34 Province Project: Qinghai 青海

Qinghai, “Blue Sea”, seems a singularly inappropriate name for this vast, landlocked, largely arid and barren province in the middle of western China. The name comes from its most famous feature, the strikingly blue Lake Kokonor (“Blue Lake” in Mongolian), calqued into Qinghai in Chinese.

Much of Qinghai is off limits to tourists without a permit, but in 2018 we stopped in provincial capital Xining for couple of days to acclimatise and paid a visit to nearby Kumbum Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s alma mater, before continuing onwards to Tibet. Historically, near all of Qinghai was in fact a part of the Tibetan province of Amdo, but the city is now overwhelmingly Han Chinese and it’s the Hui (Han Chinese) Muslims with their white skullcaps and green halal restaurants that are a much more visible minority now.

Consequently there isn’t really a unique “Qinghai cuisine” to speak of, and Wikipedia happily lumps it under the broader umbrella of Chinese Islamic cuisine, meaning the same kebabs, lamb, naan, yogurt and hand-pulled noodles we saw earlier in neighbouring Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia. Probably the most interesting dish I personally ran into was niàngpí (酿皮), wobbly giant noodles a solid square centimeter in diameter, served with a chilli-vinegar sauce and some breadlike pieces of fu (wheat gluten). Alas, the only restaurant in Singapore that used to serve the stuff, Alijiang once again, has dropped it from the menu, probably because nobody here knew what the hell it is.

Nevertheless, to my general astonishment, there is one Qinghai restaurant in Singapore! Yi Zun (伊尊) is a Chinese-Muslim halal restaurant specialising in beef noodles, and while they style themselves as Xinjiang cuisine, it’s run by Madam Aisha, who hails from Qinghai. Located in trendy Joo Chiat, the location seems a bit odd until you realise it’s right next to the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community in Geylang Serai. They briefly dropped off the Internet last year and I was afraid they had joined a long list of COVID casualties, but they’re doing fine and if anything the shop looks like it’s very recently completed a spiffy renovation, with a rather fascinating wall mural covering everything from the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow to camels in the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall, a completely pointless server bot wandering around, and a large framed poster of Madam Aisha beaming down on none other than Madam Aisha in the flesh.

The star of the show here is the Lanzhou-style Signature Beef Noodles we already taste tested in the Gansu episode, and they’re a worthy competitor to previous champion Western Mahua. The noodles are made to order, come in a selection of widths according to your liking, are served in a single long strand the way Allah intended them to be, and have just the right amount of chewiness (or “QQ”, as they like to say in Singapore). Excellent, although Western Mahua still has the edge because I found their mala chilli sauce tastier than the chilli-only variety here.

On the side, we had Xinjiang Skewers, and much to my amazement the mutton skewers came served on sticks of red willow (红柳 hóngliǔ), the first time I’d seen this since Xi’an. Unfortunately, the meat itself was kind of chewy with chunks of cartilage, and while we’d ordered the “mild spicy”, what we actually got was closer to nuclear spicy. The non-spicy beef skewers were better overall but not particularly exciting, so Western Mahua’s sister restaurant Alijiang maintains the edge here as well.

And that, somewhat regrettably, is pretty much it as far as Qinghai dishes are concerned, the rest of the menu is a halal-ified collection of Sichuanese and Cantonese staples like chicken siu mai, mala xiang guo and — my personal favorite — what the menu proclaims to be the “Xinjiang classic” of Chongqing-style grilled barramundi, this for a province that literally holds the Guinness World Record for being the land farthest from the sea. But hey, Qinghai is the “Blue Sea” after all, so maybe I’ll let them have their barramundi and flop onto the next province like a fish out of water.

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From Siberia to Tibet: Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

Around 10 PM at night, we trundled across the Mongolia-China border into the dusty town of Erenhot (二连 Erlian).  One of the few pleasures of international train travel is that the border crossings and their inspectors come to you, but China wasn’t having any of it: we all had to disembark with our luggage and go queue up for passport and customs.

And then we waited until 2 AM while our bogies were changed from Russian wide gauge to Chinese standard gauge.  Officially, the sparkly new International Waiting Room had all sorts of amusements including tax-free shopping, a bar and a certified 5-star bathroom; in reality, it lacked all of those as well as air-con, toilet paper and enough seats.  After various conflicting answers and general confusion, I was granted a magic plastic token that let me go outside and check out the jumbled shops and pharmacies, and most importantly, acquire some bananas and the first of many bottles of Yanjing Beer to come.

By the time we woke up next morning, the scenery had changed to rolling green hills, occasional clusters of buildings and factories, and steadily thickening haze.  Viaducts for the Zhangjiakou high-speed rail line, being built for the 2020 Winter Olympics, were often visible and made our clunky train feel rather obsolete.  After arrival at Beijing Station, which seemed to contain more people than all of Mongolia, our host whisked us away for a traditional Chinese welcoming ceremony: foreigner registration at the local Public Security Bureau (公安部 Gong’anbu) cop shop, painstakingly pecked in one finger at a time.  Now we were in China!

Beijing 北京

This was my first visit to the Chinese capital, and I wasn’t expecting much: all you ever see on TV are the inhumanly scaled plazas and buildings around Tian’anmen, designed to make citizens feel like the worthless ants they are compared to the might of emperors old and new.  The shopping district around Wangfujing, all department stores and shopping malls stuffed with name-brand shops, plus the slick modern offices and hotels around Chaoyang, including the dystopian China Central TV aka Big Pants Building (大裤衩 dà kùchǎ), could also have been straight out of Tokyo or Seoul.

But the hutongs around Shizhacai, while now tarted up for tourists and beer-brewing hipsters, remained surprisingly peaceful and lived-in, and the canals and alleyways around Qianhai Lake with weeping willows and pedal boats were green, vibrant and colorful, at least in midsummer.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu (慕田峪), about 1.5 hours north of central Beijing, was a worthwhile excursion, both surprisingly lush and surprisingly smoggy.  Those stairs were a real workout, particularly in the sticky heat of midsummer, and I was glad to take both the ski lift up and the rather ridiculous but still amusing toboggan ride down.  Pro tip: there’s a solitary little snack shop at the top, which will instantly open a frosty bottle of Yanjing for you if you so much as mention the word pijiu (beer) — and attempt to charge you 85 RMB (US$13) for it.  At the bottom of the hill, the same beer will cost you 20, and even that’s pricy by Chinese standards.

Beijing’s other mandatory attraction is the justly reknowned Forbidden City , once the home of the Emperor and now the showcase of China’s Communist mandarins.  There was a queue of several hours to see the pickled corpse of Mao, so when a torrential downpour hit we abandoned that idea and proceeded to the palaces.  The complex is enormous, and despite notional visitor limits (book your tickets online!), it was packed to the gills with local tourists, all armed with pointy umbrellas.   The Outer Court, through which you enter, consists of a series of identical-looking but empty gates and plazas, so there isn’t even much to see.  Mostly to get away from it all, we paid a little extra to visit the Treasure Gallery to the east, and this turned out to be the best move all day: the crowds were thinner and the scale was more reasonable, as this is where the Emperor and his household actually lived.

Xi’an 西安

We ended up in Xi’an through a lucky mishap: the sleeper train we wanted to take from Beijing to Xining was full, and when pondering alternatives, I realized we could take a sleeper to Xi’an, spend a day there, and take an evening bullet train to Xining.  Win!

The thing to do in Xi’an is to visit the Terracotta Warriors, which guard the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the founder of the Qin dynasty and the kind of megalomaniac who makes Mao look modest and reasonable.  In 230 BCE, he unified China for the first time, declared himself emperor, standardized all the things (writing, currency, measures, axles etc) across the vast country, burned all old books and executed those who didn’t comply fast enough, built a necropolis nearly 100 km² in size (the vast majority of which remains unexcavated) and had basically everybody who built it executed.  Unsurprisingly, it’s quite a sight, and enough Chinese agree that it’s now the country’s second-most popular attraction, second only to the Forbidden City.  Don’t expect to have too many moments of peaceful contemplation.

Much further down that list is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, buried in the mazelike depths of the Muslim Quarter (回民街 Huiminjie), and probably the least mosque-like mosque I’ve ever seen.  If somebody swapped the signs, it would substitute quite nicely for, say, a Confucian temple or the Emperor’s former summer residence: for example, the pagoda above is actually a minaret.

Visitors and locals alike do come to the Muslim Quarter in droves, but to satisfy more earthly desires for food and shopping.  Lamb kebabs (烤肉串 kaorou), Chinese hamburgers (肉夹馍 roujiamo), osmanthus cakes topped with dates (桂花糕 guihuagao), crispy meat pies (肉餅 roubing)…  both our quick visit, and this incredible blog post, only scratched the surface.

Xining 西宁

While Beijing and Xi’an are firmly on the beaten track, it’s safe to say Xining is not.  It may be the capital of Qinghai Province, but by Chinese standards its 2.3 million people barely qualify as a city, at least when compared to Xi’an’s 12m or Beijing’s 21m.  What’s more, while it’s been around for over 2,000 years and was a major staging post on the Silk Road, a massive earthquake in 1927 plus Japanese bombing in 1941 means you’d be hard put to find a historical attraction worthy of the name in the city.  The sole reason we were here was that, at an altitude of 2,600m, this gave us a chance to acclimatize a bit, and the only other city in these parts, the industrial center of Golmud, is by all accounts even more dull.

Given these low expectations, Xining was mostly a pleasant surprise, undoubtedly provincial but largely prosperous and with new infrastructure ranging from bridges and highways to trains sprouting everywhere, virtually all of it built since 2010.  Our Taiwanese cracker conglomerate hotel was golden bling to the max, the shopping malls of Xidajie (西大街) were bustling with real department stores and fake Apple Stores, Mojia St (莫家街) was wall to wall with restaurants.  Only slightly off the beaten track did you remember you weren’t in Beijing anymore, with meat hanging on open-air hooks at the street markets of Shuijing Alley (水井巷) and the green signs and ornate skullcaps of Hui Muslims dominating the local culinary scene even more thoroughly than they did in Xi’an.

Xining’s one major draw is Kumbum Monastery, or Ta’ersi Temple (塔尔寺) to the Chinese, some 40 km outside the city.   One of the largest Tibetan monasteries outside Lhasa, this was the childhood home of the Dalai Lama (you can even find a solitary photo if you look very carefully) and, while much reduced from its pre-Cultural Revolution glory, is still an active temple.  I expected to find some Tibetan pilgrims here and did, but I did not expect tour buses full of Chinese pilgrims, herded about by tour guides and stuffing notes ranging from 0.1 to 100 yuan into every nook and cranny of every statue and altar.  Clearly China’s economic boom has also brought with it a surging market for spiritual fulfillment.

Much more sedate, in fact positively comatose, was the official state-sanctioned Tibetan Culture & Medicine Museum in a faux-Tibetan concrete monolith on the northern outskirts of town.  This showcased Tibetan culture as the Chinese government would like it: colorful, safely encased in static glass displays, no actual Tibetans in sight, and with an overpriced gift shop on the way out.

In the evening, we clambered aboard train Z6811 and started our slow climb to Tibet.

Anorak bonus album: Metros in Beijing, Xi’an and Xining

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