Little girl, big river
A day in the sun on the Huang He
Taking some sun, eating good food and causing a stir in a small town
It started with an invitation from Lulu: it's a labor holiday this weekend, and her family was geared up to get outdoors. Lulu said they were going to see the Yellow River, so of course I had to accept!
There were nine of us: One grandma, one father, one mother, one aunt, four cousins, and one bewildered laowai. Kinship terms in Chinese seem to be more complicated in the wake of the "One family, one child" policy; the eldest cousin, for example, is not known as Lulu's "biaoge" (elder male cousin) but as her "gege" (elder brother). I have heard many Chinese people my age refer to their cousins in a similarly confusing manner; my theory is that either it is a regional idiosyncracy, or that cousins have become surrogate siblings.
We set out from the city for Tuo Xian County and a little country diner called Lao Liu Dun Yu
- "Old man Liu stews the fish." So close to the River, fish is a staple by all appearances: we saw a make-shift market of people parking their cars on a country road
with their fresh catches. Many others had stopped their cars to look over the fish and haggle over the price.
Tuo Xian County is known for its proximity to the river and for its spicy red peppers. At the country diner, we had a cold dish of potato noodles sprinkled with pickled veggies and the seeds of the local peppers - quite good. The attraction of this restaurant is that everything is local: the stir-fried eggs come from local hens; the stewed fish is the catch of the day; the corn cakes are made from meal bought in nearby villages. I was delighted to discover Chinese corn bread when we had dinner later that day: exactly the same in every respect with my Mom's homemade corn bread.
Coming back to the potato noodles - this variety is not the same as the hot-pot staple "fen tiao" noodles, but rather is known as "liang fen" and is eaten cold. The dough is transparent and is rolled out on a big wicker platter, then sliced up for the dish. Sam (Lulu's dad and my "shushu," or uncle - read older unrelated man) brought one of these platters out from the
kitchen for us to see; I was amazed at how big it was.
Right about this time the youngest cousin began her day-long tear. She contrived any number of situations and ignored all subsequent suggestions and scoldings. This girl is a pistol; she brought to mind Shakespeare, ever the keen social observer: "Though she be but little, she is fierce." Small people often have big personalities, and I should say children are almost always individualists: after all, they're at the best time of life to be so. Sam knighted her "Bandit" - and the name stuck.
Following our leisurely midday repast, we drove on to the bank of the Yellow River. It was indeed brownish-yellow; the next-to-youngest cousin presented Lulu and me with soil from the bank of the river: green-yellow clay. We took a photo op (or two or twenty) all along the bank and even posed on an idle boat; Bandit showed just how mighty she was by pulling us back to shore. Lulu and I demonstrated our Taijiquan skills, such as they are, but when I had a solo number I got stage fright and promptly forgot my routine. Maybe next time.
Tuo Xian we visited the spice market in a small town. Although it looked somewhat like Huhehaote on the surface, it became rapidly apparent that foreigners are a rare sight there. Everywhere we went, people stared. Sam became crafty and casually took pictures of Lulu and I that also included gaping groups of people in the background - quite funny to look at later on. We left the town with some peppers and good photos and headed back to Hushi in a sleepy twilight landscape. Bandit became angelic after declaring, "Wo xiang shui yige jiao" (I want a nap) and promptly dropping off into slumber. Lulu and I draped her in her coat to keep her warm, and her cherub face remained determined and strong even in sleep: a most tender sight.
We stopped for a lovely dinner at the crowded "Da Dong Bei" restaurant in downtown Huhehaote, and then we all turned in for the night. Today I rejoined the family for lunch at yet another excellent restaurant (I'm noticing a pattern here) that specialized in fresh seafood and water-creatures; including LIVE alligators that, once selected by customers, would be dispatched, cooked and consumed. I'm not a fan
of gators or crocs, but I don't think I could bring myself to eat one "chosen" in that fashion; I couldn't even bring myself to photograph the doomed reptiles.
Having eaten a lunch that included massive amounts of crab, lobster and shellfish, I tried my hand at majiang once again, winning one time and still "earning" money on some of my combinations when I wasn't winning. Still, I felt unbelievably slow compared to the pros.
After majiang I had dinner and coffee with another good friend at one of the most creative coffee houses in town. Chinese and English books line the walls and patrons may pick up anything that takes their fancy. Coffee and books are excellent companions for great conversation.
All in all, not a bad weekend, especially considering I had hardly any plans at all Saturday morning.
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