Running along the northern edge of Longtan Park, very close to the Temple of Heaven, is a backstreet market.
I discovered this place in the cool of a summer evening looking for a non-tourist-infested place for some exercise. The heat of the day had gone and business was winding down to a far more sedate pace. Still, there was a lot of bicycle traffic and one had to keep on the alert.
Wandering in at the eastern end of the street I found myself in an area specialising in animals for pets. Every colour to be imagined, artificial or otherwise, seemed to be represented in the birds collected in various numbers.
There were small cages of a circular shape, constructed with thin pieces of wood, ranging up to large wire constructions housing whole flocks of birds. There were even dozy looking parrots on open perches with chains around their legs.
Among the birds, I found one flat cage stacked on top of another and on top of that, a hessian bag with eight baby rabbits bunched together. All were white except for two little brown ones huddled in sleep. Mother rabbit was on the pavement occasionally looking up to twitch her long ears and sniff into one of the cages.
The street had several lots of miscellaneous collections, such as stacks of cylindrically shaped fuel bricks, plastic and porcelain buddas, kites, shoes and clothing. There were bicycle menders and those who sold bicycle spare parts. Between these were men crowded around low tables watching Mahjong games in progress, cheerful scraps at café tables and street sellers gossiping in their idle moments, but still with an ever alert eye out for a potential customer.
Doting parents carrying their young children around could be seen showing them the little kittens grouped together with regard to their colouring – the pure white kittens had clear pale blue eyes and I thought, how strange they must look to a young Chinese.
Further along, the market took on a fresher feel as there were two nursery stalls selling some tropical looking plants: banana trees, ferns and lilies all placed aesthetically on stepped benches; very relaxing on the eye as a contrast to the concrete and surrounding ramshackle shops. Adding some colour to this were the fish sellers’ bottles and jars, everywhere filled with gold fish, types of angle fish and all the little tiddly types in between. These places also sold fish tank plants upside down in jars of water as well as all the plastic mod-cons you could wish for.
In between the pet stalls and the bric-a-brac, which seemed confined to the other side of the street, every now and again a young boy or an old man could be seen having his hair cut by a street barber. Even more surprising, I came across a street dentist, his little square table covered with a white cloth and what looked like well-used plates with varying numbers of teeth on them. He was in the middle of consulting an older lady as I passed by. She was sitting on a stool with a hand on each knee having already had her mouth inspected. The ‘dentist’ seemed to be giving her advice as she turned to hack and spit on the pavement behind her. No one blinked an eyelid.
More and more animals appeared the further down the street I walked, many pitifully caged. Small squirrels in wheel shaped cages barely five inches in diameter; small boxes woven out of reeds to house little crickets, considered by the Chinese to bring good luck, and two varieties of mice – what looked like a plain house mouse, and another which was plump and fluffy.
My street then turned into Tiyuguan Xilu and the procession of animals came to a halt and was replaced with fruit stalls. Being summer, there was a huge variety for sale: mangoes, pears, apples in a couple of different shapes and colours, and many kinds I couldn’t recognise. Bunches of grapes neatly stacked and tied with string next to piles of corn cobs and other types of vegetables.
I passed many women with their evening meals in their baskets or on the back of their bikes next to the children. Near the end of the street just before it met the main drag of Tiyuguan Lu, was the piece-de-résistance: plates of meat and what looked like chicken and seafood. On closer inspection the seafood was yabbies and the ‘chicken’ was actually pairs of frogs legs. Very clean and meaty looking. Not for me, though. I was off back to my hotel room for yet another cup of hot noodles.