Monday, January 11, 2010

Beijing - Shop Till You Drop

Scene from across the street, taken from our hotel entrance. The big building in yellow is a karaoke centre. Raucous singing could be heard until the wee hours.

Picture from Day Two, taken in the gardens of the Imperial Palace. The tall guy on the right, clad in dark jacket and light-coloured sneakers, was our soft-spoken, courteous guide Lu Qiang.

Ann & Awwa hamming it up for the camera.

Paraphernalia for tea making.

The girls' hotel room. On the bed was Ann, knocked out cold from all the walking.

Lunch came and went in double-quick time. We were always hungry!

Chicken kebab that was part of our last dinner in Beijing. Dishes served in this particular place were rather spicy, which was unusual compared to all the other Muslim cuisine restaurants we had been to. In all, we were taken to seven different restaurants. The types of dishes didn't vary much; it was the piquancy that differed.

Collection box for 'sadaqah' (alms) at a Beijing mosque where we stopped to have our solat.

Hostess with the mostest at Dr Tea Teahouse.

Abu's Angels at Dr Tea Teahouse.

The Bird Nest Stadium makes a good backdrop.

"Halal" certification in a Chinese Muslim restaurant.

Looked like Starbucks and the frothy cappuccino even tasted like the one served at Starbucks but hey...... it's Ley Mo Coffee. Pak Abu and I chanced upon this little cafe, a few metres up the road from Hongqiao Market, when we decided to check out if there were shops selling Mandarin karaoke CDs nearby. As it were, there was a small store but none of the CDs had Hanyu Pin Yin (Romanised Chinese), and I don't read Mandarin.. :(

Day Four
All these years and I never knew my daughter Nawwar could bargain like an old pro while shopping. It took a trip to 'haggler's heaven' Beijing to know she has indeed inherited her grandmother's enviable haggling skills.

'Tok' (grandma) was known to wear salespeople down. As her frequent shopping companion-cum-basket carrier in days of yore when I was her daughter-in-law, there were times when I had wished for the earth to open up and swallow me whole.

This usually happened when she started haranguing hapless salesgirls into giving in. She never backed down nor took no for an answer. For the record, she won each time.

On the other hand, my other daughter, Ann, was a carbon copy of yours truly in traits and personality. Neither of us had the ability, zest or staying power to argue with aggressive salespeople.

We were inclined to either cave in or beat a hasty retreat. Worse, while retreating, we would be racked by feelings of guilt for depriving them of business.

Day Four was the designated "Shop Till You Drop" Day in our packed itinerary. Pak Abu's darkening brows notwithstanding, we were not going to waste a single minute of it. After all, by this time the following morning, we would already be on the flight home.

But first we had to find an ATM machine for our yuan was depleting fast and neither Pak Abu nor I had the foresight to bring enough ringgit with us. Again we had underestimated Beijing's lure, when we naively thought the yuan we had brought from home would suffice.

Credit card is history to Pak Abu and I for we had weaned off them long ago. Only the girls carried them. I swore off them when my consultancy went under during the 1997 financial crash, while Pak Abu made the same decision when he went into voluntary retirement a year later, in 1998.

In Beijing, the debit card was our preferred choice while hard cash was the best as far as shopping went. Unfortunately, we had issues with the debit card each time it was presented for payment, and this drove an irate Pak Abu stomping into Maybank's representative office in downtown Beijing for an explanation.

Pak Abu took it as the gospel truth when he was told, upon collecting his debit card from Maybank two years ago, that he could use it anywhere in the world from thereon without any hassle.

Well, we only managed to use the card once in Beijing. Calls to KL for clarification went unanswered. An e-mail sent to Maybank enquiring the same was only answered a day after we returned home (pull up your customer service socks, Maybank!)

I had, however, guessed correctly that Pak Abu should have alerted the bank of his overseas travel intention (this very explanation was relayed to him when he finally got through to KL from the Beijing office). The way I look at it, what the bank had said two years before has no bearing on what it says or does today.

I understood only too well why the bank (or any financial institution for that matter) was being extra-cautious when dealing with transactions by its clients and customers abroad. They were just covering their arse should anything untoward happened.

Still it did not excuse their unavailability when we needed them the most. What good is a hotline on the card if no one attends to it 24/7? We only got through after two days of trying and a frantic search for the bank's Beijing address on the Internet. All these had vexed us somewhat but the feeling, thankfully, didn't last very long.

As it were, cash was king; an ATM machine was duly located on the ground floor of the skyscraper that housed Maybank's office. While Pak Abu and Ann went to stock up on cash, Awwa and I stepped into a nearby Starbucks for frappuchino and hot chocolate.

Wallet and purses well-padded once again, we swung merrily to face the biggest challenge in our Beijing vacation - how to shop without turning into a pauper overnight.

But first, to the 'must-visit' places. These were destinations pre-determined by the Chinese government for all tourists visiting China. They were mostly state-run centres or shops for silk, jade and precious stones, tea and herbal products, cultural attractions and the like.

We had covered most of the customary ones like centres for silk, jade, cloisonne, pearl, crystals and herbs. This morning it was to a tea house, a centre specialising in traditional treatment for burns and scalds, and a jewellery shop across the multi-carriageway from the Beijing Olympic Village.

The Beijing National Stadium, colloquially known as the "Bird Nest Stadium" for its unique design, was indeed an imposing edifice. Built to accommodate the 2008 Summer Olympics, the US$423 million stadium ranked as the world's biggest steel structure.

Onwards to the jewellery store nearby we marched, although our collective minds were already dwelling on the bazaars and the shopping malls to come. Still, purchases of pale jade bracelets and a matching necklace were duly made, because ... gee, I don't know.. but the lady manager was pretty nice to us.. (I'm running out of excuses, truly).

Dr Tea, a well-known teahouse where hostesses prepared different types of tea and led one through the history of tea and an interesting session of continuous sipping, slurping and lip smacking, came next.

Because we are a family of tea-lovers, it was no surprise that we gladly spent a fair bit here; jasmine tea, aromatic and strong; litchi tea, my favourite for its strange piquancy; and golden green tea for Pak Abu who habitually drinks Japanese green tea at home.

Our last stop before lunch was Beijing Bao Shu Chinese Herbal Medicine Co., formulator of the well-known 'baofuling', the compound camphor cream mainly used in the treatment of burns and scalds.

It was here that we got acquainted with 'bianshi', the energy-giving bian stone that pre-dates acupuncture in Chinese traditional healing. Bian stone therapy is one of the more popular, non-invasive medicinal treatments in China today.

Lunch was good but we couldn't wait to get back on the streets to shop. Our Malaysian tour agent's itinerary provided three options; Russian Bazaar, Wangfujing Street Market and Yue Xiu Market.

But for our last hurrah we decided upon Hongqiao Market, commonly known as Pearl Market; a misnomer really, because only a small fraction of this market dealt with pearls.

This multi-level shopping mall had everything from clothes to handbags, hats to shoes, household items to electronic products of every conceivable kind, accessories, trinkets, souvenirs, silk and other fabrics, carpet shops and 24-hour tailoring service, antiques real and fake, toys and all kinds of gadgetry.

It was chaotic and noisy in there, like Ampang Complex, Ampang Mall, Sg Wang Plaza, Pertama Complex and Subang Parade combined. It was the heaven for fake products and the abode of aggressive salesgirls, the kind who who run after you.

A well-made but fake Pr*d* handbag was priced at 850 yuan (abt RM400). I took a fancy to it but absolutely refused to go beyond 100 yuan (abt RM50). The salesgirl gave me an exasperated look, muttering "You madam tough! You madam tough!"

I glared back, pointing to Pak Abu and saying "And this is Mr Tough!" While Pak Abu was trying out his newly acquired 'Mr Tough' look, the girl finally backed down and I got my Pr*d* for RM50!

At another stall, Awwa was haggling over a pair of cute flannel pyjama bottom, from 120 yuan to 40 yuan. The salesgirl shouted, "You, you crazy!" The usually unflappable Awwa roared back, "You are crazier! Why would I want to pay RM60 for one pyjama bottom??" The girl gave up; Awwa got it for RM20.

I noticed that Caucasian tourists had it worse. I guess it was because, unlike Asians, haggling wasn't quite the 'white man' thing. Also, when compared to their Euros and US dollars, everything priced in yuan seemed ridiculously low that they had no qualms forking out the asking prices.

We chanced upon a stall manned by a Malay-speaking Chinese girl. Her Bahasa would put videographer-turned-politician Gwo Burn to shame, believe me. Her lilt was charming enough for us to give her a fair bit of business that afternoon.

She had never been to Malaysia but had friends who had studied in Malaysia, from whom she learned to speak Malay, said she. She also picked up Bahasa from Malaysian tourists, she added.

We returned to the hotel at 3pm to rest awhile before going out again at 7pm for dinner, after which we took a stroll along the street where the hotel was, just to see what the stores and the shops had to offer.

Awwa put her bargaining skills to good use once again in one of the shops when she haggled the price of a cashmere long scarf from 280 yuan (abt RM140) down to 50 yuan (RM25).

By the way, there was no snowfall the whole day. Instead freezing north winds blew continuously, from dawn to dusk. We finally called it a day around 10pm.

Goodbye Beijing!
Day Five saw us awakened from our deep slumber by the hotel wake-up service at 4.30am. We left for the airport an hour later to catch our 9am flight home.

Since the hotel's coffeehouse only started operating at 6am, the staff had thoughtfully packed our breakfast to go. It was a sweet gesture on their part, for which we were truly touched.

As we bid goodbye to our driver Jiang and guide Lu Qiang, I resolved to come to China again some day, to see more of Beijing and to travel further north to the Muslim provinces and the autonomous regions.

If there is one thing I had learned from this trip, it was that we should leave our prejudices, no matter how deep-seated, at home when we travel.

China is a vast country of more than a billion people. For every horror story that I had heard from fellow Malaysians about travelling in China, there were ten heartwarming ones that we had experienced personally, ones that would forever remain etched in our hearts.


Naz said...

Salam Kak Puteri,
Anda telah membangkitkan keinginan untuk mengosongkan dompet saya di Beijing. Harus tunggu beberapa tahun lagi untuk Kak Wos. Err...can Nawwar give her a course in bargaining skills?
I love and totally agree with your second last paragraph.
Take care and regards to all :)

Naz said...

opps! I mean *Awwa* :)

Kama said...

Naz - awwa and nawwar is one and the same :) you must go, Naz. barang murah siut!

Kak Ezza@makcik Blogger said...

Terima kasih kerana akak berjaya membawa perasaan saya ke Beijing.

Akak Hebat bercerita...dan saya telah bersusah payah memasuk kan kepala saya di ruang freezer peti ais saya untuk merasa kan kesejukan salji di sana...

take care kak

GUiKP said...

Once in a farsway land, when I tried haggling to the max, the seller acidly remarked "Ini bukan pasar malam tau".

From your Beijing experience, the golden rule of "bargain till you get to half or a third of the original asking price" is so out of date now.

Thank you for this very informative travelogue.

GUiKP said...

Ooops faraway lah.

Cat-in-Sydney said...

Aunty Puteri,
I waited till you finish the China trilogy before posting any comment (read: consumed with envy). A few things to ask you:
1. Who took care of Lillie?
2. Would I survive living among those billions of people?
3. Would you take me on your next trip?
4. Any stray cats on the streets?
5. Any pix of the water cube?

The cheeky one,

Kama said...

Ezza - lol! nanti kejang dik oi! Actually Zah, tak mahal nak pi Beijing.. yg banyak abih duit tu shopping..

GUiKP - We took a leaf from our local travel agent's advice, that we should bargain to a fifth of the price. They do fix high prices, for tourists to haggle.

Cat - hola angelina! it's summer in sydney isn't it? is it hot?
1. Lillie was boarded at Christie's Ark in Damansara Uptown for 5 nights.
2. I think cats would survive anywhere, even in the wilderness where there were no people.
3. hehehe, i would, but you would have to wait your days in quarantine at the airport until we come to collect you for the flight home!
4. Not a single one, maybe because it's winter. but i see quite a number of dogs..
5. water cube? what's that sweetie? the only water cube we know (but didn't see in Beijing)is the one in our freezer compartment!

Cik Puan Kamil said...

I was cautioned against holidaying in China as the locals like to cheat. But your trip sounded fun and free of hassle... maybe I should go...

Anyway, didn't know that Awwa had that kind of fire in her. I might want to her shopping with me sometimes... hmmm...

Zendra-Maria said...

kama, heaven for fake products would be my haven - bilalah dapat pegi...

GUiKP said...

Your travel guide sure has a winning formula. Water Cube - Isn't that the venue where Phelps shattered the Olympic swimming records time after time?

Pi Bani said...

Speaking of bargaining skills, my arwah Opah once bargained at the cashier of a supermarket. My aunt who went with her, dah tak tau mana nak sorok muka...

Tommy Yewfigure said...

Wah Puteri, u had become more Chinese than me lah…hahaha. U put me to shame with your knowledge of China but then again I’m so rojak with little bits of Malay, Indian, Chinese, AngMoh in me that I don’t know myself either, sometimes. I look in the mirror & I still see the same old Apek, albeit a good looking one, more hensome than Gwo Burn, no doubt :))

Gee, all the savings from those ‘high powered’ haggling would have probably paid for the trip itself..hehehe, u don’t ask u don’t get, right?

That’s a darn good advice u gave from your 2nd last paragraph, that explained why u guys had a great time there. Hope u don’t mind me adding my take on it; ‘We should leave out our prejudices altogether irrespective of where we are.’ It had worked very well for me all these years, I’m truly happy & no regrets.


P/S – How could u live without credit cards in this day & age?? I don’t see cash much these days, all my bills, utilities, insurance, grocery etc are all direct debited or charge to them. This convenience had allowed me more time to smell the roses & enjoy my music and not to mention a mild heart attack end of each month :)

pakmat said..., lady, you should have known by now that hotlines by any service provider are just keep you hot whilst you r on line..:) as for the debit/credit card thing..Malaysians are known to be leaders at forging cards outside of their country..maybank was just safeguarding your interest..dont be too hard on them..give them bianshi instead..they might need it if you decide to give them a tonguelashing on yr return..:)..but the chicken kebab looks matter the piquancy..:) cheers..

NanaDJ said...

I was waiting to read that you went to the Karaoke joint there and sang your heart out and putting the Chinese there to shame. A pity, the Chinese in Beijing missed the opportunity of listening to one of Malaysia's talente singer. Can't forget how well you rendered the beautiful song that you sang that day.
Can't wait to go to Beijing but I know it is going to be disasterous for me - went mad shopping in Penang this morning.

kay_leeda said...

Glad you enjoyed Beijing. Ahhh...guess I forgot to whisper to you that shopping is a MUST do there :)

I experienced the same frustration you had trying to get assistance from Maybank when I was away in Jakarta last year. Maybank sucks BIG time!! The advice they gave was so "hampeh". Nothing they said was applicable that time when I was away. Moral of the story here, nak shopping, bawak lah duit sekepuk. Cash is KING, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Salam Kak
From your post you enjoyed your trip very much and were well taken care. May i know which travel agent did you travel with cause Im planning a holiday there this year?

Salt N Turmeric said...

Wah Kak Puteri. Shopping trip nampak. ;) Do tell how many empty luggages did you bring w you to Beijing? hehe.

Pak Zawi said...

Enjoyed your write up so much. It rekindled my interest to visit China again. Perhaps Guangzhou or Shanghai should be next on the list.

Kama said...

Myra - cheats are everywhere, in fact in KL pun ramai pekedai yg suka tipu tourists. i think if we are on our toes constantly, the likelihood of being cheated mungkin berkurangan.... haggling is tiring, hehehe

Zen - your haven is also mine.. I'm not averse to fake

GUiKP - oooh, so that's what Water Cube refers to. Unfortunately we had neither opportunity nor time to tour the Olympic Village, apart from tengok Bird Nest Stadium.

Pi - hehehe that's funny, haggling kat cashier!

Tommy - I have always had a liking for all things Chinese from before because of its long & fascinating history, so visiting Beijing was, in a way, realising a dream.

Living without credit card is headache-free. as for settlement of bills, one can do direct debit these days without handling cash; it's so convenient.

In all, we paid less than RM2k/person (inc air tickets) for a 5D 4N stay in Beijing. For that we get a good hotel with 3 meals daily, transportation, tickets to shows and entrances. The only money we fork out was for shopping & tips to driver & guide. the package is worth every single sen.

Pakmat - I hv to agree with you on all scores.. we do hv some world-class crooks kan pakmat? lol

Nana - pak abu did mention about checking out the karaokle joint tapi i taknak. malulah, singing chinese songs in front of an alien crowd. nanti tersilap pronounce, ee.. tidak! tidak!

Kay - the pull of shopping in Beijing is beyond description kan? before we left my daughter Nawwar told her friends she was going to a place where "everything is made". the fun part is in discovering Made in China products can be of good quality too.

Maybank oh Maybank.. apalah kamu!

Anon - indeed it shall give the relevant details in my next posting. the agent did a good job and i dont mind doing my bit to promote them.

Farina - no lar, hehehe..tapi i ensured we brought individual suitcases, all half-filled. bila balik, all penuh to the brim.. :)