The Silk Road Pit Stop
Silk Road, China
|Food seller at Central Asian Baszaar|
It has always been this way. You don’t believe me? Ask Marco Polo; read his account of the ultimate road trip across the Silk Road. He hated to stop. He wanted to press on. But, when he did stop, he ate with pleasure, wrote about food, dissected the local dishes and found out what he liked about them. For him, a perfect road stop included good food and ample resources to restock travel supplies. I like to add a third criterion to the list. A good highway rest area has three essential elements; a variety of local food ready to eat, a place to buy suitable food for the road and a nice bathroom for emptying out before filling up. Urumqi has them all.
Urumqi is an ancient stopover on the Silk Route. It originally started as a small and uninteresting Muslim town where travelers could enjoy cooler weather before dropping into the Taklikamakan Desert. Now it is a large and uninteresting Chinese city where travelers can enjoy smoggy cool before dropping into the Taklikamakan heat. And here, fellow Silk Route road trippers, logistics becomes the child in the back seat asking for a pit stop; you cannot access the more exotic of China’s Silk Road without stopping through Urumqi. All flights from Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai go through Urumqi. The Chinese train system uses Urumqi as its hub. Here is the rub; because of flight and train schedules you are guaranteed spending at least one night in Urumqi before catching your ride to the more exotic Silk Road locations. So, since you are coming this way, you might as well take advantage and enjoy Urumqi to the fullest. You might as well eat.
The city of Urumqi is the food court of Xinjiang. Here a Silk Road traveler can experience all the major Central Asian culinary influences; Kazakh, Uyghur, Pakistani, Hui, Chinese, Russian and Uzbek. Eating in this Silk Road Oasis is intriguing; you will eat with Muslims, Buddhist, and Atheists. In Urumqi, what you eat in one restaurant may be strictly forbidden for religious reasons in the restaurant next door.
In most of China’s Silk Road cities you will only find Uyghur- a Muslim minority of Turkic background- and Chinese food, so, while in Urumqi you should focus on Kazakh, Uzbek, Pakistani, and Hui food.
It’s best to head out of town to satisfy your Kazakh cravings. The Kazakhs are mountain nomads known for their horsemanship. Though some have come down to live in the desert rim cities, they traditionally live in high altitudes, sleep in skin tents called yurts and live off mutton. The best place to discover Kazakh living and food is in the Heavenly Mountains, specifically the Heavenly Lake. The Heavenly Lake is about two hours northwest of Urumqi and an easy day trip by bus. The buses leave from the Peoples Park, are 60 RMB for a round trip ticket, plus 60 RMB for an entrance fee into the Heavenly Lake. The bus leaves the park at 9 a.m. each morning and begins the return trip at 4 p.m.
Once there, no worries, you will be hounded by local Kazakhs who want to take you to their yurt and feed you for a small fee. You can sit on their thick blankets, lean back on their pillows and watch them play their mandolin like dutars and dance as they feed you. You will probably be fed a rice pilaf dish called polo or thick homemade noodles with vegetables and mutton called lagman. Ask for kebabs (kawap); they are spicy, tender and a staple in any Kazakh diet. The star of the show, however, is Kazakh tea. Kazakhs love to add salt and milk to their tea; an acquired taste, to be sure, but tea is important in their culture and they will feel honored by an empty bowl.
After eating, make your way around the lake and gaze at the 20,000 feet plus peaks towering over you. They will stun you; mountain goats jump from rock to rock, snow covers their peaks year round. It is so stunningly beautiful you may want to stay overnight; and you can stay overnight. Simply barter the cost with your Kazakh host and they will allow you to sleep in their yurt. Don’t worry, it is completely safe. However, if you plan to do this you will want to let your bus driver know. You do, after all, want a ride back to Urumqi the next morning.
Still waiting for travel logistics to catch up with your Silk Route road trip? Then keep eating! The second culinary stop in the Silk Road food court taste test is in Urumqi proper. It is a double whammy, focusing on Hui – a Muslim minority of Han Chinese descent – and Uzbek. And the perfect way to do it is Hui for dinner, Uzbek for dessert.
Catch a cab to the most known Hui restaurant in town, Hui Jia Restaurant, on Ti Yu Guan Road. Hui Jia is an institution in Urumqi and priced to match. A meal for five may cost you 100 RMB, twelve U.S. dollars; please note the sarcasm. Order the Nan Chao Rou and the sweet and sour lamb; both are dishes you may not be able to get anywhere else. Nan Chao Rou is simply stir-fried Muslim bread with tender lamb and plenty of red pepper. It is chopstick novice friendly, comes in large portions and cannot be found absolutely anywhere outside of Xinjiang Province. The sweet and sour lamb is a combination of an old Chinese favorite – sweet and sour chicken – except with Xinjiang’s famously tender mutton. Don’t try asking for pork at Hui Jia. Pork is absolutely forbidden in a Muslim diet and is not served at any of their restaurants.
Looking for something sweet after all the Hui spice? Then it’s time for the Uzbek tea house. The Intizar Uzbek tea house is unique; it is decorated with carved wood and wall carpets, lit by soft candles and lamps and divided into small booths by stenciled windows and thick pillows. At the teahouse you can buy homemade ice cream. It is made in an old fashion ice cream maker out of cream, sugar and fruit fresh from local farms. The recipe is a traditional Uzbek recipe; the locals are crazy over it. On the menu you will find various different flavors. Don’t bother spending too much trying to decide what flavor since they all end up being traditional cream flavored ice cream with different toppings. The “chocolate ice cream” is cream flavored with chocolate syrup. The “banana flavored ice cream” is cream flavored with cut bananas on top. So, you might as well order the original. The star of the show at the Uzbek tea house is, of course, the tea. Order the Bali tea. It is a beautiful pink color, made from strawberries and comes on its own fire burner. The fire keeps the tea hot and sends beams of light through its pink liquid illuminating the whole table. Intizar tea house is a perfect place to escape Urumqi’s bustle; it is quiet, dark and difficult to not spend countless hours chatting, relaxing and, after all the tea, using the bathroom. The tea house is easy to access. It is near 100 Sheng Lin Road. The cab driver will drop you off about four or five store fronts up from the tea house. Find the right building-you will recognize the tea house by a green sign with its name in English and white string lights, climb the dark stairs to the second floor and walk on in.
If you have time for another meal you should not miss the opportunity to eat good and authentic Pakistani food. Xinjiang, the province Urumqi is capital to, borders on Pakistan; they are joined by the famous Karakoram Highway. Because of proximity and trade agreements between Pakistan and China there is a large community of Pakistanis in Urumqi. They have set up a small base on Yan An Road. Take a cab to 45-7 Yan An Road. The driver will drop you off at Abdullah’s Pakistani Restaurant. While at Abdulah’s order the daal. Daal is a lentil bean dip which Pakistan boasts as their national dish. It sounds like the awful potage your mom used make you eat, but is so good you’ll consider taking a fast boat to Pakistan. It is made by grinding tomatoes, garlic, coriander, black peppercorns, butter and lentil beans or wheat together, then dipping into them with flat bread called chipates. The vegetable daal is popular as well. Vegetable Daal is spinach with curry, also dipped into with large chipates. However, save room for the stars of Abdullah’s Pakistani cuisine; the lamb ribs and milk tea. The lamb ribs are skewered and roasted over and red coals laced with chili and ground pepper and are slap-your-momma good. The milk tea, called chocolate milk on Abdullah’s English menu though it doesn’t have an ounce of cocoa in it, is thick and sweet – unlike its Kazakh partner – and tastes especially good after garlic-heavy Pakistani food.
Now, you got to buy munchies. After all, there is nothing worse then being hungry while on a road trip and having nothing to eat. The best bet for local snacks is the dried fruit and nuts Xinjiang is famous for. Xinjiang has so many different colors of raisins you will think you are looking into a bag of Skittles candy; so many different types of sun-dried melons you may want pay the excess baggage charge and bring a ton or two home; so many excellent dried dates it will make you forget about not being able to get any of the other, more lucrative, dates with the girls back home. To get to some good fruit stands take a cab to the Nan Men Turnaround; there are several well stocked stands on both sides of the turnaround. If you simply can’t travel without your Snickers bars and Skittles go to Tian Bai Grocery Store. Stock up. You probably will not find them anywhere else.
So, there you have it. Urumqi may well be the perfect pit stop on your Silk Road Trip. So, stop complaining and begin eating; who knows what food the rest of your trip will bring. Oh, as for the third pit stop criterion, a bathroom to empty out before you fill up again, you are on your own.