The Salad Bowl City (sans salad)
And so we were off.
After only one blissful day of post-marathon "recovery" reveling in the luxuries of our newly tai tai lifestyles (indulgently late breakfasts, wine by the pool, foot rubs...you get the picture), my travel companion for the next 3 months and I spent the remainder of our days in Shanghai running around town doing errands, packing, and, admittedly, celebrating our last weekend among our friends in the most alcohol-soaked fashion we were able. It was a hectic haze of logistics, frantic fun, and some sad goodbyes.
So when J and I came to (the hangovers didn't help), we found ourselves aboard a plane bound for the most remote and arguably exotic province in China - Xinjiang. Without any planning save for this single pre-purchased ticket, the trip was off to a great, if unplanned, start.
All I knew about Xinjiang came from one of my favorite restaurants in Shanghai, Xibo, and the now-closed weekly Muslim market (RIP) and this education consisted of primarily of an awareness of the area's favorite foods (surprise, surprise). This limited knowledge reflected the northwestern region's shared borders with countries such as Russia, Mongolia, all them 'Stans, and even India - I expected lots of hand-pulled noodles, lamb skewers, and nan-like flatbreads. (Spoiler alert: I expected right.)
So when we arrived in Urumqi, I also half expected a veritable set of "Arabian Nights", with sun-weathered men prancing about on camels and grilling lamb by the herd. And while the latter was correct (SO. Much. Mutton.), Urumqi unfolded as a surprisingly modern Chinese city with an even more surprisingly diverse modern Chinese community - a mixed-up 'salad bowl' in the most 5th Grade American history teacher way. There were the dark perhaps-Middle-Eastern-looking men, men who could be considered more traditionally Han Chinese, pale men with delicate northern Asiatic or even Russian features, and even those unplaceable yet somewhere in between.
And this 'salad bowl' toss was reflected by the food. So yes - we found flatbread and gnawed requisite lamb kawaps, grilled with chunks of fat on legit tree branches, like cavemen at the night market on our day of arrival.
But there were also more Middle Eastern or Indian offerings, like mutton and onion filled samsas, baked in bread ovens; towers of vinegary chickpeas; shredded yellow carrot salad; and pollo, or rice pilaf with caramelized carrots and tender lamb.
Then there were the more classic Chinese dishes like dumplings, though here stuffed with mutton (sensing a theme?) or pumpkin (delicious), and hand-cut noodles with shredded cucumber in a vinegary-spicy sauce.
And there was even an almost-Italian aspect to the Xinjiang staple - hand-pulled noodles or laghman, served with a simple vegetable ragout.
For dessert or a refreshing snack as a respite in the heat, mangoes, melons, and the tiniest apricots studded the frequent fruit carts alongside various versions of yogurt-based drinks or ices, the most popular of which is "Summer Snow" or kar dogh, a slurry of shaved ice, yogurt, and honey water. (NB: ice served on the streets is always a risk but depending on the heat it can be a necessary one).
Although we had initially found the city a somewhat generic version of the exotic fantasia expected (perhaps due to the central government's insistent "improvements", but also to our over-active imaginations), the city's unexpected mix revealed itself to be authentic and interesting, giving us a taste for what was to come.