20-22 May 2018.
I notice the scorpions and start cringing. I’ve seen scorpions before, in various markets in South East Asia, but they were very dead, and fried, like the ones above. Scorpions are bad enough, but these scorpions are skewered, three to a stick, and their slowly writhing legs indicate they are still alive.

I am both mesmerised and appalled, like watching a car wreck. I have a visceral reaction to this slow death of living creatures and recoil in horror. I’m sickened that anyone would do that. Even to a scorpion. It reminded me of a dinner long ago in a Vancouver restaurant where we cooked our meal in hot pots at the table and wriggling skewered prawns were put before me. I can’t stand it, watching living things die slowly. I can’t bear to watch it, or even to know it happens. I’m the person who’ll trap a spider and release it outside rather than kill it, though I must admit I’m selective; mosquitoes don’t get the same love.

We’re at Beijing’s Wangfujing Snack Street for dinner. We pass under the Paifang, an elaborate and majestic archway in the style of traditional Chinese architecture.

On the other side

we find ourselves in a long narrow alley just off the main pedestrian street. Suddenly we are in a different world, an enclosed world with a single purpose: food! I’m confronted with bright lights, crowds of people walking, chatting, eating, the competing aromas of a few hundred dishes all being cooked at once, and hawkers shouting out their specialty. And writhing scorpions.

It’s a cacophony of people, sounds, smells, and colours, a rich animated stew that has me both excited and curious. A row of red lanterns shows the way forward. We’re on a path of grey flagstones, with hundreds of thick Wi-Fi cables overhead, but they are of little importance. The only important thing is food. On every side we are overwhelmed with choice, much of it unfamiliar and strange.

I’ll just get all the deep fried crunchy insects out of the way first: dung beetles, grasshoppers, silkworms, and of course scorpions. There are other creatures of that ilk that I cannot name, and there are also snakes and starfish. I find it both fascinating and alarming.

Apparently they are all harmless to eat and the Internet abounds with westerners in Asia trying deep fried scorpions and the like. Apparently scorpion is very crunchy and tastes like dried fish. Dried fish does not appeal to me, and I’m just not that adventurous. I can happily go to my grave without ever eating any of these things.

I choose a vegetable-filled spring roll.

It’s a thin crepe filled with cabbage, lettuce, mung bean sprouts, and carrots, wrapped like a burrito. It’s delicious and incredibly greasy. I eat in a hurry. I don’t have enough hands. The paper it’s wrapped in is not enough to catch all the grease flowing from it and it runs down my wrist. At the same time I’m trying to take photos with one hand while I hold the roll in the other, a precarious and ultimately not very successful juggling act. It’s called a jiangbing or Chinese crepe, and I highly recommend it as long as you have two hands, and a good napkin.

We walk on deeper into the alley, all of us with our hands and mouths full of new experiences. We are pretty much the only westerners there.

There is a dazzling display of street food from all over China, and something to suit all tastes from lamb, chicken, pork, or prawn kebabs,

to fried or steamed dumplings filled with pork, beef, shrimp or vegetables. The dumplings come with a sauce – vinegar, chilli, or oil and vinegar. There are hundreds of local delicacies including sheep penis, offal soup, stinky (i.e. fermented) tofu, and cow or sheep stomach known as baodu in China, or tripe in the English-speaking world.

I find it appropriate that the stomach of an animal served as food goes by the same word that means nonsense or rubbish. I remember being served tripe by an aunt when I was a young child. I’d never seen it before, and it tasted awful. I whispered to my mother what is it? I was told it was tripe and I had to eat it anyway. I think it scarred me for life. I don’t think it helped that my aunt was a particularly bad cook.

As I walk along looking at all the food on offer I’m not rushing to eat any of the more exotic things. I choose a kebab by pointing, not really sure what it is but it looks “normal” and it turns out to be pork, tender and delicious.

There’s a stall selling stuffed half pineapples, some appealing looking dumplings, and whole crabs,

and another selling shrimp in quail eggs.

There are amazing looking huge waffle cones filled with fruit, candy, and soft ice cream,

and skewers of sugar-glazed fruit known as tanghulu.

I look longingly at the waffle cones knowing I could never eat that much and settle for regular soft ice cream to finish my meal in this sideshow alley that feels like a celebration of Chinese food culture.

Speaking of Chinese food, on another day I try a deep fried snack the size of a tennis ball. Peter, our guide, takes us there early because the place is so popular he knows there is always a line-up and we need to be in time for the acrobat show. It’s a hole-in-the-wall place where they make these huge balls of sweetened red bean paste, cover it with some kind of coating and throw it in a deep fryer. What comes out is a scorching hot crunchy ball.

Sweetened red bean paste is not a favourite, but deep-fried in a crunchy batter and it’s pretty good. I read that in Wangfujing Snack Street you can get battered deep-fried ice cream. Now that would be a winner! I wish I’d known about it when I was there.

At the acrobat show we discover we have VIP seats! And the stage is impressive. I’m excited waiting for it to start.

After an odd introduction that seems to be some kind of instruction in Chinese calligraphy, and which is completely lost in (the absence of) translation, the real show begins.

There is someone who I can only imagine is the Emperor and his entourage who have come to see the show.

In autocratic fashion he strides to the front of the stage looking very imperial and majestic

before he flings his glorious golden cape and strides to the back of the stage to be seated at the top of a large dais.

It’s a pretty impressive opening. It’s followed by three lovely ladies

introducing the umbrella twirlers.

To the euphonious strains of traditional Chinese music they spin and twirl those umbrellas in every direction, tossing them in the air with their feet and catching them with precision all the while they are keeping the others twirling. What they do takes some serious skill and coordination.

The Emperor, and his concubines in spectacular costumes, leave the stage,

and now it’s time for the guys.

The music is loud and masculine, like an action movie sound track, and they tumble across the stage, and each other, flying through higher and higher hoops. Again it is an act of precision, concentration, and some good gymnastics skills.

The music changes and the full troupe of women arrive

with their spindles, which they twirl back and forth and up and down on strings, keeping them constantly moving.

Some times they toss them high into the air, do a short tumbling run, and then catch the spindle on the string. They also climb all over each other, making towers, all the while keeping those spindles moving.

And then comes this!

Along with more dramatic move-soundtrack music, the two men do all kinds of gymnastics on the inside, and on the outside of the wheels all while each wheel is spinning and the entire thing is rotating. It’s pretty spectacular, highlighted by one of them running blindfold around the outside of the wheel as it rotates with the whole thing moving up, around, and down.

This man, in an extraordinary act of balance and coordination flips bowl after bowl into the air and catches them on his head

and the women come back to do an acrobatic routine while keeping a collection of dinner plates spinning.

The penultimate act is the acrobatic drum spinners, much like the umbrella spinners only with big drums.

The final act is without doubt the highlight of the show and one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

A huge spherical cage is brought onto the stage. There is a trapdoor in the bottom of it. Two men open the trapdoor. A motorcyclist rides onto the stage and through the trapdoor to the inside of the cage. The door is closed and the motorcyclist does laps around the inside of the cage – round and round, and then up and over! So we’re all pretty impressed with this when another motorcyclist rides onto the stage. The door is opened and he joins the first rider. They do laps around and around, up and over, each on his own trajectory within the cage. More impressed. Then another rider appears and enters the cage. Every motorcycle is continually moving in precisely coordinated patterns. Another arrives. That’s four now, all doing loop-de-loops inside this big global cage. And another. The audience roars. And another arrives and we roar louder. In the end there are seven motorcyclists racing around inside the cage. The precision required is mind-boggling.

Then it is over and one by one they exit the cage and line up before us. The applause is deafening.

The acrobats were skilled and precise, and it was a pleasure to watch their strong toned bodies, their defined muscles, pointed toes, smiling faces, and painful flexibility. It was a really good show, and the final act of the motorcyclists made it worth every penny!

You can see most of the show here, though it is a slightly different version than the one I saw. The motorcycles start at 33.12

Next post: The Great Wall that wasn’t, and an overnight train.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.