1 Zola and Retail Marketing
2 Playing the Waiting Game
3 Beware the Ides of March
4 The county not on a map
5 Chinese Chess in Beijing
6 Build it and They'll Come
7 Riding the Water Dragon
8 The Best of Both Worlds
9 Storming the Great Wall
10 Welcome to the Wangba
11 The Catcher in the Rice
12 The Marriage Business
13 The Crouching Dragon
14 Counting the Numbers
15 A Century of Migration
16 Shooting for the Stars
17 Rise of Yorkshire Puds
18 Harry Potter in Beijing
19 Standing Out in China
20 Self-pandactualisation
21 Strolling on the Moon
22 Tea with the Brothers
23 Animated Guangzhou
24 Trouble on the Farms
25 Christmas in Haerbin
26 Dave pops into Tesco
27 A Breath of Fresh Air
28 The Boys from Brazil
29 Rolls-Royce on a roll
30 The Great Exhibition
31 Spreading the Word
32 On Top of the World
33 Moonlight Madness
34 Beijing's Wild West
35 Avatar vs Confucius
36 Brand Ambassadors
37 Inspiring Adventure
38 China's Sweet Spot
39 Spinning the Wheel
40 Winter Wonderland
41 The End of the Sky
42 Ticket to Ride High
43 Turning the Corner
44 Trouble in Toytown
45 Watch with Mother
46 Red-crowned Alert
47 In a Barbie World
48 Domestic Arrivals
49 Tale of Two Taxis
50 Land of Extremes
51 Of 'Mice' and Men
52 Tour of the South
53 Brooding Clouds?
54 The Nabang Test
55 Guanxi Building
56 Apple Blossoms
57 New Romantics
58 The Rose Seller
59 Rural Shanghai
60 Forbidden Fruit
61 Exotic Flavours
62 Picking up Pace
63 New Year, 2008
64 Shedding Tiers
65 Olympic Prince
66 London Calling
67 A Soulful Song
68 Paradise Lost?
69 Brandopolises
70 Red, red wine
71 Finding Nemo
72 Rogue Dealer
73 Juicy Carrots
74 Bad Air Days
75 Golden Week
76 Master Class
77 Noodle Wars
78 Yes We Can!
79 Mr Blue Sky
80 Keep Riding
81 Wise Words
82 Hair Today
83 Easy Rider
84 Aftershock
85 Bread vans
86 Pick a card
87 The 60th
88 Ox Tales
2001 to 2007

Noodle Wars
Don't mess with my noodles

It’s fun playing the place association game.  Ask a number of people at random – at least six to give the exercise a veneer of statistical robustness – to say the first word that pops into their head when a city name is mentioned, and one is able to learn a lot about how different people in different regions view the world and the way it works.  Mention “Milan” to a group of twenty-something ladies in Shanghai and you most probably would get “fashion” as the response. 

  The mention of “Milan” to older Beijingers is more likely to provoke the response, “football”.  While fans of the football team Chelsea may well chorus in reverential tones “The Special One” (the self-styled name of Jose Mourhino, the last Chelsea manager to steward them to Premier League success).  In case you were wondering, The Special One now manages Internazionale, aka Inter Milan. 


  What, then, do people think about when the city Lanzhou is mentioned?  I asked  several people from various parts of China to give me their top-of-mind word to describe the provincial capital of Gansu and each one them said the same word, and they said it with an exclamation mark at the end and with a glint in their eye. 



  Not being much of a fan of noodles (other than when I can’t get anything else to eat), I had just about forgotten the findings of my “research” when an acquaintance told me that I simply must go to the most famous chain of noodles restaurants in Lanzhou – because not eating noodles in Lanzhou is, it seems, the equivalent of not eating duck in Beijing, fish and chips in London, or not drinking Guinness in Dublin.  In short, it’s not just a cultural faux pas, it’s also an error of judgement that would haunt one forever (presumably, after one had somehow seen the light). 

  The Guinness analogy caught my attention, not because I had abstained on my visits there but because it’s frightening to think that there are, I guess, some people who have been there and not drunk the black stuff.

  The problem was that Jin Ding Niurou Mian, the most famous Lanzhou beef noodles restaurant in the world didn’t open at night.  In Lanzhou, it seems, noodles are only eaten at breakfast and at lunch.  I’m more likely to skip lunch than not, so the prospect of a midday bowl of noodles was a little foreboding to say the least.  But, despite my excuses, I was somehow dragged along to the restaurant.

  One bowl of noodles would have been more than enough I thought, but this restaurant had other ideas.  Their standard set Lanzhou beef noodles lunch comes with not one bowl, not two bowls, not even thee bowls, but FOUR bowls of noodles.  Each of which contains noodles of a different length, texture, and thickness.  The pecking order, I was told, is to eat the thinnest noodles first and progress to the thickest.


  There was also a supporting cast of several side dishes crammed on to the large tray.  And all for the price of 30 yuan (about US$4).   Now this may sound wonderful value, but it is far higher than the going rate for beef noodles in the thousands of noodles shops in Lanzhou, where the local delicacy can be had for a couple of yuan.  But this was, after all, the Savoy of noodle-eating, so I wasn’t about to complain.


  The price of noodles is, it seems, always a hot topic in Lanzhou and is capable of stirring much passion and, if the incident a few years ago is anything to go by,  even threatening social harmony. 


  The dark period in Lanzhou’s noodle history I am referring to was back in 2006 when thousands of locals simultaneously choked on their noodles when they realised that – literally over night – the price of a standard bowl had risen by almost 15 per cent.  Such was the newsworthiness of this event that the People’s Daily – the mouthpiece of central government – even covered the story.  But it was the investigative journalists from the Western Economic Daily that exposed the truth (obvious to every one in Lanzhou) that the price rise was coordinated.  Outrage of outrages… there was a noodles cartel at work no less. 

  The noodles barons were influential restaurant owners who were intimidating other owners.  The threat was, put your price up to our price or risk being the victim of an “accident”.  The public outcry and the weight of evidence were such that the city government simply had to take action against the perpetrators.


   I finished the first bowl. 


  It was, quite simply, the best bowl of noodles or, come to think about it, the best bowl of anything I have ever tasted.  Succulent beef, aromatic broth, perfect noodle-texture.

  The next three bowls were also scoffed in double-quick time. 


  Still not satisfied, I looked around for more. 

  I was conscious that the kitchen staff (the noodle-pullers themselves) were watching when I volunteered to eat the bowl of noodles that one of my dining companions couldn’t manage.  But that wasn’t going to stop me.


   It happened to be a bowl of noodle number four – the really special ones.
How many ??!!