Every now and then, we at China Travel and Intern Diaries, a series of China escapades as seen through the eyes of the newest kids in town.
I enjoy long walks—and no, not only of the moonlit beach variety. When traveling, I try to spread my footprints around as much as I can, because I've found that I get a better feel for the city I'm in when walking along those streets the travel guides don't mention. Last Friday my feet took me for a late afternoon loop around the Changning district of Shanghai where my apartment is. After a couple hours of being flanked on both sides by mini-marts, restaurants and those numerous endearingly small enterprises, I arrived at the mouth of a long, narrow street with more deliberate foot traffic than any other I'd seen that day. Hmm.
There's no one walking along the main road except me, and there's a party going on deep inside this random alley? I smell something fishy....
As I venture into the alley, a fishmonger to my right sits rinsing his aquatic merchandise with a hose as they flap their stiffened tails dispiritedly. A little further in, a woman monitors her produce arranged in a medley of cloth sacks and plastic tubs. A customer hands over some cash for a few eggplants. A market!
Stepping under a tall billboard ad that doubles as an overhead archway, I am greeted by a sour cloud of stench overflowing from a nearby dumpster. Google Maps tells me I'm on Zhongdeqiao Lu. At this point I'm beginning to define this place in my head: 'food' and 'stinky' were the only two descriptors I could come up with. However, I've experienced only its first few yards and already it's more different and exciting than the few miles that came before it, so I decide to continue down and embark upon a little exploration—what's the deal with this place? What will it reveal?
"Sì kuǎi, sì kuǎi, sì kuǎi!" touts a woman gesturing towards a pile of bruised gourds loosely stacked on a torn and tattered bag, shouting out to everyone that the gourds cost RMB 4. Walking through, I begin to slowly notice just how dirty the place is. A crumpled ball of plastic hurtles past and joins the mess of litter on the ground, tossed by a butcher from behind a wooden table where raw meat is laid out basking in its own sweat. A lady slams a heavy tub of potatoes onto the ground, and picks a muddy spud up off the asphalt to throw it back in with the rest. Nearby, an alley cat brushes up against a sack of rice, dislodging grains as it approaches an open-top Styrofoam container full of dying fish. Flies zigzag around my peripherals. Cages packed with bug-eyed poultry rattle as feathers sprinkle out towards the chopping board below. Halfway up the initial stretch and those dumpster particles still haven't left my nostrils.
Passing by the prawns, crayfish, crabs, turtles, frogs, flatfish, catfish and other fish, I'm just relieved that I didn't see any clownfish.
I guess it's mainly a hygiene thing, but I can tell that I wouldn't want to buy my groceries there if I had a choice. Notwithstanding my silly foreign perceptions, what intrigued me the most at that point in my little adventure was that my ears were picking up an entirely different world to what my nose and eyes would have me expect. I heard the bustling sounds of business, of movement and of genuine enjoyment. I heard the inflections of determined bargaining, the honks and rumbles of motorcyclists hauling away their purchases, and the frequent crinkling of plastic bags indicating the multitude of transactions being made.
Not long after, I could pair the 'xièxie's I heard with their 'méiguānxi's (which translate to 'thanks' and 'fahgeddaboudit', respectively). I could couple the laughter with the smiles they rang from. I could match the expressive gratification of customers to the fulfillment on the faces of the vendors.
And then I saw a man brutally hack into a still living fish.
I'll spare you the details.
As I stopped to take a photo, I heard something go squish under my foot. I didn't bother myself with checking to see what it was, but as I left Zhongdeqiao Lu I glimpsed a ground perforated with rogue vegetables pressed mercilessly into their gravelly resting place. Was it I who condemned that innocent little spring onion to a puddly purgatory? Perhaps I was putting it out of its misery.
At the end of it all, it seemed as though I was the only person to leave that place without buying anything. So when a man selling duck meat motioned towards his gourmet selection of exquisitely-mutilated birds, I stopped to think—I do like Peking duck (Běijīng kǎoyā, 北京烤鸭). I haven't had a chance to pick up dinner for tonight yet. It is pretty cheap! Should I?
Maaaybe next time.