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Wince, moan, gag, repeat: How to haggle in China

Houston Rockets player Tracy McGrady negotiates the price of cloth with a stall holder after a visit to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, north of Beijing Friday Oct. 15, 2004.

Associated Press

Sometimes things don't go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

I am standing in front of a street vendor at the Great Wall trying not to lose my patience.

I have some items lined up: small stuffed pandas, postcards, Chinese purses, Great Wall T-shirts and a package of silk placemats with matching chopsticks.

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"Duo shao?" I ask her, meaning how much.

The vendor, a small but ferocious woman, pounds some buttons on her calculator then turns it around to show me. It reads 480, as in yuan. That's around $76 Canadian. It's a ridiculous amount and 10 times the price she should be offering but it also gives me an idea of the hardball game she's playing.

Welcome to the Great Wall of China, where some of the world's toughest vendors will try to break you down with their bargaining skills. During my four visits there, I've been grabbed, yelled at and had vendors block my path when I tried to walk away.

I've bargained with street vendors throughout India, Thailand, Hong Kong and China, but when it comes to aggressiveness, nobody beats the hawkers I've encountered at the Great Wall, especially at the Mutianyu entrance.

They're tough, but they've also helped me hone my bargaining skills, which is what I'm doing now with my vendor friend. I shake my head at her and counter her offer.

"Ba shi yuan," I say, which is about $13 Canadian. She makes a face like she's going to vomit.

"You killing me lady," she yells, punching buttons on her calculator. She drops her price to 360 yuan, which is still too high.

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We play the game several more times, with me wincing at her offer and her at mine. Finally, when she hasn't dropped the price low enough, I shake my head and walk away.

She grabs my arm and tries to pull me back. I pry her hand off me to show her I mean business, so she tries a different approach.

"You daughter very beautiful," she says, smiling at my then six-year-old daughter who I adopted from China. I keep walking.

"Okay, okay, lady, here," she says, punching in 250. That's around $40, still too much.

We barter some more until I finally agree on 200 yuan, about $30. I know I should go lower but my daughter is getting fed up. I give her the money and she bags the items. All except the pandas.

She smiles and shows me her calculator. It reads 35 yuan, around $7.

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"No way," I say. "Those were included in the price."

She winces again. I made the mistake of already giving her the money. She won. I pay her, grab the pandas and walk away. Another lesson learned.

Share your 500-word travel adventure with us. Please send it to travel@globeandmail.com.

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