The Shilihe Cultural City Market in Beijing (MICHAEL CHICK)
You could have heard my pulsating heart from a mile away when I first heard of this market. No, not a wet market, nor a supermarket, nor a stock market. It's an everything-except-for-food market. And it was smack in the heart of Beijing. In fact, I quietly kicked myself for not having noticed it months earlier, as I had passed this place on a bus before. And quite a few times after that too, I might add.
No, I didn't wait for the alarm clock to ring that morning. No, I did not waste time combing my hair that morning, and no, I did not wait for the subway escalator to bring me up to the surface. I simply bolted up the flight of steps, weaved between a sea of startled cyclists, and sprinted westward across the remaining 150-m distance between the southwest entrance of the Shilihe Subway Station and the entrance to the Shilihe Cultural City Market like Sonic the Hedgehog in the Sonic video games.
What happened next was unexpected. I was suddenly engulfed in a cacophony of chirping birds. And had the occasional feather or two drop on me. At least a hundred people had converged in an area outside the entrance, showing off their feathered friends. Most were for sale, while others were simply there for performance purposes, I swear.
Some of the raucous cackling parrots sounded like they had escaped from a mental asylum. I began to feel like Dr. Doolitle, the veterinarian hero of the film by the same title. Interspersed between the bird cages were bags and bags of goldfish, fighting fish, strange-looking fish, and not so strange-looking fish. Each bag was pumped full of oxygen so that the fish could breathe.
Then out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my Holy Grail, the Shilihe Cultural City Market. I dashed across the street, and lo and behold, greeting me from across a small white bridge, flanked by two marble lions, was this colorful stoic gantry. We locked eyes, and she seemed to whisper to me, "What took you so long?"
I had no excuse for taking so long to pay homage here. Well, in my defense, this place wasn't listed on any tourist guidebook, nor on any of the popular travel advisory webpages.
But that feeling of guilt vaporized the moment I realized that I had just walked into SeaWorld, minus the whales, dolphins, sea lions and penguins. It was shop after shop with row after row of aquariums selling decorative fish. For some inexplicable reason, the soundtrack Will You Be There from Free Willy, the film where a young boy working in a marine park forms a bond with a killer whale, kept playing over and over in my mind.
Trotting past SeaWorld, I was met with the shrill warble of birds coming from under a Chinese gazebo. More bird traders? Nope. It was a local, selling a small stainless steel bird whistle, which when manipulated correctly, would mimic the call of birds. Only 10 yuan ($1.45) would make you the proud owner of this magic stick, allowing you to "converse with the birds." I guess this is the legendary portable aviary-Google-translate. No batteries required.
The red gazebo also marked a fork in the path. The left path began with traders peddling inedible walnuts. The larger golf ball-sized ones are used for squeezing for hand exercise, while the smaller ones are strung and either worn on the wrist, or around the neck. Some of these walnuts actually cost more than a car. Many of them come in nice cases.
Moving past the nut cases were the cricket sellers. And beyond them, an arsenal of traders selling jewelry tools, silver ornaments, paper fans, jade ornaments, antiques, leather belts, shoes, kites, camping equipment, cellphone accessories, pipe tobacco, bird cages, pet food, turtles and rabbits. Did I mention that this place was very diverse?
Actually, this place is a goldmine. Especially for those who wish to avoid the regular tourist traps touted by travel agencies. You do, however, have to inquisitively poke your head into the unmarked smaller alleyways as they could hide unknown treasures. But as all of us hardcore travelers have come to realize, the thrill is indeed in the hunt, and not the purchase.
The author is a Malaysian living in Beijing
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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