Having never had anybody stamp their foot at me, I was at a loss to know what to do next. That’s one of the problems of having no common language as a trading tool – I didn’t speak Mandarin and he didn’t speak English.
For a moment there, on a gritty coal-dusted street in the ancient city of Pingyao, in the Chinese heartland of Shanxi Province, I was tempted to stamp my foot back at him.
But I was stopped by my wife, who grabbed my elbow and dragged me further down the street, saying impatiently: “You don’t need an antique fob watch.”
Well, that did the trick. It couldn’t have worked better if I had planned it. Any wizened Chinese trader worth his salt knows that as soon as a woman gets involved in the bargaining process, all bets are off.
The price had dropped from 600 yuan ($150) to 500, 400 and then 300 yuan. When he moved forward almost pleadingly, I shot a bid over my left shoulder as my right elbow was being firmly steered down the road. Two hundred yuan!
And that clinched it.
There was more stamping on the dusty cobblestones, along with an expression as though I had just purchased his first newborn son, before the trader gingerly handed over the antique Omega fob watch made in Switzerland in 1882, which had no doubt lay hidden in a Chinese merchant’s dusty bottom drawer for generations before being found and sold to me for the princely sum of $A50.
Later, I saw in a shopfront another very rustic looking fob watch which had also been made by Omega in Switzerland in 1882.
Pingyao was a treasure trove of antiques!
Much later, I went to the Omega website to gloat over my priceless purchase, only to discover that Omega as a Swiss watch brand didn’t exist until 1892. The watch I had bought was truly ahead of its time. And the Chinese trader was truly ahead of his game.
Fortunately, there’s more to Pingyao than wily traders.
The city is a living museum, with many of its buildings constructed from small bricks made from black clay removed from the coal-rich ground over centuries.
Pingyao’s impressive fortified wall, which was begun during the Zhou Dynasty (827-728BC) and completed during the Ming Dynasty, stretches for 6km around the well-preserved Han Chinese city, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
It’s a rabbit-warren of alleyways and narrow cobblestone roads, dirty with time and coal dust, family courtyards and around 3000 shops, many of their frontages a reflection of the city when it was a busy merchant centre during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
China’s earliest banks evolved in Pingyao, which in its heyday was the financial hub of China. The city’s fortunes waned, and it became a poor reflection of its former self, but that proved its saviour in the long run, because today it is one of China’s historical jewels in the crown – a time warp in which tourists can easily get lost.
In an attempt to help preserve the city, few motorised vehicles are allowed within its walls, with tourists ferried to small traditional Chinese hotels in electric buggies.
Donkey and cart is still used to deliver coal for heating and cooking in some of the less developed areas, and in the evening, the smell of coal cooking fires rises on the chill air.
While there’s plenty of “tourist trash” amongst the treasure trove of trinkets and souvenirs on display in the old shops, there’s also a reasonable selection of clothing and a fascinating cross-section of bric-a-brac, faded pictures, old books, bronze statues, old animal skins, People’s Army caps and memorabilia from China’s more recent communist past.
All Photos © Vincent Ross – All Rights Reserved