Dunhuang, China, Gobi Desert
A long time ago in a desert far, far away…
This is a throwback to our six week trip to China in 2007. It was Tim’s first time out of the U.S. and we got pretty far off the beaten track, heading into the Gobi Desert in a little town called Dunhuang. The camel ride we did out to the Crescent Lake Oasis was awesome, but little did we know that the real drama would come after the ride.
Come, hear the tale, a contest of wills and haggling skills that float upon the legends of the desert winds as they whistle through the dunes.
One tale, two versions.
It all started with a simple necklace.
It was my mistake, really. I shouldn’t have looked at it so closely. But the necklace seemed to be more African than Chinese, and having just finished riding camels over the dunes of the Gobi desert, the style piqued my interest.
So I looked. Then I made the biggest mistake of all. I picked it up. Not for long, a second or two at most, but the hook was set. I was caught.
The woman minding the table of jewelry pounced. Friendly, but determined to get the sale. And who could blame her? The wind had been blowing hard for days and this was the first the dunes had been open since we arrived in Dunhuang. And I was a tourist, the perfect mark.
No, no thank you. It’s too short, anyway, I mimed. There we go, good excuse. I thanked her and we moved on. I was more cautious at the next few stalls. I didn’t touch anything, didn’t even let my eyes linger too long on any one item. Not that I wasn’t open to getting something cool for someone back home, but after a month’s worth of deterring every hawker in every town, I was trying for less pressure. After we passed a few more stalls, that idea went up in smoke.
The woman who’d been selling that African-looking necklace suddenly stood in our path. Unbeknownst to me, she’d handed it off to someone who apparently had the ability to lengthen it. My great excuse exploded into a million tiny pieces like a confetti bomb.
With my excuse in tatters, and the fact that I’d actually picked up the necklace, (as I said, this whole thing was my fault), and that they’d lengthened it specifically for me, I felt obligated to make the purchase – but not without a haggle.
The woman had the man who’d lengthened the necklace and another helper with her. Tim stood beside me. From somewhere, a small notepad and pencil appeared. She wrote down a price, and it was on.
Of course, the first price was outrageous, something like $32USD (converted) for the trinket. I really didn’t want the necklace, so I wrote down an equally ridiculous lowball – $2USD. A collective, “whoa” went up from her team. At that point there was some chatter and a few other shopkeepers came over. I was a little concerned I was going to get chewed out for the lowball, but I got the next offer instead. She wrote something and passed me the notepad.
Her price came down, a lot.
That’s when I knew I was much closer to the right ballpark for the price than she was. I wasn’t the foolish tourist she expected. I eked up my offer just a little bit. The group oohed. At this point I felt like they recognized that they had a foreigner that actually knew how to haggle. It seemed like more of a game, and they were happy to watch a good match.
She came down again, another sizable chunk.
I was certain in my strategy now. Even if I didn’t want the dang thing, I was going to get it for the best price I could. Again, I went up only a small bit. I think the crowd was surprised at my temerity and they delighted in the challenge between the shopkeeper and myself.
Back and forth, back and forth, the notebook passed, the prices being crossed out and replaced by the next offer. When the woman’s prices started coming down in smaller steps, I knew we were closing in on the right amount. Still, I kept my increases small. I was so focused on the haggle and my next move, I didn’t notice what was going on around us (Tim’s version of this tale will cover that).
Then we got down to a handful of Y (Chinese yuan) between our offers. Less than a dollar or two, but after such a battle, pride and principle were on the line. It had been a great haggle, I couldn’t show weakness now.
I’d go up one Y, she’d come down one. We did it again, and again. One more time, and there’s just two Y between our offers. Everyone is watching. I know I could push it, but I also know that after this was over, I would be walking away, she wouldn’t. Her reputation was on the line. Was my pride more important than her honor? I knew the answer, but it still took a moment before my competitive side was willing to give in. I accepted her offer and there was a cheer from the crowd. I’d done the right thing in letting hers be the last bid. We finished, both of us having our honor intact.
So I paid, and took the necklace I didn’t want with a smile. To this day I haven’t worn the thing, but I keep it as one of my treasured memories. That was when I learned that to many, haggling is a game and while you don’t want to be the sucker that takes the first offer, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously either. Touching that necklace was one of the best mistakes I’ve ever made.
Now for Tim’s version:
After an incredible camel ride in the Gobi Desert, Trina and I decided to browse the tchotchke vendors before boarding our mini-bus back to town. The sellers were lined up along a cowboy-style wooden sidewalk, an awning overhead keeping both customers and merchants out of the blazing sun.
We moved down the line, nothing really catching our interest until about half-way down, Trina saw a necklace she thought was interesting enough to take a closer look. Innocently, she picked it up. And that was the lead-in to one of the greatest haggle-fests ever.
Warning! The following conversation occurred in a mish-mash of English, Chinese and hand gestures.
Upon seeing Trina’s interest, a woman materialized, happy to collect for the purchase that wasn’t happening. Apparently, in China, possession is nine-tenths of the sale. Trina told the woman it was too short, she didn’t want it. The necklace lady was having none of it. A simple fix like that? No problem. The vendor beckoned her guy over and gave him the necklace, all the while Trina continued to explain how we didn’t want it. Finally we backed away and continued our browsing.
We reached the end of the boardwalk and decided not to pass back through to get to the parking lot – to avoid any possible entanglements. We stepped onto the sandy road, certain of our escape, but when we turned, there she was. Standing in our path, feet apart, posse at her side, dress billowing in the wind, her right arm held high with the now-lengthened necklace dangling from her fingers… it was the Necklace Lady.
Her eyes locked on us with unyielding challenge. The music from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly played in my head as Trina stepped forward like a gunslinger at high noon. You could almost hear the chinnggg of spurs as she walked. There was only one solution to this challenge… Haggle Fest.
A small crowd formed. It seemed this was more like a sporting event than a simple transaction. The main event: Trina vs. the Necklace Lady. I didn’t understand the language, but I think bets were being placed.
Necklace Lady’s guy handed her a note pad and paper. She took it, scribbled a price and with a Clint Eastwood-like glare, gave it to Trina. Trina looked at the number, scribbled her own and handed it back, cool as a cucumber. Necklace Lady’s eyes widened. The low-ball figure made it obvious Trina was no amateur, this girl had game. Judging by the long, collective whoa!, her posse agreed. Reactions of this sort must not have happened often because every vendor and helper came out to watch the two number slingers go at it.
Each time the tablet was passed, the growing crowd of onlookers reacted. Some with vocal astonishment, others with smiles and cheers – even at Trina’s moves. Hey, a good move is a good move, and they appreciated her haggle skills.
The pad was passed back and forth. Trina’s bid rose by small bits, while Necklace Lady’s dropped in ever descending chunks. This was a competition the likes of which they hadn’t seen in a long time. If they’d had them, the crowd would have been on the edge of their seats. How long could this intense battle go on?
Finally, Necklace Lady scribbled her last offer on the note pad. It was a small amount more than Trina’s, but understanding the value of saving face, Trina nodded acceptance. Money and jewelry were exchanged and everyone dispersed chattering about the match. From then on I would call Trina… Haggle Master.