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On to Urumqi (OR) How’s the Food in China?
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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.

Me, stubborn???  Gary’s 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 Urumqi (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 off hours.)


Last Beijing Feast 

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, superior.

 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 lounge.





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 Kahn himself.

 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 altogether. 


 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



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