You can say what you like about the never-ending conflict in the Middle East; I believe a big part of the problem stems from one side being forbidden the pacifying balsam of beer. Strict adherence to sobriety is one of the things for which Muslims are known. But many of those in Xinjiang are either not very pious or have decided to go ahead and risk it, because beer is as readily available there as it is in the rest of China and the Uygurs seem every bit as eager as the Chinese to partake of it. A few years ago L and I were hitch-hiking west of Korla, on the outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert, and we were frankly a little desperate. It wasn't that people were refusing to pick us up; rather, there were simply no cars. Zero. There are only about 200 people in the whole province and they live mainly in Urumqi, so out there in the desert we were somewhat hopeless. Just as we were beginning to feel like the vultures were sizing us up, a small car drew up, with two Uygurs inside. They were going to a transport hub about 200 kilometres down the road, so we congratulated ourselves on being saved. Their Putonghua was almost unintelligible but I distinctly heard the driver say, "First, drink beer." They took us to a shack made of bare plywood in a small village. Inside were three other Uygurs - one of whom looked uncannily like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and one Chinese, and all four were already so drunk their heads lolled on their stems. An intricate ceremony involving 15 bottles of beer and two thimble-sized glasses followed. The honoured guests, L and I were given the lion's share, or rather the lion cub's share - the lion being the driver, who got the real lion's share. He must have put away eight or nine bottles in the hour we were there. Then again, Chinese beer is quite weak. Thus fortified we all staggered back to the car, a thing covered in grime that looked as if it hadn't been cleaned since it was made, in the 1970s. The windshield was opaque with dirt and sitting in the front, without a seatbelt naturally, I was a bit concerned as we thundered off down the road at top speed. Fortunately the road was ruler straight and the worst thing that could have happened if we had driven off it would have been ending up in a sand dune. So I eventually relaxed. A little. Thank you, beer! I have since drunk many a beer with the Muslims of Xinjiang in peace and harmony, and with much jollity all round. So here is my solution to achieving peace in the Middle East: relax the oppressive rules on alcohol. I'm still against drink-driving though.