In July 2010 I arrived in Beijing from the Middle East as part of a wider round the world trip of independent travelling. I started my trip in Istanbul and then worked down through Syria and Jordon. I love to travel and as part of my trip wanted to find out more about Islam and how Muslims in other parts of the world live their lives. My intentions in embarking on this 1 year journey were simply to strengthen my faith and in doing this contemplate this world and previous worlds.
I found it easy in Syria and Jordon to pursue my intentions, Islam was everywhere, people seemed to live and breathe it, I loved the inspirational mosques and the beautiful use of Arabic in which everything evolved around Allah. When I flew to Beijing from Amman in Jordon I knew it would be a complete change in culture. What I perhaps had no comprehension of was how difficult it was going to be to access geographically and verbally Muslims in China. I gradually realised that in terms of Islam in China I would simply be touching the tip of the iceberg and reluctantly had to accept that at this point in my trip this was all I could do. I travelled down to Shanghai and made my way south into China seeing some beautiful places, but the language barrier meant that I could only scrape the surface.
My next leg of my journey took me to Singapore, here I found out there was a planned Qurban tour of muslim areas in Yunnan Province in November to be run by sister Mariah. I knew straight away I had to join, Yunnan was a place I yearned to go to, it was after all, the place where Islam first came into China. I travelled through South East Asia for two months and then returned to Singapore for the tour.
As part of the tour then we arrived in Kunming the 'spring city', on the day before Eid. It was to be one of my best Eid experiences, not that I knew that at the time. On Eid we made our way from Kunming arriving for Eid prayers at Dabaiya muslim village. As we arrived the whole village was out on the roadside waiting to greet us in the way our Prophet (saw) was greeted in Medina. It was very humbling and touching, I started to feel the strong presence and spirituality of Islam in China. The mosque had a huge courtyard and we women sat in it, as the men prayed their Eid prayer in the mosque. So packed was the mosque that people stretched far out into the courtyard. As the prayer ended they all greeted each other, caught in each others duas. I realise, finally I am starting to see the Islam in China which I had so yearned to see. Children ran around in their Eid clothes, excited and exhilarated, clearly happy to have us as their guests. They had prepared a huge feast for us and all they were concerned about was servitude. We spilled down through the village to the river area crossing fields of crops to where the quarbani was taking place, you really felt a part of it. I had to think twice, almost feeling like I am back in some kind of Arab country, finally I am able to see the wise Chinese Muslim faces I had envisaged.
The tour took us to some amazing places, meeting many locals en route who have devoted their lives to improving living conditions for their communities. Next we go to the stone forest, crossing gradually across Yunnan, through ethnic villages of minority group. China has 10 Muslim nationalities, totalling more than 30 million. These nationalities have their own written and spoken languages as well as cultures and traditions, so the minority villages start to give some insight into the vast scale and context of this vast country and the role which Muslims play in it.
Dali is our next stop set against its backdrop of Cangshan mountain. The hotel we stayed in is traditional crafted with an intricate set courtyard in the middle. It was my first experience of stunning snow scenery in China, and just when you thought it couldnt get any more beautiful it did. We travelled deeper into Yunnan province to Lijiang, an ancient town dating to the Ming dynasty, with a nice informal feel to it. In the evening we just sat out having coffee taking in the landscape of the awe inspiring Jade mountain backdrop. My favourite bit of the whole trip was the next leg through Tiger leaping Gorge and Shangri La. We split into 2 groups to make it easier to venture through this mountainous region on the winding roads approaching the Haba mountain region. The terrain one of deep canyons with altitude gradually ascending. Tiger leaping gorge was stunning, and as the sun went down so did the temperature, the air felt pure and the landscape magical.
As we approach Shangri La, the terrain becomes gradually more Tibetan with all signs now in Mandarin and Tibetan, and Tibetan architectural styles starting to creep in. For me what has made the whole experience special is the whole local interface, we were able to experience first hand the lives, the issues, the context of muslins in China, the local guides are people who live and breathe their culture. With sister Mariah guiding the experience it felt like we had indeed had a true glimpse into the lives of real Muslims living their lives in China, not some tourist perspective but a real perspective.