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David has kindly reminded me that I haven’t been updating the blog as much as I should…but never fear, I have been keeping notes and remember everything I want to share!  Backing up a little, the dust storm really was crazy.  This whole month (yes…we have made it a month already, can you believe it?!) I have felt like I live on a movie set, where someone just controls all the people and atmosphere because it seems too foreign to be real.  If you have ever seen the movie The Truman Show…I feel like that.  The dust storm was the best representation of this feeling so far, riding on my bike through sand and dust to school, I just felt like some special effects guy had just switched on the “Asian Dust Storm” switch.  Oddly enough, when we exited a train station in Beijing, we stumbled across some Mongolian tourists who wanted to take our picture.  I think in the trade-off between dust storms and photos, they won.

I have to recount a funny story that happened in school the day of the dust storm.  I teach a class called NC-1.  It’s an intermediary class for kids that did not pass the previous level and need extra attention.  As you can imagine, this class is tough.  I was reviewing the months of the year, and asked Logan, what month do you like?  He smiled and said, “I like watermelons!”  Oh good, Logan understands the “I like” concept.  So I explained, can you look at the list of the months in the book in front of you: Jan, Feb, etc.  “Logan, I like February because it’s my birthday, or I like August…”  Logan says, “Ohhhh, dui dui (yes, yes), I like watermelons!”  OK, that was a huge fail for me…but the Chinese teacher and I had a good laugh about it after class.  Next class, we will review “I like” and Logan will pass with flying colors.

Lets see, in part of getting our resident permits we had a short interview with a Tangshan government official.  One thing that was very interesting about the government offices is that they all had beds in them!  I’m not sure why, and I reallly like this custom, but it was very unique.  Also, we asked the official about how many foreigners were in Tangshan, since we have seen 4.  He said 700, but half of those work for a German branch of Siemans, 200 are medical students, and the rest are teachers or students.  He said lots of Taiwanese and Pakistani come to study medicine.

One thing I also wanted to mention about the first night in Beijing was the Lao Beijing (Old Beijing) area.  It is near the food street, but is a small area of the city set up with little windy roads and tons of vendors to look more like an old-fashioned Beijing market.  As you may know, I completely love markets and got a total kick out of this place.  There are people and knick-knacks on every corner, and  it’s just a fun vibe.  Also, a funny thing about all the markets (Night Market, Silk, Lao Beijing) is that the Chinese vendors know limited but tourist friendly Chinese.  They are always shouting,  “hello lady, do you like, do you want?  or funny phrases like “Mmmm silk worms!”

OK, now to tell you about the second day in Beijing.  First we walked around the city and found the train station, which is next to the bus station, to buy our tickets home.  It was a VERY confusing experience because although there is a direct line from Beijing to Tangshan, it’s in an unmarked, abandoned-looking tile room about 2 blocks from the actual bus station.  Luckily Eddie had drawn us a map and warned us about this craziness, but it was still shocking.  We found out that we didn’t need to pre-purchase tickets, and would just need to show up 10 minutes before we wanted to leave at night, so we headed on towards the Silk Market.  The Silk Market is the best-known shopping center in Beijing…and it’s incredible.  Oh to see the look on some of you fashionistas faces at this 6-story mega shop!  There are rows upon rows of vendors selling everything from name-brand clothes to Chinese souvenirs.  They have leather jackets, sevens and true religion jeans, paintings, signature seals, pearls, luggage, watches, massages, DVDs…basically shopping heaven!  However, as David mentioned, this place is packed with tourists that come in by the busload, so the first price the vendors offer is outrageous, not even a deal in the states.  In the end, however, if you are persistent, there are huge deals to be had.  Although I wanted to buy a million things, we managed to escape with two paintings (originally offered at over $100 US, bartered by David to about $22) and a tea-strainer mug.  I can’t wait to check out this place with some of you…and buy cashmere together!

After the silk market we headed to the Olympic Village to see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube.  They were huge, cool and just like you have seen them on TV.  There were a surprising amount of people milling about, but we decided we should go again at night because it would probably look more exciting.  Don’t get me wrong…it’s all really impressive architecture, but not much to do in that area.  We also tried to find this pizza place called the Kro’s Nest that had been recommended to us by some of the teachers, but ended up being taken to Domino’s.  I was starving at that point and didn’t feel like looking anywhere else for food, so much to David’s displeasure we had a $20 pizza.  I thought it was pretty good though!

From there we took a cab to the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, Yonghegong.  On the way to the temple was an entire street filled with incense vendors, and the temple itself was very ornate.  I think pictures will describe it better than I can, but it was a great example of a traditional buddhist temple, complete with many rooms housing gold Buddhas.  Many Chinese were also kneeling and praying to the Buddhas with incense, and there were many buses full of tourists there as well.  I was getting extremely tired at this point…David is a walking machine and all I could think about was cuddling up with our new DVDs, so we began another long walk to the bus station.  We stopped on the way at a great vegetarian restaurant and caught the bus home from the divey little room-station.

Overall we were really impressed with Beijing, minus the air quality, and are looking forward to going back!  Today I heard about the Health Care legislation and Google pulling out of mainland China, which are both big updates for me.  I will have to see how this Health Care bill plays out, as I am currently paying for US insurance in fear of having a “gap” in coverage during my time in China, waaah wah and clearly Google pulling out of China completely would not be good.  In other news, I got a haircut today from the best guy in the shop for under $2 and we had our first official Chinese class.  I think we are eager students…but are still completely tone deaf!!!  Also, just as a reminder, the Avon Walk is in one month and if you are looking to fulfill your charitable budget for the year, I know some pretty awesome walkers that still need funds.

Goodbye for now from the land of tea.

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Ni hao everybody!  Erin and I just returned from our first trip, to the great city of Beijing.  Of all our traveling exploits, I think this ranks as the one I am most proud of us accomplishing (slightly in front of renting a car in South Africa and having no issues whatsoever) because so much could have gone very wrong on this trip.  The day started in Tangshan, getting in a cab for the bus station.  We jumped our first hurdle, which was getting the cab driver to understand that we wanted a bus to Beijing.  After a few minutes, he understood, dropped us at the station, and we purchased our tickets.  We hopped on the bus, listened to some guy try to sell everyone these cheap looking rings (and selling at least one to every person on the bus except us!!!), and then headed towards the Chinese capital.

We were dropped in the middle of nowhere, and wandered around confused, repeating the words “Tian’an Men” to various people, trying to get towards Tiananmen Square.  After about 40 minutes, we got a cab and were taken to the city center.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was pretty nasty on Monday.  Not nasty meaning rainy or cold, nasty meaning they sky was brown with dust blowing around constantly.  We have both had enough of the pollution/dust, but what can you do?  Luckily it cleared up substantially that night, so it wasn’t too bad.  Anyways, if you are standing in the middle of Tian’an Men Square, take a couple steps forward because you might be standing on Chairman Mao’s embalmed corpse!  In the middle of the square is…Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, which is basically his body and some sculptures.  The body is on display in the morning and afternoon, but we didn’t see it this time.  There is an obelisk in the middle as well, the Monument to the People’s Heroes.  If you are facing the Forbidden Palace, then the Great Hall of the People (aka Parliament building) will be on your left, and the National Museum of China will be on your right.  The most impressive aspect of the square, as I mentioned before, was the size of it.  Some pictures of the square and the buildings are attached, so take a look!

We wandered about the square for a little while, but we wanted to find a hotel ASAP, because we did not have our passports with us, which presented another potential obstacle.  We had letters from the government of Tangshan saying our passports were being reviewed so we can become resident aliens and luckily Erin remembered as we were walking out the door that we had copies of our passports.  We walked up Wangfujing Street, the main shopping street in all of Beijing.  There are huge malls on both sides of the street and the place is packed with pedestrians.  After getting our hotel room squared away, we got some food near St. Joseph’s Church, one of the oldest and most impressive churches in Beijing.  After eating, we walked towards the Wangfujing “Night Market”, one of the most famous food streets in China.  A food street is a street that has tons of street food, and every city in China seems to have at least one, if not many, food streets.  The Night Market is special in that it has gathered many of the street foods found in cities all around China.  It is a walking tour of street food around China, a tad overpriced, but we learned quickly that just about everything in Beijing, even if the price is listed, is negotiable.  I took lots of pictures of the foods found in the street; beef, lamb, potatoes, eggs, noodles, silk works, snake, sheep testacles, sheep penis, seahorses, starfish…you get the idea.  If anyone comes to visit us, seeing the Night Market is an absolute must in my opinion.  There just aren’t places like that, especially with foods like that in the USA.

We walked down Wangfujing street again, looking at more of the shopping areas this time.  We bought some books for learning Chinese, a map of Beijing, and I bought “The Analects”, the most famous book of Confucian teachings at the Foreign Language Bookstore.  The street looked very different and a lot more lively at night, and there were cheap souvenirs were all over the place (although the first price you hear is usually not so cheap).  As I mentioned before, prices are very negotiable in Beijing, and as our manager explained to us, you should expect to pay about 30% of the first price they give you.  Based on our experiences haggling, I would say expect to pay 10-30% of the first price they give you!  There are a lot of tourists in Beijing and many of them do not even attempt to haggle, so these places have to make an incredible amount of profit per sale.  The constant haggling is another fun aspect of Beijing (and most of China), but it gets tiresome, because you have to deal with salespeople telling you outrageous prices and then whittling the price down to 10% of the original.  Some pictures of the souvenir shops are also included, with some of the even odder delicacies we saw that night, namely LIVE SCORPIONS!  Why people were eating these still moving scorpions I do not know, but I guess there is a certain fascination with eating anything that weird.  Part of me dies inside seeing the way the Chinese treat animals and the environment, but there isn’t a whole lot I can say to change anyone’s minds.  If an entire country is willing to put up with dust storms and pollution that makes them get cancer, blocks the sun for months, and don’t mind not seeing a blue sky all year, how can you change their minds about other environmentally damaging things?  I don’t have the answer yet.  We walked in a few more shops, did a loop back up the Night Market, bought some street food for dinner, and then went to sleep.  Erin didn’t feel great (potentially because of the dust), so we wanted to get lots of sleep for the massive amounts of walking we would do on Tuesday.

Beijing is a great city that is incredibly hospitable to the large amount of foreign tourists that visit, but at the same time, many people in the city understand that it is almost too easy to fool a tourist that speaks no Chinese and has no idea what prices are like in China.  We encountered a common scam Monday night, which involves 20ish year old girls approaching you, telling you they are college students learning English, and are wondering if they can practice with you.  Then they ask to get coffee somewhere, where you are then potentially charged thousands of US dollars for coffee.  If you refuse to pay, gangsters that are part of the plot will make you aware that refusing to pay is simply not an option.  Don’t worry, we chatted with the girls for a little while just to see if they were scammers, and sure enough, they asked us to go for coffee, and we declined.  It makes you appreciate humble cities like Tangshan in a way, because we have not been given an unfair price at all since we have been here.  There is no haggling in Tangshan, even as an obviously foreign customer, because most of the shopkeepers are so stupefied that a foreigner is in their store in the first place.  All this considered, if you ever have had an interest in Beijing or in visiting us, you should do it.  Seeing Beijing would be worth the trip in itself.

This is just day 1 of our 2 day journey to Beijing, but I am too tired to finish it.  Maybe my lovely girlfriend can author part 2, but she is already asleep.  So for now you will have to enjoy part 1, and come back tomorrow (or later tonite I suppose) to see part 2.  I am going to leave a quote from the Analects at the bottom of my posts from now on, so put your philosophical thinking caps on.  Zajian everybody! (zaijian = goodbye)

2.2  (Book 2, passage 2)  The Master said, “If out of the three hundred Songs I had to take one phrase to cover all my teaching, I would say ‘Let there be no evil in your thoughts.'”

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