Birdmen of Beijing
In the chill of early morning, I locate the birdpark that Aming had told me about and wait for the old men to arrive.
At 8:30am, Beijing bustles as people begin to approach the park. Riding single-speed Chinese bicycles that have been handed down through generations, the elderly men transport one or more tiny birds in bamboo cages tied to the handlebars. Others, walking briskly carrying a cloth covered bamboo cage in each hand, are eager to congregate with their friends, several of whom still wear their old, but practical, dark blue wool Mao jackets and caps. Their gruffness softens as they dote on their feathered pets.
At first glance, it looks like all the little birds are of the ordinary species: robins, sparrows and finches. Upon closer scrutiny, parrots macaws and colorful birds of unknown origin come into view. It is the simplicity of the scene that is so attractive and exciting.
It's rather like an "old boys club" and I stand out as if I am illuminated while weaving around the bikes to peer at these fragile creatures. As the morning progresses, the gathering swells and the men converse in friendly banter as they take pride in showing off the tricks their birds have mastered. One gentleman plays reverse "fetch" with his bird -- his bird drops a small black ball with his beak and the man fetches it.
Suddenly, a bird flies away and all eyes follow it. Its owner makes a soft clucking sound and the bird (a sparrow) soars back to land on its owner's shoulder. The birds step out of their cages and rest on the handlebars of the bikes, or extended fingers or sometimes they just sit on top of their bamboo houses; they realize they are the stars of this casual exhibition. Watching and smiling, I notice some of these dainty creatures have a string tied around their foot so they cannot fly away. The men are as proud of their feathered pets as any owner is of their prized pedigree at Westminster.
Propelled by curiosity, I shift from one bird to another until I discover I'm in an outdoor pet emporium. The walkway is a long, narrow corridor jammed with people. Cages of fluffy puppies, plastic bins of snakes, and small turtles are displayed for sale along with practical items such as cages and pellets. Itís so crowded, it is nearly impossible to actually buy something. There are a few boutique items and some bling, but most of the products fall into the pragmatic fundamental category. Winding my way from one end of the street to the other, I gather a few items for my kitty back home. The crowd begins to thin out permitting more purchases.
The birds seem to know the show is over and trot back into their cages waiting for their owners to bike or walk them home.
Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida and now lives near Washington DC. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines.