Friday, September 10, 2004

From Ulaan Baatar I blew into Beijing. I called my friend Rahila, who I had met several years earlier in Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province of Western China and who now works at an embassy in Beijing, and made arrangements to meet for dinner. She suggested a Uighur restaurant near the San Li Tun embassy district in northeast Beijing. Uighurs are a minority group within China, but there are more than 10 million of them in Xinjiang province. Rahila herself is a Uighur. They speak a form of Turkish (my friend Sevgi, from Istanbul, who has traveled in Xinjiang, said she had no trouble understanding the people there) and many, like Rahila, also speak Chinese. The restaurant, just across the street from the future site of the new American embassy in Beijing (construction has just started), is very nice with tables of thick varnished planks and Uighur carpets on the walls. The waitresses are Chinese, but they wear Uighurs costumes of altas silk blouses and embroidered caps. Rahila says that although the place is owned by Uighurs, young Uighur women do not like to work as waitresses. The food has been adapted to Chinese tastes; the lagmen, a favorite Uighur noodle dish, is highly spiced with red peppers, an addition not usually found in Xinjiang itself. Also the vegetable dish we ordered was very highly seasoned, too much for Rahila's tastes. We also had shish kabobs and noodle soup. Rahila ordered the soup for herself and got a huge serving bowl with enough soup for six or eight people, a common occurrence in Beijing. Rahila is a Moslem and never drinks alcohol, so we had sweet Chinese yogurt with our meal – it’s drinkable, just a little thicker than regular milk, and goes great with the hot food – and milk tea after dinner while we watched the floor show. This consisted of Uighur musicians on guitars and other spring instruments and a variety of dancers, including some eye-popping Uighur belly dancers. Of course anyone with a belly can belly dance but not everyone can belly dance with a stack of six tea saucers balanced on their heads, like some of the Uighur dancers.