Monday, February 13, 2006

First adventures in Beijing

Jeremy and I headed out yesterday to IKEA, thinking we would pick up a few inexpensive linens and household items. We had barely entered the warehouse before being jostled on all sides by a stream of similarly minded young Chinese in their 20s and 30s. Up the escalator we went, with a security guard barking at the shoppers to move in an orderly fashion. At the top of the escalator we were astounded by the number of people in the store. Each and every display was surrounded by shoppers picking over items. Moving through the store was less like taking a stroll and more like navigating a train station at rush hour. That was the first disappointment. The second was the prices, which were identical to those in the United States. What a contrast to the steaming hot croissant-like bing we’d bought off the street that morning, about 6 cents each. We did our best to leave the store as quickly as possible, which meant finding the aisles that had only 15 instead of 30 people in them. Outside, Jeremy spotted a “dumpling city” sign, which led to a delicious lunch of steamed dumplings and stir-fried eggplant, bell pepper, and potatoes.

Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—was our next stop. Clearly, we had not learned our lesson – avoid Western stores on weekends, where throngs of middle class Chinese gather to spend their money. If anything, the store was more crowded than IKEA. Pushing the grocery cart, Jeremy and I could barely stay together as we moved, slowly and painfully, through the store. Like IKEA, the store is laid out so that you have to go upstairs before you can buy stuff downstairs.

The first time, we entirely missed the down ramp and made a full circuit. On the second pass, we found the down ramp entrance. Like cattle, we emerged onto the ground floor. There we were met with the spicy smoke of Chinese wok cooking and the sight of raw fish, stacked high in rows, heads all pointing in our direction. Hawkers called our attention to special promotions. I snagged a box of strawberries before ducking back into the crowd, checking to make sure that Jeremy and the shopping cart were not too far behind.

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