Burgers in the Chinese Desert

The latest dispatch from Xinjiang

By / December 2013

A little more than four years ago, the impoverished and grit-strewn hamlet of Niya was marooned at the eastern edge of a desert the size of Great Britain. Now with the completion of a two-lane strip of asphalt linking the final remaining oases of this vast stretch of sand dunes to the rest of Xinjiang, China’s most remote northwesterly province, prosperity, mobility, employment, and of course fast food have arrived in abundance.

Xinjiang lags somewhat behind the rest of China in fast food provision. But since KFC first graced the malls of the capital, Urumqi, eleven years ago, the range and number of outlets has mushroomed. Most downtown street corners now boast at least one junk-food chain, and there is no end in sight with new competitors rolling into town nearly every month. Fast food has had rather a lot of bad press in the West. Your local McDonald’s is certainly not the sort of place to take a girlfriend or grandmother, but the fast food scene here is different. Despite ferocious pride in their national food and a general reluctance to eat anything else, Uyghurs have taken to fried chicken and hamburgers with a vengeance.

Rain rarely falls from the sky in Niya. Sand does. Violent desert storms have been known to obliterate entire cities. The name of the desert, Taklamakan, meaning “cities are buried deep underneath,” describes the reputation of the cruel stretch of sand that separates north from south in this Muslim province. Desperate to escape the horizontal blast of dust one evening, I made my way towards a bright light pulsing through the gloom. Pandora’s cheery glow beckoned me inside. KFC by any other name, Fandola (as the Uyghurs here like to pronounce it) is barely two years old but is heaving with more energy than the dreary nightclub up the road. There are few places to get food here after 6 p.m. and Pandora’s line-up of burgers, fries, and steaming drinks was suddenly very appealing to me.

This is the owner Patigul’s second outlet. The forty-something divorcée came here to look after her mother after opening her first Pandora in neighboring Keriya, which is already a roaring success. One of the features of her Keriya joint is a massive fake McDonald’s umbrella on the sidewalk pulled right down over one of her tables. The umbrella conceals a group of men, who are eager to disguise the fact they are consuming beer, so they cower surreptitiously away from the disapproving glare of local mullahs.

Uyghur Muslim culture allows for guys to hang out, whenever, wherever, with whomever and however they choose, but there’s been absolutely nowhere for women to meet each other out in this rather conservative settlement. But Pandora’s fast food joint has stepped into the breach, plugging an ever-expanding hole in the market now that wealth has begun to flow into the community and there’s a bit of spare cash for the occasional evening out.

The spotless Formica surfaces, fluorescent green, orange and red décor, and a wall decked with cuddly toys and plastic garlands promise a vivid contrast from the local kebab stalls and less than spotless surrounding local food vendors. I watched as children piled in with their mothers and made straight for the plastic playground in a corner while the exhausted women ordered baskets of popcorn and fizzy drinks for themselves. An elderly couple sat opposite each other slurping their sparkling orange through fat straws and dipping fries into ketchup.

Two young girls arrived, dressed to kill, and made a beeline for the beaded-curtain, cordoned-off booths where their boyfriends waited, sticky cakes and hot milk at the ready to welcome them. One of the boys shot off and brought back the rest of their order: ice-cream sundaes, fries, chicken wings and sodas. Of course none of them touched any of it. The aim was to impress, not to turn your girlfriend into a balloon, and each one would have already eaten anyway before they came. It never does to appear hungry on a date. They sat on either side of the green glass table, nervous and tongue-tied. After an awkward twenty minutes or so they left.

My coffee arrived lukewarm, sweet and milky. This, said Patigul, is how the locals drink it. She grimaced when I said I usually have it black and very hot and offered to warm it up a bit. A woman arrived with a plateful of kebabs and flat bread from an outside stall. Patigul told her off for daring to bring in outside food. She was also trying to calm the kids who are screaming out of control on the play equipment; she was beginning to look flustered. It was the end of another busy day. The mums gathered their charges and beat a hasty retreat and eventually only me and a lone latchkey schoolboy eating his supper were left. My piping hot coffee arrived and the two of us sat there in silence, accompanied by the strains of Abba and the whistling of the desert storm raging outside.


Ruth Ingram is a writer living in China. She has also written for The Guardian.