The bus dropped us off near one of the main shopping streets (mercifully turned into a pedestrian mall), and it was here that we could see how hard the city was pushing to be ready for the upcoming Pan-Asian Games; almost every square inch of every building was covered in bamboo scaffolding & green plastic netting so work crews could get everything repaired, cleaned, and spit-polished for the big show! One nice side effect was that this gave us a little more shade to walk in (depending on where we were), but it would've been nice to see more of the actual signage & architecture. There was also some statuary on the street (although far less than on the island), and although it was partially covered to protect it from the cleaning & construction work it was easy to see how some of it depicted the types of vendors one would have encountered on the street half a century earlier (my favorite was the tea vendor, shown here).
We didn't go very far before entering a narrow street jam-packed with cafe umbrellas and sidewalk market stands; we had reached the old animal market. Despite the heavy crowds (and occasional vehicle bravely/foolishly picking its way slowly through them), all the stores sort of ignored the division between building, sidewalk and street; merchandise started on the shelves in the small storefronts and continued in an odd collection of bins, bags, and buckets clear out to the curb and beyond. Everywhere we looked were small animals of every description, ranging from brilliant tropical fish in plastic bins on the ground to puppies & kittens (obviously panting & uncomfortable in the heat) in small cages that were sometimes stacked five or six feet high. Lucy reassured us, and we chose to believe her, that although things had once been different, the present-day market was a pet market -- not food. (Back in Guilin, Lisa had explained that in some areas, an old practice is continued: families raise dogs for a year or two, then at certain holidays exchange them -- to be used for special dinners. This led to a lot of nervous jokes about how to react if you gave your neighbors a Great Dane and they gave you a Chihuahua, but in general we avoided talking or thinking about the subject.)
I can write quite a lot about the animals we saw, but I'll just let my camera talk for me (this is just a sampling of what we saw for sale):
If the cage full of very still kittens looks scary, don't worry; the cage was lashed onto a bike, and about two minutes after I took that photo they were all awake and mewing at the passing crowd -- hotter than maybe they should've been, but looking & sounding healthy.
I also kept glancing up at the buildings lining the street and realized we were walking through the old neighborhood we saw from our window at the White Swan, the older part of the city with the new European-style facade that ran parallel to the river. I've always liked older buildings (they have character that most modern architecture lacks) so I took a few photos of the facades & alleyways that marked how most of the locals lived until very recently.
As we continued through the narrow streets, the animals sort of petered out to be replaced by stores literally overflowing with an odd variety of bins, bags and boxes of dried herbs, fungi and animal parts; we had entered the traditional medicine market. Lucy explained that people who wanted to try traditional cures instead of Western medicine would usually come to these markets and seek out a quality of goods that matched the seriousness of their condition (often trying cheaper, lower-quality ingredients first and working their way up the price & quality scales as needed). They would consult with the shopkeepers for the proper set of ingredients, which would either be mixed for them in the shop or that they would take home and prepare on their own. (I noticed many of the higher-end stores also sold food processors to aid in the at-home preparation of traditional mixes & brews.)
I had been expecting either a musty, woodsy smell or maybe something more "mediciney" but was pleasantly surprised at the variety of scents, most of which were pleasant. (Yes, there were a couple of spots where I definitely walked faster, but most things smelled pretty good if they smelled at all.) Most common were the large burlap or plastic bags of dried fungi, herbs, seeds or tree bark... but almost every store had "lizard-on-a-stick" available, and many also sold dried deer sinew, dried turtle shells, dried sea life, and assorted terrestrial animals' anatomical features dried for easy grinding.
Somehow, I couldn't picture finding any of these -- nor their smaller and only slightly less athletic brown cousins in another bin next door -- at my local CVS or Giant Pharmacy. I was also very glad for the excellent zoom lens on my camera; fascinating as the sight was, I found it best enjoyed from several feet away. We kept walking, eventually passing a set of blankets on the ground with fresh turtle shells drying in the sun as we reached the end of the market. There were a few difficult moments as we located and navigated up the stairs of the pedestrian bridge that would let us cross back onto Shamian Island, but we all figured out how to carry strollers up the steps without taking the little ones out and soon were passing from the hustle & bustle of downtown to the relative quiet of the island.
There was one slightly jarring sight on the bridge: near the Shamian end, sitting quietly against the wall, was a little girl obviously begging. We took our cue from the passers-by & Lucy and walked past her without stopping, and as we began navigating the steps back down to street level Lucy told us that there were some criminal gangs who would have one or two little children act as beggars for them. She said there were doubtless one or two older teens or young adults nearby keeping an eye on the girl, as much to ensure she didn't run away with any cash as to keep her safe. It was an unpleasant surprise, but also helped explain the background of "counterfeit-free" awards just a few blocks away.
As soon as we were back on the island, the pace slowed and the noise dropped away -- Shamian really is an enclave of (relative!) calm in the city. We hadn't gone far before encountering several more fashion shoots; one featured what I thought was a particularly good-looking bridal couple, while another had a young woman in 6" platform heels balancing on the 3" wide wall around one of the planters. Yep, it was good to be back "home" after the noise & crowds of downtown! :-)