Some days I plan what I want to do before I walk out the door. Some days I just go out with a loose idea of what I want to see or do. Sometimes any plans quickly become a memory as something more interesting pops up.
Yesterday I walked out my door to go to work and wasn't even out of the apartment complex when something interesting caught my eye as I was saying 'ni hau' to the guard: a block of frozen squid. These weren't wrapped in plastic, paper or cardboard, just frozen together in something that looked like water and sitting on the pavement in back of a restaurant. As I was considering the health implications I heard something moving from a few feet away. A white Styrofoam cooler held a green net bag full of fat frogs. Live frogs. They were moving around their bag but not really making much noise. The guard walked over to see what had caught my eye. He smiled as I took pictures. Then I put the camera down and held up a finger and pointed to ask the guard if I could touch the frogs. My sign language didn’t get a negative reaction so I touched. The frogs weren’t slimy, just moist, and raised no objections to some gentle poking. They were destined to be someone’s meal last night but yesterday morning they were my object of curiosity.
After a quiet night in last night I set out this morning with a list of several things I really wanted to do, or felt I should do, and one errand I thought I’d maybe do, if the planets and my path through the city made it easy. That errand got done: I am now in possession of an annual museum pass, costing 80 RMB, that will get me into 88 museums/parks/attractions for free or reduced admission. The passes can be ordered over the phone and delivered to your home or office if you are in the central area of the city, which I am, but you need to be able to communicate over the phone, which I am not. They are also for sale at larger branches of the post office. With the guidebook that told of it’s existence in my hand and open to the appropriate page I walked up to the counter and asked the attendant “Qing wen, nin you…?” (Please, do you have…) and pointed to the Chinese characters in my book. She smiled and replied that she did as she reached under the counter to bring one out for me. It includes passes to various places within the municipality: art museums, an apiary museum, a watermelon museum, the Beijing eunuch culture museum, military history museums, botanical gardens, science centers, an aquarium and many other interesting attractions. The book included the names of each attraction in English but the rest of it was in Chinese so I may be in for some surprises.
After acquiring the pass I wanted to go to the Summer Palace so I got onto subway line 2 and rode to the station where riders transfer to subway line 13, which would take me close to my destination. The subway here is clean. It’s fast. And line 13 is above ground and its route is a giant loop to the north of the city. From my seat I could look out and see apartment complexes for miles in some places, gleaming white or off-white buildings with small patios along certain lines, like a new Co-op City in the Bronx but extending forever. Occasionally these lines of new buildings were broken up by blocks of hutongs, the traditional courtyard houses which are being razed in much of Beijing to make way for apartment complexes and luxury shopping malls (gentrification takes place all over the world). I decided to ride the entire loop of the subway line, leaving Summer Palace for another day, and was excited to see that the rows of apartment buildings did finally end, allowing the mountains to the west of the city to be seen.
My joyride over, it was time for me to think about running some other errands. I transferred onto the 2 train, which runs in a loop around the center of the city, and got off at a station in a part of Beijing where I hadn’t been before. It was quieter and less hurried than in other parts of the city but there were plenty of people around. It took me a few minutes to find my location on a map (I’m functionally illiterate here and it makes things take longer than in cities where I can easily read street signs) then I started walking down a street which had a lovely wide sidewalk and trees. As I moved down the block I could see clumps of people gathered around bicycles. The bicycles were old and didn’t seem likely to attract attention. No, the object of attention were birds, in cages or leashed to sticks that were on the bicycles (yes, you read that right: some of the birds had collars and were on tiny leashes). These birds were for sale. One of them was a born performer and went through a series of poses for the camera. He almost came home with me.
Towards one end of the plaza men were holding birds in one hand and tiny beads in the other. They would through the birds up into the air and then throw the beads or blow them up after the birds using a straw-like piece of bamboo. The birds would catch the beads then land on nearby trees. The audience would applaud as the birds returned to the men when called.
From the plaza with the birds I could see another collection of people near the edge of a parking lot. People were selling puppies and an occasional cat from the backs of their cars. A few nearby stores sell pet supplies. This area of the animal market gave way to another where small antiques and collectibles were laid out on the ground, and a middle-aged man sat behind a table holding coolers full of crickets in tiny plastic containers with screens placed into the lids to allow airflow. Cricket fighting is a popular pastime among many people here and these contestants were available to take home.
At the end of the day I had only run one errand but I’d seen a lot of interesting things in my new city. It was a great day.