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Food Feature: Skewered views

A Chinese kebab adventure

I'm going to go for it, he says. I'm standing at the food stalls behind the Eastern Market in Beijing, and my traveling companion Mark, with whom I have been surreptitiously eyeballing a kebab stand for almost five minutes, is informing me that he's game for sampling the delicacies they're selling. The stand is one of around 50 or so on this stretch of alley, and we've both been fascinated because of the exotic nature of the kebabs themselves.

The sign above the stand is fairly straightforward. Scorpion kebabs, 15 yuan (about $1.75) per skewer. Cicada kebabs, two for 6 yuan (less than a dollar). Grasshopper skewers, 8 yuan. Each skewer holds four to six critters, and is grilled while you wait. I stare in mortification and wonder as Mark marches up to the stand and orders kebabs in every species available.

I'm convinced the insects are imitations until we start to challenge each other, Survivor" style. I bite into a scorpion only to have its crunchy tail pierce the side of my cheek. They're definitely real.

While the nature of our challenge might seem novel to Western travelers, the concept of an outdoor night market offering everything from the conventional to the outrageous is nothing new to Chinese culture. By day, the streets are packed with vendors selling a wide array of practical items such as shoes, watches, vacuum cleaner hoses and motorcycle parts. But the sunset brings out a different, perhaps more vibrant, life. Metal carts carrying baozi (steamed buns), egg rolls, noodles and jiaozi (dumplings) line the side streets, and crowds jostle to reach the carts as the vendors call out — and sometimes sing, opera-style — the variety of dishes on their menu.

The mere sight of such a scene is enough to drive some tourists back to the comfort of indoor restaurants offering more antiseptic fare. Despite the inherent charm in a bustling street scene, many travelers opt instead to reduce the chances of regretting yesterday's meal by saving the night market for photo opportunities. But my experiences in China have taught me that, to really see the culture beyond the grandeur of attractions such as the Great Wall, you have to throw a bit of caution to the wind.

The market scene is just one example of the kinds of experiences to which I'm referring. Often, simply using public transportation in the same way the locals travel will give you more than your fair share of close personal time with the culture. My journey through China is peppered with experiences on public trains, buses, minibuses and — once — a motorized rickshaw with a flat tire. On a trip from Hangzhou to Beijing, a fellow passenger soothed her young son's scraped knee by telling him to repeat over and over, "I am Chinese. I don't feel pain."

In Xi'an, a bus operator promised to take us from the Terracotta Soldiers to an excavated village site, a 30-minute trip. An hour-and-a-half later, we were dropped off on the side of the highway and had to cross six lanes of traffic before flagging down the aforementioned flat-tire rickshaw that took us to the site, located more than three miles from where the bus had left us.

Even though such experiences are frustrating, contact with the local culture enriches the experience and makes the trip all the more personal. Still, I can't help but marvel at the remarkable development the country has experienced. Co-existing with the cramped, dirty buses and crowded alleys are massive shopping malls built like monuments to encroaching Western consumerism.

That dichotomy is represented at the Eastern Market as well. The night market still springs to life each day in an alleyway running parallel to Dong An Dajie, the main street leading to Tiananmen Square. But accessing the alley now requires passing through a massive, three-block modern shopping mall, complete with McDonald's, TCBY and an Outback Steakhouse.

This imbalance between development and the traditional ways of life is what characterizes much of China today. With Beijing now the host city for the 2008 Olympics, one can imagine what might happen to the side alleys, the rickshaws, the street vendors and other "ordinary" aspects of Chinese life that don't fit the concept of modern development. I'm not trying to champion any sort of message about the potential errors of multinational corporate influence; the economic growth that China has experienced will continue to benefit its citizens. But I enjoy exploring streets still untouched by Starbucks coffeehouses, Pizza Huts and KFCs. To me, that's what traveling is all about — experiencing a way of life vastly different from your own and reaching beyond the comfort of familiarity.

I stand marveling at my friend Mark's gumption as he devours a small army of insects. "How many more times will I be able to witness a scene like this?" I ask. He laughs, assuming I'm referring to the grasshopper legs dangling from his mouth.

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