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We enjoyed a three-day holiday after the New Year. After our trip to the Forbidden City on January 1st, we spent the next day relaxing. On January 3rd, I went on a shopping trip where I discovered the most marvelous street!

Our friend, Nili, and her son, Tong, arrived in China from their home in Winfield, Kansas. Nili, who is from China, is the director of the early childhood education program at Southwestern College which is in partnership with the preschools that we are staying at. She is here for the semester to help get the new preschool in Beijing up and running. Over the years her family has become part of our extended family enjoying our family holidays together. Nili and her husband were also at Mom’s bedside the night before she passed away.

Nili’s son Tong is going to school in China for the semester. He was sad to leave America and his boy scout troop, and his guitar, cello, and piano lessons behind. While I can’t help with the boy scout stuff, I told him I would be happy to work with him on the music. So, Tuesday, January 3rd, I headed to Beijing to meet Nili and Tong and help them pick out instruments.

Nili and Tong on the Subway.

Nili, Tong and I found Ping’AnLi street after a bit of walking and three subway transfers. We first walked past a traditional-looking street of shops with red Chinese lanterns and tinkling chimes blowing in the wind. It invited us to explore and Nili and I looked excitedly looked at each other. First, though we needed to get lunch.

We found a dumpling restaurant. Dumplings are a traditional New Year’s food in China (see Living in the Future, Mom Cries Alot) but Tong was disappointed that he had not yet had dumplings. Nili ordered egg dumplings and goat dumplings. Tong wanted some fried fish and fried bread. The bread tasted a lot like a donut and was the first Chinese bread that I’d had that wasn’t boiled and rubbery. The dumplings were good, but the fish… well, it looked like fish.

The fish.

It was deep fried and about four inches long, but it was the WHOLE fish. Tong tried to encourage me to try it, but I’m not too excited about eating food that can stare back at me.

After our filling lunch we headed out on our mission–to locate the best guitar and cello for the least amount of RMB (Chinese dollars). Nili had gotten directions from the waitress. To our disappointment, the colorful and inviting street was not the instrument gallery but contained restaurants (we’ve decided to go back and explore it sometime). However, the instrument street was still quite amazing!

Store after store after store of little instrument shops, each maybe 12 feet wide. Each store specialized in a different family of instruments. There were brass instrument stores, violin stores, drum stores, guitar stores, traditional Chinese instrument stores… for blocks and blocks on both sides of the street.

We stopped into the first guitar shop we ran across. There were some name brands I recognized and many I did not. The people in the store were friendly. Tong and I played around on a few guitars. One of the first I picked up felt so good in my hands, “like butter” I told Nili and Tong. Even though I had not planned to purchase an instrument (I bought a guitar the first week I arrived in China) I couldn’t quit thinking about it as we moved on to other stores.

We tried many other guitar stores with many other brands of guitars and kept a list in our head of the price and selection. We found a violin store with electric violins which were very tempting. We decided to bring my sister, Paula, back to that store when she visits in March. Finally we found a store that had cellos. We tried a few at that store, took note of the quality and price. The instruments were hand-crafted and had a nice tone. The luthier said he sold instruments in the US. I was curious because my cello is from China, but I couldn’t remember the maker.

The next cello store had a nice selection as well. Tong’s hands are about half the size of my hands so we were looking for a 3/4 size instrument for him. The store owner pulled out a beautiful flawless cello. It looked just like my cello at home, only smaller. It had a lovely tone and the price was about 2000 RMB less that the ones at the first store. The store boasted a big fancy certificate from the US claiming the instruments had won a national competition among instrument makers. This luthier handed me a card with the address to his instrument shop in New York City.

Tong trying out cellos.

It is customary in China to haggle about the price. Nili tried to do her best haggling, but I think she’s gotten soft since she’s been in the US ;-). She managed to get the cello maker down a few hundred RMB from his original asking price, but he was tough to get to move any further. She was disappointed she hadn’t managed to get him to cut his price in half as the waitress had assured her she would be able to do. Still, compared to the price of instruments in America, it was a very good deal for a very nice instrument.

Now we had to make a decision on a guitar. I still couldn’t get the first guitar out of my head. I decided to buy it and there had been a nice smaller version for Tong. We went back to the first store and negotiated a price of 650 RMB for each instrument (that’s about $100 US). Nili called for a driver from the school to come pick us up so we wouldn’t have to carry the instruments on the subway.

I can’t wait to go back and explore the street some more. With instruments being so inexpensive and readily available, I could add several more to my repertoire.