“Mr, Mr, cheapa cheapa for you” A young girl in a pink jacket and three quarter length jeans with long dark hair was dragging at my left hand as I tried to pull away from her sock stall. “I don’t need socks” it was a useless response but made me feel better for having given it. “Mr Mr, come Looka, cheapa for you, you buy” I managed to jerk my arm free from her and move on quickly. Such is the way of the Silk Markets of Beijing. The stall owners here may cling on to your arm, shirt or belt as you try to walk away, whilst they’re screaming at you “Mr, cheapa cheapa for you”.
I had been in Beijing for a month, it is August and the weather is very hot. Near our last night a group of two Americans from Minnesota, a Dane and I went out to the Silk Markets. These markets are on the corner of Jianguomen Outer Street and Silk Road. The Silk Markets are contained in a five story building and have a fierce reputation for tough bargaining with cunning persistent stall owners who hate to see a potential customer walk by. Bargaining in this place is an absolute art and you will probably always lose, as these young men and women do it from 10 am until 9 pm seven days a week. You can get a happy medium, where you feel your purchase was a good price and they are happy with the price. The thrill of seeing how well you can do draws you back time and time again. They sell clothes, shoes, bags, some electronics, anything made with silk, knock off watches, toys and the ever present DVD’s. This trip I purchased a Panda back pack for my four year old Granddaughter. I thought I did pretty well really, until I found someone else selling the exact same thing but their starting price was nearly what I paid. Oh well I felt good for a short while. We went to the Mexican Wave restaurant, on the opposite side of Silk Street from the markets. It was Friday night and there was a Chinese guy there playing guitar and singing some damn good early sixties folk rock music. We sat and listened to Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon and a host of good Rolling Stones numbers for hours. We ate mediocre Mexican food and drank margaritas and Corona beer letting time get away on us. Heading home we found we couldn’t get a taxi, the street we were on was nearly empty; it was very weird and unusual. So we headed up to the crossroad by the Silk Market thinking we would have a better chance at catching a cab. Here we saw Police, by the hundreds, on bikes, in trucks with water cannons, the complete works. No cabs though, and the street appeared to be closed, this is the major 8-lane road leading to Tiananmen Square and it was closed. It seemed a pretty big road to me to be closed. So we walked up towards the Shangri-la Hotel looking for a cab and still nothing, lots of people were waiting but the road was closed, very odd. We stood at an official cab stand for 20 minutes and still nothing. So I suggested we go up to the Shangri-La lobby and see if we can get the hotel staff to get us one. Well same problem, the guy at the door was good and he had a queue of customers growing a little agitated all waiting for a cab. We watched the queue go down as cabs arrived and left over about a 30 minute period until finally we were at the front of the queue.
We saw a cab turn up and thought here we go, time to get out of here, just then a couple of ladies stepped out of the hotel and one is holding her shoulder. They talked to the doorman in Mandarin and the next thing I know he is asking me if we will let these two ladies have the cab as they have to go up to the hospital. Oh bugger, of course we would let them have the last cab in Beijing, and we watched in disbelief as the cab disappeared down the drive and out onto the street. The road fell silent again and the only thing to do was to wait. We asked what was going on and were told that officials had closed a lot of streets for the Chinese National Holiday parade rehearsals. The roads to our hotel were apparently blocked with no access. I asked if we could take the Subway, although it was getting late and the trains had probably stopped running anyway. I was told no it was closed until Sunday. Things were looking bleak for us, and we were facing a long walk home. Wile chatting to the door man, I established this nice young man was working here while attending University. He was hoping to get into hotel management. I told him I was a frequent stayer at the Shangri-la and said how I thought they were great hotels; in fact I stayed so often I was a platinum member. I took out my card and showed him. It was a master stroke, he said he knew how he could find us a cab and walked us down the “in” ramp of the hotel and passed a building as we came to a small round-a-bout. Here he saw a cab with its light on, he rushed up ahead of us and commandeered the cab in the name of the hotel. We took that cab right in front of ten or so patiently waiting locals. Normally I would have felt some compassion for them, but we had been out there for nearly two hours waiting for a cab and it was time for no more Mr Nice Guy. The street our hotel on was allegedly closed as a part of the practice for the festivities. The Bell Boy explained our situation to the driver and got him to take us as near as possible to our hotel. We were in and gone, thankyou Bell Boy. Riding home was surreal, there were roads blocked off in all directions and the place was alive with police, I saw SWAT teams in black uniforms, black face masks and no doubt loaded automatic weapons standing on street corners. Our cabbie was a magician and within 20 minutes we had weaved through all the blocks and detours and were pulling up outside the Crowne Plaza on Wangfujing Ave.
This is so typical of Beijing; the city gets locked down, almost without warning but life just goes on without anyone really getting upset. In discussion with our staff at a later date, I found out that this was the first of a set of routines that went on every weekend in September, Friday nights they had to leave the draws of their desks unlocked as the police searched every office block that overlooked the proposed parade route. The route was at least a ten kilometer stretch of road and would have involved hundreds of tower blocks. The preparations were for the October 1st 60th celebration of the creation of the Peoples Republic of China. Tens of thousands of school children were bussed in to the city to practice their routines in Tiananmen Square. They would start a midnight on Friday night and not finish until Sunday evening. This was all supposed be done in secret so the actually parade was a surprise to the population when it was finally unveiled on the day. Preparation were on a colossal scale, with tens of kilometers of road blocked off and thousands of temporary toilets erected along the parade route, temporary crowd control put in, kilometers of temporary flowerbeds and gardens installed. Wangfujing completely redecorated which meant the tearing down of the temporary summer bars and cafes which filled the shopping district replacing them with placards explaining the magnificence of the republic. Hundreds of gold coloured busts of prominent states men and women from the past glorious sixty years were installed in perfect lines along this thoroughfare. Below is the China News article on what was going on that night. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2009-08/29/content_8631088.htm