Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Ping Pong is China's official national sport, but bargaining surely comes in a close second. Last Friday a group of 4 or 5 CET students made the bold decision to test our amateur skills to the pro arena: the Silk Street Market. As one of the most tourist-infested markets in Beijing, the shopkeepers have had ample practice sweet-talking, or in some cases, intimidating, foreigners into emptying their wallets on counterfeit goods. The travel guides say to be mindful of pickpockets, but the real danger is getting robbed right in front of eyes by a hyper-aggressive Chinese lady. In any case, we had been forewarned as we entered the packed market, but we couldn't have prepared for the shopping experience that followed. I tested the waters first, asking the shopkeeper at one of the outermost stalls how much her fake polo shirts were. 130 RMB? Outrageous...tai gui le ("too expensive" - the requisite response to any price they initially tell you). I was soon sucked into another stall by a shopkeeper who told me she could make a sale in 8 different languages. Sure enough, a Spanish man walked up, and she held her own. I was intrigued. I checked her merchandise over, made some displeased faces, feigned disinterest, and then made her an offer. She played it perfectly, and before I knew it, I had bought two shirts for what I would later learn was an outrageously high price. Who knows, maybe she was genuinely impressed by my Chinese, but she sure wasn't impressed by my bargaining skills. China is the land of cheap clothes, but it is also the land of buyers remorse. In any case, I set a good benchmark of what not to pay, and and we moved on to avenge my poor performance. Ultimately, we all did pretty well, and I later posted the low price of the day on a couple of lacoste shirts. After getting home, however, I realized that one of the shirts was not an adult medium, but a childs medium. Was this intentional? Hard to say. As they say, if you play with fire, you're bound to get burnt...we went up against the best, and came up short...literally, the shirt is tiny (want a new shirt, Emily?). We'll probably head back there at the end of the program with some of our Chinese roommates for round two...locals are essential if you don't want to get destroyed by these women. Some of them will even get you with the "death grip" as we've come to know it...you can try as hard as you want, but they will not let go of your arm. They also like work as a pack to prevent you from leaving their stalls...it's pretty funny to see a 20 year old American guy struggling against two 50-something, 5 foot-tall Chinese women as they all yell about a fake northface jacket.

Continuing the tourist theme, we went on the requisite Great Wall tour on Saturday, which was definitely worth while. The section we saw is at Mutianyu, about a 2 hour drive from Beijing, and consists of 1300 meters of restored wall. This area was built relatively late (16th century?) and still has a lot of its original brick-work intact. The views of the surrounding hilly areas from atop the wall were great, and it was nice to get out of Beijing's smog for a few hours. I've posted a bunch of pictures, so hit the link at the bottom of the post. Given Mutianyu's proximity to the city and its pristine quality, the visit was not without its touristy drawbacks. The walk from the bus-filled parking lot to the start of the hike to the wall was lined with vendors selling souvenirs and the like, and there are several gondola companies that can whisk you straight to the wall. I find that I'm having a hard time with all the tourism. Most New Yorkers (and city-dwellers in general) have at least a little disdain for the Europeans and Asians that crowd times square, stopping every 5 feet to take a picture. At places like the Great Wall, however, I'm basically one of them. It's funny how you get drawn into the tourist mold once you're among other foreigners. In my neighborhood, I try to behave as a local as much as possible, but at the Wall, I found myself riding the alpine slide to the bottom (a sort of toboggan-ride)...which was fun, I admit, but I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty. The funny thing about this ride, though, was that because of the low cost of labor, it was actually safer than other alpine slides I've been on in the States...it just wouldn't be worth the money in the States to have 7 employees sit on a hill all day and tell riders to slow down.

Last night, to celebrate the Fourth of July, however, we threw any attempts at blending in out the window in search of the American experience. About 20 of us went to place called Steak and Eggs, right by the US Embassy, and had burgers and steaks. I had actually been dying for some decent American diner food, and this place fit the bill...the sticky tabletops and gruff service were especially nice touches. I have to say, I think it was the first time since I've arrived in China that I actually went to sleep still full from dinner. Around the same area is Beijing's most famous bar street, Sanlitun, which is also primarily waiguoren (foreigners). It's definitely a trip to see all these American college kids in the middle of Beijing. Case in point, I actually ran into a highshool classmate going up the steps to a popular student bar...and my class was only 120 kids.

Lastly, a 5.1 earthquake hit about 100 km away yesterday afternoon, and we felt some aftershocks. Nothing big, but enough to stop and say, was that an earthquake? I've slept through my fair share of minor NY 'quakes, so it was kind of cool to feel one.

Sorry for the long post, they won't all be this long. I'm going to try and keep posting around once a week, hopefully on Sundays, at least while I'm in Beijing. Hope everyone reading is well and had a great 4th weekend.