stream of history and trivia associated with each one. First Oolong, then green tea, then a fruit tea, then ginseng. One pot had heat activated sticker which turned from dull charcoal to vivid watercolours when the hot water was poured in. The climax though, was the final one, the Triple Flower Tea, an ash grey nugget dropped into the waiting water, unfurled into three flowers, one within another — chrysanthemum, jasmine and a tiny rose coloured flower. It tasted bland but in the words of a famous chef — the first bite is with the eye.

Then came the bill. Which was passed from the host to sweet Tiffany a tad too comfortably (only in retrospect, mind).

“So that’s five times 48 Yuan, and 67 for the room which is 307 Yuan each.”

Right. So that’s about $50 each. For five cups of tea. And what did we do? We emptied out our wallets like good little boys. I’ll be the first one to admit that I was charmed and the tea was great but it was at the money point that I realised we’d been had.

“Please take these gifts.”

Some kind of recompense? They offered us a choice of coloured baubles which they insisted we attach to our bags and we parted ways.

In the following hour Marty and I had unpacked the grift, one piece at a time. Even then we were not entirely sure. We eventually went back to the same metro exit and Marty was asked to take a photo of man in front of the same intersection. He took it. It was overexposed, almost white. Marty showed it to him and asked “I should take another one”. The man said “”The computer can fix it. Where you from?”I stood back but they left us without saying anything. Call me paranoid but I think he spied those baubles on our bags, those baubles which are code for mark that’s been marked.

K Johnson will be blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.