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Dinner in Urumchi

On the road, there are no ordinary days.

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It had been, if indeed there is such a thing, an ordinary day of touring in China. It isn't that China is an ordinary place, but after you spend a couple of weeks in almost any place, it can seem ordinary. You have breakfast at the hotel, you can't really talk to anybody because they don't speak English, the tour bus takes you to some museum, then to some palace or something, then you have a lunch at some supposedly great restaurant -- best in town but real similar to the last town's best place -- and then you visit some ancient ruins that nobody seems to know much about, then you chill at the hotel for a while before dinner, which you assume will be forgettable as well.

No one can achieve a state of jadedness, of difficulty to impress, of ho-humness like the international traveler.

In this particular case, we were on a long tour of China and had reached their equivalent of the Wild West. We were in a place called Urumchi, which even if you've been to China or always wanted to go to China, you've probably never heard of. That's because there's virtually no reason to go there. Tourists in China go to Urumchi for the same reason they'd go to Boise: to get someplace on the other side of it.

And so it was with us. We were on our way to a wonderful place called Kashgar, and for logistical reasons, we needed to spend a night in Urumchi. When we asked our tour guide what, if anything, was special about Urumchi, she told us three things: 1) It's a modern, business-oriented town; 2) it's the most landlocked city on earth; 3) and it's near the third-lowest point on earth, the Turfan Depression out in the Taklimikan Desert, which is 154 meters below the sea. The literature told us that Urumchi was a Mongolian word for "beautiful pastures," but I assumed (correctly) that those pastures had all been replaced by the modern, business town.

Now, about dinner. I knew nothing about the food in Urumchi when I was there, but now that I look around on the Internet, I see that the local fare consists of roasted sheep, kebabs, stuffed steamed buns, mutton, dried sour cheese, and all sorts of fruits and melons, including Hami, "one of the most famous melons in China big in size, sweet, delicious, crisp and juicy, containing as much sugar as 12-14%."

Had we only known. We had, by this point in the trip, established a pattern of telling our local hosts that, while we're sure the hotel has an excellent chef, we'd prefer to eat the local fare. We had dived into street markets and scary places and had some truly memorable meals. But in Urumchi we were tired, just travelers on the way someplace, so we took what the hotel gave us, which was fish.

It took us a few minutes to make the connection. Fish. In Urumchi. The most landlocked city in the world -- landlocked, as in farthest from any ocean. Doesn't seem to add up, does it? Beautiful pastures plus desert plus fruits and melons equals fish for dinner. I had to ask, and the waitress looked panicked for a moment, then said, "It is from the fish lake" -- and disappeared back into the kitchen.

And so we ate our fish, but I remember nothing about it. That's because at the table next to us were about a dozen businessmen, still in their suits and all drinking very heavily. We were told they were from Taiwan. When their dinner came out, it was the more traditional fare: roasted goat. But get this: It was the whole goat! Horns, hooves, teeth, everything. And these drunk Taiwanese dudes were pumped! They had their pictures taken with it, they were messing around with it, poking it in the eyes, trying to make its lips move like it was talking very disturbing. Then, as they ate it, and got drunker, and started hitting on the poor waitress, they started fighting over who got which piece -- of the goat, not the waitress -- and taking bets on who would eat the eyes, for example.

When we had finished our own, boring meal, I headed for my room: surrender the dining room to the goat-eaters. Like most hotels in western China, this one was having troubles with its elevator, so I had to wait awhile. When it finally opened, I walked in, let out a sigh of relief -- tomorrow is another day -- and, just as the doors were about to close, here come the Taiwanese dudes.

When they all packed in -- and it took some packing -- I was jammed in the corner, and I couldn't even move my arms. They got the doors closed on the third try. Then the elevator went about five feet, a buzzer sounded, and it stopped. Everybody laughed, except the tall American, who called out to his creator.

What seemed a few days later, one of the Taiwanese dudes started to hum, and then another one, and pretty soon they were all singing. I spiced up my vocabulary, since they couldn't understand me anyway, and even tried to sing along. "I want out of this f--ing elevator," I crooned, "or I'm gonna kill me a Taiwanese dude!"

I really don't recall how long we were stuck in there. I know we got out and nobody died, but it was touch-and-go for a minute there. And I know that, as usual on the road, there are no ordinary days.

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