When you have a guide in China as I did, they do bring you to places like a tea store, a silk store, a Traditional Medicine Clinic, a pearl store and other places…However, be aware that when you enter such stores, the sales people can be very aggressive in trying to make sure that you buy something.
They were particularly aggressive with me since they were thinking I had money to splurge since I had my own personal guide and a driver too. I did buy some expensive silk, but I did refrain from buying other stuff like in the tea store (I just bought a $10 tea) and the saleslady was not too pleased! Sorry, Madam, I just buy this $10 tea, okay?
Oh well, I guess they are just trying to get the most out of you but just be aware that, as in other touristy areas, you have to learn how to say “no” when necessary.
Unique Suggestions: Just say, "No More Money". She-she (thank you...)
Fun Alternatives: Have your tourguide (if you have one) tell salesperson you are not interested...
Okay, maybe this isn't exactly a "tourist trap," but western tourists do get ripped off when shopping in Beijing. When I was hunting for postcards in the Xindongan Shopping Center, I entered a small shop which sold postcards for Y10 a packet (after they figured out I was from America). I ended up buying two packets for Y18, but then walked next door, where they were selling the same postcards for Y5 a packet. So be sure to bargain with each shopkeeper over everything; the price they're selling at is usually twice of what it's worth.
I get more e-mails on this topic than any other.
From CDs to DVDs to T-shirts to boots and jackets. It's all here. Everywhere. Nowhere is cheaper or beter than anyone else, no matter what any China shopping guru tells you.
However, there are some points worth remembering.
Those of us who live here generally stock up on decent clothing, DVDs, CDs, T-shirts, boots and jackets when we travel overseas.
1) The quality of the fake stuff you buy here is crap. Seriously bad. Watches that are 30 minutes slow within 3 hours of purchase. Boots that are peeling apart within 24 hours. Socks that wear through on the second outing. A suitcase which fell to bits on the way back to the hotel, 80 metres from the shops.
2) It is really difficult to find places to buy 'ordinary' gear, and damn near impossible to buy proper CDs and DVDs within 1,000km.
Be warned that the 'savings' on all the fake stuff are largely an illusion. Especially if you pay anywhere above 15% of the initial asking price. Even then it's marginal.
Also be aware that bringing fake goods into many countries is now a criminal offence and you can face heavy fines or worse.
The clothing (especially) looks good but, trust me on this, it falls to pieces fast. Real fast. I do ot have a single item of clothing bought in China that is worth the cheap rice I paid for it.
Caveat emptor. Customs officer emptor.
Unique Suggestions: Buy unbranded gods if you want cheap goods. Let's face it...why are you spending precious holiday time buying cheap copies of $120 sneakers? Is it really that important?
DVDs? Yep. Buy 50 of them here. 45 will be unwatchable (low DVD production quality), and the other 5 will be unwatchable (low film production quality).
CDs? The sound quality is poor. The choice is poor except for music that a Chinese CD-making middle man in a backstreet shop in Xiamen thinks you will like. He, by the way, thinks that Kenny G, Richard Clayderman and Yanni are great. He thinks you do too.
Fun Alternatives: Buy original stuff at home if you want value.
Buy fakes in China is you are a cheapskate but are keen to impress people with a Rolex or a Omega watch. Do have your excuse ready when people ask where it is a month later when it has fallen apart though.
One thing to get the hang of is haggling. Street stalls and markets will charge westerners ten times what they would to someone from the east. One example of price elavations was when I bought a bag from a stall near the Wangfujing Road.
I'd watched a Chinese girl buy a bag for 20r, and I approached and asked for one myself. The storeholder held up her calculator with 300r (£22.50) on it. I eventually haggled her down to 80r which I was happy to pay, but it shows how vastly inflated prices for westerners are.
Unique Suggestions: It's worth learning the art of haggling, it can be so much fun. We spent the last couple of days in Beijing going to what we called the 'tat' markets and buying gifts and souveniers. Be prepared for people winding necklaces around your neck and thrusting items into your face. The knack is offering a ridiculously low price compared with their high price and enjoy the face pulling and sighing until you meet in the middle.
Be warned though, if you show an interest in something the sellers can be quite determined even if you don't really want it. A girl chased us down the street once with a large plastic dragon that I inadvertently gazed upon. The price on it had been 450r but the lowest she went to was 15r, I guess because we were walking away.
Tour groups inevitably end up at a "factory" where you can learn about how a select product is made. The main purpose of these places is to sell you their products though.
"Factories" can actually be really interesting and fun to go to, just try not to get buyers remorse.
Unique Suggestions: Participate! ...When I went to a silk factory, I got to help make a silk blanket with some friends. It was a lot of fun.
Fun Alternatives: I recomend going to the factories to learn about how the products are produced and to get a little insight into the culture. You might want to skip the store area of the factory though so you don't make any impulse purchases.
The famous "Silk Market" on Jianguomen, near Guiyou, is a cluster of shops selling mostly identical merchandise at prices that are no longer attractive. The Silk Market has been transformed over the past couple of years from a meandering group of small stalls on side streets near the U.S Embassy, crowded "belts to butts", even on the coldest days of Beijing winter. Now, its more like a standard shopping center with about 8 floors of merchandise and food stalls. It reminds me of MBK in Bangkok, only not as nice.
Certainly there are bargains to be found, but I prefer "Ya Show" near Sanlitun on Gongti Bei Lu for mostly the same merchandise. The range of massage and manicure service is a plus for anyone seeking a bit of relaxation after shopping at "Ya Show".
Try them both if you have time, but the Silk Market has lost its luster.
Unique Suggestions: Walk briskly through the aisles and keep your head held high. You can check the goods in each stall from your peripheral vision. Otherwise, you'll get 'pitched' by every hawker on the lane. One great spot in the Silk Market is the cashmere goods stall on the 2nd or 3rd floor on the north end. Run by people from Chinese Mongolia, their goods are excellent and prices a gereat bargain. The only reason we visit the Silk Market these days.
Fun Alternatives: "Ya Show" near Sanlitun on Gongti Bei Lu. I like the Tommy Bahama goods and my wife likes the silk pajamas.
I actually think this place is fascinating and fun. I've spent a couple of interesting afternoons at the Silk Market recently buying a few things (shirts and shoes) and practicing my Mandarin with the shopgirls. The majority of them are very kind and interesting, but, yes, of course they are trying to sell things. It's their job! There's a network of them that come up from Anhui Province. I had bad experiences with a few of them who wanted to rant against Americans once they found out where I was from. But overall, they were great. I'd strongly suggest, however, taking this place in small doses. It's VERY intense. The other option is to fly through as if you are on a mission and mean business. If the vendor is playing too many calculator price games with you, go to a nearby one and say "Give it to me for blank kuai" as if you are going to leave in seconds if they don't say "OK". I actually bought two shirts today using this method and didn't have to bargain at all (I'd done the bargaining a few stalls down). Finally, almost everyone suggests responding to their high price with your own low one and then meeting somewhere in between. Twice today I bought items at a rock bottom price by refusing to budge at all. I had bought a short sleeve polo shirt for 50 kuai and a girl I'd met a few days earlier saw me and complained that I should buy one from her. So, I told her to give me the long sleeve version of the same shirt for 40 kuai. She couldn't believe it! I used their own tactics by saying, "Look, I don't want this shirt. I'm only buying it because I like you." And held my ground until her price finally lowered to mine.
Unique Suggestions: People, BARGAIN! I had two women tell me a 600 renminbi price for a (pretty good quality) backpack. Since I'd been speaking with them for awhile, the ridiculous price really irked me and I just walked away. The last price I heard them shout out was 80 renminbi! Bargain, but don't be rude (especially Americans...they really seem to think we are exceptionally rude). Having said that, there will be times when you just have to physically bust out of a stall with a young girl hanging on your arm. I'd suggest that the best way to avoid this is not to look at things you aren't interested in buying. If you want to buy it, then buy it. I promise you, you can get them down to a price you are happy with. However, check the quality carefully. It's easy to tell (at least with clothes), how well made (or poorly made...as the case is more likely to be) they are. It's not worth paying even $5 for a shirt that's going to unravel the first time you wear it. Look at the stitching especially. Turn the sleeves of jackets inside out, etc. If it's bad quality, show them and walk away. It's the simplest exit strategy.
Silk Road Shopping area in Beijing is worth the trip if you make sure to bargain and watch what they put in your shopping bag. I wanted to buy a pashmina shawl and the lady tried to substitute the one I wanted with a cheaper model.
Unique Suggestions: Watch what you buy.
Actually this Beijing cloisonne shop is probably one of the better factories for girls from the countryside to work in.
Unique Suggestions: At least try communicating with the assembly line workers. Any kind words or gestures you make toward them become cherished memories that they share with their families and friends far away.
Fun Alternatives: If you're not enjoying the cloisonne factory then ask to be shown around the local brewery or some other socialist showcase that's more to your taste.
The reason I'm putting this into the tourist trap section is because it ends up being yet another shopping opportunity. The factory itself is really very interesting watching the craftmanship that goes into making cloisonne. The detailed work done by hand is carried out by teams of women in what looks to be poor working conditions. They work for at least 8 hours a day for very little pay.
When you are shopping in Beijing, you have to be extra careful with the price you have to pay. Before paying any cash, confirm the price and avoid giving more cash than the price as you may not get back the rest. If you go to a restaurant, ask for a menu. Local street vendors try to cheat you if you find a chance. I was charged 15 Yuan for a skewer costing 5 Yuan only. The convenience stores usually don't have price tags on any item. A snickers chocolate bar can cost you 25 Yuan in these places.
Unique Suggestions: Ask the price, confirm before you pay.
Fun Alternatives: If you are careful and you know the usual price, you can avoid these scams.
Most big stores and supermarkets have fixed prices but in small places where they don't show prices you might be ripped off. When shopping try not to carry any backpack or lots of bags with you because people will notice right away that you are a tourist.
Unique Suggestions: You should be very fluent in saying 'duo shao qian', that means, 'how much'. If you pronounce it very accurately they will probably think that you live in Beijing, so they might not rip you off.
As I said, don't carry any bags or backpacks with you.
You really know how to bargain, when you visit China. Everything that you get is overpriced by as much as 6 times!!! Even the calling cards which have a talk time of 100 yuan, can be bought at as low as 55 yuan if you know how to bargain.. Never buy anything without bargaining HEAVILY.
If there is anything in Beijing you fancy so much about then buy it immediately. Never say 'I'll buy it next time' or 'I'll come next week before leaving'.
It is amazing how things and places change so quickly and this is true especially in Asia. Well, people who live here know what I am talking about. What today is a crowd restaurant tomorrow might be a hair saloon. It might also happen that you wouldn't be able to find anymore the place you wanted to visit again.
Therefore, if you see something that you dearly would like to buy, do it right away.
Fun Alternatives: If you don't buy what you like right away at least try to get a business card from the shop or write down its address and telephone number.
Beijing and other crowded cities in China are great bargaining scenarios either if you want to buy or just watch and pretend you are puzzled to the point you cannot help but smile and walk away. However, bargaining can become addictive. If you succeed once or twice you feel like baragaining everywhere. One piece of ADVICE: make sure you want to buy if you bargain more than a handful of minutes. If you leave once don't go back to give them another illusion as a friend did: they get fed up because THEY are trying to sell and YOU are trying to excercise your bargaining skills.
Unique Suggestions: Eat and drink while you are at it: local crepes and great soups are served to all to take a brake in the stroll.
Fun Alternatives: If you really are interested in staying in such bazar-like environment (specially down town) ask about the things they sell, and learn from it: the names, the more than 50 ethnic chinese minorities represented on the figures, the name of the 4 opera masks, in one word, mythology and contemporary traditions. Tell them you already have most of what they are offering and instead ask them to speak about it. Great excercise especially if you are studying chinese. Bare in mind: smile back, they won't bite!