#8 China, October 10, 2002

Dear Everybody,

Oh, one of the best things of all happened to me—I was invited to somebody’s house for lunch in the Old Town. Akbar, a young man that works for a tour company at the hotel, invited me for lunch at his house. Actually I kind of half invited myself. I suggested 50 Y for lunch, and he readily agreed. Akbar has been studying English for four months and has a pretty good command of the basics. So he telephoned his mother and told her what food to prepare. Actually he telephoned a neighbor, as they don’t have a phone, and waited until his mother called back. He said that I was the first foreigner that had been to his house, so now maybe others will follow.

Akbar’s father was killed in a car accident eleven years ago when Akbar was nine years old. He has two older brothers who are married and live with his mother, as well as one nephew, 2 ½, and a younger sister, 12. I gather that they’ve had quite a financial struggle so this may be the start of some extra income for them.

After winding around the markets and then the residential area of Old Town, we came to his house. The door opened into a small courtyard where his mother was cooking on a small coal-burning stove. She was very gracious and warmly invited me to enter their living room. Here I removed my shoes and was invited to sit on a mat that was placed on colorful rugs which covered the floor. There were many of these bright mats with metallic thread decoration stacked up at the front of the room. I imagine these are used for both sitting and sleeping. A small side room had a sewing machine, which was his mother’s way to earn some income.

Akbar asked if I would like to wash my hands, which I did. Back into the shoes, back into the courtyard where Akbar poured water from a teakettle over my hands as I used the bar of soap. When they were rinsed, I shook them a couple of times but Akbar corrected me. He said that only Chinese shake their hands after washing, a practice that Uyghurs find offensive because if someone is cooking, for example, then you might shake water into the food. Interestingly I had noticed the Uyghur men on that long 32 hour bus ride—after they washed their hands outside, they would simply clasp them together and walk around like that, apparently until they dried. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance and I’m sure I offended them by shaking the water off my hands!

Akbar, his 12 year old sister, the little 2 ½ year old nephew and I were served bowls of wonderfully flavored tea which were placed on the tablecloth that his mother had spread on the rug between our mats. This was accompanied by some breads that were very like onion bagels, and a bowl of cooked carrots, turnips, and a small piece of lamb’s tongue, which were brought as appetizers.

Soon the main course was brought—for each, a large bowl of wide (at least an inch) noodles with two or three poached eggs, topped with small pieces of mutton, carrots and turnips in a little bit of broth. It was accompanied by a bowl of the broth, to drink. A paper with ground coriander was set out to use for extra flavoring and spoons were used to eat the food. Akbar’s mother was not eating as she was fasting for Ramadan, a practice that Akbar said was really only held to by older people.

A young woman hovered in the background that I assumed was Akbar’s sister-in-law. I had asked Akbar the names of the other family members, which he told me, but when I asked the name of this sister-in-law, he put his finger to his lips and said something to his mother. His mother then told me her name. I asked Akbar if it were not permitted for him to say her name, and he said that was true, he had never said her name.

After we ate, and looked at a family photo album, I was invited to see their room upstairs, which was a bedroom. There was also a little courtyard upstairs.

Akbar’s mother was quite pretty, fifty years old, and had several of her front teeth covered in gold. She wore a scarf tied around her head and a sweater over a plain dress. She was very surprised at my age. She lifted her scarf and Akbar said that his mother was showing me that her hair was turning gray. I said that mine was too, but that I colored it, which Akbar interpreted, and which made his mother laugh. She asked me if I had a husband (amazingly the first person in China to ask that question) and I told her I was divorced (all this info being interpreted by Akbar, of course). She said something supportive, which Akbar interpreted as ‘it was all right.’

When it was time to leave, Akbar said that his mother had suggested that I might like to see a very beautiful Uyghur house down the street. So Akbar, his mother, his sister, his little nephew and I walked on down to another house (the sister-in-law stayed home). Wow, what a house! Clearly these people were very rich as their house was sumptuous. The living room was decorated on one long wall with many niches; inside each was a tea set. There were two large rooms downstairs and some more little ones plus the kitchen, etc., and then an upstairs, which had several more rooms. The ceilings were decorated with colorful hand painted designs, and there were columns and lots of other decoration, quite beautiful.

After visiting for a few minutes, Akbar asked me if I would like some fruit.

“Am I being invited to eat some fruit in this house?” I inquired.

“Yes,” said Akbar, and so I accepted, of course! Instantly the woman produced a tablecloth upon which she set 13 (I counted them) of those bread rounds which were each about 14 inches in diameter; a young boy cut up a big watermelon and brought bowls of that; the lady produced two bowls of figs; then six little bowls holding walnuts, candies, dates, green things that looked like peas, and two more that I can’t remember; and a bowl of pastries like donuts. I ate some watermelon and a pastry. None of the three women ate anything because they were fasting. That’s hospitality!

As we left and went back to Akbar’s house, I asked him if I could buy the same kind of tea that his mother had served as it was so delicious. She offered to give me hers, but I refused and said that we could buy some in the market. This we did and it turned out that this is a group of 12-15 spices that the spice seller combined into a pan, then ground, mixed and put in a packet for 5 Y (60 cents). I figured out that this was not tea, but spices to add to the tea. When I got back to my hotel I made some for my roommate and me, using some of my green tea and just adding a pinch of the spice. It was very good and made our room smell beautiful. Later I asked Akbar about this, and he said that you use the spices alone, not with other tea, and that it is traditional Uyghur tea.

I think I have mentioned having had some trouble with my foot. Well, I finally figured out that the reason is that my shoes are too small! Apparently my right foot is changing shape in my old age, requiring a longer, wider shoe, so I went shopping. I went to five shoe stores all in a row, and all they had were very dressy shoes for both men and women. Finally I came to a department store that had a large display of about 30 sneakers. People in China have very small feet. I asked the clerk for a ‘big’ one, indicating ’big’ with my hands. She looked through some boxes and handed me a size 250. When I compared it with my old shoe, I saw that it was too small, so I asked for a bigger one. She hunted some more and came up with a ‘260’. I tried this one on, but thought that I should try a still bigger size to be sure. I asked for ‘bigger’. This made her eyes widen; she looked and looked and finally came up with a ‘265’. I bought that pair, and I think I now have the biggest shoes in China. I have also emailed my friend, Jan, who is coming to meet me in China to bring me a pair of SASs like I have, only in a bigger size.

Sunday I again visited the Sunday Market and this time there was a string of camels to add to the menagerie. I went later in the day, when the animal market was really full. I had to be careful not to get trampled! I ate lunch with the animals, or rather on the edge of the animals where food stalls were set up. In addition to the noodles with mutton and vegetables, I had some loin chops of mutton, which they simmer in a broth, and which are very tasty.

Sunday evening while having a beer, I had a second visit with a woman who has been traveling in Asia for 21 months. She’s from Australia and once was an exchange student at Princeton in the US. She said that she would soon run out of money and have to go back to work but she didn’t know where or what.

On Monday I was expecting to go to Imam’s village (another young man who works for the tour agency at the hotel) but he got called home as a good friend (his age) died suddenly. So instead I went searching for a beauty shop to get my hair cut and colored. It’s a bit worrisome to get your hair colored in a place where there is only very dark hair. My operator did things quite differently than ‘at home’ and it all turned out not so great. Oh well, by the time you all see me, I will have had it done at home.

Next I continued to work on the project of buying and mailing home a Uyghur traditional stringed musical instrument. First there was the matter of getting a case, which I had requested the day before and which the man in the shop now had available. Then I needed to find some sort of wrapping and tape, but when I had successfully found these things and returned to actually buy the instrument the shop was closed for lunch. So I ate lunch, too, and then waited on the steps of the shop. After 1 ½ hours, I finally gave up and went back to the hotel.

The next day I took another stab at it. First a trip to the Post Office to see if ‘customs’ was in (they were); and then over to the Musical Instrument shop to actually buy the instrument with the case (I did); then back to the Post Office to clear it through customs (they did); then to wrap up the case in the cheap blanket that I had bought for this purpose using lots of tape; then to get the mail lady to accept it for mailing (she wouldn’t as it needed a post office box); downstairs to the boxes—it took three boxes and miles of tape stringing the three boxes together to cover the package; then back upstairs to mail it (I DID!). Now if it doesn’t arrive or doesn’t arrive in one piece, Ill be pissed!

Later that day I went with Imam to visit his village (population 2000) in quite a large farmhouse. When we arrived only his sister-in-law and nephew were at home.

 

 

 

 

We were treated to watermelon and grapes from their vineyard, once again seated on brightly colored mats on their rug-covered living room floor. I suggested eating outside in the courtyard, as it was a picture perfect, short sleeved, fall day.

After the snack we rode on a donkey cart to the orchards where his mother, sister and two other neighbors were gathering dates. These dates are different from the ones we’re used to. They grow on deciduous trees, not palms, and are similar in size and texture to a small crab apple, but even though crisp, taste like dates. They grow singly all over the trees, and to harvest them (which they were doing) they shake the tree with a hooked pole and the dates fall down on cloths that have been spread under the trees.

After visiting the grape vineyard, we walked back to the house and had lunch. The dish was polof, which is rice with yellow (not orange) carrots, mutton and oil. After visiting a bit more with his mother, who had come home, too, we drove back to Kashgar. It was a very pleasant afternoon.

That night at midnight I flew to Urumqi and then on to Lanzhou the next morning, got the bus into town, then a cab to the East Bus station where I boarded a bus for Tianshui. I arrived Tianshui yesterday at 5 PM quite tired.

Today I hired a taxi to take me to see the Maiji Shan Shiku (Haystack Mountain Grottos). Along with Dunhuang and two others, it is one of the four best Buddhist Grotto Art places in China. These, too, were built during the Silk Road days starting in 384 AD. It was interesting to note that the early Buddhas resemble Indian ones—slender, esthetic, quiet—but the later ones start to have Chinese faces and are fleshy and ‘loud’. The setting was spectacular with lush forested mountains all around, just starting to get their fall colors.

China vignettes:

*You know how at our banks there is a pen for our use secured to the counter? In the Tianshui bank there was a pair of reading glasses secured to the counter.

*In the taxi going (one hour each way) to the Buddhist Grottos there was a small brass bell suspended from the rear view mirror. It ‘dinged’ with a very penetrating sound continuously. I wanted to put a sock in it but I thought that might be irreligious and cause an accident.

*A grandmother (?) with her two-year-old grandson approached me on the street and told her grandson to say ‘hello’ which he did. I’ve not seen any Westerners in Tianshui so I’m quite a curiosity and am openly stared at.

*I had a hard time getting a room in this hotel in spite of my pantomiming efforts. I guess they couldn’t imagine what I had come to a hotel for. No English here!

This afternoon I went to see their oldest Taoist temple here. Of course if was way up on a mountain and even though the taxi took me most of the ways, it always ends with a long stairway. Since Tianshui is over 6,000 feet in altitude, I could feel the effort. Oh well, at least there were steps.

Well, on to Baoji tomorrow and then to Xian on Sunday or Monday. All’s well.

Carol

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