You’ve Never Really Travelled Until You’ve Travelled With An Ironing Board

’tis true. How boring international travel can be. Lots of waiting around. The same old boring things – taxis, check in counters, Duty Free Shops that are all the same no matter which country you are in and just waiting, waiting, waiting.

Liven up that next trip. Travel with an ironing board. I did!

It started in Beijing. Whilst shopping for some things, an ironing board found it’s way into our shopping trolley. Not being one to refuse the unexplained when it happens, we paid for the ironing board and took it back to the hotel.

Well, that was the plan. Getting into the taxi was fun though as the ironing board was about 4 cms longer than the taxi was wide so some angled pushing and shoving managed to get it into the taxi and the door closed with no breakages.

Then arriving at the hotel “would sir care for assistance in getting that to sir’s room?”

“Nope. I’ll manage” says sir 🙂

Walk through lobby of five star hotel with ironing board under the arm all the time smiling at the Japanese guests the Chinese staff are fussing over. The Japanese guests laugh.

Up to the room, park the ironing board.

A couple of days pass and it is time to travel so I call the Bell Hop to come collect the bags from the room … and the ironing board. He smiles and scratches his head wondering how he’ll get it on the trolley as it is 10 cm longer than the trolley. He balances it.

Down to the lobby, check out and catch a taxi. Again, the ironing board is 3 cms too wide for the taxi. Squeeze it all in to two taxis and drive to the airport. Walk through the security checks with the ironing board and check in.

“That’ll need to be checked into the oversize items check in counter sir”.

“Oh, you mean this, my ‘board’? OK, I am planning on surfing the Steppe with it”.

“Very good sir”.

Check the ironing board into the oversize items counter and go through to the aircraft.

Arrive at Ulaanbaatar (at the newly renamed Chinggis Khaan Airport) and get to the baggage collection area. Baggage handler carries out the ironing board by hand.

Collect the board and push it along with the other bags out to the car. Board fits the back of this car … it is a bigger car. Board is home now and and happy.

Coopers in Beijing

The shopping centre at Scitech Plaza in Beijing has South Australia’s best product available (forget all that sissy wine stuff). Coopers Sparkling Ale, Pale Ale and Stout are on sale at the supermarket. And don’t the locals look amazed (and respectfully) at you when you twist the top off whilst they are looking for a bottle opener? 😀

Emirates Airlines

I had to slip across to New Zealand on the return to Australia from Mongolia (now there is a flight route for you). Talking to the delightful and lovely Wendy, my travel agent in Ulladulla, we thought that we would try something a little different so she booked my onto the Emirates Airlines flight from Sydney to Auckland. Price was about the same as doing the same thing with Qantas, Air New Zealand and the like but there was none of this “fuel surcharge” rubbish, it was just a cost for the flight.

It has been nearly 8 years since I last flew Emirates. I must admit that if it is possible, the service has got better over the years. So has the concept of making the customer (the passenger) comfortable. I don’t often look forward to flights – well, except for those flights taking me to someone I am missing – but I will admit that I am really looking forward to the flight back to Sydney on Emirates.

After that, it will be a reintroduction to Singapore Airlines from Sydney to Beijing. I must admit to looking forward to that as well if only to see whether Singapore Airlines has changed or not over the years.

“Taxi! To the airport!”

Haggling In China

So I was at Silk Street again today, as were many other foreigners. I have been studying the haggling process there and managed to put it into some perspective.

Essentially, the first rule of haggling here is to have a rough idea of the value of the item you are haggling for. Now somewhere like Silk Street, the value is generally going to be low. Regardless of the press reports (there was one recently that said all 1000 shopkeepers here at Silk Street had said they were no longer stocking copies and only stocking genuine articles … yeah right!) most items for sale there are copies and of reasonable to poor quality.

So, first step is to have a look around. See if you can find something you are interested in that is for sale in three or four shops. This is not so much as to play the shopkeepers off on the price but rather so that there is somewhere else to go to if you fail on the first haggling efforts.

The next step is to assess the value of the item. A good rule of thumb is to walk in and BEFORE asking about sizes or looking too closely, point to one garment and say “how much for this?” You will get a reply about size and trying and quality and how many do you want and so on. Ignore the reply and with a little annoyance in your voice say “look, I haven’t got time for playing around, just tell me the price or I’ll go somewhere else”.

This will normally get you a response of a price. This will normally be presented on a calculator so there are no problems with language and accent. It will normally be presented AFTER you have been told that the full price is something like US $109.00. The shopkeeper (usually a young lady) will then say “but for you, I give you discount, only 380 Yuan” – this is, of course, just under $50.00.

At this point, you best response is to say “that is too expensive” and start to leave. The shopkeeper will normally grab your arm and tell you to wait and ask you for the price you think it is worth. This is the important point as this is the real start of the negotiation. Most people make the mistake of believing that they are beating the price down. However, what is really happening is the shopkeeper is, in fact, beating the price up.

So, how much do you say? A good rule of thumb that I use now (after being taught by one of the best hagglers I have ever seen) is to start at 10-15% of the shops first price. So, in our example here I would, for a pair of trousers, say 40 to 50 Yuan.

Usually the shopkeeper will laugh and say “impossible – this is below my cost” or she will say “dollars?”

A good answer to “dollars” I have found is to say “yes … Hong Kong dollars”.

Shopkeeper will then say “seriously, what is your best price?”

The response to this is is “look, I have not got all day, what is your best price, your pretty lady/handsome man price, your last price – I have not got time for all this”.

At this point she will likely come back with with 320. The response to this is “too high, be serious, what is best price?”

Now she will either show you a price of 250 or stick to 320. At this point say “no, no” look disappointed, wave your hand in a dismissive way and SLOWLY walk off, looking at stuff in the other shops nearby – but keep an ear cocked to the original store.

She will likely grab your arm to hold you and say “OK. OK, what is your best price, no kidding price”.

If you feel a little guilty or uncomfortable then tell her (type it on the calculator) a figure 5 or maybe 10 Yuan more than your first offer – let’s assume it is 60.

She will look hurt, maybe even sound a little angry and tell you it is “too small, below my cost”. That’s OK, just start moving off slowly. She will ask you as you walk away “seriously, what is best price?” Just keep walking slowly and say “60”.

As you move off, she will now start calling “OK, OK, 200. Best price 200”.

Keep walking slowly.

“OK, 150”

Keep walking slowly and looking at other stores.

“100”

“80 – that is best offer”.

At this point you can either accept it or turn to her and pretend not to have heard and say “60 did you say?”

She will say “no”.

Start walking away again. One of two things will happen.You will hear nothing else (so move onto the next store selling the same garments and accept the 80 if you want) or you will hear “OK”. Turn back and then agree the 60.

Now comes the interesting part. Once you have agreed the price, you should buy unless there is some compelling reason not to. Now then, as you have agreed on the price, you can start to check the size. Ask to try the goods on. Most places have a sheet that can be pulled across for modesty … or up to you. Many places may try “cannot try”. This is more usual with tops than trousers so again, up to you. I usually say “no try no buy”, especially for pants.

Try them, buy them, give her the agreed price and you have been successful. Really, somewhere like Silk Street at the moment, you should be paying no more than about 20% of the first quoted price. Note also too that if you want a second item from the shop you have just bought the first item at, you will still need to go back through the whole haggling process.

Remember too, always agree the price BEFORE you try the garment on. This is doubly important as once you have tried the garment, the shopkeeper KNOWS that you will not really walk away from it and it is harder to get a lower price.

Happy haggling!

Beijing Taxis

I have noted before about Mongolian Taxis. I have now had a chance to study Beijing Taxis more thoroughly. So far I have taken 10 taxi trips in Beijing and 3 of them have been dodgy – either the route taken or the fare.

Today was the corker. We got into a taxi outside my hotel which is next to the West Station in Beijing. I asked the taxi driver to drive me to Silk Street. Now this is a distance of about 15 to 20 kilometres maximum. Beijing Taxis today charge CNY 1.60 per kilometre so a charge of 26 to 30 Yuan is appropriate. This driver took me the shortest and most direct route.

When we arrived at Silk Street he switched the meter off very quickly (not that I could see the bloody thing anyway) and printed a receipt. The receipt he gave me was for CNY 109. He also had the temerity to look at me with a hurt look when I called him a big liar. In any case, in double quick time he folded and accepted 30 Yuan.

Then there was the driver a couple of days ago that took me three sides of a square for 65 Yuan and when I pointed out to him that he had taken a really really long way to the Australian Embassy (which is just down the road a little from Silk Street as it would happen), he accepted 30 Yuan.

So, 10 to 15% of the taxi rides in Beijing have been a bit suspect. Seems the biggest problems are in the little red taxis and the black taxis (although to be fair the red taxi that took me back to the hotel tonight was spectacularly good and fair in his charging). I am starting to think that there is a “taxi Mafia” operating outside the hotel here as all the bad taxis have been called over by the guy at the front of the hotel.

My best advice when travelling by taxi in Beijing is:

  1. Check the odometer in the car if you can. The fare should be about 1.5 times the distance travelled (plus or minus a little). This could change to twice soon as the government has approved a price increase.
  2. When the taxi driver flips the “For Hire” sign you should hear the recorded message in Chinese and then English thanking you for using Beijing Taxis.
  3. Look for a clear and easy to see taxi driver license. If the picture is really faded then probably he stopped being licensed a couple of years ago.
  4. Never be afraid to argue the price when it is excessive. In Beijing a foreigner is treated as “fair game” and prices are always excessively high. To give you an idea, when buying a pair of pants today, the price quoted was CNY 380 per pair. The price paid was CNY 60.

Like most places, in Beijing you need to be alert to what is going on around you. This is doubly so with taxis. If you are staying at a 5-star hotel, then the hotel will record the taxi details of the driver that collects you and if you have a problem they will contact the appropriate authorities so even the Chinese are aware of the problem.

China International Travel Service (CITS)

The word “International” is somewhat odd in the title of this company as it is “sort of” international. Mind you, I had to deal with them the other day. I went to the CITS Office upstairs at the Beijing International Hotel to buy a train ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. This went well and when tendering my International VISA Card I was told that 4% would be added to cover the fee. “OK” says I. I am used to that from a number of places now and whilst I would normally use cash as much as possible, I did not have the CNY 999.00 with me at the time.

The staff in the office calculated the 4% as follows:

999 yuan divide by 0.96 equals 1040.63 yuan – which was what was billed to my credit card.

I told the staff “but that is 4.17% added, not 4%”! From my point of view, if you add 4%, then the following calculation is performed:

999 yuan multiplied by 1.04 equals 1038.96 yuan.

They replied that dividing by 0.96 was the way that their Head Office had explained that they do it. Maybe mathematics works differently here.

I did have a few days spare though so thought I would slip down to Hong Kong for a couple of days. There is a train from Beijing to Kowloon in Hong Kong. “Can I buy a ticket for the train to Hong Kong here?” I asked. “No” was the answer. “You need to buy that from either Beijing Station or West Station”.

More on that matter in another blog entry.

So, I returned to the hotel with my train ticket to Ulaanbaatar. There is a CITS office in my hotel as well so I thought I would ask about the train to Hong Kong. After an original “yes we can” that changed to a “no, you need to get that from the train station”. More on the train station later.

“Fly me to Hong Kong” I said. CITS organised my ticket. I whipped out my International VISA Card (see earlier in this entry).

” I am sorry sir, we cannot take international VISA cards here, only local cards – this is our company policy. Can you pay cash please?”

Sigh!

So I went and got a fist full of dollars (sorry, yuan) from the bank and came back and paid for my ticket.

So, one branch of CITS selling train tickets can use international VISA cards adding 4.17% on, whilst another branch of CITS cannot.

Seems China has this only half done. It will be fun when there are a flood of Olympic Visitors in 835 days time to China, especially as VISA is a sponsor (I think) of the Olympics.

Theft in 5-Star Hotels – Beijing International Hotel

We stopped at the Beijing International Hotel (the 5-star one near the Beijing Railway Station) trying to organise some train tickets (but more on that later in a separate blog I think).

The travel place was closed so we thought we would partake of the buffet lunch. In we went, we sat, ordered drinks and when they came, got up and went to the salad bar. About 20 minutes later we noticed that one of the bags we had was missing – the one with the video camera and a digital still camera in it.

Yep – stolen. Now this is a 5-star hotel with what appears to be security cameras and all. According to some security staff, the cameras are not connected. According to other staff, the camera showed a couple of “gentlemen of Middle Eastern appearance” moving past the table and maybe taking the bag.

What can I say? There were about 2 staff to each customer at that time in the hotel restaurant. No one saw anything. The hotel noted that this happened in the public area of the hotel and therefore they did not have any liability for the security of their lunch guests.

So, only thing I can say is “don’t stay at the Beijing International Hotel”. It is not safe. If you are not safe in the public areas of the Beijing International Hotel, then you are not safe in their rooms or in other areas of the hotel.

And as for the “gentlemen of Middle Eastern appearance” – well, this may be true or it may not be true. Perhaps “gentlemen of Middle Eastern appearance” is a convenient way for the Chinese to say it is not their fault. I can only think, though, that the Beijing International Hotel probably would like to deflect suspicion away from their staff, after all, they do not have any responsibility or liability for their guests safety.

Train Trips – a Loooooooong Way to Beijing – China

We crawled across the border, from Zamin-uud in Mongolia to Erlian in the Chinese S.A.R. of Inner Mongolia. About 5 kilometres and it took about 30 minutes to travel it. We arrived in Erlian Station with the Chinese Immigration and Customs folks standing to attention. They entered the train and fairly efficiently went through each of the carriages, stamping us into the country and checking our customs forms.

Once the Immigration folks left the train, it was then backed up from Erlian Station and taken into a large carriage shed for a change in bogies. This is necessary because Mongolia uses the Russian Railway Guage of 5 feet between rails whilst China uses Standard Guage (4 foot 8 and a half inches between rails – only a three and a half inch difference but enough to ensure that each and every carriage is lifted, the Mongolian bogies removed and the Chinese ones added.

Irrespective of the being bounced around and the noise, I went to sleep.

We had arrived at Zamin-uud around 8 pm in the Thursday night. When I dropped off to sleep I can remember that the last time I checked my watch it was midnight.

I slept and the train rolled along through the night. And the train rolled quickly. Mongolia is all single track with lots of passing loops. China from the border is dual running – that is, one line northbound and one line southbound. It was, however, going to be another 15 hours or so before we got to Beijing.

We finally arrived in Beijing around 3:30 pm China time, so about 30 minutes or so late – not so bad given the length of the train journey.

It was an interesting rail journey and I am glad that I did it. I know that we will probably need to catch the train back to Ulaanbaatar but I am trying not to think about that at the moment. I am thinking that perhaps the next train trip may be Beijing to Kowloon (Hong Kong).

Train Trips – a Loooooooong Way to Beijing – Mongolia

I wanted to go to Beijing. Being “between engagements” again, I wanted an inexpensive way to go to Beijing. We decided, therefore, to catch the train.

Now, I have taken the train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamin-uud and on to Erlian in China once before see Travel, Visa’s and Related Matters for some of the details of that trip. Well, travelling to Beijing was really even more interesting.

We left Ulaanbaatar at 08:05 on Thursday morning UB time and arrived in Beijing at 15:30 the next day UB time. Loooooong time in train. There was a wind storm blowing across the Gobi Desert which means there was a dust storm, so everything in the carriage was covered in dust.

When you leave Ulaanbaatar, you are given a meal by the railways. Nothing to drink, just a meal. This was sausage, pasta and some vegetables as well as a bread roll. That was all the food given for a 30 hour trip. There is a water boiler in each carriage so if you take the trip, bring some pot noodles and packets of coffee (and a cup). Bread, salami and cheese is a good addition as well.

We arrived at Zamin-uud where Mongolian Immigration (Emigration) officers and Customs dealt with us. My first problem was that my Mongolian visa is in my old, cancelled passport so the Immigration Officer had to take my passports into the office to check them out with her boss. This caused some consternation as she had not returned after 40 minutes or so and it looked like we were getting ready to head into China (minus Thomo’s passport). She turned up with duly stamped passport about 2 minutes before the train moved.

The Customs officer was the next little trial. She asked me for my last Customs form. I did not have one. When you fly into Mongolia your customs form is taken at the airport. When you fly out, no problem. When you enter via train, your Customs form is returned to you. When you take the train out, you are supposed to return the form. Yes folks, two rules.

Still, after an hour or so all formalities were completed and we were on the way to China. Look for part 2 soon.