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January 14, 2007 - Guyuan, China

Noodles with a Beat

Eating dinner here doesn’t entail the same amount of work it did at home. There’s no waffling on where to eat. I can walk everywhere. No worrying about if I have the cash. No dinners are more than 20 kuai - and thats pushing it. No picking Italian or Thai or Greek - I’ve got Northern Chinese and a bit of Sichuan.

The only thing I have to do is choose what I want.

Pulled noodles in broth from down the street. Chow Mien Huluo from beside my gate. Mutton from the little shop by the mall. Rice and veggies across from the track. Dumplings from Li Jia. La mien or Ro Jie Bing and HunDun from the Muslim street.

Its just a matter of choosing the food I want and going to where its best.

Tonight I walked over to the edge of the Muslim quarter for a bowl of La Mien - long, thick, white, pulled noodles covered in a blend of potatoes, peppers and meat. The best small restaurant serves only one dish - in three sizes - La Tiao, and they do it well. The noodles are irregular and clumpy, cooked until the bouncy and firm, held apart by the sauce quickly poured over them and tossed.

The roaring coal fire of the blower-fed stoves spew flame and sparks out and onto the street, carrying with it the smell of sauteing beef, peppers and onions. This display more effective in my mind than any flashing neon sign, draws me near. Darting to and fro behind these gouts of flame are pink-clad women - their magenta arms and aprons flashing from the stove to bowls of steaming noodles - faces held in shadow by the bright light of the cooking.

The four or five women that run the place know me well enough to where I usually just walk in, give a smile to whoever is working the noodle table, grab myself a bowl of mien tang and sit at the coal stove in the middle of the small room. Sitting next to the kettle of mien tang bubbling away on the stove I can catch the low tones of the women gossiping and the loud slap slap slap of the noodles being stretched.

Tonight it was different though, a stereo has been added to the shop.

Now remember this small shop has two bare florescent tubes running above the tables for light, cut-up vinyl billboards for walls and rickety steel stools, but tonight, they had a new stereo receiver and a set of speakers. No Mongolian lovesongs though - pure, unadulterated thumping - club music, bumping out a hard beat punctuated by the loud sharp snap of dough on the table. Not what I would have seen as dinner music, but it fit somehow.

The women - none of them could be older than 35 - shake along with the bass rumble, this new addition relieving them of the usual monotony, laughing freely until two of them have to pull their loose white hats up from their eyes. It’s hard not to smile watching them cook and weave about, really enjoying to be a family working together.

A small shop with a stereo.

Tumbleweeds... and no comments. How 'bout livening things up?

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