Curtis, Laura, and I were lounging in our favorite campus cafe eating noodles one golden afternoon in early spring. “Hey Ann,” Curtis said thoughtfully, “you should go to Xinjiang for May holiday.”
My prayers for more minority groups to be represented in my classes were being answered. There was a trickle of Hui, Mongol, Kazak, Tibetan, and Uyghur students taking my courses. The Uyghur students told me stories about Xinjiang, their autonomous region in the rugged northwest. For some time my not-so-secret dream was to visit Xinjiang. It is isolated, vast, and scantly inhabited compared to the rest of China. It is also almost entirely Muslim.
The thought of it being possible made me dizzy. “Really?? You think we should go?”
“Well,” he replied, “I didn’t mean us, I meant you. I think you really want to go, and this might be your only chance. The train ride is easy; Urumqi, the capitol of Xinjiang, is only twenty-four hours from Lanzhou by train.”
The thought was tantalizing, I could spend a whole week in Xinjiang! But it would be no good going if my students were not going to be there; I would have no pretext for a visit and no one to show me around. After class I asked Raziya, one of my Uyghur students, if she had any plans for the holiday.
“Yep,” she said, “Big plans, lots of studying English.”
“Oh. So, you aren’t going home?”
She sighed “I don’t sink I can.”
“Oh. Because, you see, I was thinking, maybe, there is just a chance that I could come to Xingjiang too.”
She stared at me. “You come to Xinjiang?” she whispered.
“Well, I could, but I totally understand if this vacation isn’t a good time.”
“I will see!” she crowed, “I will see!”
When I saw her the next day she was glowing. “Professor Beerlind!” she cried, “I change my mind! I talk to my dad and he wants me come home for the wacation! I will leave tomorrow.”
I often thought the clause “there’s no time like the present” should be etched on my students’ hands. “Tomorrow, eh? I can’t leave until the vacation actually starts. In four days. But I could meet you in Urumqi then.”
I was thinking hard. If Raziya met me in Urumqi, then we could travel the remaining five hours to Karamay, her hometown, together by bus. That meant my only solo traveling would be the twenty-four hours by train, that and getting to the blasted Lanzhou central train station. I would, of course, have to get permission to travel from the Foreign Affairs Office. The Communist Government keeps close tabs on travelers to the far west.
I went to talk to Roy. If anyone could get me permission from the Foreign Affairs Office, it was he. He looked somber as I sat, hands clasped, explaining my plan.
“And you and your student will travel to Xinjiang together?” He asked.
“Well, no,” I said, switching to Chinese. Roy loved it when I spoke Chinese. “I will travel alone.”
“Yes. But my student will meet me there.”
“Ah. Well,” he said “You must talk to Mr. Li.” Mr. Li was our scary head waibon.
I grimaced. “Do I really have to, big brother?”
He smiled in spite of the sternness in his eyes, “Yes, little sister, you have to.”
I sat skittishly on Mr. Li’s leather sofa while he talked on the phone. Finally he glanced up at me.
“Hello Mr. Li, ” I said in English. It was no good using Chinese with Mr. Li; it did not soften him up at all. I explained my desire to go to Xinjiang. He did not smile.
“Yes. Well, you must get your student to write a letter guaranteeing your safety,” he said.
“But Mr. Li,” I protested, “my student is already in Xinjiang.”
“You mean, you will travel alone?”
“How is your Chinese?”
“Not good, sir”
“Hmm. You must have your student call me so I can explain some things to her. Students know nothing about taking care of foreigners.”
I grimaced at the thought of Raziye being lectured by the waibons in the Foreign Affairs Office. “Well,” I said, “she has already gone home…”
“Indeed?” His eyebrows arched. “If you go, you must be very careful.”
“I will be desperately careful,” I said. “I volunteer to guarantee my own safety.”
“Very well. But you must promise to be careful.” I was almost touched. “If something happens, it is bad for you. And,” his eyebrows lowered, “it is bad for me.”
Max, another foreign teacher who lived in Building 1, was headed to Beijing for May Holiday and offered to take me to the Lanzhou central train station with him. We set off early, eyeing each other’s luggage to see who was more Chinese. My students typically set off for a week-long vacation with a purse, or a plastic shopping bag. They never carried suitcases, never seemed to need their own tube of toothpaste or a change of clothes, and would have been ashamed of how much stuff I had crammed into my Jansport backpack. As we hurried towards the train station entrance, I noticed that there were considerably more people crowded around than I had seen there before. Considerably more. Max was dark-haired and wiry, like the Chinese, and he blended instantly into the crowd. I tried to follow him into the station, and found myself tightly packed into a dense mass of travelers trying to shove its way through the narrow doorways. Hundreds of people closed in around me, pinning my arms to my sides. The heaving sea lifted me off my feet, shoved me through the bottleneck at the front doors, and swept me into the vast, cavernous belly of the station. I tried to keep my head above water. Max’s dark head turned for a moment and he hollered above the roar, “Got your ticket? That’s your waiting area over there.” His hand appeared above the sea of human heads, pointing left. “Have a GREAT trip!!” He instantly dissolved into the thick black pool of people.
Less than an hour later I was safely on board the correct train. I was traveling “hard sleeper” in a compartment with six bunk beds and one small table. I had the lowest bunk, so, until evening, my bed would be a bench where other passengers would sit. I set my backpack close beside me and huddled in the corner—my corner; I had all but put up a flag. Around me my traveling companions, an elderly couple, two single men, and a single woman, were arranging their luggage and trying not to stare at me.
“She’s a foreigner,” said the older woman.
“Yep,” said the younger woman, “foreign.”
“Maybe American,” said the older man.
Two little boys passing through my compartment stopped. One of them grabbed the other’s shoulders and pulled him into a corner. “Look behind you,” he whispered. I smiled as the boy slowly swiveled around to peek at me. “Yes,” I said in Chinese, “I am American.”
“Oh!” said both the women. “She speaks Chinese!”
“Well, just a little,” I said. “I live in Lanzhou. I teach English.”
“Ah!” they cackled, and began chattering in rapid Chinese.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Could you speak a little slower?”
“Maybe she doesn’t speak Chinese,” said the younger woman.
”She said she spoke a little,” said the older man, defensively.
The two single men said nothing. The nothing lasted for six hours, as Lanzhou and then Gansu province flowed past my window. The two boys, with a third boy and his father, trooped in for English lessons at about eight p.m..
All night we rumbled across the Taklamakan Desert, through stretches of wasteland and small cities, and by the time the train reached Urumqi the following afternoon, only the single woman was left in my compartment. Raziye met me at the station.
Stepping off the train felt like stepping into another country. Billboards and shops still bore Chinese characters, but also sported Turkish-looking Uyghur script. Taxi drivers, venders, and pedestrians chattered in rapid Uyghur and responded only vaguely to my Chinese greeting. When I said “yachsmsis” instead, they glowed and welcomed me with kisses and streams of garbled speech. The men were wearing small square hats and the women were swathed in scarves. Urumqi echoes with the culture of her western neighbors—all the ‘stan’ countries on China’s western flank give Xinjiang its vibrant, middle-eastern flavor.
Raziye immediately informed me that we were going to stay in Urumqi for a few days with her uncle, and if I was not too tired, my presence at his birthday party was much desired. “His friends,” she warned me cheerfully, “will be eating and drinking and dancing most of the night.”
Following Islamic tradition, we kept our genders segregated. The women at the party were clustered in a room upstairs at the fancy restaurant, while the men gathered on an outdoor patio below. The women greeted me with kisses and promptly adopted me. Three of them battled for several minutes over whose guest I was, and then elected to give me a Uyghur name. After a lengthy discussion of what “Ann” meant, they voted for “Rana” which, in Uyghur, means “pure.” I decided not to mention what “rana” means in Spanish. Later they taught me to write my new name in flowing, right-to-left script.
The following days were filled with parties. Raziye blithely informed me, as she beaned me with a pillow the next morning, that the most important thing I would do in Xinjiang was eat, and that eating was usually done at riotous, spontaneous parties thrown by her uncles and aunts. Raziye began to refer to those aunts as my “mothers.”
Raziye had a nasty cold, and I awoke in the middle of my second night next to her with my head and throat on fire, covered in sweat. “What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“I think I’m sick” I croaked.
“Uh oh,” she grinned in the darkness, “Don’t let your mothers find out.” But I could sooner have counted the mosques than kept those women from knowing—or from filling me hourly with traditional brews designed to heal me quickly.
We spent three and half days in Urumqi, before hopping a bus for Karamay. My mothers all mourned my leaving, and for a while my uncles humored them by suggesting sarcastically that we ALL go to Karamay. Finally I boarded the bus for the five-hour journey northwest. I was more than two thousand kilometers from Lanzhou, and only a few hours from the Kazakhstan boarder.
I was expecting Karamay to be a small, rural city, poor and troubled, like the villages in Gansu. But as we drove out of the shadows of Tian Shan, the towering mountain range that slices Xinjiang from Mongolia and Russia, I began to notice oil wells. They were everywhere, speckling the otherwise bare landscape. When we rolled into Karamay I was stunned. It was a little bit like Scottsdale, a little bit like Dubai, and nothing at all like China. Desert wealth dripped from elegant houses surrounded by date palms. Wide streets bordered by manicured lawns were full of pedestrians, none of whom seemed in a hurry. Raziye’s father met us at the station and ushered us to their car. They were the first family I met in China who owned a car.
Raziya had a horde of young friends, all of whom wanted to meet and talk with me. For two days they showed me around their city, their schools, and their hangouts while we chatted in mingled Uyghur, Chinese, and English We sat in a restaurant one afternoon, sipping cold drinks and listening to the call to prayer echo from the many turrets around us. Alimjan, who was nineteen, nodded as he heard it.
“Miss Ann,” he said, “Why aren’t you a Muslim? After all, we Muslims have everything that you Christians have more. We also have the prophets and the pillers and the prayers…”
“That’s easy,” I said, “Jesus is the reason I am not a Muslim.”
“But we have Jesus!” he said. “Jesus is our prophet too; he is just not the greatest prophet.”
“Not according to Jesus,” I said. “Jesus said that if you have Him for only a prophet, you do not have Him at all.”
“That is what the Injeel says!” I said emphatically, “Matthew seven says that on judgment day many of the people who think they have Jesus will be sent to hell because they did not really know Him; they thought He was only a prophet.” Alimjan looked scornful, but one of the girls at the table looked thoughtful.
“The Bible says that?” she asked, timidly.
“Yes, you should read it for yourself to see. You will find, if you study, that all the world’s religions are similar, except the one Jesus began. It is fundamentally different, which is exactly what one would expect the true religion to be. Other religions have been invented by men, they are counterfeit.”
“I don’t think so,” said Alimjan, “I think all other religions are counterfeits to distract people from Islam.”
“But, Alimjan, In Buddhism, in Hinduism, in Islam, in modern Judaism, in animism, in all the world’s religions, men work their way to God. The works are different, but they are all work. EVERY religion in the world except one is based on the idea that men can go to heaven if they are good enough.”
“But what does the Bible say?” asked the girl.
“That whoever believes in Jesus will go to heaven.”
“Just by believing?” snorted Alimjan.
“Yep, just believing.” I gave a 30 second presentation of the gospel. “So you see,” I concluded, “Christianity isn’t a religion in the same way that other faiths are–other faiths are about people working their way toward God. Christianity is about God coming to people.”
“But I have to be good!” Alimjan was adamant, “If I am not good, believing in Jesus will not save me. If I am good enough, of course God will let me into heaven.”
“Do you believe that God is greater than us?” I asked.
“Of course!” he said, huffily,
“Do you believe that He is holier than us?”
“How much greater and holier?”
Alimjan looked imperious, “More than can be measured.”
“All right then, imagine that you are standing on the beach looking out across an ocean that cannot be measured. That ocean of greatness and holiness separates us from God. Now someone comes to tell you that if you train yourself to become a very good swimmer, you can swim across the ocean. How far do you think you will get before you drown?”
Alimjan said nothing.
“Don’t you see, anyone who tells you that you can get across the ocean by swimming is lying to you. You can try it, and you might get a bit farther than your friends, but in the end you will drown. There is only one way that you can cross that ocean. The Bible says that God loved the world and gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not sent His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. What the law of our good works could not do, God did by sending His Son to fulfill the law on our behalf.” I could feel the urgency in my voice, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.’ The only way you will ever cross that ocean is if God carries you across.”
Alimjan looked thoughtful. The girl was staring at me with intensity. “I have never heard of a God like this,” she said. “I only know a God who expects hard things and who does not help me be good.”
I reached across the table toward her. “He is reaching out to you.” I said simply.
She pulled her hand away from mine and glanced quickly around. Alimjan gave her a warning look and she quickly settled into silence. But the hungry look never left her eyes.
I stayed two days in Karamay before trekking back to Urumqi and then returning to Lanzhou. Raziye’s father insisted on filling my luggage with gifts: embroidered clothes, spangled hats, an engraved dagger, fruit, nuts, bread, and boiled eggs. “Kiddo,” He said in rough Chinese, “you must call us when you get home safely.”
I did. And I began to pray more fiercely for the many Uyghur and other minority students who were in Lanzhou. Far from their home cultures, studying in a secular university, they were more able, in cosmopolitan Lanzhou, to think about new things—and about Ancient Things—than they were when they were in their own homes. In their home towns, under the reproving gazes of their friends and families, they were just too scared to respond. But, like international students who study in western countries, when they are not chained to their earthly masters, the doors to their hearts creak open.