A Birthday Yurt in Xinjiang —by Jinny Batterson
As my 60th birthday approached, I spent some time talking with the Foreign Affairs Officer, Mr. Ma, at our desert reclamation school in western Xinjiang. He wanted to host a birthday party for me. Having parties seemed to be one of the activities that FAO Ma liked best to arrange. After a rather harsh winter, a party seemed like a good idea to me, too. Our celebration would occur on the weekend closest to my actual birthday in early April. Mr. Ma said for me and my husband Jim to be ready at our apartment to be picked up by a school car at about 10 on Sunday morning. A vehicle appeared on time, but it was a school van, rather than a passenger car. Crammed into it were nearly a dozen of our colleagues, along with the 12-year-old son of one of our fellow teachers, a precocious youngster who sometimes came to English Corner to practice his English. We were going together to have a birthday feast at a “tourist yurt” along the Tarim River at the western edge of town.
I’d never been in a yurt before. These wood and fabric structures traditionally have been used by pastoral nomads in Mongolia and across the northern reaches of China. In Xinjiang, yurts are usually associated with the Kazakh minority who pasture sheep and goats in the highlands and mountains. Yurts require minimal raw materials, and can be readily assembled and disassembled. Their portability fits well with a nomadic lifestyle of following the best pasturage to different elevations in different seasons. As tourism has gained a footing in Xinjiang, some enterprising locals have created more permanent “yurts” in its cities and towns, catering to foreigners in search of a little (but not too much) local culture.
Our birthday celebration yurt was rather large, perhaps twenty feet across, with a raised platform and table in the back half of the structure, away from the carpet-covered entrance door. Yurts are circular, with gently pitched roofs that meet in a point at the center. This yurt’s exterior was covered with a rough fabric. It looked a bit like canvas to me, a drab tan color, perhaps stained from that year’s dust storms. The interior “walls” of the yurt, by contrast, were vibrant—fabrics in geometric and floral designs of every hue draped everything but the entryway, clashing and competing for attention. The floor was covered nearly everywhere with several layers of oriental carpets in different sizes and patterns.
Once we were all seated, servers brought in dishes that had been prepared in a separate shelter nearby. We had cold sliced peeled vegetables, big plate spicy chicken, both boiled and roasted lamb, river fish, barbecued chicken, and a variety of nuts and breads. After we’d polished off most of the main course, one of the other teachers suggested a walk down by the river. The group of us staggered away from the table, having downed enough food and swilled enough pineapple beer to feed and water a group twice our size. The section of river where the yurt resort had been built was leveed. We walked for perhaps a quarter of a mile along the rocky top of the levee. After enjoying a fairly pleasant afternoon’s milky sunshine, we returned to the yurt.
We chatted for a while. I expected that the van would soon return to take us back to school. Instead, one of the servers appeared at the doorway with a large, liberally iced circular birthday cake. He lit a candle in its center, whereupon a miniature merry-go-round began twirling and playing the “Happy Birthday” song.
“Make a wish,” some of the other teachers cried.
I closed my eyes, wished to remember this special occasion, these special people, then blew as mightily as my overstuffed digestive tract would allow. The candle went out briefly, then reignited—I hadn’t realized that trick candles were part of Chinese tradition. The decoration played the birthday song again, too, over and over and over. Eventually the 12-year-old, who had sampled a bit of the pineapple beer but seemed less the worse for wear than most of us, picked up the entire decoration from the center of the cake, found a relatively uncarpeted part of our platform, and stomped out both the candle and the song. The rest of my seventh decade, I thought, would have to be something of a letdown after this sort of start.