So for the past five days, I’ve been lucky enough to take a break from studying and travel with other students on my program, as well as five of our teachers, to Xi’an. Although we didn’t experience even a minute of sunshine while there (it rained for four days straight), I’ll still remember the city as a place filled with bright colors and new discoveries. Though Xi’an is best known as one of China’s ancient capitals and obviously sought out by tourists for the terracotta warriors, my favorite experience in the city was the Muslim quarter. Don’t get me wrong; it would be a plain lie to say I was underwhelmed by the terracotta warriors. Considering the number of them (estimated to be over 8,000) and the fact that each has a different and unique face and specified role (i.e. foot soldier, general, cavalry, etc), not even to mention that the farmer who, in 1974, discovered China’s first emperor’s life-size army is still around the gift shop to sign his name in tourists’ overpriced souvenir books, it is definitely a very worthy site to check out in Xi’an. Unlike many other sights I’ve visited that have touted the same claim to fame, it might actually even be worthy of the name gloriously written on big signs around every corner: the “eighth wonder of the world.” So why did I find something else in Xi’an more fascinating? Well, although the warriors are life-like in size, unique facial features, uniforms, battle arrangement, and many other aspects, they still aren’t real people; you can’t talk to them, bargain with them, or ask them what daily life is like.
Though Xi’an is an ancient city, it is one full of vibrant life, nowhere else so obvious as in the Muslim quarter, particularly on Huimin Jie, a name that literally means, “Muslim Han people Street.” Compared to other tourist streets that I’ve been to in China before, such as those in Yangshuo (Guangxi province) and Dali (Yunnan province), just to name a few, this street still had a few of the classic foreigner-attracting features: walls of shops lined with fake designer handbags, local cafés touting their homemade coffee and western snacks, and overpriced knick-knacks and souvenirs, left and right. But the local color and Muslim characteristics were not so much compromised, as actually enhanced by this atmosphere. Instead of twenty foreign cafés, I only saw two, the streets instead lined with vendors and small restaurants selling all kinds of delicious snacks. There are what friends and I have dubbed “Muslim hamburgers,” an english muffin-like dry bread sandwiching open-fire, kebab-roasted lamb. They are simply delicious; I had one for dinner twice. As far as lunch or dinner goes, there are also “soup” baozi, which look like Beijing’s version of this staple food, except filled with soup and meat, instead of entirely with meat or veggie filling, as well as pita-bread crumble soup and spicy hot thick noodles twisted and cooked kebab-style. But dessert was clearly the most important part of every meal; from sweet sticky rice flavored with different sauces, fried persimmon cake filled with black sesame, sweet red bean paste, or peanuts (I stayed away from that one), to homemade dried fruit, hand-pulled taffy, and so many different cookies that I can’t keep track, there was plenty to delight the senses. Another favorite was “sour plum juice,” sounds strange, I know, but it was just enough sour and just enough sweet, and perfect to wash down street snacks with.
The Muslim handicrafts found along this street are also unique to Xi’an; with their bright red base cloth, sweetly simple and innocent animal patterns and colorful stitching, they are like nothing that I have seen anywhere else in China. As we wandered the streets near our hotel over the course of four days, we also discovered the “Great Mosque” (清真寺) tucked away in the heart of the Muslim neighborhood off of Huimin Street. Apparently first opened in 742 AD, it’s a wonder that this place survived the government crackdowns of the Cultural Revolution intact, and it is an amazing marriage of Arabic and Chinese, two of the most complicated but visually beautiful languages I can think of, scrawled across the walls of traditional Chinese architecture. The Great Mosque is still used today as a place of worship, the echoes of prayers ringing softly through the back streets of the neighborhood; to me, perfectly representing the awe-inspiring mix of ancient and new that is Xi’an.