Monday, September 22, 2014

Muslim highs, Dumpling as friends and a few travel lows

Pulling taffy
Would that I, could that I, should I find the words to express another experience that has burst the milky way in my soul. It was a fine, gentle and encouraging encounter at the Great Mosque in Xi'an with Mr. Ma (for Muhammed) the son of the Iman, leader of the Xi'an Muslim community. Located in the "old city" which finally gave me a chance to wander through the lively markets of Xi'an,

Looks good to me
I was able to take photos of local merchants twisting and pulling taffy (stretching into the streets,) bartering for homemade yogurt, preparing noodles for "yang rou pao mo" (with lamb), or frying bread to drink with pomegranate juice (pomegranates are abundant now, as are watermelon, fat dates, walnuts and grapes.) Others hammered dough on wooden blocks with gigantic wooden hammer resembling those used in the state fairs for men to prove how hard they can hit the bell to win a prize.

Hat test
Soon we eased off the bustle, walking down an alley that suggested peace as I could hear the Muslim call to 5 o clock prayer, and entered a courtyard, after stepping over the ghost blockade and passing under the huge pagoda-like archway. Dressed in the Muslim cap and just normal clothes (plaid shirt and khakis), Mr. Ma, Chinese, overflowed with friendliness and welcome and took us into a dark reception area where he said, the Empress Dowager Cixi had sat and other heads of states.

At Mosque with Iman's son
The furniture was typical of Chinese design, and hard. I wore a shawl around my head out of respect for him since I was guest in his mosque. He explained that since his father the Iman was now elderly and not able to perform many duties, he was in charge of the mosque and services. The powers of the Iman are usually inherited so Mr. Ma is also preparing for that day. He told us his own story and also how proud he was because it was the time of the annual Pilgrimage to Mecca and he had loaded on a plane 250 of his Muslim community.

Koran carved in wooden wall
We talked about the world of teenagers today and how family has been disrupted, causing endless problems. Young girls shy away from the whole idea of scarving their heads and covering their bodies, over-influenced by modern media. But we get what we beget and hopefully there will be changes for the good. I expressed my hope that one day we can all agree to be whom we are and have a grand peace around the world. He awaits that day too. He was super encouraging and also interested in sharing the history of his Mosque. So we took a tour as Friday service ended, and foreign tourist, always following a guide with a flag, began to touch steps to enter.

Sitting where royalty sat
We were given the rare opportunity to go into the prayer space, a large room with carpets and mats on the floor, and on wooden walls of the room the entire Koran had been carved both in Arabic and Chinese, a project his father the Iman had completed. I tread softly, aware that I was in a holy place where women don't frequent - women still have their own area beside the men's worship area and women lead women as men lead men - and felt a great surge of hope in my heart by being there with Mr. Ma's taking time to share his faith with us.

In holy quarters
We went into his father's office which was lined with photographs of the Iman with leaders from all over the world, including my own Archbishop of Canterbury. I think when he saw I was part of the Anglican Communion, he understood better my role as deacon and servant of God. We were there about an hour and strolled through the enormous grounds, section by section. It was a tremendous spiritual boost for me, and I thank God for that.

The mosque patios
I've become a dumpling fan, since it is about all I trust to eat, that and vegetables when not liven up to spicy. A pilgrimage was made to De Fa Chang, the most popular and always jammed packed dumpling restaurant famed for offering over 100 dumpling fillings. The windows opened onto the city of Xi'an, where buildings lit up and long long strings of mini-kites in a row flew into the clouds (we were told not to buy because only the sellers know how to get the kites to rise so high), and remote helicopters, and general after work relaxation took place below. (Most restaurants are on 2nd or above floors.) Another favorite is "rice balls" which are made with rice flour and have the texture of mochi, a favorite Japanese sweet. Sweets are not on normal menus, only those beefed up for tourist.

Xi'an at dusk
We had an extraordinary guide in Xi'an who never let us be disappointed. Ping was her name and we built up a friendship. But part of travel is moving on, and we left early the next day for Chengdu, home of another Bucket List hope. Chengdu is a huge (14 million) commercial city (Huge is a tag line for most cities and sites in China as if large is better) where foreign investment is pouring in like a released dam. Huge also equals major traffic jams, and upon arrival, our day was spent mostly in the car getting from one place to the hotel. It was not pleasant.

On dumplings I survive
Our destination, after a brief lunch in a typical restaurant near the airport which was more concerned with a wedding feast than two for lunch (actually our very young guide here served us for the servers, who were too busy elsewhere).

Fermenting the hot sauce paste
Then because of the condition that we were a couple hours late arriving, we were not going to make the day's schedule, so we chose to go to the Sichuan Cooking Museum. Strange place with lots of ancient relics from cooking of old, and an extensive collection of ancient Chinese cookbooks, and bowls and spoons, and things like that. A bit of a downer. It was spread out over a few patios. Then we were taken to see where the famous hot sauce from this area is made and fermented. It is stored in tall ceramic urns outside waiting for the sauce to get the right texture and taste. The teacher opened various urns to let us see and smell. And of course hoping we would invest in a bottle or two, which Jim my guide, did. Then we set out on a two hour drive to the hotel (not that far, just that much traffic at that time of day.)

Ewe - it's hot stuff
Our destination was the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is in one of the many 36-38 floor buildings which are bunched together in sixes all over the large city. This hotel faces the soccer stadium in old downtown. The reception area was on the 25 floor, therefore rooms were from 26- 40 (penthouse). Too high for my comfort and after a meal in the Chinese restaurant, and I laid down in bed, things shook, and all I could think of was the terrible earthquake in Sichuan a few years ago, not far from Chengdu. I'm a first floor kinda person.

All is huge
 I feel China is too big for its britches, humbly so. Admirably, they have come so far, so fast, become leader in the contemporary world, but they haven't caught up. They provide the fanciest of hotels - TVs hidden in mirrors in the bathrooms (so you can watch from a bathtub that is not conducive to relaxing); toilet tops lift up when you walk in and practically talk to you while you are sitting on them, then automatically flush in a timely manner.

Welcome tea presentation

But worse is the automatic light thing. Walk into the room, all the lights turn on. Problem is, getting them off. I spent the nights in Xi'an trying to turn off the lights and disappear from the sensor so they'd stay off. Got so bad, I had to ask them to turn off the sensors. There are LOTS of lights. And the hotel staff, though they watch every move you make so they can leap at you when you exit an elevator or a room and offer help, they don't solve problems well, if they are outside the routine. Lots of girl "bell boys" and door holders. Many have trained in language and courtesy. But it doesn't always work, in fact, rarely does. Oh, and the latest in flower designs (you know how hotels have giant flower arrangements to impress) is a about 2 dozen orchids on stems bunched together like a loose bouquet, and laying across a round clear vase so it looks as if they are going to fall out. Not appealing, although the orchids are lovely.

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