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Published: November 11th 2008
The first bite - Donghuamen Night Market, Beijing
Thanks to Fi for a super photo of this "memorable" moment.
How did I end up in this situation? Standing in the energetic and crowded Donghuamen Night Market, holding a skewer with three black deep-fried scorpions pierced along its length. “Come on, eat it!” exclaimed Fi, camera in hand and ready to record this inauspicious moment. Such an assertive statement drew even more attention to the foreigner nervously holding this delicacy near his mouth.
My mind ruminated on how this started a few hours earlier when attending an afternoon session of Olympic rowing finals. Fi and I discussed exploring this market where such items as fried silk worms were on offer. I jokingly stated that if we happened upon any fried scorpions, I would eat one. However, it was to my misfortune that a solitary stand offered such wares, which also allowed the choice of fried cicadas and crickets.
As I brought the delectable meal to my mouth, a diminutive Chinese woman hurriedly approached me, and whilst pointing to the scorpions, blurted in breathless excitement, “Where you get from?!” I pointed in the direction of the nearby food stand, and she disappeared almost as suddenly as she emerged, at which time all eyes were again on me - and the
The sooner these scorpions were consumed, the sooner this experience would be over, and so with much purpose brought the skewer to my bared teeth and nibbled one of the scorpion’s legs. The brittle appendage soon broke off and was rolling around my mouth, and the prominent taste was the salty seasoning that smothered these little creatures. A few more bites and more of the scorpion entered my mouth - the body was not as crunchy or brittle and thus not as pleasant, and caution was needed when eating the tail - complete with its shrivelled sting. Overall, it was not an unsatisfactory experience, and so with a bit more bravado, I began devouring the second scorpion.
However, this second creature was the largest of the three, and thus it contained a decent amount of scorpion meat. This was most disagreeable, as the taste of the meat was very strong, possibly bitter, and it had my face contorting in anguish as I successfully, but unpleasantly, finished this second critter. Thankfully, Fi decided to eat the third and final scorpion, and her summation of it was “not too bad” which matched my feelings on the first scorpion, but
not the second - I wonder if the latter one had gone off?
After drinking plenty of water to wash away the taste, we continued through the market and saw a stand that sold some truly astonishing options: fried starfish, fried centipede, sea urchin, sea snake and sheep’s penis. A braver soul than I from North America was tasting the sheep’s penis, conveniently divided into bite-sized portions. The purchaser seemed to be enjoying his meal, and offered some to his friend, who looked positively distressed after the first bite. “You’re just pulling that face because you know what it is! It doesn’t taste too bad!” asserted the purchaser, whilst crunching on another piece of penis. I would be taking this chap’s recommendation on his word - my courage does not extend to eating penises - regardless of their origin.
Approximately 15 minutes after leaving the market, one of the legs that had been sitting in a gap between my teeth dislodged and that bitter salty taste again flowed through my mouth - arrrghhh!!! The scorpion was having its revenge, and I was soon downing more water to wash this flavour permanently from my mouth.
But of course,
the attractions of Beijing away from the Olympics are not confined to food stalls in night markets. Here is a city that is at the heart of the longest continuous civilisation in the world. I had earlier enjoyed some of China’s rich history at the Museum in Shanghai, where (as was the case with my journey to Qingdao) I had travelled to obtain more Olympic tickets. However, Beijing overflowed with attractions of historical import, and the first one I visited was the Temple of Heaven, a large area of gardens interspersed with some beautiful temples and buildings. Local citizens would congregate here to play Mahjong, or practice their musical craft, and one could wander through the gardens whilst hearing the sounds of the stringed Erhu or a choir drifting through the foliage. After some hectic times being surrounded by the excited throngs at the Olympic venues, this was a most pleasant respite.
The best part of a day was spent enjoying the marvellous New Summer Palace, a massive area dominated by the large Kumming Lake plied by brightly coloured pedal-boats and water-taxis ornamented with a vibrant dragon head at its bow. Another feature was Longevity Hill, which were adorned
Gazing at History - Shanghai Museum
A young girl admires an ancient bronze vessel.
with the augustly named buildings of the Cloud Dispelling Hall and the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. The view across the lake from the higher reaches of this hill were as grand as the names of the Chinese Temples, and it is easy to understand why this place is treasured by both foreigners and locals.
However, my favourite historical site in Beijing was the Forbidden City - an immense area that was far bigger than my imaginings. The cloudy weather on this day gave a sense of gravitas to the place, which for so long was the centre of intrigue and machinations for obsequious, scheming officials and eunuchs. The large ochre coloured buildings were lined in disciplined formations around expansive quadrangles, where tufts of grass sprouted through the uneven paving stones. Though the City was dour when compared to the other Beijing attractions, I was captivated by a place where the imperial family isolated themselves from the outside world, and wondered how a person could live their whole life within its monumental walls.
A journey to Beijing is not complete without the obligatory trip to the Great Wall. Relying on public transport, and not wishing to be
caught amongst a crush of people at the most popular Badaling section, we opted for the Matianyu portion - and this proved to be a good choice. Despite the fact that we visited during the Olympics, the place was largely empty of people, and at times, I could scan the Wall until the horizon and not see another person. Watchtowers appeared along the Wall at regular intervals, and though I needed to watch my head at the various low doorways, the men's German Olympic basketball team (who were also visiting that day) needed to hunch their lanky frames within the watchtowers. Though they did not fare too well in the Olympic tournament, the team members were the most popular visitors on the wall that day, and they were at the receiving end of many photographs from the basketball-loving Chinese people.
Trudging along the serpentine gray-paved Wall in the sunny, humid conditions was tiring, which wasn’t assisted by the steeper sections we needed to traverse. To end a sweaty day, Fi and I decided to take the fastest way to the bottom of the hill without throwing ourselves over the parapets in a suicidal jump - and that was by
riding the toboggan. Sitting on the oversized black skateboards and grasping the speed control in my hand, I rushed along the sleek silver track, banking hard around the corners and flashing through the straight sections. As the wind blew across my face and ruffled my hair, I laughed loudly - and the refreshing air entering my mouth was a far more pleasant experience than the bitter taste of crunchy black scorpions.
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