September 12-13, 2007
On to Urumqi (OR) How’s the Food in China?
Beijing was hot, very hot. We felt like
we’d never left the boat—except we had to wear real clothes. And despite all
those Yahoo weather pages I read at home I didn’t believe anything could
possibly be hotter than the boat, so I hadn’t packed a swelter wardrobe.
analysis is facts were never my strong point…
Just as we checked out of the hotel for the airport run we got our first China rain. But
it created no more havoc than normal for Beijing
traffic, which consists of motorists, taxis, bicycles and trucks shifting lanes
endlessly, in what might be a lovely cross stitch pattern in other, less
terrifying circumstances. Whether on city streets, wide boulevards or highways,
whether driving straight or rounding circles and plazas, they cut each other
off in constant, shockingly close encounters, quite frequently involving
pedestrians who cross streets as if they’re strolling through their own
backyards. Nobody is willing to give way until someone—as if obeying some
mysterious signal from the smoggy ether—finally veers off, escaping disaster by
mere millimeters. Notwithstanding, almost no one resorts to
strident American horn-play.
Nonetheless, after a few days in Beijing traffic the whole process comes to
seem like some Tai Chi street
ballet, scary but somehow safe.
On the other hand, we’ve found the China flying
experience actually approaches pleasant--swift, smooth, efficient, even on
time. Compared to JFK or the Caribbean,
miraculous. You scarcely have time to grab a luggage cart before your
bags are circling the carousel.
From nifty Beijing
we flew four hours and some 2000 miles west, to find ourselves in
(Oor-oom-chee) a nondescript, vaguely-to-outrageously
dilapidated city of 2 million people, peppered with some glitzy, new, mirrored
skyscrapers to commemorate an oil strike 10 years ago.
Temps run even higher
here so we were lucky to arrive at the cooler end of the day--around 95
degrees. We were picked up by our local guide--Hebib--who,
with coffee skin and round brown eyes, looks even less Chinese than we do.
The 40-minute drive to the hotel took almost 60 because we were stopped by no
less than 7 truck, car and van breakdowns. Seems the Chinese have mastered the
manufacture of almost everything else but need more practice at cars.
This may be the first of the Cincinattis Gary predicted we’d find in China. Then why
are we here, you might ask? To see
something we hope is heavenly, called The Heavenly Lake. Also because Urumqi is an airline hub and without going through it twice
we can’t make it to the other allegedly wonderful sights of the Xinjiang (prounounced Shin-jang, we think) province, which was once an important focal
point along the ancient East/West spice/silk trade road.
Walking about the downtown, on our
own, without a travel-agency-vetted restaurant, a decent dinner looked
hopeless. Whatever we passed exuded a combination of cafeteria, soup kitchen
and the cleanliness level of your average auto mechanic's shop. (Considering
the breakdown rate, possibly they double as auto repair shops in the
Missing a good meal, you all understand,
could make the four of us very grumpy indeed, despite the fact that we could
each profit nicely from something not all that great. After 3 days in
Beijing we are
already starting to pop out of our clothes. Gary's diet/weight loss prophecy is NOT
coming true. So far, like Italy,
you can't get a bad meal in China.
Indifferent, maybe; frenetic, often; too touristy, frequently, but
always at least one notch above passable. But often enough,
For example, our last dinner in Beijing—when a phone call
to Bobby with merely a mention that our lunch had been mediocre got Tiger and
his people on the case trans-Pacifically. Within hours one of his minions
showed up to squire us to dinner at a restaurant in the heart of a suburban
business district. Understand that in Beijing a suburban business district can
be the size of Manhattan.
Amid the most astonishing post-modern décor,
we watched a scrumptious—as well ad sumptuous--meal being prepared for us by a
private chef working just outside our own private dining room—and adjoining
Lucky Food Break
But meanwhile back in China’s frontier
province, at dinner time we were still schlepping about Urumqi
in mid-day heat searching for a restaurant. (Since Urumqi
is so far west and the government keeps this vast country to the same
time zone, dark finally descends around the same time as maybe Alaska.) We were
about to admit defeat and fall into our hotel for some pallid Muslim
fare (yes, Muslim--we're abutting the borders of Turkmenistan,
Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan—and in a city once overrun by the
Mongolian hordes--in fact, named by that loveable old playboy Genghis
Suddenly we ambled past something
possibly promising--a narrow modern building, its lobby lined with
glossy, computerized food photos of Chinese dishes that looked
appetizing and alluring. (Photographs alone could lure because we
still can’t read Mandarin characters—even food ones.) An elevator whisked
us upstairs and into a large, cool, smartly decorated space, where an
actual receiving line of pretty, young hostesses decked out
in magenta taffeta gowns greeted us.
Four young men wearing white shirts and
black vests soon flocked around us-- anxious penguins prodding us toward a
table. We, on the other hand, resisted robustly while trying to summon a menu.
It arrived, covered in tiny, indecipherable Chinese squiggles.
No one spoke a word of English but
everyone chattered cheerfully and continuously in rapid Chinese--as if
hoping if they tried hard enough or long enough we'd suddenly get
it. They were all so friendly and seemed so genuinely interested in our
dining well-being that we continued our quest for an English speaker, now
followed by a continually expanding troupe of waiters and hostesses.
Our noses led us down several halls to a big open kitchen presided
over by 15 or so toqued choppers and
wok-ers. The surrounding walls and
counters sported more large vibrant photographs of
Chinese dishes and delicacies.
Still, we hesitated, four avid eaters--or,
depending on your point of view, outrageous pigs--nattering nervously about
whether to risk a bad meal--as if this would surely be
our last. Joan, hot and tired, was poised to leave and Gary voted no.
David and I finally broke the stalemate, signaled one of the hostesses,
poked at her pad, grabbed her hand and began pointing furiously at one
picture after another. Soon all of us joined in this game of
buy-by-eye. The giggling gaggle of staff kept up with us admirably.
Within 10 minutes we were slurping at fiery
Szechwan noodle soup, snapping our chopsticks like castanets and
struggling American-style to land pieces of barbecued eel
slices, shredded shellfish on scallop shells, slippery shrimp
speared with pea shoots, spicy beef cubes with fried garlic slivers. Every
single thing was crisp, fragrant and outrageously good.
As for drinks, we've mastered
only a few Chinese words that get understood. Fortunately one of
them is "peejoe" our phonetic
but successful rendition of the word for "beer." Chinese beers
are excellent but there's no such thing as decent wine and
unfortunately Gary, despite frequent and bold tries
at a word that sounds like "shway,"
hasn't yet managed to get a glass of water. Forget the ice to go with it
Thus, stuffed and satisfied, we ambled back to the hotel,
crossing the large central square, stopping to enjoy children playing,
parents chatting and an assortment of people hurrying home from work.
Almost everything about Urumqi
looked somehow so much more appealing after one of those serendipitous
experiences that are the essence of travel.
Louise & Gary