Faces of the Muslim quarter

 

Xian is mostly known as a stop of on the way to the terracotta soldiers, but my favourite part of the city was the muslim quarter.

Islam came to China from traders down the Silk Road. Arabian and Persian traders sometimes settled in China, taking their religion with them. Of the several Muslim minority groups in China, it’s the hui who live in shaanxi (the province you’ll find xian in). They are ethnically Han Chinese who speak mandarin and are culturally very similar to Han Chinese, however they are also practicing Muslims.

The Muslims quarter is a couple of winding streets behind the city’s drum tower. Its an odd, but logical mix of Islamic and Chinese culture. You’ll find noodles but without the pork, drum towers meters away from a mosque and women in hijabs selling you chopsticks. The middle of the streets house the grand mosque, which looks a little out of place because unlike the rest of the city (which is aligned according to feng shui) it’s facing Mecca in the west. It’s also a mosque like nothing I ever seen before, with a pagoda for a minaret and the main prayer building inside a hutong (traditional Chinese style building) shaped hall.

Unlike much of China (which looks like the apocalypse has happened anytime after 10 at night) it continues to be bustling at night. The overall effect of the place is that it’s very photogenic, although the street food was also a big draw…

Border Village

Shi Wei is a small village in the North of Inner Mongolia on the border with Russia, surrounded by grasslands, Mongolian horses and forest (totally satisfying my Mongolia stereotypes). At the end of the village is a long fence marking the Russian border and another village on the other side of the fence, no more than 10 km away from where you’re standing.

The locals in the village are an odd mixture of Russian and Chinese; blue eyes and black hair were all equally common. We stayed in the home of a local family who had turned their house into a home-stay. The husband explained that his wife was half Russian and half Chinese, that’s why she had such ‘beautiful blue eyes’. Most of the people we met tried to speak Russian to us at first, because anyone white was, obviously, Russian… Sadly my Russian is limited to ‘da’. Any street signs were in Chinese, Russian and Mongolian (also sometimes in questionable English) and breakfast was either Russian bread or Chinese dumplings.

This border village was in many ways similar to any border village; a mid point between two cultures.These villages have more in common with each other than they do with their capital city. Places like this are a reminder that borders and nations are not discreet walls where one language, people and culture end and another abruptly begins. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know the difference between the two villages, apart from the arbitrary fence placed between them indicating they’re bureaucratically controlled by one central government rather than another.

Trade City

It’s very hard to explain what Tianjin is like, especially because using phrases like ‘a bewildering mix of new and old’ sounds like a line from a very cringey guidebook or a stuck-up gap year kid’s blog…

Saturday, I went on a 3 mile walk from where I live, along the river, up to the central train station. On the walk we walked past the main food market, the basic design and energy of which probably hasn’t changed for centuries, given this port city’s long history of trade. Next we walked past the former colonial concession areas, given to European countries after the second opium war, complete with embassies and churches. The war forcefully opened China up to foreign trade in 1860. The last European concession was abolished the same year communist revolution took place (1949). Although home grown, it used ideas imported from a German philosopher. Memories of this revolution stood in the middle of the colonial area in the form of a civil war memorial. Finally, the 21st century, with China’s mass trade with the rest of the world and the growth of Tianjin to the 4th biggest city in China was echoed in the final leg of the walk, nearing the centre of town, covered in sparkly skyscrapers.

Tianjin Foreign languages School

This is me. Tianjin Foreign Languages School. I teach about 350 of the 2000 students. The 13-14 year olds (hooray for puberty!).

The students are definitely much harder workers than in the UK, with a starting time of 7:30 am (yes, that means I start then too) and a finishing time of about 7 pm in the senior school. They also stop and bow every time they see a teacher in the corridor and say ‘Nihau Lau shi’, or ‘Hello teacher’, when it’s me. The chopsticks in the cafeteria are a bit of a novelty, and so is the pleasant orchestral theme that’s played instead of an obnoxiously loud bell at the start of every lesson. Finally, the mass synchronised exercises the students do (still working on getting a photo of this) during the breaks are very different from the games of ‘it’ that I’m used to.

Other than that, it looks, feels and sounds probably exactly like every other secondary school on the planet. The boys still refuse to sit next to the girls. Loud students still groan when you move them to sit apart from their friends. And the word homework is still met with a groan.

Smog

Every time I walk into town I walk over this bridge. Most days it looks like the first, but the odd day after a rain-storm you can actually see as far as the ‘Tianjin Eye’ from where I am (the circular thing in the middle of the photo, which is indeed a knock-off the London eye).

Smog isn’t just a problem in Beijing, which gets most of the media attention. 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China and only 1% of the country’s city dwellers consistently breathe air considered safe by the EU.

The air pollution is caused by a combination of: an over-reliance on coal, heavy industry in cities, vehicle emissions and sand storms from inner Mongolia. Coal, the main culprit, is the world’s cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel. For China, it is also the most abundantly available locally, so obviously preferable to reliance on Russian or the Middle Eastern gas or oil.

Recent legislation has attempted to curb pollution. It is now compulsory to install desulphurising facilities at power plants, and there is some control of the amount of cars on the roads. However, from what I have seen and read, China is still a country where growth is the main priority, and definitely not the reduction of pollution.

If anyone fancies keeping up with the state of my, and everyone else in this city’s lungs this year, keep an eye on: http://aqicn.org/city/tianjin/.