The Silk Road in a Back Alley

1999 > China

Islam in China? Yes, if you follow the Silk Road all the way from Istambul to Beijing

Cooking up a storm in that funny hat
Mad musician at his day job
Their ancestors said hi to Marco Polo
They look Finnish to you?
I heard the sounds of the Silk Road tonight. Yes, I know it once passed
from Beijing to Istanbul, so I’m not
surprised there are traces of it, just I was a bit taken aback by where I
found its last remnants. Down an alley near my new apartment is a row of
odd looking restaurants. Well, odd looking for Beijing, for they were not
Chinese hutong restaurants, but Uighuric restaurants.

The Uighurs, a people from Northwest China don’t look Chinese at all.
They are Central Asians, with definite Muslim influences left over from
when Islam headed East along the route silk traveled West. Although they
speak an odd Fino-Uighuric tongue, and therefore share a common bond with
their distant Finnish relatives, looking
at ’em, my first reaction was to speak in Russian. No luck.

Nuladna. I sat down and ordered their specialty, rat meat on a stick.
Ok, its not rat meat per see, but after the huge meaty shashlik chunks in
Russia, I’m tired of the anemic meat portions served south of Lake
Bikal. After a bit of hand gesture communication, a tortalini type
dish with fresh garden vegetables appeared to compliment the meat. Funny
thing is, even though I use the Italian name for it, after being to
Northern China, I have no doubt that this is where pasta came from

I do know that the music wasn’t original though. Out of the back, the
proprietor came with a funky musical instrument. Looking like a two-string
cross between an Indian sitar and a Chinese erhu, the long necked,
half-melon bodied tool came alive under the caresses of his fingers. I was
so taken by the music, I forgot my meal and joined him and his friends at
their table.

Yes, their table. He was sitting with a few other Uighuric men, talking
and laughing in their own language, completely incomprehensible to me. I
did understand them perfectly though. They spoke about timeless issues,
ones I need no dictionary to understand; life, love, and the pursuit of
happiness. And the owner sang. His songs were so magical, so pure, so
real. The instrument wasn’t tuned the best and he was a little off-key,
but like the truest music you will ever hear, it came from his heart, his
people, his history.

I forgot my meal, I forgot China, and I forgot time, closing my eyes so
I could hear him better. Then I heard not him, but India. I heard the
music my parents would play when I was little, tapes of Ravi Sincar. I
heard not him, but his father passing the songs on to him as a little boy.
I heard not him, but the uncounted thousands of travelers across the Silk
Route, bringing their odd customs on the long and painful journey.

When he stopped, I though of the perils those men, and quite a few
women, faced as they crossed the great unknown in search of commerce and
companionship. The songs they would sing to make the road shorter and the
ground softer. They didn’t have the luxury of a Russian
train to speed them across Asia. No bicycle
for transport around the capital of the Chinese (or Mongolian)
Kingdom. No Internet to tell loved ones back home wheat was happening all
the while.

I’m not sure I would’ve been lucky enough to wander about had I been
born any other time than then moment I landed on this earth. Lucky and
rich. The restaurant walls were covered with photos of Turkish
Mosques. Mosques I’ve been to, and these believers would treasure a
trip to see. trust me. I may be an expatriate, but I am not an ex-patriot,
for every day I am here, I feel honored to be an American, free to travel
farther than many can dream.