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April 11, 2006  |  China -- Tuesday  |  6237 hit(s)

Today is supposed to be a down day after yesterday's full-on touring. Only two excursions are planned. The first is to the so-called Russian Market, which is a few blocks away. (The sign in English over the door called it the "Alien's Street," but the signs inside were all in Russian, like "Escalator this way," for which I surprised myself by being able to read the Cyrillic.)

Like the market we were in the other day, it's a building full of stalls, but it's lower-key in every way. The greater number of stalls sell clothing and shoes, with one floor also containing electronics, toys, and teas. The story seems to be that the Russians come on junkets down to Beijing looking for bargains, which explained why the clothing was a bit on the garish side and why there was less effort than we'd seen on Sunday to make the knock-offs look authentic, as in, spelling brand names correctly, for example. The sales techniques were noticeably less aggressive. We were wondering whether it might not have been because the Russians are so damn hard-headed that there's not much point in trying to browbeat them into entering your booth. But we did have one satisfying incident where Bob drove a hard bargain with a vendor who accepted his price, but swore that he was driving her into poverty and she would have to return to her ancestral village. Yeah, as if.

On our way home from the Russian Market we popped into an electronics market for a quick gander at computer and stereo stuff. It was the same story, basically -- booths for several floors, each offering some selection of gear. Bob said it was legit stuff, not counterfeit; most of the stuff is manufactured here in China anyway, and we were probably looking at stuff that had somehow fallen off the back of a truck. Some of the larger booths were official distributors for companies like Dell, he said. Prices were good for domestic stuff, but the same as home for anything they probably had to import. I hadn't brought a list of stuff to look for, which I regretted momentarily with the array of hard disks and other paraphernalia that I might have actually gotten some deals on. The software ... well, software here works the same as CDs and DVDs.

We also managed to finally sort out the famous SIMM card for our cell phone. The card allows you to connect to the network and gives you something like 160 minutes. I haven't bothered to learn anything about cell phones, so I don't know if this is something that would be possible at home, but whatever. We're connected for now.

The second outing was to the Back Lakes area, an area of man-made lakes that's surrounded by shops and restaurants. You can walk around the lakes (I think), but the most popular thing to do, it appeared, was to rent a bicycle rickshaw and be zipped around. Groups of tourists would be ferried around, one or two tourists per vehicle, in caravans of bright-colored rickshaws, which made a cool sight. Word is that the rickshaw drivers are loath to touch their brakes, so they go like hell, but things seemed reasonably sedate around the lake.

The shops in the area are in crooked little alley-like streets, and are all oriented to tourists, selling knick-knacks and somewhat higher-quality clothing (at higher-quality prices). It was fun to look, but there wasn't much that compelled buying.

We stopped for beers, which turned into a search for a restaurant. During beers, Bob's girlfriend showed up. She's a Tibetian girl, tall among the women we've seen, nominally an art student here in Beijing. She speaks Chinese and about three Tibetian dialects, but no English, so conversation was all transmitted via Bob, somewhat limiting spontaneity, but interesting nonetheless.

Dinner was at a restaurant at the lakeside. After our first day of inadvertently boycotting local cuisine, we're beginning to make up for it. I paged through the lengthy menu, which had pictures and the usual not-quite English descriptions. (In one case, apparently despairing of the dictionary, they identified some seafood by its Latin name.) I got a little worried as I spotted a fair number of offerings that made me wince, given the critters involved. Bob again took care of ordering, and slightly to my relief, everything that appeared involved recognizable ingredients. Man, it was good. An unexpected delight, I've discovered, is the greens (spinach or "some other weed, who knows" per Bob), which they do up in some way that's just yummy. But it's all great.

During dinner the weather took a turn, and in fact, right this second, the wind is blowing like crazy, which is making weird howling noises. It's not raining, but it's kicking up a lot of dust in a city that's already very dusty, a combination of endless construction, pollution, and location in an arid area. Hopefully tomorrow won't be washed out due to weather.