If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.
I agree with that quote 100%... Well... At least 94.4%.
On my last evening in Beijing, Casey and I took a visit to the Beijing Night Market. By now, I've been to my share of markets. Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Cairo, Amman... I've seen my share of dirty, shady street hawkers yelling at you from shabby little booths, jabbering away at you with the four words of English they know. Loud music, loud people, loud outfits, and even louder merchandise. Barely controlled, chaotic capitalism. No matter where you are or what you see, it's nothing if not entertaining.
Casey didn't say much about the market we were headed to, other than it didn't start until after 7:00, and its focus was on food (which he said with a smile). Now most of the markets I mentioned before have been attended under the security (mental, at least) of daylight, where salesmen were pushing pirated DVDs, cheap electronic parts, t-shirts or fake Rolexes. The food markets have been interesting at best. However, being in China, and based on Casey's attitude about it, I was looking forward to this one.
Just getting there was a challenge. Today marked the start of a five-day holiday for all of China - a holiday which is essentially their Fourth of July. It was incredible how many people were out (There were no Fireworks though, which was intriguing and disappointing, especially being in, well... China - isn't it the home of the Firework? And can "firework" be used singularly?). We headed up a packed pedestrian street called Wangfujing and clawed our way through the crowd.
At the end of the block we found some open space, and even a little breeze. We turned left and crossed the street, heading toward a block-long row of red and white covered tents I'd seen the other day. However, instead of a row of dormant kiosks, the scene was now a hive of activity. One lane of the six-ish lane street was cordoned off by steel barriers; the area in front of the kiosks now jam-packed with people jockeying for position. Even from this distance, I could smell it - a mixed set of scents wafting through the evening air.
We reached the barriers, and dove into the crowd. It was insane. People everywhere - starting, stopping, running, waving their hands around, talking on cell phones... It was like being in the middle of the concessions concourse at Arrowhead at halftime. We dodged and weaved our way through, running into a few, here, stepping on a few feet there. I noticed no one looked at Casey. He was able to blend right in. Of course, everyone in a 20 foot radius was staring at me. Oh well. Whatcha gonna to do?
Inside the chaos, all of your senses are assaulted at once. It's about 20 degrees warmer inside the crowd. The air was getting warmer - which I don't like. The smells are becoming stronger - grills, fryers... something burning. At times you can't really move - you flow with the crowd. People pushing on you, sliding past in front and behind, sideswiping you from the left and right. Everyone shouting, laughing, yelling...
We finally maneuvered ourselves to a point where we could see what they were cooking up. Each stall was the same size - about six feet wide, and ten feet deep, topped by a red and white striped covering. Large signs with pictures, prices and Chinese descriptions were dangling from the metal bars of the kiosk.
Inside the tiny space there were anywhere from two to five people, all buzzing around like bees. At least one was the hawker - peering into the crowd, yelling at anyone who made eye contact; and at most who didn't. Another person was arranging stuff on the counter - trying to put their stuff in some sort of order for the passers by. The third was the producer - frying, grilling, boiling, mixing, chopping... whatever the occasion called for.
Then, there were the wares. One table was serving big Styrofoam plates full of rice with your choice of crawfish, crab or some sort of fish. One was full of a rainbow of fruits and vegetables - some of which I didn't even know existed. So many colors and hues... One table was full of yellow and green drinks which were pouring fog out through their tops.
The majority though, were selling skewers of... whatever. Nearly everything you could imagine being skewered was skewered. There had to be at least three or four good sized trees assassinated for this evening's activities. All shapes, all sizes, all colors. And, to top it off, most of whatever it was, was raw. Chicken, beef, fish, tofu, squid, crawfish, big shrimp, some things covered in breading, some things white-ed out with flour. I had no idea on a lot of stuff - some of it had eyes. Some legs, others... who knows?
Then I something that looked like a skewer of little bee hives - perfectly shaped golden brown ovals which had little raised stripes running around them. They were glossy, and looked like they had a little syrup coating on them. I of course asked Casey what they were. "Some sort of bug larvae." Awesome.
It seemed like the fan favorite was the squid. Hey, I can handle calamari. It's actually not too bad. But I'll take it breaded and fried in little round pieces, thank you very much. This stuff was really, really raw, and really, really gross. I haven't seen a lot of uncooked squid on plates before. Hundreds of them just laying there, tentacles dangling over the edge, impaled by wooden skewers. They had that eerie, deep pink color of something just out of the water. I thought I saw some of them move.
One guy had a whole handful of them - holding them like cotton candy at a ballgame, tentacles flopping every which way. The people around me were eating fried ones left and right - chomping away at oil-curled, breaded tentacles.
The smells were absolutely amazing. Some were amazing - fruits and chocolate, sugar and cinnamon. Others were damn near the worst thing I've ever come into contact with. Just like you can't "un-see" some things, you can't "un-smell" some things either. We walked on, and after a few minutes, the stalls started to run together - meats, sea food, rice, curry, breads, vegetables, then back to meats, sea food... I didn't see any dog or cat advertised - in English at least.
A few minutes later, we made it to the stall I'll not forget. A whole stand loaded with bugs. Skewers of huge grasshoppers and locusts. Lines of massive beetles.
And then, there were scorpions. A couple of plates of smaller ones lined the front of the stall. Five or six little golden brown scorpions per stick - and they were selling fast. Behind them though, was one plate of big frickin huge black ones. The ones you see in movies. They were so big there were only two to a stick. It was disturbing. And no, I didn't try any. And don't tell me you would have either.
The next table down was offering centipedes. You could have your choice of green or black. It led me to a question though, how did they get the stick through them?
Right next door was a table of starfish. Yeah, starfish. How the hell to you eat a starfish?
And, at this same table was a little tray full of... something. I don't know where to even begin describing it. I thought it was a bin full of wet cloth at first. But a closer, cautious look later proved otherwise - it had little spines on it. It was ridiculously gross.
It took a long time to get through to the end. And to be honest, it was a relief to get out. An hour is enough of that pressure cooker. Besides, I don't think I could eat another starfish. They were chewy. And if I find one more centipede leg in my teeth...