Friday, December 30, 2005

Bring on the haggling!

Yes I've returned from Xian, sorry to Alex for having to wait to read up on what he's missing out on... first, Wednesday:

I think I've found my new favourite hobby, haggling for a while and beating down somebody's initial asking price by 90+%. I love it! On Wednesday, after checking out of my hotel and leaving my luggage with the front desk, I hopped in a taxi and headed to Xuishui Silk Street. After reading some stuff online, I was somewhat apprehensive about what I would find there. The original Xuishui Silk Street was an actual street lined with shops and stalls selling all kinds of stuff from silk and pearls to fake designer label clothes, bags and watches. However, since Xuishui is very close to the US Embassy and due to the international pressure on China to attempt to control the crazy-huge knockoff market, Xuishui was shut down and moved inside to a multi-story building where vendors had to obtain permits to sell their goods. Of course, as with any new law\policy, it's only effective if enforced, and enforced it ain't. All it's done is move the vendors off the street and into the warmth with storage space for their goods. Upon arriving at the market, I immediately spotted an oasis in the craziness that is Asia... a Subway. Now, seeing as I haven't had Subway since I left Canada, I just had to stop in. We have them in Japan of course, but only far away from my apartment. So I ordered a foot long Roasted Chicken sub with a side of pumpkin soup... and it was good... not quite up to par with the ingredients we have access to in Canada, but quite tasty nonetheless.

This is the front of the Xuishui Silk Market.

Inside lies a bustling atmosphere full of desperate vendors trying to make a sale in the off-season where tourist dollars are relatively rare. A perfect opportunity for the shark in me to let loose and get some stuff for next to nothing!!! I think I did quite well, picking up a few gifts and some ties for myself for anywhere from 85-90% off the vendor's sky high initial asking price. I learned quickly after buying two sets of postcards for 20Yuan my first day here and then having someone else offer the same thing for 5Yuan... never take the first price... lol

After my first foray into the land of China's markets, I started hiking down the street towards the beginning of the Wangfujing Dajie walking tour suggested by my Lonely Planet guidebook. Wangfujing Dajie is the premiere shopping district in Beijing, where the elite come to be seen shopping. Names such as Swarovski, Rolex, Rolls Royce and Luis Vuitton grace the walls of these shopping malls... most of it unfortunately out of the reach of the common Beijing citizen, and myself for that matter... but an interesting stroll nonetheless. While I was walking around, I was approached by 4 different sets of people, 2 of which were nice and just wanted to chat, one of which was a student trying to draw me into an art exhibition and the last of which was a prostitute who simply said: "Hello Hello, Your hotel sex?" Not that I would ever consider such a thing, but the mustache certainly didn't help her cause... lol Branching off from the main shopping area is Wangfujing Snack street, a small market-like area which sells foods from all corners of China, as well as the usual tourist souvenirs.

I continued walking, following the map in the guide and stopping to read about interesting buildings and such until I reached St-Joseph's Church, also known as the East Cathedral, which was recently renovated and adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to a stroll down a Chinese shopping street. Originally build in 1655, this unlucky church was destroyed by an earthquake, a fire and a war, but rebuilt each time, the last time being 1904. I just read in my guidebook that there is a Starbucks across the street, which I missed on my first visit... since this is close to the Forbidden City, where I'll be heading on Saturday, I'll probably hobble my way back down there to grab my first real coffee in 5 days.

The next item of note on this 3Km hike through central Beijing was this small park, dedicated to the remains of what was once the fantastic East Gate of the Imperial City. Unfortunately, as is the case with countless cultural relics in China, this one was destroyed in the period of chaos following the fall of the last Emperor in the early 1900s. All that remains is this sad little stump of bricks. It is however interesting to note the level of the ancient street compared to today's, a 2 meter difference.

The walk continued, and after saving a few German tourists who'd been in Beijing for a mere 2 hours and were being hounded by postcard salespeople (look at me the veteran having been in China all of 5 days) I continued my walk until I got my first view of the magnificent Forbidden City behind it's large walls. I'll be visiting tomorrow but here's the first look I got of one of the towers guarding the city.

Got out to Tiananmen Square again and tried in vain to take a snapshot of the Gate of Heavenly Peace with the Chinese flag fully extended... but the wind wasn't cooperating.

In search of a taxi, I spotted this countdown clock (sorry it's a bit far) to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in front of one of the museums next to the Square.

Again, my experience served me well and when I was mobbed by a bunch of taxi drivers (real painted taxis, not the fake illegal ones) offering me a ride for a set price, I kept on walking... ended up getting one off the street and paying less than half what was being offered. I now just ask the driver to take me to Tuan Jie Hu street and can find my way down the back alleys to my hotel, since taxis have been having a hard time finding the place.

So I waited in the lobby until a black luxury car pulled up and my English tour guide came in to take me to the train station. The driver had to fight through some nasty traffic, but I got to talk to the guide in the meantime and she tried to teach me some Chinese. The word Qing (tshing) said in 4 different ways means please, emotion, light and celebrate... and I have no idea what I was saying, but she was laughing at me, though I did get it right a few times. She escorted me to the train, got me on board and bid me adieu until my return to Beijing. The train carriage was comfortable, I was sharing with one fellow and he was very nice though his English was limited. He broke out some green tea, offered me some and after I said I had no cup he scoured the train looking for one and finally succeeded. The Chinese people I've met so far have been very friendly and relatively outgoing and happy to show off their English skills. So that was that for Wednesday, got a good (enough) night's sleep on the train and was ready to face the ancient city of Xian on Thursday.

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