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Tourists flock to a little-known industrial town in China for its barbecue

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Sometimes a fad is just a fad. Other times, it says something about people or a place - like China, where a little-known industrial town has become a magnet for tourists seeking out local barbecue. NPR's John Ruwitch and producer Aowen Cao went to check it out.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The city of Zibo, a couple hours south of Beijing by high-speed train, is being overrun these days by people like Duan Fangfang.

DUAN FANGFANG: (Through interpreter) We're here first to eat. And second is to have fun.

RUWITCH: She's with her colleagues. They're preschool teachers from a neighboring province. They had some training nearby, and she says they couldn't pass up the opportunity to stop in Zibo, which has become one big, smoky party lately.

DUAN: (Through interpreter) We used to have a lot of fun like this, and we're happy with the kids. But these past few years of the pandemic has made us feel constrained, and so this trip is all about being happy.

RUWITCH: Around them are hundreds of low metal tables, each with a hibachi-style grill on top of it. They're lined with thin skewers of meat and vegetables seasoned with salt and cumin. Duan grabs a skewer, pulls the meat off into a kind of small Chinese tortilla. Then she adds a fresh spring onion and a dab of garlic chili sauce, rolls it up, and foists it upon our producer, Aowen.

AOWEN CAO, BYLINE: (Laughter).

DUAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: There's a theory about why Zibo kabobs went viral this spring. About a year ago, when omicron washed over China, universities here in Shandong province bussed students to towns around the province for forced quarantine. Thousands were sent to Zibo, including Ge Guangmin, a third-year graduate student in Shandong University's Institute of Marxism.

GE GUANGMIN: (Through interpreter) To be honest, when I first found out we were going into quarantine, I felt nervous and very uneasy.

RUWITCH: But Zibo took good care of them, putting them in comfortable rooms, feeding them well, all in stark contrast to horror stories online about quarantine conditions elsewhere. This spring, with COVID controls finally gone, many started to come back to visit.

GE: (Through interpreter) Who knows? Maybe some university students wanted to show gratitude and repay Zibo. So they went back, put some videos up online and started this whole craze.

RUWITCH: Ge, herself, has been back three times.

Zhang Long, who runs a skewer joint at a huge new barbecue center in Zibo, says the local authorities seized the opportunity.

ZHANG LONG: (Through interpreter) The government is at the center of it. They're promoting this. They've made it easy for us vendors, and they're working really hard.

RUWITCH: Not just that - the Zibo authorities launched special barbecue trains running to and from the provincial capital. They started barbecue buses to shuttle people around town. In the first week of May, a national holiday, they put on a barbecue festival, attracting humongous crowds. They've even imported musicians from around the country to play tunes at your table for a few bucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

RUWITCH: The barbecue craze comes at a time when China's economy is struggling to rebound after COVID. Many students, like those who were quarantined here last year, are having a hard time finding jobs after graduation. And it's not clear yet if the crowds in Zibo this summer are a sign that the recovery is picking up steam. At the very least, though, this fad has brought something back to China, a freewheeling energy that's been missing for the past three years. And that's exactly why Duan Fangfang, the teacher, is here.

DUAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: "To let go," she says, to get her feet back on the ground and find herself again.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Zibo, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.