ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Publication Date : 19-09-2012
The petite salesgirl’s eyes almost popped out of the sockets on her flawless face when she heard the price we were willing to pay for the handbag we were eyeing.
“What? Twenty-five yuan (US$3.95)? Are you kidding me?” she exclaimed, then furiously punched in new numbers on the calculator before holding it up again.
The display read 230 yuan. She was giving us a discount of 20 yuan.
The Sin Chew Daily reporter who was with me was not impressed by this offer. More haggling followed, and after about 20 minutes, we got our wish and paid 50 yuan for two bags. And that was that ... until we reach another stall, where a similar battle of wills started again.
We were at the Sanlitun Yaxiu clothing market in Beijing, China, one of the biggest and most popular places in the city for clothing and apparel, a day before AirAsia X launched its new direct flight to the Beijing Capital International Airport, an event we were covering. All five storeys of the place were packed with stalls offering everything from T-shirts and cheongsam to canvas bags and luggage.
Why were we shopping instead of visiting the iconic Great Wall of China as any self-respecting tourist would do? Because we simply didn’t have the time for it.
If you are in Beijing for a meeting and have only one day to spare, chances are you would not be able to visit the Great Wall.
“The journey to the Great Wall takes about half a day,” said Louis Cui, our tour guide, who dismissed the Great Wall as he intended to show us as much as of Beijing as he could.
Asked what the next best thing to do in Beijing was, Cui didn’t hesitate.
“Shopping,” he answered.
“We don’t have time for the Great Wall, so I thought you might enjoy some shopping, the Olympic Park and a glimpse of the Beijing nightlife,” Cui explained.
It was a good call, too, because soon all of us were getting into the thick of things, bargaining and haggling. The disappointment of not having a chance to visit the legendary Great Wall dissipated.
The 10 per cent rule
Louis Cui, our tour guide, recommends shopping as the second best thing to do if a visit to the Great Wall is not possible.
Before going shopping, Cui reminded us that goods on offer were mostly worth only 10 per cent of the initial asking price. He advised us not to pay more than half of whatever price was quoted.
It was a useful tip, but what was most interesting about shopping in Beijing was not the fact that you could knock off as much as 90 per cent off the initial asking price of any item (although this only applies to stalls, not the established stores), but because it allowed you to interact with the locals.
The younger salespeople, I noticed, tended be more aggressive and would try their best to make you stop at their stall and buy something. The older ones would try to make conversation and ask about your country and share their thoughts on the city.
Occasionally, you’d find one or two who would throw in a gift or two and point you in the right direction for whatever you’re looking for.
There are many places to shop in Beijing. For clothing, jewellery and handbags, you may want to visit the Silk Market, the Sanlitun Yaxiu clothing market and the Yuan Long Silk Store. Nice antiques and handicrafts, meanwhile, can be found at the Hongqiao Market, Liulichang and the many craft stores along Guozijian Jie.
If you want to maximise your day, a little planning is needed as these places are scattered around the city, and traffic is heavy most of the time.
However, looking for food is not a problem at all. This is China, after all, where food is a big part of the culture. There are many restaurants and Chinese fast food shops that sell rice and tasty Chinese dishes. Halal food is also available throughout the city.
Of course, our day was not all about shopping alone. As Cui promised, we also got to see some of Beijing’s landmarks.
The Olympic Park, for instance, is a must-see for architecture enthusiasts and sports fans. Although the park is about 5.5 kilometres in length, only a portion of it is open to the public. The wide expanse of open space here may not be particularly eye-catching during summer or winter, but it’s just perfect for a stroll come spring time. We saw peddlers flying traditional kites, and admired the colourful flowerbeds.
For a quick tour, we took a ride around the park for 20 yuan. As he took us around, the driver rattled off various trivia – the facts and figures relating to the park – like a recording. He laughed when we asked him how he managed to memorise everything.
“When you do this more than 10 times a day, you’d remember,” the driver grinned.
In the evening, visitors can choose to walk along the many famous streets in Beijing and enjoy what’s on offer – an insight into the city’s ancient origins, markets and great bargains, local delicacies, and even a chance to immerse oneself in Chinese culture and art.
Being Malaysians, we decided to check out the local food scene because Chinese food in China is different from what one would find in Malaysia. We descended upon Wangfujing, a street named after a prince’s residence. Besides the huge Wangfujing Foreign Languages Bookstore, the 2.5km-long street also boasts the Wangfujing Xiao Chi Jie (Street Food Street). This is a place where all sorts of street food are offered.
From the famous bing tang hu lu (candied fruits on skewers) to all kinds of noodles and fried stuff, it offers food of every flavour and type imaginable. And if you’re adventurous, then you are in for a treat. Fried scorpions, worms and starfish, anyone?
We had only one-and-a-half days to spend in central Beijing but that was time enough for us to cover two big shopping malls, the Olympic Park and Wangfujing Street. We even managed to squeeze in a short stroll along Houhai Bar Street, which is famed for its hundreds of bars.
Despite the Chinese saying, Bu dao chang cheng bu shi hao han (You’re not a good person if you’ve never been to the Great Wall), I’m of the opinion that you don’t have to visit the Great Wall to know Beijing. In every nook and cranny of the city is a piece of Chinese history and culture waiting to be explored.
One day may not be enough, but what you see may just make you want to come back for more!