I’ve been watching the radar map and waiting for this huge storm to hit. The map shows the darkest red, right above us, and yet nothing is happening. I am sorely disappointed. One of the highlights of my time in Beijing was a trip the world-renowned night market at WangFujing shopping area. Sometime during the early months of 2008, I had seen a short you tube clip that a travel blogger had created to document his visit to the night market. I watched in awe as he downed the likes of scorpion, cricket, even sea urchin, providing excellent commentary for each of the terrible yet fascinating snacks. This video was short, but marked a definitive point in my future goals: I had to get to China.
Upon arriving in Beijing, I had very little sense of how to find this holy grail of culinary oddities, but was determined to get there by any means necessary. Though we had talked about riding the subway, taxi became our chosen method of transportation. I asked the doorman to call a car, and within seconds a taxi was rolling up the driveway.
As we pilled in, I remembered all of tales that I had heard about taxis and taxicab culture, most such stories focusing on a ride that could be compared with a vision quest; seven parts terror, three parts religious experience, and all around an adventure to remember. As the cabby sped through endless traffic, narrowly dodging pedestrians and other vehicles, I was not disappointed.
Upon arriving at WangFujing, we spent a good bit of time trying to join back up with the other half of our group, whom we had agreed to meet at McDonalds, a prominent establishment along the strip. The main section of the legendary shopping center is situated on a street that has been closed to traffic. It is absolutely huge, and the center of all things western merchandise in Beijing, containing all of the top American and European Brands. These were not what I had come to see, but I did find some comfort in having a more familiar meal at the golden arches. After waiting for our friends to arrive and playing the ignoring game with a persistent beggar, we turned into a side alley and found ourselves within the night market.
Almost immediately, I found myself in front of a small stand selling deep-fried scorpions, drawn in by the allure of a bucket full of critters and a man happily dipping them into a basin of boiling oil. For a bit more than a dollar (which I would soon realize was more than I should have paid) I had myself a stick of crispy mini-scorpions, and was preparing for my first taste. I had tried to strike up some conversation with the chef about the nature of grilling dangerous little insects, but upon asking about whether they could sting, he quickly stopped engaging in conversation. I was a bit worried as the stingers did not appear to have been removed, but after watching a few other people dig in decided that the risk was probably not that high.
Though the texture and shape were a bit disconcerting, the flavor was amazing, especially when we requested a bit of spice. Cricket, on the other hand, was terrible, tasting as though it had been grilled in motor oil. I wouldn’t go near anything that looked like a spider.
The night market is not an uncommon establishment in China, and the one in Beijing is particularly well known and easily accessible, making it a frequent stop for tourists. Despite this fact, I was surprised to find that I still received a considerable number of surprised looks from both vendors and customers around the stands that we visited, some of whom asked where we were visiting from.
The market itself, in many ways, seemed to cater to a more western crowd, with many stands selling the standard “China town” variety of crap that people place in their homes and cars to feel more in touch with their Asian side. Miniature Buddhas, incense burners, small recreations of the Terra Cotta warriors from Xi’an and any variety of masks and clothing. I once again found myself without interest in purchasing anything, but doing so anyway in order to have the opportunity to haggle with the sellers and get a small language boost.
Then, all at once, every one of the vendors and stalls began to close up and turn off their lights, none early, and none late. With a movement nothing short of synchronized, the market closed up and we found ourselves back on the glowing main strip of Wangfujing, quickly emptying out and closing for the night.