|One of ancient Xian's monumental gateways.|
At street stalls, raisins and pistachio nuts tumble in piles, and candied fruit gleams in the light of overhead lanterns like Ali Baba treasures. Rosy-cheeked women in headscarves wander past, shopping bags bursting with vegetables, while men in white caps gossip under the trees. Grilled skewers of savoury lamb tempt passers-by with hot aromas. At dusk, the call to prayer wavers down shadowy alleys and over rooftops whose tiles are darkened with age.
The faithful have been called to prayer here for fifteen centuries – nearly as long as Islam itself. The old town is infused with a promise of the Middle East: the smells from its eateries, the clothes of its inhabitants, the swooping Arabic calligraphy on mellow walls. It’s only when you round a corner and see a pagoda, eaves upturned with long-tailed dragons, that you’re reminded that you’re right in the heart of China, in the ancient city of Xian.
|The old neighbourhood of central Xian, China.|
Islam came to China along the Silk Route in the mid-seventh century, making Chinese Moslems among the oldest Islamic communities in the world and creating a distinctive Islamic minority group known as the Hui. Estimates suggest Xian’s Muslim population is around 70,000, certainly big enough to give some areas of the city a curiously Middle Eastern flavour. Even better, the Hui live right in the heart of the old city, one of the most wonderfully evocative neighbourhoods in China. Many a tour group flies in and sees nothing but the terracotta army, and in doing so misses out on a truly delightful surprise – a living remnant of China’s ancient past far more fascinating than any dead emperor’s tomb.
Xian’s fortifications are the most extensive and best preserved in China, standing twelve metres high and running for fourteen kilometres, punctuated by four superb gateways at the four points of the compass. Beyond, Xian’s imperial grid system of streets is abandoned to a series of higgledy-piggledy alleys, some so narrow that upturned eaves on either side almost kiss each other. The atmosphere is that of a venerable country town, though perhaps one with a booming population: in the evenings especially, it seems half Xian descends on the Moslem quarter for some very pleasant R&R in a neighbourhood crammed with open-fronted restaurants, street stalls and shops.
|Street snacks along Beiyuanmen in Xian.|
Beiyuanmen, the street that runs straight north from the Drum Tower, is one of the most charming. Paved with soft grey flagstones and lined by old wooden houses and trees hung with red Chinese lanterns, this is where locals come out for an evening gossip and where the rest of the city turns up to rummage in the shops and, most of all, enjoy the street food. Roujiamo, which features shredded meat wedged between two pieces of steamed bread, is the local equivalent of a hamburger. Nuts, seeds and preserved fruits are other preferred nibbles, as well as a local speciality known as eight-treasures pudding, made from glutinous rice cooked up in little pots on streets stalls, then sprinkled with sugar and sesame seeds.
The chief sight in the Moslem old town is Xian’s Great Mosque. Established in 742 – though the current buildings are mostly from the eighteenth century – this is one of the oldest and most famous mosques in China. Expect a series of symmetrical, interconnected courtyards with traditional Chinese gardens, pagodas with painted eaves, and elaborate stone archways. You might almost be in a Chinese temple, until you notice the absences of dragons on the eaves, the Islamic decorative motifs and stone tablets in Persian and Arabic that mark each building. Fountains splash and bamboo rustles; the giggles of neighbourhood children float from beyond the walls.
|Pavilions inside the Great Mosque of Xian, China.|
Finding your way to and from this mosque, hidden deep within the Moslem quarter’s rambling alleys, is all part of the fun. For sure you’ll get lost, but it hardly seems to matter. Maybe you’ll come across the covered laneways (Beiyuanmen and Huajie Xiang) that resemble a Middle Eastern bazaar. You can buy just about anything here from Little Red Books to fake antiques, painting scrolls, chopsticks, teapots, ceramics and old coins, or some of the brightly-coloured local folk scenes. Add Muslim prayer rugs and shawls to your haul, and Islamic-style daggers and blue porcelain: wonderful pieces of a distant culture in the heart of China.