To the desert, part I: Xi’an & Urumqi

In Xi’an, the dust that blows in through the window leaves a black film on the counter. The view is one of an office building being stripped. Down the street are food carts in the morning selling various breads and 煎饼(jian bing- a type of egg crepe), 凉皮(liang pi- cold skin noodles). A and I eat 拉面(la mian- hand-pulled noodles) and 羊肉泡沫(yang rou pao mo- a specific type of lamb stew) along with 凉菜(liang cai- cold dishes). For the 羊肉泡沫, we break the bread into little pieces in the bowl. It breaks cleanly, the crumbs don’t spill out the way white bread does. And what we get in return in soup with bread, with slices of lamb on top. Ridiculously delicious. Cucumbers in a spicy sesame oil, tofu in strips, spinach blanched and spicy. A night on 回民街 for snacks, peanut cakes, buckets and buckets of jujubes on show. Lamb 串 everywhere and the sign for biang biang noodles. We saw imperfect pearls on the street, complete with shell. Lamb dumplings and liang pi with a sesame paste poured over it and chili oil and parsley and vinegar. During the day, Big Wild Goose Pagoda with the other tourists but it’s a beautiful park. M.G. says that it used to be surrounded by desert and I cannot imagine this since it is surrounded by city; I can’t find the desert here. Another night, biking on the city walls during sunset, the sun disappearing into the haze but the lanterns sway red and bright against the gray. The bumpiness of the stones made my arms itch but the walls were empty and the riding fast (although A. and Em. on a tandem bicycle somehow managed to beat us all.) At night, there are giant portable telescopes set up on carts and pointed towards the moon, by the drum tower. At night, the swallows swoop and cry around the tower which is more brightly lit than any I’ve seen before. My last day, the terracotta warriors, starting with Pit 3, with two German study abroad students. Those occasionally headless warriors, sometimes hand-less.There is a meticulousness that goes into putting together broken pieces. There is a meticulousness to building these statues that all have differing characteristics. I am thinking about this work and how it can be satisfying, having a finished product that can look you in the face.
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After Xi’an, Urumqi where all the roads are being widened and it is not unusual to spend two hours by bus to get somewhere in the city. But during the flight, there were breathtaking mountains seen from the air. First, snow-capped then this amazingly bright green. And after, mountains streaked with coral, like a sunrise and shading down to brown. In Urumqi, the smell of grilling lamb kebabs everywhere. They speak Uyghur there, musical and emphatic. I listen to El. play the dutar and think: This is not China. It is but it feels like a wholly different country. Most of the ladies wear headscarves and there are disks of naan sold on the streets (do not step on them, do not throw them away.) There are so many rules here in Xinjiang and it’s hard to know which ones are important. And every time El. introduces me, she tells them I am American and I hear about how it is to be a white female here amongst the Uyghurs.

Urumqi is the site of several setbacks—museums that close early, library stacks that are a mess due to renovation, buses that do not exist, locked doors to lecture halls before the proposed start time, nauseau for a full day before a flight. But there are also the samsas of mutton and fat, richly caramelized ice cream heaped in a towering mound, Uyghur dancing at People’s Park, laghman with toppings of tomatoes, lamb, peppers, and onions, Turkish supermarkets with so many different types of chocolate (Albeni, Dido), 二道桥with its storefronts of raisins and knives and carpets and watermelon sold by the slice. Kvass, a fermented honey drink, with sticks of meat and vegetables cooked in oil then swiped with a spicy sauce. Baklava and talk about the role of women in Uyghur society. Yogurt thick as whipped cream sold in tubs and scooped into plastic bags. A convenience store with a million glittering chandeliers. The ornateness of the interior decoration of the fancier Uyghur restaurants. A slice of pie given to each of us by women sitting at an adjacent table who noticed us ogling their various cakes. A car publicly shamed for having a fake license. A russian dish of french fries and lamb (sausage?) Wontons of young alfafa. A friendly man and his wife who allowed me to tag along as we all searched for the way to a park with a view of the city. A man fixed the zipper of my broken bag for 4rmb and on the way to pick it up, El. and I stop to watch a man slaughter a lamb. He held its head and slit its throat as the animal kicked its bound legs; he wiped the bloody knife on its fur as its blood drained into a tub. It is not a short death. But we go home and that night, like most nights, we eat lamb because this is what there is, this is what is normal and expected.

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4 thoughts on “To the desert, part I: Xi’an & Urumqi

  1. I’m coming to this post a little late (better late than never!). I want to eat everything you described, even those nouns I don’t quite understand – the way you write about them somehow gives them a flavor despite that!

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