We get a very warm welcome at a mosque in Kunming

Strawberry seller in Kunming

Strawberry seller in Kunming

By Jean and Peter Richards

Chance encounters can turn travel into an extraordinary experience.

In Kunming, we went to see a mosque and ended up having supper with hundreds of Muslims.

As two funny looking old people wandering around China, we often draw stares.

It is not unusual for people to approach, point to my thick, long white plait, give a thumbs up and indicate politely that they want to touch this political symbol of their youth. It is common for Peter to be watched with some fascination as he eats not only with chopsticks but with them in his left hand.

In our eighth decades we are a curiosity, not so much because we are Westerners, but because we look as old as we are and we’re out on our own.

Young people regularly offer their seats on public transport; old people proffer a comradely smile and people of all ages draw on whatever English they know to find out where we come from, where we are going or how they can help.

Beyond a few words, we’re useless in Mandarin or Cantonese, but our ignorance had not previously impeded our touring. We had always found someone in a hotel who could give directions to us or find a driver. Such help proved elusive in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Southwestern China, so we set out to see what we could on foot.

Kids having a grand time in the bumper boats

Kids having a grand time in the bumper boats

It was a pre-Christmas Saturday. Thousands were gathered in the pedestrian areas near the Kunming Department Store at Dongfeng West Road. Market stalls lined the plazas and broad thoroughfares. Children frolicked on bumper boats in a shallow pool. Shoeshiners hawked their services. Street performers attracted appreciative audiences. Vendors roamed offering beautifully arranged strawberries and mangosteens in baskets hanging from the yokes on their shoulders. Dumplings steamed and sizzled at snack bars. A cadre of sweepers thrust rush brooms to the pavement at the flick of an ash or flutter of paper. Carols with a Chinese riff blared from loudspeakers.

Street snacks — a difficult choice

Street snacks — a difficult choice

Wonderful aromas lured us down Zhen Yi Lu toward the Muslim quarter. A small crowd clustered around a woman with a smile as big as her wok.

She dipped her ladle into a white batter mixture in a pot, smoothed it out, scooped up a light yellow mixture which looked like shredded potatoes with dill, then added more of the first mixture, brought it to the batter, spread it with the bottom of a second ladle and dipped the first ladle into the hot oil to make a bird’s nest.

Making bird's next shaped pancakes – delicious!

Making bird’s next shaped pancakes – delicious!

When it was golden, she sprinkled a micro thin layer of powdery pepper on top. Three customers were ahead of us. In typical Chinese fashion, one graciously insisted we take the nest prepared for her and she would wait for the one that we ordered. Then they all watched as we took our first bites.

It was fabulous – a three yuan (48¢) snack for the ages – crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside and perfectly spiced. We were still savoring it as we turned into an alley leading to the Nancheng Mosque, a recent green domed construction on an ancient Muslim site.

At the far wall of the courtyard, women dressed in red and blue embroidered garments squatted on the ground under a fluttering red canopy washing dishes and conversing animatedly. White-shirted young men scurried about with trays.

As I covered my head with a scarf, people nodded or said, “Ni Hao.”

An elegantly dressed man approached, motioned for us to follow him, led us to an elevator and held up four fingers to indicate the floor. We thought he was taking us to see the huge mosque from a gallery.

The doors opened on a room where hundreds of people were cheerfully chatting and eating. Young men now carried trays laden with bowls of food. Our escort motioned to us to sit and eat. We declined at first not wanting to intrude, but he persisted and we agreed.

He sat us at a cleared and plastic covered table where six other people were waiting. They welcomed us with smiles. Soon a bespectacled young man joined us as the designated English speaker, but his skill was in math. The diners wanted to know if we were Muslim and where we came from. We shook our heads to indicate no to the first question and found the second more difficult. Peter pulled out his Mandarin dictionary and showed them the words for United States. A buzz of surprise went around the table accompanied by smiles and welcoming murmurs.

Bowls were placed in front of each person. Chopsticks were brought. Concern crossed    some faces. Whispers ensued. We picked up the chopsticks. Relief was expressed. We didn’t need western utensils.

Friendly women made sure everyone got enough food

Friendly women made sure everyone got enough food

A big stainless steaming steel bowl was set down — fragrant lamb broth with which to begin the meal. Rice and an array of bowls followed: beautiful fresh peas, creamy white tofu in mild chili, bits of beautifully seasoned beef, nuggets of chicken and lamb, seasoned noodles, beans, pickled shredded daikon, shredded bamboo shoots, sliced lotus and large wood ears.

A woman who could only be described as the quintessential grandmother presided over our table, encouraging everyone to eat and ladling more food into their bowls. Everyone watched our reaction. We loved it all.

Nine people communicating with facial expression and pantomime shared a table and a splendid meal. It was wonderful; a communal supper into which hundreds kept streaming, including half a dozen policemen who probably were invited from the local station.

A wonderful communal meal was enjoyed by all

A wonderful communal meal was enjoyed by all

Everyone waited for us to finish before rising to leave and warmly bid farewell. Many of the women who provided the supper came over to clasp our hands as we thanked them with as much grace as we could.

We’ve often been made welcome in China but never more so than on that pre-Christmas evening at the Nancheng Mosque in Kunming.

Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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