From the Ancient Diary of an Unwilling Globetrotter
SHANGQIU, CHINA- 1294, a year of new promises and renewed ambition, but life is far from perfect for Zhao. What happens when her worst dream comes true- traveling across the infamous Silk Road?
The vendor pinched off rolls of greasy flour and dropped them, one by one, into the sizzling vat of sunflower oil. I watched the little rounds of dough bob up to the surface, before being strained through a webbed spatula and dusted with powdered sugar.
I had just one dinar; and monkey would probably end up eating more than half of my purchases. What would be something that could last? A plate of sweet, chewy Qatayef wouldn’t last long enough, and Zainab fingers would smear my blouse with honey and powdered sugar; not worth the risk of a scolding.
Standing in front of what felt like an expansive sea of pastries, I was unable to choose what to buy with the shiny dinar in my quivering hand.
“Well, what do you want?” The vendor asked me, irritatedly. I had been blocking the entrance of his stand for the last five minutes, puzzling over the great dessert debacle that I faced.
I had never known how familiar the city felt. If I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the shouts and yells of my old school friends, skipping rope and chasing birds. I could feel the light breeze that promised a winter that was yet to come. I could smell the soothing, slightly salty aroma of baked bread that I had known since a child.
By now, my parents were long gone. Mom had no interest in childish ponderings of dessert choices, and father must have run into an old friend, of sorts. In a bustling market of at least a thousand, I had not a single friend to lean onto.
I must have uttered some sort of apology, but my unfamiliar dialect was understood by the vendor as an order. He scooped a flat disk of dough into a paper, before stretching out his fat hand for my dinar.
I did not want to give him my dinar for the small paper package, which was now blotted with oil. The stains on the brown butcher paper seemed to mock me, as if they knew. I unwillingly handed him the shiny coin, before grabbing the cake and darting to my parents’ line of sight.
Once father had finished greeting the “’old friend”’ that he probably knew no better than the snack vendor, we prepared to leave the city once more.
The sun had long vanished behind the mountains, the air still warm, buzzing with the excitement of a day’s worth of shopping. Mom told stories behind the sales she had struck and deals she had bargained for, as if they were magnificent pirate adventures on the sea. I couldn’t help but smile, as her eyes lit up at the ratty, discolored carpet square that she called ‘antique’.
I sat alone in the back of the wagon, after monkey had refused my company because I hadn’t bought him his Qatayef. For once, the night was silent, as I looked beyond the mountains that came ahead.
Why had they forced me onto this trip? I hated the place. It wasn’t like home- not the language, not the clothing, not even Monkey wanted anything to do with them.
Leaning back against the canvas walls, I heard a crackle of paper. It was the sad, little oil-blotted package of the treat.
I bit into the sweet, made from hand-spun phyllo- a luxury. Inside, the soft, clotted cream was all melted, dripping down my wrist as I desperately licked at it.
It tasted disgusting.
But, familiar. A little stinky, but also pungent. Just like the durian from home. I smiled as I took a bite, thinking of the vendor and his fat hands, the bickering shopkeepers.
It wasn’t all that different from the weekend market at home. Yes, I can barely understand their dialect, and their shoes aren’t the same material. But they have the same tired, haggard look in their eyes, as if this day in the market is one of thousands of memories they have yet to tell.
I took another bite, and by now, Monkey has smelled the cake. He scampers over, and I feel obliged to provide him with a piece. We sit, side by side, staring into the unshapely mountains that remind me of the bald poets I read of in school.
On nights like these, I choose to think of the vendors, and the shopkeepers, and the tired old women who occupy the market stalls along this road. I think of their families, and their stories.
Do they feel the same way I do, as I look into the distance? Do they also dread the long journey that lays before them, or do they revert to scrubbing the mud of their nightgowns?
The moon seemed to mock my questions, and I gave it a hard, jutting glare. I sighed, before heading back to our camp to wash the dirt off the soles of my hands and feet, for the third time tonight.
This piece stemmed from an interest in history that my mentor (Kylie) and I had. More particularly, we wanted to tell the story from the perspective of someone people could relate to; far too often, historical stories seem disconnected and out of touch, despite the fact that the people in those stories were very real, much like us. Although neither of us had much background in the Silk Road, we loved the idea of a ‘travel diary’, similar to ‘Little House in the Big Woods’.
This piece is still in the early works, with hopes of being turned into a podcast later on. Although it is far from perfect, I hope it can bring a more relatable narrative of the 1200s to readers today.
Peggy Chen is a writer, tennis player, and pencil enthusiast from small-town North Carolina. An ace journalist for The Falcon (her school newspaper) and a burgeoning memoir writer, she is passionate about telling stories, taking in different perspectives, and Attack on Titan.