Don’t be fooled by the delicate cherry blossoms. The city of Yiwu far from qualifies as being one of China’s beautiful cities. It’s industrial, it’s bleak, it’s polluted and like many parts of southern China the sky is a lovely shade white; thick with pollutants where after a few days in the city you can actually feel a heaviness in your lungs.
No cause for anguish, however. Once you get past the negatives, as I found this time around, there was a city I was becoming somewhat fond of.
Two years ago Miss B and I made the trip here for work, scouring the mammoth Commodity Market at the International Trade City for products to ship back to Sydney. It’s a cumbersome yet exciting exercise and when the buildings aren’t heated it’s a bit of a slog at 5°C whilst rugged up from head to toe. Thermals and gloves were my best friends, those five days.
The numerous canteens located throughout Trade City dish up some pretty good food considering how hectic they all get with the thousands of people that pour through the buildings every day of the year. It’s a token system where one exchanges renminbi (RMB) for coloured plastic discs, each to the value of 5RMB. That means one token is equal to about 75¢ and considering a meal here costs between 5 and 10RMB, lunch is inexpensive to say the least.
No English signage means that it’s all a bit of a guessing game in choosing lunch but to be honest it’s very much self explanatory and doesn’t require too much figuring out. I fell in love with it two years ago and this time around I was glad it was still being made. Fried pork with peanuts and soya beans. The tomato and egg was a little stodgy but the black fungus, morning glory and pork made up for it. Even the tofu was delicious, despite the fact it looked like slop.
No guessing game was needed with what was going on in this corner of the canteen. Watching the pro pull his noodle was mesmerising and the outcome was some of the best hand-pulled noodle soup that has entered my mouth.
With each order of soup the noodle master puts on his theatrics and drops the freshly pulled strands into the bubbling cauldron as you point and ask for your desired additives. There’s a tray of braised pork, another tray of chicken, some fried eggs and also some uncooked chopped morning glory. First the noodles are strained and put into the large paper cup, the meat/egg/veg follows before he ladles in the most beautiful stock to finish the process. It truly is heaven in a paper cup, and at 75¢, an absolute steal.
Note about the currency exchangers. We were in need of some local cash so rather than go to a bank our agent and interpreter had us driven to some black-clad dodgy looking dudes, loitering out the front of a bank building on Bin Wang Lu Road.
It was all quite simple. Roll down the car window and let the dude know what currency you want changed and how much. A little haggling later and you have your desired RMB. It may be black market but somehow the local authorities turn a blind eye to it. Better rate than the banks!
There are many other food options in the Trade City canteen, including some local specialties. Boiled and then hot-plate fried lamb dumplings, folded egg pancakes called jian bing, a variety of Donghe meat cake that consists of meat filled dough that’s flattened and fried on both sides until slightly crisp or the Donghe meat buns which are steamed and then lightly fried, filled with meat and veg.
Wandering the enormous Commodities Market comes with its distractions. Grannies babysitting grandchildren, ladies schlepping baskets of sugarcane, strawberries and sunflower seeds for stallholders to buy and consume. It’s like a city within a city. The lack of rubbish bins means you’re also stepping over piles of sugarcane fibres and sunflower seed shells that are spat onto the floor after they’re eaten.
Cigarette butts and globs of saliva are also mixed in there somewhere, but you kind of get used to the filth and that glorious sound of someone hoiking one up before they let it fly. This is not a place for mysophobics.
Coming across two guys seated at a cart weighted down with a huge compressed slab of colourful mantang was the kind of distraction I can comfortably deal with. Our agent/interpreter said they were from Xinjiang province in north-west China as she recognised their dialect despite not understanding much of it. Just looking at them I could see they were from the north-west but it was the slab of peanutty goodness they were selling I was interested in. I bought a slice of it, it was weighed and we took a bite. The nougat-like mantang is loaded with nuts, chewy honey and dates and decorated with a colourful pattern of raisins and other dried fruits.
As the afternoon progresses one can find food vendors setting up temporary shop near the many entrances of Trade City, hoping to snare the hungry buyers and make a quick buck. Skewered lamb dusted with cumin and chilli, fried and streamed dumplings, fruit, roasted sweet potatoes, steamed corn, you name it.
The section of footpath on Chouzhou North Road opposite the southern building of Trade City transforms into an open-air food street late in the afternoon. There truly is no need to find a restaurant for dinner when you can load up on local street foods for a few RMB a pop.
The smell of grilling meat hangs in the air so follow your nose or find the gap in the buildings next to a Middle Eastern-looking hotel where this permanent northern Chinese grill and nang oven fire up the goods every afternoon. It’s a simple business selling a simple product. Freshly charred meat with crispy yet chewy nang bread straight out of the oven.
Not too far away, and if you’re not much of a meat eater, catch one of the dudes knocking up jian bing. A batter is smeared on a coal-fired hot-plate and as it slowly sets he cracks an egg over the top, spreading it across the pancake before sprinkling over coriander and chilli. A final sprinkling of crunchy wafer-like tidbits and the pancake is folded into a square before being wrapped and sold.
Snapshots in and around Xiaozici Park (above). The park location can be seen in the centre of the photo below)
View from the Ramada Plaza Hotel. The street market shown below can be found if you walk down the shadowed laneway, in the photo above.
Most mornings before work I’d head up the road for a half-hour walk and by pure accident I turned a few corners and discovered a small local covered market. The community of people made it feel like a small village, with kids running around, guys playing pool on outdoor tables and everyone getting on like one big happy family. Check the steaming cauldron behind the pool table in the above pic. Man, I wish I stuck my head over there to see what was cookin’.
If you’re ever in that part of the world and want to get to one of the markets just walk down the left-side of Huagong Road from Chengzhong North Road. Take the first laneway on the left and then the first right. Easy. It appears to be a morning market so the turn-out of vendors may reflect on the weather as when we visited it was a little wet and there were many empty spaces along the hutong strip.
It’s fresh food galore with pot-roasted pigeon, seaweed, live chickens and ducks, duck eggs, sprouting beans and pulses, dried chilli, live fish, crustaceans and eels, you name it.
I’m glad I didn’t ignore this little plume of steam. Just around the corner on a residential street near the hutong market I noticed a corner hole-in-the-wall restaurant popular with locals. Jin Hua Hu Bing. A food house that likes its poetry, as I learned after fellow blogger Billy translated the text in the above image for me.
On the right of the door it says “Aroma can be smelt 1000 miles away”. On the left are messages for a better Chinese citizen along the lines of “treasure marriage, treasure family mix in harmony, husband’s & wives respect one another equally, take responsibility equally, work hard together and hold hands in progress.”
There weren’t queues of people as such, just a steady stream of hungry folk stopping in to take away what this guy was serving up. Dumplings. Two short towers of metal steamers sit outside on the crusty footpath next to a recycled metal drum that has been transformed into a stove-top, making for a round hot-plate where the cook delicately turns and lightly fries steamed dumplings loaded with morning glory and garlic (2RMB).
I almost didn’t stop because I though Miss B wanted to move on but thanks to her saying “try them”, I paused for a few minutes to sit and savour them at the outside table next to a mother and child chowing on congee and steamed dumplings. This was one of those moments where things slowed right down, and for a brief moment I became part of the local fabric. Yiwu, you may be a money-generating monster but you truly do have a heart and soul.