I`ve had an urge to visit a Beijing market for the many years that I`ve visited this megalopolis, but lack of free time or being in the wrong place stopped me till now, 20 years on.
It`s not that there aren`t many markets, look up any search engine and you`ll find many with promotions such as `the top 8 markets`. Yet even now that I am spending some time in Beijing North, all the heavily advertised markets are somewhat distant.
So, I turned to the locals, the university driver, who not surprisingly knew of one within 10 minutes of my hotel. A little in trepidation at what I was heading into, I accepted this offer as at least I would have a guide even if our only common legible words were `hello` and `thank you` in Chinese.
Without delving into details, I found that this small market occupies several very large warehouses each dealing in a different sector of the market. That was my first surprise, the market is enormous, but without the hustle and bustle I had expected.
Having been told it was a fresh food market I wasn`t surprised to be confronted with an alley of mandarin vendors near the entry. Around the outsides of each warehouse are small stores retailing the goods I generally expected to find inside that warehouse, or so I believed.
And each of these stores was packed to the roof with produce, oils and seeds, spices and sauces, and a variety of drinks looking like the drinks alley of a Eurospin store, just more densely packed. But let me come back to this sector later.
Maybe the second warehouse was not even a food outlet but a source of every possible household goods you could ever imagine needing. I guess that the only things missing were furniture and large whitegoods. Every kitchen utensil under the sun, plates and crockery, haberdashery, specialist clothing, and whatever, local goods and even imports.
Still searching, we entered a doorway of a third warehouse and on the right was what seemed like 100 metres of butchers on both sides of the way, while on the left were the fish purveyors. It is cold now in Beijing so there is little chance of these meats and fish degrading, but I wonder how these butchers and fish retailers handle the summer.
The large cuts of meat look delicious and of top quality, pork, beef, lamb and mutton. In the distance were the chicken and duck vendors. But I was most attracted to the fish vendors.
The crustaceans, it seemed, were all alive, fighting for a space in the densely packed trays filled with water, maybe trying to reach the bottom of the tray to be the last selected for a meal this Sunday. There were so many fish that they could feed millions, but then again, I guess that this is the role of the market.
I hadn’t expected, but the fruit vendors were also selling every type of exotic and out-of-season delight, cherries, kiwis, bamboo, and tropical fruits, including I think large horned melons and a few custard apples. Yes, less exotic apples were in great supply, and nuts abounded, especially chestnuts. I saw one vendor outside selling large chestnut cake slices.
So, what was my biggest surprise. In the drinks sector, among the cartons of local beers and soft drinks were some shelves with spirits, liqueurs and wines. It was easy with my trained eye to find a bottle of one of my all-time favourite reds, Penfolds 389, all the way from Adelaide. My only disappointment was the price, RMB 420, about the same as it is back in Australia. It is still there.
This visit of exploration opened my senses to the remarkable range of food and products I could find by spending many more hours in this hidden market of Beijing North. Must come back.