Monday, 30 March 2009

Xian: Muslim Quarter

One of the best things about Xian is how compact the centre of it is: from my centrally located hostel it was easy to walk to tourist sites, not something that is possible in most Chinese cities. Until I'd started researching China prior to living here, I was totally unaware that there is a large Muslim population. Islam was brought to China by Arab traders via the Silk Road and southern ports, and there is also a largely Muslimly province, Uighur, in north west China, whose ancestors were Turkic.

It was an easy trot to the Muslim Quarter from my hostel, and once I’d realised that the entrance to the area was hiding behind the Bell Tower, I was strolling down it’s main street, which is lined with stalls selling food and tourist geegaws.

something fruity

I wanted to see the Great Mosque, and followed the signs onto a street where there were numerous stalls selling dried fruit. This isn’t something I’ve seen anywhere else in China, and there was a slight tang of the Middle East in these bright selections of fruit, a reminder that this was the start (or end) of the ancient Silk Road.

decorated archway

Still following the signs, I turned down a little side alley, barely big enough for two people to walk abreast, where houses and shops selling decorative Arabic carvings fronted directly onto the street. It reminded me of the Tangiers street scenes in the Bourne Ultimatum, which I’d watched a few days previously! Next to the mosque entrance was an eclectic selection of shops and stalls, selling a mixture of souvenirs and Islamic garments. A young man on a moped, playing music very loudly, loitered outside a shop offering a selection of pretty headscarves, obviously trying to impress the girls working inside.

Islamic-Chinese garden in spring
Inside, the mosque was more like an Islamic-influenced Chinese garden than anything I’d been expecting. What I thought was the central pagoda, was, in fact, a minaret. Exquisite Chinese style relief carvings intermingled with Arabic writing. Each section of the garden had beautiful blossoms and interesting features, and I took my time peacefully dawdling around it.

the mosque was full of these gorgeous relief carvings
Many of the buildings were in shocking repair though, some literally looking as if they were about to fall apart. Grass and flowers were growing plentifully in the roof tiles of most of the pagodas and gates. It seems a shame that a building so historically important is neglected so badly, especially in contrast with a lot of the Buddhist temples that I’ve seen.

the minaret

That evening I had my first couchsurfing experiment. Couchsurfing is a website that links up people looking for somewhere to stay or someone to meet up with, with people that are willing to host or help them. I’d joined the day before I set of the Xian, and with such last minute planning hadn’t really expected anything to happen. However, I met up with a guy I messaged and luckily we got on very well (i.e., it’s lucky there were no donkeys in the place, otherwise they would have been severely deficient in the hind leg department).

We chatted away over beer and cheesecake, which he magically made appear from the kitchen, thus earning my lifelong approval, for hours. Eventually I retired to bed, tired but full of beer, delicious Western food and exciting plans for the next day.

delapidated roof


  1. The buildings and archways are beautiful. Interesting that Islam came to China via the Silk Road.
    Couchsurfing is an interesting concept. You lucked out with a guy who provided tasty food!

  2. Congratulations on making a lucky connection. Couchsurfing is such a great idea, it deserves to work out!