Today was shopping day. Whoopee.
We’d done the “handbag” thing yesterday, but that was fairly painless as Clare already knew where to go, who to see, and the secret handshakes to gain access to the inner sanctums of handbag heaven. She had a shopping list, and the prices weren’t negotiable.
Today was very different: heading to the Silk Market to buy treats for ourselves and for others. The shops are notionally grouped by category per floor, but most of them have so much stuff in that you can’t see the tat for the… other tat, frankly. And as for the prices… oh, dear.
First task was a set of prescription sunglasses for Clare. This wasn’t too painful, once she’d decided on the style, and a mutually-agreeable price was arrived at fairly painlessly, followed by a rudimentary eye test. I had a look at some O*kley sports glasses, but decided to leave them until later when we had to come back for Clare’s glasses. We had a look at the same style of O*kleys in another shop on the same floor (after buying some R*y-bans for our nieces), and without any serious negotiation got a price of ¥80 as we were walking away, which at least gave us a target for later.
Then came one of our many, many visits to the main “toys and tat” stall, where we found almost exactly what we wanted for somebody, but not in the right colour, and that was all they had. Damn.
Then downstairs, for the first circuit of the clothes floors: if I’d worn a suit more than about once in the last year,I’d have got myself one made-to-measure, but there doesn’t seem to be much point.
We had a look at some shirts, found nothing promising, but did find some linen trousers for me… although I don’t think the brand in question ever made linen trousers, but what the hell. Given my almost comically large legs, we thought it was best if I tried them on; the changing room was the corner of the stall, with the shop proprietor respectfully turning her back and staff on the other stalls trying to avert their eyes and giggling amongst themselves. Takes more than that to embarrass me, though! Yet again, another painful negotiation starting from a clearly-ridiculous price, eventually arriving at something not-too-bad, but still probably paying over the odds.
By then it was about time for lunch, so we went to the newly-opened food court upstairs, and decided that xiabu xiabu looked quite promising.
This is a fast-food style hotpot restaurant, where each diner gets their own hotpot, and obviously their own choice of soup base and main ingredients. We were here for over an hour, and didn’t manage to get through all of our food; even I was absolutely stuffed, and still had noodles and vegetables that I hadn’t cooked. All for the very reasonable price of ¥84, including a bucket of Coke and a large glass of beer! *burp*
Back then to the “opticians” to pick up Clare’s sunglasses. The prescription didn’t turn out to be quite as accurate as hoped, but once she’d given her eyes a chance to recover from wearing contact lenses then it seemed like it’d be good enough for the occasional use that they’ll get. We had a try at negotiating for the O*kleys starting from the price we’d been offered elsewhere, but the lady wasn’t biting, making claims of better quality (justified), and being less than her cost price (absolute rubbish). By this time I’d got bored of the whole thing, and noticed that the colour on a couple of components didn’t match, so we walked away from that one.
Time for another attempt on the toys and tat stall, where they magically found some different colours of what we’d been looking for earlier. This time round the price negotiations where truly painful, with us walking away several times and getting called back through different entrances to the store. Eventually a “best price” was agreed upon, less than 10% of the originally-offered “not normal price, special price for you lady”.
Another crack at the clothes floor to find some polo shirts for work. We found some “P*ul Smith” ones that looked fairly good quality, and agreed a price… then once the girl had gone to find the right sizes some of them came back as “Pola Smith”, clearly not the same designer at all!
We thought it was worth a look for some Vibram FiveFingers style shoes; it was worth a go at a vastly-reduced price, just to have a try of them. We tried one stall, but misjudged the size, and by the time we’d done some initial bartering decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The next place we tried, we managed to find some the right size, but while one shoes looked fairly “new”, the other looked like it had been tried on by every Tom, Dick and Harry, so we didn’t finish our negotiations here. Then we found another stall that had something that looked very much the same as FiveFingers, but with different branding. We fairly quickly negotiated an agreeable price, and they went and found a pair in the right size… and turned up with exactly the ones that I’d tried on earlier. Enough of that lark, I think.
That was all we could take of haggling, so we went over to the Wangfujing area where we’d been the previous night, as we thought there was a supermarket in the basement of the shopping centre there, where we could pick up some interesting snacks to bring home. No sign of the supermarket (it seems to have closed since the Lonely Planet guide was written), but we did have another wander around the tat stalls in the area and found a lucky cat for my desk at work!
We also noticed some other foodstuffs that we hadn’t seen the night before: flying lizards (not flying any more), normal lizards, and rows and rows of deep-fried chicks (species indeterminate). Unfortunately I was still feeling full after my hotpot lunch, so didn’t bother sampling any of these delicacies. Shame.
After a fruitless attempt to get a taxi back to the hotel, we decided to wing it and get the Metro to where we thought there was a Wal-Mart to do our snack shopping. By this time it was rush-hour, and the Metro was heaving, packed enough that there were people employed at one of the stations to make sure not too many people got on that the doors wouldn’t close.
As soon as we managed to escape from the Metro system, we could see the Wal-Mart on the other side of the road: success! This clearly wasn’t a tourist area though, and we got a lot of glances, with varying degrees of discreetness. One place we passed was obviously the local scooter dealers, with fresh-from-the-crate scooters stood on their wheel-less forks on the pavement.
Wal-Mart was quite amusing. We didn’t know what to expect: I think the last one I’d been in was in Florida, where you could buy yourself a pump-action shotgun while doing your weekly shop. This one wasn’t quite so strange, but it certainly had plenty of strange stuff for sale. The fresh “fish” section was quite amusing: the usual selection of live and dead fish, turtles, seafood, etc., and a special section that at first looked like a selection of cigars, but turned out to be some particularly fine sea cucumbers (probably more expensive than cigars).
Some bizarre transaction went on with our foreign currency card at the checkout, with Clare getting dragged off somewhere else to pay; I suspect only one till could use MasterCard, or something. Very odd.
By this time it was dark outside, but the traffic was freer moving, so we tried to hail a taxi again, along with a few locals. The first one that we got had a look at the hotel’s card for a bit, then obviously decided he wasn’t sure where it was, or didn’t want to go that way, so we had to get out. The next taxi seemed to slow down enough to identify that we were Westerners, then sped off again. Third time lucky: there was much examination of the card, and some pointing on our behalf to indicated the general direction of the hotel, but finally we were off. Another examination of the card whilst waiting at the next junction, and a confirmation of the turn to make (“Wǒmen zhīdào”), things were looking very promising. When we finally got to the hotel junction, Clare dredged up an unexpected string of Chinese (“Fàndiàn zài nà!”), and we stopped in exactly the right place! We even gave the driver a rare tip, and hope that gives a little help to the next groups of Westerners desperately trying to hail a taxi in Beijing.