It’s Ramadan. And in Muslim lands ruled by China, where the government and laws are still selectively inspired by Marxism, that means plenty of social contradictions. Government employees are forbidden from fasting. Empty restaurants are required by law to stay open all day. Mosques have additional surveillance personnel posted in them, and only persons with local household registrations are allowed to enter them. And Ramadan in mid-summer in Xinjiang must be especially demanding, with each day’s unrelenting heat baking the dusty streets right up until the 10PM sunsets. And yet Han Chinese walk into local food joints just when the fast is being broken, then complain loudly about slow service. Salam alakum.
Yet life goes on in this Chinese corner of Central Asia. In Yarkand, the most predominantly Uigher town we’ve been to yet, we were somewhat surprised to still see so much mid-day activity. Markets and shop-lined alleys hummed (and honked and beep-beeped) with dusty commotion from morning to evening. The Sunday market, a streetside spectacle of everything sellable under the (very intense) sun, spilled out of town, stretching at least two kilometers down the road. And amidst all the jostling and shouting and heavy carrying, and the buying and selling of all manner of foods, not a drop was drank nor a bite taken.
Except by Owen. Arriving in Xinjiang has unlocked a ravenous appetite the likes of which we’ve never seen. Real bread, grilled lamb, fresh yoghurt, sweet melons, sticky dates–all things our one-year-old never knew he was missing in his life until now. And now, when we walk or ride down a street, he intently watches the roadside, then points and shouts at every pile of melons he sees for sale. At some point, it’s going to be hard going back to steamed white rice and overcooked vegetables.
But for now, the bigger challenge is finding balanced meals for him, beyond the streetside selection of lamb-filled breads and Hami melons (okay, sure, what are we really complaining about). In Khotan and Yarkand, all the restaurants were “open,” as required, but few were actually serving food. In Khotan, we found a couple Chinese restaurants, as well as, strangely, an always-open Muslim Fried Chicken (MFC) franchise, advertising milkshakes and ‘Dubai-style’ pizzas. In Yarkand, however, it was all Uigher, and it was all closed.
So it was actually fortunate for us that government employees, in following the Communist Party’s dictates to “reject superstition” and “support scientific development,” have to (literally, have to) eat. Outside the main government building in Yarkand, there it was: the only operating restaurant. And at Beijing lunch and dinner time, we were there, watching the odd civil servant come and go and filling the family’s biggest little belly.