Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Traveling Thoughts 4

Continued from Traveling Thoughts 3

Jheechin was in no mood of letting me go easily. Most nights these bars dont get more than one customer so they had to make the most of whatever whoever whichever opportunity comes. By now I was also in the mood of making the most of this visit (which was not planned if you remember). And this is where one gets stuck in his narrative. Should one write about what happened the way it happened or should one use some tricky words to make it sound great when in fact it wasn’t. In few words this is what happened. During the final play of the game I did end up in that corner with the sofa and curtains. I did buy jheechin the remaining two drinks. And there were indeed moments which I am at loss to describe. However after what seemed liked a really long time I was out of the bar. As I said earlier jheechin was in no mood to let me go easily. She rushed out of the bar as soon as I left and started walking along with me.

I opened my eyes to see gold colored mountains rising in front. It was early autumn and the tress has just started to change the colors and shed the leaves. It was beautiful. And the air was a lot cleaner as well. Another five minutes and I got the first glimpse of the great wall. Once we were parked I got three hours from my driver for conquering the wall.

Few days ago I happened to read an essay on the great wall of China. In his own very Kafka way he tells about his research into the history of the wall. It makes an interesting reading and infact adds to curiosity of watching the wonder. Over six centuries to build over 25 thousand miles of wall on top of the mountains over millions of lives as cost. It makes one wonder about the histories of all the wonders. After reaching the top of Eiffel tower I knew that I will never climb up again. After spending an hour on the wall I knew that but for the mountains I wont come up here again. Mountains are all that makes the wall worth a visit and of course the history. The history one can read anywhere but that one visit is still required to feed the curiosity.

Karnee was the first of the group to start a conversation. She could speak English pretty well. They were five in the group. Three of them sat on the opposite side on the cable car. The other two, a girl and a guy took the next cable car (“they are lovers” is what Karnee will tell me later when I ask why did not they come with us in the same cable car. Maybe they wanted some privacy or maybe they just didn’t want to sit on the same seat as some stranger I will never know). After a while I asked Karnee if they were afraid of me as they were three on one seat and I had the whole seat. They all said no and Karnee to prove her point jumped next to me. And after that for next one hour it was as if she forgot about her friends. We reached the base of the cable cars and we, me and Karnee, walked into the market.

Karnee is in 1st year of high school. There are three years in high school, she tells me. At the end of the three years is the big exam which decides what university or college one gets. She is already worried about the big exam as she wants to get into a good university so that she can travel out of China, most likely she wants to go Europe. Dreams are same all around the world it seems. Every time a non-Chinese guy, who are mostly western tourists, passes she shouts “how beautiful, how handsome”. According to her all Chinese have small eyes and are not as handsome. I agree but I did not say this to her. She likes big eyes and tall guys. She would like to make a boyfriend in Europe. She is very interested in the way I bargain with the shop owners. She thinks I am too good at it. Well I have learned the hard way. She is getting all the tips without spending anything. She is the only child of her parents, like most Chinese families. She gets 25 yuan per month from the government for being the only child, she tells me. There is a big crowd from her school today at the great wall. It’s a class trip. Everywhere we cross her class mates are surprised. “I will be a hero in my class”. Walking along with me can do that to someone, I never knew.

I (we, as jheechin is still tagging along) am walking back to the hotel. Out of no where a million girls have appeared are sitting outside all those bars. Jheechin was beside me trying to make the best use of her English. I was wondering how long she will tag along as I had stated clearly to her that I was not paying anymore. Maybe she had few charms still left to try. After clearing the bars and when we were away from the crowd she lost her patience and asked me for money or she will return. I said my byes and kept moving along.

If one thinks about the baby at the airport who kept playing hide and seek with me all the while we waited for the security check and kept laughing at an out of place bearded man, if one thinks about nearly thirty people (including both men and women) coming out laughing from men’s restroom when they had just blindly followed someone thinking this to be the way to immigration, when one thinks about clapping and cheering that little guy on the roller skates dodging the little paper cups, when one thinks about that little gift you left for Nana, when one think about all the people who wanted and took a picture with you there are chances that one finds some good around. For most part it is a loosing battle. But now the plane is landing, Beijing is behind, Shangai is yesterday, the wheels are touching the ground again, Delhi is now, Punjab is tomorrow, and there is still a long distance to go…

Traveling Thoughts 3

Continued from Traveling Thoughts 2

Coming to China most people want to see the great wall. I was no different. I spent one night in Beijing and left for Tanggu the next morning. My plan was to visit the wall on return journey. Manager in Tanggu while sending me to Shekou suggested going back through Hongkong, which is next door to Shekou. I nodded a hesitant approval but told him about my plan to visit the great wall as I left his room. “I am not sure if I will ever come back to China again”, I added. After an hour or so he called me back and called Nana, administrator in Beijing, to arrange for my travel from Shekou to Beijing, weekend in Beijing including the wall visit and then travel back to India. He even asked Nana to show me around the city. She was busy on Saturday, she said, but agreed to accompany me on Sunday.

I reached Beijing, from Delhi, around 5 in the evening. I was pretty tired from all the travel over last few days and strolled out of the hotel for a small walk before I had dinner and slept. The markets close by had few grocery shops, a fruit vendor, one pharmacy, few restaurants and very large number of massage parlors. I checked out the prices of the massages on all the boards and could not stop myself from entering one. I had been planning for a massage for a while but Aussie rates were never under few hundred dollars and I could never bring myself to massage away so much money. After struggling to convey my message at the reception for few minutes ‘the massage menu’ came to rescue and after wondering what kind of massage to go for I settled on 40 minutes oil massage. 100 yuan.

The place looked pretty sneaky. I mean it was some king of parlor in the basement and with pretty dark alleys. However, once I found there were no way of locking the doors of each room from inside I realized this place must be a massage parlor and not “massage parlor”. They had Chinese tea as complimentary. One look at it and I thought it was the some kind of oil. I just kept it on one side. The girl, masseuse, that walked in was pretty hot but very businesslike. I did have other thoughts for a while but once she got to work it was damn relaxing. After the massage I felt I could sleep forever. And I did nearly the same for next few days in the office. Chinese trip had begun well.

As I checked back in the same hotel on the last evening in Bejing, the receptionist handed me a letter from Nana. Before leaving Shekou I had called her to inform that I will only be staying for Saturday and leave in the evening. She had prepared a big plan for me to travel around arranged cars. She explained everything in the letter and also expressed how sorry she was that she could not take me around the city and asked if I could change plans and stay on till Sunday evening. I called her, thanked her for all the trouble she had taken for the arrangements, told her it was OK if she was not free, asked her if she lived close by hotel so that maybe we can meet for a coffee/dinner, which she did not, and she again asked me to change my plan to leave from Saturday to Sunday.

Sometimes the distance is irrelevant. Sometimes it does not matter who one is with, where one is or what one is doing. Sometimes one just did not care. But it’s been a long time for this sometime. A long time for those someones, a long time for those somewheres and a long time for those somethings. Now there is this feeling of being stretched in time, both inside and outside. There is this feeling at most of those somewheres, with most of the someones, most of the sometimes and during most of the somethings. The time one is alive, the place where one is, the people one is with and the things one do are becoming relevant. One thinks about all this now. One wonders if one can and if one should live.

I wanted to get back home as soon as possible. Back in the mid of air which sustains me for all those times when I am not there. A place where standing in the middle of smoke of burning fields of hay, after the crops have been harvested, there is no feeling of loss of air, the place where smoke is full of life. A place where traveling final five miles from the town to the village makes you five years younger.

Nana could not understand why I did not want to stay one more day. “I want to get back home asap” was all I could tell her. She was still singing the sorry song of not being able to show me around and I was still playing the chorus of it is OK and thanks for everything. Eventually with a high note of let me know if you need any help tomorrow and final fading beat of sure I will thankyou bye we finished our conversation.

After the eventful night at the hotel, I got up early, packed, had my breakfast, checked out and was on my way by 7:30 in the morning for the guided tour, in Chinese, of Beijing and the great wall. The driver as usual was 100% Chinese and nil% English. It was early morning and there was fog in the air. The air was relatively clean and one could catch few breaths of fresh air. We drove on nearly empty highways. Our first stop was Tianeman square. It was not a stop I found out later.

I had done some googling on the square last night. Just for general awareness as I was sure I will not have anyone for the insights into the structures and history and whatever little I had read in Wild Swans (courtesy Ravi) a year back I had totally forgotten. The ride to the square was through the heart of the city and for the first time I could see how massive the place was. As we approached the square I loosened the seat belt a bit and rolled down the window. On my right came what looked like the grave of Mao. I asked my driver if we could stop. Somehow he managed to convey the message no-parking-here-we-don’t-stop-here-we-just-take-a-round-and-we-keep-moving. I fumbled inside my bag, got my camera out and took a shot of what I thought was Mao’s grave. The driver had nearly brought the car to a standstill risking a ticket. We turned left and that’s when it became clear that there must be more than billion people here in China.

I used to wonder why there were few people with small bamboo sticks with a flag held high at various airports across China. Of course I could never read what was written on these flags language being Chinese. There was a sea of humans at the square and it was just eight in the morning. The square was big but having read that it was the largest square in the world I was a bit disappointed. I mean all that empty land next to my village could be a bigger square (with no walls and structures around of course and not much of bloodshed in history). Jokes apart the number of people in the square was huge. And all the groups were following a flag hanging at the top of a bamboo stick. Yes that’s what it was for. So that people don’t get lost in the sea of humans. I think another reason could be that they all looked so similar it would be hard to make which group one belongs to (I guess this is the problem with every community if you don’t belong to it).

He, my driver, was trying to convey some message. It was tough for him but he seemed a patient guy and kept trying calmly. After all his hand gestures and his entire English vocab failed to convey the message he fished into one of the boxes in the car cabinet and took out a small booklet which appeared like a bill book but which was infact a travel guide. It contained all the important words and sentences a tourist may need and was in few languages English and Chinese being two of these. He tried to find what he was looking for but could not and hence gave up the idea and kept driving. I picked the booklet, flicked through it and to my surprise found out plenty of helpful sentences. For the rest of the day I just pointed at the English sentence and the driver looked at the Chinese one and we could converse easily (except for once when I was trying to ask him to take me to some market like the market of exotic and he kept taking me to some weird crappy markets).

I asked my driver if we can visit the Olympic park (with the help of the booklet). From his facial expression I could make that he could. And after about 20 minutes of ride we were parked next to the bird’s nest. He pointed at his watch. I had 30 minutes. 2008 is the year to be in Beijing. Or it was, till the Olypmics. After watching all those games and fireworks on TV, the bird’s nest appeared as beautiful as you could imagine. The Olympic park was huge with the nest and the water cube at the heart of it. Chinese must have spent a fortune at this park but at 50 yuan per person and the monstrous crowd waiting early in the morning to enter the stadium it wont be long before the nest returns its cost. 30 minutes of Olympic glory and I was back in the car on my way to the wonder of the China, the only man made structure visible from moon as they say. It was two hour ride and it was not long before I dozed off.

Traveling Thoughts 2

Continued from Traveling Thoughts 1

We entered the bar. From outside it gave a very grim look. As if the place was engulfed with a lot of the sadness. The brightly glowing signboard did not make it less gloomy. There were similarly, similar to jheechin, dressed girls sitting outside. All equally young. All equally good looking. Inside it was dark. A strange kind of dark, I imagined. A small collection of very old and rarely used drinks was what gave that place a semblance to a bar. A very dusty looking refrigerator. Three four stools next to the bar table. In the far corner two small sofas which could be curtained of to make a small private section, if required, as I found out later. The place was not happy. It was a place where one could pretend to be happy but it was a grim, dull, loud and empty place. A place from where you get out with a relief, like being released from a dark cell of a prison.

So there I was, without the intentions of ever getting there. It was a strange walk. On the way there were two or three beggars asking for money. I ignored them, walked at a distance the moment I saw the begging bowl extended. The money which I paid for the drinks in the bar would have been better spent somewhere else. But it was an evening for fun not to find the good in me and the world. There was a game to be played. I found myself in the middle of three girls. Jheechin had removed the jacket she was wearing and was now clad in the bare minimum clothes. Tattoo on her lower back, a Scorpio trying to find its way down, was shining even in the relative dark. I found out as the game went on that the business model of the bar was manifold. They were pros so that was one source of income. Another thing was to earn by selling as many drinks as possible. Not as many as the customer wants to drink but as many as the customer can be made to pay for. Jheechin stood next to the stool I was sitting and did a little dance jig to some Chinese song being played. Another girl climbed on the stool behind and gave my shoulder a rub. I smiled and shifted myself slightly away. Since I was in a bar I was meant to have a drink, though jheechin on her way to bar has indicated her special likeness of me and of many of her ideas for the night and drinks were not a part of those plans. Not forgetting I was in China I bargained over the price of beer. It was a bit of overkill in bargain but it saved me five Yuan a drink.

It was the first move of many jheechin would make. She jumped onto my lap and with a wicked smile said, “Buy the girl drinks”. I gave her a while before pushing her back to her dance floor. “I only buy for her” I said pointing at jheechin and talking to bartender. There were lot of protests from all and after showing the contents of my wallet when the bartender told me the price of the drink she was already preparing herself to serve to all and after whatever calculation she did in her head and after she had offered me a 10 Yuan discount on her initial price I ended up buying four drinks, three for the girls and one for the bartender who was also a girl by the way. That left me with the money to buy two more drinks at the going rate. Those went to jheechin as the game was played.

The meeting with client has just finished. There were still nearly four hours before the flight back to Beijing and after taking leave from my colleague KC (was it Khoung Chang I wont be able to tell but I am glad most people in SLB use acronyms for there names here) I headed towards Bombay. I had seen it during my previous night’s walk. This is an official trip to China. I was to go offshore for work. I could not. Reason: not able to get required Chinese documents to go offshore on time. So I whiled away few days in Tanggu office while the other guys did the job hoping if they needed any help I can support on phone. The phone call never came. I was glad it didn’t. Only I know I suck at this part of my job, dealing with a crappy software and I have a big project due in few months on the same. How I will ever finish that only God knows? Even though there were many problems the client was a bit nasty and did not give much time to the guys to call back and discuss the situation. Eventually the manager here decided to make some use of me and sent me to Shekou to a client meeting which he himself was supposed to attend. It went well, I guess, and with a promise to the client that we, SLB, will look at the problem and get back to them with some solution I took my leave.

The first sip of the masala tea was like a sip of heaven. It has been more than a week since I had any tea and this cup promised to be a good one. Chinese tea isn’t what I can enjoy. If the cup of tea was anything to go by Bombay promised to be a good restaurant though I kept my fingers crossed. It was early for the usual lunch crowd, if there was any. I was the only customer and the manager spoke English so it did not take me long to start a conversation. I praised the tea though mentioned that in China it is very good but in India it will be just OK and gave her few tips to make the tea even better. On enquiring I found out that the chefs were Chinese. The manager tells me that these chefs have been taught by Indian chefs for over four years and because of Olympics the two of them could not renew their visas while in China and hence are in India right now sorting out their paperwork.

The interior of Bombay tries to give a feel of an Indian restaurant. The jhoomers on roof, the very Rajasthani style paintings on the walls, the brass glass on every table carrying napkins in place of lassi, and the menu card which promises everything you have been hungry for over a week. Trying to be a vegetarian in a place like China is tough but I think even Indian non-vegetarians are no better here. It is just not the way an Indian will eat his/her food or so I think. The music was not to my liking and the manager gets that sorted out. Chinese singers disappear and Dard-e-disco blares out of the speakers and dancing to the tunes, on the TV screen, is all muscles and six pack abs Shah Rukh. According to the manager he is very famous around here and also, what is the name of that girl, soooo bherrrryyyy buutifooool, she is trying to pluck the name out of her memory. She is gesturing at her eyes and making a big circle around her face with her hands. “Aishwarya Rai”, I help her. Yes, she is very very beautiful according to her. I tell her most of the Indians agree with her and none more than Abhishek Bachhan these days though this last bit I thought about now. Dard-e-disco is followed by ‘nagara baja’ and after few new numbers which I can’t associate with any of the movies I have seen, Aamir Khan makes an appearance with Subhan Allah. I am enjoying it much more than I have enjoyed Hindi music in any of the restaurants in India. Subhan Allah.

There comes the papad with hari chutni. I order veg-biryani. The manager brings another cup of tea. “This is free”. She seems to be in a good mood. When you are happy the others around and the world around attempt to make it better, sometimes. There is good around if we just not go looking for it. The biryani turns out to be pretty good. I finish it to the last grain of rice. Laze around for a while, make some idle conversation with the manager and after talking for a few minutes with an Indian family which has just walked into the restaurant, who invite me to join but which somehow I decline, and walk out to find the skies a little cloudy and a strong wind blowing.

During the build-up to Olympics I happened to watch many debates on Australian TV about Olympics being held in Beijing. There were many issues around at that time. The bigger issues are still there and the people who were suffering then are still suffering, whatever was wrong then is still wrong, but the media has moved on as the Olympics are part of a glorious chapter of history now. But during those discussions a point would always be raised about pollution in China and Beijing’s promise of delivering a green Olympics. There were people and few athletes reporting from Beijing that it is a little tough out there for athletes because of pollution. I always thought that must be just the kind of news reporting we have these days and it cannot be that bad.

Traveling in a car across various cities of China proved that those reporters were not making false claims. At certain times it got so bad on roads that I found it hard to breathe. A sense of suffocation, a feeling of your lungs revolting and a very strong smell of hydrocarbons. Those in favor of Beijing 2008 would say that China has made a big improvement in the years since being awarded the Olympics. I wonder what it was like before. The cities in China, especially Beijing, have been made green as I observed traveling around. But most of the trees around the cities though standing green were standing with supporting structures, telling the world that a big effort has been made and forests have been uprooted and re-rooted in the cities. The number of people who use bicycles in China is amazingly large. There are special lanes around the roads for cycle users. But for these cycle users I would have choked, I wonder.

There is a Manto story about a guy who used to listen to the sounds of the night. He lived in a part of town where the houses were very dense and roof of one house touched roofs of many other houses. Those were the times when there was no regular electricity supply to his town, Lahore if my memory serves. People used to sleep on the rooftops. And if any family had a young married couple they had the rights to the rooftop. This young man grew up listening to the sounds of the night, squeaks of the charpais, muted sighs and grunts of pleasure, the whispered conversations of the couples. He shared an unknown relation with all on the surrounding rooftops. And then one day he got married. As he stepped on the charpai on his wedding night for the first time he heard his bed squeak. From that moment on he was aware of the sound of his breath, the whispers created by his body movement. The moment he would want to make a move towards his newly wed he would grow still. He knew there were others listening. And he knew certain things are meant to be personnel and not shared across rooftops. This went on for few nights. The story ends with the guy going crazy or running away, I cant remember exactly.

Last night in China my hotel room was no better. Few nights in a room like this would definitely make me crazy. The guy on the room above was all ready to bring his bed crashing down with the roof. The room next to my head had the loudest screaming lady. It was late in the night night and I had to start early the next morning. I tried hard to shut out the sounds with the blanket. There would be a break but either or both sounds would return. I ended up banging on the wall to tell them there were people trying to sleep. There was hardly anything I could have done to the guy on the room above.

Traveling Thoughts 1

Sometimes one wonder if there is any good in this world. Sometimes one wonder if there is any good inside one’s own self. When one listens to and looks at the calm roar of sea, when one catches life stirring in the leaves at the ends of the branches with a light breeze, when one feels that first rain drop against one’s skin, when one sees a child and the innocence in the eyes, one believes there is good in the world. One tries to find some corner inside himself, some reason inside himself for being good, and if one does not pretend the goodness is lost.

And sometimes one wonders if the world is just a place for all the means and ways of making the best out of every opportunity for you, a place where all the ways that move you forward are good, where the good does not have to be necessarily good. A place where everything should be measured against what is being achieved.

Walking out on the sidewalk someone hands you a card which offers you a special kind of service. The number of the special kind of bars is overwhelmingly large on the street for one to have an uneventful walk on this street in a foreign place. The temptations one can succumb to are manifold. And one wonders if it is good to give into certain desires, in fact all the desires. And one wonders what is good? Who judges it for you? You. Society. Who? One finds a mirror the best, and in a way the worst, of the judges.

Walking down further you dial the number on the card. Someone speaks in a language which you have been trying to learn a few words for the last few days. You cut the call laughing at the idea and partly at knowing the fact that it is next to impossible for you to go ahead with the idea. After a while you get a sms telling you the price for the service. Maybe they found someone who can speak English. It seems to be very expensive place. They are distributing cards so must be a high profile service. You play along. The fact is Chinese like to bargain. One is walking on a street in China. The price you say gets the reply “It is impossible”. That was the purpose of the low bid. Goal achieved. You smile and still keep walking. Every time one has tried to get a pro and somehow managed to fail in the attempt, one felt relieved in the failure and still one would attempt again. Wonder what it would be like if one succeeds. Later that night when you are fast asleep you get a call from the same number. It is more like early morning. They must have thought that any money is better than none. You turn on your side, look at the time, curse them, curse yourself for playing the game and keep sleeping. Of course next day before you return the phone card to office you will clear the messages and call logs (which incidentally one forgets). And still you walk, still you continue to figure the good. Inside. Outside. Still walking.

You cross the road. You find China more to your liking than Australia or western countries when it comes to traffic, the way they drive and especially the way they cross the roads. Being over billion people India and China at least have similar problems on the road. Crossing the road was an after thought. Plan was to go around the building and walk back. You saw two especially good looking girls cross the road. Instinct drove you and you cross the roads. You look at them or rather stare at them like an ogre and keep walking. You cross them. After a while you slow down and let them catch up. “Hello, good evening”. To your surprise one of them greets you in English. There are very few people in China who speak English and most of them are employed in good hotels for the benefit of the few traveling businessman and tourists. If it was not for the language China would be the superpower and not the US. Whatever you have seen so far suggest the same. The infrastructure in general, roads, airports, and buildings, everything suggests the same. Maybe you have been traveling along the cities, the roads, the airports etc. developed for the Olympics. Maybe not. But if rest of the China is half like whatever you have seen so far, US is lucky Chinese cannot handle English. India, you are lucky too. By the way did one mentioned that Chinese map also indicates the captured part from India in there territory like Pakistan does with POK/Azad Kashmir.

“Hullo there”, you reply. “Where you from”, she asks. “India.” “You are very handsome.” Both of them giggle as the one who speaks English throws this at you. That was surprising and much uncalled for. You later realize she must be saying this to every guy. That was part of her job. You reply generously, “You are very beautiful”. “Oooohh dhunkeeu.” Understanding Chinese English is one of the toughest parts of traveling in China. You have to concentrate real hard. She starts a conversation with you, her other friend who is absolutely gorgeous in every sense just speaks one or two words every now and then. She does not know English. From the clothes they are wearing they give an impression of being-on-the-road (Salman-Rushdie-style). “Where are you going”, you ask when the conversation falls into silence. “To work”, the English speaking one says. They have told you their names before. Did one say understanding Chinese English was difficult. One must be wrong. Remembering Chinese names tops that list. Try your luck at that. They all sound same to one. This has created few embarrassing situations for one already in past few days. After spending a whole day with people at office one would call Khoung – Jung, call Yung - Ling, and call Yang some thing else. One does not remember the name of the girls; they had a sound of jheechin and jhiuchiu or something similar. One uses sir, madam, hi, hello as names for most part.

And this is where in one’s story one stops addressing one as one.

“To the bar”, she elaborates “we work in bars.” From what people have told me here this much information is good enough to confirm that they are pros. They are extra friendly with me, probably looking for a potential customer on their way to the bar. This is the way used pretty often. I realize this later. We are at cross roads. They have to go separate ways. They work in different bars jheechin tells me. Now there was a situation I had never faced before. Choosing between two girls. They both obviously wanted the customer to come their way. Jhiuchiu was too good to be refused but it was jheechin’s English that made the decision. Spending whatever time I did in the bar trying to understand Chinese did not sound fun.

Over the last few days I have realized when it comes to bargaining Chinese have broken all limits of decency. The way bargaining works here has killed the meaning of bargaining. Indians think we are good at bargaining. No. Chinese put us to shame fair and square. The starting price of everything is 10 times the value if the buyer is Chinese. If the buyer is a foreigner and one who does not understand Chinese or do not have a Chinese friend along, God have mercy. Now from whatever bargaining we do in India we know that in most of the markets we bargain off 20-25% maximum from the starting price. Do this here and you are broke before you realize. I wonder what happen to people from west who have no bargaining in their blood.

Over all the trips abroad I had planned to get stuff for all who ask back home but generally avoid most of the time due to the price tags (actually the prices what the tags become after conversion into INR). So I thought China would be an ideal place to make amends. It is. Only if you can be shameless. Speak of anything, any brand and the local markets have exact duplicates of everything. You pick something. You ask the price. It never starts below few thousand yuan. And it never values more than a hundred. And you should never pay more than few hundreds. Here is how the bargaining for a Nokia mobile went. He starts 2200. We are dealing in yuans (some call it RMB, I do not know what it stands for). The interaction happens on a calculator. I have entered a market called ‘The market of exotic’. It is a wonder they got exotic right. It could very well be ‘The market of erotic’ if the painter had his way. English spellings, grammar rules, sentence construction hardly matters in China. http://www.langerie.cn/ is advertised on big banners across various highways, if not for the model on the signboard I would not have realized what the ad was for or maybe realized but with a small effort on the brain. ‘No photoing and videoing’ greets you at international airports. Just for your information, it is not related to what we are talking about here, they don’t have a ground floor. The receptionist told me IT office is on third floor. After climbing stairs to what I thought was third floor I realized I have climbed one too many.

I was instructed hard by colleagues at the office (there were two poor Indian souls working at the Schlumberger base in Tanggu, one very happy that he was getting transferred in a month and the other wondering when he will get his orders) that all shops will sell at one-tenth of what they ask. I type on the calculator 400 (remember we are buying a Nokia mobile). He shakes his head in wonder. As if he has never been so amazed in his entire life. As if I have told him the biggest joke ever. “Nho nho nho” he exclaims. “Nhokhia N95 bbery good. Thoo betteries. Bberryyyyy guuud.” He shows me the memory card, 256MB it says. I shake my head and point at the calculator. He thinks for a while and types 2150. “bhesht deal.”

The shops in ‘The market of exotic’ are about two meter wide open kiosks arranged in parallel rows. Each row sells one thing. Watches in one row. Mobiles in another. Mp3 mp4 players in one and all kind of imaginable electronics and leather stuff in others. Its closing time nearly and usual crowd has left the market. Other shop owners are slowly closing their shops and a small crowd of shop owners build around the guy I am dealing with. I give in a bit. 450 I type. An Indian trying to match a Chinese. I cannot win this match, I know. My 400 starting point is higher than what this guy would have sold the mobile for. Conventional wisdom said start around 200. I couldn’t. I thought of the number but was too embarrassed to say that. Still I fight. I turn the calculator to the shop owner. He shakes his head even more. As if I have actually reduced the bid. I realized after two three shopping stints that all the shopkeepers play as one. It is the way they overwhelm a novice like me. They form a team that works together with expressions, comments and mostly shake of heads. And if the customer is someone who does not understand Chinese, do they have a blast. Everybody shouts and the commentary is relayed across the entire row of shops and everyone is participating in the deal. It is like a ritual to them. The ways of bargaining at its best. Though they have jumped in the skies and left the bar to be gained in bargaining way below is what I understand. But they are oblivious to it and enjoy every bit of it. And with them I am having fun as well.

The shop owner I am dealing with consults a lady who looks like his mother and very bravely moves to 1800. I type 500. 1700. 550. 1600. 600. It is like a never ending battle. If I was in an Indian market it would be one or two deals and either I buy or the shopkeeper throws me out. Here the tempo and interest are still building. Chinese are the hardest working people is what I had experienced in whatever interaction I had with them. They for sure can persevere infinitely to achieve any end as was obvious in the bargain.

After few days it became very clear to me that most of the markets here do not have a fixed price and irrespective of the kind of deal if you don’t bargain to your wits end you lose. I learnt my lessons the hard way. I think after paying about 2000 yuan for the stuff I could have bought with 1000 very easily and that too after all those bargaining skills acquired over the years. Didn’t I say Indians are lucky that Britishers gave us English?

After a brief pause in our ever so slowly converging price curves the guy typed 1500. “bhesht price” he insisted. By now I have realized that I have already given in too much. I typed in 600 again and made a moving gesture. This or I leave, I meant. “Nho nho.” The group expressed a collective shock as if I had said something unthought-of. They were playing well, but I was determined not to let this game go their way. Someone back home has been insisting on a mobile for a long time and I did want to get him this one. So I took one step back after taking two away.

To be fair this is the fate of a tourist in most of the places, especially Asia. India itself is a nightmare for foreigners. Prices shoot up from INR 5 to INR 500 the moment they smell a foreigner. This was no different. It was usual. But the Chinese do it their special way. The guy realized that he was about to lose the deal. He came down to 1000. 600 I stood firm. 800. Very shaky but 600 I stayed on. 700. I was sweating despite a comfortable 15-20 degreeC and a nice wind. I knew I had the guy. I took a deep breath. 600 I confirmed once again. Now the group broke into a discussion and most of them started leaving, waiving arms and gesturing. This is their way of recognizing that they have got the best price from the customer and the group cannot help any further. Now it is upto the owner to sell if he wants to. They have played their part.

It’s the good and the bad that plays its part here. The bad in us, the buyer, and them, the sellers, not here but everywhere, but also here right in the middle of so acclaimed non-capitalist world. The bad trying to rip each other as much as possible. Trying to make or save your living as much as possible. The good in world keeping this “bad transaction” disguised in the invisible cloak of fun.

He consulted his mother, probably his mother, again. 605 he gave. Pointing at 5 and gesturing with his hands that that’s what he is making as living. I smiled. I wanted to give him that extra 5 but there was still some bargaining to be done and I was just learning the Chinese way of doing it. You never give away 1 yuan if you don’t have to (though even after the lesson learned I got ripped every time I shopped). I typed 603. Now he smiled and gave me a helpless look. I changed my mind and said ok and typed 605. I paid him. He did not take the five. He returned it. I insisted. He insisted back. The good was being given a chance after all the bad. I paid 600, put the five back in my pocket, packed my shopping and moved away. “Shee shee nee”, I said. “Thank you.” One of the four Chinese words I learned in the week.


Sukhdev Singh is milking a buffalo when I call him. We are speaking after a long gap. His voice carries the same cheerful energy I remember....