Tag Archives: china

Russians Loving the Rheum

There is heaps of information from the 17th century that documents the Russians’ demand for our tasty leafy friend, with traders traveling the length of the Northern Rhubarb Road fairly extensively from the Hexi Corridor to the Central Apothecary Office in St. Petersburg.

No wonder the Chinese thought it no idle threat to withhold rhubarb from the Russians on several occasions. They must have been doing something with the plant, clearly.

Sadly, that ruse wasn’t up to much when the Chinese tried the same thing on the Brits, as we know. It seems the emperor wasn’t all that well-informed about everyday life over in Blighty, where the hardy plant was already a staple of Victorian allotments.

Anyhow, we’re not really all about the Northern Rhubarb Road on this trip. Once you’re across the border you can hop on an old Soviet train – still functioning despite the implosion of the country nearly 20 years ago – and within a few days of playing cards and drinking a ferocious amount of vodka with your fellow passengers, you’ll be in Moscow. Done.

None of this train, bus, taxi, crossing-borders, negotiating hundreds of different languages lark. By comparison it’s all pretty simple really.

So that’s precisely why we’re taking our very own southern Rhubarb Rhoute. It’s warmer. The food’s better. We get to go to Samarqand.

No brainer, really.

Happy Afternoon in Immigration

There are only two types of car in Kazakhstan.

That is the considered conclusion I reached after a good 12 hours in the country. The first is a dilapidated Lada, normally parked in a hedge or rusting away quietly outside a roadside shashlik joint. The second is the big, brash Mercedes, whooshing its air-conditioned passengers across the steppe and onto…erm… more steppe.

Yes, I’ve finally made it across the border and into Kazakhstan and feel just about ready to start pronouncing half-baked knee-jerk reactions to the place. Obviously getting here was far from straightforward – where would we be without life’s little adventures? – but when the bus broke down for the third time still hours from Almaty, the jollity of the situation was starting to wear thin.

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Thawing out in Yining

After a good hour standing by the lake hoping to pick up a ride, a bus from Bole, a city an hour down the road, appeared out of the mist and crunched to a halt in the snow. Despite my arguments, the driver wouldn’t take me for any less than RMB40 – daylight robbery for a trip an hour or two down the road, I protested – but since my ears had clearly turned blue and several fingers were about to drop off, I was hardly in the strongest negotiating position.

Rather helpfully, the road to the border had all but been dug up by countless earth-moving machines piloted by dark, moustached men in flat caps. Develop the West! was the slogan found everywhere, written in huge red characters, or carved out of the steep hillsides. This was often alongside Protect our fragile environment! – somewhat ironic given its close proximity to the seeds of a huge new motorway and several open pit mining projects.

We wound down the hill to more temperate surroundings, and before long I had found my berth in the old Soviet consulate in the city of Yining. It’s something of an old state-run dinosaur with entirely ineffectual staff, but we have gardens with life-size plastic deer, so I’m more than pleased.

For a city that played host to China’s last serious bout of separatist unrest, Yining is actually rather pleasant.

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Packing Fail

When i first began researching the fabled rhubarb road from China to the West, I acquired this immovable picture that the route would largely involve hopping between oases in the desert, and switching between camel to clapped-out Soviet bus in the heat of the day.

I’d heard countless tales of the temperatures regularly encountered in the great deserts of Turkmenistan and Iran, and more than one Southern European friend commented that I was of slightly questionable sanity if i wished to cross his country by local bus in late July.

So, I packed accordingly. Lots of cotton short-sleeved shirts, breathable materials and shorts, with the odd pair of trousers slung in the backpack should my bare legs not get too warm a reception amongst the local population.

I reluctantly stuffed a Decathlon fleece in the bottom of the bag in case of unpredictable weather, which i largely intended to use as a pillow when i needed a whiff more comfort than the Chinese style bricks at the end of the bed could provide.

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Rhubarb for Opium: Fair Trade

So, you know about the Russians, who foolishly believed they could mess with their sole rhubarb supplier.

Well, it appears that the Brits were also subject to the emperor’s wrath around 100 years later.

Remember, in Chinese imperial thinking at the time, a paucity of rhubarb was the ticket to a slow, painful death. Oh yes.

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Onwards to the Kazakhs

Once more the delights of budget backpacking were showcased by an evening of minimal sleep. Not only were the kebabs cruelly plotting their revenge in my stomach all night, but i was treated to the live soundtrack of an amorous performance from the restaurant owners upstairs. Enough to put you off your lamb gristle dumplings at breakfast really.

I did, however, manage to find something quasi-edible next to the mosque by the bus station whilst waiting for my departure further west. Obviously it was made of lamb, and bread, and washed down with copious amounts of tea.

“Don’t worry, it’s a good bus – it will get you there no problem”, the hostel girl informed me enigmatically when i told her i was heading for Xining.

In theory, at least, it was indeed a very pleasant vehicle. My ticket declared that it was in fact a “new A *****” bus – yet i suspect it had been given the rating back in 1976 when it first trundled along the bumpy Xinjiang roads.

Quite aside from the usual traits of long distance bus travel (total lack of A/C, faint smell of sick) I was delighted to be awarded with the kind of seat with a life of its own.

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Yoghurt, headscarves and big noses

Ah, this is the life. Sitting cross-legged on the bottom berth of an ancient iron bunk-bed trying to charge up every electronic item I own – every backpacker has been there. It feels somewhat nostalgic to be doing it again, though – it’s been a good few years since I did the rounds of dodgy hostels, manic bus stations and generally getting lost in city after city, too tight to splash out USD1 on a cab.

Eat up, eat up... this'll put hair on your chin, madam

Eat up, eat up... this'll put hair on your chin, madam

I’ve made it to Urumqi, capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang province and supposedly the furthest place in the world from the sea (bit of trivia there for you folks, 225okm no less). This place also tends to get poo-pooed by the great unshaven backpackers, but compared to many large Chinese cities, I personally find it a perfectly pleasant place. The food is great too (see pic) – but perhaps more on that later.

By far the most noticeable thing already, however, is the sheer variety of faces milling around the streets. You get the distinct feeling that Han China has backed onto the rest of Central Asia and created a hub that has managed to suck in all the other nationalities in the countryside around. It is fascinating.

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Marco Polo: Rhubarb Mule

Whilst the Chinese had been pretty savvy regarding the use of rhubarb for centuries, it’s not entirely clear how it managed to end up in European pharmacopia in the Middle Ages.

Marco Polo: Looking sharp as ever

Marco Polo: Looking sharp as ever

Rhubarb scholars (an impressive job title, if ever there were one) suggest that the rheum first found its way to the European marketplace largely thanks to Marco Polo. It appears that our bearded Venetian friend became a huge fan of the rheum during his 24-year backpacking stint around Asia, reportedly having a bag of rhubarb amongst his possessions when he died.

Incidentally, we’d like to think that his death and the rhubarb are unconnected.

Marco wrote extensively about rhubarb, learning all about its medicinal properties during his time as confidante to Kublai Khan – Genghis’s grandson – and traveling around Cathay. He too noted that the plant was originally from the Gansu area.

Rhubarb – and one or two other things he picked up on his travels, no doubt – was to make Marco Polo a hugely wealthy chap when Kublai Khan finally agreed to let him return to Venice.

Soon after his return, rhubarb became quite de rigueur in Europe for its treatment of digestive complaints.

Hard to believe, really, that a laxative attained such a loyal following thousands of miles from the wretched hillsides on which it grew.

Imagine what kind of riches might have awaited old Marco had he thought to get stuck in to those luscious red roots? He may have made a splash amongst general practitioners of the day, but it was still hundreds of years before they thought to pair it with a few apples, wrap it in pastry and stick it in the oven at gas mark 4 for 30-40 minutes.

You kind of think they missed a trick there, really.

Rhubarb Ground Zero

Ever since arriving in Gansu province, home of the ‘barb, i’ve been quizzing the locals on what they know about the veggie.

“I’ve come here to find out about the birthplace of rhubarb”, I proffer (once we’re finished with the usual where are you from/are you married/how much do you earn shenanigans.)
“What’s Rhubarb?”, my taxi driver asks, feigning interest.
“It’s a plant. Green leaves, red stalks etc etc etc. You know it?”
“Never heard of it”
“Really? It was first grown in Jiuquan – about 20 minutes away from here”
“I’m from Jiuquan”.

I can’t quite believe my luck. I’m not sure at what point I found this spot on a map so fascinating – but here, in the clapped out Hyundai with me, was a real Jiuquanren.

“So… tell me about it! You’re from Jiuquan, but you’ve never heard of rhubarb?”
“Jiuquan is a rural city. Jiayuguan is an industrial city.”

That was about as far as I was getting. So, the waitresses in the restaurants:

“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Jiuquan” (why is everyone in Jiayuguan, a city of 200,000 people, from the next town down the road?)
“Fantastic! That’s where rhubarb is from, isn’t it?”
“What’s rhubarb?”

My traveling companion, Chris, initially amused by my quest, now doubts its authenticity. Maybe this is all some big joke? If even the locals have never heard of rhubarb, well, perhaps it came from somewhere else?

I take a moment – and then pile back into the car, destination Casa de la Rhubarb.

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