What the H*** Did You Do To My Quail!?

As a kid I remember being told if we dug a tunnel through the earth, we’d come out in China. That intrigued me. But not enough to be much inspired to do so when it was just my Dad’s admonition to dig harder in order to get those post holes finished. Those post holes were quite enough for me but I wondered if those fancy-schmancy mechanical diggers sitting in the show room of the implement store would do the trick.  I didn’t dare ask, but I thought about it.  Based on my Dad’s consistent “they sure think a lot of these things” every time he looked at one and saw the price (which was every time we went in), I thought for certain they should at least be able to get a person half-way.  At age 13 when I knew just about all there was to know about the world, I realized the earth was a really big hunk of dirt and those mechanical diggers could not land me anywhere near China. Boy was I glad I never inquired of the salesman about their capacity to handle such a task. And if my Dad had known the question dancing on the tip of my tongue every time we went in, he’d have been glad too.

It was about this time we studied China in Social Studies. All I remember is the amount of people the teacher drummed on about, and the food. The food intrigued me. We didn’t eat much rice. I painfully recall an incident whereby my Dad brought home quail for dinner. As I stood over the sink carefully digging out the pellets so no one would break a tooth, I had a flash of Home Economics genius. Tonight instead of frying it, I’d bake it nestled onto a bed of rice! I served it in a nice Pyrex pie plate — all golden brown and bubbly from the Cream of Mushroom soup I’d brilliantly used — Betty Crocker would have been proud.  “What the heck did you do to MY quail?!” He didn’t say heck.  And he was not impressed one bit by the presentation.

While I managed to slip rice into our meals on occasion after that (I frequently was the family cook), it was many years before I experienced Chinese food.  I loved it and therefore was under the notion I knew a few things about the cuisine. Until I actually went to China.  As is so often the case with my knowledge base, I was in for a few surprises.

Yak Dung Nan

Yak Dung bread. Someone asked if I really ate Yak Dung bread. The Yak Dung was not an ingredient IN the bread, rather the “wood” that held the heat that baked it in the pan on the ground. You can see the dried Yak Dung smoldering. We did however dip the bread into Yak Milk Chai Tea. I fantasize about that culinary experience and have weighed the cost of a ticket to procure a slab of that bread. 

I won’t laugh out loud if you tell me you’re a vegetarian or a vegan headed to China, but I will tell you if a trip to China is in your forecast, be prepared for some foot work before you eat. They’re way behind us in the area of privileged non-meat food availabilities (so Americans be thankful for the food choices we have), so meat and meat products are staples. Even bowls of noodles frequently contain tiny chunks of meat. So if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you might want to pack a smaller size pant for the return trip. How bad is that?!  P.S. I am not a vegetarian or vegan.  I was raised on a cattle ranch. In my opinion, it would be a rather arrogant stance for me to take considering I’m not even one generation removed from living off the land. My Dad would say something like “who do you think you are”? Besides, I LOVE beef. Today my Dad holds down the fort even though his 3 best hands grew up and moved away.  Now we all buy our beef from him!

This photo always makes me laugh. Mouths full, happy tummys, with an entire lamb hanging over them.

Peking Ducks

Peking Ducks

Sunday Kashgar Market

Sunday Market in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

The basic procurement of meat that was so blatantly visible didn’t faze me. Growing up we raised our own meat — chickens, rabbits, pigs, cattle. I know the entire process well of getting something from the “hoof” to the table. It was the FISH “slaughterhouses” that got me.  Squiggling buckets of slithering inky mounds of unidentifiable objects that belonged back in the water, unsettled me.  My son and I entered one not realizing once inside we had to walk all the way through as we couldn’t stomach the thought of taking the time to turn around.  People sitting over buckets “skinning” what appeared to be the tiniest of eels had the tune of Psycho screeching through my head.  I tried to not look, but the concrete floor was even more unsettling and to  make matters worse, the stall proprietors held things out for us to examine as we passed.  The irony here is I know I ate some of their wares in restaurants, and went on and on about how delicious it was. Whatever IT was.

Noodles #2

I perfected my chop stick technique on noodles in an alley of Urumqui.

The ratio of noodles to rice was great. The noodles were sublime and were on several days the only food we had.  My son, there for approximately 18 months, ate noodles every day. While there are many variations, the general class of noodles is called La Mien.  To see them “thrown”, a process whereby a huge chunk of the dough is twisted, pulled, whipped into the air like a circus act until the tiny strands magically separate and get tossed into a boiling pot of water with your name on it, was a highlight.  My hands-down favorite dish? Boiled octopus and squid with bamboo shoots and other vegetables in a fiery sauce — Shuizhu Yu. Very Sichuan! And the dish I loved and could actually replicate at home?  Ganbian Sijidou, Sichuan Green Beans — check out the recipe below.  Other unusual things I ingested?  Donkey Meat — to die for good, pan-fried Lotus flower — delicious and I regret terribly not taking a photo of it as it was a beautiful pinwheel of sorts, Boiled Pigeon — would die to avoid, mainly because of the gray, pallid, overall color, and skewered Lamb intestines cooked over a spit of sorts. Was a very big hit with the locals.

To Die For Green Beans

Sichuan Green Beans: Ganbian Sijidou. RECIPE: fresh green beans, garlic, peppers (of any sort or heat), more garlic, garlic salt, sichuan peppercorns. Heat wok until VERY hot. Add sesame oil. Then green beans. Stir fry until blistering. Add the garlic, garlic salt, and peppercorns for a moment at the end. Enjoy! 

P.S. the sichuan peppercorns make the green bean dish what it is.  Here’s where you can order them.

Hot, Hot, HOT

Looks like rice, but it’s noodles. 


Chicken Feet, A Delicacy. For me? No thank you.

The rice was cooked in a slice of bamboo over an open fire. In the middle of the rice roll was meat and a slightly sweet chutney of sorts.

The rice was cooked in a slice of bamboo over an open fire. In the middle of the rice roll was meat and a slightly sweet chutney of sorts.

These were prevalent on the streets and corners and used to grill meat skewers — very popular with the locals and were fired up most all the day long.  We didn’t know what to order and so got Lamb Intestines. They were rubbery but we made a gallant effort on them.  Didn’t learn unti llater what we’d had. The light breading was tasty.


Look closely without looking too closely. See the sign? It says “Uigher Fast Food”   LOL

Noodle Smorgasbord. Just walk up and point.


Lots of veges and decadent, exotic spices. Almost always cooked with meat.


My favorite Beijing restaurant.  In an alley, up a tiny flight of stairs, through the kitchen past the cook, and into a 10 person dining area.  There was no front entrance. The front window overlooked the street. We watched people wondering how in the world we got in there. My son had discovered it on his first stay in Beijing. The picture of Sichuan Green Beans came from this restaurant.


All cans were still pull-tops.

The food advertising was, ummmm, unusual.  Here’s a few examples.  I believe the disconnect evident in these posters was due to the fact fast food is a relatively new phenomenon.  Additionally, they’ve learned Westerners love burgers and pizzas.  They just don’t have the targeted message down pat, yet.


This was an advertisement in a fast food restaurant at an airport. Camel burgers, anyone?


This advertisement was for chicken. But a pizza is shown. And it’s not a chicken pizza.


Backpacking China — 5 weeks of Tan Suo

Actually China wasn’t even on the list. But the adventurous son upon graduation from OU, decided to pursue his fledgling Mandarin. In China. So when the opportunity arose for him to take a month off from school and my schedule became such that a month was possible as well for me, we began to plan. Bigger backpacks were purchased. Squatter toilet techniques were reviewed. Immunizations. Visa. Maps, maps, and more maps. We nixed all the big cities. If I’m going to see something, I want to SEE something.

Something is not the interior of a city hotel where everyone speaks English and really, you could close your eyes and sense you were in any city of the U.S. No. What’s the point? I’m still young enough (recall the ad nauseum part? the women in my family have all been teenage mothers, including myself) to want to experience the places I go. That means hiking as opposed to a tour van, being exposed to uncomfortable physical conditions and intermingling with the population. I figure I can go back someday when I’m too old for REAL exploration and see Beijing, Shanghai, HongKong. And when I get really, really, really old, I’ll shop. Until then, exploration means occasionally being dirty, tired, and hungry, and some amazing captures on “film”.

For this trip, my son asked if I’d be willing to blend in a bit more. No one believed I’d do it. Well who can resist a huge dare? A lifetime of long, blonde locks were carried away by a broom and replaced with a dark brown color. My son didn’t recognize me at the Beijing airport!

The Wild West of China

Karakoram Highway Camel

This ain’t Beijing. It’s on the opposite side of the country, as far away as you can get from the major Chinese travel destinations. And if you managed to get here (a feat my friend), without knowing where you were headed you wouldn’t recognize it, or anyone living here, as being associated with China.

Machine guns and outdated airport equipment were in our face as we timidly looked around the tiny Kashgar (Kashi) airport in XinJiang Province. Not far from Afghanistan or Pakistan, the security was tight. In the Urumqui airport they’d flagged my backpack and after removing every single item comprising its 50+ lbs., determined the X-ray machine had not liked the looks of my water filter. The carbon filter looked menacing I suppose. Got to keep the water filter, but not before lots of time was lost trying to explain what a water filter is. My son’s fluency in Mandarin was not completely useless, just almost (they speak Uigher here). I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye for fear Urumqi had called ahead regarding the water filter incident. They hadn’t.

No Man's Land Map

We spent about half of our 4 weeks in China in the West. It is still marked as a No Man’s Land on a few maps.

We embarked from the airport into a land that time has forgotten. Kashgar is a time warp that could just as easily have been the set of a Star Trek or Twilight Zone. It was indeed just as exciting as stepping through that portal opening. The Han Chinese are minorities here. Uigher is the language. The people (Uighers, Tajiks, Krygyzs, and Uzbeks) seemed the happiest and were indisputably the kindest we encountered during 5 weeks touring the backcountry of China.

Woman of the House

Chinese-Kyrgyzstan border, Kyrgyzstan Woman of the House

The West of China, specifically the provinces of XinJiang and Gansu, had beckoned to me when my son and I planned the month long backpacking excursion, just as the Western United States has always enticed me. There are many similarities in their appeal. Still considered a no-man’s land (and marked so on a few maps), Kashgar is a fixture in time on the 6,000 year old Silk Road. In the XinJiang Province, 8 nations border to create a collision of people/culture/language, giving XinJiang’s capital, Urumqui, the title “most land-locked city in the world.”

Yak Dung Nan

Yak Dung Bread. It was served dipped in Yak Milk Chai Tea by the lady of the house (above). It was delicious!

Located in the Taklamaken desert, homes of mud and grass have stood for centuries. Sand storms are frequent. Coming from Beijing, or any of the larger cities, you see what you think is the same smog choking the air. But if you’re so lucky to find a shower, you realize once the water hits you, it’s not smog, rather sand. And regardless how new something might be in XinJiang, the sand ages everything quickly. Including humans.

Westernmost Section of the Great Wall -- no stone work, just straw, mud and small rocks

Only in their most recent version did Lonely Planet make any mention of this portion of the Great Wall. My son had heard about it and so we asked around. A guy offered to drive us – 4 hours one way outside of Dunhuang and worth every shockless inch. My first Great Wall experience was at the section of the wall few people get to see. In the middle of the desert I glimpsed it. The magnitude of what I was seeing with my own eyes in the the middle of a wasteland moved me to tears. The Westernmost section of the Great Wall lies in the Gobi desert, is still VERY discernible, very viewable, and very mind blowing. It’s unrestored remnants from 101 B.C. were impressive – no stone work, just mud, grass, and small stones. The joy at sharing this sight with my son will be with me always.

Transaction for a Milk Cow

Going Grocery Shopping

Going Grocery Shopping

She was a yurt dweller off the Karakoram Highway not far from the Pakistan border. It was impossible to tell her age. Brightly (and warmly) dressed she had the features of a beauty queen, the movements of a model, and the smile of a joyous existence. Yet she was gathering water that weighed approximately 10 pounds on each shoulder. Then she balanced it with practiced skill. Having some distance to transport it back to her home meant any spillage would have been a tremendous loss of time and effort.

Id Kuh Mosque, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Id Kuh Mosque, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Uigher Musical Instrument Factory

Uigher Musical Instrument Factory, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Outside the Uigher Music Factory

The Sound of Music

Grainery Warehouse -- Gobi Desert

Yumen Pass, aka Jade Gate Pass

Yumen Pass, aka Jade Gate Pass

Dunhuang is southeast from Urumqui in the province of Gansu, just south of Mongolia. Also on the world’s first information superhighway, the Silk Road, Gansu is a treasure trove of Buddhist paintings and sculptures, and the Buddhist grottoes of the Mogao Caves. The arid land and harsh climate has made the land barely inhabitable. As such, the Gansu Province is one of the 5 poorest provinces in China. Dunhuang may be poor, but when we pulled into downtown in a “taxi”, we were instantly transported from weary travelers to starry eyed tourists. The town is alight at night with magical colors and we were gratefully rejuvenated by the sight. The light of day replaced the magic with a sobering reality. Yet even that meant 3 days of adventure we’ll never forget.

This picture of grottoes is on site of the Mogao Caves. There were no cameras or recording devices of any kind allowed inside the gated and heavily guarded caves. Filled with art and sculpture of a quantity and often of sizes that strain our modern brains to comprehend, the caves were exquisite. I’ve dreamed about what I saw in there several times since arriving home. Impossible to describe, breathless to behold, it was one of my favorite ancient sites. To quote Lonely Planet “The Mogao Caves are, simply put, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world.” At its height the site had 18 monasteries, 1400 monks and nuns, and numerous artists, calligraphers, and translators. Generally agreed to have been founded in AD 366, the collapse of trade after the Yuan dynasty left the 1700 meters of grottoes and  millennium of art untouched for centuries as the Gobi desert took hold. It was only in the 20th century that the massive, priceless troves of art and remnants were rediscovered.

China, a Land of Faces

Having returned from 4 weeks backpacking China with a thousand photographs, a large Moleskine filled with a multitude of entries and anecdotes, the story of it all is only now being synthesized by my brain.  I’ve attempted to put the pieces together before, but could never quite get my arms around them.  No amount of effort could pull them together into something cohesive. Upon my return I swore I felt nothing.  Exhaustion, jet lag, the weariness of the wear and tear of hard travel in a hard land, combined to send a perfectly targeted trajectory of flack to my brain, effectively deflecting the depth of impact upon my spirit this journey had made.

In truth I felt so much, so strongly, I was paralyzed by it. Until now.  Until friends and family started asking me if I was going to ever share my experience.  Yes, is the answer. Beginning with this post, I’ll be continuously documenting the trip until I’ve got it all out.

Han Chinese Boy

Chinese boy. Gansu Province.

I’ll start by sharing mostly photographs, easing into more of what I’ve written as we go along.

Doug Henderson, a renowned commercial photographer/graphic designer, instructed my first Photoshop course. His photography wrings emotion from my soul and we happen to share a similar view of photographing people. His perspective is eloquent, so I lifted it — hope he doesn’t mind.  “I think the average person is beautiful. I don’t see any reason to comb a little kids hair or tell them to smile. I see no reason to try to make an old person look young again, or to make a working man look like an executive.”  If I ever decide to be photographed, he’ll be the person I ask.

In my own words, I find faces moving.

Uigher Children, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Uigher Children. Kashgar, Xinjiang Province.

The Eyes of Western China From the Window of a Yurt

Uigher Girl. Taken while we gathered in her parent’s yurt on the Pakistan border for Yak Dung Bread and Yak Milk Chai Tea. Xinjiang Province. 

Woman of the House

Woman of the house (yurt). Kyrgyzstan Woman.Xinjiang Province.

Hair, hair, and more Hair

Ten Feet of Hair and really heavy earrings.
In a village called Huangluo, (not far from Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), for those of the Yao Nationality, long hair is a local tradition. All the Hongyao women can only cut their hair at 16 years old, symbolizing the fact she is an adult who can look for a lover. The hair cut off should not be thrown away, but is rather kept by the grandmother.
When the woman marries, the hair is made into an ornamental headdress and brought to the husband’s home as a souvenir.


Naxi Boy

This boy captured my fancy. You’ll see more photos of him. His face and demeanor was of a shy sweetness of heart, hardened by the environment. He had all the vitality of youth but eyes that betrayed his age. Uigher,  Xinjiang Province.

Grand Buddha

Leshan Grand Buddha. Sichuan Province.

We were the first Americans the proprietor had seen. His son came in from school and he asked him to play while we ate. The boy graciously agreed. The instrument is an Er Hu (thank you son for recalling that). Gansu Province.

Not all faces are human (Leshan Buddha) but all faces in a foreign land are foreign. Including our own.

Lijiang Naxi

Naxi Gentleman, Lijiang, Yunnan Province

Kyrgyzstan Gentleman

Kyrgyzstan Man. Xinjiang Province.

Boys Will Be Boys

Naxi Musician

Naxi Orchestra Musician. Yunnan Province.

It was cold, he had the sniffles.

It was cold. He had the sniffles. Xinjiang Province.

Hands of an Artist

Hands of an Artist. Naxi Orchestra. Lijiang.

Uigher boys

Uigher boys, Kashgar, Silk Road in the Xinjiang Province.

Uigher woman. Kashgar.

Uigher woman. Kashgar.

Kyrgyzstan boy

I wanted to bring him home with me.



The Grand Climb


Tammie DooleyAbout SRT... I’m a traveler, writer and photographer for whom the open road frequently summons. Adventurous solo road trips are a staple for me, and a curiosity. So I created this website to share them and inspire you to step out and give them a try. Welcome!

A soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone – Wolfgang Von Goethe

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