Sunday, April 1, 2012

Into the Labyrinth: Xi'an's Muslim Quarter

Let me take you to Xi’an’s Muslim quarter.  This has been one of our favorite afternoon and evening destinations for our stay here in Xi’an.  Hop on a 608, find a seat or squeeze in among the sardines and enjoy the ride. 

The Muslim quarter lies in the shadow of the Drum Tower and extends over a 2 square miles area of veritable labyrinths.  Muslims have been here since the middle of the 8th century, a direct result of the Silk Road.

From the Drum Tower, let’s turn right down a food-lined street.  Smell the fragrant blend of roasted lamb, dates, and nuts with high notes of garlic.  Tourists from around the world wander up and down the street.  Our forays into Muslim street have brought us into contact with Germans, Australians, Indians, Spanish, and dozens of other nationalities, each chattering their unique dialect amid the blaring calls of “low prices” and “shadow puppet show” on the sidelines.

We’ll make a stop for a lamb sandwich, some sweet sesame rice, and a sweet potato cake, stuffed with sugary dates.  So far we’ve paid 5 ¥ for the lamb and 2 ¥ each for the other dishes—a total of $1.50.  Now that we’ve eaten, let’s turn down a smaller street, past the quail eggs frying on a stick to our right and the dumplings cooking to our left.

Although we have explored the winding streets of the Muslim quarter both in the daylight and at evening, we much prefer the world that bursts into neon-lit excitement after dark.  Here, as if poured through a funnel, the masses of humanity pore over silk robes, tea sets, chop sticks and every other tourist bauble imaginable.  They munch on slow roasted lamb kabobs or taste the Chinese version of peanut brittle.  The world is alive on every level: from tourists to merchants to motorbikes parting the crowds to small cages of song-birds in every-other tree.

One afternoon, after haggling over scarves and caps, we made our way down a non-descript alleyway to discover the Great Mosque, according to our sources the largest mosque in all of China.  The entrance itself appeared as non-descript as its surroundings, but since Lonely Planet and numerous internet sources assured us that it was a must-see, we shelled out our 25 ¥ apiece and entered the solemn world of Chinese Islam.

We happened to have the mosque mostly to ourselves, so we could wander slowly, pondering the age-old tongue-and-groove joists and rafters.  How many generations of devout Muslims have walked through these courtyards, heeding the call to prayer?  Around us mixed a curious blend of Chinese and Arabic—traditional Chinese script counterpointed by beautiful quotations from the Koran. 

Verses from the Koran in the mosque of Xi'an

The mosque itself little resembles its counterparts farther west, instead borrowing much of its architectural style from the Tang dynasty.  Roofs here feature the common fish scale tiling and contain ancient fire retardant features, such as the inclusion of symbolic figures to stave off the flames.  Although it is the central place of worship of over 50,000 Muslims, I felt that the surrounding buildings had all but swallowed it up.

Like a grand piano in a music room with only small doors, I wondered how this building came to fit in the labyrinth around us.  The walls, old and ornate, extended only partially up the side of newer, poorly constructed shops and dwellings.

We made our way to the prayer hall, and, then, since we were not Muslim, stood at the door, facing Mecca.  Tourists began to fill the courtyards; I could hear guides speaking German, Spanish, English and Portuguese.  I’m sure there were others as well.

Out the main gate again and into the bustling streets of Muslim quarter, we began to weave through the crowd to the Drum Tower again.  So far we have not been disappointed.  No matter the time of day, we have found a certain interesting flavor here—sights, smells and tastes. 

So, we’ll leave you here.  The bus will be by soon.  Remember, you can come back tomorrow.  I assure you, there is much more to discover.

Here is an interesting site with blogs about the Muslim Street: