Is this Wangfujing St. or Times Square?
The streets aren’t glittering like they do back in NYC, but Wangfujing is blazing with LED screens, bright store fronts, and food. Lots and lots of food. You’ll see Caffe Bene, McDonald’s (of course), food stands serving fresh coconuts and a Pizza Hut. But really, you didn’t come to Wangfujing for late night shopping and a cheeseburger.
Once you’re far enough down the street, you’ll come across a little hutong. A hoard of people will be coming and going from this path that may lead you to Diagon Alley. But before you jump in, take a breath and be prepared for what’s in store in this maze of food and Chinese touristy wonder.
Do people really eat that?
After our first week together, my coworkers and I decided to venture down to Wangfujing for the infamous snack stalls. We huddled together and entered the sea of red booths, and bugs. Yes, bugs. That’s the first thing you see. A merchant, serving some tasty fresh scorpion, with some live ones wriggling around on a few sticks. Needless to say, I was pointed out in the crowd, and the vendor teased me in trying a scorpion. He pretty much called me a pansy when I refused.
I’m a foodie, but I’ve never delved into the world of insect cuisine, yet. Eating a bug is something you prepare for, or you save it for a moment of spontaneity. Tonight was not that night for me. I was finishing up my first week in Beijing, and I was not ready to take the chance with the scorpion snack quite yet. Until said vendor, with my back turned, put one of the sticks of live scorpions on my arm. I screamed, and he laughed with an unsettling, childlike glee.
Don’t let my experience put a damper on your Wangfujing adventure, though. It’s strange seeing all the different bugs and other unknown foods on sticks and bubbling beverages. From what I observed there was a starfish, sea horse, millipede, silkworms and other bugs I’ve never seen before. During our night there, I only saw one lone woman eating a stick of scorpions. I’m not sure if she was enjoying it, I couldn’t quite distinguish the expression on her face.
Bargaining for a lucky cat
After walking past the bug stands, we found the shopping hutong. Oh yes, the blessed stands that all have the same Buddha beads, dragon masks, and Chinese lucky cats. Don’t think you’re going to walk up to a stand without someone approaching you with a price ready. Politely say no, and say that you’re just looking. Also, don’t think that won’t make them lower the price. The vendors on this side of Wangfujing are champion bargainers. They didn’t realize that night we had the Lord of Negotiation on our side.
I speak of one of my coworkers who was looking through the vast displays of knickknacks for a lucky cat souvenir for his mom. He’d found the one he was looking for, but the original asking price was 60RMB, which was a ridiculous for a small cat that sat atop of a digital clock. He worked some negotiation magic and ended up talking the merchant down to 11RMB. Don’t ask how, sometimes charm may be the answer, or maybe it’s the fact that he’s a young Englishman.
Don’t settle for the initial price for anything. All the stalls have the same products, so you may find it cheaper right next door. They ask for those high prices because Wangfujing is a favorite tourist area. So brush up on your bargaining skills and don’t be shy.
Unknown meat on a stick
One thing you have to realize when you come to Wangfujing, or to China, in general, you have to be open with food. Be ready for your taste buds to go on an exotic unplanned trip. Because sometimes you never know what you’re eating. Our original plan was to find a noodle shop, sit back and enjoy the live Chinese opera that repeatedly places down a hutong. Instead, we arrived a little too late, with pushy waiters pulling out chairs for us yelling out, “Beer! Sit! Cold beer and noodles!” There was no one at any of these establishments. And the rule of thumb in China is if no one is eating there, you shouldn’t either.
So what else to do when you’re on Wangfujing? Try your luck with one of the food stands and get some late night grub. It’s always a plus when you find a stall, and you know what they’re serving. We found someone selling takoyaki, which is a Japanese food and is a little ball with diced octopus topped with tempura flakes and special sauce.
Sometimes the prices of the food here is a little steep, so it’s smart to share when you’re here with friends. You also get to try different dishes instead of filling up on one thing. Also catch some of the deals from some vendors. A few do 2 for 10RMB, which is where the unknown meat comes in.
It was late, the market was about to close down, and we were hungry, so we ran for last minute options. One person was smart and picked up some dumplings, but the rest of us were frugal and found the meat on the stick. Everything is in Chinese, so there was no sign of what food it was, but it was good. Full warning, if the vendor asks you if you want spicy, and you’re not good with spice, don’t do it to yourself. Your taste buds will take the first flight home and chug a gallon of milk.
To Wangfujing or not to Wangfujing
Wangfujing! Go for it; this is the place to throw yourself into the Chinese culture. Well, in a very touristy way. You’ll have to navigate your way through crowded tiny hutongs, eat bizarre foods, and negotiate your way into pocketing cute trinket treasures. Obviously, this isn’t the traditional Chinese cuisine found on Wangfujing, not in the north at least. Southern Chinese cuisine contains more buggy delicacies.
The market starts at 18:00 – 22:00 and you don’t need the full four hours to enjoy it. Just an hour will do to meander around and get lost a little bit. Be cautious of what you eat, this is an open market, and cases of food poisoning have been reported by tourists after a wild night out on Wangfujing. You’ll have other chances to explore the depths of Chinese food.
But tonight if you’re in Beijing and in the mood to brush up on your bargaining skills and eat some street food, hang out at on Wangfujing and look for the scorpion-filled little hutong.