This day begins bright and early. Time to get to work and start creating this project, Banjo Earth: China! The neighborhood we are staying in is pretty far North in Beijing, and up that way there are very few foreigners. There is a vibrant and happening famer’s market nearby, so we decide to go there in the morning to shoot some film and take some pictures. It’s the same market I write about in Day 3 Beijing, but even on a second take, it doesn’t disappoint.
The variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, mushrooms, meats, and trinkets are astounding. The smells and flavors of this place just engulf the senses, and you are left in a state of funky bliss. Not knowing how to order specific amounts of certain things, I end up with a little more than we can handle. I get weighed down with a huge bag of roasted sunflower seeds, a large bag of apples, some oranges, and weird beautiful purple fruit of which I’ve never encountered. We sit down for some morning dumplings (jiaozi), lentil soup, and soak it all in.
After breakfast, we head back to the apartment with our market acquisitions and settle down for a few. There is a bit of time to work on one of my favorite Chinese folk songs, entitled “Night of Grassland” or “Cao Yuan Zhi Ye”. It is a gorgeous melody with several parts, and has taken me a few tries to learn it from a recording I have. After getting a better grasp on it, we heat up some leftover noodles for lunch, and head out into the city.
This time, I leave my tremendously heavy banjo case at home, strap the 5 string around my neck, and head down the street. Done for a matter of practicality, this ends up being an accidental stroke of genius. Instead of walking around with a boring instrument case, I am transformed into a walking hillbilly mariachi, strolling the streets and subways of Beijing, and serenading anyone and everyone who comes within earshot of my banjo. The responses I get from this are priceless! On the subway people show a mixture of fright, pleasure, amusement, and confusion.
The Chinese are a people who respect the arts and music. You can sense this in the way they encounter the banjo. Most of them have never seen one. There are similar instruments in Chinese classical music, but none really like the 5-string banjo. The glitter of the gold rim and the cascade of notes get thumbs up and smiles that energize my soul. They genuinely seem to enjoy the music that comes from me, and my instrument. Many people ask if they can take a picture with me, and some shy girls even try to surreptitiously record us with their selfie-stick!
We stroll the Beihai Park, one of the more beautiful places in all of Beijing. It is a nearly 1,000 year old park, with monuments and statues that date from the past dynasties of China. Boats scurry about on the lake, people dance by the water, and everyone is enjoying their day. There is an ornate Buddhist Temple in the park with immaculate sculptures and architecture. At the top is a golden Buddha, protected by his angels and musicians. I kneel at the alter and ask for blessings in my endeavors here. I feel his touch on my spirit and a golden flash of energy courses through my body. It feels wonderful. Thanks Buddha.
After leaving the park, we purchase a couple of hairpieces, the hot thing in Beijing right now, and began our search for food. In the Beijing hutongs (alleys), you are never sure what you may find. There are residential spaces, small stores, and lots of tiny restaurants. Almost every one of these food places is delicious. Many of them serve just one or two items, specializing in a particular dish.
One of my very favorite things to eat, not only in China, but in the universe, is Huo Guo, or Hot Pot. It is a boiling pot of spiced stock or stew, to which you add any number of raw foods. On this particular visit we ordered beef, potato, spinach, and tofu. As the food arrives, you drop it, piece by piece, into the boiling spiced pot. After letting it cook for a few moments, you search through the pot with your chopsticks and pull out a deliciously cooked bite. You then drop it in your bowl of sesame sauce, place it in your mouth, and watch the heavens descend upon you. This food is so delicious that it becomes a spiritual experience. It is a very communal and active dinner, as you are a part of the making of the dish. Having had dreams of Hot Pot after leaving China the last time, I thoroughly enjoyed watching my friend experience this for the first time. It’s the type of dinner that you wish could last forever.
But alas, dinner must end sometime. So we pay the tab, and begin finding our way to the Old What Bar. This is a place with an interesting history, as it’s located right beside of the Forbidden City. It is an old rock club, and the Chinese folk hero Cui Jin used to play here in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We are meeting some new friends of mine, a few expats who play live and play music in China. It is an old time jam of blues, Americana, and songwriters. I sit in for a few songs and have a great time. You can feel and hear the history all around you just whispering from the walls of graffiti. Another fine China day in the books, I strap my banjo around my neck, and we head for home.