Saturday, 20 July 2013

Little Market of Horrors

Even though I’ve been in Guangzhou for two weeks now, since I have to work pretty much all day, I barely had any time to properly look around. You can imagine that, when I finally had a chance, I wanted to jump right into the deep water. Which was way deeper than I’ve ever imagined…

Qingping Market – which translates to Peaceful Market (in a bit, you too will see why this is a completely bizarre choice of name) – is one of Guangzhou’s most notorious spots, and trust me on this one - for a very good reason! The market is basically selling all sorts of… wait for it… food. Well that’s not so bad now, is it? The only problem with that is, the good people of China tend to consider as food pretty much anything that is capable of dying – or at least wont run/swim/fly/crawl/dig/wobble/etc. away when poked by a chop-stick. The scenery is - or at least up until very recently, was – filled with clusters of flayed puppies, chopped up kittens, bats waiting for their grim fate, snakes on sticks and the sorts. Whatever takes your fancy, let it be scorpions or owls, Qingping market provides. Or so I learned, it used to provide. With the SARS outbreak, certain measures had been put into place –so the market today is somewhat tamer than a couple of years back. I still wouldn’t call it tame though. Anything but tame actually…

I don’t actually know what is or isn’t sold as food at the market nowadays, as I did not bump into the part where they sell food per se. It might not even exist anymore – I couldn’t really find out, I’ll have to go back and look around again. What I did find however is not, by any means, less bewildering than the aforementioned gruesomeness. As anyone enlightened enough should very well know, that fucked up things can be consumed in various ways other than as culinary delicacies – we shall now venture into the obscure depths of the traditional Chinese medicine – which is based on the rule of thumb, that if something is too repulsive for even Chinese people to eat, then it should be dried completely, and used as medicine.

I don’t even know how to say this… You can get the dry remains of creatures that don’t even exist, or at least not to the best knowledge of modern science they don’t. You can even get axolotl, an animal that only lives in a certain cave in Mexico! As I was standing there dazzled, trying to document the scene, I took a careless step without looking, and something unthinkable gave a loud, nasty crack under my foot. At that moment I had a really clear insight, what it must feel like when you know that you’ve just stepped on a landmine. I slowly looked down, expecting the worst, but it turned out to be only a nut. Phew, I got away this time, but let this be a warning for everyone who dares to wander into the grittier parts of China – mind your step! Anyone who goes to the market should not be fooled by the handful of merchants around the edge, selling dried flowers as remedies. They just want you to let your guard down, thinking – Why, how pretty flowers! Lets see what’s over there… - and just like this, its done: your innocence taken, your soul crushed, your dreams withered… what’s left is an empty shell, incapable of seeing the light in the world anymore.

I can’t and I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive list of the critters that can be found on display. Hell, half of them I didn’t even recognize (it’s probably better this way)! Some of the ones that I did recognize are: seahorses, starfish, giant millipedes, caterpillar fungi, frogs, snails, hooves of something, sea cucumbers and turtles. My personal favorites, I shit you not, were the flying lizards crucified on sticks. Whether they are used as aphrodisiac or kites, I do not know…
As I said, I’m not aware of the fate of the food selling parts of the market, but one possible answer is that they just stopped selling their merchandise as food, and now they are selling it as pets instead, as I did find a pet market at the spot, where according to the map the original horror bazaar should have been.

What really surprised me - even more than the unique merchandise itself – is that this little market district, that only consists of a handful of streets and alleys, is wedged between heavy-duty avenues, and glamorous shopping high-streets. It’s like a tiny island that decided to stay in the 18th century, despite the constant bullying of its rapidly developing surroundings. I managed to steal some little moments, that really took me back a few hundred years – made me catch a bit of the taste of how China might have been in a past era, that’s not so past after all. An old man let me into his cottage where he was playing some kind of oriental domino with his ancient friends, in front of the shrine of a guardian spirit – which I was not allowed to take a picture of. Or there was the merchant who seemed to be smoking something that can only be described as a didgeridoo, and was lazily smiling at me through the heavy daze of whatever exotic substance was burning inside. You can imagine that it came as a bit of a shock when close to him, I saw a couple of kids playing on a brand new iPad… Talking about the clash of cultures.

I’m confident that Guangzhou is swarming with little gems like this one, and I’m prepared to go after them, however unsettling they might prove to turn out. Luckily violent theft doesn’t seem to be a typical free time occupation of the locals, so that’s one less thing to worry about - since as a white guy with a big ass camera I attract a lot more attention than I would prefer, this comes as a relief. That means that only my short amount of free time can hold me back from digging up some more mysteries! I’m already excited about the next surprise this place is holding for me!

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