Seeing Beijing was fun, getting there was convenient, and meeting Olympic athletes was awesome, but honestly most of the Olympic stuff was disappointing. It’s all big and grand and everything, but lacking in the tourist-friendly department (and conspicuously lacking in tourists). It’s like it wasn’t designed with regular people using it in mind; it just needs to look good on TV.
The volunteers were cute though. Full points to them for enthusiasm and staying power.
(not so) Tourist Friendly
Sorry, but that’s how it is.
The Olympic Green is supposed to be Olympic tourist central, but no one, including us, can figure out how to actually get in. Even the volunteers at the information booths by the main security checkpoints don’t know. Conclusion: the people in charge don’t want us to get in.
I thought the Olympic areas would be crowded, but the long, wide, tree-lined boulevard leading toward the stadiums was like a desert: no shops, snack stalls, or displays (other than flowers and some weird jello-block things), and just a token sprinkling of people. This is as close as we got to the famous stadiums without game tickets or day passes to the Olympic Green:
On this sidewalk you could buy super-expensive event tickets from scalpers (standard price was 10x the printed price) and bootleg (China-priced) Olympic souvenirs, as opposed to the official souvenirs that sell at American prices. I got two t-shirts for less than $4 — the People’s Olympic souvenirs.
Laws work differently in China. Sometimes the laws matter. A lot of laws are just there to make things look good on paper, and sound good in foreign press conferences. For example, you may have heard that China was “cracking down” on ticket scalpers. These photos are from a subway exit walking distance from the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube stadiums. The English portion on the sign says they “should” be punished, and boy do they look scared.
The Olympic sport of Bargaining
Natalie and I convinced Joel and Rob to take a detour into fake-goods central (aka the Silk Market) because my bag was breaking. It’s four or five floors (I forget) crammed full of little booths selling fake name brand everything to tourists. Vendors call out “Gucci! Prada! Hey lady, I give you good price. My friend, you want to buy some bags?” There are no price tags; if bargaining were a sport, this place would host the Olympics and the Chinese would win the gold medal in every category. We heard so many tourists getting slaughtered (宰/zǎi） on prices as we walked by. However, Natalie is an Olympic level bargainer in her own right and experienced at handling the competitive atmosphere of the Silk Market. It was my first time there, so I just followed her cues.
We located the bag I wanted, and then set about the bargaining process. We had another advantage in that Natalie bought the same bag two years ago and paid 150 kuai ($21 USD) for it, so we knew that we didn’t want to pay more than 100 kuai (and hoped we could get it for even less). Given the abundance of tourists willing to get slaughtered, the vendors were throwing out extremely inflated prices.
The starting price for the bag I wanted (at several different booths) ranged from 400-600 kuai ($58-88 USD)!!! Our opening price was 50 kuai ($7.50), along with a spiel about how this was an old bag from three years ago and should now be extremely discounted. It took about thirty minutes…the lowest we could get anyone to go was 100 kuai. It pays to speak Chinese…usually as soon as you start speaking, the price will be slashed by at least 50%, because they know that you won’t be “had” quite as easily as all the tourists.
Natalie and I were wearing these little jelly bracelets in the Olympic colors (a set of five) for which I had paid 2 kuai per set ($.30)…and these attracted the attention of all the young sales ladies. They were (I’m not even exaggerating) literally trying to take the bracelets off of our arms. Apparently those kind of bracelets are a big higher priced in Beijing…8 kuai per one colored bracelet, rather than 2 kuai for a whole set. These came in handy when we finally located a shop keeper that was willing to bargain. Natalie opened (using English) with the spiel about already having the same bag and not wanting to pay more than 50 kuai. Then, in the grand tradition of bargaining, the shopkeeper must protest the impossibility of such a price. Next, I spoke in Chinese…at which point, the lady immediately dropped the price from over 300 kuai down to as she put it, “80 or 100.” I think she meant to say 100, but as soon as that 80 was out of her mouth, we pounced on it…and said “oh, you said 80!” So she couldn’t go back on that price. Even though I’d pretty much already decided to get it at 80, I thought I’d just see if she’d go any lower than that. So I offered 70…which she wouldn’t take. Until, that is, she noticed my beautiful Olympic colored jelly bracelets. She started asking me where I had gotten them and asking me to give one of them to her. At which point, seeing my chance, I said “70 kuai…and I’ll give you the bracelets!” Her eyes widened, and she said “All of them?……DONE!” I took the bracelets off, she rapidly shoved them on her wrist and began admiring them as she wrapped up my bag. She was pretty happy about it all, and was the envy of the other two girls in her booth, who immediately began begging Natalie to give them her bracelets. So, I think we may have just gotten the gold medal in that particular match…a final price of 70 kuai ($10 USD) for my very own fake (but very good quality) Giorgio Armani bag.
Meeting Olympic Athletes! (Woowoo!)
While we were off bargaining, Joel and Rob were off stalking Olympic athletes…it was full of athletes when we were there! They must have bused them all in from the Olympic village or something. It was cool to have so many nationalities all in one place. We saw some extremely tall Germans signing autographs…I’m assuming they were basketball players. In one booth, a couple of Swedes were trying on underwear over their underwear, and the shop girl was hiding on the other side of the display dying from laughter.
I (Joel) chatted with a two Canadian athletes and their coaches (totally should have taken a photo!). One American athlete — I forget her name but we’ve seen her face in the news — walked past me and a friend with this frizzled look on her face: “This place is insane!” The sellers were a little aggressive and grabby sometimes, but most were polite and (understandably) in really good moods.
Tiananmen square was crowded with Olympic displays but Mao’s mausoleum was closed, which I thought was kind of odd, since it’s apparently a super-popular domestic tourist attraction. Didn’t stop people from trying to sell us cheesy Mao trinkets, like wrist watches where his upraised hand tell the time. Totally should have bought one! One day I want to go through the mausoleum to see people’s reactions.