Zhangye, the Marco Polo Town
The Chinese spoken in this little town is guttural, and I could not understand any of the conversations while eavesdropping in restaurants. The local dialect is curt and chopped, dropping all the ’n’ consonants for example. Yet they are able to switch to full mandarin in a heartbeat when required.
The weather is mild and the streets unfettered by the chains of tight spaces, making it a pleasant town for easy strolls and not much else. Known as Campichu in Marco Polo’s travels, he apparently liked it so much that he decided to spend an entire year here. The locals are clearly proud of this fact, with shops selling everyday items such as clothing and food named “Marco Polo”.
The Little Pink Town of Zhangye
This town has a thing for pink. The women are dressed in neon or baby pink clothing with dizzy patterns; the men are dressed in pastel pink t-shirts or can be seen peddling pink bicycles; even the bright red decorative motifs on the doors of houses have washed out to a faded pink stain.
The Hui People
The number of Uygur people diminished the further we went from Xinjiang, but the influence Islam has can still be seen in the many Hui people here – the men in their distinctive white hats with perforated prints, and the women in their signature headscarves.
The Original Pasta?
This was my favourite dish, 大盘鸡 (dà pán jī), done Zhangye style. The lady boss corrected me passionately when I tried to order some noodles; she tells me that these are 面片 (miàn piàn) and not 面 (miàn), “dough pieces” and not just “dough”. These thick, flat wheat slices reminded me of tagliatelle, and they were flavourful with a fresh, chewy texture. Mix this with slabs of potatoes, Szechuan pepper, green and red chillis, and you get an amazing dish.
I wondered if there was a slim chance pasta might have originated from this little town. They do say it originated from Central through Western China after all.
The Lovely Chambermaid, Xiao Yang
A lovely message left by the chambermaid: “Respects to our honoured guest, greetings! Due to the dry, scorching weather of Zhangye, we have prepared a glass of honeyed water for you. It is refreshing and thirst quenching. I hope that the service will be able to put you in a good mood. A warning not to consume this together with tofu or red tea. Service Staff: Xiao Yang”
(I have kept the translation as direct I can, just to retain the feel of the language.)
Purchasing Some Sweet Figs from a Hui
Most of the dried goods sellers are Hui (Chinese muslims), and the items for sale are slowly morphing from types available towards the West. There are less fruits and nuts; more melon seeds and Chinese wolfberries. The selection is also a little less generous.
Zhangye Style Xiao Long Bao
I wasn’t expecting such a hearty meal when I ordered some 小龙包 (xiǎo lóng bāo) for breakfast. I had imagined I would be getting the soupy, translucent skin buns I was accustomed to, but their take on the dish in Zhangye was different. These buns came with chopped spring onions mixed with specks of meat and vermicelli bits of a gelatinous texture.
Fish and Flowers for Sale!
This was quite a refreshing sight as we had been travelling through arid desert land for the most part of our two week journey. The only fish we saw for sale in Xinjiang were fried and had taken days to be transported from rivers in Russia.
A Hot Meal in Chilly Weather
A hot meal in chilly weather is always a great experience. A large gas cylinder has been connected directly to a fiery wok, which is also the dinner plate of this soon to be very satisfied shopkeeper.
Pinky Town of Zhangye
Spotting pink items became a game to me after some time. Here’s another pink bicycle and pink hat for you.
Pork and Beer Served at Restaurants
The hearty lady boss with a big hairstyle, at the restaurant we had our first pork dish on the entire trip. Beer is also displayed more openly here, something which would have been blasphemous a little further west.
Lao Shu Fen, A Specialty of Zhangye
老鼠粉 (lǎo shǔ fěn), which is a type of noodle made from ground rice flour, is a specialty of Zhangye. This is quite significant as it marks a gradual shift from wheat to rice staples.