At a glance, the Beijing night market my dad and I visited after descending the Great Wall appeared to be very similar to the countless Japanese festivals with which I’ve grown familiar over the past year. Small booths set up in a row alongside a walking promenade offering various snacks for anyone who happens by. But this one was somehow different. Perhaps it had something to do with their rather unique culinary offerings.
Instead of Okonomiyaki, Yakitori, and Yakisoba these booths offered silkworms, centipedes, flies, locusts, scorpions, frogs, snakes, snake skin, dog meat, cat meat, sheep scrotum, sheep penis, sea star, sea horse, sea urchin, and sparrow…all skewered. It was quite odd to hear the shouts of “irasshaimase” (the welcoming phrase used by street vendors in Japan) replaced with shouts of “Testicles! Penises! Snakes!” from Chinese men and women holding out skewers with pieces of meat hanging off of them.
Even worse was witnessing the ravenous intensity with which shoppers would rip sparrow heads from their bodies and devour them whole, spitting out only the bones. Regrettably, I didn’t have either my camcorder or still camera at this market so you’ll all have to use your imaginations for this one. As a replacement I’ve placed to the left two pictures exibiting another type of “Chinese Food Culture” that I encountered during my travels.
Fearing that we may never be able to eat again, my dad and I returned to our hotel for our final night in Beijing.
The next morning we spent a few hours exploring the Forbidden City. My image of the Forbidden City was always just the one large courtyard and building shown to the left, but the truth is that it really is a massive city, with more than enough residences, gardens, temples, shops, and back alleys to get lost in. It’s unfortunate that our timing coincided with Beijing’s preparations for the 2008 Olympics – a good deal of the place was covered by scaffolding and painters’ tarps. But it was pretty cool nonetheless.
In fact, not only the Forbidden City, but a huge portion of Beijing was under construction during our visit. Streets were being repaved, trees planted, buildings built (or added onto). China really is rushing to pretty up their streets by 2008. It’ll be interesting to see if they kidnap and hide away all of the deformed homeless people to avoid creating a negative image of themselves internationally. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised.
And with a quick walk through Tiannmen Square and back to our hotel, the Beijing leg of my trip had come to an end. My dad and I took a comfortable two-hour flight to Ya Chang, a no-name city (which in China means a population of over 1.4 million) from which our four-night cruise down the Yangtze, the largest river in China, would begin. We were a little worried on the flight when we realized that we’d lost the travel voucher and didn’t know even the name of the boat we were supposed to take, but those worries were relieved when we saw a cardboard sign with our names waiting for us just outside the airport. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: it sure is a different kind of trip when I’m with my dad.
But our shuttle turned out to be even more than just transportation from the airport to the boat. While explaining everything we ever wanted to know about Ya Chang and more, our tour guide instructed her driver to first take us to a nice local restaurant so that we could embark on our journey in good health. Here we were seated in a private room designed for ten people, the two of us attended by five our six different waiters and waitresses. We sat across that huge table for a moment, reflecting on how impersonal dinners must be for those rich British folks you always see in movies eating at opposite ends of a mile-long table, eventually asking to be moved out into the main dining area with everyone else. That way, the local Chinese could laugh at us as we struggled to digest the fire-hot snails and shelled shrimps that were soon placed in front of us.
Continuing to a surprisingly tiny and out-of-the-way port, we boarded a four-star river cruise ship and were immediately offered a cheap upgrade from a basic room to a suite. As usual my dad bargained the price way down (and even got some free Internet time into the deal) making it irresistible. The room was spectacular, with two separate bathrooms and a window that stretched the length of an entire wall.
It was through this window that we observed the quiet Chinese countryside pass by on both sides over the following three days. Ordinarily I would have gone crazy being forced to sit on a boat with a bunch of other tourists while such a spectacular place whisks by just outside of my reach, but even with my periodic days of rest over the past month’s travels I’ve started to appreciate just laying around and relaxing a little bit.
Plus the scenery really was magnificent. Sometimes the river would be lined by cliffs so tall and steep that the morning fog completely prevented us from seeing the peaks; other times we’d be looking at sheer rock faces surrounded by thick, dense rainforest not dissimilar to the Amazon in Brazil or Peru. Every once in awhile we’d catch sight of a monkey or family of mountain goats traversing their way across a small trail that seemed to be carved right out of solid rock.
When passing some of the more habitable mountain ranges, we’d often see small villages nestled into the clearings, a lone farmer fishing off a rock or woman washing her clothes in the river. At one point I could actually hear a man burst out with a shout of excitement as he pulled a small fish out of the river from a cliff that must have been thirty feet above me.
But all of this was just during the “down time,” while waiting for each day’s land excursion of which there were three. The first such excursion was a tour of the Yangtze dam site, the $24 billion, 18 year-long largest construction project in the world. When finished in 2009 it will have raised the water level of the river by a full sixty meters, relocating over a million people and submerging almost all of the beautiful Three Gorges.