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Recycling, Shanghai Style.

Recycling is not an activity you might automatically associate with the world’s largest producer of disposable stuff. Know what though? Chinese people are avid recyclers, driven in part by thrift, and in part by business – after all, several of China’s biggest multi-billionaires made their fortunes in the waste recycling business. 

Walk down any street in Shanghai and you will soon notice the scrap recyclers – they’re the guys collecting used water bottles, dismantling old mattresses to remove the metal springs, and flattening and stacking used cardboard boxes.

Roving scrap merchants go from house to house tinkling a small ‘bell’ made from a tin saucepan or teapot lid, the sound of which lets people know to bring out any scrap they might want to sell. The merchants then collate and stack their recyclables onto the back of a tricycle cart and pass it up the line to a bigger recycling unit, hopefully making a small profit along the way.

What can be recycled is limited only by your imagination and your patience. I’ve watched old nails being painstakingly removed from lengths of wood, and the plastic coating being stripped from short lengths of wire to get to the copper beneath.

I can’t tell you much about the big busines end of the recycling game (you can read more about how recycling works in China at Adam Minter’s excellent blog Shanghai Scrap), but I can tell you how it looks from the bottom up, where I live. 

Meet Mr Zhang (above) and his wife (below), the couple in charge of weekend recycling in my lane. Mr Zhang and his wife come from Shandong province but moved to Shanghai many years ago, and while the recycling business hasn’t made them rich (far from it), it has enabled them to put their two adult sons through university. No small feat for any parent.
Our lane has some 70-odd houses arranged in 8 rows, many houses consisting of two or three separate apartments. Overall, we produce a great deal of rubbish, most of which goes through the windows seen above into large black wheelie bins in the refuse room, a small building in the middle of the lane. 
Anything discarded but worthy of recycling gets put to one side by Mr Zhang, or more often, kept in people’s homes until the weekend when it can be sold. Mr and Mrs Zhang set up a miniature recycling ‘shop’ in fornt of the refuse room first thing on Saturday morning which stays open until late Sunday afternoon. A huge sack for plastic bottles. Stacks of newspaper and cardboard. Glass bottles and jars. Scrap metal. Scrap wood. Scrap fabric. In addition, they have a set of green semi-industrial scales used for weighing the scrap people bring them and depending on the type, they will pay a small amount per kilogram.
Two ‘customers’ have brought a box full of glass bottles for weighing.
By mid-morning the piles are getting large and Mr Zhang begins stacking his blue tricycle with a load to take to the recycling plant.
The empty tricycle….

Now fully stacked. Mr Zhang tells me the most lucrative items to recycle are newspapers and plastic drink bottles, with a full load like this netting him around 100yuan ($16) at the recycling plant. He would usually manage to fill two loads over two days, perhaps three on a good weekend. Not a great deal of money for two full days’ work, but it earns him extra on top of his earnings as the night guard for our lane.

He was interested to hear about how recycling works in Australia, that we have a separate bin for recyclables that is collected once a week.

‘How much do they pay you for it?’ Mr Zhang asked me.

‘Why, nothing! I have to pay them to take it away!’ I explained.

Mr Zhang was flabbergasted. To him, it seemed an extremely backward way of doing things and you know, I had to agree. Perhaps if we were paid for our recycling we would be better at it. But perhaps recycling only becomes economically viable in a place where labour is cheap, and everything has a price.

Osmanthus Scented Panna Cotta: A Recipe

Tiny, golden flowers so small but so intensely perfumed, Shanghai’s osmanthus season lasts only a few short autumn weeks, the last blossoms falling from the trees as November draws in. I returned from the far west to find it was almost over, with just a few of the topmost branches of the trees outside my window still holding flowers.
This year I was inspired to bring the gorgeous perfume of the osmanthus flower into a creamy dessert because osmanthus, Chinese as it is, is destined to be paired with cream. Osmanthus scented cream has a subtle honey floral scent and flavour, like the featherweight orange blossoms with rose petals. It’s incredible. So rather than get too tricky, this panna cotta is nothing but cream and flowers with a touch of vanilla. Sigh…
Osmanthus Scented Panna Cotta
Makes 6
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or half a vanilla bean, cut lengthwise and scraped or 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup fresh osmanthus flowers or 1/4 cup dried osmanthus flowers (available from Chinese tea shops)
  • 2 cups cream
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons gelatine
  • extra osmanthus flowers for garnish
  • Heat milk over low heat without boiling
  • Add sugar and vanilla, stir until dissolved
  • Add osmanthus flowers, stir
  • Remove from heat and allow to steep for one to two hours
  • Strain milk mixture to remove flowers
  • Return milk mixture to heat, heat gently until warmed but do not allow to boil
  • Sprinkle gelatine over water and allow to stand for several minutes until softened
  • Add gelatine to milk mixture and stir until fully dissolved, remove from heat
  • Add cream and stir to combine
  • Pour into lightly oiled ramekins and chill until set, about four hours
  • To serve, tease edge of panncotta gently away from side of ramekin then invert onto a plate
  • Decorate with extra osmanthus flowers and drizzle with honey if desired 
My lovely flowering osmanthus tree. OK, so it’s not my tree, and it’s not even in my garden. But if it’s quite dark who can tell if I’m sneaking around snipping off flowers, right? And the scent….
For extra sweetness, drizzle over some honey just before serving. 

This post is dedicated to RB, a friend back home who has just bought her first osmanthus tree. Fingers crossed it grows well in Australia!

The Best Lanzhou Lamian in Lanzhou

Ask any Chinese person what the city of Lanzhou is famous for, and they immediately give the same two answers:
1. Lanzhou lāmiàn 兰州拉面, the city’s famed spicy hand-pulled beef noodles served in clear broth (also known by many as niu rou mian – beef noodles), now sold as far afield as Singapore and Vancouver.
2. Smog. One of the rootin-est pollutin-est cities in China, Lanzhou unluckily sits between two long, low mountain ranges lying side by side, trapping smog very efficiently between them.
Lanzhou. My last stop before returning to Shanghai, and an inadvertent one at that. We’ve run out of time to train it all the way back to from west to east as planned, so as a compomise we’re spending a day and night in Lanzhou before flying home. Everyone is tired of travelling and just wants to relax and chill out, but I can’t get noodles off my mind – I have to eat some really good lamian before I get on that plane.
A clear sunny day in Lanzhou. There’s a whole mountain range behind those tower blocks, but you’ll have to take my word for it.
The problem for the casual visitor of course, is not how to deal with the smog, because I have plenty of practice with that back in Shanghai, but in a stay of less than 24 hours, how to find the best Lanzhou lamian in all of Lanzhou. Not as easy as you’d think. 
I first turn to my trusted Lonely Planet China, now conveniently loaded onto my Kindle so I don’t have to lug 0.8kg of guidebook everywhere. Inconveniently though, the script is so small I can’t read anything except the title of each chapter, and the script magnification feature (so clever!) only works on 1/8 of a page at a time (so annoying!).
Lonely Planet describes Lanzhou as “a major transportation hub…most travellers use it as a springboard to other places” Not high on the tourist agenda perhaps, but for the travelling eater like myself, an essential stop. 
For eating, they recommend you choose from a student bistro, an upscale teahouse, The Boston Coffee Shop or an eatery serving mutton hotpot and decorated with Beijing Opera masks. Hmmm…to my knowledge, none of them serve the most famous dish of Lanzhou, and I’m beginning to think the Lanzhou LP writer may have been looking to springboard to other places.
I decide to do what I always do in these situations – I ask a local taxi driver. Now, my taxi driver is around fifty and wearing short-sleeved blue pyjamas, made from the thin pale blue cotton favoured by hospitals, and spectacles so thick and flat they look like they were cut directly from a window pane. It turns out this is the standard spectacle style for Lanzhou’s male population, although they are so alarmingly large and vertically flat they look like they need their own set of windscreen wipers.
I ask him what he thinks about Lonely Planet’s choice of restaurants. He glances over at my Kindle while doing 70 km/h on the wrong side of the road. “Those places? Rubbish.” he says emphatically.

“Where do you like to eat lamian?” I ask. “What’s the best place in town?”

He doesn’t even hesitate. “Maziluniuroumian.”


More slowly this time. “Ma-zi-lu-niu-rou-mian” Mazi Lu beef noodles.

“Write it down for me?”

“No need!” he says – “It’s right here!” as he points to a small lane to our left which we whiz past at high speed on our way to the White Cloud Temple. “Everyone knows where Mazi Lu is!” he reassures me. “And it’s where I eat. It’s good.”

Against my better judgement we do not stop the car immediately and disembark there and then because, in all fairness, it’s only nine in the morning and we’ve just finished breakfast. I pace around the White Cloud Temple for two hours, failing to allow the Buddhist ambience to calm me. Who can be calm when there are noodles waiting?

It’s already eleven when the search for the mythical taxi-driver noodle heaven begins. Passersby many and varied help in the quest by pointing me in the right direction – back to the laneway I glimpsed from the taxi window. I stop at every second shop and ask for ‘Mazi Lu’. Everyone seems to know it and they gesture me on further down the lane. The problem is that I don’t know if the place I’m looking for is large or small, at ground level or higher, and whether it will have a sign I can read, or any sign at all.

Less committed and more hungry members of my travelling party stop at every single restaurant in the lane and enquire if this one will do? Please. Second-rate noodles we can get anywhere – the best noodles in Lanzhou we can only get here. Half an hour later and just when I’m beginning to give up hope, I see it. A broad street frontage, understated, with wide tinted doors and a knot of people milling around outside. It looks very promising.

Mazi Lu translates as ‘Bandit’s Fortune’. I’m feeling very, very hungry and I have that feeling of an impending Major Food Discovery. Underneath the large and easy to read sign is a small notice in Chinese. 
“Closed for renovations until November 1st” 
No!! I peer through the tinted doors and see the empty shell of the restaurant, the floor covered in bags of concrete and stacks of tiles. The knots of people look on sympathetically because they too have travelled far to eat here. Not as far as me, but still.
I ask one of the assembled men whether Mazi Lu is indeed Lanzhou’s best lamian restaurant. 
“Definitely!” comes the cheerful response.
“And the second best?”
He pauses and thinks for quite a long time. 
“Mazi Lu’s second location. That would be the second best lamian.”
There’s a second location? My flagging spirits take a flying leap. “Is it far?”
“Not far. No more than an hour by taxi.”
At this point I would like to be able to report that my travelling party immediately settled in for an hours’ taxi ride in the direction of Mazi Lu Number Two. I cannot. There were some undignified complaints, reminders about the younger members being close to fainting etc, and I was forced to find my helpful friend and ask again.
“OK. What is the third best lamian restaurant in Lanzhou? Within ten minutes’ walk. Or maybe the fourth best.”
“Hmmm…I think it would be Ma Mang Cai. Five minutes tops.”
This choice was confirmed by several other random strangers I polled on the way. (To keep the peace I stopped asking “What is your favourite lamian restauarant in Lanzhou?” and replaced it with “What is your favourite lamian restaurant around here?”) They all said Ma Mang Cai. So we were all, to a man, extremely pleased to walk through their doors some two hours after our short walk to lunch had begun. 
Ma Mang Cai looked the business. The restaurant was dim,  lights switched off to save electricity. There were long communal red tables in rows filled with the last of the lunch crowd. By the door sat a cashier with a small book of coloured tickets, and towards the back of the restauarant was a huge open kitchen billowing with steam and filled with strapping young noodle makers. It smelled like beef, like spice, like noodles.
Let me just spend a minute describing Lanzhou lamian, in case you’ve no idea at all what it is. Lā means to pull, and miàn means noodle. 
Some hours before, prepare your dough. Water, flour, a little oil, a little salt. Nothing more. Have a strong youth mix and then knead the dough for some prolonged time, about an hour and a half. Let the dough rest quietly under cover for at least an hour.
Then, using your best bones of lamb or beef or both, make an aromatic broth. Reserve wafer thin slices of beef for a garnish. Chop some coriander. Have lajiao (chili paste, made from roasted chilies) at the ready.
At the customer’s order, prepare the noodles as requested. Thin, like spaghetti. Thick, like spaghettoni. Broad and flat, like fettucine. Take a lump of dough, roll it into a cylinder with your hands and a little oil.
Now grab each end and pull hard, spreading your arms as wide as they will go. Without letting go of the dough bring your arms back together and allow the single thick strand to twist on itself like a piece of wool. 
Pull again, twist again, repeat. Eventually you have twenty or so fine long strands, and after you stretch them a final time whack them hard on the table to help separate the strands and get rid of any loose flour. Then straight in the pot.
When cooked, take a bowl and fill with clear beef broth. Add sliced radish, the cooked noodles, a ladle of  oily lajiao chili paste, a handful of coriander, and a small garnish of beef slices.  Then eat and enjoy.

Lamian are often served with various side-dishes – pickled green chilies, shredded carrot tossed with chili oil, shredded potato with vinegar and chili, extra slices of beef, and pickled cabbage.
The noodles, after all that, are extraordinarily good. The first bite of the firm slippery noodles goes down easy, followed by the intense and building heat from the chili oil and paste. After a few more slurps of soup you are sweating like mad, and the spicy carrot and pickled chili side dishes taste positively cooling. The radish, bland and soft, gives some relief from the unrelenting heat but it’s hard to stop eating because the noodles are perfect, with exactly the right amount of al dente bite.
I look up, my face dripping with sweat and my nose streaming. There is an official looking gold plaque on the wall that reads ‘Gansu Province Best Beef Lamian 2005’. 
Hah! I’ve discovered it at last. Lanzhou’s third (or fourth) best lamian. A wave of intense post-noodle satisfaction spreads over me, and it looks just like this.

Travels on the Silk Road

Uyghur Food: The Glutton Goes West

It was so much fun preparing the posts Xian: A Glutton’s Journey and Xi’an: The Glutton Returns, and they got such great feedback, I decided to make a Glutton’s Page a regular feature whenever I travel. Some meals are memorable enough for a whole post, like the Pulled Noodles, Lady Style, but I try so many new foods every day that by putting them together it gives an overall idea of the local cuisine of the area. And goes some way to explaining why I have to go on some sort of restriction diet when I get back to Shanghai.

Xinjiang food is quintessentially Muslim food. Lamb and mutton feature heavily, slow-cooked or smoke-grilled, and although noodles are common bread is the mainstay of every single meal. Unlike other parts of China, yoghurt, milk and cream are a regular part of the diet.

Arguably Xinjiang’s most famous Uyghur dish, mutton polo is a rice pilaf coloured with shreds of sweet orange and yellow carrot and enriched with strands of caramelised onion, cooked over low heat until the rice absorbs all the stock and develops a buttery, muttony flavour. It’s always served with a hunk of slow-cooked mutton on top, and a bowl of Kashgar tea, yellow with saffron and lightly spiced.

In street stalls enormous blackened pots are filled with enough polo to feed five hundred, gently warmed by a charcoal brazier beneath.
The breads of Xinjiang are one of the seven wonders of the culinary world, extraordinary in their variety and their rustic taste. And yet like creatures of ephemeral beauty – butterflies, or rare flowers for example – they last but one day, and then transmogrify into hard and inedible bread platters you could quite reasonably use in place of china plates. Eat it fresh out of the oven, or not at all.
At six every morning the bread vendors begin to appear in the streets and outside the entrance to the bazaar. Street side tandoors are fired up and the breadmaking begins for the day – rounds of dough are flattened onto a curved cushion, the edges curled, and a decorative pattern punched all over the surface. 
Then a sprinkling of black onion seeds, or sesame, or a flurry of chopped garlic and the breadmaker stretches down into the depths of the tandoor to roll the bread off its cushion and onto the tandoor’s walls. A few minutes later the bread is nicely crisped and studded with tiny flecks of charcoal from its short fiery stay inside the oven. 

These small torture devices are for making the gorgeous circular patterns found in the breads.

Afternoon prayers have just finished in Turpan’s mosque, and as the men leave many stop to drink tea at a small outdoor restauarant behind the bazaar. As I look on, the men are preparing an entire sheep, slathered with saffron yoghurt marinade before being lowered into a smoking tandoor oven with the lid tightly sealed. 
“How long will it take to cook?” I ask. 
“Just two hours” comes the reply. Aha!
Two hours later and I am feasting on a carnivore’s delight, mutton juices dripping down my arms. The mutton, so tender it can be torn apart with chopsticks, has been shredded and placed on top of two rounds of garlic naan bread cut into pieces with huge black kitchen shears. The juices from the meat seep deeply onto the bread, softening it. The only accompaniment? Bowls of spiced black tea studded with rose petals, fennel seeds, cinnamon and saffron.
Every street in Xinjiang has a charcoal grill barbecuing lamb kebabs, metal skewers with chunks of lamb punctuated in the middle by a piece of fat for flavour (often from the fatty tail of the fat-tailed sheep). As the kebabs cook they can be sprinkled with a mix of chili, salt and cumin to taste, then served on top of a piece of flat bread.
Lamb samsas – crisp little parcels cooked inside the tandoor, filled with a juicy mixture of fatty lamb mince and wilted onions flavoured with a little cumin.
Noodle dishes are served both cold (serik ash, on the left, with chili, vinegar and strips of tofu skin) and hot (suoman, on the right, with peppers, mutton, tomato and beans). Both are good, but the serik ash I tried lacked oomph.
In Turpan, an oasis town along the Silk Road, I walked into the back of the busy bazaar  to find a vast dining hall filled with stall after stall selling variations on dumpling soups. The tiny dumplings, filled with lamb and onion or vegetable and spice, were added to a rich beef broth with black wood ear mushrooms, tiny beef meatballs, and black-eyed beans, topped with coriander and small cubes of tofu. The soup was a meal in a bowl, hearty and filling, but the real surprise was the lovey little black-eyed beans, cooked al dente.

Turpan is also very famous for its fruit, made possible by the use of underground water. It hardly ever rains. Here grow fat yellow figs, pomegranites so ripe they have split, watermelons, sweet orange Hami melona, plums, apricots and jujubes.
Locals claim Turpan’s as the best grapes in China and the streets are covered with trelisses hanging heavy with purple and green grapes. Outside the town – back in the desert – special structures of latticed brick are built in which to dry grapes into raisins or sultanas (yimish).

Rising earlier than the rest of the family one morning in Turpan I could see three ladies in a row, heads covered with coloured scarves, selling little bowls of something white. Thinking it might be yoghurt I got dressed and went to investigate, finding instead fresh milk straight from the farm, and small bowls of warm cream intended to be drunk on the spot. It was the best cream you could imagine.

The centre of every town in Xinjiang is the bazaar, an open air embarrassment of riches crowded with meats, spices, dried goods, nuts, seeds, and sweets. I spent hours wandering, photographing and snacking.

And then at the end of the day, in the rather full-feeling hour after dinner and before bed, there is just enough time to visit the night market and find foods that don’t come out in daylight.  
No vampire, but too ugly to be seen in the harsh sun, this huge put holds an artistic arrangement of sheep lungs, sheep heads, liver and kidneys, and sausage made from sheep intestines. Luckily I’ve already eaten a very satisfactory dinner so I can easily resist the more unattractive organs, but I’m curious enough to try the intestine sausages. The vendor fries them on the griddle cut into bite-size pieces, topped with vinegar and pickles. The sausage is stuffed with meal, blood and spices, a taste rich and foreign. 
I imagine this customer saying, in heavy Uighur, “I’ll have one serve of chopped tripe, a slice of lung, and a little sausage. Go easy on the kidneys!” 
As I walk past the man in the next seat is scoffing his dinner hungrily from inside a plastic bag. It’s a whole cooked sheep’s head. Delicious.

Seeing Red

A full twenty four hours from Kashgar by rollicking train across the northern edge of the Taklamikan Desert lies the green oasis of Turpan, home to China’s best grapes, and our destination for the next few days. Except that, thanks to my thorough reading of the guidebook, I discover too late that the train isn’t actually arriving in Turpan, but in the rough and ready transit point of Daheyan, 60 km away and smack-bang in the middle of a dusty desert wasteland. It’s definitely not an oasis.
The road between Turapn and Daheyan threatens to be one long hour of monotonous flat grey gravel, broken only by the vicarious excitement of our driver overtaking trucks on the wrong side of the road while the truck is overtaking something slower, like a bus. Then back to gravel, lots and lots of gravel. 
Then all of a sudden, the entire horizon changes from grey to red, and as far as the eye can see in every direction are acres and acres of long red chilies drying on the hot dry ground. I cajole the driver into pulling over so I can get a closer look, and as soon as I open the car door the pungent chili in the air makes my eyes smart and my nose sting just a little. 
Nothing, and I mean nothing grows out here – not a blade of grass or a stunted tree, nothing – so I wonder where the trucks delivering the bags of fresh chilies have come from. Each truckload of chilies (and in a sweep of the horizon I count fifty or sixty trucks) is being tended by a small work group of four or five men with pitchforks. The chilies are poured out of sacks onto the ground and spread evenly by the men to a depth of about two inches. The men tell me it will take three days for them to dry, then they will be packed back into sacks and driven away again.
As we chat the men tell me they are non-local labourers, Han Chinese not Uighurs, from far afield. Despite the heat and the pungency they are enjoying the camaraderie and passing around cigarettes as they wait for the next truck’s arrival. 

This is what I really get out of travelling across China – a better understanding of food, where it grows, how it’s processed, and how completely simple and unmechanised many of these processes still are, albeit on a massive scale. 
So next time you buy a packet of dried chilies here in China and there’s a bit of grit in the bottom of the bag, and the chilies are on the dusty side, think of this post. That packet holds not just any old dirt but a little bit of the Taklamakan Desert, free of charge.  
Travels on the Silk Road

Pulled Noodles, Lady Style

Have you ever watched hand-pulled noodles being made? An enormous leaden lump of dough, pulled and stretched with the use of sheer brute strength, is then twirled, pulled and stretched again and again until an armful of fine, evenly sized noodles appears like magic, ready to be immediately boiled in a cauldron of steaming broth.
The Herculean muscular strength required for those first few pulls has always put me off trying it for myself, until I discovered a technique requiring much less…er…grunt. The ‘Lady Style’ method of hand-pulled noodles is practised by the ladies of Kashgar, and thanks to our wonderful guide, Waheed, it had been arranged that I would learn to make hand-pulled noodles in the home of a local family living in Kashgar’s Old City.
I love to learn a bit of cooking while I’m on holiday, but Kashgar doesn’t have anything to offer the non-Uighur-speaking non-local in the way of classes, so it was very lucky Waheed was able to enlist the help of local friends. Waheed, as it turned out, could arrange practically anything, from impossible-to-buy train tickets, to tea in a traditional Uighur teahouse, to trips to an out of the way cemetery that caught my inquisitive eye. 
And so it was that one afternoon he arranged for us to meet Aygul, our host and reportedly an excellent cook, who greeted us at the door of her traditional house, hidden down a dusty laneway in the Old City. She was going to teach us to make laghman, Uighur hand-pulled noodles, made the way ladies make them at home.
The house was wonderful – built from honey-coloured bricks placed in decorative patterns. As you walked from the lane outside you passed through a colourful curtain into the double-story light-filled atrium. On the ground level were many of the functional rooms for washing and cooking, and upstairs the reception rooms for guests, the sleeping quarters, and a raised eating platform covered with carpets and furnished with a low table.
Aygul led us to the tiny narrow upstairs kitchen, which had a deep red dresser covered with brightly coloured paper doubling as a work bench. Next to it, a double burner hotplate occupied the corner and beside that stood a tall dresser filled with plates and bowls. There was a large pot filled with clean water in the corner, above which windows looked back out onto the house’s atrium.

Aygul got straight to work, making a simple wheat flour dough from three cups of wheat flour, a cup of water, and 2 teaspoons of salt, mixed and kneaded. Then she flattened the dough into a slab and sliced it into 12 inch lengths.

Each length was gently rolled, with hands slightly oiled, into lengths of dough the thickness of your little finger.
As the dough was rolled, Aygul coiled it inside a silver Uighur bread tin, covering each layer with a little oil and sealing it with a lid. It went back into the dresser at this stage to rest for an hour.

In the meantime, we prepared the sauce for the noodles, a simple meat and vegetable mixture using available local vegetables. 1 cup of diced potato, 1 cup of sliced peppers, I cup of sliced eggplant, 1/2 cup chopped mutton, half a cup of sliced  onion, 1/2 cup of beans chopped into short lengths were fried in a wok with 2 tablespoons of oil. Once softened, two chopped ripe tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt and a little hot water were added and reduced into a thick vegetable sauce, and kept warm to one side while a large pot of salted water came to the boil and we finally got down to the business of pulling some noodles.

Taking the tin back out of the dresser, Aygul took thick coils of dough from the pan, one at a time, and stretched them between her two hands, twisting her fingers slightly as she pulled the dough into a small pile of noodles with the thickness of twine.
Well-practised, Aygul could chat away as she did this, and still the strands were even and unbroken in her hands.
Once she had made two small noodle piles, Aygul took both thick strands and wrapped them cleverly around her hands, like skeins of wool.

Then a stretch, a slap onto the board…..

And a second wide-armed stretch…..

And the noodles went straight into the boiling water for about three minutes, as Aygul let me take a turn twisting, coiling and pulling the next batch of noodles. Amazingly simple!  
Once cooked the noodles were drained and spooned into a bowl topped with the vegetable sauce.
Aygul’s sister prepared our side-dishes of small bowls of unsweetened yoghurt, and cucumber with black vinegar.
We washed our hands using the beautiful silver washbasin and jug reserved for guests in every Uighur house, and then tucked in, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted eating platform of the house. The noodles had a perfect bite and consistency – firm yet yielding, smooth and slippery. The rustic mutton vegetable sauce had a rich tomato flavour and was surprisingly spicy thanks to the hot local peppers. 
I suspect that the secret of Lady Style Pulled Noodles lies not so much in the techniques of stretching and pulling, as in starting with the perfect dough with exactly the right amount of salt. Too much salt, and the noodles will break easily when stretched, too little and they will lack bite. Waheed told me, as we ate, that his own mother makes these noodles every single day of the year. It will take me a long time to build up that kind of practice!  I can’t wait to try making my own back in Shanghai.
Waheed can offer a guide service for Kashgar and its surrounds including camping and mountaineering adventures in the local mountains.
Contact him at
Travels on the Silk Road

Yaks, Goats and Fat-Tailed Sheep: The Sunday Animal Market, Kashgar

Need a yak? Want to know the going rate for a donkey? Got a few spare goats you’d like to get off your hands because they keep eating your shoes?
Then get yourself to Kashgar’s weekly animal market, held every Sunday just outside town. In the past the animal market was part of the regular Sunday Market in Kashgar, until I guess it got too messy and rowdy and they decided to give the animals their own purpose-built venue. And don’t go worrying that you’re going to see puppies and kittens in cages, this is an agricultural market, strictly for farmer types. The main business is in cows, yaks, goats and fat-tailed sheep, with a few donkeys and horses and the occasional camel thrown in once a month on camel trading day.
The market is held in a large open field, bordered with walls and entered through a wide gate. Early in the morning the livestock begins to arrive by whatever means is available.
By tricycle…
By tractor….

By truck…
By trailer…

Or on foot.
Once inside the animals are lined up neatly and tethered together, cheek-to-cheek. Goats with goats, sheep with sheep and so on.

Not everyone is happy to be at the market, of course. For some, it’s unbearable being in such close proximity to other animals.
Occasionally on-the-spot pre-sale repairs need to be carried out, like trimming the dirty wool from the extraordinary tails of these local fat-tailed sheep.
Now they look the business. 
Like traders in any part of the world, the farmers walk around, mobile phones pressed to ears, inspecting stock.

At a point, after teeth, hoofs, testicles and overall sheep-ness are inspected, a deal is done. Hands are shaken. Money presumably changes hands, but it’s invisible to the naked eye.

Like stockbrokers working the stock exchange I’m told that some buyers spend the whole day at the markets buying and selling repeatedly in order to make a margin on the sale – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The busines of livestock selling is conducted exclusively by Uighur men – Chinese animal traders are not admitted to the market.Women appear to be welcome but don’t participate in the trading, at least not obviously.

Once everyone is happy with the price, it’s time for breakfast. Around the perimeter of the market food stalls are already feeding dozens with mutton polo, soups, noodles, and samsas.
Diced lamb is ready for wrapping into tasty little pastry envelopes – samsas – cooked inside the smoking tandoor oven.

The tasty soup is kept steaming hot, seasoned by the chief taster after a sip from his ladle.
After watching this expert butcher for ages I decide to buy a beautiful handmade Uighur knife – not because I’m planning to do my own butchering, but as a fruit knife. 

The knives, with exquisite copper-inlaid bone, horn, wood or metal handles are beautifully crafted. They come with their own leather holster so you can wear them on your belt Uighur style. 
I buy one with a smooth black handle inlaid with brass and copper diamonds, but it causes me no end of trouble over the next few days as it becomes clear I can’t take it back to Shanghai on the train, and China Post won’t allow it to be sent. 
Eventually a private courier company comes to my hotel room to tell me that for double the cost of the knife’s purchase price, it can be returned to Shanghai by bus accompanied by a police declaration, and will take one month. I’ll let you know if it ever gets here. To be honest, it would have been less hassle and a lot cheaper to buy a yak. Next time I’ll know better!

Kashgar Animal Market
Every Sunday from dawn
The market has moved three times in the last year alone, so it’s worth checking the current location before you go.

Travels on the Silk Road

Kashgar: The Sunday Market, The Old City – A Dream Realized

I have a little story to tell you about Kashgar and how pivotal it was in my eventual move to China.

Kashgar, market town smack in the middle of the Silk Road, with hundreds of years of traveller and trader history. I don’t think I was even consciously aware that it was in China. Four years ago my husband began coming to China for work, visits that became more frequent and more prolonged. He could obviously see the writing on the wall that I couldn’t – our whole family was going to need to relocate to China within the year. I had listened with rapt attention to his stories about Shanghai, but China was a huge unknown quantity, and only the previous year I had turned down a trip to the Beijing Olympics on ‘ethical humanitarian grounds’. I was so full of shit.

Realising I may need a bit more convincing before a relocation was proposed, after one particular trip he bought a book for me called ‘Kashgar – Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road’. It was full of incredible photographs of a city that had lived only in my imagination – dusty adobe houses, cool courtyards shaded by trellised grapevines, mosques, deserts, camels, brass and copper  (you can read an interview with the photographer John Gollings here).

In particular the images of the Sunday Market in Kashgar captured me completely. The men in embroidered caps, faces like oiled walnuts, surrounded by richly coloured carpets and donkey carts. The rows of brass teapots and oil lamps. It became a burning obsession.
“Kashgar’s in China you know” my husband said. “We might get to visit if we lived there.”
So there you have it. A promise to visit Kashgar became part of the decision to move to China, all based on a book of photographs of a place I’d never been but longed to see. Once here, I was in no rush – Kashgar wasn’t going anywhere. Then I heard about the attempted destruction of the Old City, narrow lanes full of traditional adobe houses, quiet and mysterious, and I knew the time had come to see before it was too late.

Kashgar didn’t disappoint. It’s all you imagine of an ancient silk road city and more. I think I won’t write any more, and let you see for yourself the beauty of fascination of the place. Smell the spices, taste the juicy pomegranates and the char-grilled meats, feel the smooth cool dusty adobe walls of the quiet alleys of the old city and hear the hawker cries of the busy, bustling Sunday Market. You must go.

Tashkorgan Tajik Celebration!

There’s nothing like an all day party to help you over a bout of altitude sickness. Heading southwest from Lake Karakul, up and over a 4000m mountain pass, we arrive in the heartland of the mountain-dwelling Tajik people smack in the middle of a colourful annual festival. What good luck!
Tashkorgan  تاشقورغان بازىرى‎ was an important stop along the Silk Road from China through the mountainous Khunjerab Pass to Pakistan, about an hour away. A scant few kilometres to the southwest is Afghanistan, and directly west, along a broad front of the Pamir Mountains is Tajikistan, a country I am pretty sure I had never heard of until now. Yet here I am in in Tashkorgan, a town full of mountain Tajiks who settled here in this fertile mountain valley of the Pamir Plateau, herding sheep and growing wheat and fruit. 
The celebration is in full swing when we arrive, centred around a huge grassy field north of town and the adjacent dirt racetrack. Colourfully dressed Tajik women are arriving from every direction, wearing their party best – patterned red dresses, embroidered velvet caps covered with a brightly coloured scarf for the young women, and a white scarf for the older ones. In keeping with the modesty of their Muslim faith, the women’s skirts ae all below the knee, under which are worn skin coloured leggings, and over these shiny skin-coloured stockings. High heels are permitted.
The men dress more modestly in navy blue or black, all with covered heads and many wearing flat caps. According to a Chinese Government website about China’s Tajiks, 
“It would be a breach of etiquette to take off the hat while talking to others, unless an extremely grave problem is being discussed.”

The festivities, many and various centre in the broad flat field with people watching Tajik singing and dancing from behind a barricade of coloured bunting. 
Starving, we give the cattle and sheep judging a miss in favour of the food tents. A long avenue of bunting is lined with food stalls on both sides, smoking from grilled kebabs. Nearby yurts have been assembled so friends can gather, drink tea, and eat lunch. The local foods are simple and hearty – mutton polo, a rice dish cooked with tasty chunks of meat, shreds of carrot and occasionaly dried fruits; breads, shallow dishes of yoghurt, and small tin bowls of fresh cream eaten with torn chunks of soft bread.
I try an interestingly texture corn bread, served with a paper cup full of lightly pickled mung beans topped with chili, all washed down with salted yak milk tea. I’m getting to quite like the stuff. 

The women are very interested in a stall selling cross stitch patterns. Their red dress and tassels indicate they have been recently married, and they greatly admire the stallholder’s best work, a framed Tajik wedding portrait in cross stitch.
Before leaving Tashkorgan we visit its majestic adobe fort, some 1400 years old, sitting high above the town. It’s a magnificent end to our day here, the imposing and solid walls watching over the Tajik celebrations from afar – what history must have happened here! Battles fought, hearts of princesses won and lost, kingdoms gained. Only the ancient walls know the truth.
Travels on the Silk Road

Lake Karakul and the Kyrgyz Yurt-Dwellers

There is something faintly terrifying about altitude sickness – the pounding headaches, the blunted focus, the inability to make decisions. And that’s while sitting still. Walk a few paces and your chest heaves and rasps and your heart pounds heavily as you suck in cold, thin air that never seems enough. 
We had landed in Kashgar only to head immediately westwards towards the Karakoram Highway, high into the mountains and to Lake Karakul, with our newly-met Uighur guide Waheed. Foreigners travelling westwards need a guide and driver, a permit, and a detailed itinerary to avoid trouble with the local Chinese police who restrict and control movements of local Uighurs and foreigners alike.
Kashgar’s outskirts tantalised us with carts of melons and peaches, boxes of dripping red pomegranates and tables piled with rounds of bread, fresh from the oven and sprinkled with onion seeds and salt. These would have to wait, because we needed to traverse the moubtain road before nightfall, parts having become very difficult to pass with the commencement of construction for a hydro-electric powerstation. 
I hadn’t really thought through the rapid ascent to 3600m until we reached the checkpoint where we had to show ourselves, our permits and our passports. We had passed through a bare rocky landscape, through ravines and up to the base of snow-tipped mountains, with not a whisper of a blade of grass or stunted tree. Stepping out of the van in the gathering dusk the air was glacial, a frozen wind whipping our faces. It hurt to breathe. We all had headaches. 
I hoped the children and the parents-in-law would be OK, but as a precaution I had photocopied the American Wilderness Medicine Society guidelines for acute mountain sickness and brought along acetazolamide, just in case. That’s what doctors do – prepare for the worst, hope for the best. It’s a bit nerdy but it’s gotten us out of trouble many times before.

Arriving through a mountain pass the road opened out suddenly into a broad alpine pasture, now brown with frosts. A low line of yurts lay ahead on the shores of Lake Karakul, our destination for the night where Waheed had made arrangements for us to stay with a local Kyrgyz family for the night, although there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere and no smoke rose from the chimneys. 
Ringed by snowy peaks touched with last of the setting sun, the lake itself glowed steel blue in the cold evening air. A group of camels were gathering by the shores to feed, snorting and huffing at us as they passed. I felt like we were in another world entirely, certainly not in China.

At this point it bacame clear my mother-in-law was quite dreadfully ill. A bad headache had turned into nausea, vomiting and dizziness, and she was barely able to stand. Our host Kyrgyz family, with wonderful timing, returned from a nearby village where they were preparing a wedding for the following day. The father, wth a brown furred hat and long dark winter coat stepped off the bike followed by his wife in pink headscarf and coat, and his two daughters. They welcomed us into their house, a low square building next to their yurt, stoked the fire and made a comfortable bed for my mother-in-law, F.

The inside of their house, like the inside of their adjacent yurt, was a riot of colour and rich texture, every surface draped and lined with carpets, blankets, quilts and curtains in rich jewel colours and elaborate designs, in total contrast to the bare monotone landscape outside. Along a low shelf dozens of thick quilts were folded and hidden by a fringed red velvet cloth. The centre of the room was the hearth, with a wrought iron pot belly stove fired by coal and dried yak dung, topped with an enormous teapot.
The Kyrgyz mother explained that F needed to drink hot salted yak milk tea and rest, in order to get better. I added some acetazolamide, just in case the yak milk tea didn’t work, and some stemetil, just in case yak milk was a little hard on the stomach.
We sat round the hearth, warm as toast, as the dusk deepened and the wind howled outside, and all of us tasted our first salted yak milk tea, rich, creamy and hot from shallow bowls. F seemed to be getting no worse, although we did discuss descending down the same treacherous road in the dark to a lower altitude, and decided against it. 
The family made us a simple vegetable pilau for dinner, with more yak milk tea, and we were joined by a second family and their children. In all sixteen of us crammed tightly in to their crimson lined box, chatting, and watching fascinated as the mother used a pasta maker to fashion noodles for all of us. F had fallen asleep, and looked more peaceful. I began to worry less, although in the dim light of the stove I realised she had ‘moderate to severe acute mountain sickness’ according to my guidelines. But she wasn’t worsening.
We unfolded rows and rows of gold, green, sapphire blue purple quilts and fully clothed, settled down to sleep side by side like so many gloriously dressed sardines.
The morning sunlight came pale and golden, resting on the mountain tops. I walked down to the water’s edge and washed my face in the waters of Lake Karakul, glacial and bracing. The smoke rising from the chimney showed everyone was awake, including F who had rallied during the night and was ready for another cup of hot yak milk tea, feeling a little better but very pleased we would be descending today to less than 3000m. Our lovely family had taken such good care of us, and we thanked them as best we could without a single word of Kyrgyz. They posed for me, very formally, for a photograph outside their house.
And so we went, onwards and downwards.

Travels on the Silk Road