Why I Woke at 6 am: Re-heated Noodles, Sausages and Dotars
(If you want to experience more of China, often it’s better to just give up control and listen to the locals)
Several weeks ago I met some Kazakhs who thought I was Russian. I’m not, but they speak good Chinese, we got into conversation, exchanged numbers, and promised to have dinner later.
Said dinner happened yesterday. We were supposed to meet a little after eight, after I finished my IELTS class, and I received a text at 8:26, “we’re on the road, be there soon”. Eight forty-five, nine, “Oops, there’s a car accident, traffic is really backed up”, and finally around ten they arrived. I was originally planning on having dinner with them at eight, and then going back home around the same time as Pierre, after he got out of his company’s bi-weekly meeting. This no longer seemed so likely.
There were three people in the car – two Kazakh Traffic Engineering students from the university, one of whom I initially mistook to be about thirty-two, and one of the guys I met before (Yerkeibeck). By this time I was starving. But first we had errands to run. One of the students had failed to pass the test for a class in his major four times, and would be re-taking the test this coming week. So we drove back into the university, parked on a side street, and then both the driver and the other student wrestled a giant frozen sausage (?) out of the car and made their way to the teacher’s house. While they were away, Yerkeibeck mentioned that he plays the dotar. He then hopped out of the car, pulled his dotar out of the trunk (for this is his car), and starts strumming away like it’s a Spanish guitar. Twenty minutes later the other two come back, and then we loop around campus and drop one student off at his dorm. At first it seems like we’re going to eat near campus, and I’m almost overjoyed. Then I ask where we’re going, and it turns out we’re actually headed to a Kazakh restaurant opened by a family friend on Hetian ErJie – way out by Tuanjie Road, on the other side of the southern end of the city. So much for beating Pierre home.
When we arrive it appears this isn’t a solitary party, for there’s already a table of half-a-dozen Kazakh businessmen, actors and musicians who get up to greet us when we come in. One member of the party was Yerkeibeck’s older cousin, who I had met before. Forty and with a jelly-belly swaying under a lively, settled face. The other members of the party were all older, forties and fifties with great berth and placed faces – except for a spry actor of fifty five with expressive black eyebrows and a fondness for stirring up small commotions. The men talked in Kazak, snatches of which I could catch, as the language rumbles like Uyghur. Conversation went in waves of great solemnity and boisterous laughter, all attention focused on the cousin and the actor, story-teller and troubadour.
Starved as I was I gulped down two cups of Kazakh milk tea. As I’m a bit allergic to milk, and drinking milk mixed with hot water (which is basically Kazakh milk tea) makes my stomach queasy, I felt too ill to eat much by the time the food came out. Which was fine, as Kazak food is basically horse meat and potatoes. And, apparently fruit salad covered in mayonnaise and topped with cupcake sprinkles.
Over the course of our three-hour dinner I learned a bit more about my supper partners. Yerkeibeck’s family is originally Chinese-Kazakh, from Mori Kazakh Autonomous County in Changji, just down the road from Qitai. In 1991 (at the fall of the USSR) his family moved to Kazakhstan to do business. And thus his hometown is in China but his nationality is Kazakh. He’s the youngest of five children, and the family all lives in Kazakhstan, but for the father, who has passed away. The student from the university is from Mori as well, though the two also know each other because they’re in the Xinjiang Kazakh Orchestra. According to the Actor (who was a bit tipsy by this time, though still partially credible), Yerkeibeck is a Kazakh music star. I doubted, but then later the Dotar was brought out again and he began to sing – and the man can hold a single note for near a minute.
The other guy we drove over with is quieter – mousy brown hair, a raised scar down the right side of his nose, a slight stutter when he talks in Kazakh, and a far more noticeable stutter in his soft clattering Chinese. He was dressed in a camel yellow sweater, untrendy faded green corduroys and ubiquitous pointy-toed black dress shoes. His cellphone is older than mine. And yet his car (which they drove when they dropped me off) is nicer than any of my parents’. The reason? Family business thriving on opportunities snatched at just the right time.
He and Yerkeibeck also make money through performing. I got the impression that he rarely attends class (particularly as he lives on Tuanjie Road). They perform at some of the larger restaurants in town, at holiday concerts, at folk concerts and state-sponsored festivals across China, and will again perform at the upcoming 晚会 for the Chinese New Years in Xinjiang. Our talk proceeded in a quiet pitter-patter as the table of Kazakh businessmen (by now including the restaurant owner and occasionally his wife of fearsome Kazakh bulk) grew more boisterous and solemn in turn. At two am Beijing time, when my eyelids were drooping with exhaustion, they drove me back to the university, and then went back again. It’s amazing how fast traffic in the city is at night – a ride that takes an hour during the day is a mere fifteen minutes at midnight Xinjiang time.
And then at six-thirty this morning I woke up, starving from having eaten nearly nothing for fifteen hours, and re-heated the rest of yesterdays lunch, thick noodles with onions, peppers and beef. Oh, food.
A little note on time: I have no idea whether I live on Beijing time or Xinjiang time. The city itself starts on XJ time and [tends to] end or close down on BJ time. In practice, this means we eat our meals later, start work later, and sleep a lot more. I wake up before ten about once or twice a week in winter – it’s currently 9:02 am and the sky is still pitch black.