One of the unavoidable side effects of my profession is that I often know much more about the early history of its place than about its current state of affairs. As a result, I arrived in Jiayuguan knowing full well that it was the site of a fifteenth-century fort that marked the western end of the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty, but not that its current raison d’etre was a gigantic steel plant. The tourist map of the place reveals a spiderweb of branching rail lines, and the signs at the fort encourage you to climb the gate towers in order to enjoy “the grand and impressive view of the gobi stretching out to the west, the Great Wall and the No. 1 and No. 2 blast furnaces.”
Jiayuguan is a small, dusty city with the sleepy uniformity of a company town. Most of the streets I walked down were half-empty, shopkeepers drowsing in chairs on the sidewalk. There was a really peculiar (for China) dearth of restaurants, and I ended up eating most of my meals in the Dongxiang-style Muslim cafeteria opposite the hotel. (It was hardcore - with a giant digital clock displaying a view of Mecca, and a big sign on the wall saying “ALCOHOL FORBIDDEN” - but the food was tasty and cheap. It was served after the fashion of the old state-run restaurants (pay at the front, get a ticket to take to the back and exchange for your food), complete with the charming tradition of a tea-bowl full of “soup” (warm starchy noodle water) served with all the sauteed noodle dishes. It sounds odd, but it’s actually a great palate-cleanser after spicy or oily dishes, and a very common practice at home in northern China.
This restaurant was indirectly responsible for the first of a couple of interesting interactions I’ve had with Chinese Muslims recently, here in Gansu where they are both more numerous and more visible than in eastern China. In the east, many Muslims are Hui, who don’t necessarily look different from Han Chinese, by contrast with ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks and so on, who are more numerous out here and who may look more or less Central Asian, sometimes to the point of light-colored eyes and hair. It is this that may be responsible for the number of people in Gansu who have some initial trouble deciding whether I’m really a foreigner after all - something that doesn’t happen very often in eastern China. I’m glad of the predominance of Muslims here, because it usually means a wider range of pork-free restaurants; continually asking the server “Does this have pork in it?” is kind of a drag.
At any rate, when I first went to the door of the restaurant across the street I saw that it was full of men - no women at all - which made me wonder whether it was the kind of place a woman eating alone would be welcome. Muslim women in China are hardly invisible, so it seemed odd to me that there were none eating inside, and I thought this might indicate a rough place (especially as it was very close to the bus station, which tends to be a rough neighborhood in any Chinese city). I asked one of the hotel’s desk attendants whether there were any other halal restaurants nearby, and explained my impressions of the Dongxiang place. She asked with surprise if I were Muslim. I explained that I was Jewish, and didn’t eat pork, and talked about how glad I was to be able to eat at halal restaurants when traveling so far from home, especially since it is so difficult to avoid pork in ordinary Chinese places. She said she was a Muslim herself, and seemed oddly touched by this culinary point of connection; apparently she’d lived in Shanghai for a few years, and described the eating there as “totally impossible.” She assured me that it must have been just chance that I saw only men in the restaurant when I visited, and encouraged me to go back. She was right; when I went back there were several groups of women and children and one large and slightly raucous family displaying several generations’ worth of changing fashions in women’s head coverings (which is another essay in itself: between the scarves, hoods, hats, and snoods, I’ve seen pretty much every possible variation in only a few days).
I had come to Jiayuguan to see a fourth-century painted tomb outside of town and some related materials in the town museum. On arrival, I bought a tourist map with the bus routes (all four of them) marked on it, and realized that the reverse was a map of the town of Jiuquan, which is 25 km away and easily accessible by bus. Jiuquan was the site where the Han general Huo Qubing celebrated his victory over the western regions by (it is said) pouring his best wine into a spring so everyone could have some; hence the name of the city, which means “Wine Spring.” As usual, I had forgotten the modern significance of the place, which is as the launch site for the Chinese space program. An item on the map suggested that the Dingjiazha painted tomb, another example which is relevant to my research, but which I had thought was not open to visitors, had actually been made the center of a little historical park on the edge of town. I couldn’t find any contact information for the park and museum, but given that I had an extra day in Jiayuguan (I had only one day’s worth of things to do there but couldn’t get a train ticket any earlier than two days out) there was little to be lost in catching the bus to Jiuquan and giving it a shot.
On the bus, my seatmate was a twentysomething young guy with a stylish haircut and hip (by local standards) clothing, carrying a briefcase. He spoke a clearer than usual Mandarin (the Gansu accent can be pretty thick, though I’ve gotten reasonably good at understanding it) and we struck up a conversation. He was fascinated at talking to a foreigner - the first time he’d ever done so, according to him - and with the story of my interest in China. In the course of talking, I discovered that he was a member of the Dongxiang minority, a very small group of Muslims speaking a Mongolic language, centered in an eponymous county in southern Gansu. Many Dongxiang speak Mandarin as a second language, which I think explained his clear standard accent in a province with its own heavy dialect.
When the bus arrived in Jiuquan, he asked if he could take me out for some noodles and continue the conversation. We talked more about our lives - it turned out that he came from an impoverished and broken home (“My mother’s in prison, and my father - well, I’ve never seen him”) and had worked his way through a vocational school program in travel guiding. Unsatisfied with the work, he found a job with a cosmetics company in distribution, and had worked his way up to Gansu provincial sales manager, a job which led him to travel all over the province working with retail outlets. He showed me a picture of his (Han) girlfriend, whom he hoped to marry one day. It was an ordinary enough story of modest success in the face of disadvantage, but it was interesting because the Dongxiang are widely cited as a “problem” minority, having the lowest levels of education and highest levels of poverty of any of China’s minorities. The region where they live also has a reputation for illegal drug use. As I’ve traveled across Gansu, I’ve seen many more anti-drug PSAs (as well as public information campaigns against AIDS and hepatitis) than anywhere else in China. Of course I didn’t bring these things up; but the story he told seemed like even more of a success story set against the background of the region and the people from which he’d come.
At the noodle restaurant, I explained about being Jewish and not eating pork. He was immediately interested, saying that he’d never met a Jew before either (which is likely true of most Chinese). “I hear Jews are very smart,” he said, and I politely demurred while also refraining from rolling my eyes - this is the single most common stereotype of Jews in China. He asked where the Jews came from originally. “I never heard their story before,” he said. Fortunately, this was easy enough, as long as one was willing to go with the Biblical story and leave archaeology and whatnot out of it. “I think you have heard the story, actually,” I said, and from there it was just a matter of trying to remember the Arabic for Abraham (for the record, it’s Ibrahim, though it took me a while - I had to backtrack through Moses/Musa, Joseph/Yusuf, and Noah). As I suspected, these were all familiar stories to him, and in the middle of a halal restaurant in an old military outpost of the Hexi corridor, we pieced together a Chinese account of the Exodus and the Babylonian captivity, with a brief coda on the diaspora and the Holocaust.
After this, the Dingjiazha tomb was something of an anticlimax; in fact, it was a complete bust. My new friend helped me talk a Jiuquan taxi driver into taking me to the tomb, which is located behind a gigantic and shiny new museum on the outskirts of town; but the parking lot was eerily empty and dust devils blew among the weedy margins. Next door was a huge unfinished complex built in a pseudo-antique style, part of what seemed to be a planned culture park of some sort. Whoever the visitors to such a place were supposed to be, they evidently hadn’t started turning up yet; the massive museum is closed on weekends. By walking around the museum building I managed to find someone to tell me it was closed; but as a tourist attraction it would have to be classified as “still under development” at best. I went back to Jiayuguan no better informed about Wei-Jin tomb painting than before; but as an example of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I have to say the day was anything but a loss.