With care

 Xining, Qinghai, China 西宁

For more context, please first read the previous entry.

Continuing from Yushu, I was again received by church members in Xining (西寧, Tibetan: Ziling), home of the head office of the same ministry. Being an office, there wasn’t much field work to see, and so the pastor here organised for me a whirlwind week of visiting Xining’s surrounds, famous across China for its particularly unique geographical offerings — and oh my, there is a *lot* to see.

Yet in between it all, I still got to learn and see the fruits of their church network’s labour, and learn about their works with Muslim Hui minority communities, aiding the impoverished and building genuine, lasting relationships.

At the head office of the church network ministry, the pastor gave me a large overview: the churches aim to help, but also accept help. He used a tree-planting analogy: clear the rocks, plant the seeds, water the plant, instruct (okay so that doesn’t really fit), and grow. To encourage this, their ministry sets up situations where people in a community can be introduced to each other. Like kids in a classroom, people start as friends by circumstance and environment, and with care, can grow into close friends that genuinely wish for the best of each’s well-being.

He highlighted a successful outreach to a poor Muslim Hui community, where the church started a monthly, two-hour clothing drive. People could line up for a free piece of clothing, one per person based on ID cards and phone numbers. After awhile, the church might follow up with some of the recipients, asking if they were satisfied with the quality of the clothes. If they were, they’d be offered to help out at next month’s event.

Each person who volunteers to be part of the next event is given their own role, but automatically forms a group of circumstance, training with the other church members to become more and more involved to the point that they end up running future events entirely by themselves. But with that group of circumstance comes teamwork and closer friendships. The church is always open about being a church but not proselytising; the hope (which has often turned out to be the case) is that the Hui communities will see there’s nothing wrong with Christians, and to see the motivations of reaching out and the clothing drives purely as an act of love through Christ. And it does happen! Eventually, the group of volunteers may morph into their own church community. The only thing the church ministry does after handing over responsibility of the clothing drives is to follow up once in awhile, making sure the needs of the community are addressed.

And when the church decides to begin a similar event at another community, there’ll be a Hui community church that’s got their backs. It’s like a new forest — some seeds that are planted successfully grow up and drop their own seeds. The pastor tells me that they’ve seen a rapid wave of Christian acceptance in some Hui areas they’ve been involved in, and it’s so heartening to hear. Sure, not everyone’s gonna lend a receptive ear or going to convert, but they know that there are people who call themselves Christians that are genuinely interested in their well-being and caring for them deeply, and that’s something that reflects onto their view of Christians in general.

To see this a little further, I made a detour to Guide 貴德 (two syllables, not the English word), accompanied by one church member from Xining and received by the leader of the Guide branch, who invited the two of us out to “the pastures”. No idea what that was supposed to mean, but before we went out there, we had a quick tour of a couple of Guide’s famed sights.

You may have seen these extremely overprocessed photos from Zhangye, Gansu province. Those are danxia 丹霞 rock formations, unique to China in the world. The real thing is indeed impressive and multicoloured, but looks nothing like the photos you’d see on Buzzfeed or whatever. Seven colours of different sandstones stripe through the jagged landscape. While Guide’s geological park doesn’t hold a candle in size or fame to Zhangye’s, it’s still an incredibly impressive sight.

Running right in the center of town is China’s famed Yellow River 黄河, the third-longest in Asia and sixth-longest in the world, which gains its name from its actual yucky mud colour. Well, as the saying goes, “天下黄河貴德清,” meaning the Yellow River’s only clear in Guide, near its actual source in the mountains of Qinghai. It’s my first time actually seeing the river so I have no real idea how yellow it is, but out in Guide, it’s pretty darn…well, pretty! Beautiful shade of blue, with plenty of domestic tourists playing in the water.

In the evening, the three of us crammed ourselves (and two watermelons) onto a motorcycle, driving uphill for an hour and a half before meeting our host’s friend: Phuljung (again, another Mandarin-to-Tibetan name guess), a local Tibetan waiting for us at the bottom of a steep, steep hill, knowing our motorcycle would struggle up. After a series of endless switchbacks (and one dropped watermelon), we finally made it to the top. Oh, pasture. I get it now. And why the watermelons? Well, a gift for Phuljung’s family, who we were staying with for the night. Okay!

Living in an isolated mountaintop village makes it pretty quiet. Living with your own large farm estate leaving you at least a kilometre from your neighbour makes it even more quiet. But it also means the family’s pretty poor and struggles to get by. Phuljung, my age, already has three very young children. My host came to know him through church outreach six years ago, which now provide clothes and toys for the children (none of whom are close to six years old). While Phuljung and his extended family — parents and brother’s family, who live next door — have stuck to their Buddhist beliefs (plus the giant figures of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on an old poster overlooking over the family room), they’ve become extremely close friends with my host, and the affection was very visible as they continued to shove more and more and more food at us. Meanwhile, my host, who is not a plumber, climbed into their well for an hour, trying to fix a plumbing problem they had that was preventing them from getting fresh water for themselves and their animals. I think he’s already won their eternal gratefulness and didn’t have to do that to cement it any further, but…

We had a wonderful night enjoying the scenery, bringing back the goat herd just in time for sunset over their barley fields on one side and the valley on the other, chatting over increasingly ridiculous amounts of food, and playing with their very hyperactive children. Over his odd soundtrack of dubstep, Tibetan pop, and the notorious Chinese plaza-dancing song “小苹果”, Phuljung scrolled through some of my photos from Tibet province, with him and his wife pausing to marvel at the Potala Palace, and scratching their heads in puzzlement over the spoken Kham Tibetan in my videos from Sichuan province, which is apparently not mutually intelligible with their Amdo Tibetan! By then pitch-black outside (plus the Milky Way, so casually ignored by the family who sees it every night) and with limited remaining solar electricity, we slept on surprisingly cozy carpets and blankets in a large Tibetan tent they had just set up for us, waking up to the sunrise and the sounds of their yak herd anxious to head out into the fields.

After saying goodbye to Phuljung’s family, we headed all the way back to Guide to pick up an elderly church member from the hospital, doubling all the way back to the base of the mountain we had just departed. 90 years old and of the Hui minority (with the signature thin beard), he lived alone (having no family of his own) in a remote location and had been hospitalised for two weeks due to anxiety. He appeared extremely grateful when my accompanying Xining church member and I had showed up, and said something pretty telling: “I never used to have any visitors until I met you Christians…”

My host explained to me that they got to know him through the church outreach, and visit his home at least once every two weeks, often bringing groceries with them since the nearest town is nowhere near a walkable distance away for a 90-year-old. Despite his frail condition, he often still tried to do his household tasks by himself — a bit distressing, as that involves walking to a faraway well and carrying back heavy barrels of fresh water.

We returned to his home, abandoned for two weeks, to see everything in a state of disrepair and neglect indicative of more than just two weeks — a poor chained dog (who had at least been fed bread and water during the hospital stay, and was extremely affectionate to the old man upon his return), a years-overgrown garden, a peach tree that had dropped all of its fruit already, molded bread stuck to the floor (which he simply ignored upon seeing it), uncleaned pots and pans, and a cooking area that looked like it had progressively shrunk as his mobility decreased. Nevertheless, he dug out a bunch of small chairs from a corner and invited us all in, while also randomly digging out a pair of shoes he wanted to give to my host.

While the others went off to the well to fetch water, I stuck around trying to make conversation with the old man — not easy with his heavy accent, his deteriorating hearing, and my poor Mandarin, and so I sadly missed a lot. He excitedly passed over the three books in his possession — a Bible, a book on significant world influencers, and a book about some church — and shared stories of his occasional interactions with his closest neighbours far down the road whom he enjoys bringing extra food to (not an easy effort!), and of his other Muslim neighbours who seem to judge him for no longer wearing a dopi (the skullcap devout Muslims wear). Digging through his journal, he seemed especially proud to show me a picture of him, looking pretty fly, as a 30-year-old.

We left after doing some quick cleaning and I offered to pray for his health and company (in English, which means he didn’t understand a thing, but hey, I tried), but one offhand comment of his stuck with me: “Us Hui people pray five times a day. You guys pray before you eat and randomly anytime.” He was clearing hinting at prayer simply by gratitude rather than duty. He enthusiastically agreed to phone up my host about his condition before next Sunday, for a ride to his church, and walked outside of his home to wave us goodbye. 90 years old, new born-again Christian.

Back in Xining, I found myself joined by other visiting church members from various other regions and ethnicities of China, and we enjoyed each other’s fellowship and company for the remaining days of our stays, climbing up a steep mountain for a nighttime view of Xining.

I was also accompanied by church members for several excursions out of town. Taking a small detour off the rail line that runs to Lhasa (which I already took a month ago), we headed to the salt lake at Chaka 茶卡. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, and we arrived too late in the afternoon to see it lightly flooded and mirroring the sky, it was still an impressive, blinding white, with its accessibility bringing hordes of domestic tourists enthralled by the otherwise rarely-experienced sight — along with their scarves as props for blowing-in-the-wind selfies, something every party seemed to do along with the very Asian tradition of jumping photos. Heh.

On my last day, we headed out to the stunning, high-altitude Qinghai Lake 青海湖, which gives the province its name. I had already passed it three times by train journeys, but never got a close look. Joining a cheap-and-easy bus tour, we made short and touristy but scenic stops along the way at a pasture ground, lakeside sand dune (complete with sandboarding), and the Sun Moon Mountain 日月山 with its temple pavilions drowned in prayer flags set up after Princess Wencheng passed through.

Qinghai Lake itself is huge — it’s named after the fact that it looks like a huge clear ocean rather than a lake. Four times the size of Singapore, our several hours of driving around it only led us to see 10% of its whole surface area. Ultimately though, it seems like the way there, passing fields of wildflowers and accessible shores, is more interesting than the ticketed part of the lake itself, which is horded by tourists, waterbikes, and waterskis. Still, a worthwhile trip, seeing a crisp and bright blue lake ringed by mountains. We returned to Xining to see the other church members waiting for us with a giant hotpot dinner. Sweet.

As for these churches both in Yushu and Xining: they live out their faith everyday and practically live at the church, using it as a community space, a place to share meals, to stay, to play, to host guests, to enjoy friendship, and most of all, a place to pray and share. I stayed with each church community for about a week, and found it truly inspiring: I’ve got a lot more to learn about how to be a good witness of the love Christ provides every day.

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