Beijing's Dirty Market - known locally as Panjiayuan- is a chaotic maze of stalls, tarpaulin-covered displays and courtyards. Packed into these 12 acres are 10,000 vendors offering handicrafts, antiques, ornaments and collectibles; everything from bone opium pipes and Polish translations of Mao's Little Red Book to highly illegal tiger paws. It is possibly the world's largest flea market, a delight not to be missed.
It was in the Dirty Market that I once watched a man buy a jade coin. The asking price was 8,000 yuan. After an aggressive round of bargaining, and the constant threat of walking away, the man departed with coin in hand, having paid 20 yuan. What a hard-nosed negotiator, I thought with envy.
The next day, I watched a different man buy the same coin from the same vendor, for five yuan.
Bargaining is utterly foreign to Canadian sensibilities. Many of us stumble though the dance of the deal, confused and anxious. At times, the worry of being constantly ripped off - on everything from trinkets and taxi rides to guest-house rates - can stir such feelings of mistrust and helplessness that the joys of foreign travel are completely overshadowed.
Bargaining, of course, is an art and a game. It can be fun for all, or it can become stressful and combative. Next time you have a carved Buddha or shared taxi ride in sight, but are facing the dread of the inevitable haggling, here are a few points to consider:
Everyone should win: Bargaining is not war - you should seek balance and mutual respect. Remember, you're trying to make a purchase, not display your haggling savvy. The only good deal is one in which both the buyer and seller get something of value.
Make small talk: Take your time to make a connection with the vendor. Ask where they are from, talk about the weather - anything but price.
Know the value: And if you don't know the value, at least make an educated guess. Try talking first to expatriates, other travellers or local friends. Understanding a fair price is the fundamental key to making a good deal.
Always smile: It is astounding how quickly our teeth clench and our posture stiffens once the game begins. If you tense up, you have already lost.
Ask for a lower price, don't offer one: Is a discount possible? This should drop the asking price immediately, giving you a lower starting point to work from.
Be willing to walk away politely: You must be indifferent, or at least pretend to be. If you really want a specific trinket, the vendor will know and you'll pay. If walking away doesn't result in an immediate reduction in price, you know have been offering too little.
Learn the local numbers: Much bargaining today is done on a calculator, passed back and forth with alternating bids. Knowing just a bit of the local language allows you to make offers verbally (which is always appreciated) as well as eavesdrop on other transactions.
Avoid ugly bargaining at all costs: Aggressive and berating behaviour gets you nowhere. Freaking out over relatively small sums of money only leaves locals jaded. Most vendors are not evil swindlers; they are business people trying to earn money. Be friendly, courteous and firm.
You will pay more than locals: Big deal. Everyone knows you are relatively rich. This does not mean you have to accept being mercilessly ripped off, but don't try to grind every last penny out of the deal.
Maintain perspective: Don't take bargaining too seriously. The sums of money you niggle over are typically small. Yes, they can add up, but there is no point ruining your day, or a vendor's, because you think you paid 20 cents too much for a pineapple. Unfortunately, this happens far too often on the road.
So now, back to the Dirty Market. You've seen a gorgeous jade coin. The vendor asks 8,000 yuan. Are you insulted, or are you ready to return the serve?
Bruce Kirkby is a bestselling author.