Chairman Mao (aka Mao Zedong), the leader of the Communist Revolution in China reportedly said, “You are not a man, unless you have climbed the Great Wall…and survived the swindling of the taxi drivers in Beijing.”
Or something like that.
Since Erick and I wanted to prove we were men, we not only climbed the Great Wall, we did it in our underpants…with temperatures well below zero….with broken glass in our shoes.
No, wait, we weren’t even wearing shoes. And it was snowing and there was a flash flood. And it was uphill both ways.
Ok, so that’s not all true…but, some of that’s true.
No, wait, the only part that is true is: we did climb the Great Wall of China. And it was cold.
With temperatures squeaking just above 10 F/-12 C and winds gusting at 30-40 mph (making the wind chill -12F/-24C), our guides Tool and Ice along with Erick and I hitched a bus to the Bandling section of the Great Wall, just north of Beijing.
Though this section of The Wall is often cited as a tourist trap in guidebooks (and it is), due to the temperature, we nearly had the whole place to ourselves, except for the hawkers.
Maybe encouraged by the lack of other visitors or maybe by the appearance of a couple Westerners (so many assume Westerners have lots of money to spend, which is often true) we were inundated by hawkers selling everything from Great Wall snow globes to gloves to coffee to posters and plastic Mao action-figures (I didn’t check to see if he came with a kung fu grip?). After our time in Hong Kong with the hawker markets, we’d grown a bit accustomed to ignoring them.
But, as the cold winds whisked up our skirts (ok, maybe we weren’t wearing skirts either), we decided we had come ill-prepared for the weather. Fortunately for us, Ice and Tool, were reportedly quite adept at bartering and after engaging an onslaught of hawkers, we settled on a few items.
A few rules of bartering we learned:
- Let women negotiate with women, men with men (advice from Tool).
- Shop around, prices are variable and all is fair in love and war and bartering.
- Always inspect for quality. Trust and honesty are not a requirement of being a hawker, many operate in the field of “Truthiness.” (Though I’m sure there are many honest hawkers out there.)
- Street hawkers are persistent, you really just have to ignore them if you’re not interested. They would just walk up to us and try to put a coat and hat on us as we were walking. When we protested and shoved them off, another person would put another coat on our backs. And so on…
- Under no circumstances what-so-ever should we (the foreigners) negotiate, cause we are stupid.
So, as we watched Ice bargaining for two fine Burberry scarves that had caught our eye, I made the mistake of breaking rule #5. Ice had started bartering at approximately $25 US ($200 RMB) per scarf, and she had talked them down to half that and was shooting for lower. She was good, and the ladies knew it, so while one of them negotiated with Ice, another turned to Erick and pitched a price. Erick, smartly, covered his mouth and just pointed at Ice implying, “talk to her, she’s in charge.” (The woman spoke not much English, except prices, “good material,” “you need” and “warm.”)
All this time I had been sitting back mostly laughing rather entertained by the scene. Two Americans, two Chinese, 3-4 hawkers from different shops squabbling over prices, people being wrapped up in coats, everyone’s taking pictures, everyone’s laughing (including the hawkers), and its -10 below zero (and we’re standing in our underpants with glass in our shoes).
Suffice it to say, the scene had drawn a small crowd of onlookers.
After Erick’s silent treatment, the woman hawker turned to me and pitched me $20 US per scarf, I shot back in sort of a joking fashion: “$10 for 2.” She shot back “$18 for 2.” I was surprised and without much thinking said, “Ok, sounds good.”
So in the end we paid about $9 US (70 RMB) each for a scarf that would have cost us well over $25 US in America. We were happy (and warm). On the other hand, Ice and Tool were unimpressed. They thought we had paid too much.
I have come to realize the most important rule in bartering its not a matter of if you did or did not get a bargain, it’s whether you feel like you got a bargain.
Still today, I am happy with my $9 US scarf, though I’m certain next time I’m shopping with Ice and Tool, they will have me wait on the bus.
“In some countries Great Men wait on the bus.” I swear I’ve read that somewhere.
With our scarves in hand and a rented coat (for Erick), we hopped on a cable car headed to The Great Wall, our first glimpse below. More photos in the next post…