Hóng Jī Shānzhuāng | 鸿吉山庄

Xishan Maomaoqing Ma’an Shancun

西山猫猫箐马鞍山村

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 3 laowais

Mood: Abandoned Mediterranean resort

Concept: Adult playground

Three stars in Guide Rouge is supposed to mean ‘worth the trip’, something few restaurants in the world have amounted to. Paradoxically, though, this one just might. Maybe because the trip, or rather the trek, is quite short and inexpensive. Even so, this place basically made our day as we crossed the Western Hills, to end up in that intriguing place which some signs point to, but never explains: Maomaoqing. All we had to go on beforehand was a short comment by chinese people coming from there: “好吃”. To get chinese people to go anywhere, we figured, the food has to be good, and to get them to walk across a fucking mountain…that has to be haochi indeed. So we went viking to Maomaoqing, rowdy with anticipation.

Turns out Maomaoqing is quite a spread-out place with several dining options, so we’ll never know what the particular “haochi” refered to was. (Some of us had hoped for something fucked up like cat meat, given the name of the place, but were sorely disappointed). In the end, we headed towards an imposing, mediterranean style building that didn’t look too shabby, but had that third world-style concrete rural toilet that’s always an adventure, a rabid dog, and a rusty old gate that filled no discernable purpose, given that the walls were a low row of concrete bricks.

‘A’ is for awesome.

The main feature of this place is its godawesome outdoor seating, complete with ping pong table, pool table, hammocks, a swing, and a several meters long metal pole hanging from a bar between two trees; the (at the very least 50 years old) laoban can (and will) climb the entire length of this pole without using his feet, a feat so awesome it defies description. Even zombified vikings like us were dumbstruck, something that in itself should earn this restaurant five laowais in “awesome” if there was such a rating. Unfortunately for Hóng jī Shānzhuāng though, there is not. Still, the outdoor seating in itself does lower the shabbiness rating; while the kitchen is moderately horrible, and the indoor seating area so depressing we cannot fathom how anybody would ever elect to sit there, the outdoors area is just plain…nice, like a small oasis of green and beauty in the middle of a derelict junk jard. We could have stayed there for hours, and one of us almost refused to leave.

The food is very much not expensive, but fails to impress. We order a large selection of dishes, that we are then supposed to carry out to the tables in the outdoor green area by ourselves (probably, the staff cannot understand why on earth we would prefer to be there, rather than face the gloom inside, and thus came completely unprepared for this turn of events…)
It should be said that there’s some disagreement among our impressive host of guest reviewers as to the actual quality of the food. The meat dishes are definitely not bad, one even impressive, with a hearthy sauce and no bones or fat. The cabbage is plain and boring, as are, some of us think, the diced cucumber, mashed potatoes and most other vegetable dishes. Some speak in defense of the diced cucumber however, and the omnipresent egg-and-tomatoes is quite popular, quickly disappearing into our stomachs.

The truth of the matter is, however, that after 12> kilometers of walking up a mountain, all food is good food, and none of us leave this place unsatisifed. But we had higher expectations of the mysterious Maomaoqing, and the food alone in Hóng jī Shānzhuāng is not worth the journey. Seeing the ape-man-laoban being awesome though, most definitely is. In the end, one of us has almost been offered to marry his 180 cm tall daughter…

The Truck Stop Restaurant That Was Actually Good

In the desert between Ürümqi and Kashgar

Shabbiness: 2 laowais

Food: 4 laowai

Mood: Lively

Concept: Communist caravanserai

We have earlier discussed the strange phenomenon of truck stop restaurants in China always being horrible to some degree. Yet, sooner or later, we were bound to come across one that was not bad, and we did – in the middle of the desert, of course. Literally. Around this place, for as long as the eye can see, is only endless, lifeless wasteland with scattered patches of dying grass. Yet the place itself is quite lively, at least when the long-distance buses drop by; full of people chatting, playing, eating, or just hanging around. We can imagine it has been like this for a very long time, just with the camels and horses gradually replaced by roaring metallic beasts, and adobe and brick caravanserais gradually turned into communist concrete. It didn’t look promising, for sure, though outdoor seating is always a plus. Amazingly though, all the chairs and tables match and are remarkably clean, almost shining, and the tableware also match, though it looks extremely 70’s (orange plastic, fuck yeah). Sure, the interior of the building looks like an abandoned mental hospital, but nobody ever sits inside anyhow (though our driver at one point disappears into the building for a suspiciously long time, despite the toilets being in a separate building outside. We have no idea what he’s doing).

Except for a quite nice outdoor seating, this place also has what might be the largest sign known to civilised man, so ridiculously overdone that it has to get bonus points just for the effort. As previously noted, the building itself is unremarkable, and the kitchen, whatever horrors might or might not be there, is hidden away deep inside it. One worrying sign, though, is the fact that the inbred-looking guy cleaning the toilets is a few moments later seen serving plates of watermelon to people. There is also a lot of cute uighur babies roaming about, which adds more to the atmosphere than the shabbiness, as there’s no sign that they’re even near the kitchen. All in all, this might be the cleanest and nicest chinese truck stop restaurant we’ve ever seen, and certainly so within Xinjiang itself – most similar places here are sheer horror, or at least depressing beyond belief. That being said, what we do get to see of the inside is…a different story, and that and the toilet guy does raise the shabbiness rating to two. The service is impersonal and extremely slow, though the watermelons are a nice touch (if you ignore for a moment who delivers them).

With this distinct lack of shabbiness in mind (there’s a few sheep in the vicinity, but no other animals in sight), we would ordinarly suspect the food to turn out to be utterly disappointing, but no, not here. We get a pot of good tea and a bowl of cold laghman noodles, over which is added a plate of random diced meat/vegetable stuff. And it’s quite tasty. The meat is not too laowai-friendly, but tender and warm, and the onions and the bell peppers have a nice and fresh taste and consistency, not oily or slimy. But especially the noodles themselves are a surprise, with a hearthiness you seldom find in boring Kunming varieties – just the kind of hearthiness one’d want in truck stop food. Despite slight stomach sickness and some initial reservations against uighur food, we leave this place feeling fulfilled, our taste buds pleased but not challenged, and travel onward to new culinary adventures and new confrontations with shabbiness, deeper into China’s vast western lands.

Truck Stop in the Middle of Nowhere

Road between Kunming and Jinghong

Shabbiness:  4 laowais

Food: 1 laowai

Mood: Soviet school canteen

Concept: Human cattle feeding

We’re introduced to this restaurant by the bus driver hitting the brakes without warning, shouting something like “chifan le!”. The message is clear: we’re not welcome to eat here, we’re supposed to eat here. The whole feeling is about as warm as a bunch of pigs’ daily feeding in a tray; even a school canteen in rural Kongo is, we assume, more personal.

You can even see that it's bad...

To further add to the death of all potential for a culinary experience, we’re supposed to eat quickly, basically stuff ourselves with overpriced, cold and shitty food as fast as humanly possible and then obediently do a goose march back into the bus. I don’t really understand the deal with chinese truck stops; while truck stops in Europe may have just as horrible an atmosphere, at least they always tend to have hearthy food. Truck stops in China, on the other hand, always seems to be some kind of relic communist dystopia; how do they manage to always have incredibly disappointing food? Here, we’re treated to the poorest, wateriest tomatoes-and-egg we’ve ever encountered, and  a general assortment of tasteless meat and overcooked vegetables, all lukewarm. Though we’re initially hesitant to call it what it is, we’ll do so now in hindsight: it’s a disaster.

The premises almost have it all; dirty walls, floor covered with used napkins and chopsticks, greasy plastic table covers, sun-bleached posters portraying  utterly generic things, generic piles of thrash lying about, and dogs and chickens walking about our feet as we eat. That latter part gives an interesting feel of third-world countryside, which does boost the shabbiness grade quite a bit; you just know that the chickens might end up in a soup at any minute. In stark contrast to all this, there are real and matching chairs, no plastic footstools here, but this fact can only take away so much from the general impression. This unnamned place is not one we would willingly visit again, though there is some morbid curiosity as to if there are any good truck stop restaurants in China, not to mention how bad it could possibly get in even more obscure locations.