BEIJING -- "They're scorpions. I've tried them; they're not bad," said Piotr, the Polish-Italian student who kindly volunteered to translate and help me get around.
He led me through Wangfujing, one of Beijing's most popular shopping areas, a broad street with huge neon signs that reminded me of Times Square.
Tucked into one of the little side streets is the night market, where one can try some of the most mouth-watering street-food options: Scorpions, cicadas, sea horses, silkworm larvae, centipedes, lizards, snakes, starfish and tarantulas.
In the spirit of being the adventurous traveller who always tries the local fare, I vowed to try the scorpion.
At the moment of truth, I chickened out (or should I say scorpioned out?) and opted instead for the visually more appealing but maybe less politically correct crispy fried sea horse instead. No, it didn't taste like chicken. More like fried fish. (What was most amusing was locals would invariably talk to me, an Asian-Canadian who doesn't understand Chinese. I'd point them to Piotr to translate, they'd all look very confused, and some would insist on talking to me.)
The next morning, Piotr gave me a 3 a.m. wake-up call to go to the Beijing Antique Market, also known as the Panjiayuan market. We got there by 4 a.m., before the vendors did, and watched them wheel their carts in and set up.
Most of the "antiques" here are copies or fakes, so make sure you know what you're paying for.
The Chinese can copy anything. There were piles and piles of Ming vases and Tang Dynasty horses. With real ones costing thousands to millions of dollars each, the sight of them piled up precariously as if at some garage sale was enough to give an uninformed collector a heart attack.
They had everything -- old coins with holes, antique vases, stone carvings, bronze statues, snuff bottles, calligraphy brushes, Chinese paintings, jade bracelets and figures to modern-day Warhol painting knock-offs. It's almost like touring a historical museum spanning thousands of years of Chinese history but a lot more fun -- a real shoppers' paradise. (I picked up a few silver coins but have no clue if they even have any silver in them.)
In between sessions jostling with the city's 20 million residents, my quiet oasis for decompression was the Fairmont Beijing. The hotel is shaped like a giant red classic Chinese gate (somewhat reminiscent of La Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris). An indoor pool connects the two buildings, and I was happy to be able to keep fit by doing a few laps instead of breathing the smog outside.
From the hotel, it's a short walk to the Silk Street Market, the infamous shopping centre featuring seven floors jam-packed with everything imaginable. This is the place if you want to add to your Louis Vuitton collection for less. Not much of a shopper, I had an awesome hour-long foot massage instead, for the princely sum of $7.
To keep fit and lessen your carbon footprint, the hotel also has state-of-the-art lime-green BMW bikes guests can use for free to pedal around the city. They provide an iPhone app that covers a visit to the hutongs, the old neighbourhoods with narrow alleys.
With the pace of building in China, these are fast disappearing and exploring them is a great way to see how the locals used to live before all the modernization. I joined a couple with the bikes touring the hutongs, and then wandered around on foot to explore the alleys around Nanluoguxiang, a well-preserved shopping street.
While I was shooting a bright red door with beautiful Chinese calligraphy on the sides, a man opened the door and invited me to join him for tea. He turned out to be a master calligrapher. All his walls were filled with impressive samples of his calligraphy and Chinese paintings done by his wife and daughters. Before I left, he insisted on creating a special scroll for me wishing me good luck in my travels -- my most treasured gift from China.
I took the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai to try one of the fastest trains on earth. Travelling faster than 300 kilometres an hour, the ride was smooth and pleasant, and the cars were the cleanest and most modern I've experienced. Each seat had access to an electrical outlet, so I whittled away some of the emails that had piled up. A great introduction to modern Shanghai.
From the train station, a cab whisked me to the heart of the city, the intersection of the Bund -- Shanghai's most famous stretch of waterfront by the Huangpu River -- and Nanjing Road.
As I got out of the cab, the super-modern skyline of Pudong was in full view for the first time; it felt as if I had arrived at the future. But as soon as I stepped into the Peace Hotel, the geometric art deco lobby instantly transported me back to the '30s. The former Sassoon House built by Sir Victor Sassoon, the hotel was completely renovated recently to its state when it was the place to be 80 years ago.
While dining at the Dragon Phoenix, the painted ceiling and all the interior details evoked the 1920s. More importantly, the lobster was the best I've had in my life. After dinner, a friend, Helen, invited me for a drink at the cigar room of the bar.
A non-smoker, I risked my health and ventured in.
Her friends, a half-dozen young professionals, were smoking and drinking and in animated conversation. As they discussed search engine optimization and the latest killer apps in the smoke-filled art deco lounge, I was in the past and the future simultaneously.
After an hour of breathing in nicotine, my virgin lungs needed a break. I walked out to the Bund to catch some fresh air.
Some music led me just a block away to the rooftop Bar Rouge. I met several interesting expats from all over the world, including Timea, a choreographer from Hungary, who was exhibiting the sexiest dance moves. With the DJ playing the latest hits, expats and locals mingling and, dancing with the futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower and Pudong skyline in view, I was completely transported back to the future.
The next evening, I visited the legendary Jazz Bar in the hotel and travelled back in time again to the Roaring Twenties.
While trying my best to get lost in some of Shanghai's little streets, I heard the faint sound of crickets in the middle of the day. I followed the chirping to a cricket store! Turns out the Chinese have been keeping crickets as pets since the 12th century. Thousands of crickets, from barely the size of a rice grain to longer than five centimetres, were in tiny boxes with some food and water, and were creating beautiful sounds.
The store was filled with all sorts of cricket paraphernalia, food and intricate handmade cages. Grown men were putting their ears close to the boxes, listening to a few before selecting one.
I love the sound of crickets -- they remind me of peaceful nights out in the country. Toying with the idea of bringing a few home to help me get to sleep and maybe start a new craze back home, I nixed the plan after considering what Canada Customs might think of my new friends.
Walking back through the People's Square, I noticed a few older folks looking intently at hundreds of sheets of paper posted on a wall. As I turned a corner, there were thousands more, on the ground, on umbrellas, hanging on strings.
Thousands of people were looking at them and chatting. It was the weekend Marriage Market. Parents post ads about their kids, with or without their consent, to lure interested partners or their parents. Grandparents and professional matchmakers get in the act, too.
The ads list the basic description, some assets and contact information. For example: Male, born 1985, 1.7 metres tall, has a bachelor's degree from the U.S., good salary over 10,000 RMB a month, has a condo. Some parents have been going every weekend for years to find the perfect mate for a son or daughter. For many in the City of the Future, the centuries-old tradition of matchmaking by parents still trumps match.com, eharmony and Facebook.
I just hope Mom never gets wind of this.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Air Canada flies directly to Shanghai and Beijing from Vancouver. Many other airlines have routes through another city. I'd take the bullet train between the cities any day over flying.
Where to stay:
A five-minute walk from the Silk Street Market. Guests have free use of new BMW bikes to tour hutongs or other areas of interest with a free app.
Fairmont Peace Hotel
Right in the heart of the Bund. One of the most iconic heritage buildings in the city. Recently restored to its 1930s original art deco interiors.
Manhattan Bund Business Hotel
A few steps from the Peace Hotel, another art deco hotel but more affordable, with modest rooms and amenities.