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Funny Things Happen When You Can’t Speak the Language, Western China Edition


While in Kashgar and Urumqi in Western China, Pat and I have had the pleasure of sharing our wealth of knowledge on Kyrgyzstan to all the people who are staying at the same hostels as us. In Kashgar, at the Kashgar Old Town Youth Hostel, I’m pretty sure we got a couple of American girls wanting to put the country on their travel lists; at Urumqi’s White Birch International Youth Hostel, we helped a couple of Aussie biking buddies get excited for their rather long and upcoming visa processing in the city of Bishkek.

hostel lounging

Lounging in a hostel where we'd share our Kyrgyzstan knowledge with other travelers.

It’s great meeting people with whom you speak the same language. Language is a huge topic for all the travelers in this part of the world, and it’s funny because as soon as someone asks us how much Russian they might need to know to get around in Kyrgyzstan, Pat immediately says that it’s easier to get around than in Western China.

And then he pauses… and eventually takes it all back as he realizes it was so easy because I was able to nickle-and-dime our way (in a manner of speaking) from A to B with my broken Russian.

Yeah, these parts of the world can be a challenge for the sole English speaker. But, on the brighter side, it can also lead to some funny, funny adventures.

Just like the time I sent Pat to get a loaf of bread in Bishkek, he proceeded to wow and amaze me with his food-buying skills about a week later. Meat pastries for lunch? Yes, I will have those, Pat… but why are these pastries filled with cherry jam?

taxis in urumqi

Trying to take taxis in Urumqi is not easy when you don't know Chinese.

And when we arrived at the Urumqi Airport needing to catch a cab to our hostel, we were struck with the difficulty of actually getting there when we had a map with English streets and our drivers spoke and knew only Chinese. After the first taxi just up and abandoned us in our time of need (he moved on to the local-looking people in the next line), we opted to stick it out with the second car even though he was clearly charging us double.

Ok, so maybe that wasn’t so funny….

But the funniest experience Pat and I have had to date because of communication mishaps would be our dinner the other night in Urumqi. After having picked our way around the night markets down the street, we decided we wanted something mild and filling, along with some tea, to put us over the top until morning. What we really wanted was some fried rice…. you know, something not swimming in chilli oil.

By this time it was getting late in the evening, and for some reason we headed down a random street to where a few small restaurants had people sitting outside. Our Chinese is minimal… or, basically non-existent, so we were hoping for picture menus or someone that might know a word or two of English (big ask here in Urumqi!).

The first restaurant had no menus at all, so that was an immediate no.

The second restaurant had pictures of horses and stallions on their front sign, and in fear of being served horse meat, we moved on to number three.

A pregnant woman approached us and said hi, which was a plus in our book. We asked to see a menu (using hand gestures), all the while all the other tables of people watched us intently. The woman motioned for us to sit down, which is when we were able to look at the menu for a moment.

Pure Chinese. Scribbles.

Pat and I looked at each other with an “oh crap” kind of tone. We immediately made a game plan. Pat looked up the word for fried rice (he had taken some pictures from a dictionary of key words/phrases), while I got out my No Speak Language Guide. Our goal was chicken fried rice, and tea.

pat looking up chinese

Pat intently searching for Chinese words on his phone.

When the woman came back, with Chinese words blazing, we looked like deers in the headlights as we asked for tea… about 10 times before it arrived at the table. We then started the process of chicken fried rice, which pretty much resulted in Pat saying “fried rice” while I pointed to a picture of a chicken on my iPhone. Seemed pretty reasonable to us.

Meanwhile the tables of locals are completely intrigued by our charades, laughing and pointing at our misfortune.

table of people laughing at us

The table of locals laughing at us. The horse meat place is the yellow sign to the right.

Awkward wait aside, food finally arrived: two bowls of white rice and a giant, giant platter of chicken bits swimming in a sea of chilli peppers and straight up chilli oil.

It was probably the farthest from our settle-the-stomach meal we were hoping for.

We picked and tried to do what we could, but cultural differences make it just too hard. It wasn’t just chicken bits. It was tiny pieces of chicken, but more so chunks of bone, fat, and skin that lay in the chilli oil.

In the end, we each ate all of our rice, and when the lady asked us if we wanted a bag to take it away in, we politely declined and made our way down the road towards the hostel, heads hung and tummies severely, severely confused.


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6 Responses to Funny Things Happen When You Can’t Speak the Language, Western China Edition

  1. Laryssa June 4, 2012 at 12:02 am #

    That sucks, Brooke! Such a classic story. At least you didn’t end up with the horse meat, though.. yecch!

    • Brooke June 9, 2012 at 10:20 am #

      It was almost so bad that horse meat seemed enticing! haha 😉

  2. Trevor June 6, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Did u feel fairly safe travelling in that part of the region?

    • Brooke June 9, 2012 at 10:08 am #

      Yeah actually wasn’t too worried at all traveling there 🙂

  3. Jailani September 25, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    They have horse meat. Love to try those. I have eaten (once) when I was young it was a bit tough (fallen race horses are supposed to be full of muscles) but nonetheless tasty when cooked in black soya sauce and the five spices. No fat. Now all the fallen race horses are immediately given to the zoo. No chance to try.


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