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Our Xinjiang Motto: "Nuttin' But Mutton!"

Meals turned out to be fairly challenging for all of us, at different times and for different reasons. Tom and the girls need to start their day with a native breakfast – native to Americans, that is - so each girl brought a box of Cheerios (regular for Miranda, Honeynut for Sami) and doled them out carefully to last the whole trip. (Sami ended up about one bowl shy, and our last morning was marked by a little mealtime meltdown. Oops!)

We grownups took our chances on the hotel breakfasts, which were an odd mix of Chinese (stir-fried veggies, rice porridge, leaden steamed buns) and Uighur (flatbread cooked in mutton fat, super-sweet, milky tea). Tom, who is a super-adventurous eater but only after 10 AM, filled up on fried eggs. I enjoy local breakfast foods just about anywhere (except spicy foods – I had enough hot-pepper breakfasts while living in Hunan to last a lifetime) but was glad to have brought my Earl Gray teabags to accompany the man tou and other offerings.

Lunch and dinner were more problematic. Mutton, mutton, a little bread, and then some more mutton make up the Xinjiang diet. It’s typically grilled on skewers:

For special occasions a family might buy a whole roasted specimen. Need a last-minute hostess gift for that cocktail party? Grab one of these babies – complete with a bow and matching carrying case!

As with all foods, freshness and provenance count for a lot, so the mutton on offer is always displayed outside the restaurant to satisfy the discriminating diner.

The girls do not, unfortunately, care for lamb.

One might think their aversion stems from seeing it in its raw form everywhere, but surprisingly, they got used to that pretty quickly. No, their issue is philosophical, or as Sami puts it, “We are vegetarians against lamb.” Why? Miranda’s stuffed lamb, Calisa, has been with her since babyhood and is like a member of the family.

We did explain – numerous times - that Calisa is an intelligent, special lamb, and that “mutton” comes from dumb, old, ordinary sheep – to no avail. Throughout our trip, the girls subsisted largely on fangbian mian – [exact translation: “convenient noodles,” also known as ramen], which I took to carrying around in my backpack, ready to whip out when hunger struck. Fortunately, boiling water is not a scarce commodity anywhere in tea-loving China!

Tom loves bread in any form, and we did a lot of comparative taste-testing of naang, preferably pulled fresh from a circular, tandoor-style oven:

Other items we saw – and sometimes sampled – included roasted yams, a fall staple all over China, eggs steamed over hot coals, and of course, mountains of pomegranates wherever we looked.

One day, seeing how desperate we were to find alternatives to mutton and fangbian mian, Gul took us to a private home where we bought a roast chicken from a family whose “secret recipe” had made them famous. We watched the plucking, and then picked our own from a fragrant-smelling pot:

We carried it to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed it along with bowls of Xinjiang-style noodles – fat and chewy with some spicy vegetables on top. No mutton in sight!

Another great meal, at least for Tom and me, was roasted pigeon, which we enjoyed in a well-known village restaurant where the bed-like tables rested above a small creek.

Everyone was in a good mood after that. Tom and the girls lolled around on the beds, as smoke from the kebab grill swirled around us. I had some more roast pigeon for dessert!


Uighurs tend to have terrible teeth – we saw a lot of kids with “metal mouths,” and we do NOT mean they wore braces. Also lots of grown-ups with many gaps where teeth SHOULD be. We soon found out why: there are many kinds of sweets on offer. Turns out that rock candy is delicious and tastes the same everywhere (but what’s that weird-looking green stuff to the left of it? Who’s going to try it? Not me….)
This was the strangest sweet we saw – Gul told us it came from bees. It’s dry and crumbly and tastes like honey, though it’s neither honey nor comb; Uighurs call it “Red honey.” I enjoyed the taste, but on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

By contrast, I became an instant, loyal devotee of the walnut brittle sold on the street. I sampled it everywhere (and brushed my teeth a LOT afterwards!)

I brushed even harder after we poked our heads inside a few of the many, many dentists’ “offices” we saw. There’s one on practically every block, but their stock in trade seems to be extraction rather than hygiene!

And every single one of them had at least one grim-faced patient waiting to hear the dreaded call: “Next!”

Our tummies full, it was time for a little entertainment!


Xinjiang chapter shortcuts: Intro Urumqi
Khotan Treasures Toy Bazaar Camel Weaving Shakeer Hats Food Costume Bowls Camel Ride
Overland Kashgar Old City Bazaar Kindergarten Rural Life Reunion

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