China Trip - August 2007

Thursday, August 9th

Today's first step was Beihai Park, a large public park in the middle of the city. This is the kind of place where the retirees hang out, doing tai chi (pic) and playing Chinese chess (pic) and similar things. Liss thinks many of the tai chi people were plants for the vendors trying to sell us - tai chi implements. Her theory has merit.

Ping had given us a lesson on basic tai chi, which I think was tongue-in-cheek. Very slowly, you pretend to:
create a watermelon (make an oval with your hands)
slice the watermelon (hands together, run them down the middle of the "watermelon" you just made)
give half to a friend ("shove" half to the right)
give other half to a friend ("shove" half to the left)

I figured there have to be aggressive monks out there that do it really fast. You know, when preparing for battle.

The highlight of the park for me was a group of 30-40 women (mostly) singing under a gazebo (pic). I have no idea how this sheet music is interpreted (pic), so it was cool to see another culture's notation system.

Next was the Temple of Heaven, a particularly important temple (pic) overlooking the city (pic). Like the other building-centric stops, they wouldn't let us inside this one, but the picture opportunities were better (pic, pic). There were also nice carvings into (sand- or lime-)stone going up the steps (pic), but their orientation means they're being worn away by the elements.

There were side buildings with exhibits of the history of the temple, and a "corrected" Engrish alert (pic).

Cultural side note: In the heat, men do this with their shirts (pic). Imagine a guy walking around like that in America, especially where it's hottest. He wouldn't last five minutes without ridicule.

Engrish alert (pic). That's a bottle of water.

The back of the Temple area had garden space similar to the Summer Palace (pic, pic, pic, pic, pic).

Engrish alert (pic) for "Keep Off The Grass."

Side note about English. Ping told us that children start learning it in middle school, and it's a basis for how far you get in school and what kinds of jobs you qualify for afterwards. Admission to university requires a certain tested level of Oxford English. The problem that I saw was that everyone knows book English. They've had very little exposure to people who actually speak it. So when you deviate from their textbooks, confusion reigns. One person in our group used the phrase "kicked the bucket" to Ping, and she got one of her many blank stares at similar complexities of the language. The previously noted jade factory manager was another major example, but there were hundreds of small ones.

Since it's Oxford English, most of the translations were spelled centre, colour, and so on. We had to take a "lift" to get to our hotel room.

We discussed the tip thing at lunch. The group consensus was that we'd take care of ours with a collection, and Victor's group could take care of theirs.

After lunch, the bus took us to a silk rug factory. Yes, another factory. I didn't even go in, along with several others. Everyone was back in about 15 minutes.

Next was famous Silk Alley (pic), basically a five-floor flea market with a whiff of legitimacy, but just a whiff. It's crammed with tightly-packed booths, almost all of which employ teenage girls to try to get you to buy whatever fake stuff they have, calling out to you as you pass. They had handbags, dress shirts, women's clothes, winter gear (ski boots, snowboards, etc.), (real?) pearls, (real?) jade, (real?) silk, bootleg DVDs, watches, fans, painted plates, and other things I'm forgetting. People go there to spend money, and they know it. Haggling is expected, which I hate. I wanted to see if I could find my yellow jade Buddha or jade mahjongg set. Liss was looking for a top or two that she could wear to her predominantly Asian elementary school during Chinese New Year. We were also just generically looking for things to bring back to people.

Engrish alert (pic) on the ATM in Silk Alley.

Before forging ahead in there, we went for a quick coffee at a nearby shop. It was expensive, but well done. Overall, the place was the best imitation of a Western anything for the trip.

Then the madness began. At one jade place, they went from $50 to $11 on one item in maybe 30 seconds, after I'd expressed interest then disbelief at the price then walked away. Almost every booth's girl would say something like "pretty girl, we have nice necklace for you" or that they even had shirts in my size. Gee, thanks.

Side note about sizing. Liss, who's a S or M here, is an XL there. You can imagine what I am.

The DVD place had an obscure sign that said "No Haggling." I can't blame them, but most of what they had black market for $10 (e.g. The Simpsons Movie, probably taken with a video camera in a theater) I'll be able to get for $7 in a few months. That's right, I can wait to save $3.

After making the rounds, we picked a random booth with women's tops. We probably spent 40 minutes there, with the girl and eventually her "manager" (actually I think she was - of that and several other booths), with Liss trying on various things and me trying to look like I could tell what was sewn well and what wasn't. She settled on two tops, and then the haggling began, and they started off WAY higher than we even expected them to start - something like $200. The process took some 10 minutes all by itself, whereby we eventually paid $60, which I still think is way more than we could have paid. But whatever. I can rationalize it by remembering that the girl was much less pushy than most of her counterparts.

We also were able to find a few of those gifts we were looking for, like a jade ball similar to this one. But the best find was the grocery store in the basement, with local goods and local prices. 28 cents for a bottle of water? Yes, please. Meanwhile, Liss got a boatload of tea for a gift and I got a nice variety of bulk candy to take to work. (It turned out that mint green doesn't necessary mean mint - those tasted like cough drops.)

To me, the problem with haggle-based buying that that the seller has an automatic advantage: they know how much the item cost them. That's a vital piece of information, and akin to always holding the ace of trumps. Whether or not the item is "real" would be the king of trumps, which we also rarely held.

Afterwards we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Beijing, where they serve "Western" food. We got badly-singed burgers with no condiments or cheese, greasy fries, and a watery vegetable chowder. But at least the sodas were free refills. They also had a buy-two-get-one-free special on a local beer, and our Boston guy didn't want that much, so I got the free one. I went into the souvenir shop to look for a shirt, but they wanted the same price ($20-25) as in the States. I didn't go to China to pay American prices.

It was said that the Chinese industrial boom is based on copying, and they're still no good at innovating. For proof, I present this picture (pic) from their version of The Price is Right.

Wednesday, August 8th |Home| Friday, August 10th