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.
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.
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.