The city of Xi’an is famous for the Terracotta Army, Lantian Man and countless Buddhist relics, but centuries ago its fame had more to do with trade than archeological wonders. As part of the ancient Silk Road, Xi’an was a place where cultures mingled and traded their wares, and beliefs and other faiths were introduced to the wider populace.
I always knew that this former capital was predominately Buddhist given its history with monks traversing along the old road from India spreading their knowledge and scriptures, erecting statues and temples along the way. What I didn’t know is that Xi’an is also home to a group of Silk Road’s descendants -- Hui -- an ethnic group who reside around the city’s Muslim quarters, and whose ancestors built one of the oldest mosques still in use today, 1,360 years ago.
Like travellers before me, I went to Xi’an with the purpose of visiting the archeological site where ten thousand clay soldiers were built under the mighty emperor Qin around 220 BC. A man with great ambition, Qin not only created a large scale mausoleum, filled it with warriors and horses to guide him to the afterlife, but he also unified China and began the Great Wall north of Beijing. His reputation led me to Xi’an to learn more about his era and this historic city.
When I first walked around the city centre en route to my hotel, I was struck by the sheer age and preservation of the place. Remnants of an old fortified wall have been renovated for people to amble on and a beautifully preserved wooden bell tower stand out from the shiny glass department stores that surround it packed with dozens of curious visitors. Next to Japan’s Nara city, Xi’an had to be the oldest place I had visited.
I was also struck with a different side of Xi’an’s history -- the Muslim quarters. Streets laden with stalls and shops selling kitchen wares, natural remedies, bread, teas and unrefrigerated meat, all bustle from sun-up to long past sundown. Devotees cue patiently outside popular eateries after morning prayers, street sweepers remove debris from the previous day’s trade, and women tend ovens in preparation for a new day.
Walk down one of the narrow winding alleys leading away from the tourist hub and home life spills from the ramshackle blocks of concrete and wood buildings, onto the streets. Buildings bundled together to keep them from falling down or apart are gradually giving way to new places with steel reinforcing and glass windows. Around the building entrances young women (and men) unfazed by the public arena, stand over wash basins shampooing and primping their hair, old men huddle around a checker type board slamming down round pieces of wood in a warrior-like manner. Chinese chess is popular among the men, a means of passing time and connecting with comrades.
Like the Han, Hui are considered Chinese; both speak Chinese and follow similar cultural paths. But there are very clear markers distinguishing the two groups. Hui women wear colored scarves and men wear skull caps or turbans. Pork, widely used in Han Chinese cooking, is invisible in Hui cooking, spices are plentiful and flour is preferred to rice.
Some of the tastiest snacks can be found within the Muslim quarters, grilled or baked fresh on hot coals. Food found around Central Asian can be found here such as flat breads, kebabs, even a dish made from chillies and potato powder, which I can vouch for as being delicious and inexpensive. As night falls throughout this area food aromas intensify enticing you to eat even if you have already eaten.
Xi’an’s Hui population is around 80,000, small perhaps but still very much a large feature on the cityscape. While the quarters have a definite ethnic flavor, it is easy to find Han Chinese influence in the architectural style of the mosque and shop fronts, street lanterns, and dumpling restaurants, and obnoxiously loud music. Ancient Silk Road trade has given way to the sales of cheap and often tacky goods, pirated music and DVDs and heavy handed sales tactics. Still these quarters are a good introduction to a part of China’s history that doesn’t involve terracotta and ambitious emperors, and to a group of ethnic minority struggling to retain their traditions in a rapidly modernising country.
About the author:Cate is a caffeine fueled writer who blogs for Caffeinated Traveller. Originally from New Zealand, Cate spent time living and travelling in Asia before progressing to the States where she now lives in South Florida. When she isn't writing, Cate can be found sweating it out at the gym, trying her hardest to focus on French lessons or planning another trip somewhere.
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