For American tourists, negotiation in China is a blood sport. Almost all native Chinese believe Americans are impossibly, spectacularly wealthy. Almost all American tourists believe native Chinese businessmen are impossibly, spectacularly cunning. A potent mixture of preconception.
My friend Matt and I had spent two weeks in China before we reached the Great Wall. We had come to the Jinshanling section of the Wall to walk the four hour hike to Simatai. Unlike the more popular parts, the walk to Simatai would take us over plenty of unrestored sections of the Wall. Authentic experience, kind of.
Matt and I set off with two Swiss tourists we met along our travels. Matt, a triathlete, set the pace. I neglected it. ‘Walking’ is a misleading term for what you do on the Great Wall at Jinshanling. Much of the unrestored Wall is a series of steep, crumbling slopes. You use your hands almost as much as your feet.
Each section of the wall is punctuated by a watchtower. Genghis Khan once claimed that the strength of any wall equals only the strength of the willpower of the men defending it. Today the Wall tests the strength of the willpower of the men and women climbing it.
Our willpower held out for an hour and a half. The heat was grueling. After a particularly arduous ascent, we reached the halfway point of our trek. Matt plopped on the ground and rested his head against the thousand year old beige rock. I complained about the heat.
An elderly woman approached us, bottles of water in hand.
“Water? Ten yuan! Water?”
I sighed. Travelers in China quickly grow weary of the ubiquitous hawkers, especially when they’re selling water at a massive mark-up. Two yuan is a comfortable profit for a bottle of water in China. Ten yuan is highway, or at least watchtower, robbery.
“You know,” Matt said “I’m not thirsty but why not try some negotiating?”
Negotiating is a necessary when buying almost anything in China. After two weeks in China, Matt and I were familiar with the tourist blood sport of price bargaining. We had to come enjoy it.
I called the woman back, speaking in English. “Two yuan for four waters.”
She shook her head. “Eight yuan, one water.”
Snickering a bit, Matt tapped me on my shoulder and we started to walk away. Walking away is the most potent weapon in a tourist’s arsenal.
“Okay! Okay! Five yuan each! Five yuan!”
I turned. “Tai guile!” I exclaimed, this time in Chinese. Too expensive. We walked to our sunny corner of the tower and sat down.
The women approached us again. I groaned. However, instead of continuing to pester us, the woman asked me if I spoke Chinese. I had just left Taiwan after a year on a Fulbright Scholarship. My Chinese was passable. I nodded.
She felt me out with some simple, slowly spoken Chinese. “Where are you from? I’m from Mongolia.”
Taken aback by the women’s interest in something other than our bank notes, I answered politely: “We’re from America. My name’s John. Why do you work here?”
We struck up a conversation. I told her about my year in Taiwan, how much I enjoy traveling her complicated, beautiful country. She told me about her family in Mongolia and how she walks four hours to work every morning along the Wall to sell water, beer and fans. She gets home every night at 10 PM, watches over her grandchildren, goes to bed and wakes up at 2 AM to walk to work.
The woman’s story took us all aback. No longer feeling like savvy bargainers, we decided to buy a few drinks from her before we continued on our way.
She walked back to her cooler to pick out the beers. I had translated as best I could while I talked to her, so my three companions knew her story and her schedule. Matt collected forty yuan—ten yuan each– and handed them to her after she gave us the beers.
She shook her head and frowned slightly. “No, no. We said five yuan each.”
“Why won’t she take our money?” Matt asked.
“She says she’ll only twenty yuan like we agreed before.”
We tried once more to renegotiate, but she refused. We had to accept the deal we had won for ourselves fifteen minutes earlier. The woman took twenty yuan, walked back to her bag and put away the money. She took out a fan, approached again and began fanning the Swiss girl in our group as we drank our beers, taking a motherly interest in the girl’s sunburned, exhausted face.
The woman and I chatted a bit more. She complimented my Chinese and gave me some advice on how to tackle the rest of the wall. Before we left, she patted me on the back and wished us all good luck.
She had won the negotiation.