One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Dirt Market

I spent this morning at the Dirt Market, a large outdoor market selling antiques, art objects, used books, and other similar items. I was particularly interested in the stone stamps, and paid 130 yuan for a small stamp of my new Chinese name, carved right in front of me. The stone is a greenish colour, except for the end with the Chinese characters, where it's stained bright red from the ink. A little rabbit is carved in a sitting position on the top of the stamp -- I was born in the year of the rabbit. I also bought some beautiful handmade bookmarks. You'll be proud to know that I bargained down the price at both stalls, although not by too much.

When I told the stamp-making man and his wife that I had a Chinese name to carve into the stamp, a bystander -- a friendly old man -- said, "Ohhh! I think you must work in Beijing!" I explained that I had only had the name for one day and was very happy about it.

I would have liked a stamp made out of this beautiful red Chinese stone with the weird name of "chick-blood stone," but it was too expensive.

There were lots of Westerners at the market. I passed one kid, maybe 13 years old, and overheard him complain to his friend, "Man, where are the cheap DVDs?" It wasn't really that kind of place, although I've heard that pirated DVDs are cheap and plentiful elsewhere in Beijing. The kid wasn't interested in jade chess sets and silver tea pots, and maybe he was right to be uninterested, because a lot of the supposed "antiques" at the market have in fact been artificially aged and are not real antiques at all. So says Lonely Planet, anyway.

An unintentionally funny thing at the market was an English-language sign leading visitors to a section for "Ancient Books and Magazines." I imagined In Style magazine, featuring Ming emperors instead of Nicole Kidman.

I went from the Dirt Market to Tiananmen Square. There's a lot of scaffolding and construction material lying around the square right now, because preparations for the 2008 Olympics (or at least for the pre-Olympics hype) are well underway. A lot of workers in hard hats were attending to various Olympics-related tasks. There are also lots of soldiers, everywhere. Most of the ones standing guard or marching from place to place around Tiananmen Square are unarmed and look about 18 years old. Some of them wear white gloves. They occasionally break discipline to punch each other in the shoulder and knock each other's hats off.

I was swarmed by rickshaw drivers when I got out of my cab. I kept saying, "No, thank you," in Chinese, but they seemed to interpret this merely as my first bargaining position. and I was starting to feel very hemmed in until a van full of cops cruised by slowly and the cop in the front passenger seat barked something loudly at the drivers out the open window. They all dispersed in about one second, and the cop and I nodded politely to each other. As soon as the van was gone, though, the drivers returned -- I stopped trying to reason with them and just walked away.

I had only been at Tiananmen Square for two minutes when I was adopted by two Chinese students in their early 20s -- Theo and Xiao Yu. They were both calligraphers, and both spoke English quite well. They wanted me to go with them to see a calligraphy exhibit from their school in a government building right on the square, and so I went, even though I was a bit worried that I was going to be sold something and there might be awkwardness. I did end up buying a bit of calligraphy by Xiao Yu to support the school that she and Theo attend, but it wasn't too awkward. I watched as she took her brush and drew a large, complex character for me in black ink on a red scroll, concentrating hard. She added her personal stamp and the stamp of her school. Afterward, I drank tea with the two of them and took their picture in front of some hurray-for-the-Olympics type material outside on the square.

During my taxi rides today, I saw another Little Sheep location. Little Sheep is a chain! I also saw a huge construction site for a condo tower, with billboards outside full describing enthusiastically what the building will be like -- the best adjective there was "skyscraping."

Another interesting thing about the taxi rides were the tiny receipt printers that announce the total fare in English, in a chirpy and robotic female voice. It's a bit hard to hear the number over the sound of the printer and the sound of traffic, but still -- a thoughtful touch.

I've met many English-speaking Beijing residents so far. Some of them say, "thank you," and it's crystal clear -- almost without accent. Others say, "thank you," and it sounds like they have a hamster lodged in their mouth. "Thurrnk yurr." I feel at liberty to make these observations because every time I try to speak Chinese, one or more people start laughing at me. I think some of the laughter is caused by surprise, and some of it is caused by my weird and pitiful pronunciation.

I got all my laundry back this afternoon. It cost 93 yuan, which is maybe $13 Canadian.

I'm still hoping to see the Forbidden City, the acrobats, and the Great Wall at Badaling. I have three full days left here, and that should be enough.

One final note... If anyone out there thinks that America will have an advantage in the wars of the future because its youth today spend all their time playing first-person shooter games like Counterstrike, it's time to think again. As I sit here in this internet place, I am surrounded by Chinese teenagers playing online games of that sort, learning all about infantry tactics and weapons. Friends call out to each other across the room, and talk to each other using headset microphones, eliminating their virtual enemies with great skill and coordination.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I skim a lot of blogs, and
so far yours is in the Top 3
of my list of favorites. I'm
going to dive in and try my
hand at it, so wish me luck.

It'll be in a totally different
area than yours (mine is
about keyword bidding)
I know, it sounds strange, but it's
like anything, once you learn more
about it, it's pretty cool.

If you don't mind, I'd really appreciate
being able to come back and get a
few tips and suggestions from you,
if that's alright, alright?

Tiffany Burrell
Keyword Queen!
ps. I confess, that's not my real picture! :-)

4:25 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Aaron,

It's so amazing that absolute strangers welcome people into their lives at just the right moment. We never (or rarely) do that in Canada. Having a dog makes it much easier for people to talk or even look at you.

We'll be hanging out with Jess tonight.

Meg says woof, ar-arooo, woof.

Matt and Carrie

2:07 PM

Anonymous Ben said...

Hey Aaron,

You should delete that keyword bidding "comment" up there ^^^. It is spam. Who starts a KEYWORD BIDDING BLOG?

5:16 PM


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