A meal comes cheap in China but even more so if you cook it yourself. However, this requires a visit to a local produce market. These are never more squalid and shocked to see a white person than in small villages. While cycling through China I stopped briefly each evening to buy a dollar's worth of tofu, rice, fruit and vegetables.
You soon become accustomed to the dirt; the smell is anything but fresh. Numerous rotting piles of yesterday's surplus are attended by scatty dogs and swarms of flies. The butcher hacks away with a disconcertingly blackened meat cleaver on an alarmingly filthy counter. Middle-aged women, squatting on their haunches, gossip while casting judgmental eyes on their juniors. Children run around, accidentally knocking food onto the floor; these items are then subtly brushed off and placed back where they once were.
These visits were always fun. The novelty of a European is a big event in the otherwise sleepy villages of rural China. Small crowds would follow me through the rows of obscure vegetables and suspicious looking mushrooms, asking question after question in Chinese and giggling childishly, regardless of age. With next to no Chinese language, I could only answer, guessingly, with yingguoren (Englishman), ar-shi-suh suì (24 years old), or Beijing accompanied by pointing at myself and my bike (Beijing; as in I am going to...).
The phrase bu yao (literally 'not want') is endlessly useful as vendors have a habit of enthusiastically thrusting big duck eggs in your face while you inspect the cucumbers, or triumphantly producing two kilos of garlic when you ask clearly for rice (mi fan).
By the time I return to my bike (unavoidably with my purchases all bagged separately; environmental awareness is almost non-existent in China, government and citizen alike) have usually acquired quite a tail of curious children, jostling one another to get closer but afraid to be the ones at the front, dangerously close to the tall, unpredictable white man. I could rarely resist the opportunity to scatter this crowd by suddenly turning and emitting a furious roar. This would deter them for a few short seconds before they return and begin trying to stroke or pluck the apparently fascinating body hair that grows on guai lou ("foreign devils"); a disgusting feature to the Chinese eye.
With a bulging basket of uncooked dinner and a few less chest hairs, I would ride away from a waving, laughing crowd who, doubtless, would then tell their friends about the strangeness and dirtiness of the foreigner in the market.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.
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