Flea the scene in bustling Bei­jing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

I have landed in flea mar­ket heaven, el­bow-deep in silks, strings of agate beads, jade jew­ellery ga­lore and pala­tial spreads of porce­lain and pret­tily pat­terned util­i­tar­ian china. Guide Gary (“call me Gaz!”) Wu has three women tourists in his charge and a tight timetable. “We have one hour, please,” he an­nounces in a shaky voice, with em­pha­sis on the p-l-e-a-s-e. Ap­par­ently, there are more than 4000 stalls.

It is a Sun­day morn­ing in Bei­jing and here we are at Pan­ji­ayuan on the Third East Ring Road. Gaz says it used to be a field known as the “dirt mar­ket” with hawk­ers squat­ting on the earth and goods sold from carts and bar­rows. To­day it is al­to­gether more or­gan­ised, with stands spread along par­al­lel rows, grouped more or less ac­cord­ing to spe­cial­i­ties, from bronzes and wood carv­ings to tex­tiles and cal­lig­ra­phy brushes and ink stones. A big no­tice at the arched en­try­way an­nounces Mar­ket Man­age­ment Guide­lines and amid the long list of reg­u­la­tions are warn­ings not to spit, “wear a bared chest” or “spread su­per­sti­tions”. Kindly, “no dis­or­derly pour­ing sewage and trash”.

Bar­gain­ing is ex­pected, and en­cour­aged. Gaz is our ne­go­tia­tor and he en­ters the fray with gusto. We scoop up in­ex­pen­sive but beau­ti­ful buys, from wo­ven place­mats and chunky ban­gles to em­broi­dered purses and minia­ture ginger jars. Many of the sellers are from China’s scat­tered eth­nic groups, in­clud­ing tribal mi­nori­ties. They are dressed in won­der­ful cos­tumes and push “an­tiques” upon us, which Gaz says were prob­a­bly kiln-fired or painted yesterday. And then I see the seller from Yun­nan province in China’s south­west. In 2008, I vis­ited its pop­u­lar tourist city of Li­jiang, cen­tre of the ma­tri­ar­chal Naxi peo­ple, and have re­gret­ted ever since that I didn’t buy their dis­tinc­tive deep blue and white fab­rics.

Gaz bar­gains to and fro with the Naxi sales­woman, I pre­tend dis­in­ter­est, we walk away, the seller fol­lows and jabs her cal­cu­la­tor, the price falls. It is an age-old game. Gaz tells her we will come back, she doesn’t know whether to be­lieve us but then she catches a gleam in my eye. Gotcha.

She un­furls the bolt of indigo-striped fab­ric. It is of uphol­stery qual­ity and I am in love with it. More un­fath­omable ne­go­ti­a­tions by Gaz, who is con­sult­ing his watch. “You have a plane to catch!” he squeals. Money changes hands, the lovely ma­te­rial is tossed into a plas­tic bag. Time to flee the flea mar­ket.

Fol­low on In­sta­gram: su­sankuro­sawa.

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