Monthly Archives: September 2014

Wangfujing Critter Market

Wangfujing is a popular shopping district in central Beijing. One day, Katie and I were walking along Wangfujing's main street with Brendan, a friend from home. We found an alley that turned out to be the famous “critter market.” This place looked like it was designed intentionally to gross people out with its strange foods and beverages for sale. It proved to be a fun experience.

Here are some photos:

Picture of crowd.

The main pedestrian avenue in Wangfujing is full of fast food restaurants and modern shopping malls. And of course, construction cranes.

Picture of crowd.

We found a crowded alley and shuffled forward.

Picture of critters.

Movement caught the corner of my eye. This man was completing a bouquet of seahorses and scorpions on sticks. The scorpions' legs and stingers twitched under the bright overhead lights.

Picture of scorpions.

The vendor was a showman. He allowed the scorpions to crawl on his hand. Katie was disgusted. From behind the lens, I was saddened.

Picture of Brendan.

“No way I'm eating live scorpions!” Brendan said.

Picture of crowd.

Eventually the showman convinced us to buy a stick. The scorpions were deep-fried. They tasted like bacon.

Picture of crowd.

I also bought some cicadas. Crunchy on the outside, squishy in the middle.

Picture of vendors.

There were many more vendors in the alley, selling all sorts of tasty meats.

Picture of cocktail.

Katie washed her meal down with a delicious dry-ice cocktail.

Picture of trio.

Brendan, me and Katie, going strong after our interesting dinner.

More photos from Wangfujing

No Guts, No Story

Picture of Katie.

Katie eats a dumpling.

“You hungry?” I asked my girlfriend Katie. It was Sunday afternoon, and I was starving.

“I could eat,” she said. “What did you have in mind?”

“Let's find a cheap local place. I'm sick of eating pizza and burgers.” Three weeks prior, we had moved from the US to a suburb of Beijing, China. Katie's new co-workers had introduced us to several Western restaurants. Their food was good, but expensive. I wanted to find a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, somewhere I could stop for a quick meal whenever I was hungry.

An idea popped into my head. “Let's get on bus twenty-six, see where it takes us.” There were no maps at the bus stops, and the routes were only printed in Chinese characters, which we couldn't read. The best way to figure out where the buses went was simply to hop aboard.

We walked to the bus stop, and bus 26 quickly arrived. It took us a few miles west, then stopped. Our driver said something in Mandarin that we didn't understand, and the other passengers stood up.

“Looks like this is the end of the line,” I said. We got off, along with everyone else, and the bus did a u-turn and headed back toward our neighborhood.

We were on a dusty road, near a major highway, and few people were walking around. Nevertheless, there were several small shops on the opposite side of the road. We ran across, dodging traffic, and peered into the windows. We found a restaurant and walked inside. The place was empty.

We took a seat and looked at the wall, where the menu, written entirely in Chinese characters, was posted. I had been in this situation once before. That time, I had pointed at a random item, and it had turned out to be a delicious noodle dish. But we wouldn't need to employ the “point-and-pray” technique this time: hanging on the wall next to the menu were four blurry, pixelated photographs of food.

The waitress came up to us and lingered while we decided what to order.

“That one looks good,” I said encouragingly, pointing at a photo of a plate of noodles and vegetables.

“No way,” Katie said. “I think those are chicken feet.” She pointed at the side of the bowl.

The photo was of such low quality, I hadn't noticed. I squinted and said, “Maybe they're pitchfork-shaped noodles. With claws.”

“I don't think so. Let's get something else.” Katie had been battling a stomach bug for the past few days. Chicken feet are a delicacy in China and we would try them eventually, but today we would have to opt for something bland.

While we were talking, two teenaged boys came in, sat down and got the waitress's attention. They quickly placed their order and the waitress went into the kitchen.

“All right, let's try that one,” I said. The photo I was looking at was of a bowl of soup. Something resembling chunks of meat were floating in it.

“Fine, but we should try this beef dish, too.”

When the waitress returned, we ordered both dishes and two bottles of beer. A few minutes later, the waitress brought our beers and a plate of cold roast beef, covered in cilantro. The portion was small, but delicious. We toasted our luck in finding such a delectable dish, in a country where we couldn't speak – or even read – the language. We were ready for more.

The soup came next. It contained several cloves of garlic and a few green beans, but it was mostly filled with shriveled lumps of...something.

“Are those mushrooms?” Katie asked.

“I don't think so.” The soup had a distinct odor that I couldn't quite place. I grabbed a “mushroom” with my chopsticks and put it into my mouth. It didn't have much flavor, but its chewy texture made me want to spit it out. I tried, unsuccessfully, to tear the “mushroom” with my teeth. I took a swig of beer and swallowed it whole.

Picture of lunch.

“Well? What is it?”

Finally I recalled eating menudo in Mexico, many years before. “Cow guts,” I said, matter-of-factly.

Katie pinched a clove of garlic in her chopsticks and ate it. Then she dug around the guts and came up with a green been. She didn't say anything about the elephant in the room.

The waitress brought out two bowls of noodles for the teenagers. I didn't see anything resembling intestines in their meals. I wondered why we hadn't simply asked for the same thing they were having. Maybe we weren't so travel-savvy, after all.

Returning to the task at hand, I popped an intestinal chunk into my mouth. I figured this dish was a delicacy in China and I didn't want to offend the wait staff. But there were at least thirty pieces left and I didn't think I could take much more. I took a big gulp of beer and forced the second piece down my throat. If I kept this up, soon there would be an undigested pile of guts flowing through my guts. “Aren't you going to try some?” I asked.

“I don't think so.”

“Come on, you have to help me. Eat your guts.”

Katie cringed. “All right, I'll try one.” She tentatively grabbed a piece and started chewing.

Our waitress sat at the table behind Katie and played with her cellphone.

I took out my phone and looked up the Chinese character for “intestine.” Sure enough, it matched one of the characters on the soup photo. Then I turned my attention to the menu. Most of the dishes cost 10-12 yuan. Now I saw that our tiny roast beef dish cost 40 yuan. Our intestine soup was 38 yuan.

The teenagers stood up and one of them threw a twenty-yuan note on the table. They snickered at the sight of Katie, grimacing as she chewed, and left.

Katie swallowed the rubbery chunk, then followed it with a long draught of beer. “Where's a stray dog when you need one?” she asked.

“Eat your guts,” I said.

“I can't handle more.”

“Look, we just ordered the two most expensive items on the menu. Let's get our money's worth.”

“That figures. We should've known they would only take photos of their specialties.”

I chewed another piece of intestine and tried to imagine it was a juicy steak. It didn't work. I was done.

Katie asked the waitress for the bill. Then she said to me, “Look on the bright side. You could write about this in your blog. We wouldn't have had this experience if we had ordered pizza.”

Over the past few days, she had encouraged me to blog about everything we had done. Apparently I hadn't been updating my website enough for her taste. This time, she was right. No guts, no story.

Beijing Hutongs, Part 1

Hutongs are northern China's traditional back alley neighborhoods. Their houses are small; their bathrooms are shared. They typically have communal central courtyards. Some hutongs date back to the Ming dynasty of the fifteenth century. In recent decades, many hutongs have been demolished to make way for highrise towers and wide avenues. Only a few have been protected from modern development.

One day while walking around central Beijing, I stumbled upon Jiaochangkou Hutong and got my first brief glimpse of Old China. About a week later, I walked through Wudaoying Hutong. Here are some photos from those experiences:

Picture of woman.

An elderly woman is pushed through an alley in Jiaochangkou Hutong.

Picture of vendor.

Fruit vendors abound on the quiet, narrow streets.

Picture of people.

The alleys form a maze in which it's easy to get lost.

Picture of card game.

An intense card game happens next to a fresh load of beer. The men will continue to slam their cards on the table and shout for hours to come.

Picture of old men on bikes.

Old men ride bikes past an ice cream vendor. Squeaky brakes are easily audible in the car-free streets.

Picture of crumbling house.

Many buildings are crumbling. Will they be restored, or will yet another office tower soon sit on this valuable piece of property?

Picture of hutong.

The hutong from above, surrounded by central Beijing.

Picture of people walking.

Wudaoying, located close to the famous Lama Temple, is a hip hutong, full of trendy cafes and bars.

Picture of table tennis.

Men play table tennis in a public park.

Picture of men.

A man sits outside, writing and drinking his second beer while others have long conversations indoors.

Picture of gate.

A large gate welcomes visitors to this restored neighborhood.

Beijing Pollution, Construction and Migration

Picture of street food.

Cactus for sale, central Beijing.

August 2 - 10, 2014
Days 15 - 23

Things were slow-going during Katie's and my first week in Beijing. One day we got cellphones. Another day we went to Ikea and bought some dishes, furniture and other odds and ends for our apartment. Another day we went to a government office and got health checks, which were required for our long-term visas. Some of the “tests” seemed superfluous (height and weight check) and others were downright ridiculous (an “eye” exam where we had to read some of the biggest letters on the chart and a “hearing” exam where they simply shined a flashlight into our ears), but I think those tests were only done to distract us from what the government actually cared about – the blood test. Apparently, foreigners with HIV, or any other infectious blood-borne diseases, are immediately deported. While standing in long lines for several hours in a dreary government building, it occurred to me that I really was in a communist country.

On our third day we took the subway into the city. It was only then that we realized just how far from downtown Houshayu is. The Beijing metropolitan area is arranged in six concentric circles, where Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City are the “First Ring.” Just traveling from our apartment (near the Sixth Ring) to the Fifth Ring took an hour and a half. Getting to the center by train takes well over two hours. The last train of the day leaves at 10:50 p.m., so if we want to stay out later, we have to either take a taxi home, find somewhere to sleep in the city or wait until the trains start running again at 5 a.m. One good thing about the subway system is that it's constantly being expanded. By the end of the year, the line we live near will be extended by several stops, bringing the number of trains we have to take to get downtown from four to two. This should make our trips into the city much quicker.

It's amazing to think how quickly this city has grown. I met one woman who lived here in 1989. She told me that at the time, the Third Ring was the outskirts. Taxi drivers refused to go beyond it. Wolves were occasionally spotted in the nearby forests. Even Katie's Beijing guidebook, which was published nine years ago, shows the Fourth Ring as the edge of the city, and it only lists a couple of the central subway lines. Now, the Third Ring is downtown. Thirty-story highrises encompass it, and far beyond. The core of the city ends at the Fifth Ring, but a large population (including Katie and me) has spilled beyond even its reaches.

I'm likely witnessing the tail end of the largest rural-urban migration in human history. According to some estimates, since 1979 over 440 million people in China have left small villages, often where their families have lived for centuries, for a chance at the “good life” in the big cities. I say “tail end” because I don't think this migration can continue much longer. Beijing, at least, is becoming too expensive for unskilled laborers. To cut costs, factories are starting to move out of the city. On top of that, the government has finally started to recognize the pollution problem; it has forcibly moved some factories to less-populated areas. It would have been fascinating to see Beijing two decades ago and compare it with today, but I still think I'm here at an important period of rapid modernization. (Not that I'm an expert – this is just stuff I've been reading and hearing about since moving here.)

Picture of construction.

Beijing construction.

Beijing's extreme air pollution has come up in almost every conversation I have had here. During our first week the sky was constantly smoggy. Then one day it rained, and for the next few days, we experienced beautiful blue skies. Ever since then, I've always welcomed rain, knowing that it would give a respite of a day or two from the pollution. People often mention the Air Pollution Index, an official measurement of pollution levels. An index of 50 or lower is considered safe; 300 is hazardous – everyone is advised to stay indoors. Lately Beijing's index has hovered around 100, higher than I had ever experienced in Madison, WI, but still not particularly dangerous for healthy people. In theory, the scale maxes out at 500, but two winters ago, the air quality got so bad, it became impossible to accurately measure. Unofficially, the highest level recorded in Beijing was 755, on January 12, 2013. People who were living here at the time have told me that if you were sitting on a park bench, you could barely even see the other side of the bench. Not that anyone would willingly spend time outside in those conditions. That winter most teachers at Katie's school got bronchitis, and a few got pneumonia. Even though the index is relatively low right now, I've almost constantly had a cough since moving to Beijing. With the aforementioned relocation of some factories, maybe the pollution won't ever break the scale again, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

(The numbers I have quoted are based on the US government's measurements. The Chinese government uses a different methodology to measure pollution. The article I link to below has more info on this discrepancy.)

Construction is everywhere in Beijing, including right outside of my bedroom window. One day the dirt lawn in front of our apartment was sodded. Another day the workers brought in trees and shrubbery. The main courtyard was cemented, then bricked. The result looks really nice.

The construction workers on campus have been the subject of many discussions. It was difficult to sleep in our cozy, air-conditioned apartments, knowing that the workers were just outside, toiling from dawn till dusk, cooking eggs for dinner on an electric wok and sleeping under a tarp in August's extreme heat and humidity. One day, while Katie and I were walking home, the workers invited us to share their dinner, an act of generosity we couldn't possibly comprehend, let alone accept. We wanted to throw them a party, or do something to show our gratitude for their hard work, but we were told that this would go against Chinese culture, and could even be construed as insulting. These guys had a job to do, and they were doing it well. They didn't need anything from us, or so the logic went.

Picture of Rome Lake Restaurant.

A nice restaurant on Rome Lake, in Houshayu.

Pollution notwithstanding, I'm really enjoying my stay in Beijing. I love walking around this city – everything I see here fascinates me. I've got a few blog ideas about specific places, so stay tuned.

Houshayu may be far from the city center, but it still has everything I need for day-to-day existence. There are multiple fruit and vegetable stands within walking distance of the school. There's even a lake in our backyard, with several nice restaurants along the shore. There's also a Wu-Mart (Wal-Mart knockoff), McDonald's, Burger King and Starbucks for close-to-home comfort (although a small cup of regular coffee at Starbucks costs $3). The school has been challenging for Katie, but overall I think she's enjoying her new job. We picked a really great place to spend the next two years.

More photos from Beijing

External Resources:
University of Washington study on urban migration in China
Video about factories moving out of Beijing
Differences in pollution reporting: China vs USA