In the Shadow of the Great Wall

IMG_2829I once spent a long weekend hiking the Great Wall. Rather than traveling the most touristy part, we followed a “tour guide” who helped us to, shall we say, circumvent the Chinese authorities guarding the less maintained parts of the Wall. After a full day of scrambling up crumbling staircases and stepping gingerly on narrow pathways, we descended wearily from the Wall into a village.

This village was made up of fields upon fields of corn with one-story houses scattered on the surrounding hillsides. The roads were all dirt and loose gravel, and at night, it was so dark and quiet that if you stared at the sky long enough, you could almost see the stars move and feel the earth turn. We drank warm beers because the weekly shipment of water hadn’t made it to the village yet and when the power went out after a sudden thunderstorm, we played Murderer in the Dark until finally, everyone fell asleep.

IMG_2498

A misty morning at the foot of the Great Wall

I awoke to the quintessential crowing of roosters and stepped out into a grey, cool morning. Our hosts were awake and already busy preparing the day’s meals, but everyone else was still asleep. I wandered down the road, passing a graveyard of discarded couches, several loud and territorial chickens, and some angry (but thankfully chained) dogs. As I walked on alongside the fields of gently swaying corn, I came upon a young girl and an old man walking silently side by side.

IMG_2546This sight isn’t so uncommon, especially in the Chinese countryside. Rural villages have depopulated over the decades as young people leave for modernity and opportunities in the cities. After passing through the minority communities of Tibet (西藏) and Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) and talking with the people there, I learned the fear of these people that their culture and even language will be lost as the old die and the young leave forever.

As the mist cleared, I walked back through the corn, past the still-ruffled chickens, and back to the house where everyone had since woken up. Our hosts placed a large pot of noodle soup on the table, made with fresh-picked tomatoes, hand-drawn noodles, and probably freshly killed meat.

As it gets colder, I have found myself thinking back to that soup they made for us after a cold night (cold for summer at least) spent without electricity or running water. I remember their small dogs, their dented tables emblazoned with the “Coca Cola” logo. I remember how warm, how delicious, that meal was after a long walk on a damp morning. But I cannot remember the faces of our hosts.

I always thought that it was the language barrier that prevented me from learning more about Chinese culture, but even after spending months in China learning how to speak the language, I learned very little about the people themselves. Now I wonder about the story behind that pile of couches, about our hosts’ small garden carved painstakingly into the hillside. 

We barely spoke to them except to say our thanks. We packed our bags. We hiked back up to the Wall. And so we became just another bunch of foreigners (老外) who had passed through their village, our tourist money merely prolonging the end.

Hui Lamb Noodle Soup (羊肉回面) (adapted from Beyond the Great Wall) – makes 3-4 servings

Amdo Noodle Squares
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 jalapeno, diced
3/4 lb lamb (I used beef)
1/2 – 1 tsp salt, or to taste
2 medium tomatoes, chopped (~ 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp five spice powder
3 cups hot water
1 cup packed coarsely chopped spinach
3/4 cup cilantro, minced

Heat oil in large heavy pot over medium heat. When oil is hot (shimmering), add ginger, garlic, and jalapeno and cook until softened (~5 minutes). Add meat, making sure pieces have enough space to brown, and raise heat to medium high. Add tomatoes and stir in 1/2 tsp salt, five star powder, and cumin. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add hot water and bring to a rolling boil, then lower heat and simmer, partially covered for at least ten minutes. Taste for salt, then adjust. Simmer for up to 2 hours.

Shortly before serving the soup, bring the soup to a boil. Add the noodles and when they float (~2 minutes), add the spinach and let cook for another minute.

Divide the soup and noodles among four large bowls. Top with cilantro.

Amdo Noodle Squares

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
Generous 1/2 cup water

Mix together salt and flour in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Slowly add water until the mixture begins to clump together. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for several minutes. (Don’t worry if not all the flour is incorporated.) Cover with a cloth or plastic wrap and let rest for at least 30 minutes, at most 3 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut into 4 equal pieces. Roll the pieces into 9-in squares, then cut each one into 9 1-in squares. Dust lightly to flour to prevent the noodles from sticking to each other and remove to a flour-dusted plate or bowl. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces.

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