I watched the other guests dig in, holding the birds by beak and feet while turning them like miniature corn cobs and crunching tiny bones to suck out the marrow. All around me, little beaks protruded from people's mouths as they sucked brains out of the backs of tiny skulls.
Guests slurped the boiled rabbit embryos loudly, like oysters, from a spoon, and I had to remind myself that in China, such noises are a compliment to the chef. I slid one down my throat, fighting the urge to gag. Everyone ate with their hands, smacking their lips and licking their fingers while grimacing from the red-hot sauces. Bodily noises were the order of the evening. By this time I was wondering if this meal was too high a price to be paid for our travel privileges.
My travel partner Pierre and I had delivered badly needed medical supplies to a remote hospital in northwestern China in exchange for permission to explore areas not usually open to tourists. After making our delivery, Chinese etiquette required our hosts, officials of the Communist Party, to thank us properly in the form of a sumptuous banquet.
An official car had picked us up at our hotel. We had no idea where we were going as we were taxied through rolling countryside, miles out of town. An hour later we arrived at a military base. There must be some mistake, I thought, as uniformed guards snapped to attention and saluted as we motored past.
Scorpions for Spies
One of the cardinal rules of traveling in a police state such as China is to avoid military bases, especially when carrying cameras, but there I was, a western capitalist, inside a communist military installation with my bag full of what could potentially be perceived as spy tools. Images flashed through my head of being thrown up against a wall and shot for espionage. This was supposed to be a simple thank you dinner. How could this be happening? I have always liked the old Indian saying, "It's a good day to die" and have long felt that to do so on an expedition, doing what I love, would be a worthy way to depart this life, but I have never considered the possibility of facing execution as an accused spy.
I would later learn that many of the finer restaurants in northwestern China are reserved for Communist officials. This one, being in the middle of nowhere, just happened to be on an air force base. Fighter jets screeched overhead as we were ushered to meet the military governor of Xinjiang province, our host for the evening, who was surprisingly attired in casual, western style civilian clothing.
"Welcome," he said, sticking out a beefy hand to shake. "You are not writers or spies are you?" And with that he and all his yes men began to chuckle.
Pierre and I exchanged a look of bewilderment. I clutched my camera bag in a death grip hoping to absorb it, praying I might be rescued by a stroke or heart attack, when several of the officials' wives emerged with cameras and began to take photos.
This was my signal and I tentatively removed a camera to attempt a few of my own photos. When everyone posed and smiled, my heart began to beat again. The governor escorted us into the restaurant, a facsimile of a nomadic yurt, designed to soften the militaristic ambiance of the rest of the base.
Inside, we passed buckets of strange creatures that I assumed were about to become our dinner. Live eels writhed in a plastic bucket, and directly inside the door a waiter passed around a tray of fried scorpions as an appetizer. Pinching one between two fingers, the governor put the arthropod to his mouth and took a bite, then gestured for us to eat. They had the texture of Cheetos, tasted like cardboard, and the tiny limbs tickled as they slid down my throat. Then he led us to our table, which held bowls of something more prosaic: sunflower seeds.
After being seated, the governor's wife, a stylish lady who spoke excellent English, attached herself to my arm and proceeded to point out the exotic delicacies we would dine on, while loudly spitting sunflower husks onto the floor. On the platter before me was a mound of baked baby sparrows, curled, fetus-like, and lathered with what appeared to be a chocolate sauce. The sight of the dish caused my fragile traveler's stomach to turn a notch as I pondered how best to approach eating them.
Books from the Author: