Travel Tips

10 Haggling Tips for the Shy Traveler

 The wheelin’ and dealin’ of the traveling world can be a scary affair.  Keep your pride and your cash with some of these tips:

1. Accept the fact that you’re going to look stupid. 

Like really stupid. Lets just get this out of the way early. Unless you are a multilingual language ninja, an expert appraiser, culturally integrated extraordinaire and all around Master Of All Situations chances are that shop keeper is going to make you act a fool. If you can get past this initial awkwardness you’re off to a good start.

2. Don’t be intimidated.

Acting cool and being as suave as you can amidst the fast paced market atmosphere is key to having the best shopping experience. Peddlers and venders make their living off of negotiating, haggling, and sweet talking someone they think they can make a deal from. They are very good at it. All that quick talking and calculator punching can make you break a cold sweat.

Don’t let them smell your fear.

3. Scope out the merch!

Too many times I have picked up an item out of mere curiosity and within seconds the seller is all up in my business. I barely have time to look at what I’m holding when I’m suddenly being bombarded with dialogue about what a “good deal” I could get on the item or about how awesome the quality is. I end up focusing my attention on the seller instead of what I want to buy, and before I know it I’m haggling my way into purchasing a shoddy piece of merchandise.

Pull the reins on that bargain wagon. There are knock-offs and fakes abound out there as well as items that are hastily and poorly put together. A lot of them are catered for the naïve and ignorant tourist. So unless you brought along your Pawn Stars approved “Chinese handmade wooden lacquer chess set guy” then give whatever it is you are looking to buy a good and thorough once over before you commit to start negotiating.

Seafood market.  Qingdao, China.
Seafood market. Qingdao, China.

4. A little language always helps. 

The more you know the better obviously, but going beyond the standard “How much is it?” is a good way to enhance your shopping experience. Try at the very least to learn major denominations of numbers as well as a couple phrases. “I’d like to buy this,” for things that interest you. “No, thank you,” to diffuse pestering sellers and “Just a moment,” for when you want that minute to browse and inspect something.

The ability to communicate these little bits will steer the negotiations in a desired direction as well as gain the respect of the shop keeper. Score two points for the timid traveler!

5. Come prepared.

For when language fails you travel with a small notepad, a calculator, or a cell phone. You can use these to jot down your proposed price. Arabic numerals are pretty much understood worldwide so negotiating a price via writing or typing could get the job done. Many sellers these days have their own calculators for this very purpose but it never hurts to carry your own.

6. Take a lap!

I’ve found this affective on many different occasions. If the deal is too far from what you are willing to spend then walk away. No need for a finger snap and face palm, just gracefully bow out and communicate that the price is too expensive.

Stick around though. Maybe linger by another nearby stall or browse through items in an adjacent shop. Let your severed sales relationship marinade a little. Oftentimes, I am shortly approached by the previous seller ready to negotiate again with a lower price.

 

Farmers market.  Munich, Germany.
Farmers market. Munich, Germany.

7. Know the exchange rate.

This one goes without saying, but if you are like me and are terrible at math, or just cave under the pressure of having to do it on the spot, just knowing a simple conversion isn’t enough.

Memorizing a couple of commonly priced converted denominations helps give you an idea where what you want stands in the scheme of things. There are also a slew of currency conversion apps that do the hard work for you on the fly.

8. Don’t forget the “because you’re different” fee.

There is a multitude of places in this world where you can find yourself sticking out. People make assumptions. You’re stuck getting charged more for something purely based on the fact that you aren’t like everyone else. Lord knows I’ve fought this one.

“But it’s the principle!” I’d cry.

But guess what? Dorj, the clothing merchant doesn’t believe you aren’t a rich foreigner as you argue with him over those expensive cashmere gloves you’ve had your eye on. Give in a little bit and find a middle ground. You can pay a little more while still keeping your dignity. Your cashmere clad hands will thank you for it.

9.  Get cultured.

Plunging into a new country and new place can be full of new customs and taboos to learn. The subculture of a city’s markets can be a new animal all its own.

Do your homework and try to learn the ins and outs of habits surrounding markets and haggling. How you greet the seller, accept or hand over currency as well as the way you hold yourself during the negotiation can play a key part in the outcome of how the deal goes down. Learning the etiquette in buying certain political or religious items is also important. Having a heads up on what to expect is a good advantage. Plus, no one likes that red faced gringo screaming about overpriced alpaca ponchos.

Some places, such as China have a whole system of hand signs used for expressing numbers and negotiating prices. Throw up a couple of these bad boys during a deal and show him you mean business. No language needed!

10. Leave with something besides what you purchased.

Local markets are a fabulous place to get acquainted with the culture and people of wherever you may be visiting. Go for the experience of it all and consider your cool foreign purchase an added bonus to the venture. You should not walk away swindled and fuming angry nor should you walk away completely satisfied with what you paid, after all someone has to make money somewhere.

Take away the satisfaction that you learned something and take the outcome of your experience and save it up for a good story to tell back home. Those camel wool slippers will make a great prop.

Old City market.  Jerusalem, Israel.
Old City market. Jerusalem, Israel.

 

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That Time In Russia When No One Scammed Me

“Twenty thousand togrogs.” the Mongolian cabbie said reaching his open palm back over his shoulder without as much as a glance in my direction.

I gaped forward in flabbergasted awe, knowing full well I heard him correctly. His price was comically inflated, almost 300% more than the normal price for the short taxi ride.

“Why so much?” I asked putting as much stern tone into my Mongolian as I could muster.

He finally looked back at me, sizing me up with a stony glare. “Because you’re a foreigner.” he scoffed shaking his empty hand in front of me. “You’re different.”

With one hand on the door handle I slapped down the bill closest to what I thought was a fair price, staring down my dishonest cabbie as I did so, swinging open the door and slamming it behind me, moving quickly away from the car into the Ulaanbaatar night.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Two years of living and moving abroad will teach you that not every national is welcome and open to you exploring their country. Some seek out your bright eyed optimism for a new place and a new culture, they take advantage of your open mind and unfamiliarity with the host country to get into your head and ultimately your wallet.

Hundreds of miles and a summer later, me and a travel companion, Jessica stood staring at a poster in a Beijing hostel. “Watch Out For These Scams” the poster toted. Everything from brazen pickpocketing to elaborate schemes were highlighted. One of the more convoluted being where mock college students approach you inviting you to practice English with them. They take you to a local tea house, rack up an enormous tab, you’re forced to pay the bill, leaving you broke and confused while the would be students and tea house owner cackle in the back room, divvying up your cash.

Later, not five blocks from our hostel we stood alone at a street corner waiting for the crosswalk to blink green.

“Hey there!”

We spun around to meet our greeters. A young Chinese couple had materialized right behind us.

“Where are you guys from?” the hip girl, in her denim skirt and slouched hat asked.

“America.” We both answered slowly.

“That’s cool.” The boy said with a smirk, his tone precise and practiced. He covered this up by burying his hands deep into his cargo short pockets and relaxing his posture. His laid back attitude suggesting he used the slang “cool” all the time.

“We study at university.” the girl chimed in, hoisting her purse up on her shoulder. “We would really like to improve our English.”

The boy nodded in agreement. “If you’re not busy would you come have a conversation with us?” He took his hands from his pockets and pointed across the street. “We could go have a cup of tea and just chat.”

Now it was mine and Jessica’s turn to smirk. AH HA! I wanted to scream, we’re on to you sneaky kids! Instead we politely declined and thankfully removed ourselves from the conversation as the light finally changed. Still, I felt as though I had just thwarted a world class high stakes heist.

Hours later, we stopped for a bite to eat at a street side restaurant. As we dug into our meat and rice Jessica let out a laugh and pointed out the window with a chopstick. “Look!” she said with a chuckle. Sure enough, there was our hip college couple, working a corner, hurriedly following every non-ethnic Chinese person down the sidewalk in hopes of “practicing” their English.

The streets of Beijing, China.
The streets of Beijing, China.

Hundreds of more miles and that same summer me and Jessica stood on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal in the far east of Russia. As we exited the mess hall after a dinner of fish and borsht we were cut off by two youths.

“Excuse me.” A tall dark haired boy said. “My name’s Peter, do you two speak English?”

We both admitted that we did.

“I help at a summer camp on the island. Students come to learn foreign languages.” His smaller brown haired and blue eyed companion just nodded, letting his older friend do the talking.

“Our assignment is to find foreigners to come and speak with us.”

Me and Jessica exchanged skeptical glances.

“If you aren’t busy could you meet with us later and help us practice our English?” He looked at us expectantly, his shorter friend just smiling up and listening.

Put on the spot I stumbled around in my head trying to think of an excuse why we couldn’t comply with the seemingly innocent request. As I struggled to think of a way out I eyed up Peter and his side kick. He brushed his black hair back with his hand, nervously waiting for us to answer. They seemed different. Innocent. Genuine. I glanced sidelong at my companion, pleading with my eyes for a valid excuse. She just shrugged at me.

“I guess we could go to your class.” I answered, defeated.

Peter’s face lit up and his short companion finally broke his silence with a smile, “Thank you very much!”

“Please meet us here at 8 o’clock.” Peter added, then with a wave they both trudged off down the path.

 

Guest House on Olkhon Island
Guest House on Olkhon Island

Between dinner and our 8 o’clock appointment me and Jessica wrestled with actually showing up. Was it all an elaborate ruse? We’d seen and heard of a lot of travel scams, were we about to fall prey to one? It all smelled too familiar, could it be a twist on the trick we averted in China? In the end we remained true to our word and showed up at 8 o’clock in front of the mess hall. Peter was there, nervously combing back his hair with his hand. When he saw us a smile cracked across his lips.

“Thank you for coming.” he said, relaxing his hand from his jet black hair. “Please follow me.”

I looked around. “Where are your students?” I asked warily.

“Hmmm” he put his finger to his lips, considering, choosing words. “We will go to them.” He nodded assuringly, “They are waiting.” He gestured forward with his hand, suggesting we begin walking.

Olkhon, Russia
Olkhon, Russia

Nervously I fell into step behind Peter, shooting Jessica a guarded look. We moved away from the guest house. Passed the outdoor gazebos and hangouts of the other visiting tourists. We weaved through the tiny wooden housed town of Olkhon. Finally, we funneled between derelict fences that separated the local people’s small yards. Onto a wooden foot path so narrow we were almost walking heel to toe. As Peter moved farther ahead I became more nervous. In the tight space between the fences I felt vulnerable. My imagination went wild, a trap door suddenly opening beneath us, swallowing us into the realm of “Two Missing American Tourists”. An enormous burly Russian man suddenly blocking my path, picking me up and shaking me by the ankles until all my Russian rubles, American check cards, and photo IDs came tumbling from my pockets.

Right when I was about to object to walking further we stepped out of the corridor into open ground. Along the cliff shores of Lake Baikal blankets were laid out upon the wild grass. Children of all ages crowded around the blue cloth, their eyes wide with curiosity as we approached.

The shore of Lake Baikal
The shore of Lake Baikal

As we knelt on the blankets the kids erupted with questions and chatter. “I’m Katya.” A little girl with long blond hair said. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Justin.” I introduced myself.

“What’s your favorite animal?” she asked, ruffling her checkered dress with her hands as she spoke.

“Hmmm..” I tapped my lips pretending to consider. “I like penguins.” I answered.

“Penguins!?!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

“Do you like action movies?” A little boy asked. Sitting cross legged in black parachute pants, his clothing rustled as he shifted on the blanket.

Trying to think of a likely movie we’d both seen I nodded. “I like the Lord of the Rings movies.”

His face lit up and he sprang from his sitting position into a crouched squat, his swishing pants announcing the theatrics.

“Precious! My precious!” he growled, holding up an unseen treasure. His Golum impression was startlingly convincing.

As the sun set behind us over the glassy sheen of Lake Baikal and into the eastern mountains of Siberia we talked with the students. Laughing, sharing interests and disinterests, talking about life in America and life in Russia, where we’ve traveled and where we want to travel. As darkness threatened, the children reluctantly said goodbye and crowded around us for a photo. Peter crouched with the camera, lining up the shot and brushing back his hair before snapping the picture.

Sunset, Lake Baikal
Sunset, Lake Baikal

The lesson all this has taught me is to have some faith in people while traveling. Negative experiences with no-do-gooders can drive us into paranoid reclusion. We end up trusting no one and labeling some of the most spectacular corners of our planet unsafe and unwelcoming for the foreign traveler. By no means am I saying to meander about throwing caution to the wind and jaunting across countries care free. Absolutely stay vigilant and be aware of what to look out for.

Traveling is inherently risky, it’s part of what makes it so liberating and fulfilling. Trusting only in yourself or your TripAdvisor approved tour guide could lead you to miss out on some of the most precious and rewarding experiences of exploring the world. Give people a chance to prove that they can be as genuine and hospitable as you want them to be. The small connections you make in this way could end up being the most memorable moments of your whole trip.

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Categories: Russia, Travel Insight, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

A Nomad’s Paradise: Ulaanbaatar

Imagine two worlds.

One of nomadic herdsmen, living in sheep felt gers (yurts), fetching water from wells, going from place to place via horseback.  Another of smartphones, slick cars, six inch high heels, and glass skyscrapers.  Smash these two places together and you get Mongolia’s eclectic capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The Blue Sky Tower dominates the southern end of Sukhbaatar Square
The Blue Sky Tower dominates the southern end of Sukhbaatar Square

With its delightfully Soviet translation “Red Hero” Ulaanbaatar has been experiencing a boom in recent years.  Mongolia’s natural resources and precious minerals have been targeted by the developing nations of the world propelling this small corner of central Asia into economic progression.

The city, which serves as the only nexus for getting around the rest of the country has been funneling this newfound cash flow into expansion.  Ulaanbaatar has exploded outwards and upwards.  Crystalline hotels dot the skyline, chic restaurants line the streets, and neon nightclubs illuminate sidewalks.

Ulaanbaatar’s recent prosperity coupled with economic hardship outside of the capital has sent the majority of the country’s populous migrating to the city.  Generations of nomadic herdsmen flock to the capital hoping to cash in on the city’s wealth.  The result is thousands of ger districts that ring the city’s center.  Families living off the grid of the city’s heating and plumbing live as they have for centuries.  Setting up their felt and wooden dwellings within a network of hodgepodge wood fencing they burn fires for warmth, wash clothes by hand, and tend livestock.

Do your lungs a favor and steer clear of Ulaanbaatar during the country’s bitterly cold winter months.  The burning of coal by these thousands of outlying gers for warmth envelopes the city in perpetual smog for over four months a year.  Be prepared to cough up black soot and bumble about through the haze searching for your hand in front of your face.

Sukhbaatar Square
Sukhbaatar Square

In Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s epicenter and government seat you can watch as suit wearing politicians meander about with briefcases in hand and smartphones to their ears.  Watch as they skirt past men sitting by the sidewalk dressed in deels, the Mongolian traditional robed garb, sipping milk tea from bowls and polishing their riding boots.  Just across the street you can see women in skirts and heels, lining up to get into a nightclub, gradually queuing around a women selling meat from the back of her car.

To the western traveler it can be totally justified standing in the middle of this hustle and bustle, scratching your head in wonder of a city that seems unsure of exactly what it wants to be.  For all its grit and glamour Ulaanbaatar continues to define itself as a modern capital, blending the old and the new into a cultural mish-mash worthy of any travelers eye for a far flung destination.

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Ulaanbaatar

 

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5 Tips to Visiting Dead Communists

The notorious communist leaders, Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin have been famously put on display to the public since their deaths in 1976 and 1924 respectively.  You may think you can wander into these memorials all willy-nilly but here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Go early.

All told the actual viewing of both Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin takes less than five minutes. Guards keep the lines moving at a steady pace and the volume of visitors means that pace is quick. Do yourself a favor and don’t waste your whole day in the massive lines that inevitably form. I’m sure both communist leaders would be flattered by your dedication, but just don’t.

Mao’s Mausoleum is open from 8:00am to 12:00pm from Tuesday to Sunday. Its closed on “special occasions” so try to do a walk by of the mausoleum prior to your initial visit to see when those occasions actually are.  Tiananmen Square can only be accessed via underground tunnels to the north, south, east, and west.  Each of these also contains a security checkpoint.

Lenin’s Mausoleum is open from 10:00am to 1:00pm. It is closed on Mondays and Fridays. The line forms a short distance away on the western side of the State Historical Museum.

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Tiananmen Square from the north tunnel entrance. Mao’s Mausoleum is in the far background.

2. Dress appropriately

You don’t need to be done up in funeral digs, but leave your Chaco sandals and cut off jean shorts in your suitcase. Generally speaking you could get by with any pants/shirt combo. At Mao’s Mausoleum there is a dress code of no open toed shoes or the seemingly Asian fashion of wearing only a vest as a top. At both locations it is expected that you remove your hat upon entering the memorials.

Lenin's Mausoleum

Lenin’s Mausoleum

3. Pack light….or not at all.

As no bags are allowed in either memorial I found it best to make my visits between going to and from the hostel I stayed at. At both mausoleums you can stow your bag in onsite lockers, but that’s an extra line to stand in and extra money to spend. Items prohibited in the memorials include: handbags, backpack, any form of recording or picture taking device, food and drink.

Mao’s Mausoleum has onsite lockers located in a room just to left of the metal detectors. A guard will help you deposit belongings there.

Lenin’s Mausoleum has locker space on the western side of the State Historical Museum. Employees there will take your luggage and present you with a numbered card for pickup after viewing the memorial. Lines for pickup form to the left, lines for drop off to the right. Don’t get confused like I did.

State Historical Museum.  The line for Lenin's Mausoleum is to the far left.

State Historical Museum. The line for Lenin’s Mausoleum is to the far left.

4. Be respectful

This one kind of goes without saying but I can see how people’s political leanings or historical knowledge can make someone come out with their opinions of the two controversial leaders. Leave all that stuff at the door. Watching the reaction of locals is a great way to get cultural insight on where you are. Take this opportunity to take it all in and save those thoughts for the communal hostel kitchen.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

5. Get there while you can!

While Mao’s interment seems to be permanent for the time being the fate of Lenin’s remains seems more turbulent. There has been talk within the Russian government of finally burying Lenin’s body in St. Petersburg as he had requested. Recent polls taken have revealed that the majority of Russians favor the mausoleum being dismantled and Lenin being buried. Having the opportunity to see the world famous Bolshevik may soon become a thing of the past.

 

Check out my detailed experiences at both Lenin’s Mausoleum here, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong here.

 

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