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West of the East 

by ARI LEVAUX & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter 24 hours in the air, the concept of jet lag seems quaint. In Beijing, I can barely figure out what day it is, much less the time. But when I see the "Fresh Furit Platter" [sic] on the hotel bar menu, I perk up enough to pronounce it to myself with a Chinese accent. Still, I didn't fly around the world to eat Americanized bar food, so I promise myself that during my week in China, I will only eat food I can't pronounce.





I'm tagging along with my dad, an astronomer, who himself is tagging along with a group of Chinese astronomers headed to western China to watch the solar eclipse on August 1. By the time the Olympics start, I'll be long gone, but the upcoming games appear to have the entire city working overtime in preparation. The Olympic slogan "One world, one dream" is plastered everywhere, as if repeating a wishful thought will make it true. But I can't help wondering who the dreamer is, and what the dream is about.





The day after we arrive, my dad and I wander through a labyrinthine neighborhood searching for breakfast. We find a place so tucked away we figure it couldn't possibly exist if it weren't good.





The menu is full of mysterious, unpronounceable items, and we order by looking at the pictures. I point to what looks like a bowl of soup. A bowl -- about a foot in diameter and four inches deep -- arrives at our table. It has an exquisite sour taste I can't quite place, with white, flaky chunks of freshwater fish, lots of Chinese cabbage, garlic and two kinds of pickled peppers: fat, round, thick-skinned red ones, and small, thin-skinned green ones. Even on the other side of the world, anyone who puts pickled peppers in their soup is speaking my language.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter a 2,500-mile flight from Beijing, I'm in central Central Asia, smack in the middle of the world's largest continent, and as far from the ocean as you can get. The path of the eclipse passes near the village of Yiwu in Xinjiang, China's most remote province -- north of Tibet, west of Mongolia, south of Russia and east of Kazakhstan. This is Uyghur ("wee-ger") country, home to Arab-speaking Muslim people of Turkic descent who wear square skullcaps, prepare some of the tastiest lamb dishes I've ever eaten, and still resent being annexed by China.





Beijing has an enormous military presence here, in part to manage stirrings of uprising among a Uyghur separatist movement. There are rumors of al-Qaida cells taking root here, but my experiences with the Uyghur have been only positive. Indeed, my keyboard takes a drool bath at the memory of Uyghur roast lamb, served alongside little piles of cumin and chili powder.





Another Uyghur specialty is lamian, or pulled noodles, made from a piece of dough that's kneaded, slammed, twisted, pounded and pulled into a long noodle, which is then cut to length. Good pulled noodles have a soft yet firm, chewy texture that holds up even in soup, as it's often served. The process takes just a few minutes in the hands of an experienced noodle-puller, who, after 12 pulls, holds 4,096 strands of thin Dragon's Hair noodles between his or her outstretched arms. (To see a demonstration of this incredible process, search "Ring of Truth" at www.youtube.com.)





We tried the fried chicken -- head included -- and qing jiao tu dou si, a dish of shredded potatoes marinated in chili vinegar and briefly fried. Our driver nibbled politely at these offerings and then ordered a bowl of thick lamian (nine pulls, I'd estimate) with pepper and tomato sauce. Slurping loudly, he made quick work of his bowl. I was jealous.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n August 1, we made our way to Yiwu for the eclipse. The road from Hami had a uniformed soldier stationed about every kilometer, and twice we had to stop for bag searches due to Chinese fears of a Uyghur terrorist attack -- especially now, while the world is watching. Our bus was one of hundreds converging on Yiwu, which had been identified as the best place in China to watch this eclipse.





About 10 minutes before totality, a cloud moved in front of the sun, and the eclipse chasers chattered in disbelief. Thousands of astronomers moaned and shouted at the little cloud, begging, demanding, cursing and otherwise bidding it farewell. Less than a minute before totality, dropping temperatures shrank the cloud, and the crescent sun slid into view.





The ambient light got dim and very strange, and then vanished altogether as the sun became a black disk surrounded by a ring of fire. The stars came out, the astronomers cheered, and two minutes of totality flashed by in an instant. When it was over, we passed around a bottle of hot, mediocre red wine and basked in the afterglow. I was contemplating my next bowl of noodles.

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