Negotiating on the Plateau.

I was talking to a friend the other night when I remembered my first successful attempt to negotiate Chinese style.

I had been in China for nearly a year and could speak Mandarin fine at that point. A friend and I decided to get out of the overwhelming heat and humidity of Chongqing by catching the bus to Hongyuan. That’s right, I said “the” bus. There was only one.

Hongyuan was a gorgeous Tibetan village on the northwestern sector of Sichuan province. It sat on a huge plateau and consisted primarily of herders and monks. There was a beautiful monestary up there, and we took a trip to the countryside with a guy who knew some herders. We sat in their yurt and drank tea that was half goat’s milk.

After one full day and two nights, we decided to head back. Although Hongyuan was absolutely beautiful, it was a tiny village with few things to do or see once you had drank some goat’s milk tea and burned incense at the large, cold, drafty monestary. It was rainy and cold, which was a welcome reprieve from Chongqing, but the lack of heaters or furnaces made it uncomfortable.

The trip up to Hongyuan had been on a bus that had six spare tires strapped to the top. It was scheduled for 9 hours. It took 18, involved four tire changes, and was stalled at one point when we got to the top of a mountain to discover an accident between a small Volkeswagen and a large bus coming from somewhere else on the plateau. We had to climb off the bus to let it drive around the accident, because there were no guardrails at the edge of the road. There was also no shoulder: just a 75 foot drop straight down. The other side of the road was a wall.

The bus made it around the accident site, but one of the double tires on the back was hanging over the edge. It was an impressive drive and a breathtaking trip.

The negotiating began on the morning we were set to leave. The bus came through town roughly every two days. We did not want to stay an extra two days, so we were on the packed bus, ready to go, when the ticket-woman spotted me sitting in the back trying to look inconspicuous.

“You must pay 400 RMB” she said in Chinese. This was robbery. I was an English teacher. I didn’t have 400 RMB with me, nor did I have access to it. The ticket up had cost 40 RMB. In fact, the ticket back down had cost everyone else on the bus 40 RMB.

Needless to say, an argument ensued. She eventually came down to 200 RMB, but was unwilling to budge any further on the price. I believe someone had told her I had enough money.

Just as she was about to have the driver stop the bus at the edge of town to let me off to think about my misfortune for two days, the wheel blew. While they changed the wheel, the argument ran out of steam.

As I sat there trying to think of a way out of this, the answer became clear. I told my friend, who was Chinese but not a very good negotiator and not much help in this instance, to let me climb out the window. The bus was standing room only and I didn’t want to get off through the front door because I didn’t want to get into another conversation with the ticket-woman.

I went to the refreshment store across from the road where the bus was parked and bought a dozen bottles of Mountain City beer. Each bottle was one litre. It was about 10am at the time. I walked back to the bus to the ticket-woman and stepped into the front.

“Who wants beer?!!” I yelled in Mandarin.

The Tibetan herders couldn’t speak really good Mandarin, but they knew what I was up to. For the next half hour we drank and pieced together conversations about each others’ cultures. By the time the tire was repaired, the beer was gone and I had learned a few Tibetan plateau drinking songs. When the argument started up again, I had a whole bus on my side. I told the ticket-woman to be fair, and that for her graciousness I would be willing to pay her 60 RMB instead of 40. I got what I wanted.

I didn’t get 40 for a price, but the herders that rode all the time were going to be spending more cash over the course of their lives than I would, and she knew that. I think by the time we pulled into Chongqing only 12 hours later, I had earned just a little bit of respect.

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