I had spoken previously about the activities I was going to have to do on this adventure. The first was drinking chicha in Peru, which I did. The second was to eat as much non-traditional food as possible, with my inspiration being Andrew Zimmern. I had specifically mentioned eating at a night market in Beijing know for its odd selection. When the opportunity came, I jumped at the chance though it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. First of all there are two markets, one block apart, in the Wangfujing area. One is just food stalls on the street (Donghaumen Night Market) and the other is a pedestrian area full of small food shops/food vendors and other merchandise (clothes,jewelry,shoes, bags,etc). The latter is by far the busier and more touristy, with fewer food options.Having ventured out to the Lotus Market for some Hutong Pizza (the best pizza we have had so far outside of NYC) & to the Olympic Green to see the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics (Bird’s Nest, Water Cube, etc) during a rather wet and hazy day, we returned to our hostel (Chinese Box) and managed to recruit just about everyone to venture out to the night market for some food, beer and hopefully fun times. To make the situation even better, the rain had stopped and off we merrily went… Getting there was the first of many obstacles for that night. The group as a whole decided on using taxis for transport, but being that we were such a large group & we were on the wrong side of town, procuring said taxis took some effort on the part of Molly and myself. After cajoling the street corner for 30 minutes we managed to get 3 cabs and off we went; driving past some of Beijing’s more famous landmarks, including Tian An Men Square and The Forbidden City.
Having spent so much time organizing the group and procuring transportation, we were in danger of missing the night market entirely, as it closes around 21:00-21:30. Thankfully the market was still open when were arrived, however, only 2 of the taxis arrived. The taxi with Molly & our Norwegian friends (Morten & Kristian) was nowhere to be seen. I assumed that they were probably dropped off at the end of the street and were making their way down the street as we would approach from the other direction and we would all meet in the middle. With a plan, onwards we ventured into the market.The first thing I attempted was fried silkworms on a stick. They weren’t as bad as I was expecting and were kind of sappy, with a taste not unfamiliar to me. The taste was very much like the giant salted ants I had eaten in Bogotá. Perhaps that “flavor” could be attributed to the staleness of the product; a moldy & salty lingering aftertaste. Having survived my first tasting, I was eager to try all my heart’s desire: snake, scorpions, sea urchin, starfish & perhaps even goat penis or cat/dog. But all of a sudden, a torrential rain came. With the rain pouring down, people ran for shelter, umbrellas were failing, the stalls began to close and there was no sign of Molly. For the next 60+ minutes, I walked up and down both sides of the street (and inside stores & restaurants even) looking for Molly until the rain stopped. By this point the group had split up with some deciding to go back to the Hostel. I, along with 2 of our new German friends, decided to keep looking. After searching around for another 20 minutes we decided the most prudent course of action was to take the metro back to our hostel, where everybody would likely be as well.
We started walking towards Wangfujing station when we miraculously meet our “lost 3”; sitting down at a beer café, drinking . We start to converse and drink, each side sharing their experience of the last 90 minutes. It turns out their cab was in the lead and had dropped them off a block away with no idea where the market or we were. They had also gotten stuck in the rain and made the best of it. By this point, we were all wet, the night was sultry and no one of us had much to eat so far. Collectively a decision was made to procure some sustenance. There was only one thing open at the time…. McDonald’s. I had not had McDonald’s since seeing Super Size Me more than 5 years earlier, but the taste and familiarity came back in a flash (like riding a bike for the first time in years). We all ordered something and quickly ravaged the portions before making way to the subway, thinking we were just going to make the final train of the night. Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy….
Having arrived at the Metro, the doors were half open/half closed. We were informed by metro employees that the subway had left for the night. On to plan B. Uhm.. plan B, right. What was plan B again?? I guess we would try to get taxis (we would need 2) after midnight, Saturday in Beijing. To give a little background, hailing a cab in Beijing is difficult enough compounded by the fact that all meters in official cabs stop working after midnight, very few cabbies speak English or stop for foreigners and illegal, unmarked cabs seemingly ooze out of the woodwork. With all those factors against us and the other locals trying to hail a cab, we managed to negotiate a reasonable rate for 4 people (Molly, Kristian and our 2 German friends). And by reasonable, I mean twice the amount we paid to actually get there by meter with the same number of people in the cab.
My reasoning was that 2 grown men in Beijing would have an easier time getting transport, than 3 men and 3 women. Morten and I were left to find one taxi on the dark and somewhat deserted streets, although there seemed to be plenty of pedestrian activity; drunks, party kids, ladies of the night(??), etc. After about 30 minutes of walking and several illegal cab solicitations, we managed to negotiate a 40 Yuan rate with an illegal cab, since none of the legal ones would stop or wanted 80 Yuan or higher.
From the start we were worried about the situation. The cabbie had originally asked for 100 Yuan, but had lingered and then agreed to our price. At the first possible turn he makes a left as both Morten and I suspect that we may be going in the wrong direction, but wait a bit to make sure. After several blocks, we both confirm that we are going in the wrong direction and we try to inform our driver as to the situation. He basically waves us off and takes another left, down a residential street. He pulls up to something called the “Foreign Business Hotel” after 10 minutes of driving. At this point, communication is occurring on both sides, understanding is not. I suggest to Morten he go inside with the driver and see if we can get some help translating, while I search for the map of the city I remembered I had somewhere in my bag.
Morten comes back out a few minutes later with nothing having been resolved. I hand him my Leatherman (knife attachment ready) and tell him to watch my back while I try to communicate via the map I had just found in my bag. I pull out the map and point to the station where we wanted to go along with writing the name of the station on a memo pad (Romanized letters). After several more minutes of back and forth, nothing happened. We were wasting our time. Morten and I decide to bail, because he had no clue where to go and we had no clue where we were. The driver actually requested payment, at which point I basically pulled out some colloquial NYC phrases and went back into the street to search for the next transport.
The street we were on now was even less populated than where we had started. We decided to walk back to the main street for better access. That is until we spot an official, empty cab at the traffic light behind us. We run towards the cab like crack-fiends at a crack-give-away. I can only imagine what the driver must have been thinking at the sight of us. Unfortunately the driver speaks less English than I do Chinese. I knew this would be our best option, short of walking back home, so I pull out my best Jimmy Stewart determination (à la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). I try the name of the station and the hostel name first, but nothing (this would have been all too easily remedied if I had remembered to bring the hostel’s business card with me). Secondly, I pull out the map and point to the train station. I can still smell confusion in the air, but he does seem willing to try. My next question is how much. He doesn’t seem to understand, so I pull my notepad and start writing down fares: “40. 50.” Nothing.
We try various combinations of the above routine, with the driver ultimately pointing at his meter and shrugging his shoulders. I usurp his response with “I know the meter doesn’t work, but HOW much??” After another 10 minutes of this same scenario, both the driver and I were frustrated and no closer to any understanding. I then suggested a destination for a different metro station that I knew we could walk from and that was larger (possibly one he would recognize it). Thankfully he knew that one and we agreed on $40 Yuan. Once we arrived near the station, we were able to direct him past the subway station & the hostel street address which Morten had memorized but was meaningless without the neighborhood context, suddenly clicked and he dropped us off right at the doorway to our hostel.He seemed happy that he had found it for us and even corrected us on our pronunciation of the subway name. It also took several attempts to tip him, but he reluctantly accepted it with a handshake. As we opened the door, Molly and the others greeted us eagerly with well-earned beers and salutation. We paused for a moment, thanked our luck and opened some beers. We then posed for the picture above, still wondering at the craziness of the evening. I did make it back to the Night Market for some strange edibles, but that is another story…