“Come here”, the cook said, beckoning Chinese-style – her palm facing down and fingers moving together. I followed her behind the grimy sheet that hid the kitchen from the restaurant where we had just eaten breakfast.
It was November in Dulan (都兰, Dūlán). Perched on the eastern tip of Qinghai’s arid Qaidam Basin, Dulan is a perennial way station. For centuries it served the camel trains that trudged across the basin to the salt pans around Golmud. Today it caters to the needs of truck drivers on their way to Lhasa, supplying simple meals, spare tyres, cigarettes and strong liquor.
There are still camels in the area. We had come across a semi-feral herd already that morning, their fur red-gold in the dawn light, their breath clouding the cold morning air. Now that the caravans have been superseded by truck and train there is little work for the camels. They are left to roam across the basin, following the roads that they helped to build and finding food where they can.
It was -15°C (5°F) when we arrived in Dulan. We ate our breakfast of baozi quickly, cupping hands around our teacups for warmth while we chewed the steamed dumplings. As we got up to leave, the cook appeared from the kitchen, wiping her raw, red hands on an apron, and beckoned me into the kitchen.
The room was lit from a single window, the slanting light so bright that it threw the rest of the room into deep shadow. The cook opened a kitchen cupboard and pulled out a bundle of cloth. She wiped her hands again carefully before unrolling it, revealing a metre-long cross-stitch sampler of a Buddhist bodhisattva*, draped in colourful robes, holding a drooping lotus flower and elaborately detailed in gold thread.
The cook wore a black lace hijab (or toujin 头巾 in Chinese), cut square around her face that identified her as a Hui Muslim. “It took me three months to sew,” she told me, “it’s the bodhisattva Guanyin.” I made an noncommittal noise, and she went on, “my husband won’t let me keep it – our religion forbids us from owning any pictures of humans, you know?” This drew another noncommittal noise from me, perhaps with a note of surprise as I realised how odd it was for a Muslim lady to spend months carefully embroidering a Buddhist deity that it would be against her beliefs to display. “Would you like to buy it?”
“Ah, I see. Um, how much are you selling it for?” I asked. “10,000 renminbi.” I cleared my throat – ten thousand renminbi is US$1,600 or £1000. “Gosh, that’s a bit too much, I’m afraid. Sorry…” and I began to sidle out to the waiting car. “But, I spent three months making it! And I can’t keep it now!” She drew her brows together, “Please?” she asked, hoping that I – the first female foreigner to stop at their restaurant in months – would take her dilemma away with me. “Sorry, I’m afraid it’s just too much money – keep it in your cupboard and maybe a Tibetan will buy it from you?” I offered unhelpfully as I ducked back around the curtain and out into the restaurant.
The cook folded up the canvas. Holding it in her arms like an infant, she followed me and watched silently as we got into the cars. As we drove off, I turned and saw her back as she went back to her kitchen, to return the bodhisattva to its cupboard, nestled between bags of flour and bottles of vinegar.
* Bodhisattvas are beings who have attained enlightenment. Instead of ascending to paradise, the bodhisattva chooses to stay on earth and help mere mortals to escape from their endless cycle of birth and death. Bodhisattvas are revered as deities by Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists – the Dalai Lama is thought to be the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, or Guanyin to the Chinese.