There is some discussion in the car as to what the name Zhangye actually means. In a regrettable error of interpretation, our fixer suggests that it means “armpit.” This turns out not to be true, but we are referring to the city as Armpit hereafter. It is the site of the largest reclining Buddha in Asia, the birthplace of Khubilai Khan, and the Xixia National Temple. The crew are baffled as to what the Xixia are, and I explain that they are the Tanguts – a society that once ruled this part of Asia as their own little mini-empire. They flourished in the late Middle Ages, and then were massacred in a genocidal assault by a Uyghur army. The Uyghurs having joined the Mongol hordes, they attacked the Tangut realm and killed most of them on the Mongols’ behalf – not a subject that the Uyghurs like to bring up. The province next door is still known simply as Ningxia, “the Tanguts quelled.”
Mr Ma is a 23rd generation descendant of Genghis Khan (like 16 million other men across Asia, according to the American Journal of Genetics). His name means “Horse”, although his family drifted into farming a few generations ago, and thence into traditional medicine. His big thing is black millet, which is supposedly good for the kidneys, and which he grows on his farms and witters about incessantly, like a religious zealot. Unlike most Chinese medicine, which might as well be eye of newt and toe of bat, his black millet comes with a chemical breakdown, which allows me to report that its primary ingredient is that a single dose delivers 652% of the body’s daily requirement of selenium. So if selenium is what you need, then it’s black millet porridge for breakfast for you.
He is animated and talkative, which is a blessing after some recent interviewees, and drags me around the millet fields to talk about his experiments in propagation. He’s trying to get his millet to two metres tall, because the stalks and leaves also function as animal feed, and that gives him more. He is also aiming at increasing the yield in the grains by 25%, which would be enough selenium to kill a horse.
It is a frustrating day because Mr Ma lives only four kilometres from the airport, and the local air force squadron are flying their Hawk trainers relentlessly in circles. Four planes roar past, each augmenting the other’s noise, leaving barely 20 seconds out of each two minutes in which to record sound. This places immense pressure on everybody, most of all me, to gabble my pieces to camera into incredibly limited slots. One fluff, and we are all standing around for another two minutes, waiting for the planes to pass, and hoping that the sun doesn’t come out from behind a cloud, or go back behind a cloud, or whatever it was the sun was doing last.
We finish at six-ish, but it is 90 minutes back to the hotel, and our liaison has determined that we will not be eating right away. Utterly convinced he is doing us a favour, he claims he knows a “good place” and leads us through the streets for another 20 minutes, when all we wanted was noodles outside our hotel. When we eventually find the restaurant he wants, they turn out only to serve warm, watery Xuehua beer, which none of us can stand.
The usual Chinese entertainment ensues, in which I manage to steer the menu through some edible choices, only for our nameless host to “help” by ordering a bunch of other things that we don’t want. I haven’t eaten for seven hours, I am tired after a long day, and all I want is some food that will not make me retch.
“Try the pig’s ears!” he says, in a reasonable imitation of my ex-mother-in-law, who is always confident that I will wake up one day and suddenly like rubbery rye bread. “Just try them.”
“If I wanted them,” I say, “I would have ordered them.” Today, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for Jeremy Clarkson, who punched a producer over the non-availability of hot food after a long day. Not that I condone the punching of producers, but there comes a point when shooting chips away at the most basic elements of one’s hierarchy of needs.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E03 (2016).