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11 May 2012

The Noodle Shop Refuge

呼和浩特火车站 , 内蒙古  Hohhot Train Station, Inner Mongolia

The train arrives early in the morning. Seven a.m. On the platform I am shocked by the frigid pre-dawn air. My nostril hairs coalesce and freeze to the inner walls of my nose. Breath clouds condense into ice crystals and flutter to the pavement as new-fallen snow.

Out of the station, I seek breakfast. I am hungry and need heat. My stacks of warm layers are failing me. Woolen high socks, long underwear tops and bottoms, thick pants, fleece, gloves, hat, scarf, long wool coat. My fingers and toes are fast transforming into blocks of wood. The cold doesn't notice that I want it to stay out.

I sidle into an alley, following a gaggle of blue-green uniformed school children. Urban survival tactics. Follow the kids to food. The hub is a Hui noodle place, similar to the kind we have in Yinchuan, with children swarming in and out of it. The warmth and bustling atmosphere sucks me in and sits me down. Cliques of kids gather round each low table, gabbing, scarfing breakfast, copying homework. The place is buzzing like a hip bar at midnight, but with a youthful spark that adults typically bury sometime in their teens.

One boy laughs and pokes his chubby friend in the chest. Not to take such an assault lightly, the second boy pushes his round belly forward and bounces the poker out of the circle of children. Roars of laughter. A light-hearted scuffle ensues. Another boy with glasses and a very serious look on his face swats the ruffians away while he feverishly tries to copy a friend's homework before class begins. He's running out of time. My egg noodle soup arrives.

School time approaches and the crowd thins. Kids grab books and scramble out into the icebox. None are wearing warm hats or gloves. Just their warm-ups and yellow baseball hat, standard school uniform. I'm not too surprised, having seen the industrial thickness long johns all Chinese own and wear under their clothes. And they don't stop at one pair: more layers of underwear equals more warmth. It's a simple formula.

"So remember, we're parked right next to the golden elephant with the monkey and bird on its back."
The hearty soup disappears fast from my bowl. Fried egg, noodles, suantai, the crunchy, tasty green stem that grows off the top of a garlic bulb, and spicy broth. Warming from the inside out. Reluctant to exit this cocoon of comfort, I pull out a book and get cozy on the dented metal stool. Clangs emanate from the kitchen. Steam clouds the glass doors and condensation drips down the mirrors lining both walls of the narrow shop. There is a small break in one of the mirrors where a tattered menu with the list of noddle dishes hangs.

The famed Wutasi, Five Pagoda Temple, at nightfall.
I've learned over time that, unlike the US, when seeking out a restaurant of high quality in China you must find the dingiest joint possible. The one with the busted door, white tile walls, tiny, uncomfortable seats, and god-awful lighting is bound to have the finest cuisine. Good service doesn't always come with great food, but you'll find that a smile goes a long way with any disgruntled fuwuyuan, waiter or waitress. Most are pretty excited to have a foreigner in their midst.This noodle shop has highly satisfactory decor, as decor goes. And fine service with a grin.

Fully warmed and satiated, I decide to brave the elements once more. I've got places to get to. The laoban, proprietor of said establishment, informs me of how to get to the Agricultural University by bus. I am taking an exam there in two days and seek to create a hassle free test day by locating the place first thing. The magnetic pull of the warm, delicious refuge is difficult to overcome, but I finally break free of its spell and march into the cold.