Silk street, as it turns out, isn't a street lined with stalls selling silk products. What started out as an outdoor alley market (reason for the name) is now touted as the third most popular tourist destination in Beijing after The Great Wall and the Forbidden City. It is a seven-level building crammed with thousands of retailers selling anything and everything under the Chinese sun. One level is dedicated to bags, luggage and wallets, lovely silk and silk products are found on another level, and scattered everywhere else are jewelry, antiques, shoes, electronic gadgets, toys, Chinese handicrafts, tea, art and calligraphy, clothes, beddings and table cloths, and trinkets galore.
"Do you know how to bargain?", Kevin, our guide, asked before dropping us off.
"Yes, of course! We're from the Philippines!", came the reply from our group.
"Ok, how do you bargain with them? How much?", He was testing us, not convinced we were prepared for the jungle in there.
" Hmm, maybe down to about, well, about 50, 60 percent?", my friend answered.
"Ohh no no no!", we failed his questioning, "You must bargain down to ten percent!!""Ten percent?!", we cried.
"Yes! I once bought a bag worth 900 rmb for 90 rmb".
I groaned inwardly, this is gonna be a long day. You see, I'm not very good at haggling. I don't have the patience needed to get the best bargain. And so I usually leave feeling I could have gotten it for less and then feeling cheated. It all seems so silly to me. If you're willing to sell that to me at this low price, then offer it to me at that price already and I'll buy it! Let's save each other some time. But even though I may not be good at it, I enjoy the banter so I play the game.
But here in Silk Street, the game takes on a different form. Only jungle rules apply. Walking through the aisles is like walking by restless growling lions in their cages. The vendors are hollering, clawing at your direction from their tiny stall, you can almost see the froth forming in their mouths, hungry for the kill. And should you manifest the slightest sign of weakness, even a quick glance at their direction can be misread as interest, you will be tackled and manhandled.
If you come out alive, there are other points of interest in this mall worth checking out. On one of the upper levels is a fascinating demonstration on how raw silk is produced from the cocoons of silk worms. I found a video of the process here. Funny, it's the same lady from my pictures, she's even wearing the same clothes!
various stages of silk
But where I spent most of my time was at this tea shop. At some point, my friends and I decided to split up and meet at by the entrance at a designated time. I love tea and I drink it like water sometimes, especially in the office, so I intended to bring some back with me from China. I wandered into the Tea Center and marvelled at the wide array of both loose leaf and bagged varieties. A kind saleslady invited me to sit for a tea tasting, and I happily obliged. She turned on the kettle, scooped up tea from bags and jars and tins, steeped them, strained the leaves, poured them into tiny cups, rinsed the cups in boiling water, handling them with metal tongs, scooped up some more, steeped, strained, poured. All this was done on a ceremonial wooden tasting table.
Tea drinking in China is a way of life. And witnessing this ritual and taking part in their tea culture was really special. I left carrying 2 big bags filled with green tea, blooming jasmine tea, fruit tea, 8 Treasures, and ginger tea. I also bought some tea cups and infuser mugs. Because all this wouldn't fit in my suitcase and I didn't want it getting crushed, I was forced to purchase a nice red trolley bag which was quite a steal.
Some tips for your silk street experience:
1. Bring cash. Both local currency and US dollars are accepted. Most vendors don't accept credit cards and there are few ATM's which aren't very reliable.
2. Walk away. After you're given the price of an item, simply thank the sales person then walk away. This simple act will guarantee a big drop in price, sometimes even a quick 50% drop.
3. Strength in numbers. Shop in groups if possible. If you buy more, you will be offered the wholesale price.
4. Don't expect authentic goods here. This is knock-off country so you might want to consider what you're taking through customs later on and if it's worth the risk.
5. Canvass. Don't buy from the first stall you go to. Make your rounds first, there are many stalls selling the exact same items at a possibly lower price.
6. And lastly, be firm.
Beijing Street Food:
A stone's throw away from our hotel is Wangfujing Rd., a pedestrian-only shopping street where you can find big department stores. I imagined what Oxford st. in London , supposedly the longest shopping street in Europe, would have been like if it were like this. I thought it was really nice not to have to worry about crossing the street and getting hit by a crazed Chinese driver and more importantly, not to be subjected to their fatal fumes.
The real gem though is the open-air market on Wangfujing Snack St., also known as Donghuamen Night Snack St. You can't miss it's ornate archway next to the Wangfujing Shopping Mall. We spent one evening just leisurely perusing all the food items which ran the gamut from traditional to exotic. First there were the 'normal' stuff: vacuum-packed bags of roast duck, chestnuts in abundance, candied fruit, corn, fried and steamed dumplings, grilled squid, veggie rolls, stinky tofu, fish balls...then it starts to get a little bit funkier: offal on sticks, entrails, and basically every conceivable animal part - feet, tongue, neck, ear, eggs, - it was starting to feel like a biology field trip. And then it's full-on Fear Factorish. I find myself staring at skewered scorpions and (horrors!) seahorses! The poor things!
As I'm gawking at the display, obviously mortified, the guy behind the counter decides that it would be hysterical to freak me out by flashing a live scorpion at my face. I should have seen it coming, because I knew he was watching the expression on our faces, but I didn't and let out a shriek which pleased him tremendously as evidenced by the chuckling and snortling from his direction. I glared at him.
It comes as no surprise that the Chinese eat every part of anything that moves without wheels and engines. In a country of 1.5 billion people, they had to be practical to survive, leaving nothing to waste. I have no doubt that if I were raised in China, I'd be munching on these snacks like they were buttered popcorn. But I wasn't. And neither were my friends who were with me. And so I regret to report that I didn't try any silkworms or scorpions or seahorses. Maybe next time when I'm with someone more adventurous than I am, I'd most likely give it a try. What I did love were the candied fruits ( more on this in the Xiamen series coming-up), the assorted dried fruits and nuts which we stuffed ourselves silly with and the grilled sweet potatoes!
I'll be posting pictures of more Chinese food next, in what is (I think) my final post on Beijing. So stay tuned! :)
My favorite vegetable in the world - yummy sweet potatos are grilled on the streets