Hidden away in the back streets of Xi’an – a huge city home to some eight million people – is a small warren of roads known as the Muslim Quarter, so called because… Well, because that’s where the Muslim community lives, I suppose!
Set back just behind the city’s imposing drum tower, the pedestrianized streets of the Muslim Quarter maze themselves together beneath a canopy of hanging trees. It’s a remarkable place, utterly buzzing with life, teeming thick with crowds, an intoxicating, uniquely Chinese blend of unfathomable utter chaos, neon lights, deafening noise and dizzying smells. The roads seem to wind on forever, hours quickly slipping away as you take it all in. You could quite easily get completely lost there, but that’d be no bad thing.
I visited the Muslim Quarter twice – once in the mid-afternoon and a second time after dark in the evening. Indeed its worth putting off your visit until after it goes dark – the way the roads light up beneath the glittering neon signs is a sight to behold. It’s later on during the evening that the streets get really busy, when people head there for food and a beer, and when the atmosphere boils to a frenzy.
The main reason to go there is for the food. The roads are lined with street food vendors selling everything from meat and noodles to caramelised peanut cakes. I tried some rather tasty peppered chicken wings from one such vendor, and later on we stopped for dinner (I was visiting with two Dutch girls I met at my hostel) to try some more chicken along with peppered mutton, and even some barbequed squid.
So far so good, if you know what I mean…
The Muslim Quarter is also home to a rather beautiful mosque. Did I read somewhere that it is China’s biggest? If not then it can’t be far off. Except, this mosque isn’t like any mosque you’ve seen before, at least architecturally. There is no grand dome above the prayer hall, no quintet of minarets reaching for the sky. In fact the roofs are the same tiers of tiles you’d expect from any other Chinese building. It could just as easily be a Bhuddist temple.
But sight of the prayer hall, facing Mecca and with the familiar vast open carpeted prayer space, along with a couple of stone tablets bearing Arabic writing, give the game away. It really was quite a beautiful place. I do love mosques. I’ve been lucky enough to visit some beautiful ones over the years; I’ve visited the breathtaking Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and a few weeks back I saw the stunning mosque in the Kazan Kremlin. Xi’an’s is a different take on the whole mosque concept, not as grand or as imposing as others I’ve seen.
But that just made it all the more fascinating.