Thursday, June 19, 2014

MY TRIP TO CHINA - A Tale of Two Cities - Beijing and Shanghai DAY 1 - The Silk Market and Beyond!

Day 1 (continued from below)

The Silk Market

Despite our long trip, we caught our second wind and decided to set foot into the infamous "Silk Market".  As our China Spree tour was likely going to be jam packed, wall to wall, morning to evening, I wanted to try to get the shopping out of the way asap.  Perhaps the most famous tourist trap for the gritty bartering and shopping experience was the Silk Market which I had noticed in my Lonely Planet guide.  Additionally, my friend had also recently visited and said it was a must see.  I have to agree after going here!  And no, this isn't a market where they sell silk (mind you they do sell some silk but given the parameters of this place, it is likely fake silk actually made out of polyester!).

The Silk Market is a multi-story building lined with stall after stall of merchandise and vendors. The real experience here is that the vendors are known to be quite aggressive and you have to negotiate - hard.  It is not for the faint of heart according to many.  The other claim to fame is that quite a few of the goods here are fakes - fake Rolex, Polo's, even fake iPhones.  Everything looks completely legit, but is completely fake.  Somehow even the electronics are fake even though they work.  Talk about high-tech!

Each floor has a different mix of stalls.  On the first floor it is mostly clothing related, on the second floor more clothing and souvenirs, then the third floor watches, pens, and electronics, and of course there are more floors.  What you quickly will find though is that many of the vendors sell the same thing, especially in the clothing area or the watch area.  You can use this to your advantage for your price shopping because you have an easy reason to just walk away if you don't get the price you want since the next stall over will have the same thing.  The key however is when negotiating, to try to get the price down to about 15% to 20% of their asking price.  

You can get lost in here, both literally and figuratively.  You can plan to spend an hour in here in the morning, only to find that night has fallen by the time you leave.  When you do leave, you will leave exhausted both mentally and physically with your arms full of purchases and your pockets empty, only to find a lady outside selling you even more fake Luis Vuittons for a fraction of the "great deal" you thought you just got inside.  And in some cases, you'll know that you may have left just a little bit of your dignity behind.  But all in all it will be a fun experience if you don't take things so personally!

We had a great time here.  Although it was endless, I identified a few t-shirts, Burberry golf shirts, and other knick knacks like Montblanc Pens that I wanted to buy.  I price shopped and my Dad and I went to work.  Chinese versus Indians.  Kung Pao versus curry.  Cheap versus frugal.  The battle of the two cultures famous for their haggling.  My strategy was simple:  counter their ridiculously high offer with a ridiculously low counter offer.  Ultimately I think we fared well - in some cases I could have saved a buck or two, in others I got them to the point of getting mad.  Just to give you a heads up, we paid about $4US per t-shirt, and about $8 for the polo shirts.  The Mont Blanc pens were also about $8US.  The fake watches were aplenty and boy, the quality sure has changed.  Even the Rolexes, Hublots etc, even have automatic movement and sapphire crystals.  Those varied quite a bit in price but for the better quality ones they could still run you about $100 or so.  If anyone reading has gotten better prices please post in the comments so our readers will know!

Ultimately I can't say the vendors were in fact rude or aggressive, contrary to many things I had read.  Everyone was quite pleasant, and the tactic of walking away worked charms.  They would usually follow you out of their stall and convince you to come back.  Whatever you buy though just assume it is low quality so keep your investment low and keep in mind you won't be able to return anything. Additionally, there is a section on the top floor with tailors.  While you can probably get them to come down in price and probably get a men's suit tailored for around $70US, don't do it!  The material they so certainly promote as wool or cashmere is in fact polyester. Wait until you're in Shanghai which has more options of trustworthy tailors.

Quite the experience spending the morning here.  Yes, I said morning.  We decided to go back to the hotel to meet the German guy and his travel companion at the for more adventures.  Since I loved the Silk Market so much I came back many times before we left Beijing...including later that night where I ran into none other than a certain famous Hollywood actor...but you'll have to tune in for that story.  Stay tuned.

Where did we go next?  What was the subway system like and what exciting people did we meet?  The adventure was yet to start.  Keep visiting for more or subscribe for updates!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

MY TRIP TO CHINA - A Tale of Two Cities - Beijing and Shanghai DAY 1


5:20am - Beijing Airport

Clearing Customs

So we're here!!!!!  Unreal.  We disembark the airplane and walk through the gigantic, beautiful airport, which is so nice it makes every other airport I've been to in the US look like garbage dumps.  My Dad, myself, and Steve the Oil guy walk through the different terminals, following the heard from our plane to wherever customs may be. 

Steve and I engage in a delightful conversation about the cute Chinese lady who gave him her "QQ" number (a cell phone app that many Chinese people use to chat with others and to pickup/hookup).  I was 69% jealous thinking that I should have tried to talk to her but since I saw her with a baby, assumed she had a husband close-by, or she was flying out to China to be with him.  Wrong.  She was divorced, lived in Chino Hills, and was hot to trot.  No offense to Steve, but she must have been longing for some lovin' if she was engaging flirtatious activity with him!

Anyway, we get to the customs area to the tune of a couple hundred others.  Fortunately it is very organized, and since it is quite early in the morning, not so crowded.  As a business-owner, one of the biggest joys of going on such a trip for me is to be away from a ringing cell-phone, and to also not have to be looking out for everyone, something that I tend to do in my personal life, and have to do as part of my profession as an attorney.  Every day I get 50 to 60 calls from people, everyone needing help, asking me questions, and stretching my brain in a million directions.  It is of such joy to me to just have to think about myself and tune out of this practice.  I'm telling you this for a reason:

When we had exited the plane, an Indian lady travelling on her own had tried to engage conversation with me and my Dad, asking if we were Indian etc. What was odd was that she was strategically awaiting for us outside of the plane doors. Well, as luck would have it, while we were standing in the customs line, she approaches us again, very lost, and confused.  At first I thought she was trying to cut the line since we had no relation to her and she just boldly planted herself alongside us despite the fact that we had no relation to her.  It turned out she had a 12 hour layover in China en-route to a different country, no Chinese visa and had no idea what to do.  

I'll be honest here - she really wanted us to hold her hand and help her figure out what to do.  This would be an instance of me being torn - do I invest our time trying to help this lady when we have a tour operator waiting for us somewhere else in the terminal, not to mention we don't really know the customs here?  No. No. No.  Despite her attempts to persuade us surreptitiously and guilt trip us into leaving our place in a very long line, we stayed in line and just pointed her to the information desk and told her they would be in a better position to help her.  It was hard for me to do that but I knew that on Day 1 of my vacation, I could not be figuring out someone else's lack of planning!  Especially when it meant potentially jeopardizing missing our tour operator pick-up.
Lesson 1:  If you're at stake, don't feel sorry for anyone.
My Mom taught me that first lesson when I found myself always feeling sorry for people and often to my own detriment.  We made it through customs flawlessly, bid our adieus to Steve, and met the tour representative.  About 15 other people joined us from the US, and we had a chance to speak with a few of them including an incredibly social man named Peter, who was from Hollywood but of German background.  He was the first to approach us and introduce himself.  Peter would be a very important person on the trip as we spent a lot of time with him.  From the group, he was "that guy" (every group was one), who breaks the ice for everyone.

The China Spree operator was pleasant and organized.  We were taken by a nice bus to our hotel.  The first thing that struck me about Beijing was the architecture and how spectacular the buildings were.  Usually when we look at our buildings here in North America, they often follow a common plan.  Shapes and designs vary, but no significantly.  Take Chicago for example - it is has a fantastic architectural tour pointing out the nuances of the tall buildings.  In Beijing however, it seems like there is no restrictive common plan forcing buildings into a specific prescription.  Their buildings are wild, impossible, beyond the imagination, and some even appear to defy the laws of physics!

The Jianguo Hotel, Beijing, China

Checking In

First order of business was checking into the hotel.  Our hotel was the Jianguo Hotel which has been given great reviews on TripAdvisor, earning an #87 spot out of over 5,000 hotels.  Wow, talk about great deal for our money thus far!  You can check out reviews for the hotel here   The potential issue we were to run into was whether the hotel would let us check in this early.  After all, by then it was probably only 7:30am so checking in then would give new meaning to the term "early check-in".  Luck!  The tour guide talked to the front desk and they let everyone check-in!  For me this was a huge plus as after flying for so long, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in a lobby or kill 5 hours - I needed to put my feet up for a few.

The interior of the hotel was gorgeous.  The lobby was ultra clean, modern, and had a beautiful stream flowing through the property.  Our room was excellent as well and came with a welcoming plate of fruit and two free bottles of water.  The room even had this cool double sided mirror in which if you flicked a switch the mirror became a window into the bedroom.  At one point when I was naked I flicked the switch, not knowing what it was - fortunately my Dad was sleeping.  #embarrassing

We took a load off, my Dad and I put our feet up for an hour and I watched some TV.  Since T-Mobile works internationally for very cheap and free if you connect to wi-fi, I called home to let my Mom know we had arrived.  I don't get paid by T-Mobile to say this but if you're an international traveller, their phones are a must.  When you travel, you can text and use data for free.  Additionally, if you make phone calls they are very cheap.  Finally, if you connect to wi-fi, you can make and receive calls from back home for free.  Can't beat that!

 Now time to get out of this room and explore the area!  I had bought the Lonely Planet book highlighting the main parts of Beijing and Shanghai and made a list of the things I wanted to see that were not covered bou our tour.  It is turning out that one of my rituals every trip is to buy the Lonely Planet guide.  Yes yes, I know "the internet" along with in some ways makes a book like Lonely Planet somewhat archaic, if not obsolete, but to me there's something about a tangible guide book.

 Fortunately one of the main places I wanted to visit, the Silk Market was literally beside the hotel. The Silk Market is a multi-story shopping "mall" jam-packed with hundreds of stalls with each stall selling different products ranging from clothing to electronics to sunglasses.  Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that almost everything being sold is a fake?  Fake Gucci, Rolex, Prada, Burberry, Polo...hell, they even had fake iPhones, Beats headphones, Canon cameras, you name it.  I just had to check this place out based on the stories I had read and perhaps pick up a few souvenirs early in the trip.

 As we walked toward the Market we noted this the entire area was a very touristy, perhaps expat area as there were many foreigners.  Also, there were tonnes of restaurants including Mexican restaurants, pizza, you name it.  The perfect place for travellers who had just taken a long flight.  My Dad and I walked over to the Silk Market and decided to sit at a nice Cafe outside.  Each with tea and croissant, we did some people watching and relished in the fact that we had finally arrived at this majestic country after almost a year in the wait!   What adventures would await us in the Silk Market?  What completely random things would happen to us later today?  The adventure was about to being!

 Stay tuned for our adventure in the Silk be continued...