So here I am once again on the 24th floor of the Renaissance Capital Hotel drinking a bowl of white wine and cleaning out the hotel’s shortbread cookie supply. (My Lovely Wife will appreciate the “bowl” reference.) I’m on my way back to visit said Lovely Wife and I’m taking an extra day in Beijing to see the Forbidden City one more time. My prior visits have followed the typical tourist trot – enter via the south gate on Jianguomenlu and walk straight through to the far end. It’s the path through all that’s grand and inspiring and if you’re only going there once, it’s the way to go. But there is an entire second universe on the left and right sides, formerly home to officials and eunuchs and workers that I’ve never seen. And that’s my goal. But first things first.
My plane left Dalian about an hour late due to “air traffic congestion.” Every time I hear them say “congestion” I think of that bee in the Nasonex commercial. Except I think that he’s supposed to sound like Fernando Lamas who is about as far from Chinese as one can get. Nonetheless we were delayed in getting off the ground but all my time was made up by the lack of traffic and a taxi driver that actually knew the quick route to the hotel without me telling him how to go. This, my friends is a major step in the right direction.
After a dinner of deep fried chicken legs, spring rolls, cheddar cheese and watermelon I headed out to the Silk Market to see if I could secure some pearls for a friend who was coming very late to the Terry B. Buy Things in China Program. Normally the answer would have been “no”, because pearl buying has been a Shanghai thing. But I was up for the challenge for no reason other than the fact that this was probably the last opportunity I will have to haggle over $7. On the street the temperature was mild but the humidity was high and I could sense the wilt factor in every walking commuter I passed.
Xin Shui as it’s known here is a multi-storied affair that boasts all the counterfeit items available in the known world. The parking lot out front was full of big tourist buses disgorging hordes of Germans dutifully following their Chinese tour guide who, de rigueur, was carrying a flag so that they would not get lost. I have to say that I am quite a snob when it comes to tourists here - I amp up my swagger and I put a wry smile on my face and I walk right through their lines.
When you go to Xin Shui with a purpose in mind it’s easy – the stall vendors pretty much can sense if you’re interested in their hip-hugger jeans or North Face tech vests and if you’re not, they smile when they make their half-hearted attempts to lure you into their tiny shops. Tonight was like that, and they had plenty of other foreigners to lure so I passed by pretty much unscathed.
Pearl buying is a pretty simple affair because the sellers are controlled by the Pearl Cartel. You’re going to get the same price no matter where you go so you decide by chatting with the girls and picking the friendliest and ideally the prettiest. Moderate English skills are also a consideration. Tonight I picked Miss Shelly and we haggled for a bit until she pulled out the “most lustrous top quality” strands from under her work stand as a ploy to close the deal. We went back and forth for a bit longer and finally settled on the very price I had in mind when I left the hotel. It’s nice when that happens even though I’m sure I’m still paying too much. As a haggler, I refuse to be a rude skinflint but I will not settle until I get some consideration. We agreed and she called over some young man to help her with the re-stringing. Watching them do this is ever so much fun – their hands move like a blur, threading and tying a knot between each pearl. The tradition is rich – they offer you a bottle of water, you sit on their stool, they string and you chat in Chinese. For me it’s worth the effort for the post haggling glow.
We settled up and I said goodbye after exchanging business cards. She asked me to bring my friends back and I said I would. I went off in search of one last knock-off watch and ended up bargaining with “Coco”, a cute young girl from the province up north of Dalian. We had a nice go-around in our mutual languages and at one point I had her so confused that she complimented me on my English. She looked mildly stunned when I told her that I should be able to speak English, being an American and all. Our bargaining took a long time with constant rises in my offer and declines in her request until we agreed on a number right in the middle.
The long walk back to the hotel rarely changes much but it’s quite beautiful at night with small neighborhood shops sitting at the feet of brightly lit, towering skyscrapers - both sides of Beijing in only a mile of walking. I love it, and as I walked and stopped to take some photographs I realized that very soon I would no longer be a city rat; my evening walks would change to include my dog, my wife, the Milky Way and the occasional Owl. I will admit that I’ll miss these hot and damp city streets and the pulse of life that is so powerful, but given the choice – I can’t wait for the other option. It’s time to go home and see the stars.