Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Friday, Jan 6, is what Jennifer and I called Weird Food Day, before we realized that given our location the food wasn't all that weird. Breakfast at the hostel was fairly standard, fried eggs and toast and fruit, although it also included a stick of deep-fried chicken. (?) Afterwards, we set out for the big discount-shopping area (if that's not redundant in China), Wangfujing, recommended by Ada. On the way there we meandered along a street called, I think, Meishuguan Houjie, which narrowed into a crazy alley jammed with little shops and people and steamed-dumpling windows. Suddenly there was a traffic jam. Someone had road rage! A bus was trying to turn or get past some parked cars - nothing could move. Considering the size of the streets, this must happen all the time. We'd been told that Chinese people love a good argument, and man, they sure seemed to. Everyone walking, shopping or working on that street, including about a dozen white-jacketed cooks at one restaurant, stopped what they were doing and stood on the sidewalks to watch these two drivers yell at each other. Everyone, including the two guys fighting, appeared to be having a great time. We stood there watching, along with the other hundred people or whatever on this block, for probably fifteen minutes until the argument magically ended and the line of cars snaked its way down the alley. It was such a cool scene, and I wanted to take a picture but was worried I'd look like some kind of evil soul-thief. Now I really wish I had.

Besides arguing loudly, the other thing Beijing people love to do on the streets is spit. Constantly, with vigor and substance. There are NO SPITTING signs all over the place and they're about as effective as the NO SMOKING ones. (The cafe attached to the hostel is gray with smoke at 8 in the morning.) Someone told me everyone smokes in Beijing because at least that way the air is being filtered. The spitting probably has a similar source. It's pretty cool to see a little old beret-wearing dude on a vegetable-laden bicycle from 1957 riding nonchalantly down the street and then suddenly hawk a fat lugey right in front of you. I don't remember seeing any ladies do it, but maybe they keep their spitting more private. Preserve the mystique and all.

Anyway. We went into a tea shop, where we sampled a whole bunch of tea in little dixie cups and bought a couple of packets. Jasmine and Oolong. This was my first glimpse at the Chinese style of commerce, which is to have six or seven employees per potential customer at all times. The second you walk into a shop, and usually well before that, a shop employee quietly attaches herself to your elbow. She doesn't necessarily say anything, she just follows you around, and you cannot ditch her. Those who are less shy or speak more English might try to guide you toward a certain item, but mainly they're just there in case you need anything. The only place this didn't happen was at record/dvd stores. In one shopping center that day we found a DVD shop with all kinds of stuff for ridiculous prices, and lots of things you couldn't even get over here. I bought a copy of "Infernal Affairs" (starring my boyfriend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) for 13 yuan -- less than two dollars. Of course it might not work -- I haven't checked yet -- but you'd pay more than that for a souvenir coaster in Stockholm.

The main thing you hear while walking down a busy shopping street or any tourist attraction in Beijing, if you look like us, is "Hello lady!" Variations include "Hello haircut," "Hello postcard" and "Hello silk." This is usually followed by "How much" and "Cheaper for you!" If they are old guys and not trying to sell you anything, then it's just "Hello" with a big grin and it's adorable. But we could've had fifteen haircuts that day, given sufficient time. Probably should've.

After some shopping we got hungry, so we strolled down the Wangfujing "food street," this skinny back-alley that's been a pedestrianized snackway forever. I should mention here that Jennifer's main thing is researching food as an expression of culture. So she's automatically curious. After some hemming and hawing we went up to one of the stands that offered -- uh-huh -- bugs on sticks. To eat. There were fat beetly bugs in two sizes (discouraging and really discouraging), plus scorpions, seahorses and assorted guts. Each critter was impaled on a skewer, looking enticing, as you can imagine. We selected a seahorse, a scorpion and one of the slightly-less-fat bugs. The chefs rolled them in spices and slapped 'em on the grill, where they popped and sizzled and had to be squashed frequently with a special squashing tool they had. There was a lot of giggling: us at each other, them at us, passersby at the whole scene. Finally, the "food" was "cooked" so we paid and took it away. Jennifer actually ate some of it, I have photos for proof. I couldn't do it. But we both agreed that if you'd been out drinking, these would make excellent after-bar snacks.

We needed beer right away, especially Jennifer. So we headed to a place we'd seen earlier that said "food court." We ended up eating noodles and drinking gigantic bottles of Yinjiang beer at the mall. Sounds odd but the noodles were incredible, the guy hand-made them in front of us, and they came in a bowl as big as my apartment and cost One Dollar (8 yuan). They were in this delicious broth with some green things and some pieces of "chicken," although each time I picked up a hunk of the chicken I thought, 'I grew up on a farm, and there is no part of a chicken that is shaped like this.' But it tasted great.

Later that night, we wandered down our alleyway and saw a cute boy cooking meat on sticks at an outdoor grill window. Jennifer asked for some grilled beef on a stick. Pretty soon, out came a guy from inside the attached restaurant, carrying her raw beef stick to be grilled. "Wait!" she screeched, suddenly horrified. "That's guts! Organs! Intestines! No, I don't want intestines." They took the rejection pretty well, although they seemed kind of like, 'What's wrong with guts? Everybody else is eating them.' Considering the day she'd had, I can't say I blame her.

We retreated to the Passby for beer and pizza.

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