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China, November 15, 1999

The Silk Road in a Back Alley

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 originally.

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.

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