The Accidental Bactrian

It sure can be hard to find milk in China. Let me clarify. The Chinese have milk a-plenty; that is, they have lots of drinks that look like they should be milk, once you overlook the fact that they are in fact not refrigerated and come from a powder. Hankering for some Calcium? Tired of all the extra hardship that opening up and reaching into a refrigerator presents? Like watery milk? Well you’ve come to the right country! China—the land where futuristic milk is all the rage!

Well actually it turns out I’m in luck, as I’ve found that the native, non-Han peoples of Xinjiang province—Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks—happen to love milk. Fresh, delicious, rich, REFRIGERATED! milk. Last weekend I visited Urumqi, the ultra-diverse provincial capital. The streets were littered with people that looked like they could have been any combination of East Asian, Central Asian, and European descent. Shop signs featured Chinese, Russian, and Uyghur. Urumqi is very unlike the city I live in—a bastion of Han identity, 95% of those living in Shihezi are the Han Chinese descendants of soldiers who fought in Mao’s army. With abounding diversity in every direction, it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t in China anymore.

I went to a Uyghur restaurant with a Kazakh friend who, while on the phone, received a frosty mug full of delicious, thick looking MILK. After greedily watching him gulp down the stuff in a matter of seconds, I promptly called the 服务员 (waitress fuwuyuan) and had my own frosty mug within minutes. My eyes feasted on its cold, consistent milkiness. I lifted the chalice, felt the chill of the glass against my hand, and took a hearty sip of…WHAT IS THIS? I asked my Kazakh friend.

‘Uh?’ he replied, as if I were some kind of ignorant person: ‘well, it’s camel’s milk.’

So now I’ve had myself some camel’s milk, and indeed it wasn’t so bad after all. At first, I thought I was drinking some sort of perfectly chilled drinkable yogurt. It wasn’t quite as sour as goat’s milk, but it was definitely a shock to my palate. So I said to the waitress: ‘Excuse me, I thought that my friend had ordered milk…er, I mean, cow’s milk…could you please bring me a glass of cow’s milk instead?’

‘Cow’s milk?’ her eyes gesticulated a look of supreme suspicion: ‘We don’t have that kind of milk here.’

Perhaps I had offended her, I don’t really know. What I do know is that I saddled up and continued drinking that Camel’s milk like Lawrence of China—the slightly less famous but equally badass man of yore who went from village to village on the Northwestern Chinese steppe in a similar fashion to that of Lawrence of Arabia, drinking Camel’s milk all the while.

So in essence I’ve learned not to assume anything. That, and the fact that Camel’s milk tastes like sour yogurt.

December 11, 2012

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