In Summer 2007, I spent the better part of a month traveling in Northwest China, taking the train west from Beijing to the end of the line and working my way overland from the China-Pakistan border in the southwest of Xinjiang to Lanzhou in Gansu Province. I've been lucky enough to do a fair amount of traveling thus far in my life, and this trip ranks very, very close to the top of the list. I saw herds of camels, slept in yurts, swam in alpine lakes, and visited desert caves, dunes, and more. I jammed on to buses with people from all over Central Asia, stared agape at ancient Buddhist paintings, and, more importantly for the purposes of this blog, ate no small amount of noodles.
The history of the noodle is as murky as the broth of a good bowl of ramen. The oldest known noodles date back 4000 years and were discovered just a few years ago in what is now Lajia, Qinghai, China, just a stone's throw from Lanzhou in southern Gansu and not far from the route I traveled. Although current geopolitical boundaries allow China to claim the world's first noodle for it's own, the area that is now Western China is incredibly diverse, with countless groups moving back and forth between Mongolia, lowland China, and Central Asia well before the rise of the famous "Silk Road" on which Lajia lies. Until quite recently, there was very little that was "Chinese" about this area, lying on the border of Tibetan and Uyghur lands, to say nothing of the Tanguts, Tocharians, and many, many others.
It's certain that noodles came to Korea and Japan from China, but the origin of the noodle is undoubtedly tied (can noodles be tied?) to Central Asia. Noodles appear in antiquity in ancient Middle Eastern documents, but were noodles developed separately in Arabia and the Levant, or did they make their way down through centuries of intercourse between Central Asia and the "Middle East"? By Alexander the Great's time, groups like the Sogdians were carrying on business back and forth across the steppes, and, since most "Silk Road" commerce was carried out in parts, rather than through long journeys of caravans across the whole stretch, it seems essentially impossible to know exactly when noodles got where. Did pasta come to Italy through the Arab world in the first millenium AD, or much later? Did noodles arise in what is now Western China, then work their way to Central Asia, or did they arrive in Lajia through ancient cross-steppe commerce? In any case, the history of the noodles both in East Asia and in the Mediterannean is, well, as twisted as a bowl of noodles, and far deeper and more convoluted than the popular Marco Polo story lets on.
On my own journey, the first meal of noodles was both of little consequence and highly symbolic. I had just arrived in China a few days before, and feared for the results that the train dining car might have on my as-yet-unadjusted stomach. I'm not usually very concerned with that sort of thing, but I wanted to avoid having to rush to the squat toilet that had been used by a whole train for the duration of the 72-hour train ride to Kashgar. Accordingly, I decided the safest course of action would be to eat nothing but instant noodles and other sundry snacks over the course of the ride. When the food cart came by, I spied my old forgotten friend, Shin Ramyun, and decided that my first ramen love would be the perfect food to begin a journey to the heartland of the noodle.
One nice thing about Chinese instant noodles is that they always come with a mini-sized plastic fork, which, in addition to being convenient, also forces you to eat more slowly, though I don't know how appropriate the word "savor" is when discussing instant noodles. Over the course of the train trip, I tried several different brands and flavors, most notably the mainland standard 康师傅 (Kang Shifu). I spent many, many hours sitting by the window, sipping on beer, and slurping down noodles while waiting for arrival in Kashgar and watching the scenery of all of China pass by. Lowland plains. Instant Noodles. Yellow Earth. Instant Noodles. Parched rock desert. Instant Noodles. The Tarim Basin. Instant Noodles. Alpine Peaks. Instant Noodles. Kashgaria. No More Instant Noodles.
My first night in Kashgar, the oasis bazaar town par excellence, I went out to eat with some pals I had met on the train. Not being very into the ultimate Xinjiang specialty of grilled meats, I glanced around the other tables and pointed to...noodles. Laghman. What I got seemed like the Central Asian ancestor to pasta primavera - thick white noodles halfway between spaghetti and Nagoya-style kishimen, topped with a heavy helping of vegetables, chopped tomatoes, a vinegary sauce, and not a small amount of chili peppers. I would eat this dish (or something similar) many, many times over the next two weeks or so.
After spending the following day traipsing around the old town, some new friends and I decided to go check out the night market. Uyghurs seem to take their Islam pretty lightly (comparatively speaking), considering the fact that there were pool tables set up in front of the biggest mosque in town and the little matter that everyone drinks alcohol. There was of course plenty of grilled meat on offer, but huge piles of stringy yellow things caught my eye, and I pushed my way through the crowd to sidle up to the noodle man's stand.
As is plain to see, what the noodle man was offering was none other than ramen, or at least the Xinjiang approximation thereof. Although I've always suspected that the word ramen can trace its origins through Korean ramyun and Chinese lamian to Central Asian laghman, laghman refers to the thicker, white, spaghetti-like dish from the night before. I never found out what these noodles were called, but they were almost identical to Japanese ramen, albeit spicer. A big vat of soup made of god knows what, a smaller vat of spicy tare (flavor essence), and generous handfuls of thin yellow noodles.
I can't recall if there were any toppings, but these noodles were delicious. People quickly filed in and out, grabbing a spot at the makeshift counter, squatting on a nearby wall or bench, or just standing and slurping, and I did just the same, savoring the atmosphere and the noodles equally. All those bowls of instant noodles on the train were a distant memory. It was also nice to discover that the kaedama system (extra noodles after finishing the first helping) exists in as far-flung places as Kashgar.
After leaving Kashgar, I spent a few days in the Taklamakan desert, and a few more in Karakorum mountains near Tashkorgan, the closest town to the Pakistan border, and just a short distance (but a tall mountain!) away from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. I took a break from noodles, trying some simple local rice dishes, and, surprisingly, some halfway decent Sichuanese food, while admiring views like this one:
I got back to Kashgar just in time to catch the famous weekend market, where there is plenty of haggling over goats, carpets, huge ghetto blaster boomboxes, and just about anything and everything else. On the edge of the market are some simple restaurants, most of which offer hand pulled noodles among other dishes. I walked around a couple times, and every time I walked by I saw this kid practicing his technique:
He was doing a lot more than pulling, as he tossed and spun his dough, almost jumping rope with it as the master noodle puller kept a careful eye on him. I ended up opting for some pilaf and a side dish of a fried egg with spicy chickpea salad, but there were plenty more hand-pulled noodles to come. After a brutal 26-hour trans-desert bus ride that included pooping outside in front of a nuclear power plant at 5 AM, I hung out in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, before heading on to the Heavenly Lake of Tian Chi and leaving Xinjiang for neighboring Gansu province.
After getting my jaw dropped by the full-color ancient Buddhist cave murals at Dunhuang, I headed to the foothills of the Tibetan plateau to visit the town of Xiahe and the famous Labrang Monastery.
The second day in Xiahe, some new pals and I found a driver to take us around the surrounding grasslands. After seeing a few remote temples and villages and doing some hiking around in the foggy wet weather, we were all ready for some sustenance. When we asked the driver what our options were for lunch, his reply was "I hope you guys like noodles..." We were far enough out in the country that "restaurants" as such were few and far between. Luckily, the lack of competition did not mean a lazy chef, and the noodles he served up were second to none. I followed our driver's lead and ordered the stir fried noodles with egg.
What I got was a dish that reminded me of Japanese yakiudon, but with even thicker, doughier, rough cut noodles and big hunks of scrambled egg. The noodles were greasier than hell and even more delicious, especially with a cup of yak butter tea and a poster of "Britenerey Spears" gazing down on us from a wall papered exclusively with Fanta Orange labels.
The next day, I had some Tibetan noodles in soup that were almost like thick postage stamps of wheat floating in a mildly spicy veggie broth, but those were a mere appetizer to the delicacy waiting for me back in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu and the last stop on my journey. Lanzhou's name is synonymous across China with noodles, and a particular kind at that - niuroumian, beef-broth noodles, often known as Lanzhou lamian, but of course in Lanzhou they are simply "lamian." There are lots of restaurants in New York Chinatown (especially on Eldrige Street) serving up Lanzhou lamian, but most of those are made by Fujianese immigrants from the Southeast and can't hold a candle to the original. I split a cab from the bus station to the center of town and got the cabbie's recommendation for a good noodle place in the vicinity. I don't say this lightly, but these noodles were the bomb. Being beef broth noodles, they reminded me a bit of pho, but with thinner, ever so flat wheat noodles. The soup was light but complex, with a healthy garnishing of cilantro and an even healthier garnshing of chili oil, among other less readily identifiable toppings. Ironically, despite the name "beef noodles", Lanzhou niuroumian rarely have more than two or three tiny hunks of beef floating on top, which was fine by me.
These noodles put me in an incredibly good mood. I was jittery, giggly, and in general happy to be alive as I searched for a cheap hotel near the station. I think the last time noodles had produced such a physical reaction in me was my first bowl of street noodles in Thailand, and I'm pretty sure that's because they slip amphetamines and cannabis extract in the soup to keep the customers coming back. However, after checking in to my hotel, I started to worry. What if the noodles I had just eaten were not the best in Lanzhou but the worst? They were in an awfully convenient location near the station after all - the restaurant wouldn't need to serve up a good bowl to get customers. I became paranoid. I needed to eat another bowl to find out where the noodles I just ate stood in comparison to other bowls in Lanzhou.
I sought out another restaurant on a smaller street, searching around to find somewhere sufficiently 1. dirty, 2. crowded, and 3. Muslim-looking, since Lanzhou lamian are considered a halal specialty. The soup in the second bowl was even more delicious than the first, but the noodles were a bit softer and not quite as good. Before leaving town the next day, I grabbed one more quick bowl, totalling three bowls of Lanzhou noodles in about 16 hours. I went back to Beijing, where I proceeded to spend the rest of the summer, mixing in the occasional bowl of noodles with a much more varied range of dishes. I had journeyed into the heartland of noodles and back, but little did I know that there was somewhere else in Northwest China in which noodles form an even more central part of the diet. In due time, I would go there and overdose on noodles, but that's another story...