Silence in Beijing is not really something that happens often. At Tsinghua in 2014, riding my bike home through campus before sunrise, I thought that that was something approaching silence. That year APEC shut down the city for a week and each day I slept into late morning. That was when I realized that it was not my body clock waking me at dawn, but the building hum of 16411km2 of cars and construction.
When you take the subway to Niujie from Peking University you don’t need to change stations, but it still takes an hour to go from the north and the Summer Palace to the south and the Muslim quarter. There are no foreign students, and no tourists – at least not on a Tuesday, but being at the end of more curious looks than usual, perhaps not many tourists at all. While Peking University is the oldest in the country, the campus itself once a garden for the Qing dynasty, to the south of campus is Beijing’s “silicon valley,” and to the east it is not long before you run into the raucous student hub of Wudaokou. The Muslim Quarter makes it much less easy to forget Beijing’s history.
A main road passes by the station, but as you cross a footbridge you look out not on dusty apartment buildings, but over one storied hutongs and winding paths. Littered with bikes and coloured with strings of washing it’s hard to imagine how people make their way through, but speed didn’t seem to be an issue for the elderly men strolling shirtless in the afternoon sun. Innovative agriculture, too, is a popular accessory to the hutong’s roofs. While the logistics of having a sunflower patch over a bedroom, or a flourishing grape vine above the doorway escape me personally, I suppose the most of the residents and their makeshift gardens are far older than the apartments that make these homes look so out of place.
The shops change quickly from Pizza Hut and old Beijing noodle hole-in-the-walls to green and gold butcheries and bakeries, with names in Arabic and Chinese, decorated with the shapes of traditional Middle Eastern mosques. The first place I stop is a bakery selling nang (a Uyghur flat bread from Xinjiang in the West) and some sort of peanut bun. I buy the bun, and ask if it’s Xinjiang bread – the baker tells me its not bread (or at least the Chinese word I know to mean bread) but when I eat it later it tastes surprisingly like the supermarket buns back home.
I am struck by the amount of butcheries on my way to the mosque, though I suppose halal is hard to find anywhere else in the city. Dodging delivery trucks and the men offering knife sharpening on the street, I find the mosque with little trouble, there are many men wearing taqiyah and women wearing Chinese style head coverings.
With all that’s going on outside the mosque, I was surprised to enter and be completely alone. And it was so quiet. The buildings are not unlike other historical sites in the city, grey stone towers, the typical curved roofs, covered walkways accented in red, and yet above each doorway, or replacing the Chinese characters on blue and white vases and carved into stone there was elegant ancient Arabic. Walk through a round ‘moon’ gate to find two black marble tombs for two foreign imams, almost 1000 years old. The biggest difference, though, to the other ancient sites in Beijing, is the silence. It is only metres from the street, and yet I felt myself grow calm, I realised the toll of constant sound as I was breathing more deeply, more slowly, than I had in months. I could have sat there all day, but the mosque began to fill with people preparing for prayer, and I reluctantly ended up back on the street.
The further west you go in China, the more you find cumin, and that’s proven by the smell of the entire quarter. Lines you can’t see the end of start at windows where vendors are selling nang toasted with a cumin spice blend, slightly oily, slightly crispy. There are also trays of steamed cornbread, yellow pyramids threaded with strands of finely grated vegetables, or studded with red Chinese dates. I don’t think I know how to eat them, because by the time they’re home they’re tough and solid. A stomach filler, sure, but I think I’m missing crucial elements.
Inside the main supermarket there are stalls selling sticky rice cake layered with dates and nuts, it’s a common enough street food in the winter but I didn’t realise it had origins in the West. There are also stacks of sweets made from mung bean or peanut flour, and rice flour cake stuffed with sesame or red bean paste, the Chinese version of Japanese mochi. Next to these are trays of what looks like mahua, sweet crispy dough twisted like a braid, although it has been soaked in syrup and bears more resemblance to Indian jalebi. The rest of the supermarket is not unlike other Chinese supermarkets, aside from an aisle selling Muslim headwear and wall hangings or tea sets decorated with camels, palms and Arabic. The basement sold fresh produce and cold dishes (liangcai) to take away. I could have lingered there, or in the whole neighbourhood well into the evening, but with a bag full of fresh breads, sweets and garlic stuffed aubergine I really just wanted to get home and eat.
I’m glad I went, it’s far from campus, but not so far that it’s running away, and it’s different from my part of Beijing, but not so different that it’s an escape. I’ve been homesick lately, counting down the days until my next airplane, but I realized that perhaps what I needed was just a moment of refreshing silence, a surprising flavour, to get back to the Beijing I remembered. A city always offering something new, maybe I wasn’t homesick, maybe I just forgot there’s more to a place than classrooms and dormitories.