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      Encountering the unexpected throughout China's northwest

      By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-24 09:58
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      The camel spit on me. Repeatedly. Like a sprinkler. Then, I drank her milk. My hosts, who'd massaged her udders, later advised me to avoid eating watermelon, since the combination of the fruit and milk would supposedly upset my stomach. News to me. But…sure.

      I'd figured our group of travelers would likely end up riding one of these beasts of burden, as is common for many visitors to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which I'd previously visited twice. We didn't. But our experiences were far less predictable.

      We were dropping in on some villagers who raised the ungulates when the creature spouted saliva at me repetitively from growing distances as I retreated from its pen.

      Indeed, it was one of many unforeseen moments during a two-week journey through Xinjiang's Kashgar and Kucha.

      I'd anticipated experiencing traditional bazaars, folk dances and desert scenery. And I did.

      I also visited Buddhist ruins, fruit orchards and forests of millennia-old poplars that stretched toward the sky like giant wooden skeletal hands. Enjoyable-yet expectable.

      But I didn't presume we'd encounter people burying themselves up to their necks in the sand along the roadside to relieve joint pain; a small stage with a microphone crammed in the mouth of a ram's skull in a coffee shop that serves java brewed with traditional Uygur medicine; or stilt walkers and magicians at a re-enactment of old wedding rituals-and much, much more.

      Comparably haphazard was a rural tourism retreat where an isolated, marshy field framed by a river and a tributary beneath a desert mountain range hosted a giant fake piano, a real abandoned helicopter and a VW bus.

      Again, we'd expected to watch and even be invited to join traditional dances.

      But we didn't imagine we'd also teach dancing villagers such iconic Western pop dances as the disco song Y.M.C.A. by the Village People, Time Warp from the musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Spanish dance Macarena by Los del Rio.

      The harmonious mood continued after we'd left. Our group crooned karaoke on the bus as we rode through the desert, appreciating the vibrant rainbow that bowed into the sallow mountaintops outside.

      But perhaps the most delectable surprises came from the food.

      I'd foreseen plenty of hefty mutton skewers, manhole cover-sized naan (flatbread) and cauldrons of dapanji (chicken stew).

      But I didn't envision such dishes as ostrich, emu and goose eggs mixed with honey, saffron and dates; zongzi (rice dumplings wrapped in reeds) filled with yogurt and honey; or chocolate naan. That's not to mention such beverages as "milk beer".

      Perhaps one of the most fascinating gastronomic experiences occurred when we stopped at an artists' village in a graveyard of giant poplars.

      A family was slapping doughy discs on coals strewn across a dusty pit and then scraping soil over the naan to cook.

      The 50-year-old father, who was the third generation inheritor of this tradition, explained local herders and farmers developed this baking technique since it was convenient when toiling in pastures or croplands.

      Amazingly, the dirt blasted off the bread with several whacks of a towel and was the crispiest and most aromatic flatbread I've ever tasted. None of the crunch came from sand.

      But of all the sensorial delights of Xinjiang, I was most moved by the music.

      The region's Silk Road legacy continues to resound through the ages. That is, since the cultures that traversed the trade route brought not only goods but also melodies with them.

      Xinjiang's musical ecosystem hosts a terrifically diverse taxonomy of styles and instruments that came to the region via human migrations and evolved in their new environments. And this history continues to compose contemporary culture.

      I was happy to bring a dutar home. The Uygur-Uzbek instrument's name translates as two strings. Most Uygur families keep one of these lutes, which are ornately inlaid with the black horns and white bones, in their houses for at least display if not performances.

      I improvise Western indie rock with it, rather than traditional Xinjiang tunes.

      But my playing it as an American in Beijing seems like a continuation of the custom of cultural and musical exchanges that began on the ancient Silk Road and endures today, as this legacy continues to resonate through time and space.

      And, sometimes, as I strum, I think of the camel that spit on me and laugh.

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