Some, like this family, had all their Spring Festival needs loaded in their wooden boat – a box of firecrackers, some incense and candles to offer to the ancestors, and about twenty-five new stools for all the expected guests.
The main street runs parallel to the jade coloured Qingshui River, with two tiny noodle shops and a few places selling farm supplies. The central basketball court is covered with drying rice from the rice harvest, being raked slowly and meditatively by an elderly woman with a wooden paddle.
But on market day Shidong explodes into activity. Early in the morning the basketball court is cleared of rice and becomes a makeshift poultry market and slaughtering centre. The stallholders erect tents, umbrellas and tables lining both the main street and the large flat area beside the river, and people pour in from near and far – on foot, by bus, by motorbike and by boat.
In no particular order, you can buy embroidery silks, fighting birds, a piglet, ten yards of cloth, indigo dye, buffalo hide, a short-handed sickle for harvesting rice, a fish net, a silver head dress, or a red coil of firecrackers.
Right near the entrance are the indigo sellers. Almost every Miao woman dyes her own cloth for clothing for her family, and although some still make their own indigo paste from fermented indigo leaves, it’s much easier to buy the paste from the market.
Women sell soap nuts – the seed pods of a local tree – which can be used to make a stiffening and glossing agent for embroidery threads.
The man on the left is selling pieces of dried buffalo hide, used to make a gelatin dip for indigo dyed fabric to stiffen it and give it sheen. The roots on the right are from a mountain tree, and can be pulped to make a red-brown fabric dye.
If you would prefer someone else to dye fabric for you, the market offers a dyeing service – buy your fabric (usually cream homespun cotton) and leave it with these dye vendors who will dye, dry and deliver your fabric in just a few hours while you shop.
Boat parking, for those who arrive by water. Many villagers living on the other side of the river can now come to market on foot thanks to the new footbridge.
Shidong Market – Details
Tricycle truck – slightly larger than a motorbike, holds slightly more than a wheelbarrow. Maximum load seen carried: six people plus a pig and eight chickens.
云南最酷的人, 都卖热水壶. 因为人人都知道只有很酷的人才会用热水瓶.
The main hall of the market is a vast space stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of chillies – from Xinjiang (curled and crinkled), from Hebei (straight and dark) and from Henan (straight and plump). Each has a different taste and degree of heat, although if you really want to maximize the heat you can also purchase sacks of chili seeds (above).
The air is full of the acrid smell of dried chillies and it makes your eyes water and your nose run. I developed a tight cough, the kind you get when you fry chillies at home and the kitchen fills with the aerosolized chili vapour. The chili vendors (and their children) seemed completely immune to it though – playing cards, eating lunch and gossiping amongst the red-filled sacks.
The vendors of the spice market are its lifeblood, a hard-working, cheery bunch who toil seven days a week. Chengdu people are very friendly, but the vendors at the spice market are almost overwhelming in their enthusiastic friendliness, and it’s a place that sees few foreign visitors.
A group of chili vendors trailed me around the market, explaining to everyone who I was and where I was from. (Australia? Wow! Lives in Shanghai huh? Ooh. Interested in Chinese food? Of course!) I was delighted by their hospitality and good humour – I think my eyes streamed as much from laughter as from the chillies.
If you’re ever in Chengdu, yes, be sure to see the pandas, but don’t miss the Spice Market. It’s unforgettable.
Here are a dozen things I couldn’t resist:
Does anyone else out there have a kitchen full of essential equipment like this, purchased on holidays with the romantic notion that when you go back home you will make (insert name of foreign food here) every single day, thereby justifying the purchase?
Uyghur women wear small fortunes of gold, with elaborate gold earrings being part of normal daily dress. When a woman marries, her husband-to-be will provide for a whole set of gold jewellery – earrings, necklace and bracelet, which she will choose with the help of her female relatives.
I did have my heart set on a pair of real gold earrings, each filigree curl inset with one tiny rough turquiose stone, but when I went back to the store in the bazaar it was closed. Tragedy. Instead, I bought a handful of fake gold earrings, just as much fun and way, way cheaper than 370 yuan/gram (about $60/gram), which is the going price for gold in Kashgar.
Well OK, not the most practical or lightweight souvenir I’ve ever purchased, but I love my glazed green ewruk or water jug. The style is typical of Kashgar, with the earthy colours and simple designs perfect for serving hearty Uyghur food and drink.
The shops selling earthenware goods lie between the old city and the western edge of the bazaar – just look for piles of jugs and pots on a long stretch of pavement.
Visit any dora dermek shop selling spices and ask for a tetitku – a spice mixture. The vendor will take a little of this, a little of that, and hand you a small paper parcel inside which is a dynamite powder packed with flavour used for seasoning kebabs, roast lamb, chicken or vegetables.
Uyghurs have a rich and proud musical history and at the bazaar you might be tempted to purchase one of these beautiful instruments – a stringed duttar made from patterned mulberry wood. Then you can practice singing the muqam, an ancient Uyghur song with 14,000 lines named by Unesco as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’
There are bullfrogs too, also sold alive and killed, skinned and trimmed to order.
And every wet market has a dry goods stall, filled to bursting with dried beans, rice, dried mushrooms, dried berries, cooking oil, spices, sauces and condiments.
We were partway to developing our own permaculture set-up when we left for Shanghai, having just finished building our henhouse (the Chicken Hilton, as it was known), establishing a vegetable garden and installing a gray water system for diverting the washing machine water to the garden (Brisbane had just come out of its longest-ever drought – none of us knew another severe flood would follow it). So I love to visit Northey Street to see what might become of our garden when we return to Australia eventually. Bees are definitely on my list!