Shopping in Beijing… and the expected art of haggling

There is much to do and see in Beijing but certainly one of the captivating activities is shopping… the mecca for anything you want to own.

It could be for a jade object, jewellery especially pearls or a canvas, painted by one of the up and coming artists.  Those artists who have already arrived are now costly and much in demand. Try The Red Gallery and Beijing Central Art Gallery at the Kempinski Hotel for top rated artists.

But if there is a time limit on your shopping spree, be aware that each stop could take hours.  A good tip is to know what you should be compared with auction-credo.  Know how much you want to pay, stick with that amount  and learn to walk away.

Finding the item may take time unless you know exactly where the shop or the stall in  a market, is located and leave time for haggling – an expected art-  which could take as long as choosing your treasured find.  If you don’t haggle, and even the locals do, you’d be considered foolish since this is part of the tradition of the deal. Often  the shop keeper will mention that since it’s early morning, you’re his first customer, it’s someone’s anniversary or the stars are lined up properly, he’ll come after you and accept your price.

The Pearl Market is certainly a good place to start since the signage and directions are good.  You’ll discover  many locals are there as there are tourists, although many nay sayers will say it’s a place only for tourists. But know that the don’t only have pearls but  floors filled leather goods, glasses, handbags, electronics as well as many other selections. But, if pearls are your choice of the day, head to the 6th floor where you’ll find the best quality.

Then, of course, there’s the  famed Silk Market.  Once, an outside area devoted to hundreds of stalls selling everything from silk to fur, from leather to jewellery, it is much more convenient now.  It’s centrally  located near a subway stop,  in a smart, though extremely busy, multi   building on the same site as the old Silk Market.

Thinking and hoping that it would be open at 9AM (it opens at 9.30AM) and perhaps that was wishful thinking since I had to leave the hotel and get ready for a long bus trip to The Three Gorges on ship H.S. Yangtze 2, I only had a two hours to find far too many items on my list.  Two hours is like a nano second for even the most knowledgable shopper in this market place.

While sitting on a step waiting for the doors to open, a young man with bleached  blond hair sat down and told me he was studying English and wanted to speak with me. He was going to the art

school just across the wide street.  We spoke about his life in Beijing which he loves, his desire to travel to the west when his English improves, where he would continue to study art and refused my offer to buy him a cool drink in this  already sweltering day.  That was one of the many encounters and the kindness of the strangers, and the  unexpected willingness to speak about how the country has changed, especially for the young people.

Silk Market now opened, the first sighting are active wear, cashmeres for men and women, silk clothing  on the main floor. But it was a time issue  for me so I had to forego the search.  Another problem is trying on clothing for size – another story.  There are no dressing rooms and since most Chinese sizing is smaller than for the Western body, it’s a good idea not to believe the sales person who, always has a tale about someone the same size as you are and everything fits perfectly

Dresses, ties, scarves, fabrics, knock-off watches and purses (beware, that if the have the Chanel or Hermes stamp, the savvy custom officers know the real from the fake. The best outcome is having the goods confiscated, the worst scenario is a very costly penalty and having your name on the computer for a very long tim).

As go from floor to floor, I found the merchandise increased in quality.  For instance, just by instinct, I went to Katherine Jewelry #5037) since I liked the window presentation, designs and the interior. Items went from traditional pearls and semi precious stones to more modern baroque and button shaped in various sizes and nacre. And if something doesn’t fit, right on site, within minutes, the practiced crafts women manage to get it right. Prices are not set, nor do the tags give you a hint of price.  But it’s assumed you would bargain, which I did, and came away with a earring that suited my price limit and  quality.

However, feeling really great about my purchase, I stopped at a nearby leather shop that had very trendy, well designed leather goods and watches.  Thinking that I was a big ‘catch’, they took me to a back room where all the fakes are hidden (though I’m told that the police person know of these “secret rooms”). But beware, when my watch never started and I tried to exchange it, I was blatantly told me that they didn’t sell that  type of watch,as I stared at it in one of the showcases, that they had never seen me before, even though I had filled my Visa with several of their goods. Their stone faces told me, I hadn’t purchased what I had told them…a belt, handbag and another watch for my husband. When I told them that a door at the rear was where I was taken and made my choices, they just starred. I also mentioned that in this secret ‘hideaway for big shoppers’  a few  other shoppers were there too. Stay away from the no-name but #2056 shop, although it’s on the 5th floor.

But what isn’t a secret, however, however not well known to tourists, is, 798, a huge series of streets and often compared as the New York Soho of Beijing.  Out of the way in Dashanzi Art District in Chaoyand District and since taxis are inexpensive, it’s worth the approximate $8-$10 trip.  It’s a large pedestrian area and was initially a factory area now known as  it has become, as an art centre with very fine galleries (I wish I had had more time since I was looking for the “new” Chinese art) and all sales staff seemed very knowledgeable.  There are  also terrific, trendy, shops from men’s and women’s designs that aren’t the usual ‘oh hum’ styles  but with edge to unique designer. Also designed are kitchenware,  furniture and just a pleasant place to spend several hours.  Besides, there are so many outdoor cafes, that any choice would be a good one and the perfect perch to watch the wonderfully fashion forward outfits that the young, hype women, obviously aware of their creativity.  At the same time you can get a great cup of coffee or tea.  You might even want to stay for lunch.  It’s a perfect day’s outing away from the “madding crowd” of huge, busy, traffic filled Beijing central.

Another grand walking area is the pedestrian street in the old Hutong area.  It was my  my favorite destination just to see the traditional lifestyles and  very old and complicated living arrangements and architecture.  However, the condo market crept in and alas, in their stead, there are now high rises and the development of this swell but so expensive pedestrian street.  I think back and what I really liked best were the umbrella,parasol stores which women and now some men, use to block the sun.  Inserted lace, sequined, brilliantly and artistically painted, some with deluxe, shiny fabrication, they are art pieces and very tempting but would look a bit strange in the rain at home.  The other stores from stationary to clothing are all very special but seemingly overpriced (no haggling here).  However, this is a well-known tourist area with interesting side streets and lanes to explore.

Even though I had hired a driver for my short time in Beijing, I was left for over two hours wondering if I’d ever locate him again. With it being the busy traffic time, which seems is always but worse at about 4PM, I stood at the designated stated area in 40c (over 100F) and then decided to find a place to sit.

Although, in Western lingo, it would be considered  a ‘greasy spoon’, considering the circumstances, I had no choice and  went into Nice Rice on  South Jiaodaokou Street. The kindest young servers insisted that I have a cool drink,  they tried to phone (and they did several times) to track down my driver.  That kindness  to a stranger was not an isolated situation but these young servers went out of their way for someone who only wanted  a  seat and cold, non alcoholic drink.  Another case in point. On a slippery, rainy day where I’ve never seen pelting rain like this, a young man took my arm, held my heavy bag for me as we ascended in what seemed like a 100 stairs to a nearby dry area with a bench.  Neither of us could speak the other’s language but my few words included thank you in Mandarin, at which he smiled and shook my hand.

On the return flight back, I sat beside a charming well-dressed young  Chinese woman wearing a stunning outfit.  She had just spent a few years working in Beijing before returning to Canada.

When I recounted the one miserable  shopping mishap regarding my never to work  watch, she laughed. “Locals never go to those stores at the Silk Market. We have our own high quality markets that are less expensive, with better quality.”

I told her I’d have to wait for a return visit but here are the names she mentioned.  Nan Hu Market, Jiu Xian Qiao Market, Xi Dan Market, Taiyanggong’s Sunny Moore Market.  They’re on my ‘must visit’ on the next trip to Beijing..a city I’ve learned to love because of the diversity.

As for shopping, If you see it and want it, get it. You’ll probably never get back to the area or even locate the shop again. But do try to down the price.  It’s not only finding the object but the great story that probably will go a long way  at any cocktail gathering.  Life is about fun so just grab it when you can.

Beijing has so very much to offer in many categories.  But when it comes to shopping, I’m sure Confucius would have had a brilliant saying or advice but I doubt if he would understand the art of haggling.