A surprise snowstorm on Mount Wutaishan had driven the farmers into the fields to sweep the ice off their cabbages. It also turned a four-hour van ride to Taiyuan, the nearest city, into a seven-hour trip. I spent those seven hours in an unheated minivan, crushed between heavy smokers -- up to forty of them in a 24-seat van -- before being discharged at the Taiyuan train station, where I had to elbow my way through the crowd toward one of the last berths to Beijing.
I emerged from the throng unable to control my shivering, and stared across the street at a tony strip of restaurants as if the Yangtze, and not sweeping subzero winds, were flowing between us. Instead, I used my last bit of energy to find the train station restaurant, dodging past the girl with the megaphone singing out specials.
The trio of teenagers behind the counter eyed me chattering and quivering, and took pity. They pointed me toward the freshest-looking vegetable stir-fry in the steam table, then shouted me through the complex system of payments and receipts the Chinese love. One led me by the elbow to the last empty table and brought me a small glass of hot water.
Then I looked across the room, and spotted a boy shaving a cleaver across a hunk of dough. Flick-flick-flick-flick. The shards fell like snowflakes into a steaming vat of water.
"Zheige shi shenme?" (What is that?) I asked, using just about the only phrase in Mandarin I know.
Noodles, she replied. (Knife-cut noodles, said my guidebook later, the Taiyuan specialty.) I started flapping my hands and nodding toward the boy, causing everyone around me to stare harder.
A minute later the waitress brought a big bowl of the chewy, pinky-size wheat-flour noodles topped with chunks of spicy pork and cilantro leaves. I greedily shoveled up the noodles and sucked down every drop of the meaty broth until my legs felt strong enough to hold me up again. Minus-ten Celsius no longer felt quite so cold, nor traveling alone so disheartening.
My entire visit to China was like that -- hours of frustration redeemed by small delights: the tarry stench of coal smoke giving way to roasting chestnuts; a terrifying dash around careening bicycles and cabs to reach a man patting out sesame buns on a griddle across the street. Best yet, even though I exasperated many a waiter with my lack of Mandarin, none ever tried to tell me that a waiguoren (foreigner) wouldn't like what I ordered.
Because I did.
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