So I cheated a little. I should get a t-shirt that says, “I climbed Tiger Leaping Gorge,” but with an asterisk noting that I took a 30 minute horse ride up the steepest part called the “28 bends.” I did make it about a quarter to a third way up the 28 bends before deciding to pay a Naxi local for the use of his horse for what could have been maybe 2 hours plus of uphill hiking. Maybe I should be proud that I bargained hard-core for the horse (I played the “student” card)?
When I reached peak at 2600 meters, a hobbit-like man charged 8RMB to people go out on this extended perch to take a photo of the gorgeous view. Now, it was free to look – such a tease – but just one photograph would cost you because he “made the path to the perch himself.” I doubt that he made the path himself, but even if he did, the land is public. I can’t figure out if this hobbit-man guarding his tourist-path is a clever chap or a cheat. Do you think I paid him or not?
On my second-day, I ended up hiking with an odd-collection of Asian people: a man from Shanghai, a Chinese mother-daughter pair, and a lone Korean girl. This group was so preoccupied with finding cheap transportation for the ride back to Lijiang that they ended up arguing for an hour at a rest-stop instead of actually continuing hiking.
What do the above three examples tell you about China?
The Chinese have a fantastic knack for monetizing (to use a Google Adsense term) everything. Identify a need and charge for it. Bathrooms? Internet? Napkins? Toilet Paper? Pay up.
Everything has a price and nothing is priceless. Want to bang the huge drum at the Drum Tower in Xi’an? Sure, 10RMB. Want to see a tigers attack and eat a cow at the zoo? Sure, 1400RMB.
And the result is a culture obsessed with comparative cost. It’s not really that much-criticized American consumer culture where people buy, buy, buy. Chinese people love to compare cost. It is: how much did you pay versus how much did I pay. The relative cost is much more important than the actual cost. As long as I got it cheaper than the next person, I can feel good. And this is built into a culture where prices are not fixed. You bargain everything.
Some people hate bargaining but one must admit that it is a luxury to have the knowledge that everything is negotiable. If you are at a restaurant and you like the tea cups, you probably can buy them if you ask. In America, you ask to buy a restaurant’s dishware and you might be thrown out.
So for kicks, here’s how I made out: I paid 40RMB for a horse compared to the standard 100RMB for white-people and 60 for non-white-people, so said my horse guide. I paid 5RMB compared to the 8RMB that my American companions paid to the hobbit-man, according to my ex-pat English teachers I met at the hostel. The Shanghai man said he paid 5RMB too. I ended up sticking with the Asian companions and paying 21RMB for a trip back to Lijiang compared to the 25RMB I paid going to Tiger Leaping Gorge.