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Around Town: Haiyuan Outdoor Street Market

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With all the recent talk and government action surrounding street vendors, we decided to get out of the city center and visit one of Kunming's legal street markets.

The Haiyuan Lutian Shichang (海源露天市场), or Haiyuan Outdoor Street Market, has been held weekly for the past 60 years and features hundreds of stalls selling pretty much everything imaginable. Streets around the market are blocked off properly, allowing pedestrians to amble around at their leisure.

The market is a dizzying circus of sights and smells, equal parts wet market, butcher shop and outdoor bazaar. We entered from the intersection of Huigu Lu (慧谷路) and Haiyuan Bei Lu (海源北路) and were immediately swallowed up by a crowd of thousands.

Inside the entrance was a circle of vendors selling standard bowls of mixian and miantiao at four yuan a pop. Other options included biscuits and dried cakes in bewildering abundance. Shaokao stands were conspicuously absent.

The area for prepared food quickly gave over to produce stalls bursting with fruit, vegetables and nuts of all shapes and sizes. Bunches of asparagus sat leaning against huge piles of walnuts. Green and orange mushrooms larger than dinner plates shared mats with piles of unidentifiable lichen and moss. We bought some mantou to ward off our growing hunger and continued exploring.

Next we passed racks of freshly skinned goats, hanging whole and still dripping blood. Next door hung the carcasses of what looked to be a very small deer but turned out to be dogs.

A meter high pile of fish heads sat stinking in the morning sun. We watched a woman slip on an eel that had escaped its bucket and lay squirming uncomfortably on the ground. People carrying live chickens in plastic bags squeezed through the narrow lanes on their way home to make lunch.

We made it through the raw food portion of the market and emerged into a forest of ferns, flowers and other ornamental plants. Tiny cacti sitting in colorful bowls were wedged incongruously between water plants and hibiscus trees. Salesman shouted out their prices any time we glanced too long at their plants and encouraged us to make counter-offers.

The flower hawkers, snack sellers and meat and produce vendors occupied the market's main street but dozens of other alleys branched off to the north. These were slightly less crowded but no less filled with merchandise of all kinds.

We sat down to sample some salty bread baked on a spinning griddle and spoke to the shop owner, Mr Zhang. He told us that to rent space for his mobile bakery cum noodle shop he pays 100 yuan each week. He shows up for the market at 5am to get everything ready.

Mr Zhang and his wife also participate in the 100 year-old Majie area (马街) flea market on Sundays, as well as one held near Dabanqiao (大板桥) on Mondays. They prefer selling their food in Majie because renting a stall there is cheaper and sales more brisk.

The couple also works at a fourth weekly market in the Puji (普吉) area which is held every day ending with the number three or eight (i.e. every month on the 3rd, 8th, 13th, 18th, etc). When dates for the Puji market overlap those of the other markets, he and his wife split up and cover both.

Sated, we thanked the baker and began to explore the alleyways. It was nearing lunchtime and the crowds were growing thicker. We ventured into a housewares section which featured stainless steel and porcelain everything.

This led to an alleyway selling mostly baby and children's clothing, which in turn gave way to stalls selling all manner of adult clothing and shoes.

Further into the labyrinth we came across a dentist willing to pull our teeth and even make molds for dentures. When we enquired about the pain involved in street level tooth extraction he pointed to a bottle of clear liquid and pulled a glass syringe out of his shirt pocket.

We kept moving and the crowds kept growing. We walked past stalls selling ten liter bags of tobacco, pipes made of bone, straw hats, and handmade rugs. There were no appliance stores or places to buy a SIM card in sight.

The day we went to the market was the eve of Chinese Ghost Festival (鬼节), and dozens of stalls were dedicated to the sale of paper money, houses and incense.

These are traditionally burned as offerings to wandering ghosts — a sort of beyond the grave bribe to keep phantoms at bay. We bought a stack of 100 billion yuan notes and hoped it would be enough.

We left shortly before noon, the ground beneath our feet covered with fruit rinds, nutshells, playing cards and water bottles. It was a morning well spent and reminded us that even amidst all of Kunming's changes, old traditions and ways of doing things are still there if you look.

Getting there

The Haiyuan Outdoor Street Market is held every Thursday from 7am until 7pm. One of its main entrances sits beside the Haiyuansi Gongjiaochechang (海源寺公交车场) bus stop. It is serviced by bus lines 70, 83, 85, 138 and 180.

Taxis will drop you at the other end of the market, almost one kilometer away, at the intersection of Haiyuan Bei Lu and Huigu Lu. Follow the crowds down Huigu Lu to enter the market from there. A cab from the city center should cost less than 20 yuan.

Editor's note: GoKunming has yet to visit the other outdoor markets mentioned above. As we do, we will add their addresses and how to get to them in the listings section.

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Great article. I want to visit!

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