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I’ve only been once to China, for three months, as part of a journey of half a year, from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and China to Pakistan..
Urumqi (pronounce as ‘Urumtsji’) is a strange town. It has nothing to do with China, as it looks way more like Russia, with Mongolian people. There are quite some Han Chinese as well, but they are a minority. There’s nothing much in particular to see in Urumqi, except for the fact that this is the spot on earth which is most distant to any sea or ocean, so they say.
Whilst I wander trough the city, I noticed all the street sellers quickly hiding their merchandise. A police car was spotted, and free market was apparently forbidden. I continued my walk, and stopped at a mosque next to an old man sitting. I looked up at the inscriptions on the mosque, to see if I recognized some phrases.
My Arabic is close to zero, but I can handle the alphabet. I learned that in Morocco, where people constantly sent me to the wrong bus, just for fun. Most Islamic countries are very hospitable and friendly, but from my own experiences not Morocco and Tunisia. Now at least I can read the destination in front of the bus. A friend from Egypt once tried to teach me Arabic, but he had only eyes and ears for two female student in his private class, so I never got any further than just the alphabet. Besides, I’ve always had a curiosity about Islam, though I don’t want to convert myself to it.
The man sitting next to the mosque stood up to see what I was looking at. He was amazed I could pronounce the religious phrase in front of his mosque. I told him some more religious phrases, and recited the first part of the Koran, and the ice was broken. As imam, he started to explain things in Arabic, but I had to reply with universal hand signal language. We had a nice chat, and he showed me his grandchild to his great delight. He explained that there are many Muslims in this part of China, but that the Chinese government isn’t too happy about that.
A bit of Arabic always opens door. For me it’s a way of saying that I respect Muslims, and their religion. I would say that most places are great fun, as long as you don’t discuss politics or religion, so I don’t discuss Islam either, but mentioning it helps to get acquainted.
The most simple phrase it also a tricky one: “la illah illAllah, Muhammad rasul Allah”, the is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”. By saying this, you declare to be Muslim, so avoid this at all costs or confuse the Russian by adding “Jesu rasul Allah”, “Jesus is his prophet”, or Ibrahim (Abraham). According to Islam, all prophets are equal, though Muhammad is a bit more equal than others. Oops, here I already start to discuss religion, which I shouldn’t.
The first chapter of the Koran is easy to learn by heart, and every Muslim knows the Al Fatiha. By reciting this, I show my compassion at risk of hypocrisy, but at least in a lesser way than reciting the confession of faith. “A'uzu billahi minashaitanir rajim. Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. Al-Hamdu lillahi Rabbil-'Aalamin. Ar-Rahmaanir-Rahiim. Maaliki Yawmid-Diin; Iyyaaka na'-budu wa 'iyyaaka nasta-'iin. Ihdinas-Siraatal-Mustaqiim- Siraatal-laziina 'an-'amta 'alay him- Gayril-magzuubi 'alay him wa laz-zaaalliin.”. I seek protection against the devil. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
When you ask what time a bus leaves, you can add “inshAllah”, if God wants it, which normally breaks the ice. When the bus finally leaves, you can made many friends by just saying “Al-Hamdu lillah”, thank God. Don’t worry that you don’t speak Arabic, as most Muslims don’t either, except when it’s their native language or related to that.
A travel agency offered a bus trip to the heavenly lake. That sounded like heaven, so let’s do it. The lake reminded me of Austria, kind of cold, but a beautiful landscape with a lot of pine trees. Near the shores of the lake there were a few round tents, named yurds. I checked one out, an saw a few kids playing in the mud. I happen to know a nurse who would kill to wash some of these filthy faces. The kids looked at me, and I played a bit and started a small game, which they seemed to like.
Then their mother came out of the yurd and invited me in, together with some other tourists from the bus. The yurd consisted of a frame of twines, which could easily be rapped up. Around it were layers of felt to keep the heath in, as it wasn’t warm at this altitude. Plates and other decorations where placed between the twines and the felt. The woman offered us some tea and some filthy kind of cheese, and introduced us to her mother. I didn’t noticed her in the beginning, as her ropes blended in with the wall decoration.
The yurd was extremely clean, which was unbelievable as the land was boggy, and the kids covered with mud. I tried to ask where the men were, but I didn’t succeed, she only kept nodding and offering more tea and filthy cheese. Then she offered a kind of cookie which looked an awful lot like a cookie which we in Holland call “mariaatje”. As a matter of fact, I’m sure it was a mariaatje.
After Urumqi I had to fly to Kashgar, in the south of China near the borders of Pakistan. Due to local uprise against the Chinese, no one was allowed to go by bus, but got assembled as a group which had to fly, and stay together. We even got our own “guide” which we were told not to leave.