Perhaps because, unlike sites like the Terracotta Warriors (which had been my number one China bucket list item–photos soon!), I had no preconceptions, no one else’s images in my head of what it would be like. Xi’an used to be the eastern end of the Silk Road trading route, and during the reign of more tolerant dynasties, such as the Ming (14th – 17th century), an Islamic but Sinicized community established itself in Xi’an. Today, about 20,000 Muslims live in this quarter of the old city of Xi’an.
We found ourselves strolling through Xian’s Muslim Quarter at the end of a long day of touring, having already seen the Terracotta Warriors in the morning and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Xi’an’s Great City Wall in the afternoon. Thankfully, I had agreed with our guide that yes, even though we were tired, we did want to visit the Muslim Quarter.
According to my writer acquaintance Wenguang Huang, author of The Little Red Guard, who grew up in Xi’an, the Muslim Quarter is the only neighborhood within the old city walls that is still mostly original and hasn’t been destroyed by massive development yet.
Oh, the characters! Sipping soup, pulling candy, frying tofu, giggling, pouting.
Cooking and eating Xi’an’s signature dish, Paomo, a stew of pulled steamed bread, topped with chunks of lamb.
By the way, even during China’s terrible Cultural Revolution, when much of China’s ancient culture was uprooted and destroyed, and traditional religious practices were outlawed, the Muslim community had special dispensation to be able to abide by their Halal dietary laws of slaughtering. These days, fake food is a problem in Chinese restaurants, and thus Muslim restaurants with their stricter food laws are popular because they are considered safer.
After the teeming food market, the dry goods market in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter was almost deserted, much unlike the dry goods markets in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Great Mosque in Xi’an is a Chinese pagoda-style courtyard garden, a peaceful oasis in the midst of this otherwise crowded quarter jostling with old and new.
At the end of the courtyard, there is the mosque itself, i.e. the prayer hall, which I only recognized as such because of the carpets spread inside and the Arabic writing here and there.
Just outside the mosque, the impossible high heels on the old pavement, and the kids absorbed in their electronic devices and the sheer visual overload of the shops.
I wrap up this photo essay of the Xi’an Muslim Quarter with my second favorite photo in this series, a Great Mosque wall detail. (My favorite shot is this post’s title photo of the old man.)