Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

Beijing day 4: Silk negotiations

I'm now more than a month late writing you about my final day in Beijing, but I thought I should wrap up this account. My final day in Beijing, Mom and Dad caught a train to Shanghai, so I wandered the city by myself. First off, I wanted to explore a nearby grocery store we'd passed but not shopped in. Compared to independent stores, I figured they'd have both good - and fixed - prices for things like tea, no bargaining required.

I limited my first visit to some paper goods like knock-off Picasso notepads, but the store did not disappoint. I especially enjoyed translations in the toiletries section, where condoms came in varieties including a "feel thin" style. Whereas English labels in Japan sometimes had no literal relationship to the subject, English translations in China seemed to attempt the same idea, but with often baffling results. Thus, one menu listed hot and sour soup alongside "spicy beauty shoes" and a dumpling-like item called "hand to break off the bowel."

Satisfied with my grocery-store visit, I set off to wander a few hutongs I'd found listed among the "best" such alleys to see. The first one had been commercialized to an extent indiscernible from an outdoor American mall, but down a side street called the Mao'er Hutong, I soon found quieter sights more like those we enjoyed our first night, en route to the dumpling shop. Signs marked the former homes of famous residents like a general and the last empress.

It turned out most of the hutongs I wanted to see were all in the very same neighborhood as the dumpling shop: Shichahai. By day I got a better look at the large Drum Tower we'd noticed, and saw part of a charming lake we hadn't seen. Near the eastern shore, I watched a man standing next to a small temple fly a kite into a tree as he attempted to bring it down.

At last I tired of walking and decided to get a late lunch. I soon realized, however, that my non-existent Mandarin created a problem. Even at restaurants with picture menus, I couldn't distinguish a pork-filled dumpling from one with meat I wouldn't eat. After the third place without an English menu, I finally tried a shop on the road by the Drum Tower and the train station. They had an English menu and very cheap dumplings -- only $4 for a plate of 20 and a beer.

Much refreshed, I decided to brave the Silk Market. As soon as I entered the building, large photos of foreign dignitaries who'd visited there warned me to expect tourist pricing. Worse yet, I'd have to bargain for them. Despite the outdoor setting I'd originally pictured, the "market" was actually a large, multi-story building with each floor devoted to a different kind of merchandise. By walking briskly and ignoring the almost accent-less English greetings from stalls as I passed, I managed to reach the floor with fabric pretty quickly.

I think it surprised them to learn that I planned to sew with the silk myself, instead of giving it to a tailor, but I eventually haggled down the price on a piece of blue and red silk that caught my eye at the second fabric stall. I hate bargaining. Though I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to maximize savings at a sale or with coupons, bargaining always leaves me feeling like a sucker who probably could or should have paid even less than agreed to. The saleswoman complained that I left her with almost no profit margin (I got two meters for the price marked as the one-meter price), but I left unconvinced I'd done very well.

On my way out of the mall, I ran into the two women from South America who'd been part of our Great Wall tour group. Happy to see a familiar face, I told them about my afternoon dumpling find, which turned out to be near their hostel, and did my best to draw the location.

By the time I returned to the street, the early-evening sunlight cast a smog-yellowed glow upon the streets. When I dropped some change into the cup of a man begging outside the train station, he responded with a litany of thank-yous that left me feeling guilty for my mean contribution -- only a few cents' worth in U.S. currency. Beijing offers more job opportunities that outlying areas (the reason our tour guide Emily had moved there), but food and housing cost far more than in other parts of the country. Emily told us that some benefits were also limited to Beijing residents, which I believe kept her from bringing her young daughter to the city to go to school. Instead, Emily travels a few hours home once a month or so to see her and her husband, who sells wine in a shop.

Weary and somewhat sobered by my encounter with the man, I squeezed in a very brief walk across Tienanmen Square before what I thought was my last train ride in Beijing. When I reached the shop by the homestay, I took a different route than usual to reach the "tea city" our homestay host Wenzhou had recommended. Cutting through a now-dark residential street, I passed high-rise apartment buildings whose ground-floor shops provided some of the only illumination of the bicyclists who passed me almost silently. Outside some shops, customers spilled onto the sidewalk, men (some barechested in the heat) eating or drinking at tables set up near the curb.

At last I reached the tea street. The first shop had all the main kinds that I wanted, but I wanted to compare the prices a bit first. Finally I returned and started to make my choices. Only as I prepared to pay did I learn that, despite the visa sticker on the door, the owner did not actually take credit cards. By now I learned that Google translate could help overcome my language deficiences, so we slowly went back and forth as he tried to send me to the ATM down the street, while I explained the limited cash I could spend (I didn't want to make another withdrawal, given the fees).

Eventually, he led me to a dusty table near the window where, lo and behold, a credit card machine appeared. The first one didn't work, but it turned out he also had a second one. This one finally spit out a receipt for my signature. Though I hadn't managed to bargain his price down at all (and probably should have), I left with a small sense of victory nonetheless.

The city almost had the last word, however. The next morning, I strapped on my backpack (which later weighed in at 48 pounds), strung on my two additional shoulder bags and waddled 10 minutes' walk through the heat to the train station where I thought I could both get a refund of my deposit -- providing enough yuan for the airport bus -- and catch that final ride through the city. After some back and forth via Google translate, I learned that I couldn't get a refund at just any station; I had to go to Beijing West Railway Station.

I had enough cash to get there, and could catch my airport bus from that station, but I had to take off all my bags and run them through the security scanner. So far, so good. When I reached Beijing West Railway Station, however, it proved a massive, sprawling complex. The crowds of people made for lines at almost every point, including the exit gate. Almost no one spoke English or seemed to know where I should get my refund. After a long walk to the other end of the station -- and through another security scan -- I finally found an office labeled refunds, only to learn that it wasn't the right kind. I couldn't get an Internet signal for the Google translate app, but a kind man named Michael offered to help me find the refund office, as I couldn't pay for my bus ticket without getting the funds.

Back we went, to the same spot where I'd first asked for directions, and then halfway back again to a transit office I'd now passed at least three lines, which was inside yet another infernal security station and reachable only by means of two long lines. When I commented on the crowds, Michael calmly said this was perhaps the busiest station in Beijing. For once I'd allowed myself some extra time, though, so even with the line for my third bag-security scan and the second line for the refund window, I finally got the cash I needed and made it onto the bus. My shirt was soaked to the skin by then, but I'd made it without injury, theft, expensive cab rides or a second ATM withdrawal.