“Yakxie!” ”Veriy Gouda!” (Very Good!), said my new friend in the Uygur dialect. I can’t remember his name, but I will never forget his laugh, his thumbs up or the loud Xinjiang and Indian music out of his mp3 player/phone/camera. My eclectic friend had a lovely deep singing voice in a dialect that sounded Arabic, but most likely was Turkish, considering our location. He wore a short little cylindrical hat and prayed five times each day that we were on the train. I took a photo of him on the soft sleeper train that took us across China. Upon seeing the photo, he emphatically nodded his head, gave me two thumbs up, again, and said, “Zhong guo moslem… veriy gouda!” communicating to me, more or less, that with the photo I had taken of him, I could show others what a Chinese Muslim or Hui looks like.
On the 27 hour train ride from Xi’an to Urumqi, Xinjiang, we passed many famous Silk Road sites. At Turfan, or “Turufan” in Chinese, my friend got especially excited and said “Turufan! Yakxie! Veriy Gouda!” and smiled while pointing his thumbs up. He then pointed at the grape vines outside of the window and told me that these were the best grapes in all of China. He could not stop smiling about the greatness of Turfan.
At the beginning of the train ride, I gazed out of the window to see miles of ancient buildings and cave dwellings on the sides of mountains in Gansu Province. Asleep, and then awake again, I missed a few hours of Gansu to awake in the deserts of Xinjiang; the only place in China that I had seen with virtually no inhabitants. But, sure enough, there was development of roads and infrastructure. A long black snake-like pipeline and red ostrich-like backhoes ran parallel to the train tracks. The pipeline, no doubt, soon to be filled with oil, was not yet fully complete, but close to completion. Giant red mechanical ostriches seemed small on the near horizon, digging their heads into the sand, one mouthful of dirt at a time, moving along a straight line to pave the world.
After an entire night’s rest on the train I was gleeful to hop off in Urumqi, or as Chinese folks say ”Wulumuqi.” As it was the final destination for the train, the station was packed. With all of my belongings on my back, I moved with the rest of the crowd and their gigantic bags. Emerging at end of the tunnel and passing the turnstiles were hundreds of people reuniting with family members, hailing cabs and hopping on buses. Fashionable Han Chinese women in platform shoes, Muslim women of Uygur or Han descent in flowing silks, men looking more Mexican than Chinese with fantastic mustaches, old Central Asian men with long beards and young children in beautifully beaded and ornate dresses– were some of the interesting characters that comprised the diverse crowd.
I wanted to take a picture, but warded off the urge in favor of finding the right bus. On my first trip alone in China, I had no qualms with my situation but kept my excitement to a minimum so that I could properly show the bus driver my destination and communicate to her that I needed help. At the mercy of the locals, I live. But as any traveler does, I have my own self sufficiency, too.
As soon as I set my bags down, I wanted to hit the streets. The International Bazaar and Mummy Museum were at the top of my list. As I was asking for directions at the front desk, the owner of the youth hostel was giving directions to a Chinese man and suggested I go with him.
The Chinese mountain climber/businessman spoke strikingly good English. We shared our reasons for visiting Xinjiang; his, to climb Urumqi #2 Glacier, mine, to experience Central Asian culture and catch a glimpse of Uygur (the local ethnic minority) life inside of China. We agreed that we should get to know the local culture so we sat down at a cafeteria where there were hardly any Han Chinese people. Because of Xinjiang’s proximity to so many other countries, the people we broke bread with were most likely, Uygur, Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Mongol. Although, I was within the borders of China, I realized Xinjiang and especially its capital city, Urumqi, was more like an entirely separate country. After the deliciously musty lamb on a stick and fresh naan bread, cooked over open fire, we went to the International Bazaar.
There was a giant mosque in the hub of the streets that surrounded the bazaar. The mosque towered over us like a 10 story apartment complex, except this was round, brown brick and cylindrical with no windows. We drank coke in the shade of the mosque on that sweltering day in the desert city. At the indoor section of the bazaar, we cooled down and caught wafts of rose and lavender perfumes, ogled double-sided scarfs intricately embroidered by hand, and had food lust over dried orange apricots, yellow spices, and green pistachios all beckoning to be sampled by the palate. Despite all the temptation to devour this multi-sensory feast I was partaking in, I didn’t take a single thing with me. I was already maxed-out on my 65-liter pack with a month down and a month left to go of my journey.
In the evening, I returned to the hostel and drank a beer with a strange character from Texas. Somehow, I got convinced to go out to dinner with him and a group of Chinese boys. We were picked up in some black luxury sedan and the five of us piled in tightly. We took off to God-knows-where and ended up at a two story restaurant that looked like a mosque. This rich uncle was going to stuff us with food till’ we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. There were, literally, plates on top of plates of beasts and plant species I had never seen. But, make no mistake, of what I could consume, all of it was delicious. Then, without prior warning Russian and Turkic dancers were sliding across the marble floor; a Han woman sang Chinese opera and another man played a wicked sax!
Five days later, I wondered where the time had gone. My ATM card did not work at a single bank. I had to call back to my bank in the US of A thanks to the help of an English speaking teller. I wasn’t the only traveler who seemed slightly stuck in Urumqi. After the Mummy Museum, local show and bazaar, there was not much to see in the city and so the Silk Road beckoned me forward… to Turfan!
I met up with Yang Yang who was the Chinese teacher’s assistant at Humboldt State University. She took me for a delicious day out on the town to eat in the Muslim Quarter and to visit the Great Mosque. Yang Yang, also known as Violet, was a great guide, too!
She wrote me this educational email about the food we had that day, some information about the mosque we visited and a little guide on how to pronounce the various things I learned that day.
Now I get to share this information with you! Here’s how it works…
These are the four Chinese tones thanks to about.com.
And here is the pronunciation guide to Pin Yin
which is the westernization of Mandarin for those of you curious enough to try your luck at pronouncing the words below.
Here are several things you might be interested in:
1. The list of the names of food we had today:
a. Liang Pi (2nd tone, 2nd tone): the noodle (girls love this a lot)
b. Liang Fen (2nd tone, 3rd tone): cubes
c. Mei Gui Jing Gao (2nd tone, 4th, 4th, 1st): the first food we had today. The delicious rice cake with rose water and nuts in it.
d. Shi zi bing (4th, neutral tone, 3rd) (persimmon pie): the really hot ones with wulnut, almond, and rose in it. (The last desert you bought, which took you 3 yuan)
e. Kao rou (3rd, 4th) (the BBQ, roast lamb)
f. Jiao zi The famous potstickers of China!
h. Suan mei tang (1st, 2rd, 1st): Plum juice
2. Some links about the Great Mosque:
I didn’t say much about the detail of that amazing place as it is also my first time to visit there. Sorry
Hopefully these two links help
On a tandem bicycle we laughed continuously for the first minute. It was the first time, my friend, Yulong had rode a bike in years and her first time ever riding a tandem. The joy was not only abundant because of the bicycle, but because, together, we know how to enjoy Xian in all of its wonder. For 100 minutes, the maximum time allowed by the rental place for the bike, we rode merrily around the city wall of Xian.
Along the way, we stopped to look over the wall to see things going on inside and outside of the city walls; a crowd amassing to watch a plain-clothes opera where a woman sang in the Xian dialect and men played instruments that have resounded throughout China for hundreds of years, an empty Tibetan lamasery looking small from a hundred feet or so from the ground, old weapons of war pointed out towards the directions where enemies formerly arrived, and the ever present Chinese combination of ancient and modern buildings. At each cardinal direction we would kick up the kick stand and silently pay homage to the grandiose architecture of the towers that once acted as command centers to keep the ancient city safe. Huge red pillars the size of old redwood tree trunks, blue pagoda roofs with corners pointed up to the sky, Chinese characters written in gold wishing “Forever peace to the city” or Yong Ying Mong, intermingling colors stratified and typified the great buildings we saw.
On our stops, Yulong and I would stand together in silence and look out over the hussling bussling city below. Without words, and with eyes scanning the horizon, she and I understood in each other that we were both in the midst of re-imagining the life that these walls once contained and comparing this to the life we saw today. Minutes would pass in the quiet and I found no surprise that my feelings intersected with the Yong Ying Mong blessing.
Yulong had an exceptional way of describing the history of the area and attributes it to her father who, like a tour guide, each time they drove pass these monuments in their home city, recited historical facts, and she in turn, had internalized and effortlessly translated this information in English to me. Yulong, in her innocence and joy, has the wisdom of an ancient Taoist intellectual. She expressed herself with smiles and glee while communicating the deep intricacies of her culture. I not only learned the translations of words but their historical and social context. I was impressed by her desire to teach. And I always have the willingness to learn!
Later in the day, but no cooler from the heat, we walked around the megatropolis of 33 million people. Meandering through underground tunnels, I discovered that these places are not just walkways to keep the pedestrians safe from the traffic circling the roundabout above. Tunnels are a place where fashionable teens go to purple fluorescent movie theaters and shop owners sell intricately cut paper shadow puppets in stores that descend even further underground. We emerged and reemerged at yet two more complimentary towers functional during the times of old; the Bell Tower, with its brass bells weighing a few tons, they would awake the city during the times of old, and The Drum Tower, with 10 foot tall drums would send people to evening chores.
In pursuit of strings for the communal guitar at the youth hostel, we stopped into a music shop. There, I manifested a dream I had earlier in the day while watching the outside opera; I wanted a lesson in playing one of the Chinese instruments I heard. I went straight to the Er Ho, a two stringed instrument that resembles the neighs of a horse. It sounded sweetly like a violin when bowed correctly by Yulong (who once played for 3 years) and like “killing a chicken” when she taught me. Both of us sat with the snake-skinned instruments on our left leg, and I learnede the appropriateness of holding the bow like chopsticks when strummed forward and released when pulled back. At night, I fell asleep to deep breaths that were reminiscent of the sensation of the bowing I learned earlier that day.
Next door to the music shop was a cheap colorful costume shop with different outfits from each ethnic group in China. Walking home, we saw men playing a game that looked like checkers but with different Chinese characters written on each black or white game piece that sat on the large board on the floor. I asked Yulong if I could take a picture. She inquired for me, referring to the men as “uncle”. In China, it is not polite to address someone directly and labels like grandpa, grandma, aunt and uncle, are ways of showing respect based on age, even to strangers.
With sniffly nose and tired body, I screamed out, “I love Xian!” Although my body was tired from the 33 hour train ride from Changchun in the northeast of China to Xian, my mind was as awake as can be and in desire of expressing great energy.
With no time to lose, as soon as we sat down, the chaufer took off at full speed passing blue three wheeled trucks, donkeys carrying carriages, bicyclists, gasoline trucks and big rigs with some of them driving down the wrong side of the road. The other two passengers were dead asleep at 5am as we passed the green fields that produce the famous fragrant rice of Jilin. Watching a single farmer work a gigantic rice field, up to his knees in water and with a single short tool, I vowed to myself that I would never complain about bearing the brunt of working alone. With Yue and her dad snoring, the driver would quickly look over his shoulder at me whenever he heard the squeak of my tea canteen opening and closing.
After some hours, the fields evolved into hills and then the hills into large round mounds of mountains. I had never seen such round mountains. Erosion and mining would reveal a chunk of mountain missing and a thick layer of grass uniformly covering the vast landscape to the shadeward side. On the other side of the valley were evergreen forests reminding me of my sweet hometown in Humboldt, with trees not quite as tall, but just as lush.
Passing the windows of our sedan were vast vacancies of inhabitants, and then, log cabins with tons of wood chopped in blocks ready for keeping the house warm in the cold climate. Foggy and grey, the whole day, until somehow like a strange dream, the shroud lifted, and a strange cheery city, looking slightly like the “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland, appeared suddenly on my left. Painted in pastels, many of the gigantic buildings were still being constructed by huge cranes. A cluster of cranes constructing multiple skyscrapers at once is a common sight in China. The architecture, looking nothing Chinese, was Russian with it’s red roofs.
We arrived in front of a hotel with a red carpet sprawled from the inside of the hotel to the dirt where concrete had yet to be laid. The lobby was floored with marble and bore gold rimmed frames around the price placards. Yue and I, set our shared suitcase in our room with high roundly tiered ceilings and new shag carpet. The room was stunning, the bathroom however, was missing division between the toilet and shower. The back window’s view also bore the same collision of opposites. A flashy new chalet was on the hill and looking directly down from where I stood was a heaping mound of plastic instant rice bowl noodles and other indecipherables.
We went to lunch and ate in our own private room in a nearby restaurant, as was customary in our group. Forest lichens, mushrooms, and baby ferns were integrated
into our meal. Wildcrafted, and with a chicken’s foot peeking out of the top, I avoided a few items in the soup that are not suited for my mei guo ren (American person) tastes. Over cigarettes and food, the men that are Yue’s father’s friends spoke at great lengths about numerous topics that I was completely oblivious to because I do not know the language they speak.
My friend translates for me when she can as she speaks excellent English after having had studied at Humboldt State for the past two years. Sometimes, I insist on using my cidian (dictionary) so that I can grunt through learning pin yin, the westernization for Mandarin. Last semester, I prided myself for being able to spell simply and slowly stated words in Mandarin into pin yin. The Northeastern dialect, although completely Mandarin, has sounds that I cannot decipher AT ALL. Chun sounds like Cheng to me. Sometimes I confuse the q sound with the x sound and end up skimming the entire dictionary in search of what I just heard. And then when I get to the sound I have heard, I have to guess its context because “xi” may have 10 different meanings, and thats just from one tone out of four!!! To say the least, a dear Chinese friend of mine said to me about my struggles, “Rome wasn’t built in a day!”
I absolutely LOVE people from Jilin! They have very open hearts and it is easy to perceive the closeness amongst friends who will sometimes drive a few hours to see each other in a nearby city! Particularly, Yue’s father, wants me to eat and try everything and is constantly concerned with my happiness despite the language barrier. In fact, he is like this with everyone. I am not only spoiled by him but by his friends, too. One of his friends paid for the entire Inner Mongolia trip, including a trip to a luxurious spa with a public bath heated by a hot springs and a foot massage included! It is a custom in the province of Jilin, friends are never allowed to pay.
After we ate food a beautiful young girl with long wavy dyed brown hair met us at the hotel to take us for a tour of Aer Shan. We toured with her for six hours and raced through the countryside to arrive at the Aer Shan National Park, renowned in all of Asia for having had been the most expansive explosion of liquid hot magma solidified and remaining intact on the surface of the earth. Thousands of years have passed since this explosion and somehow these pumice rocks have the nutrients in them to sustain the growth of trees. A completely stunning landscape with rivers, ice, steep mountain faces, birch and evergreens as well as lichen and other strange stringy moss growing on the rocks. We also visited two lakes, one called Camel Lake, at a high altitude, and the other called Heavenly Lake where many ducks skimmed across and other birds flew.
On day two of the tour, we went to collect spring water and in a huffy got panicked about drinking the water. I don’t have the antibodies! I touted my claim. “Hey, it’s your freedom! Make your choice…” I was told. I decided to do without. We hiked uphill to some sacred rocks, perhaps some of the only mountains I had seen without grass growing on them. According to the local legend, if you touch these rocks they give you good luck. But I’d had crazy good luck for more than a week before this!
Coincidentally, we arrived in Aer Shan during an international skiing competition. Europeans and a few Chinese, raced around a track while hundreds of people watched. It was at this competition that I saw the true heart of Inner Mongolia, not in the event itself, but in the faces of those that appeared at the event. Inner Mongolians are beautiful; as a mix of Russian, Mongolian and Chinese they are dark, strong and lean.
Life is good. And food always makes it better, even if you are eating eggs with ants cooked into them. Our last experience in Inner Mongolia was at little cabin outside of the city in a traditional Mongolia village. Everything at the cabin was neatly organized. It was obvious to see that the couple living there were hard workers. They had a small inn and restaurant, appearing very informal but very hospitable and well kept. The bed was traditional style where one could feed wood through a hole on the bottom of the raised platform. The food was similar to the meals we had before except this was definitely the best meal; not too salty, not too oily and everything fresh and clean.
It pelted rained on the way home, but Driver used to drive for the Chinese Army, he had a cutting professionalism and focus. We made it home to Songyuan where I sat in the kitchen of a beautiful apartment click clacking away at just one experience of many amazing days in China.
the procession made its way up the hill, singing loudly and out of tune. they were following a glass box with the virgin mary inside looking like a small porcelain doll adorned in lace and satin. the aztec dancers were there too, in feathered headdresses, wearing elaborate gold jewelery and making music as they walked and danced with walnut shells attached to a band around their ankles. the pueblo, welcomed the small virgin into a tent adorned with hot pink and white plastic daisies, green vines and large lace tapestries.
mother and daughter holding hands, a man with one leg and a wooden crutch, ancianos and jovenes, a young boy dressed like a vaquero in baby blue cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat, the homeless men who dance in the middle of the aztec drummers, morenitos; all have come to ask for one thing. water. esperan la lluvia para que crezcan las plantas. without water, the plentiful grapes, figs, avocado, pomegranates and pecans of parras will refuse to grow.
on this hot day, i followed la virgen too. but beyond my observation of the walking, singing and praying throughout the day, the devotion of the townspeople inspired me to make my own pilgrimage. i looked at iglesia santo madero. i walked toward the church that sat isolated on a tall magma plume a few hundred meters in elevation above the town of parras. i walked toward the corkscrew pathway that would take me to the top. on the way, i found a bald barbie head in the street and picked it up as i walked passed the adobe houses painted yellow and orange.
en route, i decided that santo madero was too far and opted instead to sit on a nearby quartzite mound covered in desert brush with a few plastic bags shaking on their branches in the wind. as i sat down on a particular rock, i avoided the green and brown shards of broken glass all around. i shook my feet occasionally as i sat so that i could avoid being stung by the fire ants that would occasionally crawl into my worn out holey huaraches.
from this mound, you can see and hear everything.
a 360 degree panorama. 180 of which reveal the tops of tall green trees and the other 180 degrees revealing an expanse of rocks and desert brush. i spin around, the whole horizon holds mountains. to the north, tall mountainous plateaus and to the south even taller ridges and undulating valleys. a true oasis town in the expansive desert of coahuila, mexico.
the denim factory alarm whistle goes off sounding like a steam engine train. a few miles away from me, directly in my path, sits the red and white candy cane striped smoke stack of the factory with no smoke.
there is music in all directions. at the procession a loudspeaker, looking like an old phonograph, plays religious spanish music from the 1940s, complete with authentic sounds of record scratches. another loud speaker, in the complete opposite direction announces “¡dos hermanos de saltillo!!!” two brothers from a nearby town, sing a mariachi song acapella. moments before the singing, i had heard a spanish version of ” my achey breakey heart.” further in the distance i hear the military band playing their daily marching tune with tubas, trumpets, drummer boys and all. a truck makes an announcement over the loud speaker. dogs bark. birds chirp by the hundreds. children scream and i hear the familiar honk of a car celebrating the winning of the santos in the last soccer game. i hear a crowd scream.
the sun is setting and lights beam through the clouds, looking like the holy depictions of light beams that shine on religious persons in illustrated bibles. with less light in the sky, i realize it is my time to go. i should go back home and share food with my host family, two sisters that live in an adobe house that is over a hundred years old. i look forward to sitting on my rocking chair in the courtyard while i admire all the fruit trees during the hot night. im excited to share with my mamas the experiences of my day. but i am not excited to eat. the food is delicious, however, my belly aches from the change of diet, from an almost completely vegan diet to almost completely meat diet. ahh, how this is so reflective of my paradigm, an extremist who loves to create adventure by being fully absorbed and adapting to whatever experience i may be having at the moment.